Dubai: It was loads of fun — from sunup to sundown — as hundreds of participants on 4X4 vehicles of various colours and sizes conquered the seemingly endless sand dunes of Tilal Swaihan today for the 40th edition of Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive - ‘Tilal Swaihan Experience’, with Nissan as the automotive sponsors.
Participants arrived at the camp site at the crack of dawn. The morning was windy and chilly, but the overall mood was warm and the level of excitement high. The formalities at the registration booth were smooth as participants had already pre-registered and health and safety precautions were observed.
As part of the Fun Drive tradition, a warm sumptuous breakfast was served before everyone got their vehicles ready for a whole day of desert adventure. Marshals manned their posts early, recovery crew were ready to roll and the excitement got a notch higher when Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, fondly referred to as the ‘Rainbow Sheikh’ because of his numerous vehicles, arrived in his 2.5-metre vehicle. Participants immediately lined up to take selfies and group shots with the off-road ‘giant’.
Flag-off and ready to roll
Seasoned fun drivers as well as newbies made their way to the starting line and the flag off, led by Abdul Hamid Ahmed, CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director Publications, Gulf News, and Humaid Matar Al Dhaheri, CEO of ADNEC, at 9am sharp.
As route director John Spiller promised the route that was designed as a loop suited for both first-time and seasoned off-roaders. There were eight checkpoints and various names were given to each leg, beginning with ‘Ocean Drive’, where participants were greeted with an “undulating ocean of sand dunes”.
Fun-filled family affair
A seasoned off-roader, Greek expat Nicolas Bellos, who was with his Lebanese wife Rania and their children Lucas, Alexia, Noah, told Gulf News: “We have done the fun drive four times before and we enjoyed it every time. This year was no different. Gulf News Fun Drive has always a fun-filled family affair.
Another veteran family of off-roaders were the three generations, led by Harish and Laju Rupani, who came with their children Vinit Badlani and Aarti Rupani; as well as grandchildren Hevanika and Khushvika.
First-time participants, German expat Siegrid-Maria Neumann and her husband Heinz-Josef, meanwhile, took turns driving their car. They said they never got worried even if they got stuck in the dunes as reliable marshals were there to help them out.
One of the participants, UAE national Mohammed, even experienced a tyre coming out of the rim but the rescuers were quick to the rescue and he was back in action in no time.
“It was amazing’
Eleven-year-old Indian student Haider Umrethwala was also unfazed, even if it was his first time to join the Fun Drive. He described the Gulf News Fun Drive in one word: “Amazing!”
“There were lots of steep hills. I was non-stop driving but I did not get dizzy. My father (Murtaza) who drove safely. It was my first time to experience the Fun Drive and I enjoyed the side activities, including archery , treasure hunt; and I also enjoyed the snacks on the road, and loved seeing the camel in the desert.”
Khwaja Saifuddin Ahmad, senior sales director Middle East Western Digital/Sandisk, said: "Gulf News Fun Drive has always been the trendsetter of fun-filled, family time in the desert. It is one of very few annual events that every outdoors loving resident looks forward to . the planning and management of an event of this magnitude in the middle of the desert complements. For many years we have been associated with Gulf News Fun Drive. This year also we are communications sponsor as wherever there is data, you need the best data storage products, which we offer under our WD , Sandisk, WD_Black brands. Also, we will be sponsoring a checkpoint where the participants can catch a breath and also create memories of the event and later at the campsite experience and avail special offers.”
Bachir Gemayel, sales and marketing director, Al Masaood Automobiles, added: “Supporting the Fun Drive reflects our vision of embracing Emirati culture, heritage, and traditions through a variety of sporting events and other activities.”
Marshals always at hand
As part of the desert adventure, several cars got stuck in treacherous dunes but drivers did not panic as marshals were always ready to extend a helping hand. Sri Lankan expat, Mitch Perera, a senior marshal at the Gulf News Fun Drive who is on his 36th tour of duty, said he was not only absolutely thrilled to be back after a gap of two years but he also came well-prepared.
He said: “My team overlooked the entire Fun Drive to keep a tab on every participant. All participants and marshals contacted the team as and when required through an app. The app tracked the participants and we were always aware when a participant was stuck. The tracker app monitored all the cars through all sections and check points. We assisted everyone with their needs and dispatched necessary help via the marshals on route. The team also monitored all checkpoints till everyone returned to the camp site.”
Evening of fun
By 3pm, participants started slowly making their way to the camp site from the Fun Drive route. Most of them are going to camp overnight to enjoy the spread of food and entertainment lined up for them.
Ahmad Haffar, Lebanese expatriate and UAE Golden Visa holder, who is the voice behind the announcements on Dubai Metro, at Dubai Opera, to name just a few, said he was happy to have been a part of such a large event like Gulf News Fun Drive. “As the name suggests, it is fun for families and friends,” Haffar added.
Happy dune bashers and campers
Indian expatriate Sapna Walia said she had a rocking time. Her husband was behind the wheel and they did not get stuck even once. “We are now excited about the lineup of events,” Walia said.
Manik Sethi and his family too had set up their tent at the camp site. “We’ve been planning this for a long time. We have two small children, so we had to come prepared,” Sethi said.
From a live DJ playing onstage to camel rides to other games, there was plenty of entertainment available onsite.
The ceremonial cake-cutting took place and an elaborate dinner, that included vegan and gluten-free options, were spread out for the participants.
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Support of partners
The Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive is Powered by Nissan and supported by Al Masaood Automobiles Company LLC and Arabian Automobiles Co. LLC.
The event is being hosted by Tilal Swaihan, Department of Municipalities and Transport, Al Ain City Municipality and Adnec.
Checkpoint sponsors include Nissan, Adnec, Dobinsons Springs & Suspension Trading LLC, Castrol Lubricants, Sandisk, Nature Valley and TORC The Offroad Company, Oman Insurance and agnc3.
Support sponsors include Aqua De Fonte, Techxhub, Camptrek, Dubai Ice, Byrne, Plastica Industries LLC, Dhofar Global and Lifeline Healthcare Group.
Catering and food packs will be provided by Capital Hospitality. Fun Drive numbers are sponsored by Tilal Swaihan. Communication Sponsor is Western Digital and tyre sponsor is BFGoodrich. Castrol Lubricants is the exclusive Lubricant Sponsor and recovery is by IATC. Entertainment is by Oblivion by Black Mountain Entertainment. Fun Drive is protected by Oman Insurance.