Never follow a car blindly while on the Gulf News Fun Drive, park your vehicle on an incline and check your tire pressure every hour, are some useful tips coming from a veteran marshal who has attended the event over 34 times.
But first we ask the Sri Lankan expat Mitchell Perera, (51) who is perhaps one of the oldest surviving marshals as to what drives him to the Gulf News Fun Drive, now in its 38th edition.
“A lot of people have come and gone, some have even left the country. But I am lucky to be here and be part of the event.”
So what brings this man every year and what tips can he share for all those heading this weekend to the Fun Drive?
“The camaraderie among the marshals is amazing. We are one big family. End of the day we are all volunteer marshals. We do what we do because we love our jobs, the desert and the sand-dunes. More importantly, we know our cars well and like to help people stuck in the desert and in need of help,” the marshal said.
He added: “What I also take out of the Fun Drive is the family spirit that you see everywhere. It is not an event for just car enthusiasts or those with that adrenaline rush who want to push the pedal on the sand. It is for families too. By far, this is the biggest event of its kind in the region where families come as a single unit to have fun and experience the adventure and thrill.”
Recalling memories of the Fun Drives before, Perera said: “Back in the day, the marshals came with experience and were already marshalling local rallies. One of them being, the Masafi 4 Wheel Drive Rally before it became known as the UAE Desert Challenge. So we all brought the necessary expertise to the table,” he said adding the Gulf News Fun Drive has grown in the past years to become the most talked about off-road event in the region.
Dealing with the challenge
The marshal said that while many people have 4x4s or trucks, they all don’t necessarily know how to use their machines. For some it is a walk in the park, others it is professional, while it is a great learning experience for the rest.
“Many also bring their new vehicles to the off-road event and this can be a recipe for disaster. Drivers are not familiar with all the gears and as to how to manoeuvre their vehicles on the sand. The good side of this is that at the end of the Fun Drive, they end up learning so much about their cars and in that sense it is a huge achievement for them,” said Perera.
How often do you see people getting stuck on the sand? “Almost from the word go,” he said.
The repeaters are said to lead the way. They take off in a blaze of glory and keep going. They are confident and hammer away. The novices on the other hand, blindly follow the repeaters and this can be a mistake.
“Unfortunately they don’t read the rule book and end up driving off-route. What they don’t know is that repeaters know how to manoeuvre the sand are able to maintain their speed. So they (the novices) end up getting lost in the desert so we always advise them to follow the planned route,” said Perera.
The marshals as a result, have a job in hand, pulling, pushing, instructing and guiding people along through the day. “Sometimes we don’t make it to the camp until 8 or 9pm in the night.”
The desert, the night, the unoccupied territories, any spooky encounters with spirits?
“There are some interesting patches in the desert and mountains where I have felt I was not alone! There is no denying in the fact that the desert has its own magic and the spirits are very much there.”
“Middle East has one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Many fights, wars and tribal disputes have happened here. The Al Ain road, the northern parts of the emirates like Ras Al Khaimah, in and around Hatta mountains, the Empty Quarters are some popular hot spots where we have heard of spooky stories.”
Thankfully at the end, Perera assured us we won’t be privy to spirit encounters at the Fun Drive. “They don’t visit populated spots!,” he quipped.
Tips for drivers
According to the marshal, a common mistake that people commit is that they don’t maintain safe distance from the vehicle in front.
“If you keep your distance right, you can see what is happening in front. As a rule of thumb in the desert, if you stop right you start right. If you stop flat, you cannot start and go forward with ease. Always stop on an incline so you have a rolling start. Remember the sand is soft and flat and wheels move in a clock-wise rotation. As a result, you can totally dig yourself in if you don’t take care.”
Never park behind a vehicle and check your tire pressure, are two other tips he shared. “Check your tire pressure every hour as heat can build up inside due to the friction with the wheels. Everything else is bottled down to common sense.”
A florescent jacket to identify a Marshal on the Fun Drive, T-shirt and jumper, a whistle to alert people, red and green flags, a shovel, flashing hazard light to be placed on the roof of the car are some elements in the Marshal’s kit. For communication, marshals carry two-way radios, walkie talkies among others.