Marathon des Sables – Chapter 5 – The Desert – A Love Story

The Desert – A Love Story

After turning left off the freeway – oh, let me take a break here and describe something else that I find quirky – Our network of freeways in Australia is not a smudge on what I’m told they are in the U.S.A. Yes we have freeways, but until recently they’ve mainly been for connecting point A to point B. It was only ten or fifteen years ago that they started to connect up into the beginnings of a network. In Saudi Arabia, they had all this oil money and they needed to rapidly modernize their country, so they brought in experts from all over the world to help them build a modern infrastructure. Hence German Cutting.

But America being the home of the freeway, the Saudis had obviously brought in experts from the U.S.A. to help them design their freeways, which resulted in some very impressive engineering feats. Riyadh has a spectacular junction of freeways and highways, which the westerners call “Spaghetti Junction”. It’s one of those landmarks that westerners use to navigate around the city.

But even a simple intersection of a freeway and a highway out of the city was designed by the experts with the future in mind, so it had a full clover-leaf intersection. In 1995, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Australia was yet to build its first clover-leaf intersection. So I hadn’t experienced the need to do a 270 degree loop in order to join the cross road. Plus keep in mind that in Australia we drive on the left hand side of the road, but in Saudi Arabia they drive on the right hand side, so their roads are designed accordingly. It took me a long time to get used to turning left from a freeway to a cross road on a clover-leaf intersection, and doing a right hand exit followed by a full 270 degree right hand turn. It never became natural to me in my whole stay in Saudi Arabia.

OK, so I had just turned left from the freeway and was now driving along the minor road, looking for the next turn to the right. I had no idea where I was going, except that the map in the book was telling me what to watch out for. Now that I was at the bottom of the escarpment, I was surrounded by impressive rock formations, all weathered and gnarled by the centuries of wind and sand. I didn’t know whether to look left or right, so I drove slowly and tried to look at everything.

Eventually I had travelled the distance dictated by the book, and could now see a gravel track going off to the left. At this point it looked like a simple gravel road, so I didn’t hesitate to turn my little rental car onto it and continue away from the main road. Ahead of me the gravel road climbed gently until it went over the top of a rise about a kilometre away, so I carefully drove towards that point. By now I was fifty kilometres from Riyadh driving a Hyundai Excel with a 1.2 litre motor and standard tyres, driving along a gravel road heading further into the desert. What I didn’t need at this point was a flat tyre, an overheating engine or a rock through the sump.

It wasn’t long before I got to the top of the rise and found that the gravel road deteriorated gradually to a gravel track that continued on around a few winds and turns. There were now rocks and holes in the track that I needed to carefully steer around. What I also found was that the track was descending into a small valley of some sort, with almost vertical cliffs on either side. At the bottom of the cliffs, which were roughly thirty metres high, were many large boulders that had broken away from them over the eons. As I carefully drove further I could see the cliffs gradually widening out. I knew now that I was in Hidden Valley and could easily see how it got its name.

The landscape in that small valley, for a first time visitor who was a keen bush walker at home, was mesmerizing. I slowly drove along the track trying to look in every direction at once. Going off the main valley on both sides were other small valleys. Every twist and turn in the track found another treasure to investigate. A number of times I was so busy trying to absorb everything that I was seeing that I almost drove off the track or hit a rock. Luckily I was crawling along as slow as I could go, so I wouldn’t have done much damage anyway, but inadvertently damaging the car at this point in the proceedings was not a good idea.

After crawling along for fifteen minutes, I finally decided that it was time to stop the car and go exploring on foot. I pulled off the track and opened the door, only to be smacked in the face by a wall of heat. I had been driving with the car window down, but I had also been sitting in the shaded protection of the car. Once out of the car and on foot, I was exposed to the full force of the sun. And even though this was only early summer, it still had a force that I wasn’t expecting. One redeeming feature of the summer heat of the desert around Riyadh is that, being 400km inland, the humidity is zero. We found it amazing when we went to Dammam just how much hotter it felt. Zero humidity compared to 100% humidity is a vast difference.

I gathered my stuff together in my backpack and took off to the right on foot. The floor of the valley, or “whadi” in Arabic, was covered in rocks, so walking was difficult. And the rocks were sharp and brutal. There was very little plant life, but there were scrubby looking bushes with huge needles on them for self protection. There were also one or two strange looking small trees with papery bark that simply peeled off. These strange trees had large, leathery green leaves and I was to learn later that the westerners call them Scrotum trees. Later in the year the trees were to bare large seed pods, each with two large seeds inside, that had an uncanny resemblance to well, based on the name you can probably work it out for yourself.

I was in exploring heaven. I walked for what seemed like hours, over rocks, past cliffs, along narrow goat tracks, all the while slowly moving away from the car. At last I sat down in whatever shade I could find to have a drink of water and turned my attention in the direction of the car.

It had vanished.

I thought I hadn’t walked far, having walked very slowly and sat down and rested a number of times. But now, as I looked back towards the car, it simply wasn’t there any more.

This was my introduction to something that I saw others struggle with as well over the years, when I took newbies out for their first experience of the desert. As there are very few landmarks, or at least not the sort of landmarks that we are used to seeing in our home countries of Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.A., Canada and particular England and Europe, our way of navigating is compromised. Even though we hardly ever consider it at home, we must subconsciously keep track of trees, light poles, fence corners, creeks etc, to have a subtle understanding of where we are and how far we have travelled. But in the desert, where most of those landmarks just don’t exist, our in-built navigation system doesn’t work. Here I was looking back in the direction of the car, expecting to see it half hidden behind a large, fallen boulder, and it had simply vanished.

I didn’t panic, but I also can’t say I wasn’t concerned. Don’t forget that this was my very first experience of exploring the desert, and now I couldn’t see the car. To make things worse, as I looked back in the general direction of the car, I could see that there were two whadis coming together, but with their coming together bit pointing towards me. So I was now looking down two whadis. Which one had I walked along to get to where I was now standing? My gut told me it was the one on the right, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked for anything that might be a landmark, such as a bush or peculiarly shaped rock, but there was nothing. It all looked the same! I was rapidly losing confidence that it was the whadi on the right that I had walked along.

I sat down again to collect my thoughts and calm down a bit. I wasn’t in full panic, but I could see it coming over the horizon. I looked at the two whadis and, after some careful consideration, could see that the one on the left was coming slightly downhill to where I was, whereas the one on the right was generally level. I thought back over the last half hour to try to remember if I had walked down a hill at any point. I thought back over all of the giant rocks and boulders that I had climbed around and over and wondered how I could ever tell if I was going up or down. But I finally concluded that it wasn’t likely that I had been coming downhill, so I decided to try the whadi on the right.

An hour later I was back at the car and breathing a small sigh of relief. My choice of the right hand whadi had been correct and consequently I had found the car. It was a lot further than I had expected, causing me a number of times to reconsider my choice of the right hand whadi, but I persevered and had finally found the car and safety again. This was a lesson for me that I was to call on again and again over the next five years in Saudi.

There was a funny episode some years later when my friend Nick and I took a Canadian newbie out for his first desert exploration walk. We were again in Hidden Valley, but this time many kilometres further along. We measured it once in the car and the Hidden Valley area is 92km long. After having breakfast as the sun came up, which is a surreal experience in the desert, the three of us had set off for a long walk. We intended to be away from the car for six to eight hours, so had plenty of water and food.

After hours of walking and exploring, our Canadian friend was obviously getting weary, so we started heading back to the car. During the day we had climbed cliffs, crossed over the high point from one cliff to another, traversed a number of whadis and generally had a good time. We had stopped for lunch and boiled water for a cup of tea on a makeshift camp fire. Nick and I had given Bill a grand introduction to the desert and the beauty of the country outside of Riyadh. But now it was time to be bringing the day’s activities to a close.

As we emerged from a whadi and faced the huge expanse of the greater Hidden Valley, Bill looked along the valley and could see a bright sparkle. He gasped with relief and gushed that it was the sun reflecting off the windscreen, so we were almost there now. He then proceeded to hurry along towards the car so he could enjoy the comfort of a soft seat and some shade. I told him that we were further from the car than he might think and we still had a way to go, so he still needed to pace himself. He couldn’t believe me and pointed at the car. “It’s just there!” he said, and scampered off in that direction. Nick and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.

An hour and a half later we reached the car. Bill was red in the face and way past his comfort zone. He flopped into the seat of the car and guzzled from the can of soft drink he had left behind for that purpose. He struggled to understand how the glint from the windscreen that he had seen was over 5km away. That is one of the many astounding things about the desert. Nick and I loved it. Bill, not so much that day.

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