Gulf News Fun Drive: Your safety in the desert is this man’s obsession

John Spiller Gulf News Fun Drive
John Spiller briefs marshals on the Gulf News Fun Drive 2024 at a marshals breakfast on February 3, 2024.
Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: Welcome to the 42nd edition of the Gulf News Fun Drive that promises great views, challenges and lots of fun for your family and friends.

You are in safe hands because you have the best desert strategist in town who has designed an amazing route for participants.

John Spiller, the Route Director, is a thinker who spends time watching dunes and mapping the route in his head before laying it down on GPS for participants and his team of marshals.

Needless to say, he knows the desert well — not just in Tilal Swaihan where the drive is being held this year — but also in the rest of the UAE.

“I love the desert,” said Spiller, an expert of desert route mapping and a seasoned designer of rally events around the world.

“It is difficult to describe exactly what the call of the desert is. But it has a very powerful pull.

“There is the sheer beauty of the dunes and the sand, the wide open spaces, but maybe it is the freedom that is the attraction — knowing you can go wherever you wish,” said Spiller, whose first desert event in the UAE dates back to 1978 when he organised a Dubai rally.

Designing the routes

“I am very conscious of the ethos of creating a route that can be driven with a fair degree of confidence by the family man, with his family. But I am also aware that there are those who crave a more demanding challenge.”

Geography of Tilal Swaihan

The geography of the route at Tilal Swaihan is near perfection, according

to Spiller. “The competent participant can complete the route, maybe with a bit of assistance, while the experts can take on the ‘extra fun’ options that are interspersed along the track. Meanwhile, the absolute beginner can confidently get to the midway point (CP 5) and then opt for the easier sections to get back to the camp for the after-party. The real bonus of the Tilal complex is that it does not involve reflation and the use of highways to ‘escape to the camp’. My only real concern is that the drive is safe and that everyone has an enjoyable experience.”

Spiller to mingle with participants

This year, the Route Director will be in the desert, mingling with participants. “I normally lead on the recce drives and, hard as I might, I cannot quite imagine the state of the track after the passage of 500 vehicles or more. But I will experience it this year.”

Advice to novices

“Deflate your tyres or you are not going far in the sand. Drive sensibly with a good balance of confidence and sense. Think carefully about angles of approach and get to understand the momentum required to cross a ridge or climb, while being careful to not overdo this. Use open space to align your vehicle in order to cross a ridge in a controlled and safe manner. Don’t worry about the distant dunes and the horrors that they might present. Concentrate on the 100 metres of sand immediately in front of you and take each challenge or obstacle as it comes. Keep a good distance between you and the car in front. If the car in front fails to cross a ridge, they will reverse for a second, hopefully successful, attempt. So don’t be in their way. Concentrate on the route and do not get overconfident,” said Spiller.

Six editions of Fun Drive

Spiller has been with the Gulf News Fun Drive for six editions. In these years, he has made notable revisions to the annual desert event, including spearheading the launch of the Gulf News Fun Drive app, connecting participants with marshals.

Yet, Spiller is humble about his achievements. “As a relative newcomer to the annual Gulf News Fun Drive event, I can only go on the anecdotes and gossip that surrounds the event and its enviable history.”

The Gulf News Overnighter Fun Drive Tilal Swaihan Experience is supported by the Department of Municipalities & Transport, Al Ain City Municipality.