Are there any changes this year to the Liwa route?
Yes, a new pipeline has effectively cut the desert in half on the Fun Drive route so we have to go around that this year. I like to think of this as Edition Three of the Liwa route based on the same ‘skeleton’ as others, because although you would not think it possible, actual access points to the desert are restricted down there. There are only so many ways in and I have to find a suitable location for the Start, with nealry 1,000 vehicles accumulated in one area. Where we start at Al Fathiyah just suits it perfectly.
This is the third edition of virtually the same route but I think it’s improved greatly because we’ve avoided known trouble spots from the past.
Who do you have in mind when designing the route?
The route is designed for the least experienced 10 per cent of participants since we can’t leave 100 vehicles in the desert because they are stuck at the bottom of a climb and it’s for the every day guy who doesn’t normally drive in the desert. He wants to take his family out once a year, to have some fun, so he’s got to be able to achieve certain sections of the route.
Later on, beginners are stopped from continuing because they’ve failed to make a cut off time. That cut off time is calculated on the time it would take them to get back to tarmac again if they went into the next section, and the time of sunset, because we can’t have people lost in the desert at night.
What is the cut off time?
Cut off time for the second part is 2.30pm but if someone’s taken until 2.30pm to get to checkpoint Five, carrying on at that rate they won’t be anywhere near tarmac by dark, so we won’t allow them to proceed. And they’ve probably had quite enough by then anyway, since they’ll have seen 70 to 80 kilometres of really nice desert.
How many marshals will there be this year?
There’s 95 registered marshals which means 95 cars; so probably 150 to 160 people on the route, then another 50 manning the nine checkpoints and then half a dozen of us in control keeping an eye on things.
Plus of course there’s IATC trucks available to rescue anyone who’s stranded and immobile.
Any particularly tricky areas to note?
Well as soon as you see dunes it’s going to get a bit tricky! There’s a lot of very easy desert but it’s still spectacular to drive through. Potentially any crossing of small dune ridges can be an obstacle, it depends on where the convoy moves you — they may not go through the marked route and the little bowls and gulleys are there to catch you out, though they tend to get filled in and broken, so by the time 600 cars have gone through it’s a bit of a highway.
The biggest issue is that from car, say 200 onwards, a lot of the sand is so cut up and soft, just due to the sheer number of vehicles, that that provides an obstacle itself. Even an expert might struggle because you simply cannot get enough speed up to tackle climbs etc. When you’ve got 1,000 vehicles, that’s 1,100 with the marshals, drivers with different levels of experience, understanding and ability, I’m actually staggered we have so few incidents out in the desert. It’s not just the driving that can catch you out, there are dangers during recovery and people need to be aware of that.
The first danger I’d highlight is keeping your distance, particularly on the dusty gatch tracks. The temptation is to go fast on hard tracks but the faster vehicles go, the more dust is kicked up and thicker it is. But you don’t want to go ploughing into a stationary vehicle at 80kph because there’s going to be tears if you do. So many people haven’t got enough patience to just hold back and get there slowly, but safely. That is a major concern I always have, so please be patient! Participants need to allow a car to cross an obstacle in front of them and get clear, because if they wait just 10 or 15 seconds to let others clear, they will have a clean run themselves. But if they come in behind someone that’s stuck it magnifies the problem, it makes it harder to get the original stuck car out. Much as it’s a fun drive, and as many as 3,000 people get a lot of fun out of it, remember the desert is pretty unforgiving. The climate’s great at the moment, pretty cool right now, but if you do have a bump or an accident in the middle of the desert it could be a long time before specialised help comes, so you should drive accordingly and be responsible for your passengers.
So it’s all about patience, safety, and not being complacent.
Can you tell us about the second part of the route?
The second major desert section is quite spectacular, its fantastic but there are hidden dangers in it which we will try and avoid and mark, such as sudden drop offs. Some are unseen and that’s the biggest danger at speed, suddenly coming to a point where the terrain drops out. It’s happened to me, so that is my biggest concern. And if drivers are distracted by cars all around them, or dust, there’s plenty of reasons why they might miss the dangers.
If people do have problems, can the Fun Drive Tracker app help them?
The Fun Drive Tracker app is very good but either through short-comings in coverage, or people not actually downloading it, people failing to switch on their phones etc, we only track maybe 50 per cent of cars. Then they have got possibly so many instructions — and we all know people don’t read instructions — that they don’t read all of them. So we give out warnings but people don’t abide by them! All the emergency contact numbers are in the instructions and entrants must take the instructions with them.
I would say to participants;
1) Enjoy yourself, 2) Belt up, 3) Watch your speed, and watch the car in front of you, 4) Never get complacent, 5) Remember that it is just a fun drive, it is not a race.
There’s nothing to be gained by charging ahead, there’s plenty of food at the camp, they won’t miss the entertainment, so there really is nothing to race for.
Any final thoughts?
The scale of the Fun Drive is staggering — I took 80 marshalls’ cars out last weekend and if you have a safe 100m gap between them, that’s an eight kilometre convoy, so with 800 cars, it becomes an 80km convoy! So it is understandable why people bunch up and drive five abreast and keep pushing forward, but that can be dangerous.
Try and stick to the marked route, OK it’s not marked all the way through the desert and by the time 200 vehicles have gone through the track becomes very wide, but if you see markers, go close to them because then you know you are on the track that has been marked for hazards.