For 20 years, Faateh Ahmad has been attending the Fun Drive as a navigator for his father.
But on January 11, during the 38th Gulf News Overnighter Drive — an annual and much-loved trek through the desert — 28-year-old Ahmad was getting ready to take the reins for the first time.
“I was a navigator for my father for [20 years], but this is the first time that I’ve been a marshal myself. The first Fun Drive I went to, I was about 10 years old. So, I’ve seen it for so long, that I know exactly how it’s going to be. The first time I went, I was in the back seat, and I had no idea what I was doing,” said Ahmad.
The biggest difference he noticed was during the annual marshal’s breakfast — a meeting that takes place one week before the Fun Drive.
“I used to always go to that and interact with all the senior marshal’s in a joking way, and I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the briefing — I was just having fun there. This time, when I went, obviously you have to pay attention. You have a certain responsibility now, you have to conduct yourself in that way,” said Ahmad.
The 24-year-old Hashim Saad also accompanied his father as a navigator since his teenhood, and was gearing up to be in the driver’s seat for the first time this year. As a motocross driver who participates in desert championship races, he’s always enjoyed the thrill of the Fun Drive.
“[My father] knows me, that I’m very much into offroading, so he allowed me to do it. But if I was going to do anything wrong, he’d be there to instruct me. He always taught me to do well-disciplined recoveries,” said Saad.
Saad’s top safety measures, passed onto him by his father, include positioning jump ropes correctly, staying ten to 15 metres away from the vehicle, and keeping clear of both cars’ blind spots.
Part of Saad and Ahmad’s duty is to help people – particularly newcomers – out of tough situations. The marshal’s even have a term for the trickiest spot on the route.
“Typically in a Fun Drive, the first three sections are relatively easy, where the idea is to ease the participants in, and give them some time to understand how their cars respond [to the terrain],” explained Ahmad.
From section four onwards, dunes start to appear, and participants begin experience softer patches of sand, which require more technical maneuvers while driving.
“Among the marshal’s community, we have a term called a ‘Death Pit’ — you see a big bowl, and you have 50 cars that are just stuck in that one area. They’re like valleys, but we call them bowls because they’re not just incline [and] decline, they’re incline on all sides. They’re not dangerous, but those are memorable moments,” Ahmad added.
Was the Fun Drive something Ahmad always enjoyed doing — or was it something he did to appease his father as a child?
“No, I definitely enjoyed it. If you think about it, in the UAE, the only sort of means to getting outdoors and enjoying the nature is going to the desert. I think that that’s the basic appeal of it,” said Ahmad.
“A lot of people enjoy going out in the nights, going out clubbing, I’m not that type of person. I like outdoors stuff, especially adventure sports. I haven’t done a fair share, but desert driving I definitely like. It gives you that rush, you know? When you’re doing it in an extreme form,” he added.
And just like their fathers, both Ahmad and Saad want to repeat the journey time and time again – perhaps for another few decades to come.
“I don’t think the novelty is going to ever wear off, to be honest. I’ve been seeing it, like I said, for 20 years. And every year it gets bigger and better. I think this is something that’s going to continue to grow, and I definitely would like to be a part of it,” said Ahmad.
“I don’t want to leave this activity at all. I want to keep it forever,” said Saad.