Marathon des Sables – Chapter 4 – The Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom

It was a hectic four weeks before I found myself in Saudi Arabia.

With such a whirlwind of organizing with passports, airline tickets, visas and a plethora of other details, my head stayed up in the clouds for days after my arrival. Coming from Brisbane, Australia and landing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, culture shock doesn’t really explain the avalanche of impressions and emotions. In 1995, the first impression that a new arrival from Australia to Saudi Arabia got as they disembarked from the plane at the airport in Dhahran was the heat. The flight arrived early in the morning, at about one o’clock, and after grabbing my cabin luggage I walked down the stairs of the plane to the tarmac, along with the many other jetlagged passengers. There to greet us was a line of the huge, weird looking airport buses that can be found at many airports around the world.

Crammed on to the bus were dazed looking people, predominantly men, from all over the world, each gripping their cabin luggage. I found myself surrounded by people from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, plus one or two other Aussies and Kiwis. No-one was in a chatting mood as we were all in the same dazed state of mind.

The bus was soon at the entrance to the check-in hall, where we all grabbed our bags again and shuffled off the bus and into the hall. This was where I encountered the next overwhelming impression that told me I was no longer in the closeted safety of Australia. As we shuffled forward to join the long queues of people waiting to check in, I had a real sense of being in a Saturday afternoon movie with Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston, as there were quite a few guys in the lines wearing strange head gear and loin cloths.  We could see many khaki uniformed guards with machine guns over their shoulders. I remembered back to all of the people back in Oz who had either expressed their personal concern about my safety, or just outright advised me not to go. The impression that we are fed by the media in Oz is that the Middle East, and  particularly Saudi Arabia, are dangerous places where any clear thinking Australian would not choose to go. And here I was standing in a hot, humid, cavernous shed in the middle of the night with hundreds of people from exotic parts of the world, some wearing exotic clothing, staring down a long line of new arrivals, all being watched over by serious looking fellows with machine guns.

I stood there, looked around and a scene from The Wizard of Oz came to mind. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

Eventually, after a lot of checking, unpacking, packing and stamping of passports, I found myself out on the public side of the door. In 1995, the airport at Dhahran, which was the gateway to Saudi from anywhere in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, was not a great introduction to the country. It was old, run down, a little bit smelly and just had a musty feel about it. After the long flight and the last ninety minutes of passport control and queuing, now stepping out to see a rather drab forecourt, my excitement level had not yet started to rise. Fortunately, I had no problem finding the driver holding a sign with my name on it, so was soon on my way to the hotel.

I don’t know about you, but I am always fascinated when I arrive in a new city. For some reason it’s always at night, with the exception of London. But everywhere else I’ve flown to from Australia, it’s always night when we arrive. And with the flight landing at one in the morning, the time taken going through the process at the airport, then finding my car and driver, it was three thirty in the morning as we drove from the airport to the hotel that they had put me in for the rest of the night. Consequently, the city was quiet.

It seemed like forever that we were driving up near-empty freeways, then turning onto deserted surface roads. The street lights were glowing yellow and what I could see from their light was quite different to the impression I had got from peering  down from the window of the plane. Up there, everything was neatly laid out, with the freeways sweeping in graceful curves around the city. But from down here it was clear that I was now in a third world country. Saudi doesn’t like to consider itself a third world country; it has huge oil reserves and has spent a large fortune on infrastructure over the past fifty years. But at street level at four o’clock in the morning driving down deserted roads, it was easy to see that it wasn’t far removed from being just that.

At least now I could tell the naysayers back home that the streets are paved, not sand or gravel, I didn’t see any mud brick buildings on the drive from the airport and I didn’t see a single camel. However I was certainly going to be seeing lots of each of these before my time in Saudi was finished.

For a person living with type 1 diabetes, one of the difficulties with travelling across time zones is the adjustment of medication times. Depending on the flight details, there is both the ongoing adjustment necessary while travelling and then the final adjustment after you arrive at your destination. The time difference between Brisbane and Saudi Arabia is eight hours, but the flight is broken in the middle with a stopover in Singapore. It’s not easy to explain to a person who doesn’t have to live with it the importance, the danger, the concern that the person with T1D has while making the adjustments. Having insulin is not like taking a pill for a headache. Having an injection of insulin is more like squirting high octane fuel into the engine of a drag car. Insulin is not a fuel, but it’s the best example I can think of right now.

If you don’t squirt enough of the fuel into the engine, it will simply stop. But if you squirt too much fuel, the engine will momentarily run too fast before exploding. But, and here’s the scary bit, when a person with type 1 diabetes is doing long distance flights,  timing their insulin injections is like trying to squirt in just enough fuel into the engine of the drag car while it’s in the process of doing it’s ¼ mile run. Too little and their blood sugar level runs high; too much and they risk having a hypo, ie. severe low blood sugar level and it’s immediate dangers. But now complicate that by changing time zones and day becomes night, breakfast becomes dinner and midnight becomes lunch time.

So after a couple of hours of fitful sleep, I had to very carefully time my morning routine. I knew that I was being picked up by the company driver at nine o’clock, so I knew that I had to not only ensure that I was presentable for my first day on the job at a new company, but I also had to make sure that I had my morning insulin no sooner than fifteen to twenty minutes before I would have my breakfast available to me. I was also working on the assumption that the breakfast would have enough carbohydrate for me. Keep in mind that I had arrived at the hotel at four o’clock in the morning, so had not been able to check the things that most people just take for granted or dismiss as unimportant, such as availability of food. Having just arrived in the country, all I had with me were the remnants of my emergency travelling food. If necessary that would be enough to see me through until the driver arrived, and then I would ask him to stop at a food shop of some sort. But as this was my first day on the job, I didn’t want to start by causing unexpected difficulties.

People often say, when they hear about this sort of situation, “Oh yes but, they need to know that you need your food and that you need ……. “. Yes, that is correct, but when you live with type 1 diabetes every minute of every day of your life, the dynamics of these situations take on a different colour. I don’t feel that I need to hide my diabetes, not at all. But conversely, I also don’t want my type 1 diabetes to become what people think of when my name is mentioned or they are in my company. It’s hard enough having to juggle the insulin, food and energy requirements every minute of every day, without adding the complications of making those around you think of you as “the diabetic”.

With all of these unknown factors and concerns, my first morning in The Magic Kingdom went without a hitch. I did manage to make myself presentable, and I did manage to have my insulin injection, followed by an acceptable breakfast within the  right timeframe. The little wrinkles that often present themselves didn’t let me down this time either. There wasn’t enough carbohydrate in the continental breakfast offered by the hotel, but I was able to obtain a glass of orange juice to boost it up. Exciting stuff, huh? But sadly that sort of mundane detail becomes vital to a person living with type 1 diabetes.

After a short stop over at the company office, where I was introduced to too many people whose names I didn’t have a chance of remembering, the driver took myself and my luggage off to the accommodation that had been arranged for me. The plan was that I’d be spending a couple of months in Dammam, which is on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, then moving to the head office of the bank, which is in Riyadh. Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia and is 400km into the desert. I was fascinated at the prospect of that new adventure, but for now I had the new city of Dammam to get to know.

It took fifteen minutes of carnival ride to get to my temporary accommodation. I didn’t know which way to look, there was just so much to see. By first impressions Dammam is not a pretty city, but it was new to me, it was exotic and it was exciting. Having never been overseas before, except to New Zealand, this was my first out-of-Australia experience. I thought Singapore on the way over was exciting, but this took it to a whole new level. Everywhere I looked I could see guys dressed in the flowing, white robes with the red and white checkered head gear. I was soon to learn that most of those fellows are Saudis, as all Saudi men wear the “thobe” (white robe) and “shumagg” (red and white head covering). I could also see the occasional woman wearing the flowing black robes, which I came to learn is called an “abya”.

After we arrived, the driver knocked on the door of the unit I was to be sharing with another Australian. I stood back and waited a moment before the door was opened. The driver started introducing himself and explaining who I was, but I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. Because who should have opened the door but my best friend from high school, George. I kid you not. There we were on the other side of the planet and George opened the door.

Well, you can imagine how the next few hours were spent. “Do you remember when …..? and I wonder what happened to …… “. We had a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately for me, George was able to introduce me to many of the things to do with Saudi Arabia that a newbie from Oz finds confusing or confronting. He was also able to explain the intricate workings of the work situation, the relationship between the company we were both working for and the bank that we were working at. I felt a bit silly, to be honest, that I wasn’t already clear on much of this, but I was to learn over the next five years that most westerners arrive in Saudi for the first time in a similar dazed and naïve state of mind.

One of the curious things that George was able to explain to me that very first evening was when we went to a local shopping mall. As we were walking around, seeing Saudi families out doing the same thing, I noticed that there were many young Saudi fellows walking through the mall holding hands. Coming from Australia, I drew an immediate conclusion from that. I nudged George in the ribs and whispered “I thought that sort of thing was against the law in Saudi”. He laughed and said that it is. However what I was seeing was a local custom where male friends hold hands in some social settings, like walking through a shopping mall. Coming from Australia, where that would have only one conclusion, I found this quite interesting. Before my time in Saudi was finished five years later, I was to learn hundreds of interesting tidbits of information about Saudi, the Arabian Peninsular, the Arabic people, their culture and their language. I also learned a lot about western cultures and people. But that might be for another story one day.

The original plan was that I would stay with George in Dammam for three months, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t necessary. By the way, the names Dammam, Al-Khobar and Dhahran are almost interchangeable, as together they form a  large urban area on the east coast of Saudi Arabia across from Bahrain. The plan was that I would use this time to become more acquainted with the computer operations side of the business. I soon realized that my main focus was going to be with the IT workers in Riyadh, not Dammam, so started the cogs turning so I could move there. After only four weeks in Dammam, I found myself on a plane to Riyadh.

I was to find that many westerners in Saudi vigorously prefer Dammam to Riyadh. Their reasoning is that, because Dammam is Shiite and Riyadh Sunni, Dammam is more easy going and accepting of western customs. For example, it is quite common in Dammam for western women to go shopping in one of the shopping malls without covering up with the abya. However in Riyadh that is a definite no no. Many westerners, both male and female, find that alone is enough for them to not like Riyadh and prefer Dammam. Donna and I never saw that sort of thing as a problem. We went to Saudi expecting things to be different and were not greatly surprised when they were.

For me, Riyadh was the place to be. I loved it. Mind you, it was difficult for me to settle in, with me even contemplating leaving and flying home during the first couple of months there. But after teething problems with the accommodation and finding a group of expats that I got along well with, I was eventually able to bring some stability into my week-to-week life.

Why I preferred Riyadh to Dammam was because of a number of things. Firstly, it was 400km into the desert. Riyadh in 1995 was a city of over a million people, with all of the things that a large population requires. And yet it was 400km into the desert from the east coast. I find that fascinating. Also, Riyadh is the seat of government for Saudi Arabia. It is the centre of power for this fascinating country and is the main residence for the King of Saudi Arabia. Plus it is BECAUSE Riyadh follows the more conservative side of Islam that Donna and I preferred to be there; of course Donna after she and the girls joined me there in 1996. We didn’t travel half way around the  planet to pretend we were still in suburban Brisbane. We learned how other people and cultures live, how their view of the world is both similar to ours and differs from ours. We learned that, even though we were living in a city that has the infamous “Chop Chop square”, where convicted criminals are occasionally beheaded, the local people are friendly people devoted to their families and in so many ways no different to us. I could wax lyrical on this subject for hours, but that is not the purpose of this story so I shall leave it there. In summary, my family and I fell in love with Riyadh and the Arabic culture.

One thing that Riyadh also had was a shortage of easily accessible forms of entertainment for your typical western families. This was another aspect of Saudi Arabia that many westerners had a problem with. In both Dammam and Riyadh, and I’m guessing Jeddah as well, there were no cinemas. Nope, none. Zero. Yes, you heard correctly. Plus there were no places like clubs or discos that you could go for a drink and a dance. And of course that raises possibly the biggest issue that some westerners have about Saudi and that is that the whole country is dry, ie. no alcohol was legally permitted within the country. There was no grey area on this subject at all. Alcohol is banned within the borders of Saudi Arabia.

But this is where Donna and I and the girls might be a little different to some other people, in that none of this bothered us too much. We soon learned to make do with what was available and to make our own fun. There were videos to replace cinemas and heaps of restaurants to go to. There were fascinating and exotic markets, called souks, to go to as well. As for alcohol, well …… I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that virtually every westerner soon learned how to overcome that strict rule. It was actually quite humorous the various ways that people managed to provide the expat community with a range of liquid joy. And this was another aspect of living in Riyadh that was so good, and that was living the expat life. Throw a bunch of westerners together and they soon learn to establish a sense of community more colourful and vibrant than life back home. This was one of the aspects of our time in Riyadh that Donna particular loved.

A significant part of “making our own fun”, that had been vital for helping me get through the first twelve months without Donna and the girls, was going out of Riyadh for trips to the desert. As I’ve already described, Riyadh is 400km into the desert, so it is completely surrounded by desert of some sort. And with five or six major highways into and out of Riyadh from other cities in Saudi, there were heaps of opportunities to go exploring.

This is where the majority of western expats drew the line. I estimate that 90% of western expats went to the desert at least once in their time in Riyadh. But only 60% went twice. When you consider those who went on, let’s say a monthly basis, you’d be down to 10% or less. During the first couple of months that I was in Riyadh before the family came over, a large part of the difficulties I was facing came from a combination of the limited range of activities available that did NOT require large amounts of liquid joy, the unwillingness of most of the guys I was living with in the block of units to commit themselves to a weekend activity and then follow through, combined with the afore mentioned reluctance of most expats to go to the desert. Since a child, I’ve always been into walking and exploring, so to keep myself sane I had to work out some way of getting out to the desert. I had a car; that wasn’t a problem. The problem was finding someone to go with.

Over the next couple of months, my state of mind deteriorated to the point where Donna was suggesting I give up and come home during our weekly telephone calls. I wasn’t about to do that, but that’s how bad I sounded to her on the phone. My state of mind wasn’t dangerous; I was just lonely and frustrated. I could see a solution, but couldn’t find anyone to enable me to put it into action.

The crisis point was reached one Thursday morning, which in Saudi is equivalent to our Saturday morning. I had arranged with a couple of the other fellows who lived in the block of units that we were going for a drive to the desert. I had ensured that they were committed and clear on departure time etc. I even made the clear understanding that they needed to bring a bit of food and water, as we were leaving the city and they wouldn’t have an opportunity to buy any. Everyone agreed and life was looking good.

On Wednesday night, which is the equivalent to our Friday night, work was finished for the week, so there was the usual bar-b-que and party at the block of units. A goodly group of expat single males were there to party the night away. I noticed that a couple of the guys who were coming to the desert the next day were well into the party, so I reminded them of the activity the next day and they confirmed that it was still on and they’d be there.

Let’s leave out the rest of the night’s partying, because we all know what a night like that usually becomes. Instead we’ll jump forward to 9 o’clock the next morning, with me sitting out in the common area waiting for them, ready to go. Ooze forward now to 10 o’clock, with no change in the scenario. Take another step to 11 o’clock.

That’s it! I’d had it! I couldn’t take any more. I stormed off with a dramatic banging of doors and went for a drive to calm myself down and consider what I was going to do about this appalling situation. This was now do-or-die. This situation had the potential to kill the whole Saudi episode for my family and I and that would be a disaster.

I drove around the city for a while and finally found myself in the DQ, or Diplomatic Quarter. This is the part of the city where most of the foreign embassies exist. Foreigners were allowed to go there at any time, while locals were either not allowed to go, or needed to justify to the guards on the entrance gate why they wished to enter.

The DQ was enormous, the size of a whole suburb. It had it’s own shops, parks and gardens as well as the many embassies and other official buildings. It was in the DQ where you would find the embassy for the U.S.A., for Britain, for Australia, New Zealand etc. Not surprisingly, it was not difficult to identify the embassy of the U.S.A. Even in 1995 it was all of the following – the biggest, the most elaborate, had the most impressive gardens, appeared to have the most guards and also had the most in-your-face concrete barricades and uniformed guards with big guns in plain view. Of course it also had a big American flag on a big flagpole. Conversely the Australian embassy while certainly nice, was smaller, unobtrusive, not easy to find unless you knew where to look and overall subtle. Ya gotta love the Americans.

I found a peaceful looking place to park the car and sit out on the grass. Yes, the DQ also had possibly the only proper grass lawns in all of Riyadh. So I chose a peaceful, quiet place to sit and think and contemplate the next few months.

At this point in my Saudi experience, it had not been determined whether Donna and the girls could come over. All of that discussion was yet to eventuate. All I knew at that point was that I was there on my own, I was very lonely and I was going not-so-slowly nuts. If I was to stay and survive, I needed to have something to plan for and look forward to.

Over the weeks I’d been there, I had never heard anyone say that they had been to the desert on their own. What I had heard was lots of inference that precisely the opposite was true, ie. the desert was not somewhere that one should venture by themselves. But then the attitude of most of the westerners was that you simply don’t leave the city, simple as that, so in my mind that threw into question many of the general attitudes of the westerners. I had now been forced to the point where I needed to think outside the square. Standard solutions had not worked. So by process of logic, clarity and elimination I came to the conclusion that I had to learn how to go to the desert on my own. Suddenly I felt much happier. I had a mission, a challenge, an objective, a goal. On the face of it, that may not sound like a big decision. So what, go to the desert on my own? Big deal. But when you consider that temperatures in Saudi easily reach 50C, the desert stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction around Riyadh, there was almost nothing in the desert except many things that could kill a car and that there were very few people to be seen in these hundreds of kilometres of nothing, it was a big decision; many would say stupid.

Over the next week I asked lots of questions of anyone who would stand still long enough. The most important thing that I learned, something that could derail the whole endeavour, was that the government had an expectation that westerners did not need to travel outside the city of their work. Now this is where people who haven’t experienced Saudi Arabia can easily develop a bad opinion of the place, but the reality is not as bad as the explanation sounds.

Every person in Saudi Arabia has what is known as an Iqama. This is nothing more than what a lot of countries have, which is an official form of identification. All muslims have a green Iqama and all non-muslims have a brown Iqama.

On each of the highways in and out of each city there are checkpoints. Yes, I know; this is starting to sound like communist Russia or Nazi Germany, but the reality is much more benign and unexciting. As you stop at the checkpoint, you needed to show your Iqama to the guard. He may also ask for your driver’s licence and car registration papers, which were always kept in the glove box. If you are not a Saudi citizen, he may also have asked for your travel papers, which was simply an official letter from your employer stating, in Arabic, that you were entitled to travel outside the city. Similar to the “don’t ask / don’t tell” official attitude to the liquid joy, the official attitude to the travel letter was that, so long as it was written properly, on official letter head, stating that the holder had an employment related reason for travelling outside the city, no further questions would be asked. It was as simple as that. In my five years of driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia, I was never asked to show my travel letter.

So that became my main requirement for that week. Off I went to see Mohammed, a charming fellow from Pakistan whose reason for existing was to organize “stuff” like paperwork, official letters, airline tickets, travel documents and general semi-official advice for the westerners. I asked him what I needed to do to get a letter saying I could travel outside Riyadh. He had been asked for this hundreds of times over the years, so he understood that it was important for many westerners to not feel restricted too much or cooped up. The bank needed the westerners, and Mohammed took it upon himself to keep the westerners happy. It was a very sad day for us when he told us that he had finally received his green card and he and his family were leaving Saudi and moving to the U.S.A.

So, by the end of that week I had my official travel letter, which was maybe the single most important piece of paper I would have during the whole five years in The Magic Kingdom, with the exception of my final airline ticket home.

Next came the logistical planning for my first foray into this unknown and scary place called “the desert”. I decided on it being the coming weekend for my first trip and had a lot of thinking and organising to do, not least being deciding where to go. Talking to my fellow westerners, I heard the name “Hidden Valley” mentioned on numerous occasions. I also heard names such “The Edge of the World” and “The Empty Quarter” mentioned. But the two most often mentioned pieces of advice were Hidden Valley and a book of desert trips around Riyadh that was available that had been written and published some years earlier by an enterprising westerner.

Interestingly, there was little point asking any of my Saudi work mates for guidance, even though they would have been more than happy to give me advice. You see, where I was planning to go and what I was planning to do wasn’t anything special for them. Some of them had grown up living in the type of desert I was planning to go to.  And I was to learn that what we called desert, they referred to as farm land. I kid you not! One time when I described a particularly spectacular place that I had visited over a weekend to one of my Saudi work mates, he gave me an incredulous look and told me that his family farms camels and goats there, so it wasn’t desert. Believe me when I say that to anyone visiting Saudi Arabia from outside the Arabic Peninsular, what I had seen that weekend was vast, spectacular, awe inspiring desert.

By the Wednesday evening the where, what and how for my first solo foray into the Saudi Arabian desert had been organised. This included a backpack, bottles of water, lots of food, a hat and other obvious safety gear, plus the book of desert trips. I was to determine years later that I was hopelessly unprepared on that first journey, but luckily for me that didn’t matter.

So much about Riyadh was fascinating back then. Apart from being the centre of one of the more unknown and closed off countries in the world, the evidence of almost limitless money was everywhere. Over the following years I learned a lot more about the recent and brief history of modern Saudi Arabia, but that first drive out of the city was a real journey into the unknown for me.

After navigating my way to the outskirts of the city, I found myself on a six lane freeway hurtling along at 120kph. That was the sign posted speed, but many drivers seemed to simply ignore that and go blasting past me. As I was driving the rental car, which was a Hyundai Excel with a small four cylinder engine, I soon learned to stay out of the fast lane. That was where the bigger cars were powering past way in excess of 120kph. I didn’t stand a chance there. Over time I also learned to stay out of the slow lane, as this is where the many trucks trundle up and down the freeway. In summer, when the air temperature often reaches 50C, the bitumen can start to melt. And with the heavy trucks travelling in the slow lane, the surface of the road took on what, in a small car, was a frightening carnival ride appearance. The trucks left serious grooves in the bitumen during summer, making the slow lane a dangerous place to be in any standard type of car. Even 4WD cars, with their bigger wheels and more robust suspension, could struggle in the slow lane.

So the middle lane it was as I left Riyadh behind. I didn’t get a clear idea of my surroundings on that first drive out of the city as it was all too new to me and there was simply too many things to look at. But I was to learn as time went on that Riyadh is surrounded by new areas that are being turned into suburbs. It was fast becoming a large and significant city. One of the differences that having almost limitless money gave Saudi, compared to what we are used to in Australia, is that when they decide to allocate a section of land for a new housing development, they build all of the infrastructure first, then open it to the housing developers. So I was driving past vast areas where all of the roads, footpaths, power supply, water supply, sewerage and telephone had already been built. All that was left to do now was to build the houses and shops. But I’m not talking about an acre or two. I’m talking about entire suburbs that stretched away from the freeway for kilometres, where everything was in place except for the buildings. And it was all just sitting there like it had been for years.

I learned that the Saudi government managed it’s oil wealth for the benefit of the country by having five year plans. Each five year plan would have main focus points, like building hospitals or building universities and schools. Obviously a previous five year plan had a focus for establishing suburbs, so all of the infrastructure was there and now it just waited for private industry to catch up and build the houses. The six lane freeway that I was on that carved it’s way through the desert in great, sweeping curves was part of an earlier five year plan. I came to learn that the whole country was criss-crossed by a network of modern freeways and highways, connecting all of the major cities and towns.

Eventually I left the waiting-to-be-built-on suburbs behind as I continued heading west. But I hadn’t gone far before the road descended at a steep grade. Over in the slow lane, the many trucks were now crawling down the hill in low gear and the smell of burning brakes and clutch plates was quite apparent. For the rest of us in the middle lane, we just continued to descend at 120kph, while those big boys in the fast lane went rocketing past at whatever speed they wanted to drive.

This is where we’ll look at another aspect of Saudi that most westerners point at and cluck their disappointment. All of the drivers of every vehicle on the road was male. Not a single female driver was to be seen anywhere. The reason for that is that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s true. None of that urban legend or hear-say is incorrect. Now I’m not going to justify the Saudi government’s law but just say that, in 1995, that was the case. Pressure is afoot now in 2014 to change that situation, but to date it has not yet succeeded in changing the law in Saudi Arabia.

Also, speaking of big boys in the fast lane, one of the curious things that I saw many times over the years while driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia was that the super-rich, such as princes, government ministers, their sons and other rich business men, seemed to have the freedom to drive their super-rich cars, like top end Mercedes, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Porches, you name it, as fast as they liked in the fast lane. It was common to see someone coming up from behind in the fast lane, flashing their lights furiously at whoever happened to be ahead of them. As they blew past slow old me doing 120kph in the middle lane, they had to have been doing in excess of 200kph, still flashing their lights and without slowing down a jot. It was comical to watch, unless you were the poor sod who had dared to pull into the fast lane to go past a slow coach in the middle doing only 110. You can take my word for it that a Hyundai Excel doesn’t accelerate rapidly from 110 to 120, no matter how hard you push the accelerator to the floor. I quickly learned to stay out of the fast lane unless absolutely necessary. This was particularly the case when driving on the 400km, six lane freeway from Riyadh to Dammam.

The big descent that I was now going down was known as German Cutting. The reason for this was something to do with the company that designed the freeway and the cutting being a German company, so the westerners simply knew it as German Cutting. It became an important landmark when planning days out in the desert. The conversation would go something like “You get to the bottom of German Cutting, then turn right. Travel for another five kilometres and you’ll see a track beside a fence.” For this first trip, when I was hoping to find Hidden Valley, I needed to get to the bottom of German Cutting then turn left.

About half way down German Cutting, which enables the freeway to descend from the plateau on which Riyadh is situated to the vast expanse of the Arabian shield beyond, the road emerges from the cliff face in a long, steep swoop. As it does, you suddenly get a view of the area at the bottom of the cliff. In a flash of scenery change, I could suddenly see my first village, with it’s assortment of houses, mud-brick buildings, dirt roads, donkeys, a few camels dotted around, date palms and children riding their bikes. I could suddenly see all of this from above, so high was the escarpment and the road that I was on. This was my first view of Arabia outside of a big city, so I was now entering the real Arabia and my heart jumped. It was only now that I fully realized that I was starting a true adventure, one that would last for another five years.

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