Europe

Spanish Steps
Spanish Steps

Preface 

Following is my account of our recent holiday to Europe. I wrote this story with 2 purposes in mind :

1/ As a reference for us, The Wandering Williams, to be able to look back on in time to come to help us remember a very special time

2/ As a way of sharing our experiences and joys with those that we care about, both friends and family.

I make no apology for the length of this story because to have made it any shorter would have been to discount the experiences and this holiday was too important and special to us to do that.

We hope that you read this story and thereby share some of the thrill, the wonder and the happiness that this holiday gave us.

Chapter 1/ ‘Travels With The Campervan’ 

Monday 15th of March – Day #1 

The packing was completed during the day on Sunday. I had Sunday off so we were all able to get in and pack. By dinner time it was all done and we were waiting for the time to leave for the airport.

Nick came around, had a cup of tea, and we were off. After 16 months of planning, the time had finally arrived to leave. Between us we had 4 healthy suitcases and a carry case with Emma’s sleeping bag, plus a backpack style piece of cabin luggage each. There was no way it was all going to fit into Nick’s car, so we packed the luggage in his car and then got a taxi for us.

Everything was standard at the airport; no dramas, which is exactly the way we like it. The plane left on time at about 1 o’clock in the morning. The flight was good and I even managed to get some sleep. We arrived at Paris within 5 minutes of the scheduled time, being 10 o’clock in the morning. The sun was shining brightly. We were in Europe!

The first important activity was to make our way to the campervan place and pick up the van. Our plan was to be well out of Paris by the end of the day. We made our way to the airport station of the RER train system and found that there were 3 trains to take to get to the place we wanted. This was going to be interesting.

Sure enough, it was interesting! It turned out that the girl sent us to a station past where we needed to be, so a very nice lady at the other end helped us determine where we were, where we wanted to be and how to get there. How we got all the baggage into the taxi I will never know, but we did. He then drove us for 20 minutes until we were finally there. By this time I was absolutely bamboozled as to where we were.

The people at the hire place were very nice, but it was a brand new van we were getting and still having some work done on it. I think it was actually still in the process of being registered. That meant that we had an hour and a half wait until it was ready to go. By now it was getting on for 1 o’clock, so we were glad to be finally on our way. The van was wonderful. It was huge inside compared to the one we had in England. It was also diesel, so that was an interesting way to drive through Paris: I’d never driven a diesel, I’d never driven a vehicle as big as this, I’d never been to Paris and (technically) I wasn’t licensed to drive in France. (The Saudi driver’s license is not recognized in many places in the world and I no longer have an Australian license.) Ahh, what the hell. We were in Europe and we were on holidays.

Donna, who was from this time on the official map reader of the expedition, was asked urgently, and loudly on a number of occasions to provide the recommended route out of Paris. We knew where we wanted to be but weren’t crystal clear on how to achieve this. (ie. we didn’t have a clue.) We knew we were in for a fun time when, 15 minutes after leaving the car hire place, we were going right around a round-about and saw The Arc de Triumph go proudly past. What the …!!! How did that get there?

We did get out of Paris and it didn’t actually take too many wrong turns. Before we knew it we were on the motorway out of Paris and driving past the Disneyland exit. It was on this stretch that we learned a very important lesson. STAY OFF THE MOTORWAYS!! I say this for 2 reasons. 1/ You don’t get to see much when on the motorways compared to the other highways and 2/ it costs a bloody fortune on the motorways. We had to stop 3 times in a distance of 60km to hand over wads of French Francs, just for the privilege of driving a lousy 18km on the motorway. So after the third payout we decided ‘no more motorways’ and stuck with that for the next 2 weeks. More on that later.

Soon we found ourselves motoring along through the French countryside. As it was now getting late in the afternoon, we started looking for camping grounds. Easier said than done. There weren’t any that we could find, so we finally pulled up at a quiet little spot off the road 20km from Reims and parked. As the van was fully equipped with wash basin, kitchen sink, stove, fridge, heating, toilet and shower, we were able to stop anywhere we wanted.

After stopping, I started to set the van up for the night, which entailed flicking a couple of switches to get the power working and turning on the gas cylinder for the hot water, stove and heater. We couldn’t get the stove working so I started to play with the cylinder. Suddenly there was a loud hissing noise and I realized the gas was escaping from the cylinder. There was nothing else for it but to get the cylinder out and away from the van. We left that cylinder overnight a good distance from the van and used the other one. So by the first morning in the van we were down to half the gas we started with. A side note to this is that the now empty gas cylinder had a thick crust of frost on it in the morning, laying there in the grass away from the van. The weather was cold overnight but beautiful and sunny in the morning.

Tuesday 16th of March – Day #2 

The sky was clear, the sun was shining, but there was thick frost on the ground and it was freezing outside. This was our first morning in Europe.

After the morning routine, we set off towards Luxembourg. The countryside is beautiful, rolling, green hills with more bush that I expected. Everything is organized. The ploughed paddocks are all ploughed in precisely straight lines. A point that I found interesting is that there are not many fences. The paddocks extend right to the edge of the road in a lot of cases, without a fence.

By morning tea time we were in a village called Vouziers. We stopped and walked along looking at the shops and the scenery. We also bought an exquisite cream cake for morning tea, well 2 actually. They were scrumptious.

After leaving Vouziers, we motored on down the highway towards Luxembourg. As we got closer to the city, inside Luxembourg itself, the roads narrowed and became a lot more windy. Luxembourg is more hilly that the countryside in France. The border crossing is interesting. Firstly, you don’t have to stop now, thanks to The European Union. You just drive straight through past the guards who are still there. Secondly, 3 countries come together within 500m of the road we were on. France, Luxembourg and Belgium were all with a stones throw of where we drove across the border. We actually took a wrong turn and almost drove into Belgium. We discovered our error and turned around in time to easily get back on the road to Luxembourg city.

We drove through the city, which is beautiful and rich looking, and stopped at a small village just the other side and had lunch. This consisted of the freshest ham, cheese, tomato and mustard rolls imaginable. A cup of tea as well and life couldn’t get better. As with the trip to England 2 years ago, this was a fairly standard sort of lunch while traveling in the campervan.

Luxembourg is a tiny place and it wasn’t long until we crossed into Germany. By stopping time we were in a large town called Trier. Again, there was no sign of camping grounds, so we chose a quiet spot in a carpark, almost under a large bridge by a large river, to camp in for the night. There was another campervan there as well, so we didn’t feel too out-of-place.

While shopping for a few essentials like milk and bread, we discovered that our supply of German money was rather low, so we planned on calling in to a bank in the morning to change some travellers checks. This was something new to get used to. We had been in 3 countries in less than 2 days and the need for different currencies was something new. Luxembourg provided the simplicity of willingly accepting French Francs and German Marks, but Germany would only accept German Marks. So now we were learning the glories of exchange rates, different currencies etc. By the end of the trip we would be far more comfortable with this. But for now, it was all new and a little confusing.

Wednesday 17th of March – Day #3 

Not a cloud in the sky all day. Absolutely glorious weather.

In the morning we managed to find our way to the central business area of the town. We even managed to find a parking spot for the van. The next task was to find a bank. This I also managed to do and was able to change some money. We were again in the pink and had money to buy luxuries, like food. The lady in the bank looked very stern with not a hint of a smile, but the service was impeccable.

As I was walking back to the van, I passed an interesting looking glass enclosure. When I went to have a look at what it was, I saw that it was an archaeological site and appeared to be diggings of old buildings. The town square that I was standing in and the bank I had just been in were built on top of an ancient settlement of mud brick and stone buildings. Fascinating!

We set off, the destination being somewhere in the direction of Frankfurt / Nuremburg. We drove through mile after mile (kilometre after kilometre?) of vineyards. They seemed to be never ending. Entire hillsides had been turned into vineyards. Entire valleys; it just went on and on and on. There was a particularly picturesque river valley which was devoted to vineyards and a little bit of tourism. As became the standard during the trip, we saw camping grounds during the morning, but none what-so-ever after 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

As we were into the third day of the trip, we were learning the daily routine for things, like making sure the various requirements of the van were met; such as filling the washing water tank, getting rid of the rubbish and emptying the toilet canister. Of these 3, most people would think that the toilet canister would be the most difficult. But it wasn’t. Getting a supply of water for the water tank was the most difficult as very few garages had a tap available for public use.

We were heading to Mainz. By lunch time we were in a small town called Ingleheim. There we parked the car and went shopping in a small supermarket. It was an interesting way to learn about the places because of the people we got talking to, the food they had available, the prices etc. We learned a lot about the different places by the supermarkets.

When we came out of the shop, we saw a parking officer about to write a ticket for the van. When we asked what was wrong, he told us that we were parked illegally, unknown to us. However when he saw the kids and the bag of shopping, he said that we could stay for a short while. This was our first contact with officialdom and it went OK. Thank heavens he understood some English because our German was zilch.

After lunch, we set off again, still heading for Frankfurt. We were now in hilly, picturesque countryside. We drove straight through Darmstadt and missed Frankfurt completely. Somehow we managed to take a highway deviation which we thought would bring us into the southern part of Frankfurt, but instead we found ourselves on the highway for Nuremburg. Ha!

By stopping time we were just past a town called Michelstadt. We found a lovely spot off the road (no camping grounds of course) in the middle of a beautiful forest. After setting the van up, the girls and I went for an enjoyable walk through the bush around the van. When we returned we were just starting to begin getting tea ready when a 4WD drove up. In it were a gaggle (3?) of forestry officers who began by being down-right pissed off that we were there. One of them had a smattering (barely) of English and he was able to tell us that we were NOT allowed to stay there. When they saw that we had the kids, they started to back down a little, but they were not going to let us stay, no matter what. So we had to pack the van up and return to Michelstadt, where we found an acceptable spot in a carpark. Everything was fine, but it was a shame that we couldn’t wake to the sounds of the bush.

During the evening, Donna and I discussed our planned itinerary and decided that we needed to reduce the distance we planned on traveling. In Australia we are used to being able to easily cover 400 to 500km per day without much bother. However it was becoming obvious that we could only cover 250km per day in Europe max. Therefore we considered excluding Florence and Pisa. As we had already decided to travel only on the highways and minor roads and not on the motorways, the time required to cover a distance was much greater. There was much more to see and the traveling was slower but much more pleasant.

Thursday 18th of March – Day #4 

Again we woke to perfect weather, but very cold. The intention today was to head for Nurembourg and on to Munich. The countryside just on from the town was very pretty hills and bush, with a lot of farm land of sorts scattered throughout. This soon changed to low and undulating land with occasional hills and bush.

We soon found ourselves in Nurembourg and found it to be singularly uninspiring. All around was fairly dull with little of any interest. The town itself was also quite ordinary. We stopped for lunch in a cafeteria which was part of a large shop and were served by a very nice lady who was the only one who had English. She was able to describe the menu for us and make suggestions for the kids lunch. Not a lot of people seem to understand English, but when we found someone who did, they were always very pleasant and helpful. The Tower of Babble has a lot to answer for.

After lunch we tried to find a garage that sold gas for the stove, to replace that which was lost when the cylinder leaked on the first night. However, 4 days into the trip and we were finding it impossible to find a supply of the gas. We spent an hour in Nurembourg trying to find a supply unsuccessfully. In a town further down the highway, we finally tracked down a shop that sold the cylinders, but then discovered that the cylinders we were supplied with in Paris were illegal in Germany. Oops! The connections were different, so we were not able to get a replacement cylinder. This also meant that we might have difficulties everywhere outside of France. We wondered how long one cylinder would last for.

After Nurembourg we were heading south, bound for Munich. Our destination was Dachau, just north of Munich. The countryside was broad and mainly undulating. Again, nothing of great significance along the way.

We arrived at Dachau at 17:30 and found a place to park for the night 500m from the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp. As Dachau is essentially a suburb of Munich, it was an odd feeling for us. Here we were parked quite close to a notoriously famous place and yet we were surrounded by the trappings of suburbia.

Friday 19th of March – Day #5 

Clear skies and very cold. There was ice on the windows.

After the standard morning routine we were at the entrance to the concentration camp at 9 o’clock, not really knowing what to expect. Donna had been closely reading the European travel book that we had throughout the previous few days, but we were still unsure of Dachau. We were hoping that we weren’t making a mistake by taking the children there.

There is a substantial carpark near the entrance and buses were pulling in as we walked to the entrance. Many school children were on the buses, so this made us feel a little better for 2 reasons. Firstly, it meant there was less likelihood of any great surprises inside for the girls and secondly it meant that the children of Europe are being taught about their history. Hopefully the second point will make it less likely that something like the concentration camp will ever be built again. (When we finally returned to Riyadh and caught up on the world news, the stories coming from Kosavo made the second point seem a little mute.)

Inside Dachau, only 2 of the original 40 or 50 huts are still standing. They have been preserved as part of a growing museum. The rest were in too poor a state to be worth preserving. There are also some of the administration buildings which have been converted into part of an overall museum. The main part of the museum is in a very large building just inside the entrance gate. On the wall outside the door is a sign warning that a movie which shows regularly inside is not fit to be viewed by children under 12 years of age, so Donna, the kids and I went in and saw just the static exhibits.

This is a very sobering place. It is comprised mainly of photographs of many things, such as the camp the way it was, inmates, old documents etc. By the time I reached the end of the exhibition, (Donna finished and left with the kids before me as she was a bit upset), I was feeling rather down. A quote that was on display which I have a photo of and which has stuck with me is from a German poet in 1820. It says ‘This was but a prelude; where books are burnt, humans will be burnt in the end.’ Dachau is not a nice place, but it is not intended to be. I recommend it for anyone visiting this part of Europe and I only hope the children on the buses understood 10% of what they were there to see. Throughout our visit, Emma, Shauna and Carly remained aloof to any upset, supposedly because the true meaning of the place was not comprehended by them. If only they could stay so innocent.

After Dachau, we drove past Munich on the ring road, our destination being Rosenheim. Our intention was to drive south into Austria and Innsbrooke. Not far south of Munich we saw our first snow by the side of the road. We also found a large service centre which had showers. Donna and the girls went in and had a long, hot shower. The lady (there is some question about the validity of that statement) who was looking after the showers spoke fluently in German, French, Italian and English, and that was only what Donna heard in 2 minutes. Donna nearly died when the lady(?) took her and the girls marching straight into the men’s toilets and past some gentlemen standing there doing their thing. The shower, as it turns out, was inside the men’s toilets. Donna made quite sure the door to the shower was well locked.

Further down the road and our number one priority was to change some money into Austrian currency, as we weren’t very far from the border now. We drove into Rosenheim, where I dropped Donna off outside a bank and then proceeded to drive around the block. Well, that was the plan. The way it turned out was I turned the first corner and promptly became totally lost. Twenty five minutes later and 20km further on, I finally found my way back to where Donna was patiently standing, freezing half to death, with pockets full of Austrian money.

From Rosemheim we followed the A93 in the direction of Innsbrooke. This was a little, windy road with a bridge just 3.1m high. As the van was 3m high, I negotiated the bridge quite carefully. Five days into the trip and ripping the top off the van was not part of what we thought was a good time.

By now we were surrounded by snow and the girls were highly excited. We were climbing up into the mountains and the scenery was changing a lot. For once, our luck with the camping grounds changed and just at the right moment we saw a sign pointing to a camping ground in a village called Keifersfelden, 3km from the Austrian border. We followed that direction and found a beautiful little camp ground up a tiny little road. The people, a young couple, were very nice and she understood quite a bit of English. She had studied 3 years of English at school and did her teachers proud. She made me feel a bit guilty that I had not done better with my 2 years of French.

While enjoying a cup of tea, with the kids outside excitedly bouncing around the camp ground, it started to snow. Was I happy? Of course I bloody was! The photos of this place are magic.

Because of the snow, we went up to talk to the lady about the next leg of the journey. She advised against taking the minor highway (we had a choice of 2 highways) as they were expecting 1/2m of snow overnight. We returned to the van and contemplated the advice and the map.

Saturday 20th of March – Day #6 

What a magic morning. The snow was falling and we were camped beside a lake, surrounded by forest. We all went for a walk around the lake, walking through the fresh snow. The girls were thrilled and so was I. Even though it had snowed overnight, we were all nice and cosy in the van without the heater going. This was good news re the gas supply.

The camping cost 48DM, which was more expensive than I had expected. This was our first camping ground and so the first time we had to pay.

We set off, headed for Innsbrooke. Ten minutes after leaving we crossed from Germany into Austria. We were now well and truly in the mountains and there was snow everywhere. The views were everything I had been hoping for and more. It was actually hard to realize that we were in Austria. But the hills weren’t alive with the sound of music as all of the sound was muted by the ever increasing snow.

By lunch time we were in a village called ‘Hall in Tirol’. We parked the van and went for a walk through the village. At first we wondered where the shops were, but we finally realized that everything was behind doors and small windows. All of the shops along the tiny roads and alleys were open, but you had to have a good look to realize it. Surrounding the town were enormous, snow covered mountains, but the town itself did not have snow in it. However we could see plenty of evidence of recent, heavy snow.

We found a charming little pub for lunch. When we first went in we felt a bit awkward, but the lady behind the bar had a small amount of English and soon put us at ease. We had a lovely lunch including the almost compulsory glass of beer for yours-truly. After lunch, we reluctantly got back into the van to continue along the road. We would have loved to have spent more time in this village exploring. Maybe next time.

Next along the road was Innsbrooke, which is a city in the mountains. It has a very nice feel to it, but no camping grounds that we could find, unfortunately. So we continued on. The windy roads meant that there were few opportunities to camp unless in a camping ground.

Amazingly, it wasn’t long until we crossed over into northern Italy. The part of Austria we were in is a very narrow part and it took less than a day to drive across, even though the roads are small, steep and very windy. We stopped for fuel not far from where the road goes over the top of the pass into Italy and I got talking to the young chap at the service station. He wanted to practice his schoolroom English and so we talked about how beautiful the countryside was etc. His main comment was that it was cold for 9 months of the year, a comment that I couldn’t argue with. It was certainly cold while we were there.

When we crossed into Italy, the countryside immediately changed. For a start we began heading down. But more than that, the whole feel of the place altered. We still couldn’t find a camping ground that was open (there were a couple, but they were closed for the winter?!?), so we found an open car park area in an out-of-the-way spot near a village called Vipiteno that had a church and a chateau in the hills above us. Carly was Carly while Donna and I enjoyed a cup of tea. The girls were outside running around and returned to the van when Carly, who had been trying to ice skate on a frozen puddle, broke through the ice and went straight into the freezing cold water up to her knees. Oh Carly.

Sunday 21st of March – Day #7 

Carly’s birthday and a very cold morning. We first drove 20 or 30km to snow fields at Jaufen Pass. This was an excellent place. It was a proper ski resort, with all of the fancy people with their fancy clothes and fancy sunglasses. We were lucky and found a parking spot easily. We donned all of our clothes and headed of for a walk through the snow.

First we headed across the creek and up into an area for walking. The skiers were off to one side with many ski tows and runs. We walked up a track through snow that was almost perfect. The girls tried sliding down on plastic bags and had a good time, while I walked up amongst the trees. We stayed out walking around for 2 hours and then returned to the village for a cappuccino and hot chocolate, sipped while sitting on the balcony of the bar overlooking the skiers on the slopes. Does life get better than this?

From Jaufen Pass we drove back down the way we had come, back to Vipiteno and on down the mountain. We were now becoming desperate for drinking water but no shops appeared to be open. By 3PM we got to Trento, a large town near the bottom of the mountains and saw a shopping centre that appeared to be open. After back tracking through the backstreets, we found a large and modern supermarket, but it was closed for siesta. We had to wait for 20 minutes until it opened for the afternoon. Coming from Saudi we are quite used to waiting for the shops to open. When it finally did, we discovered that they were not prepared to take a travellers cheque, so we had a grand total of 28,000 lire to spend, which is not a lot of money. We managed to get everything required, mainly water, but this left us without enough money for a camping ground. Being Sunday, there were no banks open.

We headed on towards Padova. The countryside was beautiful, with spectacular mountains capped with snow all around us.

As we were forced by lack of cash to find a camping spot off the road, we turned off the highway and onto a tiny road heading into the hills. We climbed an incredibly steep hill, zig-zagging back and forth until we were well above the highway. It seemed that for every 5km we drove, we passed through another village. Finally we found a nice spot on the side of the road to stop for the night, just near a small town called Arsie.

Monday 22nd of March – Day #8 

The day started with constant light rain and was freezing cold. This was the first rain we had seen and it did not fill me with delight.

We drove into Arsie, a beautiful little village. By 11 o’clock we were in Treviso and found a bank to change some money. It is a good feeling when you have money in your pocket again. We tried to find a McDonalds for lunch, as this was Carly’s request for her birthday, but we couldn’t find parking for the van. The light rain was falling constantly, it was cold and Carly was disappointed when we couldn’t go to McDonalds. Dread was setting in.

As we tried to leave Treviso, we got totally and utterly lost. How on earth they designed a street system like that is beyond me, but there we were driving the world’s largest vehicle down the world’s smallest streets, going the wrong way on a one-way road in one case. Happy? Not very. But we did eventually make it out and back onto the highway. Dreary bloody country it was too as we headed south towards the coast and Venice.

We arrived at the bridge across to Venice by 2 in the afternoon and the rain was still falling. There were signs for camping grounds all over the place but none of them seemed to be open. The ones that were closed all said that they would be opening the following Saturday, Easter Saturday. This apparently marked the beginning of the ‘high’ season and so they were all getting prepared for that.

One of the camping grounds gave us directions to a supermarket, which we obediently followed and got lost. Groan. Not a good afternoon so far. Finally we found it and went in to fill the van with everything we needed. It is an odd feeling when you spend 203,000 on groceries, but it is brought back into perspective when you divide this by 1,700 to give you American dollars. We bought everything.

While there, we bumped into a Kiwi who was also doing some shopping. He told us of the camping ground that he was staying in and gave directions for finding it. After finishing the shopping, we followed his directions and, voila, there was an almost perfect camping ground (Fusina), open and ready to take us in. So now we had money, food and a place to stay with showers, washing machines and an Internet bus. This is where the hello note for some came from. We quickly decided to stay there for 2 nights and visit Venice the next day.

For those who are like we were and don’t know much about Venice, it is a city on an island. Vehicles are entirely banned from the city. There is a bridge from the mainland but all traffic must park at the Venice end. There are buses that go across this bridge and a train as well. However, the most interesting way to get to Venice, especially from the camping ground at Fusina, is to catch the ferry which goes about every hour.

Tuesday 23rd of March – Day #9 

Awoke to beautiful sunshine. After the morning ablutions we were at the ferry stop for Venice by the allotted time and traveled across the water. This is a wonderful way to enter the city because the ferry drops you off in the heart of the city. And being a city surrounded by water, it is a fitting introduction.

Venice is stunning! We took many, many photos and could be still there now taking photos. There is little point me trying to describe Venice in words because I do not have the skills required to do so. Our photos give a hint, but only a personal visit can possibly do it justice. Donna and I have decided that, if given the opportunity, we will return to Venice in the future, sans children, stay in a hotel and spend a week walking around this beautiful, amazing place.

We walked around from 10 o’clock until half past 4 in the afternoon. Every corner we turned held a new surprise. It was so full of history, texture, colour, character, class. We stopped in St Mark’s Square for a cup of coffee and nearly choked at the price. But who cared! We were on holidays and felt that $A45 for 2 cappuccinos and 3 soft drinks was well worth it.

As Carly had missed out on having her birthday lunch at McDonalds the previous day and today was nice and sunny, we decided to have lunch at one of the 4 McDonalds in Venice. It irked me to be in such a special place and have lunch at such a commercial establishment, but I swallowed my pride and ‘did it for Carly’. It was OK. McDonald’s is McDonald’s, no matter where you are in the world.

After lunch, Donna started looking for some special things that she wanted from Venice. The main one was a Carnival Mask, a very ornate face mask that is very much a work of art. Well, we looked and looked and then we looked some more. And everyone knows just how much I love to shop, especially the kind of shopping that shows no apparent end. Finally though, Donna did settle on a mask that is really very nice.

One of the things that Donna did want to look for but which we didn’t get the opportunity, was Venetian glass. We did briefly see a place that had something to do with it, but we didn’t have the time to follow through.

After a very full day of wandering the byways and waterways of Venice, we staggered onto the ferry and headed back to the camping ground, getting there by a quarter to 6. That evening I sent an email from the Cyber Bus in the camping ground, had a bottle of wine after tea and slept very soundly.

Wednesday 24th of March – Day #10 

We awoke to glorious weather and left the camping ground by half past 8. We were sad to be leaving Venice as it is a beautiful place.

We headed towards Pedova, Ferrara and Bologna and the scenery was quite ordinary. It is basically flat with lots of small farms along the way. By lunch time we were in a beautiful little village 10km from Bologna, so we stopped and had ham, cheese and tomato rolls in a little park in the centre of the village. Being able to stop where you like and make your own lunch is a real bonus from having the van.

At Bologna we decided to take the motorway to Florence (the locals would have us believe it is called Fierenze, but we know better). The scenery along this stretch is beautiful, being mountainous with green valleys. After it was too late, we realized that we really should have been off the motorway for this stretch and driven through the many small villages along the way.

Once in Florence, we followed the map provided to us by the Venice camping ground towards a sister camping ground, only to find that it was closed for another 3 days. Groan. The fellow was helpful though and directed us to the other side of Florence to another camping ground which was open. This one was associated with a youth hostel so there were young people everywhere. The fellow behind the counter seemed to be a bit of a grumble bum as we signed in, but everything turned out to be fine.

The surrounding grounds of the youth hostel were lovely. The hostel itself is an old chateau or mansion of some sort with many rooms. Down stairs are the public rooms, such as games rooms, dining room etc. Upstairs was the accommodation, supposedly a large amount of it judging by the number of people there.

I walked down the long driveway to the township and had a brief wander around the surrounding streets. The area, called Fiesole, is a very attractive area indeed.

That night the hostel had a viola concert in one of the ‘sitting rooms’. We all went along and had a wonderful time. The musicians, a viola player, pianist and soprano, were from the local music academy. It was a wonderful evening and the kids enjoyed it very much, especially Shauna. However they couldn’t last through until the end and left only just before the end to go to bed.

The plan for the next day was to head to Pisa.

Thursday 25th of March – Day #11 

Again awoke to glorious weather. Ah, but were we in for a surprise!

We left the camp ground at 09:20, bound for Pisa, and had a little bit of fun finding our way out of Florence on the SS67. But as always, we eventually found our way and headed off.

The trip to Pisa is quite ordinary, with lots of flat country along the way. We were there by 11:40 and it was raining lightly. As we were only passing through Pisa and had no intention of staying for any great period of time, we chose to go and see the Leaning Tower and then move on. You can imagine what the parking situation was like anywhere near the Tower, being one of the most famous landmarks in the known universe, so we ended up parking 20 minutes walk away. At least we got an opportunity to see a little bit of the town.

The Leaning Tower is one of a collection of beautiful buildings which are all part of the same place. The tower is the bell tower and there is also a very ornate cathedral, another ornate building that was the monastery (or some-such) and another building, the purpose of which was lost on me. The other buildings associated with the tower and the grassy area surrounding the lot are all so beautiful that I was a little annoyed that all the attention is placed on the tower, which is actually less ornate and beautiful than 2 of the other 3 buildings. The tower is completely shutoff now and inaccessible to anyone. There are enormous cables attached to it which hold it in place while they perform whatever work they are doing to stabilize it.

While we were there, the light rain fell steadily, casting a small feeling of gloom over us all. After changing some money, we decided to walk through the streets of the town and find a place for lunch. We soon found a restaurant with tables outside and ordered a couple of pizzas. The true Italian pizza is lovely in my opinion. It is more simple than what we expect from pizzas at home, but better. While sitting at the restaurant table we watched the passing traffic. Being Italy, there were many small scooters buzzing up and down the road. These are amazing little machines. Some of them are so bad that it is a miracle they still go. And people from almost every walk of life use them to get around town. Even in the rain, they were all buzzing around on their little motorbikes.

After lunch we headed back to the car and left Pisa, heading north on the SS1. This road was fairly monotonous for the first part. Heaps and heaps of marble works between Viareggio and La Spezia, which was very interesting to see. The cliffs behind the towns appeared to be almost solid marble. Any wonder this part of the country looked quite well off. By mid afternoon we were in La Spezia, a very pretty town. Alas and alak, there was no sign of any camping grounds so we headed up into the hills behind town and found a spot in a carpark for the night.

We all went for a very enjoyable walk through the woods in the forest nearby. We walked along a road and then down a foot track that followed a creek down into a deep valley. There were freesias blooming on the side of the track and some very pretty yellow flowers. By the time we returned to the van the rain was falling quite constantly.

Friday 26th of March – Day #12 

Well, it had to happen. We awoke to pouring rain.

After the morning routine we headed back down the hill to La Spezia in order to get fuel and then back up the hill again, headed towards Genova. The weather was bleak in the extreme. It was very cold, non-stop rain, thick fog and all of this while negotiating a very mountainous, twisty, turny road. It was a shame because there would have been some lovely scenery in fine weather.

The Italian coast is really pretty with many small villages. Unfortunately, the rain meant that we were not able to stop and investigate many, but the one that we did get to explore had magic, little back streets full of interesting things. The SS1 highway is very slow indeed, but it is the way to see the coast and countryside.

We stopped for lunch in Genova, a small and attractive city. I took a few photos of the stunning architecture. Meanwhile the rain kept falling.

By 5 o’clock we were in Savona and found a camping ground which was closed, but the caretaker allowed us to stay (for a healthy fee). We expected that this night would be our last night in Italy as the destination for the next day was Nice.

Saturday 27th of March – Day #13 

Oh joy of joys. We woke to torrential rain.

We were on the road by 9 o’clock, headed for Nice and the weather was truly disgusting. As we were running low on food, we stopped at a supermarket in Loano and stocked up. We were running low of lire but managed to get everything we needed for a couple of days.

By lunch time we were at a village called Albenga, where we stopped by the side of the road and had ham rolls for lunch. By now I was starting to get really annoyed that the weather was impacting our trip. Because of the rain, we were not able to get out and walk through the villages or to see as much of the passing scenery as we could have.

Never-the-less, we were able to see that there are many beautiful buildings and gardens and such. Most of the villages are quite stunning in their beauty. Australia has tried to recreate the feeling in some areas but has failed in comparison. The Italians, the French, the Austrians know how to create and present class. It just seems to come naturally to them. Australia should certainly keep up the effort, but shouldn’t pretend to be matching the Europeans at their own game.

The weather began to clear after lunch. By 2 o’clock the rain had stopped and the road was dry. We hoped that we were finished with the rain now.

We became caught up in an extraordinary traffic jam in tiny, little, winding streets in San Remo. As often happened, we had taken a wrong turn and found ourselves in completely the wrong place. Again we were able to find our way back, fortunately.

All along the SS1, we had the impression of Saturday afternoon movies with Cary Grant, Grace Kelly etc. The scenery and the architecture is just as it was in those movies.

Suddenly we were out of Italy and into France. As it was Saturday, we thought that we might have trouble changing travelers cheques. As it turned out, it was quite easy to find a money changer, so we changed some money and were fluid again.

The next place of significance along the road was Monte Carlo. We had to drive through Monte Carlo to get to Nice and we found ourselves traveling along a stretch of the racing track. It is a street track of course and I was amazed at how small, narrow and bumpy it was. We went over one spot that clearly showed gouge marks where the cars have bottomed out as they went over a rise. How on earth they travel up the very steep hill, turn the very sharp corners and stay on the road over the bumps is beyond me. I will have much more interest watching the Monte Carlo race next time it is on TV.

Monaco is tiny. It took us about 10 minutes to drive from one side to the other. We did not go down onto the coastal road but instead stayed on the highway, which is up the hill. But from one side of the Principality to the other is about 5km.

After Monaco we suddenly found ourselves on the motorway. We did not want to be on the motorway and had not set out to be on the motorway, but on the motorway we were, like it or not. A few minutes later we were in Nice.

We were able to easily find a camping ground for the night as there are many camping grounds clustered together. This one was nice enough without being very fancy. Unfortunately we had a bit of a drama through the evening. The kids were outside playing and suddenly we heard a blood curdling cry. Carly had not seen the glass door to the toilet block because it was night time and had run head long, and full speed, into the door. She had bounced back onto the ground and given herself a fat lip. But the drama was that she had also cracked the plate glass window, with her face! The camp ground people were not overly impressed as they assumed that the girls had been throwing stones. However I was able to convince the lady, who turned out to be very nice, that they weren’t throwing stones and had actually walked (run?) into it. I also pointed out that a clear glass door without any markings wasn’t exactly safe at night. The upshot of it all was that we were friends at the end. Poor old Carly had a fat lip for the night but no further damage.

Heading for Marseille tomorrow. The rain seems to have completely stopped. Yippee!!

Sunday 28th of March – Day #14 

The lady at the camping ground was as nice as pie in the morning. She and her husband were off to compete in the Nice Marathon, so she came around early to ensure everything was fine. We swapped e-mail addresses etc. I was surprised at how nice she was considering her mood the previous evening.

The next place we drove through was Antibes. There is stacks of money floating in the marina. Cannes is also a beautiful place with lots of wonderful gardens. Now that the sun was shining, we could see why The French Riviera is such a popular place and has attracted ‘the beautiful people’ over the years. It is like a 200 or 300km stretch of the Gold Coast, but with a lot more class and style.

There is a marvellous stretch of country between Cannes and Frejus, where the highway goes inland. This area seemed to be a popular area for people to go mountain bike riding, bush walking and all sorts of other activities. It was a very pleasant stretch so we stopped on the side of the road for lunch and a cup of tea. The girls and I went for a walk down the hill through the bush and saw many different wild flowers. The weather had reverted to perfect.

It was at about this point that we decided that we had had enough of the coastal strip and so bypass Marseilles. Instead, we turned right onto the N7, aiming for Aix-en-Provence, where we got a little bit lost trying to find our way through. A very nice local girl told us how to find our way back to the road we needed, the N6 to Gap. On the way to Aix-en-Provence we stopped at a charming little village (name unknown) for a walk around. Now that the sun was shining again, we wanted to explore the villages and towns more than we had been able for the past couple of days. This was a beautiful little village.

Later in the afternoon we stopped at a camping ground outside Peyrolles which was closed. The guy there was quite rude and so, with our new found traveler’s attitude we thought ‘well, stuff you’ and continued on our way. All along we have found it very difficult to sus out the camping grounds. Either there are none or a whole bunch, or they are closed. Many times we have been confronted with the sad fact that there just aren’t any. This day we found a quiet spot up a gravel road somewhere before Manosque.

We decided to make a point of stopping at at least one village a day for an explore and walk around. The plan for the next day was to aim for Gap.

Monday 29th of March – Day #15 

The weather was cold, with frost on the van and the ground, but glorious clear skies and sunshine. We were off and rolling by 9 o’clock, heading north on the N96.

We stopped at Voix for some groceries and saw some locally produced pate de foix which was quite expensive. The locally produced stuff, which is no doubt the way it is meant to be, did not look very appetising to someone who has only eaten the mass produced stuff. We decided to stay with the mass produced product.

Further up the road we stopped at Sisteron for a walk around, only to find that virtually nothing is open on Mondays. Sisteron is surrounded by snow capped mountains and is quite dramatic. Leaving was interesting as we became a little flummoxed in the back streets and found ourselves driving down the tiniest alleys and squeezing under bridges that were so low that Donna had to get out make sure we could fit under them. Eventually we came back to the highway and took the N75 to Grenoble.

The highway continued to Grenoble through rugged, snow capped mountains. We were now into the French Alps and snow was everywhere. The scenery was just stunning. The road was a little higher than the snow line so we were driving through snow country most of the time, but the valleys were clear of snow and had the greenest grass and the most beautiful farms and villages.

We stopped for a play in the snow near Col de la Croix Haute. The snow was just perfect. It was ideal for making a snow man, which we did, and for making snow balls. Donna and I have never seen snow like this before. It wasn’t wet, it was soft and it was very easy to roll up into a ball. We had a marvellous time mucking about.

The 30km after Grenoble was full of paragliding, hang gliding; anything that can be done with a breath of wind. We also saw a cable train that goes straight up the hill at 83 degrees. Unfortunately it was closed for the winter, no doubt set to open at the end of the week, which is when everything seemed set to open. The kids and I would have loved to have gone on it. We’ve been on the one at Katoomba outside of Sydney, but that is only 54 degrees. This one was damned near vertical.

There were villages to the left and the right, scattered up the mountain and down into the valleys. This area is well worth a return visit at some stage in the future. Because the snow was beginning to melt, there were many huge waterfalls.

Surprisingly, we found a very nice camping ground during the afternoon. But not surprisingly, it was closed, set to open on April 1. However our forlorn faces must have moved a heart cell because the very nice manager opened the gate and let us stay the night, free of charge. This was a particularly pleasant camping ground which we considered to be the best we had stayed at so far. It was situated on the side of a beautiful lake, on the other side of which were snow capped mountains and enormous waterfalls. The girls and I went for a walk through the surrounding park land. That evening was most pleasant indeed.

Tuesday 30th of March – Day #16 

Before leaving in the morning, the manager of the camping ground gave us his email address, so if anyone would like to have contact details for a lovely camping ground in the French Alps, we should be able to help.

We were heading north towards Geneva and stopped in Chambery for some groceries. The countryside was very picturesque with plenty of snow capped mountains, but no snow.

Aix-les-Bains has a spectacular lake which would be magic in summer. There was plenty of water skiing, hang gliding and paragliding. For lunch, we stopped on the Geneva side of Annecy. The weather was brilliant with warm, bright sunshine.

By 2 o’clock we were in Geneva. Our intention was just to drive through but we saw some camping signs and decided that, if the camping ground was open and good we would stay for the night. We found the ground at Vernier, a suburb of Geneva, and found it to be very nice indeed. It was almost brand new and run by a wonderful couple who couldn’t do enough to help us. So we decided to stay the night.

After setting ourselves up, we were given a ride by the husband to the nearest bus stop, 15 minutes walk away. From there we caught the local bus into the centre of Geneva.

This was a very pleasant evening spent walking around the heart of Geneva. We found what has to be the most expensive Wendy’s in the world. Tea for the 5 of us cost the equivalent of $A53, not something I would like to do every day.

The centre of Geneva is not exactly pretty, but then it is not ugly either. There are people from the 4 corners of the globe and I’m sure we saw one of every nationality in the couple of hours we were walking around. While there, Donna and the girls bought me my birthday present; a full-on, dead serious hiking backpack. Now I just have to hope that I get to use it seriously one day.

After 2 or 3 enjoyable hours, we caught the bus back to the camp ground.

Wednesday 31st of March – Day #17 

We left the camping ground at twenty past nine and easily found our way out of Geneva, heading for Dijon. Straight after passing through Gex, we started to head up into the mountains and soon found ourselves in the snow. As we were driving along, we saw a turn to the left with something interesting up that road, so we turned around and went up there. It turned out to be a ski resort called Col-de-la-Faucille.

The snow was absolutely excellent. It was a couple of metres deep with knee deep, dry, soft snow on top. The sun was shining without a cloud in the sky, so we decided to stay for a while.

The kids urged us strongly to hire a toboggan, so we did. I hate the things, but we went up into the trees and the kids had a wonderful time for an hour or two careering down the hill. Many good photos were taken. Donna and I walked up into the trees and were amazed at the snow. Every step we took found us sinking to our knees in powder snow. The trees were all covered in snow. It was just postcard perfect.

We had lunch of ham, cheese and mustard rolls before heading back onto the highway. We thought that we were now finished with the snow, but a short way down the road we stopped again for a walk up into the bush. The snow was untouched and again knee deep powder. It was a marvellous walk and we all returned to the van with a little sunburn on our faces.

After this we continued on down the mountain towards Dijon. Along the way we found a camping ground and pulled in, only to find that it was closed. However there were many gypsies camped around.

We continued on to Dijon with no sign of camping grounds along the way. We headed towards Troyes on the D903. Finally we found an out-of-way spot off the side of the road 10km from Dijon.

As we had to be in the campsite at Euro Disney by 1 o’clock in the afternoon Friday, we decided to return to Dijon the next day and have a walk around.

Thursday 1st of April – Day #18 

Woke to glorious weather.

We returned to Dijon as planned and walked around the centre for 2 hours. Dijon is a beautiful town well worth a return visit. While walking around, we happened upon an old carousel which was operating in the market area. The kids all wanted to go on it so we let them. As they were going around and around, Carly spied a pastry shop. From then, every time the carousel took her past where we were standing she called out ‘Mum. I want a pastry! Mum, I want a pastry!’ This went on for a few turns until she realized she wasn’t going to get one and so the anguished calls faded until we heard her mummble ‘I’m hungry and I still want a pastry.’

By 12 o’clock, we were heading north for Troyes on the N71. The countryside is magnificent with rich farmland over rolling hills, interspersed with areas of bush. There are many enchanting little villages along the way. The weather was clear, blue, cloudless skies and 25 degrees.

Troyes is also a very pretty town and we stopped for a top-up of groceries before heading out along the N19 looking for a camping ground. After traveling for 15km with no sign of a camping ground, we decided to turn off the highway to look for a spot to stay. We saw a small sign for camping past Arcis-sur-aube and headed for that, finding that it was a private farm. The lady of the house runs a small side business offering camping, so we chose to stay there. It was a very pleasant evening. Donna and I both participated in a bottle each of the good stuff and consequently had a very good sleep.

Friday 2nd of April – Day #19 

We left the camping ground by 9 o’clock and headed for Chalons-en-Champagne on the N77. The countryside was beautiful with rolling farmland changing to vineyards. We realized that we were entering the champagne district. (Wouldn’t you think that the name had given it away?) We turned onto  the RD3 for Epernay, which I have since learned from someone who lives there is the centre of the champagne district.

Epernay is stunning! What a magnificent town. All down the main street and scattered throughout the town are champagne bottling establishments with names that are synonymous with the best quality champagne.

From Epernay we travelled to Chateau Thierry, again with vineyards, rolling hills and many small villages along the way. The day had begun bright and sunny, but was now lightly raining. This didn’t help as we were leaving Chateau Thierry and became totally lost. We took the wrong road and ended up spending the next hour and a half driving along tiny roads through many tiny villages trying to find our way back to a main road, any main road. We eventually emerged at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre on the D407, back on track at last. By now we were in the far flung outskirts of Paris.

We got onto the A4 motorway and paid a fortune to travel 14km to the Disneyland turnoff. Another reminder about why we had chosen to stay off the motorways, but the problem that we had was that we couldn’t remember exactly where Disneyland was in the great scheme of things. We knew that it was on the A4, but couldn’t remember if we had to turn right of left. So to minimize the drama, we turned left onto the motorway and saw the signs for Disneyland almost immediately.

Disneyland is an amazing place. The theme park is only one part of an enormous development that covers an area which is equal to a quarter of the area of Paris. There are many hotels, a train station, car parks, various residential areas. However, what it doesn’t have in the section we were in is a camping ground. For camping, you have to travel to the other side of the motorway to the theme camping ground called (wait for it) ‘The Davey Crockett Farm’, which we did, only to find that we needed to have booked months in advance. Oh dear, of dear.

However, the chap relented and gave us an information sheet which had a list of other camping grounds in the area, so we set off to find one. Ha! So easy to type, so difficult to do.

To cut a long story short, we drove and drove for almost 2 hours, trying to find a camping ground on the list, any camping ground. Donna’s and my tempers were fraying as we finally found a basic ground in a village called Meaux about 20km from Disneyland. This ground had limited facilities for an exorbitant cost so we decided to spend only one night here. Donna was able to find another ground by telephone and we booked in there for the next 3 nights.

The plan for the next day was to move to the new camping ground, go into Paris for a visit (by bus from the camping ground then train into Paris), then meet Jayne and Phil in the early evening. They had come over from London and the plans had been in the making for months that we would meet them and spend a day at Disneyland together.

That was the plan.

Chapter 2/ ‘Clueless in Paris’

Saturday 3rd of April – Day #20 

What a day! It started at 6 o’clock. The first step was moving to the new camping ground. The weather was really quite awful. It had rained all night and was still raining as we packed up the van and left the camping ground.

We got to the new camping ground at Cresy-a-la-Chapelle at 10 past 8 and found that the people were nice and the camp ground was good. After settling in (which involved plugging the power cord into the outlet), we went to the office and bought bus tickets to Disneyland from where we intended to catch the RER train to Paris. The bus was meant to leave at half past 9, but after waiting for a half an hour, we were told that the bus had broken down. I could see one of our 2 days in Paris going up in smoke. We quickly decided to risk it and offered to take a Dutch family with us as we drove back to Disneyland, paying a fortune on the motorway, park the van in an as yet unknown parking spot and catch the train. The risk of course had nothing to do with the Dutch family. It was that there were so many unknown factors. To be honest, we weren’t even clear on how to get back to Disneyland because we thought the bus would be taking us there. The rain was falling.

With a bit of help from the other family we found our way to Disneyland. I was determined to eventually find a way there that did not involve bankrolling the French economy each time we found a need to travel the 10km on the motorway. Once at Disneyland, we easily found the hugest carpark ever and had no difficulty parking the van. From there, it was a simple 5 minute walk to the station.

The Disneyland station is at the end of the RER line from Paris, making it quite easy to work out the trains. Paris has a couple of suburban train systems, the RER being the most modern of them. There were trains to Paris every 15 or 20 minutes and the trip was 45 minutes, so we were soon in Paris. After the hassles of the previous day and the morning, we were finally in Paris ready to explore.

As it was a quarter to twelve, it was time to think of lunch. We had burned up so much energy with all of the rushing around during the morning that everyone was starving. But where do you go to get a meal for 5 people for a price that won’t break the bank in a city that you have never been to before?

Clueless in Paris!

By following our noses, we found a street behind the department stores that had a couple of restaurant looking places. We chose one that looked OK and went in. The waiter sat us down, brought over the menus and asked what we would like to order. Fortunately the menu was written in such a way that we were able to understand some of the items on it, so we chose a hotdog for each of the girls, a plate of chips for each and a ham, cheese and tomato roll each for Donna and myself. The waiter repeated back our order and we confirmed it. He then repeated it back again and urged us to reconsider our orders for the children. However, we had decided what we wanted and so told him that, yes, our order stood. ‘OK’ he said, with a knowing air and walked off to fulfill the order. ‘Humpf’ thought Donna and I with memories of the stories we had been told of the aloof Parisians in our minds. When the waiter brought the food, or I should say ‘began’ to bring the food a couple of minutes later, we were to learn a number of lessons. Number one was that we were not at home and things are a little different in Paris. Lesson number two was that maybe, just maybe, the waiter was trying to tell us something.

When the food came, we found that we had a hotdog each for the girls that was made of bread stick cut in half with 2 franks in it and was 35cm (18 inches) long. Not only that but each of the girls was now the proud owner of a dinner plate full (falling off the edge) of chips. Plus Donna’s roll was too big for her to eat and she only managed half and mine was the same size.

We ate until we felt sick and then had to leave the rest. Lesson number one in Paris and we’d only been there for less than an hour. (It also cost a small fortune, but it was nice.)

Clueless in Paris!

After lunch we headed off towards the Notre Dame. The weather was still raining lightly so we all had our coats on. The Notre Dame is beautiful with monuments, historical sites, important buildings everywhere. On the way to Notre Dame we walked straight by The Louvre. What an amazing building.

From the Notre Dame, we crossed over the river into The Latin Quarter. This also is a fascinating area with many restaurants and art galleries. Next we headed back towards the department stores, the main ones of which are all grouped together in the one place, and walked past La Concorde and the Champs d’Elysay on the way. It was along here that we saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance for the first time. When we pointed it out to the girls, Carly wanted to know if they were still building it because it looked like it had scaffolding all over it.

The reason for returning to the department stores was that the girls wanted to get a new pair of shoes before meeting their friends, the Ellis kids, the next day. What a drama. There were so many people in the department stores that it was difficult just moving around. After much searching and heartache, they finally found shoes which suited their purpose. Thank heavens.

The last activity was to get back on the train and finally back to the camp ground by 8 o’clock in the evening. It was a very big day but quite successful. A phone call to the Ellis’s determined that we would be meeting them at nine thirty the next day in Disneyland.

By nine thirty that night, the sky was clear of clouds.

Sunday 4th of April – Day #21 

Today was Euro Disney. This is what the kids had been planning for and waiting for months and months and months.

The day started as normal. We left the camping ground at half past eight in order to meet the Ellis’s at nine thirty, as planned. By now we had found a back way from the camping ground to the Disney complex, so we didn’t have to use the motorway. Additionally this was giving us an opportunity to learn more of the local towns.

We parked the van and made our way to the entrance gates. Even though it was only ten to nine, it was Easter Sunday and many people were there already to buy their tickets. By half past nine however, we have bought our tickets and were inside Disneyland. The Ellis’s were at the allotted meeting place and we all joined up without any drama. From that moment on, Phil was in charge of the day’s proceedings, as the Ellis’s have been to Disneyland a number of times.

Throughout the day we went on quite a few rides and had a good time. The kids were all thrilled to see each other as it had been many months since the Ellis’s had left Riyadh. Donna and Jayne talked non-stop.

As the day wore on and more and more people came, the lines for the rides became longer and longer. The most popular ride of all, Space Mountain, had a two and half hour wait, so we chose not to bother with that one, much to Phil’s and his kids disappointment. They were all very much looking forward to that ride.

For lunch we all had pizza and for tea we all went to one of the theme restaurants outside the entrance to Disneyland. It was a good meal and an interesting time. Gareth, the Ellis’s 5 year old son, managed to get lost a couple of times, which was not a good idea considering the number of people there were.

After tea we went back in and went on some more rides. One of the most popular rides of the whole day happened after tea. That was the Star Trek ride. It had a 40 minute wait but once inside it was excellent.

By ten o’clock we were all totally stuffed and left Disneyland. We agreed to meet up the next day at the station for a day in Paris. Everyone had enjoyed themselves, we’d spent much more money than expected and the day had gone longer than expected, so a good night’s sleep was had by all.

Monday 5th of April – Day #22 

Ah, my birthday. Will I ever have a birthday as special as this again?

The weather had improved from the day before, although we still needed the assurance of jackets. Rain did not seem all together impossible.

The objective of this day was to spend the day with the Ellis’s in Paris seeing a few of the sights, especially the Champs d’Elyse and the Eiffel Tower.

We met the Ellis’s at the Disneyland station at half past nine as planned and were in Paris by about half past ten. Phil had been the main guide the day before and Donna and I were today.

From the station we first headed off for the Eiffel Tower via The Arc de Triumph. What an awesome structure. As we got closer to the Eiffel Tower, I thought that strangely, even though it was impressive and I was thrilled to be there to see it, it was not as ‘big’ as I had expected. As we got closer to the base, we could see the enormous line of people queuing to go up the tower, so we promptly dropped the idea of going up. When we actually got to the base, my earlier impression of it not being ‘as big’ as I had expected changed. The Eiffel Tower is huge!

From there we progressed to Champs d’Elyse. The walk took us through some beautiful stretches of garden and past some magnificent statues. There looks to be constant work going on the preserve the beauty of Paris and it truly is a beautiful city.

Emma made an interesting comment about the many statues that we were walking past. She wanted to know why all of the women depicted in the statues were topless and claimed that it was discriminatory and was not warranted. Donna and I looked at each other and realized that either Emma was growing up and becoming an opinionated teenager or had been in Saudi too long. Either way, she actually had a point.

Finally we were on the Champs d’Elyse, one of the places that Donna had particularly wanted to see. For those who are like I was and don’t know what the Champs d’Elyse is, it is an enormous avenue in the heart of Paris that is many lanes wide and has beautiful gardens down both sides. It cuts through the middle of Paris and has both The Arc de Triumph and Le Louvre on it. We stopped and had a lunch of ham rolls in the gardens.

We continued on to Le Louvre. There are famous gardens before you get to Le Louvre, the name of which eludes me, but they are really very beautiful. Le Louvre itself is an astounding building and had the now common enormous line of people queuing to enter and see the sites inside.

All along our walk, the children were totally marvellous, considering the time we’d been walking and the distance we had covered. Not once did any of them complain and I was in awe.

Next stop was Notre Dame. This was mainly for Phil and Jayne’s benefit as they had never been to see this wonderful building and we had seen it 2 days previously. As we had done the last time, we crossed over the river and went into the Latin Quarter for afternoon tea at a bar.

By now it was getting late in the afternoon and time to return, so we took a combination of trains back to Disneyland, arriving there by 6 o’clock. We all decided that we would organize tea together and so drove off (another benefit of the camper van; we had 4 adults and 6 children in there for this drive) to find a restaurant. Because it was Easter Monday, we discovered that nothing was open, however we found a takeaway pizza place and bought enough pizza for all of us, soft drinks and a bottle of wine from a nearby grocery shop and found an out-of-the-way car park in which to have tea.

Jayne was still talking and hadn’t actually stopped since nine thirty in the morning. Quite incredible.

We ate pizza, drank wine and the kids played chasey. It was a very pleasant way to finish the day and our time with the Ellis’s. We took them back to their hotel, said a sad farewell and then returned to the camp ground.

Tuesday 6th of April – Day #23 

The main objective of today was to return the van. The second objective was to get the train to Rome. Fortunately, the weather was good.

After our big day and late night the previous night, we were out of bed by 8 o’clock to get everything ready. Clothes had to be washed and dried, the van had to be cleaned and made presentable. All of this involved a lot of work, mainly for Donna with me running around in the background trying to help where possible. The biggest help the kids could be was to go and play somewhere. This they did and they made a brand new friend the very morning we were leaving. By half past twelve we were ready to leave.

Timing was rather important as we didn’t know how long it was going to take to get to the van hire place, we didn’t know how long it was going to take for the handing back process and we didn’t have a clue how we were going to get from the van hire place to the train station with all of our luggage. Apart from that, this was going to be easy.

We started back into Paris on the N34. The map showed this to be a pretty straight run. However, the powers that be who run the motorways thought differently and before we knew it, we were on the motorway into Paris. I was annoyed, but it was probably just as well as at least the road ran directly into the city, just where we wanted to go.

Donna’s excellent map reading skills saved the day and we were at the hire place by ten to two. A funny thing happened along the way though. The motorway came to a big interchange, where it seemed that every road that had ever been built in greater Paris came together and suddenly we couldn’t tell which damned exit we had to take. The map and the road signs were confusing. Thank heavens that the interchange was constructed in such a way that you could actually drive around and around and come back to the place that you started. It was sort of like a multi-level roundabout. We learned about this because it took 2 times around (and up, over and under) it before we were able to determine which exit to take. These were all freeways and there weren’t any emergency stopping lanes, so we couldn’t stop and read the map.

After handing the van back and receiving all of our deposit back, we hired 2 taxis to take us to the train station. One of the taxis was a large van, which took the bulk of the luggage and the other was a Mercedes, which took Emma and I. Ha! The good life. Suddenly I thought that we were being taken for a ride (get it?) because I could see The Arc de Triumph. I thought that instead of taking us the quickest way to the closest station, they were taking us all the way to the international station, via the longest route possible. This seemed to be confirmed by the enormous numbers appearing on the taxi meter. But the fellow explained in very poor English that they were actually taking us to the closest train station available. I believed him but I’d hate to have to travel around Paris by taxi too often.

They dropped us at Charles de Gaulle train station, from where we were able to catch the RER to Gare de Lyon, the station from which the Rome train left. Lugging the suitcases up a million stairs and through throngs of people was not fun, but we made it with plenty of time to spare.

We sat down at a cafeteria for tea and were served by an energetic young Frenchman. He asked where we were from and when we said Australia, his eyes lit up. He then proceeded to talk about The Gold Coast and The Sunshine Coast. It came out that he had recently spent some months at both places, staying with friends, and had thoroughly enjoyed himself. That made for a light-hearted meal as we swapped stories with this young, energetic, Frenchman who loved to talk in English.

I learned along the way that traveling by train is not like traveling by plane. On the plane, once you check in, you can forget about your luggage and sit back and wait for the monitor to tell you exactly when and where to board your plane. On trains, the suitcases are yours and you have to get them onto the train, on the right platform and at the right time. Phew. What a struggle.

The one chap in the compartment when we boarded had a look of horror on his face as we loaded 4 full suitcases, Emma’s sleeping bag (as big as a small suitcase) and the 5 backpacks into the compartment. Once he relaxed and realized that we were at least human, he advised about the many secret little places that suitcases could be stacked away. After ten minutes of grunting, we had it all setup, ready for the next 14 hours.

The train was not the supersleek modern thunderbolt that I had been envisaging. It was more of your Saturday afternoon movie, Gregory Peck, Orient Express type of train. But it was very cosy. The compartment we were in had 6 fold down beds in it which proved to be a wonderful way to travel through the night. After the hustle and bustle of the past couple of days, we all slept very well, waking somewhere slightly north of Pisa.

Chapter 3/’Ruined in Rome’ (get it?)

Wednesday 7th of April – Day #24 

Breakfast on the train was basic and expensive, but it was breakfast. The train was now traveling through country that we hadn’t yet seen, as we had only been as far south as Pisa and we were now between Pisa and Rome. We were travelling for part of the way along the Mediterranean coast, so the scenery was interesting.

We pulled into Rome within 5 minutes of the scheduled time and emerged from the train to basic, unashamed pandemonium. There were people everywhere! Donna and the girls parked themselves while I went off and found a trolley for the luggage, then they parked themselves while I went off and found the lockers to put it all in. The plan was to store the luggage in lockers, find a hotel and then come back for the luggage.

We found the lockers and put all of the bags in there. They were now safe for 12 hours. Then we headed off to change some money. Silly me! We were at the station and of course we paid top rate for changing some money, but we had to have it so I gritted my teeth.

The next step was to find a hotel room, so we looked for the accommodation desk, which we found without too much fuss. While standing in the line (keep in mind that we were now in full blown paranoia due to the advice that had been given to us by many people), a gentleman approached us and offered to help us find accommodation. I thought ‘here we go.’ He was dressed very well in a suit and looked like a very respectable business man. I first told him that we didn’t need his assistance, but he again asked in a polite and calm manner. I then thought that I had better at least listen to him, so I asked how he was going to help us. He explained that his job was to help newly arrived visitors, such as us. I asked who he worked for and he told me that he worked for the government and showed me his credentials. He then asked what we needed in the way of accommodation. From that point he began guiding us out of the station and towards a hotel that he said was only 5 minutes walk from the station. Well, it was.

At the hotel, the Giaglio dell’Opera, the clerk asked us what we needed and I told him that we needed a room for 6 nights and that I wanted our own bathroom. The bell boy took us to a beautiful room and Donna and I thought we’d hit the jackpot. Then the fellow on the desk told us that it was L375,000 per night. I nearly choked as that is over $US200.

When I explained that it was outside our budget, he asked what our budget was. I told him that we could spend no more than L200,000 per night and voila, as if by magic a perfectly acceptable room with our own bathroom, television and 5 beds appeared, priced at precisely L200,000. It certainly was not as nice as the more expensive room but it suited our purposes admirably. Plus it had an all-you-can-eat breakfast as part of the price, so we were more than happy.

After accepting the room, I thanked the gentleman who had brought us from the station as he had done us a wonderful service. We settled in the room then went back to the station to get the suitcases. Half an hour later, we were all set up in the room and ready to explore Rome. And it was only 11 o’clock in the morning. Our paranoia was already under question.

For lunch we had pizza at a restaurant just down the road from the hotel. This restaurant was going to become a common eating place for us. High on the list of priorities was confirming the flight from Rome to Paris and from Paris to Riyadh. The fellow on the front desk of the hotel gave us directions to the office of Air France and we walked there in the afternoon. Well, we hoped to walk there but when we got to the place he had told us, there wasn’t an airline office to be seen.

More directions from another person found us heading to a different part of town where there were actually some airline offices. But was there an Air France office, let alone one which was open? No way. By now it was seven o’clock at night and we were all getting tired, so we headed back towards the hotel, stopping at a small supermarket on the way.

For tea we had very expensive and very horrible sandwiches from a cafe across the way from the hotel. We didn’t do that again. We all fell into bed utterly exhausted after watching a little bit of Italian dubbed television. I think that the American sitcoms are actually much funnier in Italian.

As today was so full of activity, we really hadn’t assimilated much about Rome. But that was set to change over the next days.

Thursday 8th of April – Day #25   

There was rain today until 1 o’clock in the afternoon, making 5 days of rain out of a total of 25 days.

We started the day with a wonderful breakfast in the hotel dining room. We all ate heaps as we knew we’d be on the go most of the day.

The plan for today was to go to some street markets near The Vatican, then go to The Vatican itself. We left the hotel at a quarter past nine to take the metro (underground train). We found the markets OK, but the slow drizzle of rain put a dampner on proceedings. The girls bought a purse each or something like that.

We then headed to The Vatican, only to find that there was an enormous line of people standing in the drizzle waiting to get in. With our unwillingness to line up to see anything, we certainly weren’t going to line up in the rain to go in. So we decided to return at 9 o’clock the following morning.

We took the metro back to Flaminio, bought some sandwiches for lunch and took them into a park to eat. From there we started walking down the road and soon saw an interesting gate or arch over a side road and decided to go through. All of a sudden there was an enormous piazza (public square) with a fountain in the middle and ancient statues all over. We later learned that this Piazza Popolo. We couldn’t believe it as this was almost hidden from where we had eaten lunch. We crossed the piazza and found many roads leading off on the other side, so followed one. It was a narrow little road with almost no traffic (for some reason there was virtually no traffic in this area) and was lined with beautiful, high class, expensive looking shops. We walked for some time up and down the roads and alleys, eventually returning to the piazza and then onto Piazza Spagna.

Next came The Pantheon. This is a very famous, ancient Roman building and there it was standing at one end of a small, almost insignificant piazza. Standing there looking at it, I found that I was suddenly feeling a little choked. The Pantheon is a living building that is over 2000 years old and here was I, a mere tourist on a brief holiday, standing in front of it, unable to comprehend the full significance of the building or its history. We went inside and saw the magnificent statues, the works of art, the amazing marble floor, the enormous and beautiful dome and I felt humble. (I’m going to be mushy for a moment.) I wondered why I was even allowed to see such an important and beautiful building because I and most of modern culture are so insignificant compared to the people and culture that had created this building.

From the Pantheon, we headed towards The Colloseum through many small streets. As we were walking along, we stumbled onto amazing ruins, The Forum etc, right there in the central part of Rome. I have to say at this point that my knowledge of Rome and its history was virtually zero until this day, the 8th of April, but I began learning quickly. Standing there looking at the ruins (Ruined in Rome???), I was wondering what it must be like to live in a city in which you are always surrounded by thousands of years of history. We pondered this same question in England 2 years previously, but the history there was almost like yesterday compared to the history we were peering at.

The time was right to return to the hotel, so we did. We rested, put our feet up and watched a little local television (Third Rock From The Sun dubbed in Italian?) then went out to a restaurant 5 minutes from the hotel for a tea of pasta and wine. It was here that we were again confronted by the tone of voice that we had experienced in Paris, but we didn’t heed the warning bells enough and wound up with enormous servings of food which was too much to eat.

Next came a night time walk to the Colosseum to see the lights. It was beautiful. We then wandered a circuitous route back to the hotel by nine thirty, got the kids into bed and went to the hotel bar for a cappuccino.

Friday 9th of April – Day #26 

All awoke, with some encouragement, at half past six. Our experience yesterday taught us that it is best to get to The Vatican as early as possible in order to avoid the worst of the wait to get in.

Again we caught the metro to Ottaviano station. This in itself was an interesting exercise. The station near the hotel is the main, central station for Rome. When we got there to get the train to Ottaviano, the platform was solid people, from the wall to the edge of the platform. The trains were pulling in every 2 minutes and each time the people would shuffle forward as some got on. It took 3 trains before Emma and I were able to shuffle on board, but Donna, Shauna and Carly were left standing on the platform. The train was as full of people as it could possibly get so it was a cosy trip for the 5 or 6 stops to Ottaviano. After getting off, we waited on the platform for the others who arrived on the next train.

We walked quickly to the entrance to The Vatican, only to find that there was already quite a line of people. Still, it only took 20 minutes or so for us to be inside, where we found that the organization was quite amazing. The Sistine Chapel is the big draw card that most people are coming to see, but they have arranged it so that everybody follows a set route through many galleries and past many impressive art pieces before finally arriving there. I was surprised to find that throughout the whole tour, cameras could be used but without flash. That was banned. They were for the whole tour except for The Sistine Chapel itself, where photography is banned completely.

The museums and galleries are incredible! I urge anyone who has the opportunity to visit The Vatican to do so, even if only to see the artwork. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to describe it, but I will throw some in. Sort them in any order you want because any combination is only a subset of what is needed. Here goes : STUPENDOUS, BEAUTIFUL, MAGNIFICENT, AWE-INSPIRING, RICH, AMAZING, BREATH TAKING, WONDERFUL, BIG, BOLD, UP FRONT as well as gaudy, shiny, sparkling, brassy, gold. I was able to take some good photographs which, with the help of the panoramic camera, are quite incredible.

After wandering through the many galleries, we finally came to The Sistine Chapel. This was quite dim compared to the rest of the exhibits, no doubt because they are doing whatever they can to help preserve it. There were many people in there, constantly being told to ‘shhhh’ by the guards, gazing up at the ceiling. It really is extraordinary to think that all of that was done by one man, lying on his back.

Emma and I had become separated from Donna and the others, so we were in the chapel for over half an hour until Donna and the others found us, giving us a good opportunity to view this spectacular piece of history.

After this, we walked around The Vatican to the open end (??) and Piazza San Pietro. There is a little bit of a funny story associated with this. Donna had been saying for a couple of days that one of the things she wanted to see was San Pietro’s Basilica. I was just agreeing, because in fact I had no idea what she was talking about. As we were walking towards it, I commented that another thing I wanted to see before leaving Rome was that Saint Peter’s church. Ha ha (get it?) Stupid me had no idea that San Pietro’s Basilica was Saint Peter’s Basilica. Oh well.

The piazza is enormous. This is where The Pope gives his public addresses and masses etc, and it is absolutely enormous. It is also living history because all around are many many columns (obviously ancient) topped with something like 124 statues of various gods, emperors and other famous people. At the opposite end of the piazza is the church itself, not so impressive from the outside.

However, when you walk through the front doors, all of that changes. I have never in my life experienced such grandeur, beauty, opulence and such down right ‘in-ya-face’ presence. I’m sure my mouth was gaping widely the whole time we were in there.

From The Vatican, we walked back towards the ruins, stopping in a bar for a lunch of sandwiches, hotdogs and the strongest espresso yet. I was by now making a habit of having espresso coffee to see how it compares with the Arabic coffee.

While having lunch we witnessed a traffic accident. A girl on a scooter was passing by a parked car when the fellow in the car opened the door and she hit the tarmac. People came from everywhere, including the police. The fellow in the car was obviously assumed from the very beginning to be in the wrong and the girl, who had hurt herself a little, was consoled by everybody and then whisked off to hospital while other people took care of her bike.

When we finally got to the ruins, we walked around for a while and saw that they are doing a lot of work to improve and preserve them. The ruins are really wonderful. Carly declared that she is going to be an archaeologist when she grows up. That’ll last for approximately a week.

From The Colloseum, we caught the metro back to Terminii, which is the main station, and made inquiries about the train trip to Pompeii. We were told that a good way to get there is to catch the train to Naples, then get a local train from Naples to Pompeii.

We again went to the pasta restaurant for tea. Another big day was almost over.

Saturday 10th of April – Day #27 

The first stop today was the station to buy the tickets to Pompeii, where we planned on going on Monday. The lady was very helpful and when we told her that our plan was to visit Pompeii, return and then catch the twenty past nine train to the airport, she advised us not to go on Monday as there was probably going to be a train strike. This was very good of the lady because the fellow we had spoken to previously about the tickets was not very helpful and hadn’t mentioned a train strike. However, the Pompeii trip had just hit the wall. Donna wasn’t very happy about this and neither was I.

From the station we took a circuitous route to The Colosseum. The first part of the walk was through a part of the city which was near the station and quite rundown. But then we went through some nice, residential areas eventually coming to the Piazza de Roma. This is in a very swish area of expensive apartments and offices. It would be lovely to return one day and spend more time in this piazza.

Finally we arrived at the Colosseum and paid too much for very ordinary pizza in a cafe for lunch. However, this was partly made up for by the fellow serving as he was from Egypt and thought that it was wonderful that we could speak a little bit of Arabic. We thought that it was amazing that he could speak fluent English, Italian and Arabic and just swap from one to the other almost in the same sentence.

Then we went into the Colosseum. Wow! It is really an amazing place, again considering that it is over 2000 years old. Donna bought a book which explained a bit about it and it is hard to imagine the work and the expertise that went into building something as big and intricate as the Colosseum over 2000 years ago. We stayed there for one and a half hours, walking around and taking photos.

Next we walked to the Piazza del Rotunda, the piazza where the Pantheon is. We sat down at one of the cafes and the kids went off to look at the work of the many artists that do their thing in the beautiful surroundings. Donna and I were sitting in the sunshine and had cappuccinos, espresso and a half litre of red wine. I was starting to get into the house red at the various cafes and restaurants. It was lovely. We stayed there for over an hour, an hour of pure enjoyment.

Again we took a circuitous route back to the hotel, stopping at the Quirinale to watch a military parade. We stayed mainly on the back streets as they are more interesting than the main roads. On the way we stopped at UPIM department store where the girls bought a Barbie each, something they had been hanging out for for days.

Tea was at the Piazza del Rotunda at McDonalds, both for the girls sake (the McDonalds bit) and for our sake, being the chance to see the Pantheon at night with the floodlights. It was well worth it as the girls thoroughly enjoyed the McDonalds and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Pantheon at night.

While there we met a young woman who had very good English. She told us that she had an uncle in Sydney and we talked for a long time about Rome and Italy and stuff. We also got communicating (can’t really say ‘talking’ because they didn’t have any English) with a lady and her children. We all got along famously before we had to leave to return to the hotel and sleep.

Sunday 11th of April – Day #28 

We had a big day planned for today, beginning with a visit to a very popular market at Via Portuense. We walked there in the bright sunshine, arriving by half past nine. The place was packed with people. This was a very good market with many stalls stretching along almost a kilometre and then back again. They were selling everything except car parts. I bought a couple of CDs, the girls bought a purse and a porcelain doll each and Donna a beautiful, leather handbag.

There was one unfortunate incident which turned out OK. I had been warned about pickpockets and thought that I was prepared for them, but when I encountered them, I was like a lamb to the slaughter. It was only the fact that I had the sense to put my wallet in my front pocket that stopped them from making off with it. I was shocked at just how easily it had all happened, and virtually without my knowledge. I was able to pay them back in a small way by foiling their attempts to pick the pocket of a Korean tourist. The extraordinary part about it was that nobody seemed to care that there were pickpockets blatantly operating amongst them. I was to learn later that there is a generally different approach to this sort of thing in Italy and possibly other parts of Europe. Anyway, nothing was stolen, but it was not the high point of the visit to the market.

We left the market at lunch time and had hamburgers while sitting in a small park. Then we walked back to the hotel, a walk that took us an hour. After resting for a while, we left the hotel to have coffee in a piazza. We chose the Piazza Navona and had a lovely time sitting in the sun drinking coffee and wine and watching the people.

Next, we walked to the Campo di Fiori and had a lovely tea of pasta, bread dipped in olive oil and vinegar, cappuccino and wine at an outside restaurant. This typified Rome; the ambiance (yes, I have finally used that word), the people, the buildings, the colour, the smells, the sounds. There is no end to the joys of Rome.

Monday 12th of April – Day #29 

Today was the biggest day of all.

For the first time in Rome, we were able to sleep in for a bit. After packing our suitcases, we were ready to check out of the hotel by ten o’clock. We ran a shuttle service and took the suitcases to the station and put them into lockers for safe keeping. While doing this, we discovered that there was a train strike, so it was just as well that we decided not to go to Pompeii.

Today was a day of aimless walking. There weren’t any particular sites we wanted to see or things we wanted to do, so we walked our shoes off. We saw plenty of new places and found new piazzas.

By half past four, we had to return to the station to pay more for the luggage in the lockers, then went across the road for a cappuccino. As we were about to leave Rome, we decided to have tea at our favourite restaurant. On the way there, we stopped at an English bookshop and Donna was able to buy the latest Steven King book.

At the restaurant we had 2 pastas and a salad between us all and were not able to finish it all. I also had my last jug of house red and so was feeling quite happy after the meal. We got talking to an older couple who were sitting at the next table and it turns out they live in the centre of Brisbane in Admiralty Towers. We were able to give them some tips about where to go to see some sights in Rome and we had a good chat about things Oz.

We returned to the station at eight o’clock, got our luggage out of the lockers and were on the train to the airport by twenty past eight. If I had any say, I would insist that all cities in Australia build a simple to use train to the international airports, because it is a wonderful way of traveling between city and airport. We have done it now in London, Paris and Rome and it is great. We were at the airport by ten to nine at the beginning of what was to be a looooooong night.

There were quite a few people at the airport doing the same as us. Our plane was leaving at ten past seven in the morning and the first train to the airport didn’t leave Rome until seven o’clock, so that was why we had to get there early. We all found spaces amongst the rows of chairs in one of the lounges and settled down for the night. Amazingly, Rome airport, new, modern and nice as it is, closes at ten o’clock at night and doesn’t open again until seven in the morning. So we had to make sure we had drinks and food to get us through the night.

Tuesday 13th of April – Day #30 

After a relatively painful night, we caught the plane without incident. A couple of hours later we were in Paris. Apart from Emma choosing to lose her breakfast all over the floor in the terminal, our short stopover also went without incident. We were soon on the plane bound for Riyadh.

It was very interesting flying back because the sky was almost clear and we could see the snow covered alps, followed by the Mediterranean coast, then the west coast of Italy, then the Greek islands, then across the Mediterranean to Egypt, across the Red Sea to Saudi and across Saudi. The only place that the view was affected was just as we came into Riyadh, which was having a dust storm just at that time.

Nick met us at the airport, as planned, and we were able to fit all of our luggage plus ourselves into his new car. That was amazing considering the moments of difficulty we had endured with the luggage over the past 4 weeks. Half an hour later we were home at ASASCO and our holiday of a life time was over.

Marathon des Sables – A Type 1 Diabetes Adventure

Glasgow

Between 1995 and 2000, my family and I were living in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. I had a job there with one of the banks. It was August 1997 and I was to travel from Riyadh to Glasgow in Scotland to visit with a company there. 

It was a three stage flight. The first stage took me to Bahrain, where there was an eight hour stopover until the next flight. Fortunately for me, the airline provided a hotel room for the duration of the stopover, so I was able to rest and freshen up. While I was in the dining room having my dinner, I realised that I could only see out of one eye. That was odd and had never happened before. I also realised that I couldn’t decide what food to choose from the self-serve. That wasn’t so odd, so I realised that I was entering a hypo. I quickly pushed some food down my neck, keeping in mind that I could only see out of one eye, so had the other one closed. I must have looked a bit strange. I made my way back to the room where the hypo got steadily worse until I had eaten enough of my emergency lollies. 

Through this I had missed the airport shuttle bus, so was late for my flight, which was stage two of the journey. Luck was on my side and it had been delayed, so I was able to get to London OK. 

We were sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow, waiting to take off for Glasgow, when I heard the people near me mention something about Princess Diana and Paris. I could tell by their tone of voice that it was serious, so I asked them what was the news. They told me gravely that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash in Paris overnight. I think like the 11th of September 2001, everybody remembers where they were when they heard about Diana. I was in a British Airways plane on the tarmac at Heathrow, ready to fly to Glasgow. 

When I got to Glasgow and had set myself up in the hotel room, I went downstairs to do what I always do in a new city; buy myself a bag of emergency groceries. I got in one of the taxis waiting outside and asked to go to a supermarket. The driver turned around and looked at me, then shrugged his shoulders and literally drove around the corner. That was the closest supermarket and it suited my purposes beautifully. Funnily, the driver spoke to me the whole time during the five minute journey and I didn’t understand a single word he said, with the exception being a reference to Princess Diana. That was the only bit of the conversation I understood. 

For the next five days I went about my business in Glasgow. Each evening I would go for a walk around central Glasgow, seeing as much of the city as I could. One of the central features is George Square, where people were starting to leave bouquets of flowers in memory of Diana. During this period, every station on the television in my room was devoted 24 hours a day to Diana related news. It was all quite overwhelming. 

On the day of departure, I chose not to take the booked flight back from Glasgow to London; instead I decided to take a train ride. While sitting in the main concourse waiting for my train to leave, I saw a wonderful sight. A fellow who was dressed as a traditional highlander with his kilt, walking staff, a tartan cloak and a small dagger tucked into the fold of his sock went striding past me. I was in seventh heaven. 

After arriving in London I was oblivious to what was going on around me. I was catching the tube to Heathrow, so needed to kill a couple of hours before it was time to leave. After checking a map, I decided to head to one of the palaces to have a look. I determined which tube station was closest and proceeded to get to that station. 

As I emerged from the underground, there were many more people around than I would have expected. Eventually I asked someone what was going on and they looked at me like I was from another planet. “The funeral procession for Princess Diana has just finished”. Then the penny dropped for me. I was dumbfounded, and furious with myself for not realising. I wandered off through the gardens and came upon one of the entrance gates to the palace and there was a sight I will never forget. The sea of flowers and cards that was there was astonishing. It radiated out from the gate for at least 25 metres and was almost a metre deep. And this was just one of the palaces. 

The people’s princess had died and they were showing the world what she meant to them. 

The rest of the trip was in a daze, to be honest. It was almost like I was in a trance, so overwhelmed was I by the sights I had seen. I got back to Riyadh without any further drama and my wife told me that it was not only Great Britain that had been overtaken by Princess Diana, but it seemed the whole world. 

Wilsons Prom – 2016

 

The history behind this trip to The Prom started a few years ago, when I was going through one of my reminiscent moments, thinking back to the glory days of training for the Sahara event. Back then, which is 7 or 8 years ago now, I was regularly doing the “Lighthouse Loop” at The Prom non-stop. Then it seemed reasonably easy, at least as much as bashing through the bush for 62km non-stop could be considered easy. And 2 or 3 years ago I took off again, without enough thought, to recreate those glory days.

It didn’t go well. I came very close to coming badly unstuck and dying in the beautiful wilderness that is Wilsons Promontory.

So the meaning behind this trip, which this time was well planned and thoroughly thought out, was to again experience the joy of the rugged Australian bush, but in a rather toned down manner when compared to the glory days. I’m 7 or 8 years older now and haven’t been doing the marathon distance training sessions, so there was no way that I could do the loop non-stop. Instead I chose to do achievable distances each day, spread over 5 nights / 6 days. But The Prom being a wild place, that meant that there were a couple of sections where I was locked into distances of 16 to 18km. All still way short of the 62km of the full loop.

As the trip got closer, a number of people were expressing their concern that I was going out there for multiple days and would be entirely on my own. To be honest, given the memory of my previous experience a couple of years ago, their concerns were striking home and causing me to relive the awful memories of what happened that time. So in an attempt to at least partly satisfy people’s concerns I loaded up a GPS tracker on my phone, bought a backup battery for the phone, bought a solar cell recharger that I could carry on the backpack, and accepted the kind offer from my manager at work of an emergency rescue beacon. He’s a bit of an ex-army action man and just happens to have spare rescue beacons sitting around. He asked me a very interesting question when he made the offer to loan me the beacon. He asked if I would be capable of activating it if necessary. That question tells me that he has either had experience of type 1 diabetes (T1D) close to him through family or friends, or has maybe experienced it in some way through his time in the army. At the time, after some consideration, I said that I thought I could activate it. But thinking about it now that I’m home safe’n’sound no, I don’t think I would have been able.

But that’s enough of the history. Let’s start the journey around the southern Prom.

Bad weather had been threatening Victoria for a week before my trip, and it didn’t disappoint. Maybe the most likely place in Victoria to get rain is the southern Prom, and when the whole state is being threatened with abnormal amounts of rain, it’s virtually guaranteed that The Prom will get it.

The first day was taken up with the walk from Tidal River, up to the car park at Telegraph Saddle, along the track to Windy Saddle, then down the long and muddy track to the boardwalk at the bottom of the valley. This section of the track is one of the reasons why the only sensible direction to do the lighthouse loop is clockwise. To do it the other way would mean having this awful, muddy slog up near the end of the 62km. I did that twice in the past before I learned the error of my ways and suffered the painful consequences.

The vista and sense of relief is a huge relief as you emerge from the boardwalk and onto the beach at Sealers Cove, as the beautiful and serene sweep of the beach opens itself to you after more than an hour and a half of gruelling slog through mud. It is certainly better in summer when the mud isn’t there but at this time of the year, and with light rain falling the whole way?

With only half a dozen people already there, finding a good spot for the tent in the camp ground was no problem. Later though, when a couple of school groups turned up, where I was setup was an obvious place for them to put their tents. Fortunately for me they were great group of 16 year old’s and the noise and general mayhem was well controlled.

Camping – Sealers Cove

Having arrived at 3 o’clock, I had to keep myself occupied for a good couple of hours. This was one of the important considerations during the planning. On my previous trip, the main issue had been that I had nothing to keep myself occupied at the destination and I had laid down in the tent and gone to sleep. That turned into a disastrous situation as I slept through my meal time and when I finally woke in the middle of the night, my blood sugar level (BSL) was dangerously low. It was vital that I didn’t allow that to happen on this trip, so I had brought along a book and a pack of cards for that express reason.

One of the young girls in the school group made me laugh. As I lay in my tent, listening to them get themselves organised, she suddenly made the bold statement that “If it keeps raining, I’m seriously leaving!”. I had to chuckle. Here we were at night, with light rain already falling, at least 2 hours of hard slog through mud uphill to the first chance of a motor vehicle, and this young lady is threatening to leave and go home. Of course she wasn’t serious, but it did sound funny.

Nothing untoward happened over night. My sugar level did not drop drastically and I was fully functional in the morning. If you have never had contact with T1D, this may not seem like such a big deal. But anyone who either lives with T1D, or has brushed with it, will understand the significance.

Day #2, Tuesday, and the goal was to get to Refuge Cove, 6.4km away. The morning routine of testing BSL, injections of insulin, arranging food all went smoothly, and I was ready to set off by 9 o’clock.

Another important part of the planning was the subject of water. For the whole 62km of the loop, there is only one source of fresh water, being at the lighthouse itself. That was approximately 40km from the start of the trek and in my schedule, day number 4. So I needed to carry enough water to be able to get me through to the lighthouse.

Water is heavy.

Early in the proceedings I started to consider that I wasn’t going to get through to the lighthouse with the water I had. If the weather was any warmer, that would definitely be the result. In my previous trip, running short of water had presented a bit of a problem. The high carbohydrate food that I need to eat to keep the BSL up requires a good amount of water to be able to eat, but also to be able to properly do the required job. It’s one of those quirky little unknown facts that high carbohydrate food requires a lot of water to digest and metabolise properly.

So before leaving Sealers Cove, I decided to throw modern caution to the wind and ignore the little information signs that were placed by the water supply in most of the camp sites. These signs clearly say that the creek water being piped to the tap is not of international quality, so should not be used for drinking without treating. But as I was facing a potential problem with water supply, I considered that this was the same water that we were using 30 years ago. The only thing that had changed in that time was public expectation and the little information signs. So I filled my bottles with the creek water and ignored the interesting brown colour.

Refuge Cove is aptly named in my opinion. It is such a beautiful little cove that I consider it to be a refuge from humanity. It’s too far for even the most adventurous of day trippers to get to, so the only people you might see are properly serious hikers.

Twenty minutes after arriving in the camp ground, and no more than 5 minutes after getting the tent up, the first hint of light rain started to fall. Oh well; it was only very light and could stop at any moment.

It didn’t. The light rain kept falling for the next 15 hours, with occasional short breaks. To fill my time and stay awake, I slowly walked up and down the beautiful beach, enjoying the overwhelming solitude that it brought. With the sky overcast and the light rain falling, I remembered back to a time back in those glory days when my training buddy, Robin, and I burst down onto the beach to find a couple of impressive ocean going boats moored in the bay. On that day the sun was shining, a couple of the boat people were swimming in the pristine waters of the bay and Refuge Cove was heaven on earth.

Today was not quite so pristine.

Another small school group came through as I was preparing my late lunch. Part of my efforts to avoid the dramas of the previous trip was that I had a cooked lunch each day, providing me with more substantial food that should help reduce the danger of going low over night. I do not claim to be a technical expert, but my experience through the training, and then the Sahara event, appear to show that the body – keep in mind that this is not technical fact – maintains a base level of stored energy. Maybe it’s the fat stored around the liver. After extreme exercise it seems that no matter how well the immediate BSL is replenished with fast acting carbohydrate, such as the fruit pulp strips and sports gels that I was eating, the body’s base level will still use some of that as it attempts to rebuild itself. And it is this process that causes the overnight BSL to drop. Obviously there is no way of stopping the body from rebuilding its base store; the body is going to do what the body is going to do. So one way of working with this process is to ensure that the lunch and dinner contained a good amount of meaningful carbohydrate of the longer acting variety. In modern parlance that is known as low GI. The dehydrated meals I was having at lunch and at dinner were for that purpose.

That was my thinking at least. Once again, for those who have no knowledge of living with T1D, you might just think that going without food would be unfortunate but doable. Sure, you’ll be hungry, but that’s not the end of the world. Unfortunately for a person living with T1D it is the end of the world. A healthy person could, if they had to, go through the entire 6 days of my Wilsons Prom trip without once eating. Yes, they would be a wreck at the end of it, but after some food and a lot of whining they would have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. But a person living with T1D will be dead before the sun comes up on day #2. Exaggerating? Sadly, no.

As I was eating my noodles for lunch, the 2 “responsible adults” with the school group came over to say hello. I highlight that they were the ones in charge as to my eye they hardly looked much older than the students themselves. One of the ladies had dreadlocks and a bandana, so I asked her how she got her hair like that. Apparently it takes a lot of combing, knotting, braiding, beads, crocheting and pain to get it to that point. But, she said, it had been like that for 4 months now and in that time she hadn’t needed to do anything to it. Then the other lady lifted her beanie to show a recently shaved head. Her hair used to be braided in a similar way she said, but she had recently taken on a charity thing for cancer awareness and had shaved it all off.

We spent another pleasant 10 minutes chatting as the ladies took full advantage of the time away from the constant trill of 16 year old teenagers. I told them in all honesty that I didn’t know how they could maintain so much patience. I couldn’t do it. And the same goes for all of the “responsible adults” with the various school groups I came across on my journey. My hat is off to you.

An interesting little aside, to do with the school groups, came about when I had walked past one of the groups after leaving Sealers Cove. They had stopped for some reason back on the track. I already knew from my previous trips of a rock overlooking the bay that had a pocket of phone signal available, right there on the rock at the edge of the cliff. This was important for me simply because of the number of people who were a little anxious that I was still alive. I had promised my wife that I would call each morning if I had any phone signal, to let her know that I was still alive and how I was doing.

Sure enough, when I got to the rock I heard my phone indicate that it suddenly had signal, so I immediately stopped and took off my pack. As I was standing there trying to get a call through to my wife’s phone, the school group came along and also stopped. I turned and waved as I spoke briefly with my wife, assuring her that everything was still on track. After the call was finished, I announced to the group of teenagers and responsible adults that there was a rare pocket of signal right at that spot. Surprisingly the teenagers dropped their eyes and the responsible adults looked sternly at me for the briefest moment. I found this a tiny bit odd. Then one of the young fellows asked if I would take a group photo of them, as they all grouped with their back to the spectacular view behind them. He then handed me a small camera and instructed me on which button to push. After that had been accomplished and everyone was happy, I packed myself up, said goodbye then moved on.

Thinking about the interaction as I walked away, I came to realise that part of the experience for the school group was that mobile phones were banned on their adventure. No phones, no care for phone signal. No phones, no phone to whip out to take a photo. Ahhhh, the modern world we live in. Thirty years ago, who would have even imagined.

Day #3 and after a night of light rain, everything was very dim and damp. My gear inside the tent was mostly still dry, but everything outside was saturated. And the light rain was still falling.

The first thing I did each morning after waking and gathering my wits was to do a BSL test. And so far the result had been similar. A good high reading of 6 or 7 or 8 (108 / 126 / 144 in the USA) you might assume? Well, isn’t that what you would expect after having a double sized dehydrated camp meal for dinner the night before, containing at least 80g of carbohydrate, plus a couple of safety fruit pulp strips? Surely that would be the case. Well, no. As with most things to do with T1D, you can plan and expect anything you like. Reality is where it’s all at. That morning the test was 2.9. If this was a normal day at home under standard conditions, a reading of 2.9 would be something of note. Some might even post it to Facebook on one of the dedicated T1D sites, exclaiming how they had done everything right and had this horrible low in the morning. “Isn’t T1D a terrible bother!”

T1D never lets you forget that life is a balancing act, between food (carbohydrate), energy used (exercise / rest) and medication (amount of insulin). At no point can you rest on the balance, because as soon as you do the BSL will either go up or it will go down. Up at least gives you time to consider what to do. But when it goes down, and 2.9 is pretty much down there, you don’t have the benefit of time on your side. You have mere minutes to react and get it back up. Cruelly, one of the first things to happen when low is to lose the ability to think clearly and make decisions.

So after doing the test and finding a level of 2.9, instinct from doing this for 42 years kicked in and told me to grab one of the sports gels and get it down my neck. This was followed by the normal insulin injection routine, then by the breakfast routine I had decided on for that day. Today it was powdered milk with some of the brown water – yumm – one of the sesame seed bars I had brought for this precise purpose, each of which contained 26 grams of carbohydrate, then a couple of the fruit pulp strips.

Finally, after all of that diabetes related stuff, it was time to consider packing up camp and moving on to the next destination, which was Little Waterloo Bay, 7km further along the track.

But it was still raining lightly.

I really didn’t relish the prospect of packing up camp in the rain, no matter how light it was. As that night was meant to be only 7km further along, I decided to give the rain a chance to stop, so I walked down to the beach to kill time and look for a possible signal. Do you know how much time you burn by slowly walking up and down a beautiful, secluded beach, contemplating every bird, every rock, every breaking wave? Do you know? Not much, let me tell you. No matter how angelic the setting, how tranquil the scene, how pristine the scenery and the natural environment, boredom soon sets in when you can’t even sit on the sand without getting yourself thoroughly damp from the rain and the wet sand.

After a couple of slow trips down to the beach, and even sitting on the little veranda thing outside the toilet, underneath the little overhanging roof, to read a few pages of book, the rain eventually backed off. I gave it a couple of minutes to change its mind but when it seemed to be determined to stay away, seized the opportunity to break camp quickly and get everything packed.

Little Waterloo Bay, here I come.

Surprisingly, it seemed that the rain had actually finished for now, as it didn’t rain again as I slogged to Little Waterloo Bay. After the last couple of days, this was a very pleasant change. Especially as the last time I was at Little Waterloo Bay, which was where my last very bad episode had occurred a couple of years previously, most of the camp ground was under water. If the rain had kept on falling this time, I doubted that I’d be able to find a place to camp that night.

The final hurdle you face when you get to Little Waterloo from Refuge Cove is an outlet stream from the lagoon which forms the back boundary of the camp ground. Depending on the tide, this can be a case of acrobatic stepping from rock to rock across the rushing water, through to a pants off, pack held high wade across 5m of water. Luckily today was the former.

Concerningly, much of the camp was indeed under water, however there was one section that, while quite damp, didn’t actually have water sitting on it. And there was only one tent there already, so I had my choice of spots.

With the time being about 13:00, the first activity was to prepare a lunch of noodles, before the laborious activity of filling in time. The fellow who was there, while polite, was obviously not looking for a deep and meaningful, soul searching chat session. If he was then he was definitely in the wrong place and in the wrong circumstances. He was like me, there on his own, and we were at least 20km and 6 hour’s brisk slog to the next closest human being. So if it was a chat he was looking for, he should have turned left a lot earlier.

After I’d finished setting up camp and having lunch, my quiet companion and myself both found ourselves down on the beach, where the weather was a big improvement from the last few days. The sky was blue with a few clouds, the sun shining with a very gentle breeze blowing. If Refuge Cove is paradise on earth, Little Waterloo Bay is its close cousin. This gave me an opportunity to get some warm into my chilled bones and hopefully get some dry into my damp clothes.

For the next hour and a half, my silent friend and I lazed in the sun. I stripped off all the clothes I could and laid them out in the bright sunshine, hoping to make some impact on their dryness. My boots were quite saturated, as were both pairs of socks and coat. I may have looked a little silly as I paced up and down the beach letting my damp trousers “get some air” while waving my handkerchiefs around to try to dry them off. And thankfully the effort paid off. By the time the cloud covered our beauty spot, my gear was noticeably drier.

That night was a standard night, with the exception that it didn’t rain. I had the same food and the same routine and was down to sleep by dark. All very exciting stuff. What was playing a little ditty in the back of my mind was the fact that my tent was setup in the same spot as it was last time, when my BSL had dropped drastically after I had fallen asleep early and had missed my evening meal. The nightmare that I endured that night was enough reminder for me to be extra vigilant this night to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Day #4 and the same routine morning routine again. One humorous variation this time was when I had chosen to make mashed potato with the instant mashed potato I had brought with me. As there was a dribble of brown water available at Little Waterloo Bay, I chose to live it up for breakfast and have something with a bit more body than the powdered milk and that required water. Also it was still cold this morning, so the mashed potato gave me an excuse to heat some water and get benefit from that.

At one point I needed to duck over to the tent from where I was sitting. I cannot have been moved from the stump I was sitting on for more than 8 seconds when I turned around back to my spot and saw that a crow had taken that opportunity to raid my breakfast setting and steal the plastic bag of dried mashed potato. What the! I quickly shooed him away but I was too late to save the bag of mashed potato. He had torn the bag, tasted the contents and decided that instant mashed potato powder isn’t his chosen cuisine. And all that in less than 8 seconds. Fortunately, my planning meant that I had backups of backups, so the loss of half a bag of instant mashed potato powder did not mark the end of the world. Bloody arrogant crow.

Today marked an important point in my trip. Soon after leaving Little Waterloo Bay I would be passing a point where I could choose to change my route. The planned route had me heading left and continuing to the lighthouse. But if I headed right, I could cut off the southern section of The Prom and head straight across to Halfway Hut, Oberon Bay, and back to Tidal River a day or two early. Even though today was not raining most of the previous time on the track, with the exception of the last 18 hours, had been raining or threatening to rain. Did I want to remain open to the vagaries of the weather, or did I want to assume the worst and cut my losses?

Piling homily on cliché, when push came to shove, I didn’t even pause when I got to the decision point 20 minutes after leaving camp. I mean, I had put in months of planning for this expedition. I was here for a serious set of reasons, not the least being to again experience the joy of seeing the lighthouse, which is at the southern most point of mainland Australia. If I was to choose the easy option, I would be undercutting everything that this trip stood for. Plus, let’s be honest, I would never be happy with my decision in the future.

So when I got to the decision point, I stopped to call my wife to give her an update of my situation, then immediately turned left and continued on into the longest day of the whole trip; 18.1km.

The climb out of Waterloo Bay is teeth gritting. I’ve done it many times in the past, during my training for the Sahara, but none of those occasions diminishes the experience for the current occasion. It is long, relentless and painful. However, the jewel in the crown of that hard climb is that within 30 minutes of getting to the top, you get your first glimpse of the focus of your effort; the lighthouse. I relish the thought that very few people have ever seen that view of the lighthouse. Yes, many people visit The Prom. Yes, almost as many people walk to places like Sealers Cove and Oberon Bay. Yes it’s true that quite a few people make the trek to the lighthouse down the 4WD track down the middle. But very few people ever get to see the lighthouse from this point on the track out of Waterloo Bay. It is a very special view that is afforded to only a few people; and I am one of them.

I’m very proud of that fact.

Now for the fly in the ointment. When choosing to leave the main track and walk the 1km to visit the lighthouse, the last 300m is the stuff of legends. Raise the subject of the walk to the lighthouse with anybody who has been there and they will ask you about the final climb. It is the last, final bit before you are at the lighthouse itself and it is almost hands and knees climbing up what feels like a 45 degree hill of relentless, breath sucking effort. And when you are doing what I was doing and have 22kg of pack on your back, multiply the effort by 3.

But after only 6 or 7 gasping stops of knee holding as I pushed myself up, suddenly there I was. Almost as if the climb was but an illusion, the path levels out and the historical buildings present themselves to you, dressed in their pristine whitewash.

Lighthouse up close

And there was nobody to be seen.

Out of the dozen or so times that I’ve been to the lighthouse, only once have I seen another human. That was during the period of training for The Sahara. And even more surprisingly, when I saw that lady park ranger back then, and she asked out of interest how I got there, she said “Oh, you’re Alex the diabetic.” I kid you not. Those years ago, my training efforts had become known through the Wilsons Prom park ranger community and this lady who I bumped into in such a remote place knew who I was. This latest visit was not so well publicised. I was entirely on my own.

A toilet stop, a water stop at the only clean water tap in the southern prom to refill water bottles, and cooking lunch out of the breeze in the doorway of one of the accommodation buildings, filled the hour that I spent at the lighthouse. That and a couple of photos, then it was time to head back down the (steep) hill and off in the direction of Roaring Meg.

Nothing at all extraordinary happened on the trek to Roaring Meg. One interesting little aspect of Roaring Meg is that of all the camping sites in the southern prom, Roaring meg is the only one that I had never actually seen. I’d walked past it many times on the many training walks those years ago, but the closest I’d ever got was the toilet, which happens to be right on the main 4WD track. Other than that, I’d never laid eyes on the camp ground.

Arriving there at 4:30 in the afternoon gave me time to have a look around. Many people have told me over the years that Roaring Meg, which is named after the creek that rushes past, is a very nice place to camp, so I needed to take the opportunity to find out for myself. I set the tent up in the top section of the camp ground, easy distance to the toilet, then went exploring. Down the hill, toward the swift flowing creek that was easy to hear, a whole new section of camp ground existed. I can now see easily why people like Roaring Meg.

The evening routine as usual, complete with the crow with the eye on my food. This time, however, I was ahead of him and he went to bed hungry. I was lucky in that there was no rain threatening, but I had the hint of another concern in my mind.

The day had been the most arduous so far on this trip, having covered 18km since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. With the evening BSL test showing a level of only slightly above normal, my niggling hint prompted me to set my alarm for midnight and layout 2 of the fruit pulp strips within easy reach. At midnight, when the alarm went off, I quickly and easily ate the 2 fruit strips then laid back down to sleep.

“Where am I?” “What is this?” “Wha…………?” I could see that it was no longer dark, so concluded that it must be morning. But where I was and what I was doing was beyond me.

That was when 42 years of raw animal instinct kicked in. The fact that I couldn’t figure anything out told me to eat something. All I knew in the whole world at that moment was to eat something. I reached for the leg pockets of my pants and pulled out a sports gel. Luckily they are easy to eat and I was able to squeeze one out in my mouth. The animal instinct prompted me to test my BSL and, much to my surprise now, I was able to rely on muscle memory to take me through the process. I looked at the resulting number and knew that it wasn’t good. At 1.6 (29 in the USA), this was the lowest reading I’d ever had and I was probably fortunate to still be conscious, so again the animal instinct told me to have another sports gel. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough, so before finally running out of brain power I managed to quickly push a fruit pulp strip into my mouth. At that point my mental power was exhausted so I laid down.

I find it surprising now, but my brain seemed to be working on 2 levels. At one level, probably the most basic, my body was floundering around. My arms were flaying in the air as I tried repeatedly to sit up, only to over balance and run out of energy and flop down again on the floor of the tent. But on another level I knew what was happening. I knew that my sugar was dangerously low and that I needed to bring it up. I also knew that I had already eaten enough carbohydrate of the fast acting kind, the sports gels, to bring it up at least partly towards where it needed to be. The fruit pulp strip would take a little longer and kick in after the sports gel had done the best of its work. So for the next 20 minutes I lay on the floor of the tent flaying around, talking to myself, waiting for my emergency actions to save my life.

Finally, after maybe 20 harrowing minutes of being as vulnerable as a new born baby, my emergency actions took effect and I was able to start taking back control. This led to the next part of what could be termed “An unfortunate morning”.

The next step was to have my morning injections of insulin. I have 2; a short acting insulin and a long acting insulin. Just as with the “muscle memory” mentioned above, I follow the same actions when doing my injections. However this time I was not only sitting on the floor of a tent, but I was also still recovering from a low sugar episode that almost knocked my socks off.

The injection of the short acting went as normal. However as I was doing the second injection, this time of the long acting insulin, I realised that the spot I was injecting in to was getting unexpectedly wet. An injection is not meant to get wet like that. Remember the muscle memory? It was then that I came to realise that the tip of the needle had either not been pushed into my skin, or it had come out as I was pushing the plunger. Either way, I now had no idea how much of the injection had actually gone in. All I knew was how much was still left to go in; in this case 10 units.

Even in my slightly befuddled state of post low BSL mind, I knew this was serious. For those readers who do not have any association with T1D, too much insulin in the system will definitely lead to significant trouble within minutes or hours, depending on how much extra there is. On the other hand, too little will lead to a requirement to rebalance later in the day, and over the following days, to bring everything back under proper control. So, working as if in remote control, my slightly befuddled brain needed to quickly decide what to do. I chose the safest of the 2 options and dialled up an extra 4 units on top of the 10 that I knew were still to be done. This would give me a guaranteed 14 units out of a requirement for 29. I would potentially miss out on a maximum of 15 units but, with the amount of insulin that had obviously not been injected because it was sitting on my skin, plus the 4 extra I dialled in, I was not risking going over the required amount. That option was unthinkable. The potential affect of not having enough was that I would have low energy later in the morning as I was slogging along the track.

No, living with T1D is not like having a cold. It is a non-stop juggling act with potential death hiding behind every dropped ball.

So after all this drama, I was packed and ready to leave Roaring Meg by 8:30.

I’ve done the 4WD track from Roaring Meg to the turnoff to Oberon Bay many times, and the part from the turn off to the Telegraph Saddle carpark once. From Roaring Meg to the turnoff was more often in the dark, back in the time when I was doing the non-stop lighthouse loop for my training for the Sahara.

The 4WD track is reasonably easy, not requiring much mental effort. It rolls along for somewhere between 12 and 15km, with a few reasonable hills and some soaring vistas. During one of my earlier training walks, I came over a rise in the track to be presented with a wide, shallow valley down to Oberon bay. Rolling across the valley were fierce looking thunder clouds with that slightly grey / green colour that spelled trouble in the form of hail. Luckily for me on that occasion, the hail passed close by without actually going over. This time the vista was equally vast, but happily without the looming threat of hail.

I was now well into endurance mode. My pack was down to around 20kg, as I ate my way through my food and drank my way through the water, but my energy level was way down. This was now day #5 of my adventure and I had walked approximately 50km through rain, cold, mud and sand and the effort was taking its toll. And of course my misadventure with the second of my injections this morning was starting to have a mild affect as my energy level sagged further. With no other choice available, the only way to compensate for the sagging energy level was with more physical effort. I was hurting and I hadn’t even got to the cruel and relentless climb up the last couple of kilometres of 4WD track to Telegraph Saddle. Having done that once previously, I was girding my mental loins in preparation for that onslaught.

After an hour or so, I got to Halfway Hut. This was where Robin and I had spent a long and very cold night curled up on the wooden floor, trying not to freeze to death back in the training days. On that occasion I had succumbed to the excruciating waves of cramps associated with low potassium, but which we had misinterpreted as being associated with low BSL. The cramps were crippling, so on that occasion we chose to spend the night resting in the hut. It was that experience that finally led me to adopt the electrolyte hydration supplements for the water that did so well in helping me in the desert. Sadly it was also them that, because I didn’t know the story behind my need for them, were what forced me to pull out of the Sahara event when I concluded that I hadn’t taken enough with me to Morocco.

That is a sad day that I will never forget.

After a brief rest at Halfway Hut, I set off on the next leg of the final trek. The morning’s scare with the low sugar had put paid to any thought at all of continuing on to the final scheduled day of the round trip, being to turn left and head to Oberon Bay. That would have been an irresponsible step too far down a dangerous path. So when the left turn to Oberon Bay came up, I didn’t even break step; I simply kept plodding along the 4WD track toward Telegraph Saddle.

It was at around this point that I saw my first humans for a couple of days, since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. There in the distance, marching slowly but resolutely toward me, were a perfectly outfitted older husband and wife. They would have been middle to late 60’s in age and were perfectly dressed in the latest in must have outdoor gear for the young-at-heart wilderness wanderer.  I salute them for their willingness to get out into the wilds of Wilsons Prom and for their resoluteness to get to the accommodation at the lighthouse. However their questions and tone of voice made me wonder if they thought the lighthouse was just over the next hill, at which point a cup of Earl Grey would be waiting.

I gently helped them to a little clarity in their undertaking, telling them that they had about 12km of the 4WD track to go before they would then have about 3km of “goat track” before arriving at the base of the hill that the lighthouse sits on. It was then that the lady mentioned that she had heard that there was a bit of a climb up to the lighthouse. I quickly decided not to alarm them too much, so gave them the watered down version of reality.

“Yes, it’s a killer. The track is almost 45 degrees, goes for 300m and you’ll be almost on hands and knees before you get to the top.”

Silence from both.

I had successfully opened them to the idea that this was not a walk in the park and that they had some work ahead of them. I followed by reassuring them that it sounds worse than it really is, but is worse than they had been led to believe. After getting their breath back, and them giving each other reassuring words, we said our farewells and parted company.

I really do hope they made it to the lighthouse.

After this pleasant encounter, a number of weekend groups walked past in the general direction of the lighthouse. We all waved and smiled and said “Hello”, with none of them realising that my smile was starting to become a grimace. The distance was getting me. And the worst of it was that I knew from prior experience that the worst was yet to come, in the hell climb to the carpark, followed immediately by the painful trek on the road down the hill to Tidal River. I had prepared myself for the climb by telling myself over and over to just take it slow, stop if necessary and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And finally, the time arrived.

There it was at last. The only other time I had done this climb was after I had a very bad low sugar experience at Little Waterloo Bay a couple of years before. On that occasion I was right at the end of my choices, even contemplating calling for emergency assistance. At least this time I had more control of the situation. I had plenty of water, plenty of food, my pack was well packed and balanced, I had time on my side, I was medically in a much better place and the weather was OK.

What a sorry state of self-delusion that was. By the time I got to the top almost an hour later, I was close to giving up from the relentless exertion and mind bending nature of the track. At no point can you see more than 50m ahead, so each turn you go around simply presents you with the next section of climb without any let up in between. And this seems to go on and on and on. I followed my own instructions and ate fruit strips and gels regularly, stopped quite a few times, sat on rocks a couple of times, adjusted my pack and jacket to ease the numerous stress points that developed. But every time I thought the end was around the bend, the track would twist away cruelly into another hump to climb. Minus 55km, 5 days and 20kg of gear, the climb would no doubt have been easier. But I didn’t have the benefit of those details. I had the reality of that hill.

As the philosophers say, all good things must come to an end. After what seemed like far too long, I rounded the latest bend and was finally looking at the first sign of the carpark. A couple of minutes later and I was stomping across and heading down the carpark access road, heading towards Tidal River.

Now, you may think that the deal was done and the rest is just fluff. That’s what I was hoping for as well but, no, that was not to be. The moment my feet met the down hill slope of the road down to Tidal River, they started to yell loudly at me.

“AY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP YOU FOOL AND SIT DOWN!”

Tidal River was still more than 2.5km down the hill, and that 2.5km wasn’t going to walk itself. So instead of stopping and resting, I chose to maintain my state of numb brain and simply keep going, without even breaking pace. But my feet were now hurting like they hadn’t hurt during the whole expedition. And as the road down the hill is non-stop downward slope, I needed to walk very slowly with small steps. I couldn’t believe the pain in my feet, but it was just the next hurdle to overcome.

Forty minutes later and the most painful part of the walk back was happening. Isn’t it funny that the closer to the finish you get, the more painful every step becomes. My very slow steps finally brought me to the main carpark and there it was; the car I had been dreaming of for the past few hours was there obediently waiting for me.

Suddenly the pain in my feet multiplied three fold.

With lots of stumbling and grimacing, I finally got myself organised under the nearby picnic shelter where, for the first time in 48 hours and 25km, I took off my boots and swapped them for more comfortable shoes. I was really surprised at just how painful my feet had suddenly become. I was keen to get prepared for the careful drive home, so I simply swapped my shoes, had some food, called my wife to give her an update, then sat in the luxurious comfort of the car and set off for home.

It wasn’t for another 2.5 hours, when I had made it home and finally took off my socks, that I realised that the walk up that hill, then down to Tidal River, had bruised two of my toes almost black and I was going to lose 3 toe nails. No wonder my feet were hurting.

My Lighthouse adventure was over.

This trip has finally convinced me that this type of dangerous undertaking is now over for me. My age, my changed body chemistry regarding the T1D and the very real danger I had exposed myself, and had almost succumbed, to has finally convinced me that after 42 years, it’s time I stop waving the middle finger at death. I have not used the word “fear” in the story above, but I now accept that there was an unspoken fear underlying many aspects of this trip. My wife and I have agreed that we will find a safer way for me to wave the middle finger at type 1 diabetes.

To paraphrase a recent famous person – WILLIAMS OUT.

Saudi Arabia and the Empty Quarter

There is no direct mention of type 1 diabetes in this story, but it does hint at the extra planning and monitoring required when doing adventurous things with type 1 diabetes. It also shows people who might be too worried to attempt something adventurous that type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to stop you. You just need to work harder than other people to make it happen.

It’s a bit of a “boys own” romp. I hope you enjoy the read.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998
(part 1)  

The planning was done and we were ready to go. I don’t think there was anyone who could accuse us of approaching this trip in a careless or thoughtless manner. It was now 16 months since the idea was first floated and there had been much discussion, many lists, much training and practice and many shopping trips in the preparation. But this was all for a good reason. This was going to be the most daring and potentially dangerous trip that we would be doing while in Saudi, or possibly forever.

The Empty Quarter is a part of the Arabian Peninsular that has been the source of many stories and the object of many adventures. It was The Empty Quarter that Thesinger crossed on camel, having only 1 pint of water per person per day. The Empty Quarter is as big as France, a fact that is often difficult for English or Europeans to comprehend. Nick and I had thought of all of this as we decided that we would attempt a trip into this unknown (to us) part of Saudi Arabia.

Part of the planning was to decide on what sort of trip it would be. A few decisions were made quite easily. There would need to be two vehicles, for safety reasons and for the ability to carry the provisions we would need. We would be staying on tracks, another safety precaution. We were under no illusions that we were explorers. We knew that we have limitations and did not intend to come unstuck dramatically by trying to outdo our limitations. Hence, we would stay to the tracks. This led us to investigate the existence of tracks. On the maps that we already had, there were a couple of scraggly looking tracks marked, one of which headed south towards Oman and another which headed essentially west towards the western side of Saudi. This second track would take us on a journey of 800 km or more and as we only had five days, it was decided that this track was not feasible. So we were down to the southerly track.

During this process, we had determined that it would be better if we had better maps. A hunt around Riyadh proved to us that we weren’t about to find better maps than we had, here in Riyadh. The friend who loaned us his apartment in London for our England trip is also a bit of a shopping buff for uncommon things. He suggested a particular map shop in London as a possible source for rare and exotic maps. While in London, we went to this map shop and found two rather large maps of The Empty Quarter.

One of the very important activities in the preparation was the gaining of sand-driving skills. We had learned that The Empty Quarter is largely sand and neither Nick or myself had any worthwhile experience driving in sand.

Many trips were organized, the object of which was to gain experience. Eventually the day came. It was time to pack and go. The amount of stuff that we had was staggering. We had an abundance of food, mainly packaged or dried food, but also fresh food for the first couple of days. We had a box full of UHT milk, also dried soup, tins of vegetables and tuna, dried fruit. The list went on. We also had five boxes, or 60 bottles, of drinking water. This amounted to 90lt of drinking water. As it was winter, I considered this was at least twice as much as we needed. For other use, we took five 20lt plastic jerry cans of tap water. We also had six 20lt plastic jerry cans for extra fuel. A seemingly insignificant item that we had gathered were three pieces of wood, intended for use in case we had to jack up a car in the sand. Scattered on the lounge room floor, this hoard of stuff looked amazing. I didn’t think we would be able to get it all into the cars, but with thoughtful packing, we managed it quite easily.

The next day, Tuesday the 27th of January, we were off. Nick came down at 08:30, we did the final check list and were on our way by 9 o’clock. The jumping off point was Hararrd, a terrible little grot hole on the edge of The Empty Quarter. It was from here that most of the few tracks left from. We had identified the beginnings of the track we needed two months previously on one of our many planning trips.

We rushed to Hararrd at 140 kph in order to get there before the lunch time prayer began. We had still to get the jerry cans of petrol and fill the tanks and we didn’t really want to wait around for a half an hour for the petrol station to open up again.

We filled the tanks and the jerry cans, much to the bemusement of the petrol station staff. We now had 120 lts of extra fuel, in addition to the 500 km worth in my tank and the 450 km worth in Nick’s. It was 11:30 and we were finally leaving the bitumen. We had also begun filling in the log sheets that we had on which we marked information such as time, odometer reading, direction etc. These log sheets would prove to be handy before the end of the trip.

The start of the track was a well graded and maintained track. We were heading East-South-East (ESE) and the weather was bright and sunny. By 12 o’clock, we were heading SSE. We had covered 13 km and the track was still the same good quality, graded track. I was a touch annoyed by the amazing quality. Weren’t we supposed to be heading into the wilderness? The countryside was sparse and relatively flat. But so far, there was nothing spectacular. Fifteen minutes later we came onto a farm. A check of the maps helped us decide which way to go to progress around. The readings we took at this point made me start to wonder a little. The direction was now SW. I confirmed this by carefully reading the compass well away from the cars. I had been warned that the metal body of a vehicle can affect the compass reading, so I moved well away. However, it was still SW, no matter how I did the reading. The map said we were supposed to be heading ESE. I wasn’t overly concerned though because the road / track was still very high quality.

Another 9 km down the track and it was now 12:30. We had reached a four way junction of tracks and were heading SW. It was time for lunch, so we pulled the cars over and ate in their shade. It was still Ramadan and we weren’t supposed to be eating. There wasn’t too much to worry about though because we were now 43km off the bitumen and the chance of having any passing traffic was diminishing rapidly.

After lunch, we decided on which one of the four tracks to follow and headed off down that track. 5 km further and we came to a farm that did not seem to have a track to go around. We headed back to the junction. More thinking and checking of maps and then we decided on the southerly of the remaining two options. Very soon we found another track heading in the direction we wanted, or more close to it anyway, so we took a reading and updated the log and set off. This was now a two wheel rut track and was skirting the boundary of the farm we had been at. After 9 km it came onto a well defined track, onto which we turned and headed SSW. This section proved to be the most difficult for finding our way back. We were leaving plastic bags filled with rocks at the various track junctions, to aid with determining which track to take when we returned. We were now 55 km off road and it was 2:15. The weather was, to be expected, bright and sunny.

We now found ourselves on another high quality, graded track that went as straight as an arrow, heading SSW. Our intention had been to travel SSE or SE, but who was I to argue. This was a quality track and was heading roughly in the direction we intended. Maybe the map was slightly off. Saudi maps don’t always bother to even have north pointing up the page, so maybe the north point was just a little inaccurate.

We motored along this stretch. Parts of it were fairly rough from the rocks, but we managed to get along at a good pace. The countryside was flat and featureless, utterly. All-of-a-sudden, this all changed. We could see some jebels (hills) developing over on the right and before we knew it, we were heading down hill into a small village. We stopped and took stock. We were now a long way from other people and the thought of driving straight into a difficult situation didn’t particular thrill us. We put our wallets under the seats (that’d fool them), identified a route around the village and set off.

The village appeared totally deserted. It was a live village as it was obvious that people lived there, but no-one could be seen. This suited us, so we drove past it and into the sand dunes behind it. We had descended from the flat, featureless plain that we had been travelling on and were now into some interesting countryside.

The sand dunes weren’t all that big and there were a couple of well used tracks that went across. We took the lower of these, put the cars in low gear and went in. Five minutes later, after much weaving about and rock’n’roll and revving of motors, we emerged out the other side and onto a salt flat. This was starting to look like another planet. For the next couple of kilometres, it appeared to be very rough dried mud, covered with a crust of salt and with scraggly looking bushes growing. We bounced along this bit and across the following mud flats (dry), only to find ourselves confronted with a major dirt road and a large village. The road was four lanes wide and was a constructed road. The village looked as if it was home to 2 or 3 hundred people with a mosque, power, the works. Who knows where they got the power from. We certainly hadn’t seen any power lines coming in and we were now 141 km from the bitumen.

We decided to take the left hand option, as this was heading SSW. May as well remain consistent. We thundered along this road for the next 30 km or so, sometimes in fifth gear, sometimes having to leave the road and take to the wheel tracks beside it. This road was being built and there was much earth moving being done. I couldn’t figure out why they would be building a road like this or where the money was coming from. The only answer that made any sense was oil exploration.

Suddenly the road came to an end, however the line of survey pegs continued straight as an arrow. We continued following the wheel track that accompanied the survey pegs for another 15 kms, to find that it ran into a line of low dunes. There was low vegetation in this place, with a covering of sparse grass as well. We carefully followed the tracks to the top of the dunes, but were not able to see anything of importance on the other side. With the time now approaching four in the afternoon, we decided to camp for the night. We found a lovely spot away from the track and with access to plenty of fire wood. Fifteen minutes later we were settled.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (part 2)

So long as their state of health allows them to, people with type 1 diabetes can do most things; it just takes more effort and planning. Last week Nick and I had just settled for the night, way out in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where Lawrence of Arabia had ridden across on camels.

With the time now approaching four in the afternoon, we decided to camp for the night. We found a lovely spot away from the track and with access to plenty of fire wood. Fifteen minutes later we were settled.

For tea that night (dinner or supper for those who are new to Australian English), we cooked up one of our stews. This involved some meat in the pot with plenty of vegetables thrown in, then cook it up for a while and enjoy. This was a very pleasant evening and wasn’t too cold. We were wearing the cloaks that we had bought, the ones that smelled like horse blankets, and felt very warm and cozy.

The next day we headed over the dunes in an attempt to continue following the survey pegs. There were no problems getting over, but when we got there, there was nothing to follow. We decided to head back across the dunes and out into the huge flat area to the west. We thought that, if we didn’t have a track to follow or landmarks to mark the way, then we may as well follow the compass. We chose west, as this would lead us towards the centre of the Empty Quarter.

We drove out onto the flat land heading due west. Only one kilometre later, we crossed a substantial, ie. two wheel ruts, track that was heading SSW. As this was the direction we had been heading the whole of the previous afternoon, we decided to continue in this direction by following this track. Also, the last we saw of the survey pegs, they were still heading SSW. Sure enough, the track took us back to the dunes and through to the other side. That was OK. We were still on a track and still heading SSW. Off we went.

This is where we left civilization as we know it far behind. We were now 189 km from the bitumen, across a line of dunes and heading into a wide open area. Hmmmm.

The two wheel ruts were still heading SSW, so we followed them. We found ourselves on a flat (as a tack) plain of small pebbles. Over to the left and behind us there were lines of low dunes. To the right, there was nothing but the same plain of pebbles. We continued on.

We soon found that we could travel comfortably in 5th gear and at 90 kph. We also found that the track was diminishing. There were many wheel tracks criss-crossing our path, tracks where a single vehicle had passed maybe in the last 12 months. I began to wonder if we were doing the right thing. The compass was due SSW, so that was reassuring. Obviously there had been many vehicles pass over this ground during an indeterminate period of time. That was good, I supposed. However, I wondered why none of the vehicle tracks were heading in our direction.

We decided to continue. We crossed low’ish areas which required 4th gear. We crossed low sand mounds that required 2nd gear. We crossed many vehicle tracks at right angles. And we just kept going. I must have checked the compass 37,548 times to make sure that we were still heading SSW and we were. We were now motoring at 90 kph, heading SSW. Lines of dunes came and went. I began to feel like that fellow in the movie ‘The Time Machine’, watching the world pass by while I remained sheltered from it.

Eventually we stopped for a reconnoitre. We had covered 80km in a dead straight line at 90 kph and all we had seen were occasional lines of sand dunes. I was starting to feel like I was part of a Salvadore Dali painting. We decided to venture the 1 km across to the closest dunes and have some lunch. We made sure we knew where we were and how to get back to the track after lunch. This was becoming eerie.

While having lunch, I discovered that Nick was feeling similar to myself, although he did not have the benefit of having the compass with him. He was trusting me to know where we were. We decided that it was best to continue on the same line, which was about to take us over the line of dunes, so after our lunch we got back in the cars and looked for a way over. We found a low section and I went up on foot to have a look. There was a small section that was appropriate to go over, so we aimed the cars up with me in front.

When the car got to the top it was impossible to see what was directly in front, so I took it on blind faith that I was aiming for the section I had seen. Nick was close behind me and was following directly in my wheel tracks. I took the car over and found myself suddenly aiming down at a rather alarming angle. Nick was right behind me. I threw the car into first gear and planted my foot, because I had learned through our practice sessions over the previous 12 months that there are two requirements for getting through soft sand; forward momentum and high revs. The car came down dramatically and revved its way up and out of the dip on the other side. It almost got stuck but didn’t. What a relief. I was now driving across the sand flats on the other side.

But where was Nick? He wasn’t in the mirror or anywhere within a couple of hundred metres. ‘Oh no’ I thought. I stopped the car and could see Nick’s car in the rear view mirror. He was at the base of the dune but didn’t appear to be moving. I drove back and stopped 50 metres away on a firm piece of ground. As I walked over, I could see that all was not well. It was not until I actually got to the car that I saw that it was on three wheels. The rear left wheel was hanging in mid air. ‘Oh no’ I thought, yet again. The angle that his car was on was almost picturesque. By now Nick was out of the car and had started to scrape away sand from the wheels. No problem, thought I. I shall get the trusty Jeep and we’ll have this car out in a jiffy.

I went back to my car and got in. I drove it towards Nick’s car, in a line that would enable us to hook up the tow ropes that we had and pull it out. That was the theory. The reality was that this sand was very slippery sand as well as being soft underfoot. I was no closer than 20 metres from Nick’s car when my car just ground to a halt. I tried reversing out to no avail. I tried low ratio, which I have now concluded is not designed for sand driving, to no avail. I was now in the sand down to the floor pan. At this point I decided to stop. Within the space of less than five minutes, both cars were bogged to the floor in very soft sand. This required some thought.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (the final part)

We were 90km from any track, in an almost featureless expanse of desert. For those in Victoria (Australia), 90km is from Melbourne almost to Ballarat. For people reading in the US of A, 90km is 55 miles. And that was only the distance to the closest track. The closest settlement was another 48km on top of that, and the bitumen was a total of 285km, 178 miles, from where the cars languished in the sun, and that is almost from Melbourne to Albury. It was rapidly becoming very important to get at least one car free.

Nick asked me to drive and he would push. He was remembering back to the time many, many trips ago, when we had become bogged in a puddle of sand and I had woken up in hospital the next day, largely due to the effort involved in pushing the car out. This was a worry that Nick had on top of the ones I had. I got in, put the diff lock on and prepared to get the car out.

The first attempt was hopeless – not a budge. The second attempt, however, had the car lurching forward and onto a more reasonable angle. It advanced 8 metres before stopping again. Our training had taught us that it is not good to continue to rev the car when it is obviously not proceeding, as it usually results in more harm than good. Therefore, when the car stopped this time and just revved, I stopped and turned it off. What to do?

We dug around the wheels with our hands and then tried again. No good. The car was down to the floor again. We had progressed into endurance mode, so we took plenty of breaks to eat and drink water. During one of these breaks, I suggested that we try our cloaks under the wheels to give some chance of grip. We discussed the pros and cons because neither of us wanted to wreck our cloaks. However, using the cloaks under the wheels won the day and so we tucked them under and tried again. IT WORKED, up to a point. The car progressed half a metre. This was all the convincing we needed that we were on to something. It was also the beginning of the breaking down of the barriers to survival thinking.

For the rest of the afternoon, until 5 o’clock, we scraped away at the wheels and used the cloaks underneath. We had also started to use the sleeping bags in the same way. There had been progress but the car was still utterly stuck, seemingly surrounded by a sea of sand. At 5 o’clock we decided that was it for the day. There was only a half an hour of light left and I was worried that our moods may dip if we worked into the gloom. It was time to set up camp.

We chose a spot on the leeward side of the cars. The wind was blowing in a gusty manner and we wanted to diminish its effect as much as possible. There wasn’t any chance of a wood fire that night, due to where we were, but we still had a pleasant evening, given the circumstances. While we were talking and joking and listening to Switzerland or Holland on the shortwave, we noticed a plane going directly over the top of us. We started discussing the possibility of signalling an oncoming plane using the torch that we had. We had no intentions of signalling that night, or probably even the night after, but we had to ensure that we had alternative ideas available. We were both becoming more aware of the risk of our moods dipping dramatically.

The next day we were ready to start work by 9 o’clock. Again, we were going to concentrate on Nick’s car, as that stood the best chance of getting out. During the previous evening, we had discussed many possibilities and had come up with two usable ones. They were to use the water boxes and the tarpaulin under the wheels. We emptied out the boxes of water and equipment and folded them appropriately. Then we prepared the space in front of the car for the tarpaulin. The boxes went in front of the wheels, covered by the cloaks and the sleeping bags, which, by the way, had shaken out very well the previous evening and had suffered no damage what-so-ever. I may just send a letter of gratitude to Colemans for their tough equipment.

When all was ready, I started the car and let it warm up. Then we tried it. Amazingly, the car would not budge. We checked everything. Each wheel was loose enough, the car wasn’t bedded on the floor pan. What was the problem? We wondered if the sand was such that it was more ‘slippery’ than we were used to and that, in combination with the slight incline that the car was on, was stopping it from getting a grip. Then came the next innovation. The jack.

We decided to jack each wheel of the car up and pack underneath with sand, cardboard, cloaks and sleeping bags. This was a long and laborious process. We had anticipated a situation like this, needing to jack the car up in the sand, and brought 3 pieces of wood to use as a base for the jack. But before they could be used, a space had to be dug out under the car for the wood and jack. This was hard work and took a while.

After the first effort using this new found combination of ideas, being the cloaks, the cardboard boxes, the sleeping bags, the tarpaulin and jacking each wheel of the car up, we were not able to drive the car out, but it gave us much more confidence that this was going to eventually work. The next attempt, after more jacking and packing, we were able to drive the car out. This was elation material. It was now 12 midday and Nick’s car had been bogged for 23 hours. Suddenly, here I was driving it out and onto hard ground. We were thrilled, to put it mildly.

It was time for lunch and a much more upbeat chat. We were no longer in danger and we both knew it. Through this though, I couldn’t help but think about my car. It was still totally stuck and I didn’t relish the idea of leaving it there. Even if we did come back to get it, we may never find it again.

While we were eating and resting, we talked over the techniques we had used to get Nick’s car out and refined them further. With this knowledge and experience, after lunch it took us an hour to prepare my car and drive it out, almost as if it had never been bogged. As quick as the cars had been bogged, we were able to drive them around to the hard side of the dunes and park them. What a turn around. We had been bogged for a total of 25 hours.

We decided to camp right there that night and regain our balance for the challenge ahead; that of finding our way out.

I had a terrible night’s sleep that night, because I couldn’t help but think of the potential difficulties that we faced finding our way back. We were putting virtually total faith in our abilities to follow the compass back and find ourselves within a bull’s roar of where we had left the track. If we were 20 km off, we might not even find any track. I tossed and turned and got some fitful sleep. At first light, I looked up to see a huge black bird of some sort, a carrion I suspect, hovering over me. I looked at it for a moment and then realized that it was one of many in a mob that was investigating us. I hissed at it and it took off with hilarious speed. It hadn’t realized that we were alive and so my hiss had scared it witless.

We packed the cars, discussed our strategy, and were prepared to leave by 9 o’clock. We back tracked to the point we had stopped two days previously, checked the compass and then set off. This was, in my mind, the greatest challenge; to find our way back. Then, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Even though we had had a fairly consistent wind blowing for two days, our tyre tracks stretched out in front of us, like a glowing train line. Because there were two of us and because there were no other tracks going in the same direction, I was able to follow our tracks easily. For the next 80km, my eyes never left our tracks. It seemed that the faster we drove, the easier it was to follow the tracks. I would make blindingly fast checks of the compass to ensure we were travelling NNE, and even faster checks of the mirror to ensure Nick was still there. But apart from those fleeting moments, my eyes were glued to our two day old tracks. There was one point where a flurry of other tracks obliterated ours. But because of our speed and the fact that there were two sets of tracks I was following, I was able to readily find our tracks on the other side. By a quarter to eleven, we were back at the first camping spot. That was the first tough part of the return completed, but there was more to come.

That night was brilliant. We relaxed and laughed and had the best meal of the trip. We knew that we were only 25 or 30km from the village and it took a weight of our minds.

The next day was a long day. We found our way back to the salt flats without mishap and managed to traverse the sand easily. We nearly got lost in the small village, but found our way out and back onto the track we had come in on. Our next difficulty was going to be finding our way past the farm. Sure enough, we had a lot of trouble finding the track. We had left marker bags to show the way, but we couldn’t find one of these. So we had to trust the accuracy of the logs and turn off on a track that did not look right. Sure enough, within a couple of kilometres we found ourselves next to the farm. Five kilometres further and we found the four way intersection.

Twenty kilometres further and it was time for lunch. We pulled off the track and had a tuna salad. The food was there and we were about to re-enter the Saudi version of the modern world again, so why not live it up. It was just as we were packed and ready to hit the track that Nick saw that he had a flat tyre. How ironic. After all that we had been through, to have a flat tyre on a good section of gravel road, less than 20km from the bitumen.

Changing the flat was quick and easy and we were soon back in Hararrd, grot hole that it is. Three long hours later and we were back in Riyadh. We arrived back at ASASCO within five minutes of the time I had told Donna to expect us home. We had covered five days and over 1000km since we had left.

The Empty Quarter trip was over.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip To Najran

Sadly, one of the places of interest in this week’s story is currently a war zone. Najran is very close to the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Fortunately for us, it was a lot more peaceful when we travelled there 18 years ago.

It was the night before we were to leave for our camping trip to Najran and Donna and the girls were off to the party of a life time. It was the party for the Saudi princess, given by her sister, to celebrate her attaining of her Doctor of Psychiatry.

For 2 weeks before hand the rain had fallen relentlessly. It had actually rained (heavily) every night except for one, for 16 nights; and here we were planning a 6 day camping trip. I was working on the idea that for every night it rained, it increased the chances of the rain stopping and so not raining during our camping trip. I also believe in Father Christmas and The Yellow Brick Road. The night of the party, which Donna was advised not to arrive at before 11 o’clock (in the evening), not only was it raining, but the low sections of roads, such as underpasses, right across Riyadh were flooded. I couldn’t believe it. We still had to pack the car, let alone actually leave and sleep in the open for 5 nights.

Everyone was in the car and we were off to the palace. I had learned of a shorter way to get there and drove us into the traffic jam from hell. We were only 3 km from the party but we were stuck trying to get through one intersection for 20 minutes as every car in Riyadh (or so it seemed) tried to squeeze through a one-car opening in some roadworks. And it was pouring rain. We eventually got there, along with Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguars, Cadillacs, BMWs. I can honestly say that we were the only Jeep Cherokee there. HA!! Did we attract attention or what. No-one took a second look at the many Mercedes or their mundane occupants. But much attention was paid to the Jeep and the western woman and 3 little blonde girls that alighted there from. Donna and the girls were met by an official looking Saudi gentleman brandishing an umbrella. He escorted them under cover while bashing unceremoniously on top of the car to get the stupid driver (me) to move the hell out of the way. There were other guests to escort, or so it seemed.

I managed to get a couple of hours sleep at home before being woken by the phone at 4 o’clock. It was Donna ringing for her driver. She had enjoyed herself and was ready to return. I made my way back to the palace, surrounded by the usual Mercs, Jags etc, and the Phillipino drivers, and picked up Donna and the girls. I shall let Donna describe the party later. Needless to say, it was interesting.

Of course, it was still raining, but we got home in time to have a couple of hours sleep. In the morning, we packed up the car, an act which by now had become almost a ritual because of the many camping trips we have been on, and set off by 9 o’clock. Donna and the kids promptly fell asleep, so I drove along in solitude, with Donna waking long enough to change the cassettes for me. As I had already done this trip in May last year, there was little chance of getting lost, so we arrived at our assumed destination by 4 o’clock. Interestingly, we seemed to have driven out of the rain within half an hour south of Riyadh. Either that or the rain had stopped as a blessing to our little journey. Either way, it wasn’t raining and didn’t even look threatening. The sky was crystal clear, something that we have come to expect in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – aka – The Magic Kingdom).

The first night was spent on the edge of The Empty Quarter. This is a huge area of desert in which there is virtually no civilization. There are no roads at all but it is roughly the size of France. The best that one can hope for is a rough track of sorts. We aimed the car into this at 4 in the afternoon, which we had decided was the time of day best for setting up camp and getting settled before it got dark. We found ourselves in the most serene and starkly beautiful place that I personally have spent an evening camping. It was primarily sand with small hills and rocks. We were within a kilometre and a half of the highway, so weren’t exactly in-the-middle-of-no-where. But we were far enough away from other people to consider ourselves the only people on the planet. Honestly, within a 50 km radius of where we were, there would have been less than 100 people. And the weather was magic. The sky was perfectly clear and the slight wind stopped in the early part of the night.

The next day (Saturday), we set off at 9 o’clock and continued heading toward Najran, which was 400 km away. I have discovered that it takes considerably longer to organize 2 adults and 3 children than it does to organize myself on my own. Whereas it took me an hour in the morning to have breakfast and pack to go when I did this trip last year, it took 3 hours for the same routine this time. But as this was a camping trip, it was very important to enjoy the camping aspect of it and not just consider the camps as a break from the road. We had plenty of cups of tea and casually went through the activities required. The girls had, thankfully, learned at last to go off and explore, without any prompting from me. Sometime in the last 6 months they have progressed to the point where I now have to yell at them to come back, rather than be encouraging them to go more than 5 metres away from the camp.

It is pointless trying to describe the scenery in this part of the trip. It would be next to impossible to do it adequately. There is just so much open; no fences, no buildings, no nothing except nature. It is beautiful. This went on for another 250 km before gradually changing to the foothills of the mountains in which we were to spend the next 3 days. The change is very subtle, but by the time we reached Najran, the difference was spectacular.

Najran, which I can now tell you is disputed territory between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as it has been for 30 odd years, is in the high foothills of the mountains that run down the western coast of the Arabian Peninsular. It is nestled in amongst huge piles of rounded rocks, almost like piles of giant marbles that have been left lying around. It is quite a large town, but not overly attractive. However, compared to some towns that we have seen, it is very pretty indeed.

The site for the second night was north of Najran. I couldn’t remember exactly how far so I took an educated guess. As it turns out, my guess wasn’t too bad at all. We didn’t stay at the same place as I had last time, but instead found a spot on a solid rock plateau, sheltered from the constant but gentle wind that was blowing. Most importantly, there weren’t any people around to bother us. We set up camp and had a pleasant evening eating tea and listening to The BBC on the shortwave. The kids were in bed asleep by 7 o’clock and we were as well by 8 o’clock.

Day 3 began the same as the others. We were ready to roll by 9 o’clock. The objective for today was somewhere between Abha and Baha. Experience from my trip last year told me that we wouldn’t be able to camp up in the mountains due to the wild baboons that can be found there. I had decided to drive out of the mountains down onto the inland plateau and there was a choice of one road to do that.

Between Abha and Baha, the road is dramatic. There are spectacular views of soaring mountains of solid rock and sheer cliffs.

We saw eagles riding the winds coming up the steep valleys. The road generally follows the top of the ridges and is a heck of a ride. There are a number of hills which require second gear just to get over the top. By now we were seeing many of the stone buildings that are particular to this area. We were also seeing wizened old goat herders whom I’m sure were on a close, personal level with Mohammed or Moses. You would never have seen men as old and wizened as these. One fellow was herding his goats across the main highway just ‘round the bend which we approached at 100 kph. As I jammed on the breaks (dramatically) to keep from hitting his bloody goats and brought the car to a sudden stop, he indicated with a gesture of the hand that I shouldn’t drive so fast. Well, excuse me.

Abha is a beautiful town in the middle of the mountains.

It is reputed to be the summer holiday spot for the king and other members of the royal family. It is a lovely place. Apparently, it is not unknown for it to have some snow during winter as it is very high in the mountains. I’m not sure exactly how high, but it is high up, I know that much. We had lunch there and then got lost as we were leaving. Abha has a ring road and poor English signposts on the roads. We were on the ring road and looking for the off-shoot we needed. I was keeping an eye on the compass that I now carry in a convenient spot in the car and realized that we had gone too far. We back tracked to where the off-shoot should have been and figured out that the poorly signed road was the one that we needed. We are getting used to driving in places with little or no directions. It is annoying, but you have to make the best of what you have got. And, as I keep reminding myself, this is their country and I don’t know of very many towns in Oz that are sign-posted with Arabic signs.

We found our way out and headed toward Baha, about 250 km away. We found the road we needed to take us down to the plateau without too much hassle and found a nice little spot away from the towns. That was home for the third night.

The objective for the next day was Taif, where we intended to find a camping spot on the outskirts. During my trip last May, I had unknowingly taken the lower of the 2 roads that connect Baha and Taif and I did not intend to make that mistake again. The high road has to be one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. By carefully studying the maps, we managed to find the turnoff onto the high road. It was at this point that it started raining. Now, keep in mind that we were very high in the mountains and close to the seaward side as well. As we drove along the beginning of the most stunning section of road I have ever driven on, it was pouring with rain, blowing a howling gale, thunder, lightening, hail and, to top it all off, fog.

We pulled over to the side of the road to have lunch. We had learned that it is best to be completely self sufficient so we were able to enjoy a perfectly adequate lunch while not leaving the protection of the car. As we were getting ready to move off, Donna wasn’t looking too thrilled with the whole situation, but was bravely being stoic about it. The kids thought it was great.

What stretched ahead of us was 250 km of unbelievable road going through countryside more rugged than anything in Australia. There were sections of road that consisted of huge bridges leading directly into unlit tunnels, which in turn fed onto another bridge. We must have travelled through 35 tunnels and crossed 75 bridges. At one point, we were crawling along in 2nd gear in the tearing wind, driving rain and fog so thick it was difficult to see the end of the bonnet. We drove carefully into a tunnel, only to emerge from the other side on a dry road without a sign of any fog. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic on this stretch of road.

We arrived in Taif by mid afternoon and went to a supermarket to stock up. Then we backtracked to a place we had seen as we had driven in and found a nice place to camp at the end of a dead-end little valley. The kids took off exploring and Donna and I setup camp. Later that evening, just as we were finishing our evening meal, Donna saw that we had visitors. There is a ritual governing many aspects of life here, including the way that a person approaches a camp. They come to within 50 meters of the camp and then stand and wait. The senior male member of the camp goes out to greet the visitor. We went through this ritual with the visitor, an older Saudi fellow who was obviously not a city dweller, stopping his car and getting out. I took Emma with me as I had a feeling I knew how the conversation would go. It turns out that we were on what passes for private property; his to be precise. He was a little concerned about our presence but was partially reassured when I told him that Emma was one of 3 daughters that were with us. He made a point of asking if there was a ‘madam’ (woman) as well and seemed to be a little less concerned when I told him that there was. By much use of hand gestures and faltering English from him and even more faltering Arabic from me, I was able to convince him that we intended staying just for the night and would be leaving the next day. He seemed OK about that and left us to ourselves. The rest of the evening was most pleasant.

The next morning we woke up to everything being sopping wet. There had been a very heavy dew during the night and we were saturated. As soon as the sun was high enough, we spread everything out to dry off. By the time we were packed and ready to go, everything had dried off quite well.

We drove back into Taif, getting lost a number of times in the process, and made our way to where the baboons congregate. This is at the beginning of the famous ‘Escarpment Road’, a road of thrills or terror, depending on whether you have a death wish. I have been down this road a number of times now and we all went down it last February. But this time Donna was not interested in going down. So we stayed at the top and watched the baboons.

The baboons live in family groups, with a dominant male, junior males, one or a number of senior females and then the kids. We were spell bound for a good 20 minutes watching the goings on as they ate the food we gave them. The senior males are beautiful and mean looking creatures.

They have a long mane of hair and extremely strong looking teeth. We gave him some mandarins. He allowed one of them to be shared between the rest of the troop while he took hold of 2 for himself. He then proceeded to peel the mandarin and separate it segment by segment. He put each segment in his mouth, sucked out the juice and discarded the flesh. A baby male was trying to get whatever he could and was backhanded a number of times for over stepping the disciplinary line. This was a great occasion for the kids. They have seen the baboons before but this time we had more time with them. They were right outside the windows of the cars and were actually climbing on the car. So long as we were in the car, the baboons did not see us as being a threat. When some idiot local fellows turned up and got out of their car, the baboons bared their teeth and scattered.

We were now on a tight time schedule as Donna had organized a whole series of social activities for the first couple of days back in Riyadh, beginning at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the day we were to be back. For this reason, we had to make sure that we got a certain way towards home before stopping for the night. We filled the car and off we went.

The road from Taif to Riyadh is an amazing road. It is 780 km long and 6 lanes of freeway the entire way. I have told people about this road before, but it still amazes me. The cost of building it must have been astronomical, especially considering that I am yet to see it busy. We filled up with petrol and set off, intending to cover 500 km before stopping. The first 200 km is mind numbingly boring. It is almost featureless and completely flat. After 250 km, the terrain changes and becomes much more interesting. At about this point, we noticed that we were being accompanied by some interesting looking clouds. Hmm, we thought. We started wondering if we were driving back into the weather Riyadh was getting. By the time we had covered 500 km and were preparing to stop for the night, we were sure of it.

We turned off into the low hills. We meandered our way through the hills and valleys, looking for a place that was secluded (not difficult considering where we were), not likely to flooded in a downpour, far enough away from the highway that the noise of the traffic wouldn’t disturb our sleep, not so far from the highway that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back. We found a spot that even appeared to have the possibility of some wood to burn. The kids loved having small camp fires and so it had become one of the considerations. We started setting up camp with an eye on the sky. I climbed to the top of one of the low hills and found that we were almost definitely going to get wet before the night was over. Within sight were 4 separate thunder storms and seemingly more following. I went back to the camp and we decided to wait for half an hour before committing ourselves further. Sure enough, half an hour later we had to dive into the car as the sky opened and dumped everything on top of us. We all sheltered in the car while the world outside went berserk. I have never seen anything like it.

As soon as the rain finished, and it finished as if someone had turned off a tap, we climbed out of the car to assess the catastrophe. It wasn’t as bad as we expected, but everything was extremely wet and we were now committed to sleeping in the car. We hadn’t unrolled the sleeping bags or air beds, but the ground sheet was very wet and the fire was out. We arranged the chairs and broke out the emergency rations of cans of food. We sat around the fluorescent light and ate food from the cans, corn flakes and biscuits and listened to The BBC on the shortwave. It was dark. It was cold. It was getting windy again and we knew that we only had a short time before we had to get back into the car. Sure enough, 2 minutes after settling down in the car, the heavens opened again.

This went on for half the night. The kids were fast asleep and Donna appeared to be getting fitful sleep. But I could only manage 5 minutes here and there and I was going slowly insane. Each time the downpours finished, I would get out of the car and go for a walk. During the last of these I realized that there were no more storms coming. The moon was shining brightly and I could see that the sky was almost clear in the direction the weather was coming from. As I wasn’t sleeping in the car, I did the best I could to set up a bed on the wet ground sheet. I was still there in the morning when the others fell out of the car. The sleeping bag was completely covered with dew, but at least I had had a few reasonable hours sleep.

In the morning we were able to put together a pretty good fire. We cheered ourselves up with plenty of cups of tea and finished off a good part of the food we had. We also had some chestnuts that we had bought in Taif, so we threw them on the fire. When they were ready, Shauna and I feasted ourselves on them, although we weren’t able to finish off the whole lot. Donna, Emma and Carly didn’t want to participate in this seemingly barbaric exercise so it was left to Shauna and myself to finish them. We tried but couldn’t get through them all.

We left the camp at 9 o’clock. We had just under 300 km to cover in 4 hours. The trip back to Riyadh was uneventful and long. The kids entertained themselves by counting down every 5 km we advanced. Carly informed me in which direction to drive to get to Riyadh each time we passed a sign showing the way. As we were on a 3 lane freeway heading directly to Riyadh, I was confidant that we were not going to get lost, but Carly wanted to make sure.

The question that we had in our mind for most of the trip, which was I wonder if it is raining in Riyadh?, was answered as soon as we got back. The road that we wanted to take to exit the freeway was closed off as an underpass was flooded and closed. We have since been told that Riyadh has been in a state of controlled catastrophe for most of the time we have been gone.

E X C E L L E N T ! ! !

T H E R E   I S   A N   A L L A H   A N D   H E   W A S   S M I L I N G   O N   U S.

And so endeth the latest saga. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode in ‘The Adventures of the Wandering Williams’s’, brought to you by your local distributer of petroleum products, sand and dates.

Hi. This is Donna with a bit about the party.

The girls went to bed early on the night on the pretence that they had to get up early to go on our holiday.

Alex woke them up about 10 o’clock. They sat on the couch expecting to just wait until I was ready and then take me to the party. Then they were asked if they would like to go too. They were all very excited, with Emma saying that it was her biggest wish come true. We all got ready and after being caught in a traffic jam got to the palace about 11:20.

I showed my invitation to the guard and we all got out of the car. Alex says he felt like one of the Filipino drivers dropping off their employers. We then walked through into the grounds and followed some Saudi women as I had no idea where we were going. There were a couple of women checking in the abayas which I did and then we continued around the corner of the building. What we saw was amazing. There was a huge circular dais and it was just like it was out of the Arabian Nights. There were about 500 women there with their own maids who had to sit out of the way of the ‘guests’. Luckily we then met up with someone we knew who then found the girl, Anoud (the older princess I had been teaching) who came and took care of us.

We all sat down, the girls being very quiet and trying to act ‘proper’. During the night there were a lot of maids walking around with different things to eat and drink. First came the home made chocolates, then cardamom tea and mint tea. No sooner was that finished then more chocolates came and fruit juices, orange, apple, strawberry, and banana in glasses with gold around the bottom of them and coloured sugar crystals around the top of them. Wafer biscuits were next with water and more chocolates on huge platters. Then arabic coffee and even more chocolate. During all of this the women were up on the dance floor dancing to live arabic music sung of course by a woman. No men allowed at this party. The women all had on very expensive clothing that would not have been made here, labels counted and which city in which country they were bought at. For all of the dances it was the same movements by everyone, a couple of steps backwards or sideward and just the hips moving along with their hands. Anoud says she hates dancing like this and hates the arabic music! I thought it was quite good because of the novelty of it but it did all end up sounding the same. The jewellery was quite amazing too although I was told that there wasn’t as much being worn that night as usual. Stones were the big thing, diamonds and jewels and lots of it around their necks and arms, hands, and dangling off their ears.

When it was time to eat, which was at 2am, we then went into another marquee and couldn’t believe the amount of food that was there. There was no way that even one third of it could be eaten that night. The girls and I tried to only choose what we thought looked like something we knew so in fact we didn’t have too much at all. Then it was the deserts and there were more there than I have ever seen anywhere. Carly had a huge pile of it on her plate which she completely finished off. Once the guests had finished eating then the maids got to go and eat.

The decorations were wonderful. There were huge tapered candles which had to be at least 4ft high that were blue coloured but the wax dripped red. The flower decorations were huge too and very elaborate and beautiful. Everything was done quite tastefully but you could tell that it was very expensive too. Everything was just oozing money! The girls got to play with the princesses and they had fun. I got to see how the privileged live and it was wonderful. The girls were dressed up pretty well and got plenty of attention too. They loved it. So did I. The women I think, are really quite pretty. They aren’t like the western women in shape, more rounded, but they do wear a LOT of make-up.

About 4 o’clock I phoned Alex to pick us up and he arrived half an hour later. We got home about 5am.  The girls went straight to sleep and so did I and then we were up a couple of hours later getting ready to go camping. The girls and I all slept most of the day in the car.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip to a Gigantic Hole in the Ground – Whaba Crater

The trip started off as planned. Nick stayed at our place on the Thursday night. We packed the cars and had plenty of cups of tea and got to bed by 10:30. The next morning, Friday, we got up at a quarter past 3. It was freezing. We managed to get rolling by a quarter past 4 and we were on our way. We stopped for my medication when the sun came up and we were by then in a place that none of the others had been to. About 120 Km along Makka Rd is the beginning of an area called ‘The Arabian Shield’. I have no idea why it is called this, but it is a huge area that is very rocky, with large boulder like hills. After the country side around Riyadh and through to Dammam, this area is very different indeed. We kept driving for a short while until it was time for breakfast. We pulled off the highway and ducked in behind a low hill. It was still Ramadan and even though travellers are supposed to be able to eat, we didn’t want to push our luck. The basic philosophy of the trip was to err on the side of caution. It was bloody freezing. This was now the coldest part of the day and there was a little bit of a wind blowing and we had our woolly hats, scarves, gloves, jackets and everything on. It was damned cold.

We continued on for 630 km up Makka Rd and then turned off towards the Whaba Crater. So far, everything was going well. We were where we hoped to be. We stopped on the side of the road in a very quiet spot for a bit of lunch. The scenery was beautiful. It is impossible to adequately describe this and a thousand other places that we saw. The best I can do is to say that we were in the middle of a volcanic area where all of the rocks are almost black. There were volcanic cones poking up through the ground all around us, and there was green as far as the eye could see. It was almost like we were in England or New Zealand, it was so green, except for the black rock everywhere. We had started getting into the habit of ‘circling the wagons’ when stopping. There was what seemed to be a non-stop wind blowing so that, and the desire for a little privacy, pushed us to place the cars in such a way that we were sheltered both from the wind and passing traffic; hence ‘circling the wagons’. Mind you, where we were by now didn’t have a lot of passing traffic.

We got to the crater by 4 o’clock, and everyone was stunned into silence.

This is the most amazing hole in the ground you will ever see, except no doubt for the Grand Canyon. Nick said something interesting along those lines. He has been to the Grand Canyon and he said that because of the hype and build up to it, when you get there it is big and beautiful, and also expectable. The crater is in the middle of nowhere and there is no hype or build up. Most people don’t even know it is there. This means that when you get there, you are overwhelmed by the reality, not your expectations.

We found a spot to make camp on the side of the crater, just down from the top. It took quite a while and a lot of effort to make camp because we had to carry everything from the cars, but we were completed before it got dark. We had our first visit from a passing Saudi, and our first invitation to visit at his home in the nearby village, which we politely and gently declined. He said that he was from Riyadh and worked for ‘the national garden’ ?? When he showed us his ID tag from his job, we realized that he meant National Guard, which is one of the security forces here. We were, of course, polite. We got another visit from another Saudi who just wanted to practice his English. A lot of Saudi’s like to practice their English if they get the chance. They are very friendly people and love to pass the time of day. To us it often seems like a waste of time, but there is no harm intended and no offence ever given.

Our first night under the stars went well. The wind kept blowing but didn’t affect us too much. Everyone quickly got into the swing of doing ‘private’ things behind a rock, something that they were going to have to get very used to for the rest of the trip. Nobody particularly enjoys that aspect of the experience, but Donna said that she now preferred to go behind a rock than a lot of the public toilets that she has seen here.

Moving on. The next morning, we packed up camp by 10 o’clock and struck out for the bottom of the crater. There are the remains of a small farm on a large ledge inside the crater and this place has lots of grass and date palms. This is where the track down to the bottom begins. When we got there, there were about 6 Saudi’s, 5 Indians and 2 western women sitting there talking. One of the Saudi’s, the one who was obviously in charge, was holding (innocently) a very impressive (to me) rifle. As we passed by, we asked the women if everything was alright. I asked them twice and Donna asked them as well. We were convinced that everything was OK and that the rest of their party was down in the crater and that they were waiting for them to return and did not consider themselves to be in any danger.

We headed down the very steep and rocky track. The kids were doing excellently, considering the size of the rocks we were climbing over and the difficulty of the track. It took us almost an hour to get down to the bottom, but when we did, everyone was very pleased that we had done it. The crater looks very different from the bottom. There is a salt pan and we walked across that for a while. Then we had a rest and something to eat before starting back up.

Because Nick and Donna were more impressed with the crater than they had expected to be, we began discussing the possibility of altering our plans to allow for more time there. We were thinking of spending an extra night there, or leaving later and stopping off on the way to Taif. This was the beginning of the changes to our planned trip.

By the time we had returned to the top, we had decided to leave later in the afternoon than originally planned, and camp somewhere along the way towards Taif. We had lunch and then set off. This is when things started to get interesting. After leaving the crater, we were heading along the track which was supposed to bring us to a village about 10 or 12 km away. After 20 or so kilometres, I realised that, not only had we travelled further than we should have, but also all known landmarks were slowly sinking over the horizon. The track was still of good enough quality for Nick to be able to continue in his car, but that was not the point. We stopped and had a conference and decided that, all things considered, the pragmatic thing to do was to stop right there and camp for the night. There was no sign of other humans apart from the track and the occasional 1 tonner that bounced along it about every 2 hours.

After I had recovered from a small hypo, that ended up being a most enjoyable evening. We set up camp and had tea – dinner for non-Australians – , listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio and generally relaxed. The wind which had been blowing during the day eased off during the early hours of the evening and we ended up having a most pleasant stay.

The next day we packed up and headed off in the same direction that we had been headed, working on the assumption that we were on a track that would eventually bring us out at the Makka highway. After travelling for 10 minutes, it suddenly occurred to me that the sun had not risen in the place that it should have, if we were actually heading towards the Makka highway. We stopped and got out the map. With a little waving of arms to get a general idea of angles, we realized that, instead of heading south south west, we were actually heading west north west. In other words, we were heading for Iraq with maybe 250 km of track ahead of us; not what we had intended. So we turned around and headed back the way we had come.

We got back to a junction of tracks and found a Bedouin camp there. Nick and I parked the cars a respectful distance from the camp and headed over towards it on foot. We stopped about 50 metres from the camp because we could see that there were women there. As the males of the family walked out to meet us, Nick and I practiced our meagre knowledge of Arabic. After 10 minutes of conversation, we learned that Al-Hofr, the village that we were trying to find, was in that (finger pointing) direction, so off we went. An hour and much, much dust later we came up on the outskirts of the village, where we were able to get a box of water and some petrol for Nick’s car. What else could a person need. So off we went for Taif.

As we drove into Taif, which was 3 hours away along the highway, Donna commented on how different it looked compared to Riyadh. Taif is in the mountains. The architecture is quite different as there is so much loose rock lying around. In the old days, before they discovered the ease of concrete blocks, the buildings in the mountainous regions were made of rock, and the old buildings in Taif still show this. I was able to find a supermarket from my memory of the place, and we stocked up on everything. We had so much food and water when we left the supermarket that the cars were groaning from the weight. From there we set out to find a place to sleep for the night.

Eventually we found a spot in an open area which wasn’t too close to residences, although still too close for my comfort. Trying to keep the kids noise down to a dull roar was next to impossible, so it seemed that we were constantly bitching at the kids to be quiet. We set up camp and had our tea. Then the fireworks started, literally. Because Ramadan was now officially over, the Saudi’s were celebrating by letting off fireworks. All night long there were the pop pop pop of fireworks. In the morning we decided that something was missing, so we discussed the various possibilities, with the fact that we were now a full 24 hours behind the original schedule well in mind. One of the options was to keep heading to Baha, on the original schedule, but then head down out of the mountains towards nightfall. When we calculated the distance we realized that it just wasn’t feasible. So we decided to see the main souk in Taif, which is very well known as being one of the better ones, see the escarpment road, which I have already seen and which is legendary, have chicken from a take away for lunch, then head back towards the place we had been the previous day. We could feel relaxed there and the kids could make all the noise that they wanted to. In planning the trip, I hadn’t taken into account the vast difference that 6 people, including 3 active children, makes compared to one person on their own. I had camped quite easily in the mountains during Hajj last year, but it wasn’t going to be so easy this time, so we decided to change the plans drastically.

We packed up and left camp by 10 o’clock and then headed to the find the escarpment. I had been there the first time I was in Taif with the friend from work, but when I was there during Hajj I wasn’t able to find it. I had gotten myself horribly lost that time, so I was hoping that I could find it this time. Well, as it turns out I was on the correct road last time, but had misjudged the distance. The escarpment is actually 30 km out of Taif, not just on the outskirts as I had remembered. Anyway, we got there. The escarpment road is the main road between Taif and Jeddah and Makka, so is well used. Just before you descend the escarpment, there are many baboons. The kids and Donna thought it was a blast to see them all, the mothers with little baboons hanging off them. The fathers are mean looking bastards and the kids were wondering why we wouldn’t let them get out and go and pat them. Donna got some tremendous photos (we hope) from the safety of the car. Then we headed down the escarpment.

The escarpment road defies description.

It is one lane each way and winds its way down what I judge to be about a 1500m height. Some of the bridges along the way appear to be hanging in mid-air. The road is a miracle of modern engineering. It is only about 15 or 20 years old. The driving on the road is a miracle of survival. Carefully driving down the single lane available and being confronted on a blind corner by 3 cars abreast coming up their single lane is a little daunting, particularly when the locals have no concept of GIVE WAY. The main rule on the roads in situations like that is SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST or strongest or dumbest or most arrogant or whatever. It is awesome. The views however make it all worthwhile.

We got to the bottom in 2 pieces – (Nick was in his car, ha ha).

We caught our breath, had something to eat and drink, then headed back up. I wondered what the smell was as we were going back up and finally realized that it was the smell of burning brakes and clutches that must permanently hang around that road. The locals come down at full speed. There are many obvious examples of cars punching holes in the concrete safety barrier. There is absolutely nothing on the other side to stop them gracefully descending hundreds of metres through fresh air before crashing and burning in a flaming wreck. And they do.

Donna and Nick thought Taif was great, and Nick intends flying back for a weekend sometime to see more of it. From Taif, after treating ourselves to a chicken lunch at a family restaurant, and making use of their wash basins for a little cleansing of the face, hands, neck and anything else we could safely cleanse, we headed back towards the crater. We wanted to find another spot similar to what we had before, and spend the remaining 2 nights there. We weren’t going to go to the actual crater, just nearby.

By 5 o’clock we had found what appeared to be a nice spot. An important consideration in our choice was the non-stop wind that seemed to be gaining in strength. We found a place that was out of sight of anybody else, far enough away from any tracks, quite picturesque, reasonably sheltered from the wind, and from which finding our way back to the main road wasn’t going to be a problem. We set up camp and got things under way. Almost immediately we got our first visit from some locals. Nick and I went over to do the traditional thing, practicing our Arabic as we approached the car. This fellow was a Bedouin. He was driving the obligatory white Datsun 1 tonner, battered and bent from years of crashing across the desert. He had absolutely no English, but we managed to ascertain that his name was Abdul and he was just interested in us. He wanted to know why we were there, but as I say, just out of interest. What fascinated Nick and I was that he had a woman in his car. Normally, if we had a woman actually with us (and not back at the camp) or if he had a woman with him, which he did, he wouldn’t approach us and put the woman in any danger of something untoward happening. Well, that’s normally. Abdul just came driving up to within the 50 m mark from our camp and wanted to chat.

The next morning at about half past eight, Mr Abdul was back, this time with a clear invitation to come visit at his camp. We explained about our MADAM and children and he indicated that this wasn’t a problem. Bring them as well. Donna, Nick and I had discussed this possibility previously and had agreed that if the offer was made, we would accept. So we did.

We finished off our breakfast arrangements and got our camp in order. Then Nick and Donna made sure that we had a gift to take with us, gathering together a packet of Mars Bars and a packet of biscuits. All of us were thinking of the worst possible situation, so we made sure that we did not have any cash on us. We also made sure that if our camp was raided while we were away, there was nothing vital that could be taken. For example, I took my medication with us in the car. We discussed ‘what if’ situations and came up with responses and actions to be taken. Then at 10 o’clock, the arranged time, we made our way down to Abdul’s camp. There were 3 apparent camps within a reasonable distance, and we weren’t precisely sure which one was Abdul’s. We were assuming that his particularly noticeable Datsun would be there. You will never have seen a car so dirty. However, it wasn’t. We slowly drove past the camp that we thought was the one and continued on to the next. We could see some activity in the first and when we decided to go back to that camp and park and wait for something to happen, a couple of young men came towards us, indicating that we should come over. Nick and I went over and it turned out that Abdul had gone to the souk in Al-Hofr and that this was the camp and they were expecting us.

We drove over, parked the car, then went on into the tent. Donna followed the women into another entrance and both Nick and I thought that would be the last we would see of Donna until we left. Nick and I were taken around the back to a different entrance where we did lots of shaking of hands and touching of the heart with lots of guys of varying ages, before being ushered into the tent. On the floor were the rugs and a stool thing that I was to learn later was for leaning on. We took off our shoes and made ourselves comfortable around the fire. Donna and the girls were ushered in as well. They were burning a log of the local scrubby tree, which I believe is an acacia of some sort. It produces beautiful aromatic smoke that, with the positioning of the fire, fills the whole tent with the smell. To say it was enchanting is not doing it justice.

We were to learn that Abdul, whose camp this was, was at the local village, Al-Hofr, getting something from the souk. The fellow who was leading the social duties in his absence was a youngish fellow from Jeddah who was the only person in the group who went to school. He had a bare smattering of English and we were all able to settle in quite nicely. He also had a pistol on his hip, but we were getting used to that sort of thing by now. Firstly they served up some cardamom tea in tiny glasses. The cardamom cleanses the mouth. When this was finished, we progressed straight into the real tea. This was brewed up on the fire and was served in small glasses, which is standard. It was very sweet which is again standard. The tea didn’t stop. As soon as a glass was emptied it was filled again. The women scampered about ensuring that everything was kept supplied, such as clean glasses, water, tea etc. While the tea was being served we were presented with a bowl of strange looking white stuff. It turned out to be dry goat cheese and was very nice indeed. During the whole procedure we were also presented with a large bowl of dates.

Meanwhile, Donna and the girls, who were surprisingly in the same part of the tent as us, were talking with the females of the family. The females only spoke to the females and the males only spoke to the males, except for mother / sons, brothers / sisters. The young females were fascinated by Donna and the girls. They couldn’t get their eyes off Emma with her light hair and big blue eyes. In the beginning the young females were all giggles, but they eventually calmed down and were doing their best to communicate. They all had their faces covered except for the eyes. We have since found out that the Bedouin women have the face mask that leaves the eyes uncovered.

After about 45 minutes, Abdul turned up. It was interesting to watch what happened when a new male arrived on the scene, which was constantly happening. All of the males would stand and shake hands, cover their hearts, kissy kissy etc, whatever the situation called for, then they would all adopt a new seat in the arrangement. It became obvious that the seating arrangements depended upon the relationship between the participants. When Abdul turned up, he immediately adopted the seat of authority because it was his camp. Even when his father turned up, Abdul maintained his seat of authority because it was his camp and his father was a visitor.

The kids went outside and played with the children of the camp. Emma wondered whether they were supposed to take off their shoes and run around bare footed like the others. Donna assured her that it was OK for her to wear her shoes. They all went out to the goat herd and basically had a good time, so we were told later. Emma desperately wanted to invite the children to our camp. We explained that we couldn’t do that, but I don’t think she really understood why.

Donna was being very careful indeed not to openly admire the jewellery that the women were wearing. Each of the women had a goodly amount of gold on them in the form of ear rings, bracelets, necklaces, rings etc. Goodness knows where this jewellery comes from as they did not appear to have any requirement for cash in their life style. Donna was talking (communicating) quite well with the women, talking about things like the beautiful eyes they had, babies, of which one of them had had 12, and all of that sort of thing. Donna did openly admire the henna patterns that the women had on the palms of their hands, and she was promptly offered to have it done. This was the icing on the cake for Donna. She agreed to have it done and so now she has an absolutely genuine Bedouin henna pattern on the palm of one hand, put there by a genuine Bedouin woman while sitting on the floor of a Bedouin tent surrounded by a herd of goats in the middle of the desert.

Nick and I were starting to wonder about how we were going to bring the proceedings to a halt in a polite manner. Not knowing the customs, we weren’t sure whether we were supposed to do it or whether the host was supposed to. We decided that, as we were heading towards the lunch time salah (prayer), we could use that as an opportunity to make the break. The right time came in the conversation, so we made our excuses and stood up to leave. This was where things could have become difficult, but much to my relief, it didn’t. They accepted that we needed to leave and so we all said thank-you very much (shokran quateer) and good-bye (marselama). We were offered to stay for the rest of the day (and evening ?) and for an evening meal. We were also offered to stay that night at the camp, all of which we politely declined. I believe that they received as much from the visit as we did and it is a memory that we will always have.

Interestingly, that afternoon we had a visit at the camp from a fancy looking 4 wheel drive that had 4 Saudi guys in it. It stopped the obligatory 50m from camp so Nick and I went out to greet it. They had on fancy looking sun glasses and had an air of big-headedness about them. We were able to ascertain that they were asking for food and water, so we gave them a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits. They queried the single bottle of water and then hinted at joining us at our camp. I was damned annoyed about this but as soon as Nick mentioned that we had a madam with us, they backed off, thanked us for the supplies and then left. The interesting thing was the ability to be able to compare directly between the Bedouin and the town Arabs. Chalk and cheese, and I definitely know which we all prefer now. As Donna said, it was interesting that they chose what was obviously a western camp to approach rather than the geographically more approachable Bedouin camp. We suspect that it may be because there is not a lot of commonality, or love lost, between the town Saudis and the Bedouin.

That night was the coldest night we had while on our trip. Due to the influence of the Bedouin experience, we all went around collecting wood lying on the ground and made ourselves a respectable fire. We sat around the fire and sang the traditional fire side songs before the kids went to bed. Nick, Donna and I shuffled off to bed a while later, with the wind blowing quite badly. That night was cold and long. We all had on all of our clothes, but the wind still managed to get through the sleeping bags. Nick finally relented and crawled into his car. The rest of us stuck to it but we were cold in the morning. We packed up camp and left at 9 o’clock, getting home by half past 5, tired, dirty and very satisfied.

I’m going to leave it there and let Donna add any comments or fill in any gaping holes. We were talking about it today and have decided to try to complete the trip but from the other direction, in October of this year. Donna has gained a new appreciation of KSA and wants to continue the experience. I for one am very pleased.

As Alex has said, it was a wonderful holiday. We all enjoyed it immensely. For me, the icing was the Bedouin camp and having my hand henna-ed. It is starting to wear off now, due mostly to the endless loads of washing I have been doing today. The most important thing to me about it is that it was done by the genuine Bedouin ladies and it looks pretty good. I would like to go back to the same camp in a year’s time for another visit. We have been talking about it and Nick, Lex and I have agreed that it would be a wonderful thing to do.

I have discovered a new liking for this country. I am seeing it now with a different outlook and have decided that there is a lot more that I would like to see and do here. I want to make the most of our time here and see more and experience more about the people here.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip to Lawrence of Arabia Country – Hijaz Railway

Today’s story is a bit of a long read, but I think you will enjoy it. It was a trip into some stunning country in the area where Lawrence of Arabia made his name. The Hijaz Railway.

At last the time has arrived for the second last long camping trip of my Saudi experience. This one has been in the planning for 12 months, ever since Nick, his mum Mary, Donna, the girls and I had first driven down the Hijaz Railway during the Medain Saleh trip last Ramadan. The timing for this afternoon has become quite important because there are a number of steps that must be accomplished before we can leave tomorrow morning.

Firstly, we have to do the shopping for the trip. We haven’t been able to do a lot of the organizing for the trip due to the hectic pace of activities over the past month or so, culminating with Donna and the girls leaving Saudi ‘exit only’ this afternoon.

Secondly we have to make sure all of the equipment is ready to be packed tomorrow morning. We have already checked the status of the gear over the past few weeks (that was one of the purposes of the Jebel Baloum trip with my mum), but we still had to make sure that we have everything. Because we are only taking one car, Nick’s, it is more important to make sure that we are not doubling up. There just won’t be the room.

We have decided to go to Kenny Roger’s for some broasted chicken for tea and then off to Tamimi’s for the shopping.

This all worked out well and we are ready to pack the cars in the morning. Off to bed after a chat and some liquid refreshments.

Day #1 – I suppose it is because of the excitement of the upcoming trip, but I have had a terrible night’s sleep. It is 06:15 and we are up. The packing of the car is always an interesting job as it sort of sets the scene for the rest of the trip. Get the packing wrong and everything seems to go slightly off the rails. However, the packing went well today, although we did have to remove the extra seats from the back of Nick’s car.

It is 08:00 and we are leaving. The weather is marvellous and the mileage on Nick’s car is 20342km. We are both very much looking forward to the next 6 days.

10:15 and the weather is slightly overcast and 18C. Everything is progressing well as we travel towards Buraidah and then on to Ha’il. The freeway to Buraidah, 6 lanes wide and 360km long, is a good way to leave Riyadh in a hurry, and that’s how we feel.

It is now 14:15 and the weather has deteriorated. The temperature is 13C, (it’s convenient to have a thermometer in Nick’s car), rather windy with high level cloud and a few spots of rain. Oh dear. We are 40km short of Ha’il and have a couple of hours before we need to think about stopping, so we can only but hope that the weather doesn’t get much worse.

16:00 and we have arrived at our overnight spot. Beautiful view across sandy low land with black hills scattered around. Weather chilly but otherwise almost perfect. Slight breeze with 30% cloud.

Stupid me sliced my finger with the knife as I was opening a bottle of fuel for the stove. It isn’t too bad and only required Dettol and a bandaid. Lots of blood though.

After setting up camp, we have had one of the best ‘super stews’ ever for tea. Chicken, potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage, chicken stock cube and chicken noodle soup. Nick and I ate the lot.

The super cloak came in very handy during the evening as the temperature dropped quite a bit. I’m glad I decided to bring the cloak as I was considering not doing so. I was torn between using it for real and keeping it for show. But it is cold enough tonight that I’m glad that I brought it.

We were in bed by 20:00. I wore almost everything to bed but ended up taking most of it off during the night as I became too warm and uncomfortable. The evening was as most evenings in the desert are. The breeze had stopped, the sky was utterly clear and there was magic in the air. I wish I was able to convince those who refuse to leave Riyadh of what they are missing out on.

It is now the morning of day #2 and I had a very good sleep with a total of 7 or 8 hours. The only part of me that got cold was my feet, but that wasn’t too bad.

Day #2 – We have woken at 07:00. The weather is overcast but otherwise OK and the temperature is about 7C. We have porridge for breakfast, cooked by Nick. It is one of the best batches of porridge I have ever had and is followed by cups of tea and serious coffee, which is marvellous. It is actually reminiscent of the espresso in Rome.

While brewing the coffee, we have let the pot boil over and it seems to have wet the wicks of the stove. I will have to change the wicks this afternoon before we can use the stove.

After packing up camp, we are ready to leave by 09:15. It is about 330km to Al-Ula and we hope to be there by midday. We have to get petrol, a little more food and milk. Al-Ula is an interesting town stuck in the middle of an area which is central to both the Bible and the Koran. It was sort of eerie driving through there the last time we were here and I hope to have a similar feeling this time.

The drive towards Al-Ula is spectacular in its beauty. This is another one of those times when words simply cannot do it justice. I hope to include some photos with this story as that is the only way I have of possibly getting my message across. This part of the world is unbelievable in its beauty. The road is open and sweeping and a joy to drive.

For a large portion of this stretch we are cruising at 160kph. The car is a magnificent car to drive and does the 160kph with no problems at all. Cruise control helps.

At 11:15, we have covered 1000km since leaving home. The weather is very good, the temperature is 13C and spirits are high.

As we are travelling along the southern area of the Nafud desert and the scenery is so good, I am getting more and more keen on my next trip which will take me along the northern area of this desert.

We stopped for lunch at 13:00 just on the southern side of Al-Ula and sat by one of the old station houses. The weather is close to perfect being sunny with a little wind and 16C.

We have found the turn off for the railway at 13:54. Here we go down the Hijaz railway!

The Hijaz railway scenery is simply the most stunning scenery I have ever scene. In my opinion it rivals the scenery in Austria/northern Italy. We arrived at the selected camping spot, where we intend to stay for 3 nights, at 15:20. The weather is almost perfect; bright sunshine, 18C with only a slight breeze coming in from the SW.

The spot we have chosen to camp is ENE and 4 to 5km from the railway. We are tucked in behind a hill and are looking out over a sandy flat that extends for 3km to a high, black mountain. There are a few small acacias so we should be able to collect enough firewood to have a modest fire each night.

We have decided to spend the first of our 2 days here as a climbing day, attempting to climb the black mountain in front of us. The second day will be a walking day and we should be able to get a better idea of where to walk from the top of the mountain. At least, that’s the theory.

Amazingly, within 15 minutes of stopping, we have seen a herd of 150 goats with their herder. What we find so amazing about this is where we are. As far as we are concerned, we are in the middle-of-nowhere. Obviously we are not.

It is time now to start the process of setting up camp. This involves blowing up airbeds, collecting firewood, setting up the stove and getting the kettle on for a cup of tea, getting the various boxes out of the car etc. I know this sounds mundane, but it is a very important, if repetitive, part of the whole experience.

Tea is a steak super stew and magnificent, as always. After tea, we started up a fire and sat by it drinking tea and eating olives and dates.

After a tremendous day, we went to bed at about 21:20. Tonight it is no where near as cold as last night and a wonderful sleep will be had by all, hopefully.

Day #3 – We have woken at 07:20 to a magnificent sight. The sun rising is casting the most wonderful light on the hill that we intend to climb today. I am contemplating taking a photo, but I don’t think a camera could capture the view effectively. It is all so peaceful and beautiful.

We plan on being ready to start walking by 09:00, but as it is already 08:25, it is isn’t looking good for making that time. By 10:00 we are ready to leave, after Nick’s ablutions.

The walk across to the hill, which is about 5km of flat, sandy gravel with acacia’s dotted about, has taken an hour and a half. It is amazing how much the country side changes when you look at it from a different direction and from a different distance. What looked to be a fairly easy climb to the top is now beginning to look like a major trek. Plus, the hill that we are camped by is now a minor bump among many bumps, both minor and major. We are glad that we took the time to take a bearing with the compass before leaving the camp because it is starting to look like we may need it to find our way back.

The bottom of the hill is strewn with rocks which have been eroded from the hill over time. This has made the approach quite difficult. After an hour of tough climbing we have reached a point at which we have decided that we aren’t going to make it to the top and to be satisfied with the part of the hill we had managed to climb. We determined later that this was 2/3 of the total height of the hill. Regardless, it provided a spectacular view.

How do I begin to describe the vista that is spread before us?

We can see for 40 or 50km in a 180 degree sweep of the most pristine, unspoiled country that Nick or I have ever seen. Our hill, where the car and all of our gear is, has disappeared with the distance. So there is not the slightest sign that mankind has ever been here. And the silence! The weather also is perfect, without the slightest breeze. The wisps of cloud are formed into wonderful patterns that are streaking across the sky. Nick and I have agreed that all of the trips and camps that we have had during our 4 and a half years in Saudi have been practice runs for this moment and they have been well spent, because this is almost perfect. All that can make it better is if Donna was able to share the experience with me.

While admiring this view, we have been able to plan out our walk for tomorrow, which we expect to be about 12km around one of the nearby hills.

After eating our lunch, we have started the descent, very carefully picking our way down amongst the rocks. A slip and a broken ankle at this point would not be wise as we are a long way from the closest possible vehicle track.

After a bit of an arduous walk, due to the sandy nature of the low lying ground, we are back at camp by 15:30. We have collected some more wood along the way as we have found that there is plenty to be had in the wadi and even though it looks green, it burns very well indeed.

The evening meal consists of olives, the spiciest pickled onions we have ever eaten and a canned corned beef super stew. This have proven to be so nice that we both have had 4 large bowls of it. By the end of his 4th bowl, Nick has exclaimed that he thinks he is going to throw up because he has eaten so much.

The fire is again beautiful. The slight, gusty breeze that has persisted through the late afternoon and early evening has died away and we are able to sit by the fire and watch the sparks, fire and embers and smell the intoxicating acacia smoke. I have decided that the smell is so good that I am going to collect some small pieces of the wood before leaving this spot and use them at home in Riyadh in the incense burner.

Our sleep was the best yet. There is no wind at all, the sky is completely clear and, except for 4 o’clock in the morning, it hasn’t been too cold.

Day #4 – After a tremendous night’s sleep, we are awake by 06:30. This morning we decided to do something a little different, so Nick got up and made a cup of tea, which we both drank while lying in our sleeping bags, listening to the world news on the BBC.

The intention today is for a walk on the flat, following the route that we mapped out yesterday while up the mountain.

The time is 08:45, the sun is shining with not a cloud in the sky, there is no breeze at all and the temperature is about 16C. Can life get better?

After walking for half an hour, we have found the camp that the various goat and camel herders have been coming from. It is tucked in behind the next hill along from ours. It is an impressive looking camp with 3 or 4 tents and an unknown number of vehicles. We have already seen at least one Toyota one tonner. We have given the camp a wide berth and headed up a wadi to the left.

We have soon come across a wadi which looks quite interesting. We have followed it up and found that we now have a choice. Before leaving our camp, we had taken a bearing with the 2 main hills and this wadi we are now at the beginning of is heading in the right direction. The choice is, do we head up the wadi and over the saddle at the top into an unknown situation on the other side, or do we stay at ground level and continue to circum-navigate the hill, relying on the idea that we will be able to walk all the way around? We have chosen the first option and have headed up the wadi.

The wadi has gone into a closed area, surrounded on all sides by red hills. By the time we have climbed the hill which is in the most correct direction, it is time for an early lunch, so we have sat ourselves down and contemplated the view.

After lunch, we again have a choice. We know where we are in relation to our camp and are too close to head straight back. But if we turn to the right instead of left, we may find a way around the hill and back in another direction to camp. We have decided to go right for 45 minutes and then see what our situation is.

After 45 minutes, we are at the top of a saddle between two spectacular mountains. It is obvious that it is too far to continue, but we have found some more breath taking scenery. After a drink and a snack, we will head back towards camp. It is now 13:15.

14:00 and we are back down on the flat and starting to feel a tad disoriented. We have expected this to happen but that doesn’t lessen the confusion now that it has. At different times of the day, with the shifting sun and looking from different directions, everything looks completely different. We now have to take stock and check our bearing carefully. It would be so easy to turn left when the camp is actually to the right. Added to this is that we have found ourselves within sight of the Bedouin camp and do not want to attract attention or cause alarm. For this reason, and after carefully rechecking our bearings, we have headed off across the plain to the left of the Bedouin camp, with the intention of cutting around it and to the right, after passing by a small hill in the distance.

Everything is going to plan but, just before arriving at the small hill, one of the camp Toyota one tonners has come up to us. In it are a guy of about 25 and a young boy of about 10. They cannot speak any English and so we are communicating in very poor Arabic. We have told them that we are walking and that the countryside is beautiful. We already know from past experience that the main reason they have come over is to ensure that we are OK. We are at this point maybe 70km from the closest town, being Al-Ula, and 5km from the closest track that white men normally drive on. Plus, we are 6km from our vehicle, which they no doubt know where it is, so no one can blame them for thinking that we may be in trouble. Anyway, we have managed to show him that we are fine, if maybe a little nuts and so off he has gone.

45 minutes later we are back at camp and have found everything to be in order, much to our relief and shame. After almost 5 years of experience here, why do we still expect the worst when we have never been given a reason for doing so by these wonderful desert people?

A rice and tomato super stew tonight, which Nick has declared he will only be having one bowl of after last night’s effort. We’ll see.

We have started the fire up early as we have plenty of wood and this is going to be last fire opportunity. The tea is cooked quickly and we have sat by the roaring fire eating. The smell of the fire is intoxicating, to the point that I will be taking some small pieces of the acacia wood home with me to Riyadh to burn in the incense burner.

The early night is the warmest yet, but it will become colder later. Neither Nick or I can sleep very well.

Day #5 – 05:30 and we are up. We need to be on our way by 08:00 in order to get far enough along the road that we can be in Riyadh by 16:00 on Tuesday. Nick needs to be home by then. The early morning has given us the opportunity to watch the sun come up, which has happened at 06:15. It is all so peaceful and beautiful.

08:00 and we are all packed and on our way. The weather is perfect.

At the place that we camped last Ramadan, we have seen the 3 cars of westerners that we saw passing by on the railroad yesterday. In the 3 cars there appears to be 8 adults and any number of children. Proof again that the human is a herding animal. We have just waved and kept driving. They aren’t in any bother.

Twenty kilometres later and it is time for morning tea. Both of us feel like a coffee as we didn’t get to have one this morning. So we have stopped at a station and are brewing it up. Coffee, dates and oatmeal biscuits makes for a nice morning tea.

Up ahead is a herd of goats scattered over the railway. It is best to stop as the goats are apt to do anything. Coming along close behind is the herder and surprisingly, he has his wife and 2 children with him. The children are a boy and a girl. Amazingly, now keep in mind that we are probably 30km from anything that passes for civilization, the woman is fully covered. Not only does she have an abya on, but she has her face fully covered as well. I have never seen that before in the desert. Normally they have the face veil and the head covering, but never before have I seen the full kit. Who on earth does she expect to be covering herself from when she is so far from anyone else?

11:00 and we are on the bitumen. After berating myself for not taking a distance measurement when we first left the bitumen, I have made sure that I took one for the drive out and found that the camping spot was 64km from the bitumen at the start of the off road section and 87km from the bitumen at the end. Nick and I have agreed that the Hijaz railway is the most beautiful and special part of Saudi that we have experienced.

The next objective is to travel through (around) Medina, as non-muslims are not allowed to enter Medina, and get as far down the highway as we can before 16:00 in order to keep tomorrow’s distance as low as possible. We are currently about 1100km from Riyadh.

12:45 and we’ve had lunch. We are 15km on the Al-Ula side of Medina and about to go around on the non-Muslim’s road. Medina is not a very attractive town from the ring road. The most striking feature of Medina is the mountain which dominates the geographical centre. I have no idea of the significance of this mountain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is mentioned in the bible and Koran.

16:15 and we have stopped for the night. We’re about 140km west of Buraidah which leaves 530 odd kilometres before Riyadh. We have chosen to stop now because very soon along the road the countryside becomes farmland and it is increasingly difficult to find an isolated camping spot, the kind we like best.

We have stopped 3km off the highway at the base of a small hill. The ground is covered in shale. There are no trees at all so there won’t be a fire tonight. There is evidence of a good amount of rain recently as we came close to getting stuck in mud. Now wouldn’t that be ironical! There are also many camels around, so we have chosen a spot slightly behind the hill and as far from the wandering camels as we can.

Tea tonight will be a tuna super stew. Yum, yum.

The evening meal was beautiful, but I kept myself down to 3 bowls. Nick had only 2, the woos.

Tonight is going to be a little bit fresh as we can feel the chill in the air.

Off to bed at 20:30, rugged up in most of my clothes. I wonder just how cold it is going to get?

Day #6 – Sadly, today is the last day of our holiday. We are up at 06:00, even though the sun isn’t yet up. The night has been the coldest yet, but neither Nick or myself have suffered that much. My feet got a little cold and I ended up with most of my night time clothes on. This consisted of a full set of thermal underwear, a pair of thick socks, a tee shirt, a woollen jumper and a thick, woollen hat. Plus I threw my super cloak over the top in an effort to keep my legs and feet warmer, even though the weight of it meant that I felt pinned to the airbed.

During the wee hours we could hear an owl hooting in the nearby hill. He must have been revved up because he kept hooting until we got out of bed.

The first thing to do is to get a cup of tea. Being as cold as we are out of bed, we see this as being essential. Besides, as the sun is not up, there is little point doing much else. Next is the porridge and strong coffee. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that this is the last magic morning of the second last long camping trip of my Saudi experience. It is going to be very sad to leave here.

By 08:30 we are on our way. On the 15 minute drive back to the highway we have seen much evidence of recent rain. In fact, as the sun rose earlier in the morning, we have been able to see a small lake in the distance, so there must have been a lot of rain recently. We have been lucky to have missed it. But now that we are leaving for Riyadh, it can rain as much as it likes.

The weather is fine with 50% light cloud cover, no breeze and 6C. That is the killer! Six bloody degrees! It is freezing. 550km back to Riyadh and we expect to be there soon after 15:00.

Well, here we are back at Nick’s place. The time is 14:50 and it is all over. (sigh …… fade to credits)