Setting the Gulf News Fun Drive route through the spectacularly beautiful but equally challenging terrain of the Liwa desert is not a task for the faint of heart. The course must take into account the fact that the off-road vehicle handling skills of the 800 or so drivers covers a huge spectrum of experience. Add to this the need to accommodate 800 vehicles’ near simultaneous arrival at the start point, to locate passage control points at positions where entrants might need to gain access to a tarmac road, and to above all keep 2,500 or so vehicle occupants safely entertained, and you have created a task of Herculean proportions.
Which is precisely why the organisers turn to John Spiller, whose experience includes setting not only the route of the Fun Drive, but those of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and Dubai International Rally, the Emirates Desert Championship racing series, rallies up and down the Gulf since the late Seventies, and more recently, classic car rallies around the globe, including events such as the “Peking to Paris”.
John’s involvement with the Desert Challenge for almost the past 20 years allows him to draw upon extensive knowledge of the terrain in Liwa when setting the initial route. “The way I plan the course initially is I think, ‘well this track might work, and that section runs close to this interesting area’, so I go out to check it. Then I’ll find that perhaps just one section of 500 metres, for example, might be too ambitious for the level of expected participation, so have to revise it. The fact that we are using 80 per cent of a proven route and we know people like it, means we can try to iron out or erase problem areas that we’ve had in the past — bottle-necks and areas that churn up badly, for example.
“One issue that occurs on the day is that it’s not necessarily a lack of a driver’s ability that creates problem areas, it’s the fact that there are 800 vehicles going over the same piece of sand in a very short space of time. I set the route when the sand is untouched, but I’m sure if I went round on the day as car 801, having had 800 cars pass ahead of me, I too might struggle in places where the sand has become extremely dug up and, for example, couldn’t achieve the speed needed to complete a climb. Those are the problems we look for each year and I try to amend the route to avoid them, but it’s not a perfect science and inevitably some drivers have issues.”
Ensuring drivers with widely differing driving experience all leave the event feeling that they’ve enjoyed a challenge is another test for John’s route mapping skills.
“The difference for me between setting the Fun Drive compared to something like a round of the Emirates Desert Championship is that I’m not setting a route for competitors, I’m setting it for the man or woman in the street.
“I have to bear in mind that we’ve got self-proclaimed desert experts who know what they are doing and who do the event for the fun and the company, those with some desert experience and who are reasonably competent, and then the people who’ve perhaps only recently bought a 4x4 just to do the Fun Drive. For them it’s perhaps their first time driving off road, they’ve got their family in the back and they are nervous about what lies ahead. Although they each have different levels of expectation, since they’ve all paid to take part in the event, I’ve got to keep each group happy. In order to achieve that, the formula we’ve come up with, and where the challenge comes in setting the route, is to create a course in which each section becomes increasingly more difficult than the last.
“The more experienced drivers will travel quickly through the initial sections, meaning they will reach the Passage Control to the next, well within the cut off times. Meanwhile, the beginners still have a chance to enjoy the introductory sections, but if it’s taken them beyond a certain time to reach a Passage Control, for their own safety they’ll then be advised to head directly to the end of the course for the dinner, thus keeping them out of what, for them, would prove to be troublesome dunes.
“Towards the end of the route it really becomes quite technical and challenging, but it’ll only be the most experienced people who make it that far, so that’s the reward for their efforts.”
This year’s event covers a total of more than 240 kilometres, made up of four sections of desert driving and four linking sections. With 800 vehicles to assist throughout the course, John is also responsible for managing a team of more than 70 volunteer Fun Drive marshals, who will be on hand to offer assistance, both instructive and physical, to the event’s entrants.
I asked John how he sets about selecting the marshals and he joked, “Well I guess I inherited them. The Fun Drive now has almost a cult following, it’s amazingly popular. The marshals do it because they enjoy a challenge and they enjoy a mission. If you go out to the desert on a Friday and you haven’t got a goal, you don’t necessarily push yourself and you just meander around, but if someone tells you where you have to be, at what time, and that you have to achieve an objective, it changes the dynamic straight away. The marshals love being involved and their reward is simply knowing that they’ve contributed towards the enjoyment of all.
There’s a traditional core of people who have probably been involved with the Fun Drive for more than 20 years. Now their children have reached the age where they too can drive and they’re taking part and helping. Many of these same people are volunteering for the Desert Challenge, Formula 1, the Desert Championship etc. They’re an essential part of the event and are the sort of generous people who simply enjoy being involved and helping others.”
The week before the Fun Drive takes place, those marshals meet up to drive the route in advance, helping them to better understand the terrain and to make their own notes about potential problem areas. Years of experience and trust in one another’s abilities means that the marshals drive more closely together than others might normally do in the desert, yet still the convoy stretches out across several kilometres through the Liwa dunes.
It’s an impressive sight, and when the volunteers all gather together for a brief lunch stop, there’s a buzz of excitement as experienced old hands from different off-roading groups meet up with one another, perhaps for the first time since last year’s event, and catch up on news, before the inevitable debates begin about this suspension, that winch, those spot-lights etc.
But one thing for sure is that like John Spiller, the marshals are all aware that the Gulf News Fun Drive is very much a part of the UAE’s car and off-road adventure culture. Come the day of the event itself, they’re all determined to ensure it runs as smoothly as possible, so if you do get stuck, don’t panic, help is most definitely at hand.
John’s top 6 hints and tips for those taking part in the Fun Drive...
• With so many hundreds of vehicles in the same patch of desert, inevitably in places they are going to get bunched up, for example where the route becomes narrow. People get frustrated and if I advise them to hold back and wait for the car ahead to clear the area, then someone from behind who is perhaps less patient, jumps the queue and pushes in. That causes resentment, which represents another source of danger as frustrations boil over. My advice is simply to remember that you’re there to enjoy yourself. Concentrate without stressing and relax, without being complacent.
• Make sure your vehicle is in good shape before you head out and check there’s air in your spare tyre — so often people go to put them on and find the tyre is flat. Also check you can remove the wheel nuts because many times we find they’ve been put on by a dealer or tyre shop with a pneumatic wrench and the driver is unable to undo them.
• If you do get stuck, again, relax. It’s really not a problem, and in most cases, recovery can be quite simple. First of all, re-check your tyre pressures. As tyres warm up, the volume of air inside the tyres can’t change so instead, the pressure inside increases. This reduces the size of the tyre’s footprint and that makes it harder to drive in the sand. So if you do get stuck, before asking for help, first check your tyre pressures and reduce them as necessary.
• Don’t try to drive yourself out once you know you are stuck. Stop spinning the wheels, and wait for help rather than bury the car up to its axles, because when that happens it becomes much harder to extract. If you have a compressor on board then you can try letting your pressures down as low as perhaps 3 or 4 psi, but if you do so, remember, no sharp left or right turns and of course, you must inflate them immediately once you’ve got out of the predicament.
• If you’ve got a rope and shackles, start fixing them on to save time when a recovery vehicle arrives — think about which way you are going to be recovered more easily — generally down-hill if possible but remember the towing vehicle doesn’t want to be driving into soft sand, so work out where the firmest sand is around you and be prepared to be towed in that direction.
• When you do get out, take a breather and relax for five minutes, because nine times out of 10 if you jump straight back into the car, and drive off stressed and exhausted, you just make more mistakes and get stuck straight away again. When that happens, people grow increasingly irritated and it becomes an endlessly exhausting cycle of frustration. So relax, and enjoy the day’s fun.