The first Fun Drive was held on March 28, 1986. Seven day drives, 26 overnighters, one Abu Dhabi day drive and three Friday fun drives have been held so far. Image Credit: Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News Archives

Tips from a pro

1.    If someone suspects that they will get motion sickness, eat a light breakfast, take a motion sickness pill one hour before you head into the desert.
2.    During the drive, I would recommend, to drink water; if you feel thirsty it means you are already dehydrated. Even if the weather is cool, drink water, says Al Shamsi.
3.    If it’s sunny and the weather is cool, you might still get heat stroke, so be careful. Wear sunblock.
4.    Make sure that your car is in excellent condition.
5.    Gear is key: In summer, the sand can hit about 50 degrees: that’s a very painful foot brush; it can give you a second-degree burn. In winter months, such as now, walk barefoot in the desert; you’ll be in for a gentle foot scrub.

Dubai: Never underestimate how cold it can get in a desert, says Gulf News Fun Drive marshal and frequent off roader Mohammad Saeed Salim Al Shamsi.

“I always tell my friends is that if it’s snow, you will feel it on your skin; the cold in the desert you will feel in your bones,” he explains.

This is the part of our interview ahead of the 38th edition of the Fun Drive, on January 11-12, where he’s emphasising – animatedly – the need for good gear. As a 10-year veteran of the course, he has many lessons to share on what not do or wear.

“I saw someone in swimming shorts [once], which is totally not for the desert, and fit flops. Wearing slippers is not correct. Whether it’s too cold or too hot, the bottom of your foot is sensitive and it could affect your body,” he explains, laughing.

I saw someone in swimming shorts [once], which is totally not for the desert, and fit flops. Wearing slippers is not correct. Whether it’s too cold or too hot, the bottom of your foot is sensitive and it could affect your body.

- Mohammad Saeed Salim Al Shamsi

And then there’re the essentials you carry – a good sleeping bag is a must; supermarket varieties will not make the cut. But once you’ve got those details down, Al Shamsi says, the trip is ‘relaxing’ and ‘fun’.

He’s been nicking in and out of the desert for about 22 years. And before he joined the rally as a marshal – going on to become deputy route director – he dashed about as a participant on the dunes for three editions. Then, a friend offered him a way to the other side in 2012: Marshalling. “He said, ‘yeah, [it’s fun] but there’s another part of [fun drive]. I said, ‘ok, let’s try,’” he recalls.

He’s been doing the job for about 10 years now.

The Fun Drive “is not a race,” says Al Shamsi. It’s a sentiment he will repeat throughout our conversation. “You’ll be having your own challenges, such as competing with the terrain,” he explains, but it’s not a ride against any other driver.

20 cars aided by one marshal

No one said off roading is easy, but add a thunderstorm to the mix and newbies to the sand, and it can be daunting. “One time, in 2012, we got hit by thunderstorm and that time we were trying to break the world record in Guinness,” he recalls. Still, people passionate about the trip made the journey. [The record may not have worked out, but the memories certainly stayed.]

The marshals have a buddy system. “I got separated from my buddy, because of the thunder storm. So I was the only marshall in that area, somewhere behind Al Qudra, [which required some technical skill].” And that’s when he came across a pool of cars and unhappy drivers. “I was one marshall who rescued 20 cars that day,” he says.

But first, he needed to show those stuck – some panicked, others with a sense of entitlement - who was boss. “You have an equation as a marshall; any rescue scenario is like an equation, and you have to solve the equation. In all scenarios you have to be calm during a rescue – first of all you have to smile, be calm. You have to know they are nervous.”

He recalls explaining to a woman who decided to issue him instructions a fact: these marshals are volunteers, not paid. “I said, ‘I am professional, but in Gulf News [Fun Drive] I am [a] volunteer and I’m willing to help. So if all of you are going to listen, I’m sure I can help you all. Otherwise, I will leave you.’” Having been gobsmacked with this fact, people began to take direction. “Once people stopped panicking it was easy.”

The business had been sorted in about half an hour or so; the marshal buddy returned to calm dunes.

Marriage counsellors

You learn many things while travelling, but perhaps more so when you are ushering other people through a pre-defined track. On one of their trips to Liwa, Al Shamsi and his co-marshal were in for a shock. “We approached a stuck car and we saw a woman coming towards us with a young boy. By the time we stopped she came to my friend’s car and jumped in. And she said, ‘help us please, this man wants to kill us’. We got shocked. And the guy came to us and he was in a panic; he said, ‘no that’s not true, that’s my wife and my son’.” Scared by the jagged terrain and the bumpy ride, the overwhelmed couple had begun to bicker resulting in the walk-out.

“We calmed them down” and got them on another simpler-to-manoeuvre path, he recalls. And in turn, he jokes, saved their marriage.

But these jagged little edges of the ride are why route directors design the path in sections. “It depends on your capability how many sections you can finish. It’s not a race, it is how much fun you want. Whenever you want to stop, that’s it, you can go to safety,” he says.

Tips from a pro

1. If someone suspects that they will get motion sickness, eat a light breakfast, take a motion sickness pill one hour before you head into the desert.

2. During the drive, I would recommend, to drink water; if you feel thirsty it means you are already dehydrated. Even if the weather is cool, drink water, says Al Shamsi.

3. If it’s sunny and the weather is cool, you might still get heat stroke, so be careful. Wear sunblock.

4. Make sure that your car is in excellent condition.

5. Gear is key: In summer, the sand can hit about 50 degrees: that’s a very painful foot brush; it can give you a second-degree burn. In winter months, such as now, walk barefoot in the desert; you’ll be in for a gentle foot scrub.