What’s got 4,000 wheels, a cooked breakfast, woolly hats, 16,000 bottles of water, 200+ kilometres of sand dunes, 3,500 smiles and an enormous cake? If you guessed the 2017 Gulf News Fun Drive you’d be absolutely right, and having left home at 5:30 in the morning  after meeting up with photographer Anas,
I was personally very grateful for the warming breakfast buffet on offer two-and-a-half hours later when we reached the Hameem Road start line. My steed for the day was the aptly named Land Cruiser Xtreme, a custom version of the 5.7-litre V8-powered Cruiser fitted with uprated suspension, splendid custom alloy wheels sporting BF Goodrich KO2 All Terain tyres, and a built in compressor, all of which made it the perfect vehicle for a long day’s dune bashing.

After signing in so the organisers knew we would be out on the route, we gratefully received our goody bags (the woolly hats were much appreciated on a cold, blustery morning) and after stopping to admire the fantastic Jeep/Dodge hybrid driven by Shaikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Bin Mohammad Al Nahyan, we were soon on our way.

The first section consisted primarily of simple rolling dunes, giving Fun Drive entrants time to take in the scenery and settle into a comfortable sand-driving routine. For Anas and it gave us a chance to stop and grab a few photos, for it wasn’t long before we started to see vehicles stuck in the sand.

Section two was, as expected, a little trickier, and I really began to appreciate the Land Cruiser Xtreme’s tremendous levels of torque, and the smart engineering that has gone into the traction mode controls. With the dial set, obviously, for Rocks and Sand, I could both feel and hear the system at work under the car, especially as we climbed the steeper, softer dunes. Others were grateful too for the Land Cruiser’s pulling power, when on a couple of occasions we towed stranded novices from the clawing surface.

Novices participating in the event would do well to remember that there are many people out there like me with 20+ years of dune-driving experience, and it’s not always wise to follow our tracks and manoeuvres if you have neither the training nor the same power-to-weight ratio available under your right foot. In the desert, accidents DO happen, but in almost every case, it’s driver error that causes the problem.

Over the course of the six hours we spent in the sand, our Cruiser became briefly bogged down on four occasions. Three of those were all very similar, where the sand at the bottom of the slip face had become badly dug up by hundreds of cars and as I went to accelerate up the far side, instead the car simply slowed to a halt. Each time we were able to drive out of the situation by engaging Low Ratio, switching on the differential lock, briefly switching off traction control (so I knew I’d not have a computer interrupting the power to any given wheel) and reversing hard down the slope until we had enough momentum to swing the car around without getting bogged down. Then it was a simple matter to pick a different route and drive away.

The fourth time occurred in the middle of a scene resembling a Mad Max set, with what must have been around 90 cars all stuck or stopped within a 500 square metre area. Having decided that my only way out was through dunes no-one else had even tackled, I discovered just how incredibly soft the surface was in that area — suddenly we were one of the 90, down to our axles. That was when Anas discovered that being an off road passenger sometimes means putting your camera away, digging, and pushing. But again thanks to the Cruiser’s torque and diff locks, with the rear wheels down to 10psi and my trusty sand ladders out front, we popped out of what had looked earlier like a hopeless situation on the first go, without the need for a tow. Cue big smiles all round, and a pat on the dashboard for our car.

The remainder of the day was rather less dramatic and by the end of the 240km of stages, I was thoroughly enamoured with the Land Cruiser Xtreme — and with the Gulf News Fun Drive. Re-inflating the tyres took no time at all thanks to the built in compressor, our drinks were still icy cold in the chilled centre storage box, and the highway cruise home back to Dubai was sedate and comfortable — truly a vehicle for all surfaces.