Marathon des Sables – Chapter 17 – Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

Friday at last and a beautiful, nautical morning. After a very peaceful morning of sailing, singing “Yo ho ho and a cup of coffee”, the ferry docked at Plymouth around 11:30. After an orderly disembarkation and passport check, we discovered that the British railway people had put on buses to take the passengers to the local train station. I was quite happy about this, as it simplified what would have been a mad rush to catch the train that we were booked on. Nick, on the other hand, was dumb founded, as the train people had thought of a way to actually help us poor wandering travellers as we finally got back to Blighty from our traumatic, volcano induced, meanderings. Since riding across Spain at 300kph on a modern, sleek train, Nick’s opinion of British railways had taken a huge hit. So for a bus to be there waiting was a big surprise for him.

After getting to the station and having a cup of coffee, we boarded the first of two trains needed to get us north to Carlisle. This one took us to Birmingham, where we had to change to another for the final leg.

Even though I was now approaching brain dead after all the travelling, I was never-the-less enthralled to watch the English countryside rush past. There’s something about England that I will never get used to; it’s was like we were travelling across a postcard. The English countryside is so quaint and beautiful and, coming from Australia, lush and green.

Apart from an extraordinary number of people travelling on the trains, nothing too devastating happened as we travelled north. Nick arranged with his friend that he would pick us up at Penrith, which is the station just before Carlisle. So as we finally disembarked and dragged our bags across to the exit gate, there was Russell with a big grin on his face. Hands were shaken and backs were slapped, before we piled into the car for the exciting twenty minute trip to Nick’s home in Cockermouth. Now for those nitty picky people out there in reader land, Nick doesn’t actually live in Cockermouth. I have come to learn that he lives in a tiny little village ten minutes walk from Cockermouth called Papcastle. Regardless, it was all utterly beautiful.

After much to do in Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and England, Nick was finally home and we both could relax for a couple of days. It would still be another four days before I’d be home.

*   *   *   *   *

The main activity on Saturday was to go for a serious walk in the hills of the Lakes district. I learned from Nick and Russell that they’re not called hills in the Lakes district, but instead are known as “Fels”. This is an old Viking word that translates to ….. hill. So we went walking on a magnificent track that took us from a valley of stunning beauty up into the hills, along some spectacular ridges past patches of snow, then down to a small lake and back to the car. Russell volunteers for the local search’n’rescue group and had some amazing stories to tell of people that they’ve rescued over the years. This part of the country is more than beautiful; it is also potentially dangerous for wanna be adventurers who don’t properly prepare themselves.

That night we walked down to Cockermouth where I was able to see the incredible damage caused by the recent floods. The main street had been two metres under water and the evidence was there to be seen. Many of the shops and other buildings on the main street were boarded up waiting for resurrection. We went to one of Nick and Russell’s local pubs for a drink and to meet some of the local characters.

I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was walking through a movie set, so different was it to what we have in Oz.

*   *   *   *   *

Sunday was a relatively quiet day. We visited with one of Nick’s neighbours, a charming older couple of late eightees. He was a veteran of the British army in colonial India, complete with footmen and butler. She was a survivor of the German concentration camps and between them they had many fascinating stories to listen to.

We went for a drive into a different part of the Lakes district to see a conservation project to protect a breeding pair of Osprey. These are hunting birds, very rare in this part of England. Some very dedicated people, including Nick, volunteer to protect the birds and enable visitors to experience this rare event.

Afterwards, on the way back to Cockermouth, we stopped at a country pub for a drink. This is another thing about England that fascinates me; the ceiling in the pub was so low that it felt like it was falling on me. A tall man would be only just under the ceiling. It is all very enchanting.

Finally we did the ubiquitous trip to a supermarket so I could stock up for my long trip the next day, back to Melbourne. This was the last opportunity I would have to buy my “just-in-case” and travelling food, so I needed to be careful what I bought. I stocked up on fruit juice, gluten free energy bars and biscuits.

A roast leg of lamb for dinner and this day was now complete.

*   *   *   *   *

Today, my last day in England and the first day of my trip home, started at 5 o’clock. I was booked on to the 6:49 train to London from Carlisle.

Nick, who works in Carlisle, was all dressed up in his suit ready for work as he dropped me off at the station. This was an emotional time for both of us as it had been ten years since we had seen each other and now it was coming to an end. Not only that but we had together just completed an adventure trip the like of which doesn’t happen very often, and we had survived the experience. We had begun making loose plans for Donna and myself, Nick and some other friends to recreate this whole experience in four years from now, but for now we needed to say good-bye.

As I was in Melbourne when I left, I was revved up for the upcoming trip. But for Nick, this was the final end of the whole experience. It was an emotional farewell between two friends who have experienced a lot of adventure together. It was Nick with whom I was stuck in The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for 26 hours back in 1999 when our cars got bogged to the floor in the sea of sand. When the train came and I was on board and seated, Nick stayed until the train was out of sight.

It was on this trip to London that I learned an interesting thing about booking a ticket on British trains. I didn’t know it when I booked the ticket, but you can buy a ticket without reserving a seat. Reserving the seat involves an extra charge. As I didn’t understand this when booking the ticket a couple of months previously, before the trip was over I found myself standing in the aisle. The person who had reserved the seat I was using got onto the train and then, in a very English way, politely informed me that they “thought I may have been in the seat that they had reserved”. By now I had figured out the way it all worked so vacated the seat without question. I simply found another empty seat and sat there, hoping that this one wasn’t also reserved. Fortunately I was able to sit there undisturbed until we arrived in Euston.

I had arranged to meet Tina at Euston so she could give me the suitcase that I had left at her place. Ken came as well and we said our good-byes, then Tina kindly drove me to Heathrow. It seemed to take a lot of time to get there, but then I’m clueless about the geography of London.

After saying good-bye to Tina at Heathrow, I was now on my own for the rest of my journey home. As I prefer, I was about three hours early for my flight, which gave me time to calm down, check my baggage, take time having some lunch and generally just taking things easy. At least that’s how it was meant to go, but my very first official duty turned that on it’s head. An interesting journey home had just begun.

As I was going through the baggage scanner that checks all hand luggage before entering the passenger area of the terminal, the scanner operator asked me if I had any containers of liquid in my luggage larger than 100ml. I had my emergency fruit juice which, in my slightly stressed state of mine, I couldn’t remember if it was bigger than 100ml. I took them out to see and saw that they were 200ml each. The operator told me that I would need to discard them in the bin as they were too big to go on the plane. I explained to him that I was diabetic and that these were my emergency source of carbohydrate if I needed it on the plane. Entirely dispassionately, he asked me if I had a letter from my doctor. I told him that yes, I did have a doctor’s letter. Then he asked me the most unthinking, uncaring, foolish question I think I have ever been asked in relation to my diabetes. He asked me if the letter stated specifically and clearly that I must take the fruit juice on board because it was my emergency source of carbohydrate. Well of course the letter didn’t say that. When I told him that, he said in the same unflinching and unemotional tone of voice that I would need to discard the fruit juice.

I was dumb founded. As I dumped the fruit juice in the bin, I asked the fellow if there was a doctor on board the plane. He said he didn’t know and asked me why. I told him that because I had to dump my fruit juice, “The chances are quite good that I will need the doctor before the flight is finished”. The dispassionate, uninterested look in his eye didn’t change a jot. The ultimate irony of this transaction will become more clear soon.

After this joy was a relatively calm couple of hours as I whiled away the time waiting for departure. Eventually we all filed onto the plane as normal and waited to take off. And we waited ….. and we waited. Eventually the captain came over the intercom, telling us in his overly calm Captain’s voice that “Due to heavy traffic at Heathrow today, we’re going to be a little delayed with takeoff”. Oh great. I had less than an hour between this flight arriving in Doha and my next flight leaving for Melbourne.

We sat on the tarmac, with me slowly but surely going quietly around the twist, for 50 minutes before the captain told us that we had been cleared for takeoff. So before we even left Heathrow we were 50 minutes behind schedule.

The flight itself went OK. Surprisingly, and quite happily I must add, I didn’t get poisoned on this leg of the flight, so that left only one more chance for them to try again. I hope they forgot on that leg as well. J The flight from London headed east and we had taken off at about 4pm, so it wasn’t long before the sun went down and we were flying in the dark.

As we descended into Doha, I got everything ready for a mad dash through the terminal to get to my connecting flight. And we’ve all been in the situation where, just because you’re in a hurry, everything else seems to be going slow. Like rushing down the footpath on Collins St, dashing to make the train at Flinders St; you can guarantee that there are hordes of slow moving tourists not only scattered on the footpath, but actually lined up military style across the footpath, so that you almost have to step out onto the road to get past them. Well that’s how it seemed now.

Finally they let us off the plane. Once into the tunnel thing, another lady who was trying to make a connection to Hong Kong and myself, started running. I didn’t care quite so much now about “doing an ankle”; I just wanted to get to my flight.

We quickly made it to the line up for the x-ray baggage check. Doha is a strange terminal because, even though we were simply swapping from one plane to another, and would be in the terminal for only minutes, we still had to put our cabin luggage through the x-ray machine. I couldn’t believe it. And to add insult to injury, the line was huge.

The lady from Hong Kong was urging me, almost insisting, that we duck under the tapes and push ourselves to the front of the line. I was caught between a rock and a hard place because my polite Australian sensibilities were telling me to take my position and wait my turn. But as the lady was saying, I would definitely miss my flight. So in a rush of decision I ducked under the tapes and pushed through the crowd to the front. As you would expect, there were lots of complaints and just a little loud muttering from those already in the queue, but my choices were limited.

I pushed to the front then had a choice of two x-ray machines. As I stood there impatiently, waiting to see which machine would free up first, I could feel the daggers being mentally thrust into my back from those behind me. It was only a matter of time before a meaty hand landed on my shoulder to haul me backwards to the back of the line.

Luckily, the machine in front of me came free, so I rushed forward. The operator of this machine was a large and very serious looking lady who looked like she’d been doing this job for a long, long time, so when I rushed forward, bleating that my flight was in the process of leaving, she looked entirely dis-interested. Of course I was hoping that she would wave me through but no, I had to do the right thing and put my bags through. In hindsight, of course that was totally understandable. But what happened next was just one of life’s cruelties.

As I was grabbing my bag and about to rush off for the plane, the operator stopped me and said something about the contents of my bag. I didn’t clearly hear what she said, but obviously she wasn’t happy about something, so to save time I immediately started tearing my bag open. I think I was mouthing off to her a little bit, but she sat there entirely dispassionately waiting for me to bring out the contents. She again mentioned what it was she wasn’t happy about and I was able to pick up something about a knife. I was about to scoff and waffle on about “How could there be a knife in my luggage? I’ve just come from Heathrow”, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. While I was at Heathrow and swapping over contents from my cabin luggage, backpack and the suitcase that Tina had brought me, I had accidentally left my Swiss army knife in the plastic bag that it had been in since I’d left Melbourne. My mistake was that at Heathrow I had unthinkingly put that plastic bag, which contained all of my emergency gear for the Sahara, into my cabin luggage. The only reason for that choice was “just in case I might need something” during the trip back to Melbourne. At no point did it even occur to me that I had a knife in there. Heathrow either didn’t see it or chose to let it through but here at Doha, where I would be for a grand total of five minutes and running the whole time, the lady was making a big deal about it. And before you say it, yes I know she was correct in what she was saying.

Well, with moments left until the plane left, I simply ripped the knife out of the plastic bag and gave it to her, stuffed the bag and everything else back into my cabin luggage, hurled an ill-chosen and none-too-clever sarcastic remark over my shoulder and grabbed my bag and ran.

With the adrenalin surging and all of my senses screaming along on hyper, I quickly found where I had to go and ran down the stairs to the departure lounge. I was there for only a couple of minutes before the transfer bus came and we all filed on for the short trip to the plane. Everyone in the departure lounge and on the bus seemed so calm and patient. My adrenalin still hadn’t stopped surging, so I started to breathe calmly to bring myself back down. Then, of course, I needed to consider that, after the stress and rushing and turmoil of the last 30 minutes, my sugar was soon to drop. As I have said many times previously in this story, type 1 diabetes never ever let’s you forget, so as well as making sure I had my required papers and documents available and safe, and my bag with me, and was following instructions from the various airline people, I also had to eat some of my “just-in-case” food that I still carried in my pockets.

Finally I was on the plane. It was only fifteen or twenty minutes since my London flight had pulled into the docking bay and now I was sitting on my final flight to Melbourne. At last I could begin to relax.

But as with almost every step of this fantastic voyage, the surprises were not yet over. As we sat on the tarmac, still in the docking bay, with me slowly calming down and settling in the for the twelve or thirteen hour flight, the plane jolted slightly as it began to pull out, then stopped. No big deal. So far that didn’t even raise any interest. As we waited and the seconds, then the minutes ticked by, I realised that this had now been elevated to the abnormal bucket. After a few minutes the captain came over the intercom and informed us, in his calm captain voice, that while pushing us out of our docking bay, the push truck, you know, the squat little tractor vehicles with the huge wheels had, wait for it, “bent the push rod. I’ve never known this to happen before, so you’re the lucky first”. He then went on to tell us that they were bringing a replacement push rod and it would take about 45 minutes.

I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, because I didn’t have any ongoing flights to catch, but after five weeks of uproar I was keen on getting home to Melbourne. And now we were sitting in the departure bay of Doha airport in Qatar at midnight, waiting for a pushrod thingy that never breaks to be replaced, because it had broken. That sort of summed up my whole trip.

I smiled.

The rest of the flight went according to plan. I didn’t get poisoned, which came as a relief. The food situation passed without too much hassle. I got restless, as I’m apt to do on long flights, and walked up and down the aisle like a drifting ghost. Everybody else was snoring away peacefully while I paced. An interesting thing about the flight, which I touched on earlier, was that we were heading east. The plane took of from Doha at about 1 o’clock in the morning and went for twelve or thirteen hours. You would think that we would land in Melbourne in the early afternoon and it would be broad daylight. But because we were heading east and going against the direction of the sun, the daylight outside the window lasted for only a short number of hours, then it was again night. It was 10 o’clock at night when we landed in Melbourne, so in one flight we’d gone from night to day to night. That was a bit weird.

There was only one small interesting thing happening at the airport. The passport check, baggage collection and customs checks all went as smoothly as you could hope for. The interesting little thing was that Channel 7, a local TV station, had signs up saying that they were recording an episode of Border Security at the airport that night. That wasn’t a big deal, but did fit in with the general pattern of the whole trip. Nothing was simple and nothing was normal.

Finally outside in the public area and there was the family waiting for me. Hugs and kisses from all and life was good.

My journey was over. 2014 here I come.

Post Scripts:

1/         I discovered after my return to Melbourne and visiting the doctor and then a specialist that my wobbles, and agonising cramps that took me out of the event, had nothing to do with the diabetes and carbohydrate. After doing some tests it was discovered that I also live with a condition known as hypokaleamia. This is when the body is unable to maintain a healthy level of potassium in the blood and can be very dangerous. I found that I also have this condition only due to the extremes that I was pushing my body to during the training and the event itself. The famous footage of the lady marathon runner in the 1984 LA Olympics, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, is an example that most people have seen of this condition.

2/         Throughout the story I make mention of entering the event again in 2014. I did embark on achieving just that, but early in the training I found that the biology around the type 1 diabetes had changed since 2008. Whether it was because of the 2010 event, or my age, or even just the constant guessing work associated with living with type 1 diabetes, I soon encountered a serious of serious medical mishaps involving ambulances and much consternation for both Donna and myself. I reassessed my situation and decided that the new risk was too great for me to justify, so I dropped the hope of trying the MdS again. I was not happy, but type 1 diabetes never lets you forget or get complacent. With type 1 diabetes, complacency leads to death.

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