Every year the Gulf News, an English-language paper in Dubai, runs a fun drive in the desert during the winter.The event has been running for 30 odd years, with a route carefully planned well in advance, tickets go on sale before the event and it’s always a sellout.
The participants, aka the punters, are families, couples, men, women all taking the opportunity to get on out there and bash some dune driving for a day.This year the event was held in the Western region of Abu Dhabi, heading down to the fertile crescent at Liwa. A beautiful part of the desert here, no Pylons or phone signals, no roads, a few camel farms ….just dunes and more dunes.
The Marshalls are a big part of the day. Their role is to help, guide, winch, drag, tow, direct and report in emergencies. Many punters have not experienced much desert driving and there is a skill in knowing how to crest over a dune, read the sand and not nose dive and have the result below…
Being lucky enough to be a part of the marshall team, albeit as an accompanier, receive a freebie fleece (necessary in the desert for an early-morning in January start, a polo shirt identifying one as part of the team and various other whistles, clipboards and officialdom). Most are experienced burly, fit(ish) men from all walks of life, their skill and love for the desert pull them into events such as this.
Driving kitted out vehicles, jacked up with winches, tow straps, skids for wheel traction etc. everyone on the team does this for free, its part of the off-road year in Dubai and eagerly looked forward to.
Event conversations with marshalls revolve around tyre dogs, locking diffs, types of tow straps, winch capabilities, tyre pressure gauges and so on. It’s mainly a man’s world, with a bit of room for some of the hardy women who love the desert driving and equal up to any of these sturdy booted males. This year, deep in a bout of flu, I spent much time waving a red flag and making “Are you ok?” signs at people. It wasn’t to be missed as an event, but once or twice during the day, I thought longingly of my bed.
This year 800 plus cars, a team of xx supporting marshalls, approximately 2,500 people lined up for a start delayed by early morning fog with tyre pressure dropped to 15psi and as the flag went down, the horde of four wheel drives filed off in an orderly fashion for the fun in the desert.
First stop, checkpoint and a queue to get into the desert. Yes, queue, the desert is fenced off to stop camels straying, to protect Oryx and possibly to stop all and sundry heading in and getting stuck.
Once in, the huge convoy sped off, led by the route leader, interspersed with marshalls, generally shepherding and checking on strange parking angles, open bonnets, sand insertions, cresting on dunes and stray cars heading off the route, making sure all 800 reach the final checkpoint.
No-one is to be left out in the desert. At 8 checkpoints on the 250 km route throughout the day, everyone is checked through to the next, a cut-off time for the last one as sunset distorts the dunes, making it hard to judge heights. For those who didn’t make it in time, directions down to the massive campsite where dinner is laid on plus entertainment for the 2500.
A beautiful route, already run before, as part of the marshalls involvement, a run-through is mandatory. This time, following the convoy towards the end, the desert was churned by the 800 tracks, but it will soon return to its pristine state, the wind will bury the evidence of the 800 before too long.
There always a point on any of the annual drives, which is referred to as “The Somme”. This year was no exception; perching on the edge of a dune drop into a massive bowl a hundred cars or so seemed to be parked in the base, people milling around, chatting, taking selfies, eating. Initially, it looked like a massive picnic, but descending down into some very soft sand, the realisation
was that most of them were stuck. At this stage in the drive, tyre pressure should be re-checked, heat increases the psi leading to no traction. Plenty of marshalls in The Somme to give advice, snatch a recovery and shepherd the drivers out, up and onwards.
The driving is fast out in the desert, low tyres giving a feeling of gliding over the sand and the sensation of floating across this wilderness is a powerful reminder of nature’s gift to us when experiencing this sort of landscape.However, for the 800 plus cars out there once a year, the desert turns into a vast play area for one day, for all those lucky enough to be taking part.
Prior to the event, permissions are sought from the relevant Emirate, nature reserves are out of bounds, the Oil and Gas sites are widely avoided, as are pipelines. Any route rubbish is collected at the final sweep of the area and apart from the tracks which are swiftly covered, the desert returns to its normal state.
Many of the punters leave behind parts of their cars, bumpers, back plates, side wings, there is always an assortment scattered en route. Together with the cars with busted radiators, gearbox issues and so on, it can lead to a fairly costly outing for some. But it’s always sold out within a day every year.
After closing the final section with the sweep team, a quick dinner at the campsite, it was time to head home.Too cold and damp during the night for camping with the flu, a 4-hour drive back to Dubai and bed, welcome bed.