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John Siplller, route director 37th Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive talking to Gulf News. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News Image Credit:

It’s never an easy task to boldly go where no other fun drive has gone before while planning a route year after year to ensure the thrill of the dunes remains firmly in check.

The 39th edition of the Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive expedition was no less exciting, with the desert sands of Al Ain forming a perfect foil for first timers and veterans who keep returning to the annual adventure. But few realise that planning a route isn’t as simple as a cursory drive into the sands.

“We spent hours and days planning, staring nearly 18 months ago. Although, our first recce nearly six months back when we ventured into the Swaihan sands to check the viability of the route, especially keeping the first-timers in mind,” said route director John Spiller, a Gulf News Fun Driver veteran of 35 years.

“Mohamed Saeed Al Shamsi [Deputy Route Director] was the first one who drove over it and then I checked it and though it was rubbish,” laughed Spiller. “There was a seismic survey going on at the time, it was dusty and the dunes were simply too hard. So we had to start all over again, pulling in a lot of all-nighters, studying Google Earth and shaving a few years off my life in the process.”

Finally, with invaluable inputs from the Al Ain Municipality and the hosts at Tilal Swaihan, Spiller finally hit pay dirt.

“We teamed up with a local Bedouin, who showed me these secret alleyways through the big dunes and I thought at the time, finally we have the perfect mix of ingredients. Now all I had to do was put in the spices and cook it to my palette; and that worked very well.”

Before Christmas, Spiller and his team took another loop of the Fun Drive route, and then checked it again a day before the marshals drive through in January and what Spiller found at the time sent him into a spate of panic.

“Huge sways of the desert was covered in wires because of the survey and there was simply no way for us to plan another route last minute,” Spiller revealed.

A few phone calls later to Al Ain Municipality and the route was cleared up in time for the fun to begin.

“We lost an hour of driving in the process, but on the day of the actual drive, it worked very well for all the participants,” Spiller said.

The loop format, which started and ended at the Tilal Swaihan campsite, looked tough said Spiller but was relatively easier due to the access available and, surprisingly, the record rain that hit the UAE a week earlier.

“The format of the loop was such that when we had to cut people off, they didn’t get sent by road to the camp but rather, it was a shortcut through the desert,” Spiller said. “At 5.30pm, as the sun was going down, drivers came into camp cheerful as they had ‘finished’ the fun drive. What they didn’t realise was that they had taken a shortcut. The Swaihan route is truly designed for the average punter.”

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Mitch Perera and his two classics; 1980 Pontiac Trans Am and a 1955 Chevrolet Pickup poses for My Wheels, October 29, 2013. Photo by Dennis B. Mallari

Second generation marshal Mitch Perera, who has been an integral part of the Gulf News Fun Drive for 35 years, echoed Spiller’s statement about the rain actually helping the drivers along the route.

“The wet weather made it easier for the participants, especially the first timers, as it hardened the sand,” said Perera. “We only had to use our tow ropes maybe three times and that just made things simpler for everyone overall.”

Both Perera and Spiller agreed that mishaps were part of the course of any Fun Drive, but it was imperative that people follow instructions.

“You can never anticipate mishaps; all you can do is give advice. As long as people have their seat belts on they are largely safe,” said Spiller.

How to prep for the Fun Drive

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“Get the correct car,” stressed Perera, who inherited his love for the desert from his father Chris Perera, who was a Fun Drive veteran and marshal when the event had first launched, while his mother was the trusty navigator.

“Today, we have many all wheel drive vehicles on the roads, which are fine to tackle basic, flat soft sand. However, for dunes and rocky terrain, these will not work. I had a guy at the beginning of this Fun Drive bringing a Range Rover sport into the desert, which he had driven no more than 1,650km.

“Now, this guy had never driven the car anywhere other than from the dealership to his office and his home. He also had the wrong tyre pressure and had no clue whatsoever what he was doing. But at the end of the day, when I saw him at the campsite, his car had a few bruises and scratches but it was intact.”

Perera continued: “All I can request from the participants is for them to listen to the instructions from the marshals, read the literature given and make note of the important emergency numbers in case they have to reach us.”

“Absolutely. Learning to read instructions, if they could do that, would be a lot more fun,” said Spiller. “But many don’t and in their excitement, sense and caution goes out the window. The rule of thumb is simple: Learn to respect the desert and the desert will respect you in turn.”