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Marshal's at the 39th edition of Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive 2020 enroute Tilal Swaihan in the Al Ain region. Photo: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News Image Credit:

This year, the 39th Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive (GNFD) drew out more than 90 Marshals and 800 cars.

The sleepover desert adventure — a beloved annual event among UAE residents since 1986 — went full speed ahead thanks to the volunteer marshals, who ensured everyone’s safety and made sure no one was left behind.

Days after the event, we talked to four of the longest-serving Fun Drive marshals who told us why this year stood out from the rest.

Yacoub Mohammad

Age: 45

Nationality: Emirati

Marshal at GNFD for: 27 years

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Toughest part of the job?

“The number of people, which makes it more interesting. Sometimes you don’t complete the whole [route] because you are stuck with different people. [You have] people with families, people who are afraid, people who are sad, people who are nervous …”

Qualities a marshal needs to have?

“Driving is the most important thing. Then, the skill of rescuing people who are stuck in sand, on top [of dunes] or in water. Other than that, I would say a little bit of common sense, leadership qualities and social qualities. You shouldn’t be rude. But, driving takes up 50, 60 per cent of it.”

Rescue missions that stood out this year?

“Well, you came at the wrong time. Because this year, after the rain, nothing came up. Nothing at all. The desert became like the road!”

That’s a good thing, right?

“No, it’s a bad thing! Because nobody gets stuck. I did not have a job at all this year. After three full days of continuous rain, it became like the road, so you don’t have any [difficulty]. Maybe 10 per cent of it was hard, but most of it was easy.”

Your first Gulf News Fun Drive?

“The first time I went was in ‘93. This was my 27th time as marshal. Before I joined, I looked at it in the newspaper. At that time, I did not have my driving licence yet, so I said, ‘I’ll try to be there when I get my licence’. When I got the chance to be a marshal, I thought I would come back again, but I didn’t think it’s going to be this long.”

What makes you come back?

“It’s the fun, the driving, the people, the desert — a combination of everything.”


Rashid Soomar

Age: 46

Nationality: Pakistani

Marshal at GNFD for: 7 years

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The reason you do it?

“Off-roading is my passion. I’m part of the UAE off-road club Almost4x4.”

Differences this year from past years?

“The track was really good but there was wet sand. Last year, if you asked me, my buddy and I who are both marshals rescued around 50, 60 cars and there were pop outs, which is when the tyres come out of the rim and you lose air. But this year, we got only like three rescues. It was a lot less work.”

What’s better — less or more work?

“We really enjoy supporting these people. This year, we were just driving and hunting for anybody stuck, so we can rescue them and help them for anything! But everybody was on track. There were some people who followed the senior drivers who know how to drive off track, and they got stuck. They would be on high mountains waving to us like, ‘Please help!’”

Biggest tip for new participants?

“Bring your own compressor!”


John Hoonhout

Age: 57

Nationality: New Zealander

Marshal at GNFD for: 11 years

John Hoonhout
John Hoonhout Image Credit: GN Archives

What’s it like being a marshal?

“The primary responsibility is to keep people safe from themselves and each other. There were a few recoveries we did where an inexperienced person could have ended up damaging their car, or potentially even worse.”

What keeps you coming back?

“The camaraderie and friends you make. It’s always nice to see the marshals every year and have a laugh. It is a volunteer role and I see it as a public service for the benefit of the people who are participating. I’m happy to do that.”

After your first GNFD, did you expect to come back?

“I did it as a one-time thing. I didn’t have as much experience then as I do now, so for me, the first one was a learning experience, teaming up with another marshal who was able to share knowledge with me. I was keen to participate again when the chance arose the following year.”

Tips for drivers wanting to participate in 2021?

“It’s critical to have your car in very good shape. Make sure it’s serviced and you have good tyres. Gulf News has done a good job of communicating what basic equipment each car should have, like a shovel, a towrope, first aid kits, extra water and extra fuel. When you’re a new driver at GNFD, sometimes it can be a little bit intimidating seeing more experienced drivers going past [you]. It is a good idea to drive within your limits as a driver and also the limits of the capability of your car, because not all cars are made equally.”


Laila Estrella Taha

Age: 31

Nationality: Filipino/Spanish-Egyptian

Marshal at GNFD for: 5 years

Laila Estrella Taha
Laila Estrella Taha Image Credit: Supplied

What keeps you coming back?

“I enjoy adventure and GNFD provides a safe and organised platform to experience it and share it with others; I cannot let that opportunity pass. It is so rewarding to see the participants, their smiles when they make it out of a tricky spot, the kids who feel that they were on a roller-coaster ride and having fun. I have met participants and marshals who flew to Dubai to be a part of the Gulf News Fun Drive.”

How was this year different?

“It only gets better every year. The route was about 140km starting and ending near Tilal Swaihan. Due to the recent rains, the sand was hard and this made the drive a lot easier, and it had tricky spots for those who like challenges.”

Advice for future marshals?

“More than the ‘to-do’ list, there is a ‘not to-do’ list: over confidence, not observing safety first, excessive use of power, inappropriate tyre pressure, lack of off-road gear, unfit vehicle. I notice that a lot of people do not drive with their thumbs up on the steering wheel — it is a very little thing but it can avoid accidents and enable better steering response.”

Any memorable moments you want to share?

“I saw a 5 or 6 year old talking to the car and instructing the car not to get stuck — it was so cute! At the camp, there were a few kids who were playing with their toy cars in the sand and, when one of the marshals asked what they were doing, the kids replied that they were planning the route for Gulf News Fun Drive.”