Abu Dhabi: At 7.30am, a horn indicated that the journey had begun, and the leading car was setting the course for the 300 kilometre drive.
The day began at a meeting point at the Al Mafraq Hotel just outside Abu Dhabi. Early risers — about 2,400 of them in about 700 vehicles — gathered to participate in the 31st Gulf News Overnight Fun Drive.
Participants were welcomed with beverages, fruit and a buffet breakfast, but were advised not to eat much as the constant motion of a safari was a test for the strongest stomachs.
About 15 minutes from departure, as we approached the point where we would exit the highway and enter the desert sand, a sign on the roadside informed drivers that it was safe to reduce the tyre pressure in preparation for the desert drive.
The convoy pulled over and complied. This is a safety measure to ensure that tyres are deflated sufficiently for better traction in the sand.
Common among all participants was the elation and enthusiasm of embarking on a day of adventure and fun, and a feel of freedom to roam nature unbounded by the routine of normality.
The amount of flying sand was among the most vivid and noticeable of changes, causing near blackout as numerous cars paraded around neighbouring sand piles.
Skillfully riding across the sand dunes is a thrilling sensation, ascending and descending the sand dunes at impossible angles and at the edge of losing control.
In contrast to highway driving, where we put the car in cruise control just — ride, our drivers seem to constantly wrestle with the steering wheel to keep the car going in what seemed to be a random direction.
"You have to calculate the wind, chose the right angle and make quick but right decisions for safe dune bashing," said Nishan, a Syrian and veteran with 14 years experience in desert driving.
Having experienced drivers at the wheel is a great option, as many learners got in trouble fast. It didn't take long to encounter the first car stuck in the sand, and not much longer to see at least ten four-wheel drive vehicles suffer a similar fate. Cars being towed became a part of the scenery.
Perhaps the ultimate thrill of dune riding is the joint struggle of human and machine, climbing the steep hill of a massive dune, only to slide down sandbanks on angles that feel twice as steep and at breathtaking speeds nearing total loss of control. The captivating natural architecture of sand, the sky and trees inspired tranquil awe from passengers as they experienced the stark beauty of the terrain. After some nine hours participants were longing to rest before the evening fun began.
The Gulf News Fun Drive is designed to give people an opportunity to experience the desert. The first one was held in 1986 and 75 four-wheel drive vehicles participated.
In 1989, the Fun Drive became a two-day event, with an overnight stay in the desert.
Woman injured as driver loses control
A woman partaking in the fun drive suffered neck injuries when the 4x4 she was riding in hit a sand dune with excessive force.
The woman was in the front seat when the airbag deployed.
The emergency response unit received a call from the Fun Drive organisers and the team was immediately dispatched to the scene. The medical unit evaluated the injury and placed a brace on the woman's neck to stabilise and protect it from further injury. A helicopter rushed her to Al Mafraq Hospital.
"There are big dunes but this was a tricky one. I didn't notice it. I was just coming a bit faster, the dune was very deep. We jumped and immediately the airbags opened in all sides. My wife got a neck injury so she won't be able to move," Riyaz Ansari told Gulf News.
"It's my first time to come to the Gulf News Fun Drive. Gulf News did a great job — every safety measure, everything has been taken care of. But it was my fault, I would say. I didn't notice the small bump, but it was not really deep. Everyone was wearing seatbelts," Ansari, who drove with his wife and two sons, said.
"Safety is our top priority. We are keen to ensure that participants are aware of emergency procedures. Medical personnel and response units are on standby in strategic locations to respond to emergencies in the shortest amount of time," said a Fun Drive marshal.