Working Wonders: The RAK mountain boss giving Bear Grylls a run for his money

Philip Durrell, senior director at RAK Leisure and former British Royal Marine, teaches young explorers the spirit of adventure at high altitudes

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

Thousands head for Ras Al Khaimah’s mountain attractions during cooler months – and former British Royal Marine Philip Durrell oversees their trouble-free operation.

As senior director of adventure activities at RAK Leisure, he primarily ensures Jebel Jais activities align with stringent international health and safety standards.

Mr Durrell, 51, also spearheads development of future activities with a multinational 100-plus team, looking after Jais Flight, the world’s longest zip line, the Jais Sledder and Bear Grylls Explorers Camp. The keen diver, sailor and Ironman also overseas Wadi Shawka mountain biking and coastal water sports.

Before joining RAK Leisure in November 2020, Mr Durrell was regional manager for international school expedition company World Challenge, having previously led expeditions in 35 countries including Arctic, African and Himalayan locations.

He came to the UAE in 2007 to create a leadership and development programme with higher colleges of technology.

Now father to two grown up daughters and a grandfather, Mr Durrell lives in Dubai’s Arabian Ranches with wife Lynne with whom he completed San Francisco’s Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.

Have you always been adventurous?

It all went wrong around my eighth birthday when my mum and dad bought me a tent. Our back garden backed on to a national park so I would sleep there every night from about March to September.

I joined the scouts and was one of the first people with the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme at the time. I'm an assessor now.

I was very involved in the outdoors, paid my way through college working in a climbing shop and got discounts on equipment.

Then I studied architecture at university and realised it wasn't for me so I joined the military.

What was that like?

The Royal Marines has an extremely high failure rate. It took me 12 years to realise they weren't going to kick me out.

I had interesting experiences in places like Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Iran, and came home unharmed.

In 2000, I lead an expedition for World Challenge to Costa Rica and that month changed my mindset.

We didn't have working mobile phones and seeing young kids taking on this challenge and dealing with it made me realise being involved in youth development was something I wanted more of.

I led another expedition to Peru, decided to leave the Marines, then worked freelance for expedition companies, including on Kilimanjaro, completing 17 summits in six weeks.

Were you a fan of Jebel Jais?

Before working here it was one of the places to get away from everyday life, to leave your computer and spreadsheets at home and just enjoy being out.

When we first moved here in 2008, we hiked the Stairway to Heaven. I also did Jais Flight with my eldest daughter in 2018.

Things have changed a lot. There's so much more to see and do, not just for high energy thrill seekers.

Jebel Jais is at least 10 degrees cooler on the top. It’s a very different experience and people often don’t realise how close all this is to them.

Are you always at altitude?

I try for at least one day a week on the mountain. My “office” there has the best view you can imagine.

It's a bit of a niche job, but also still being involved in the development strategy of how we grow a destination and doing it in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way.

RAK has everything – the mountainside and wadis of Jebel Jais, beautiful desert areas, amazing coastlines, the pearl farm and one of the biggest mangrove areas you can kayak through.

How hands on are you?

I never ask someone to do something I’m not prepared to do myself.

I give all my managers full autonomy to do their job and have an amazing team on the mountain.

I like to be seen and help where I can … making sure what we’re doing is to international best practice.

What is Bear Grylls’ influence on experiences?

His ethos in life is something I identify with – “never give up” is one of his main lines.

If an opportunity and an experience comes along, you must take it. If you don't put yourself out there and have these experiences, how are you ever going to know?

We launched a big school residential programme with Bear Grylls. About 100 students a day come out and we try to give them something they wouldn't experience on a family holiday.

They stay in dormitory, military-style tents on camping beds and learn life skills. There's no Wi-Fi, no phones and we communicate only by talking.

Are those skills important?

You'd be surprised at how many people we have rescued from the mountain who have only taken a small bottle of water with them when it's 40 or 50 degrees.

There are no maps as such or cleared trails. We're trying to allow people to go out and have that adventure but do it in a safe way.

We use the explorers camp to train people so they have survival skills.

A few years ago a guy fell on Stairway to Heaven and broke his tibia and fibula. I co-ordinated the rescue with a team of 32 people, 300m of abseiling, to lower him down in a stretcher and carry him out. It took about six hours.

Any other challenges?

Operating on any mountain – Jebel Jais specifically – throws up many logistical things you wouldn't think about, such as basic maintenance, getting supplies up there, general day-to-day management and getting your 100-strong team there safely and making sure they're doing their job.

People want comforts, but there's no running water or power supply on the mountain, although we have generators and are introducing solar.

One of our biggest challenges is weather. When it rains on the mountain, things get closed. We have to get out as soon as possible to make sure it's safe and there's no damage.

We often get phone calls to help people. Everyone loves it when it rains in the UAE, but sometimes it isn't the safest place to be. We have people's lives in our hands and we've all the fail safes in place.

Is your role rewarding?

Yes, it's still relatively young as a destination for tourism and adventure so it's great seeing how the whole destination is developing.

We are giving people the opportunity to have great experiences. It's not just about how to make money, it's how you can educate, to come to a sustainable environment, enjoy it and take away rubbish.

You see school groups getting off the bus wondering what’s going to happen. After a couple of days, hopefully we’ve done our job and got them really dirty and muddy and they’ve had a great time. Seeing their faces going back is a great sort of achievement.

Do you apply your past skills?

It’s possibly a bit more the mindset. I understand how you deliver these things, manage 100 students, safely send 170 people down a zip line at 160km an hour.

Then how you do budgets, sort out accommodation, who you need to recruit. I still get my toes in the water occasionally; it’s important to remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

I want things that are going to challenge people, bucket list experiences. But also to have people come to Bear Grylls, just sit around a campfire and tell stories.

How is your commute?

It’s an iconic drive up. Traffic jams for me are normally the goats that cross the road in front.

My wife will tell you it’s not a job … I can assure you it is; it’s long hours, but it is very rewarding.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 8:38 AM