The Marathon des Sables is the original and classic endurance event. It is 7 days and 250km of soul crushing hardship. What it is not is something that a person with T1D should consider doing without extensive research and deep consideration. But I did. This is the story of what I needed to do to survive.
Table of Contents
It was August 1974 and my mother, two younger brothers and I had been living in The Basin since before winter had started. This was the first house my mother had found to rent since we had needed to move away from the family home. My parents had split and, being the 70’s, my newly single mother was finding it difficult finding a landlord who would trust her to pay the rent. Today we think back to the 70’s with a warm, cosy feeling of nostalgia for a world more innocent and burnt orange kitchens. But for a single woman with young children, it could be, and was, a tough place.
The Basin sits at the base of The Dandenongs, the iconic collection of hills to the east of Melbourne. If you wanted to find somewhere that suffered all of the hardships associated with winter in Melbourne, you couldn’t go much past The Basin. From late April until early September The Basin was cold, wet and miserable. Sure it held an idyllic charm, almost a faux Swiss / European quaintness, but during those months the “Swiss quaint” was difficult to identify.
As I was now in my final year of high school which, in Australia, was the year when your final exam results dictated if you could go to university or not, and therefore your future direction in life, moving schools was not even discussed, let alone considered. It went without saying that I would need to make the daily journey from The Basin to Mitcham, where my high school for the past five and a half years was. This involved either catching a bus to the nearest station, or walking the three kilometres, then catching the suburban train to Mitcham, then walking another one and a half kilometres to the school. At the end of the day, the reverse journey was required of course. So on any given day of the week I could find myself walking for up to nine kilometres, often in the dark, through rain and hail and icy wind, to and from school.
Add to this picture the underlying emotional upheaval of having your family gradually fall apart and for a seventeen year old, something was bound to give.
The Young Diabetic in Cubicle 3
“Yes doctor, the young diabetic in cubicle 3” said the nurse as she talked with one of the doctors in the emergency ward of Box Hill Hospital. My mother and I weren’t silly; we knew which cubicle we were sitting in.
This was how I found out that my life, my world, my existence had changed forever. There was no going back from this moment.
All my mother and I knew about diabetes up to that point was the same as most people back then, and to this day, and that is that it involved injections; lots of them. With just the two of us huddled away in the cubicle, the news that came drifting over the partition left me shell shocked. My mother, with all of the upheavals and dramas that she had endured over the years, especially over the last twelve months as a single mother of three boys, had learned to grit her teeth and take the slap as she had so many times before. But for me, a seventeen year old teenager, this was a shock too far. I burst into tears.
After what seemed like an eternity, the doctor came sweeping in with his entourage in tow. His white coat was open and ballooning at the back. His entourage included a junior doctor, a student doctor and a nurse, all of whom had clip boards in the crook of their arm. The nurse was frantically writing down instructions; the student was scribbling notes desperately and the junior doctor was reading aloud from his clip board. Even though we’d only spoken with the receptionist as we entered the hospital and the nurse as she took some blood from my arm earlier, I had apparently already built up a medical history that stretched across a number of pages.
Being the 70’s, doctors were still considered by most people to be demi-gods, beyond being questioned. They were the ones with the years of university and experience, so their word was beyond us mere mortals. My mother and I sat there as they all talked amongst themselves, almost as if we weren’t even there. The nurse took notes, the student doctor remained silent and in the background, except to acknowledge that he had made note of the latest pearl of wisdom from the senior doctor, and the junior doctor quietly read information aloud from his clip board, answering the senior doctor’s clipped queries.
Suddenly, with virtually no warning, the senior doctor turned his ray of wisdom in our direction. His tone softened a little as he spoke to my mother. He explained in a couple of brief sentences, all the while holding a tone that portrayed that he actually expected my mother to understand everything that he was saying, that I was a very sick lad and that she should have brought me to the hospital sooner. Working on the assumption that my mother was already quite well acquainted with diabetes, he explained in his clipped manner that I would be in hospital for about a week, then having injections for the rest of my life. I would need to follow a strict diet and that, so long as I followed the rules without deviation, I should be able to live relatively well for close to a normal time frame. I would learn the basics of living with “juvenile diabetes” during my week in hospital. Other doctors and nurses would answer any further questions we had.
Only then did he turn to me.
“Well my friend, you have been a very sick fellow, but we’re here to help you get better.” I sat there with my eyes red and puffy from my tears, desperately trying to keep myself under control. Crying in front of this important person was to be avoided, or so I told myself.
“What you have is called Juvenile Onset Diabetes and it’s when your pancreas isn’t making insulin. It is a serious illness, but one that we can manage.”
“How long will I need to have injections for?” I blurted out. “I don’t like injections.”
“Well, that’s something that we will teach you about. You will need to have injections for the rest of your life, but you will learn to get used to them.”
I felt totally gutted. Only this morning I had left home as normal to go to school, but with instructions from my mother to go to see the family doctor on the way home. And now here I was in the emergency ward of a hospital being told that my life had changed forever. How could this all be happening?
As I sat there with my mother, both of us feeling overwhelmed, little did we realise just how radically my life really had changed. In the space of fifteen minutes I had gone from being a typical, if a little bit sickly, seventeen year old, to being a member of an elite group of humans comprising roughly 0.5% of humanity who were living with this chronic illness. So long as I learned all of the rules and took my insulin and ate the right foods at the right times, I could hope to live almost as long as my friends. But if I didn’t learn the rules, or chose not to stick to them closely, I could expect any number of a group of horrible complications that came with the diagnosis.
All I could think as we both sat there in a daze was “Fifteen minutes ago I was normal. Why me?”
A Year of Daze
“Really Alex, you can’t keep doing this sort of thing. You need to think of the people who care about you.”
I have no idea how many days this lady had been sitting beside my bed talking to me. She may have been there for five minutes, or she could have been there for three days. I had no idea.
For what seemed like an eternity of cloud and mist, I could hear a female voice. I couldn’t understand what the voice was saying, but I was aware that the voice was there. Sometimes the mist would start to thin and I could almost understand what was going on, then the cloud would again descend and everything would return to the dark.
It was 1982. I was 25 years old and a computer operator, working a 24 hour rotating shift for an international insurance company. With hard work, gritted teeth and a lot of help from Lady Luck, I had survived my first eight years of living with type 1 diabetes. There had been many touch-and-go moments where things had nearly come unstuck, such as the time my friends and I were in the spaghetti restaurant and my sugar went low. It was all they could do to keep me shovelling the spaghetti into my mouth, knowing that eventually the starch would do it’s job converting to sucrose in my system and bring my sugar level up. Until then, they were good friends enough to ignore the embarrassment I was causing them and just keep me focussed on eating.
But I still hadn’t accepted the reality of what I was living with. After eight years, you would think that I had come to accept it and live according to the realities imposed by type 1 diabetes. But not me. No, I was the he-man warrior who was invincible. I was working 24 hour shift work, running, cycling, playing squash, doing gym work, surfing, snow skiing, water skiing and bush walking. Me compensate because of a chronic illness? That’s was not going to happen.
So here I was now in a state of semi-consciousness, drifting in and out of reality, with what seemed like a permanent lady sitting beside my bed.
I was to find out later that I had come home from night shift and gone to bed as normal. But my blood sugar level dropped too low and I went from sleep to coma without waking up. Fortunately my flatmate had found me and called an ambulance, and now I had spent a week in intensive care as the hospital brought me gradually back to the world of the living. The “lady” sitting beside my bed around the clock were nurses, there to calm me when I finally emerged from the coma I was in.
Nurses around the world are very special people.
“My name is Anne, and this is Betty, George, Paul, Susan and John. We are trainee doctors who have been asked to determine the extent of your problems. As you know, you spent some time in intensive care after having a major hypoglycaemic episode. Do you remember about that?”
“Yes, but it’s a bit fuzzy.”
“Yes, and it’s because of that fuzziness that we are talking to you today. You were in a very bad way when they brought you in to emergency. By the way, who was the fellow who came in with you?”
“I don’t know, but I suppose it was my flatmate. Why?”
“Well, you can consider him to be a very good friend because he caused a bit of fuss when he thought we weren’t doing enough for you. What is my name?”
This was a strange question. She had told me all of their names just a couple of moments ago, so why ask me now?
I opened my mouth to tell her what her name was and my world caved in. A black hole opened in front of me and I felt myself fall into the hole and keep falling. I had opened my mouth but there was nothing there. Where her name should have been was simply blank. My short term memory was gone and where it should have been was just a wreckage.
The young doctors could see the sudden panic I was facing and quickly set about reassuring me and calming me down. They explained that I had suffered some brain damage from the extreme low sugar and it was likely to have affected my short term memory, amongst other things. But by now I was only vaguely aware of what they were saying. I had started the descent into a mental hell that was going to take me two years to climb out from.
26,000 Injections Later, Give or Take
Jump forward twenty six years, six or seven ambulance trips to hospital, countless episodes of low sugar, known as “hypos”, and roughly twenty six thousand injections of insulin. It’s April 2008 and I was on the train home from my day at work in the city. Along with half the people on the crowded train, I was reading a copy of the daily commuter newspaper handed out at the station.
There were the usual stories about local celebrities, politicians doing silly things, the latest out-of-reach model of car from Mercedes. I moved on through the letters pages where young, spotty faced, love-sick commuters write anonymous notes to the pretty girl they saw the previous day. It was all mildly amusing, but in a humdrum sort of way. I was about to give up on the paper when I turned the page for the final time and something grabbed my eye. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for five years and spent many hours driving and walking through the desert, my eye was tuned to look for anything that might be about Saudi, the Middle East or the desert. And what I was looking at now was a half-page story with a photo of a person dressed in shorts and running shoes and a desert hat apparently running through the desert. Intriguingly, the person also had on what appeared to be a backpack.
As I sat on the crowded suburban train, squeezed into my seat and with my bag tucked between my feet on the floor, the story was telling me about another world. This was the world of extreme duration events and specifically the Marathon Des Sables. I’d heard about this event and that it was some sort of crazy race across the desert carrying all of your stuff on your back. But that was about the extent of my knowledge. The story I was now reading, though brief and without many details, was setting my mental wheels in motion. I learned from the story that the name “Marathon Des Sables” is French, and means “Marathon of the Sands”. The event was started many years ago by a French adventurer called Patrick Bauer, after he had undergone an experience in the Sahara desert in Morocco.
The event entailed the competitors covering a distance of about two hundred and forty kilometres in stages, set over a seven day period. Each competitor carried all of their gear and food requirements, with water being supplied to them along the way. And the reason why the story was in the newspaper at all was because the 2008 running was about to start.
Even though the story held only scant information about the Marathon Des Sables, it set my mind running and for the rest of the hour-long trip home I could think of little else. I even sent my wife Donna a message, telling her that I had something to ask her when I got home. My mind was churning, my excitement was up. Could it be possible that I would again experience the magic that is the desert at night?
The Magic Kingdom is Calling
Saudi Arabia – sigh.
Thanks to “The recession we had to have” in Australia around 1993, a quote from our then Prime Minister Paul Keating, I must have been one of the last people in Australia to be retrenched.
Seven years previously my family and I had moved from Melbourne to Brisbane, with the hope of providing our growing family with a brighter future. Melbourne and Victoria had been struggling through a serious economic downturn for a number of years and, when a good job was offered to me in Brisbane, Donna and I decided it was an opportunity too good to pass up for a change to our family life. Besides, most of Donna’s close family were now living in the Brisbane area after moving over from New Zealand, so it was also a chance for her to be closer to them. After moving to Melbourne five years previously, Donna was missing her family.
It all seemed to come together in a neatly serendipitous manner.
Life was good. Sure, interest rates were going up and the mortgage payments were getting bigger, but I had a good job and Brisbane had a care-free atmosphere that matched its seemingly limitless sunshine.
The company I was with were going through a large growth period and were in the process of buying up smaller companies who were struggling with the crippling interest rates. You would think that meant that my job was getting even safer. Yes, so did I. However, many of us didn’t count on the strange way high level management see the world. So after acquiring companies, then reorganising, many of us found ourselves without a job. After the six hard years that I had given to helping the company rebuild its computer systems, this was a kick in the guts.
With mortgage interest rates running at a record 17.5%, three young children in primary school and all of the other costs and responsibilities of having a young family, our seeming good fortune had rapidly done an about face.
The next two years were a daily struggle to make ends meet and keep the bank happy. Donna, who had a wider range and more marketable set of skills than myself, was able to find a full time and part time job. She spent her days working in a mail sorting centre and her evenings behind a cash register at a service station. Meanwhile, I had found a job working in a factory making plastic parts for advertising units. On Saturdays, I was working on the gate at a trash’n’treasure market, hiring out display tables to stall holders and putting PAID stamps on the hands of customers. Exciting work it certainly wasn’t, but at least between us it kept food in the mouths of the kids. I was to find out years later that, during this period, Donna was going without food on occasions so the children and I could eat. She was well aware that, living with type 1 diabetes, going without food was not an option for me. But I was unaware she was doing this at the time.
It seems almost archaic now, but 1993 / 4 was before the internet had become available to the general public. I know, hard to imagine, isn’t it. We take so much for granted now, like instant access to available jobs, near instant contact through email, sending an application and resume online, but in 1993 / 4 this simply didn’t exist. Because of this, finding a job was done the old fashioned way, by buying the Saturday broadsheet newspaper and laboriously working through the job ads. This became a regular activity, but unlike sending off an email, it involved multiple steps.
1/ circle potential jobs in the newspaper
2/ adjust the standard application cover letter according to the advertisement
3/ make any tweaks required to the resume, to highlight a certain skill or experience
4/ print off the cover letter and resume
5/ go to the post office and buy a presentation folder, large envelope and stamp
6/ write the address for the prospective job on the envelope
7/ place the bundle of documents into the envelope, ensuring everything was correct and neat
8/ seal the envelope, stick the stamp on the front then take it to the counter for posting
9/ wait for at least a week before getting any response. Of course these rarely came. That part of the process hasn’t changed.
Over a two year period I completed this process over fifty times, sometimes posting off five applications, sometimes only one. Another surprising aspect to this process, looking back over those twenty years, was how expensive it was to apply for a professional job when you were unemployed. There was the paper for the printer, the large envelope, the presentation folder and the stamp, plus there was the petrol required to get all of this done and the time required. Back then, the post office was only open from 9:30am until 4pm, Monday to Friday. This made it exceptionally difficult if you had found a fill-in job, as I had.
Donna and I persisted with this laborious process for two years. Australia was deeply involved in the “Recession we had to have” as, to again quote our Prime Minister of the time, we were verging on becoming a “banana republic”. There was a lot of pain required for Australia to work its way through the bad times and come out the other side. Unfortunately my family, and many others, were caught in the mess, and had to do what was necessary to survive.
Then one day …….. ahhhh, what a day.
The telephone rang. No big deal; the telephone rings many times during the day. I picked it up and said hello, to be met by a silence with the telltale hiss of a long
distance call. Don’t forget that this was back in the pre-internet days, when mobile phones were rare and long distance calls almost as rare.
“Could I please speak with Mr Alex Williams”
(Clearing of throat on the phone) “Some time ago you applied for a job in Saudi Arabia.”
This was news to me. Having applied for over fifty jobs over the past two years, I couldn’t be expected to remember each and every one.
(Clearing of throat by me) “Yes, that is correct.”
“My name is Brian (Forgotten) from Such’n’such Bank. I’m calling in relation to your application. Are you still interested in the job?”
Now let me see. I’m working in a factory during the week and stamping people’s hands on the weekend. Donna is working two jobs and we rarely get to see each other. And the bank is not far from knocking on the door.
“Yes, I’m still interested.”
“OK, good. I have a couple of questions.”
He then proceeded to ask me a few questions regarding my knowledge around the technical requirements for the job. Keep in mind that I had now been out of the computer industry for over two years, so my technical skills were either rusty or, even worse, out of date. I was able to provide the stock standard generic answers to the first few questions so, so far so good. Then he asked a question that nearly killed my prospects.
“What can you tell me about Endevor processors?”
I focused on the word “processORS”, thinking instead of the word “processES”. I thought this was an odd question, but proceeded to explain in generic terms about the processes surrounding the technical activity. “Endevor”, by the way, is a piece of software on the mainframe that I work with.
Then suddenly I had one of those flash moments. “Processes? Processors? Endevor? He’s not asking about processes you idiot, he’s asking about Endevor processors!”
“Hold on a moment,” I said “you’re asking about Endevor processors” and then proceeded to provide a two sentence description of what an Endevor processor was and what it did. I found out months later that it was that moment and that answer that had secured the job for me. My family’s and my economic and emotional welfare had pivoted right at that moment in time. I had begun to stumble, which would have blown my chances with the job, but at the last moment I had saved the situation and had given the correct answer.
“Thank-you Alex” said Brian, “Someone will be in contact soon.”
After going through the standard pleasantries, we finished the call.
“How did it go?” asked Donna.
“I don’t know, but I think it went well. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Three days later the phone rang again. There was the delay and the hiss indicating a long distance call. My heart leapt into my throat.
“Hello. Could I please speak with Mr Alex Williams.”
“Hello. My name is Abdul (Forgotten) and I work for Such’n’such Consultants.”
My breath caught in my throat. I had no idea who I was talking to and had never heard of a company called Such’n’such Consultants. But I knew that I was talking to someone associated with The Middle East and so was frozen as I held the phone to my head.
“Such’n’such Consultants are acting on behalf of Such’n’such Bank and they would like to offer you the job of Operations Consultant.”
I felt woozy and my head went light. Could I really be hearing what I was hearing? Was I really being offered a job in Saudi Arabia?
“That’s good to hear.” I said.
“We will be sending you a letter with some details and a ticket for the flight to Dammam. The plan is that you will be spending some time in Dammam, getting to know the system, and will then be transferring to Riyadh. Does all of that sound OK?”
What was I going to say? I mean, really. I’d been effectively unemployed for going on to three years; I’d been working fill-in jobs to bring in some money and remain active; my wife had worked her fingers to the bone making ends meet. What was I going to say?
“Yes, that sounds good.”
“OK, then we will be in touch” he said, before ending the call.
“So …….. ?” asked Donna, who had been listening quietly from another room.
“They’ve offered me the job” I said, still dumbfounded from the telephone conversation I had just finished.
“What is it?” asked Donna.
“I’m not really sure” I said honestly. “It’s in a place called Riyadh, or Dammam, in Saudi Arabia and they want me there in the next few weeks.”
“Are you going to go?” she asked.
“Well, yeah. I don’t think we really have a choice.”
The Magic Kingdom
It was a hectic four weeks before I found myself in Saudi Arabia.
With such a whirlwind of organizing with passports, airline tickets, visas and a plethora of other details, my head stayed up in the clouds for days after my arrival. Coming from Brisbane, Australia and landing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, culture shock doesn’t really explain the avalanche of impressions and emotions. In 1995, the first impression that a new arrival from Australia to Saudi Arabia got as they disembarked from the plane at the airport in Dhahran was the heat. The flight arrived early in the morning, at about one o’clock, and after grabbing my cabin luggage I walked down the stairs of the plane to the tarmac, along with the many other jetlagged passengers. There to greet us was a line of the huge, weird looking airport buses that can be found at many airports around the world.
Crammed on to the bus were dazed looking people, predominantly men, from all over the world, each gripping their cabin luggage. I found myself surrounded by people from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, plus one or two other Aussies and Kiwis. No-one was in a chatting mood as we were all in the same dazed state of mind.
The bus was soon at the entrance to the check-in hall, where we all grabbed our bags again and shuffled off the bus and into the hall. This was where I encountered the next overwhelming impression that told me I was no longer in the closeted safety of Australia. As we shuffled forward to join the long queues of people waiting to check in, I had a real sense of being in a Saturday afternoon movie with Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston, as there were quite a few guys in the lines wearing strange head gear and loin cloths. We could see many khaki uniformed guards with machine guns over their shoulders. I remembered back to all of the people back in Oz who had either expressed their personal concern about my safety, or just outright advised me not to go. The impression that we are fed by the media in Oz is that the Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia, are dangerous places where any clear thinking Australian would not choose to go. And here I was standing in a hot, humid, cavernous shed in the middle of the night with hundreds of people from exotic parts of the world, some wearing exotic clothing, staring down a long line of new arrivals, all being watched over by serious looking fellows with machine guns.
I stood there, looked around and a scene from The Wizard of Oz came to mind. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
Eventually, after a lot of checking, unpacking, packing and stamping of passports, I found myself out on the public side of the door. In 1995, the airport at Dhahran, which was the gateway to Saudi from anywhere in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, was not a great introduction to the country. It was old, run down, a little bit smelly and just had a musty feel about it. After the long flight and the last ninety minutes of passport control and queuing, now stepping out to see a rather drab forecourt, my excitement level had not yet started to rise. Fortunately, I had no problem finding the driver holding a sign with my name on it, so was soon on my way to the hotel.
I don’t know about you, but I am always fascinated when I arrive in a new city. For some reason it’s always at night, with the exception of London. But everywhere else I’ve flown to from Australia, it’s always night when we arrive. And with the flight landing at one in the morning, the time taken going through the process at the airport, then finding my car and driver, it was three thirty in the morning as we drove from the airport to the hotel that they had put me in for the rest of the night. Consequently, the city was quiet.
It seemed like forever that we were driving up near-empty freeways, then turning onto deserted surface roads. The street lights were glowing yellow and what I could see from their light was quite different to the impression I had got from peering down from the window of the plane. Up there, everything was neatly laid out, with the freeways sweeping in graceful curves around the city. But from down here it was clear that I was now in a third world country. Saudi doesn’t like to consider itself a third world country; it has huge oil reserves and has spent a large fortune on infrastructure over the past fifty years. But at street level at four o’clock in the morning driving down deserted roads, it was easy to see that it wasn’t far removed from being just that.
At least now I could tell the naysayers back home that the streets are paved, not sand or gravel, I didn’t see any mud brick buildings on the drive from the airport and I didn’t see a single camel. However I was certainly going to be seeing lots of each of these before my time in Saudi was finished.
For a person living with type 1 diabetes, one of the difficulties with travelling across time zones is the adjustment of medication times. Depending on the flight details, there is both the ongoing adjustment necessary while travelling and then the final adjustment after you arrive at your destination. The time difference between Brisbane and Saudi Arabia is eight hours, but the flight is broken in the middle with a stopover in Singapore. It’s not easy to explain to a person who doesn’t have to live with it the importance, the danger, the concern that the person with T1D has while making the adjustments. Having insulin is not like taking a pill for a headache. Having an injection of insulin is more like squirting high octane fuel into the engine of a drag car. Insulin is not a fuel, but it’s the best example I can think of right now.
If you don’t squirt enough of the fuel into the engine, it will simply stop. But if you squirt too much fuel, the engine will momentarily run too fast before exploding. But, and here’s the scary bit, when a person with type 1 diabetes is doing long distance flights, timing their insulin injections is like trying to squirt in just enough fuel into the engine of the drag car while it’s in the process of doing it’s ¼ mile run. Too little and their blood sugar level runs high; too much and they risk having a hypo, ie. severe low blood sugar level and it’s immediate dangers. But now complicate that by changing time zones and day becomes night, breakfast becomes dinner and midnight becomes lunch time.
So after a couple of hours of fitful sleep, I had to very carefully time my morning routine. I knew that I was being picked up by the company driver at nine o’clock, so I knew that I had to not only ensure that I was presentable for my first day on the job at a new company, but I also had to make sure that I had my morning insulin no sooner than fifteen to twenty minutes before I would have my breakfast available to me. I was also working on the assumption that the breakfast would have enough carbohydrate for me. Keep in mind that I had arrived at the hotel at four o’clock in the morning, so had not been able to check the things that most people just take for granted or dismiss as unimportant, such as availability of food. Having just arrived in the country, all I had with me were the remnants of my emergency travelling food. If necessary that would be enough to see me through until the driver arrived, and then I would ask him to stop at a food shop of some sort. But as this was my first day on the job, I didn’t want to start by causing unexpected difficulties.
People often say, when they hear about this sort of situation, “Oh yes but, they need to know that you need your food and that you need ……. “. Yes, that is correct, but when you live with type 1 diabetes every minute of every day of your life, the dynamics of these situations take on a different colour. I don’t feel that I need to hide my diabetes, not at all. But conversely, I also don’t want my type 1 diabetes to become what people think of when my name is mentioned or they are in my company. It’s hard enough having to juggle the insulin, food and energy requirements every minute of every day, without adding the complications of making those around you think of you as “the diabetic”.
With all of these unknown factors and concerns, my first morning in The Magic Kingdom went without a hitch. I did manage to make myself presentable, and I did manage to have my insulin injection, followed by an acceptable breakfast within the right timeframe. The little wrinkles that often present themselves didn’t let me down this time either. There wasn’t enough carbohydrate in the continental breakfast offered by the hotel, but I was able to obtain a glass of orange juice to boost it up. Exciting stuff, huh? But sadly that sort of mundane detail becomes vital to a person living with type 1 diabetes.
After a short stop over at the company office, where I was introduced to too many people whose names I didn’t have a chance of remembering, the driver took myself and my luggage off to the accommodation that had been arranged for me. The plan was that I’d be spending a couple of months in Dammam, which is on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, then moving to the head office of the bank, which is in Riyadh. Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia and is 400km into the desert. I was fascinated at the prospect of that new adventure, but for now I had the new city of Dammam to get to know.
It took fifteen minutes of carnival ride to get to my temporary accommodation. I didn’t know which way to look, there was just so much to see. By first impressions Dammam is not a pretty city, but it was new to me, it was exotic and it was exciting. Having never been overseas before, except to New Zealand, this was my first out-of-Australia experience. I thought Singapore on the way over was exciting, but this took it to a whole new level. Everywhere I looked I could see guys dressed in the flowing, white robes with the red and white checkered head gear. I was soon to learn that most of those fellows are Saudis, as all Saudi men wear the “thobe” (white robe) and “shumagg” (red and white head covering). I could also see the occasional woman wearing the flowing black robes, which I came to learn is called an “abya”.
After we arrived, the driver knocked on the door of the unit I was to be sharing with another Australian. I stood back and waited a moment before the door was opened. The driver started introducing himself and explaining who I was, but I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. Because who should have opened the door but my best friend from high school, George. I kid you not. There we were on the other side of the planet and George opened the door.
Well, you can imagine how the next few hours were spent. “Do you remember when …..? and I wonder what happened to …… “. We had a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately for me, George was able to introduce me to many of the things to do with Saudi Arabia that a newbie from Oz finds confusing or confronting. He was also able to explain the intricate workings of the work situation, the relationship between the company we were both working for and the bank that we were working at. I felt a bit silly, to be honest, that I wasn’t already clear on much of this, but I was to learn over the next five years that most westerners arrive in Saudi for the first time in a similar dazed and naïve state of mind.
One of the curious things that George was able to explain to me that very first evening was when we went to a local shopping mall. As we were walking around, seeing Saudi families out doing the same thing, I noticed that there were many young Saudi fellows walking through the mall holding hands. Coming from Australia, I drew an immediate conclusion from that. I nudged George in the ribs and whispered “I thought that sort of thing was against the law in Saudi”. He laughed and said that it is. However what I was seeing was a local custom where male friends hold hands in some social settings, like walking through a shopping mall. Coming from Australia, where that would have only one conclusion, I found this quite interesting. Before my time in Saudi was finished five years later, I was to learn hundreds of interesting tidbits of information about Saudi, the Arabian Peninsular, the Arabic people, their culture and their language. I also learned a lot about western cultures and people. But that might be for another story one day.
The original plan was that I would stay with George in Dammam for three months, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t necessary. By the way, the names Dammam, Al-Khobar and Dhahran are almost interchangeable, as together they form a large urban area on the east coast of Saudi Arabia across from Bahrain. The plan was that I would use this time to become more acquainted with the computer operations side of the business. I soon realized that my main focus was going to be with the IT workers in Riyadh, not Dammam, so started the cogs turning so I could move there. After only four weeks in Dammam, I found myself on a plane to Riyadh.
I was to find that many westerners in Saudi vigorously prefer Dammam to Riyadh. Their reasoning is that, because Dammam is Shiite and Riyadh Sunni, Dammam is more easy going and accepting of western customs. For example, it is quite common in Dammam for western women to go shopping in one of the shopping malls without covering up with the abya. However in Riyadh that is a definite no no. Many westerners, both male and female, find that alone is enough for them to not like Riyadh and prefer Dammam. Donna and I never saw that sort of thing as a problem. We went to Saudi expecting things to be different and were not greatly surprised when they were.
For me, Riyadh was the place to be. I loved it. Mind you, it was difficult for me to settle in, with me even contemplating leaving and flying home during the first couple of months there. But after teething problems with the accommodation and finding a group of expats that I got along well with, I was eventually able to bring some stability into my week-to-week life.
Why I preferred Riyadh to Dammam was because of a number of things. Firstly, it was 400km into the desert. Riyadh in 1995 was a city of over a million people, with all of the things that a large population requires. And yet it was 400km into the desert from the east coast. I find that fascinating. Also, Riyadh is the seat of government for Saudi Arabia. It is the centre of power for this fascinating country and is the main residence for the King of Saudi Arabia. Plus it is BECAUSE Riyadh follows the more conservative side of Islam that Donna and I preferred to be there; of course Donna after she and the girls joined me there in 1996. We didn’t travel half way around the planet to pretend we were still in suburban Brisbane. We learned how other people and cultures live, how their view of the world is both similar to ours and differs from ours. We learned that, even though we were living in a city that has the infamous “Chop Chop square”, where convicted criminals are occasionally beheaded, the local people are friendly people devoted to their families and in so many ways no different to us. I could wax lyrical on this subject for hours, but that is not the purpose of this story so I shall leave it there. In summary, my family and I fell in love with Riyadh and the Arabic culture.
One thing that Riyadh also had was a shortage of easily accessible forms of entertainment for your typical western families. This was another aspect of Saudi Arabia that many westerners had a problem with. In both Dammam and Riyadh, and I’m guessing Jeddah as well, there were no cinemas. Nope, none. Zero. Yes, you heard correctly. Plus there were no places like clubs or discos that you could go for a drink and a dance. And of course that raises possibly the biggest issue that some westerners have about Saudi and that is that the whole country is dry, ie. no alcohol was legally permitted within the country. There was no grey area on this subject at all. Alcohol is banned within the borders of Saudi Arabia.
But this is where Donna and I and the girls might be a little different to some other people, in that none of this bothered us too much. We soon learned to make do with what was available and to make our own fun. There were videos to replace cinemas and heaps of restaurants to go to. There were fascinating and exotic markets, called souks, to go to as well. As for alcohol, well …… I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that virtually every westerner soon learned how to overcome that strict rule. It was actually quite humorous the various ways that people managed to provide the expat community with a range of liquid joy. And this was another aspect of living in Riyadh that was so good, and that was living the expat life. Throw a bunch of westerners together and they soon learn to establish a sense of community more colourful and vibrant than life back home. This was one of the aspects of our time in Riyadh that Donna particular loved.
A significant part of “making our own fun”, that had been vital for helping me get through the first twelve months without Donna and the girls, was going out of Riyadh for trips to the desert. As I’ve already described, Riyadh is 400km into the desert, so it is completely surrounded by desert of some sort. And with five or six major highways into and out of Riyadh from other cities in Saudi, there were heaps of opportunities to go exploring.
This is where the majority of western expats drew the line. I estimate that 90% of western expats went to the desert at least once in their time in Riyadh. But only 60% went twice. When you consider those who went on, let’s say a monthly basis, you’d be down to 10% or less. During the first couple of months that I was in Riyadh before the family came over, a large part of the difficulties I was facing came from a combination of the limited range of activities available that did NOT require large amounts of liquid joy, the unwillingness of most of the guys I was living with in the block of units to commit themselves to a weekend activity and then follow through, combined with the afore mentioned reluctance of most expats to go to the desert. Since a child, I’ve always been into walking and exploring, so to keep myself sane I had to work out some way of getting out to the desert. I had a car; that wasn’t a problem. The problem was finding someone to go with.
Over the next couple of months, my state of mind deteriorated to the point where Donna was suggesting I give up and come home during our weekly telephone calls. I wasn’t about to do that, but that’s how bad I sounded to her on the phone. My state of mind wasn’t dangerous; I was just lonely and frustrated. I could see a solution, but couldn’t find anyone to enable me to put it into action.
The crisis point was reached one Thursday morning, which in Saudi is equivalent to our Saturday morning. I had arranged with a couple of the other fellows who lived in the block of units that we were going for a drive to the desert. I had ensured that they were committed and clear on departure time etc. I even made the clear understanding that they needed to bring a bit of food and water, as we were leaving the city and they wouldn’t have an opportunity to buy any. Everyone agreed and life was looking good.
On Wednesday night, which is the equivalent to our Friday night, work was finished for the week, so there was the usual bar-b-que and party at the block of units. A goodly group of expat single males were there to party the night away. I noticed that a couple of the guys who were coming to the desert the next day were well into the party, so I reminded them of the activity the next day and they confirmed that it was still on and they’d be there.
Let’s leave out the rest of the night’s partying, because we all know what a night like that usually becomes. Instead we’ll jump forward to 9 o’clock the next morning, with me sitting out in the common area waiting for them, ready to go. Ooze forward now to 10 o’clock, with no change in the scenario. Take another step to 11 o’clock.
That’s it! I’d had it! I couldn’t take any more. I stormed off with a dramatic banging of doors and went for a drive to calm myself down and consider what I was going to do about this appalling situation. This was now do-or-die. This situation had the potential to kill the whole Saudi episode for my family and I and that would be a disaster.
I drove around the city for a while and finally found myself in the DQ, or Diplomatic Quarter. This is the part of the city where most of the foreign embassies exist. Foreigners were allowed to go there at any time, while locals were either not allowed to go, or needed to justify to the guards on the entrance gate why they wished to enter.
The DQ was enormous, the size of a whole suburb. It had it’s own shops, parks and gardens as well as the many embassies and other official buildings. It was in the DQ where you would find the embassy for the U.S.A., for Britain, for Australia, New Zealand etc. Not surprisingly, it was not difficult to identify the embassy of the U.S.A. Even in 1995 it was all of the following – the biggest, the most elaborate, had the most impressive gardens, appeared to have the most guards and also had the most in-your-face concrete barricades and uniformed guards with big guns in plain view. Of course it also had a big American flag on a big flagpole. Conversely the Australian embassy while certainly nice, was smaller, unobtrusive, not easy to find unless you knew where to look and overall subtle. Ya gotta love the Americans.
I found a peaceful looking place to park the car and sit out on the grass. Yes, the DQ also had possibly the only proper grass lawns in all of Riyadh. So I chose a peaceful, quiet place to sit and think and contemplate the next few months.
At this point in my Saudi experience, it had not been determined whether Donna and the girls could come over. All of that discussion was yet to eventuate. All I knew at that point was that I was there on my own, I was very lonely and I was going not-so-slowly nuts. If I was to stay and survive, I needed to have something to plan for and look forward to.
Over the weeks I’d been there, I had never heard anyone say that they had been to the desert on their own. What I had heard was lots of inference that precisely the opposite was true, ie. the desert was not somewhere that one should venture by themselves. But then the attitude of most of the westerners was that you simply don’t leave the city, simple as that, so in my mind that threw into question many of the general attitudes of the westerners. I had now been forced to the point where I needed to think outside the square. Standard solutions had not worked. So by process of logic, clarity and elimination I came to the conclusion that I had to learn how to go to the desert on my own. Suddenly I felt much happier. I had a mission, a challenge, an objective, a goal. On the face of it, that may not sound like a big decision. So what, go to the desert on my own? Big deal. But when you consider that temperatures in Saudi easily reach 50C, the desert stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction around Riyadh, there was almost nothing in the desert except many things that could kill a car and that there were very few people to be seen in these hundreds of kilometres of nothing, it was a big decision; many would say stupid.
Over the next week I asked lots of questions of anyone who would stand still long enough. The most important thing that I learned, something that could derail the whole endeavour, was that the government had an expectation that westerners did not need to travel outside the city of their work. Now this is where people who haven’t experienced Saudi Arabia can easily develop a bad opinion of the place, but the reality is not as bad as the explanation sounds.
Every person in Saudi Arabia has what is known as an Iqama. This is nothing more than what a lot of countries have, which is an official form of identification. All muslims have a green Iqama and all non-muslims have a brown Iqama.
On each of the highways in and out of each city there are checkpoints. Yes, I know; this is starting to sound like communist Russia or Nazi Germany, but the reality is much more benign and unexciting. As you stop at the checkpoint, you needed to show your Iqama to the guard. He may also ask for your driver’s licence and car registration papers, which were always kept in the glove box. If you are not a Saudi citizen, he may also have asked for your travel papers, which was simply an official letter from your employer stating, in Arabic, that you were entitled to travel outside the city. Similar to the “don’t ask / don’t tell” official attitude to the liquid joy, the official attitude to the travel letter was that, so long as it was written properly, on official letter head, stating that the holder had an employment related reason for travelling outside the city, no further questions would be asked. It was as simple as that. In my five years of driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia, I was never asked to show my travel letter.
So that became my main requirement for that week. Off I went to see Mohammed, a charming fellow from Pakistan whose reason for existing was to organize “stuff” like paperwork, official letters, airline tickets, travel documents and general semi-official advice for the westerners. I asked him what I needed to do to get a letter saying I could travel outside Riyadh. He had been asked for this hundreds of times over the years, so he understood that it was important for many westerners to not feel restricted too much or cooped up. The bank needed the westerners, and Mohammed took it upon himself to keep the westerners happy. It was a very sad day for us when he told us that he had finally received his green card and he and his family were leaving Saudi and moving to the U.S.A.
So, by the end of that week I had my official travel letter, which was maybe the single most important piece of paper I would have during the whole five years in The Magic Kingdom, with the exception of my final airline ticket home.
Next came the logistical planning for my first foray into this unknown and scary place called “the desert”. I decided on it being the coming weekend for my first trip and had a lot of thinking and organising to do, not least being deciding where to go. Talking to my fellow westerners, I heard the name “Hidden Valley” mentioned on numerous occasions. I also heard names such “The Edge of the World” and “The Empty Quarter” mentioned. But the two most often mentioned pieces of advice were Hidden Valley and a book of desert trips around Riyadh that was available that had been written and published some years earlier by an enterprising westerner.
Interestingly, there was little point asking any of my Saudi work mates for guidance, even though they would have been more than happy to give me advice. You see, where I was planning to go and what I was planning to do wasn’t anything special for them. Some of them had grown up living in the type of desert I was planning to go to. And I was to learn that what we called desert, they referred to as farm land. I kid you not! One time when I described a particularly spectacular place that I had visited over a weekend to one of my Saudi work mates, he gave me an incredulous look and told me that his family farms camels and goats there, so it wasn’t desert. Believe me when I say that to anyone visiting Saudi Arabia from outside the Arabic Peninsular, what I had seen that weekend was vast, spectacular, awe inspiring desert.
By the Wednesday evening the where, what and how for my first solo foray into the Saudi Arabian desert had been organised. This included a backpack, bottles of water, lots of food, a hat and other obvious safety gear, plus the book of desert trips. I was to determine years later that I was hopelessly unprepared on that first journey, but luckily for me that didn’t matter.
So much about Riyadh was fascinating back then. Apart from being the centre of one of the more unknown and closed off countries in the world, the evidence of almost limitless money was everywhere. Over the following years I learned a lot more about the recent and brief history of modern Saudi Arabia, but that first drive out of the city was a real journey into the unknown for me.
After navigating my way to the outskirts of the city, I found myself on a six lane freeway hurtling along at 120kph. That was the sign posted speed, but many drivers seemed to simply ignore that and go blasting past me. As I was driving the rental car, which was a Hyundai Excel with a small four cylinder engine, I soon learned to stay out of the fast lane. That was where the bigger cars were powering past way in excess of 120kph. I didn’t stand a chance there. Over time I also learned to stay out of the slow lane, as this is where the many trucks trundle up and down the freeway. In summer, when the air temperature often reaches 50C, the bitumen can start to melt. And with the heavy trucks travelling in the slow lane, the surface of the road took on what, in a small car, was a frightening carnival ride appearance. The trucks left serious grooves in the bitumen during summer, making the slow lane a dangerous place to be in any standard type of car. Even 4WD cars, with their bigger wheels and more robust suspension, could struggle in the slow lane.
So the middle lane it was as I left Riyadh behind. I didn’t get a clear idea of my surroundings on that first drive out of the city as it was all too new to me and there was simply too many things to look at. But I was to learn as time went on that Riyadh is surrounded by new areas that are being turned into suburbs. It was fast becoming a large and significant city. One of the differences that having almost limitless money gave Saudi, compared to what we are used to in Australia, is that when they decide to allocate a section of land for a new housing development, they build all of the infrastructure first, then open it to the housing developers. So I was driving past vast areas where all of the roads, footpaths, power supply, water supply, sewerage and telephone had already been built. All that was left to do now was to build the houses and shops. But I’m not talking about an acre or two. I’m talking about entire suburbs that stretched away from the freeway for kilometres, where everything was in place except for the buildings. And it was all just sitting there like it had been for years.
I learned that the Saudi government managed it’s oil wealth for the benefit of the country by having five year plans. Each five year plan would have main focus points, like building hospitals or building universities and schools. Obviously a previous five year plan had a focus for establishing suburbs, so all of the infrastructure was there and now it just waited for private industry to catch up and build the houses. The six lane freeway that I was on that carved it’s way through the desert in great, sweeping curves was part of an earlier five year plan. I came to learn that the whole country was criss-crossed by a network of modern freeways and highways, connecting all of the major cities and towns.
Eventually I left the waiting-to-be-built-on suburbs behind as I continued heading west. But I hadn’t gone far before the road descended at a steep grade. Over in the slow lane, the many trucks were now crawling down the hill in low gear and the smell of burning brakes and clutch plates was quite apparent. For the rest of us in the middle lane, we just continued to descend at 120kph, while those big boys in the fast lane went rocketing past at whatever speed they wanted to drive.
This is where we’ll look at another aspect of Saudi that most westerners point at and cluck their disappointment. All of the drivers of every vehicle on the road was male. Not a single female driver was to be seen anywhere. The reason for that is that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s true. None of that urban legend or hear-say is incorrect. Now I’m not going to justify the Saudi government’s law but just say that, in 1995, that was the case. Pressure is afoot now in 2014 to change that situation, but to date it has not yet succeeded in changing the law in Saudi Arabia.
Also, speaking of big boys in the fast lane, one of the curious things that I saw many times over the years while driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia was that the super-rich, such as princes, government ministers, their sons and other rich business men, seemed to have the freedom to drive their super-rich cars, like top end Mercedes, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Porches, you name it, as fast as they liked in the fast lane. It was common to see someone coming up from behind in the fast lane, flashing their lights furiously at whoever happened to be ahead of them. As they blew past slow old me doing 120kph in the middle lane, they had to have been doing in excess of 200kph, still flashing their lights and without slowing down a jot. It was comical to watch, unless you were the poor sod who had dared to pull into the fast lane to go past a slow coach in the middle doing only 110. You can take my word for it that a Hyundai Excel doesn’t accelerate rapidly from 110 to 120, no matter how hard you push the accelerator to the floor. I quickly learned to stay out of the fast lane unless absolutely necessary. This was particularly the case when driving on the 400km, six lane freeway from Riyadh to Dammam.
The big descent that I was now going down was known as German Cutting. The reason for this was something to do with the company that designed the freeway and the cutting being a German company, so the westerners simply knew it as German Cutting. It became an important landmark when planning days out in the desert. The conversation would go something like “You get to the bottom of German Cutting, then turn right. Travel for another five kilometres and you’ll see a track beside a fence.” For this first trip, when I was hoping to find Hidden Valley, I needed to get to the bottom of German Cutting then turn left.
About half way down German Cutting, which enables the freeway to descend from the plateau on which Riyadh is situated to the vast expanse of the Arabian shield beyond, the road emerges from the cliff face in a long, steep swoop. As it does, you suddenly get a view of the area at the bottom of the cliff. In a flash of scenery change, I could suddenly see my first village, with it’s assortment of houses, mud-brick buildings, dirt roads, donkeys, a few camels dotted around, date palms and children riding their bikes. I could suddenly see all of this from above, so high was the escarpment and the road that I was on. This was my first view of Arabia outside of a big city, so I was now entering the real Arabia and my heart jumped. It was only now that I fully realized that I was starting a true adventure, one that would last for another five years.
The Desert – A Love Story
After turning left off the freeway – oh, let me take a break here and describe something else that I find quirky – Our network of freeways in Australia is not a smudge on what I’m told they are in the U.S.A. Yes we have freeways, but until recently they’ve mainly been for connecting point A to point B. It was only ten or fifteen years ago that they started to connect up into the beginnings of a network. In Saudi Arabia, they had all this oil money and they needed to rapidly modernize their country, so they brought in experts from all over the world to help them build a modern infrastructure. Hence German Cutting.
But America being the home of the freeway, the Saudis had obviously brought in experts from the U.S.A. to help them design their freeways, which resulted in some very impressive engineering feats. Riyadh has a spectacular junction of freeways and highways, which the westerners call “Spaghetti Junction”. It’s one of those landmarks that westerners use to navigate around the city.
But even a simple intersection of a freeway and a highway out of the city was designed by the experts with the future in mind, so it had a full clover-leaf intersection. In 1995, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Australia was yet to build its first clover-leaf intersection. So I hadn’t experienced the need to do a 270 degree loop in order to join the cross road. Plus keep in mind that in Australia we drive on the left hand side of the road, but in Saudi Arabia they drive on the right hand side, so their roads are designed accordingly. It took me a long time to get used to turning left from a freeway to a cross road on a clover-leaf intersection, and doing a right hand exit followed by a full 270 degree right hand turn. It never became natural to me in my whole stay in Saudi Arabia.
OK, so I had just turned left from the freeway and was now driving along the minor road, looking for the next turn to the right. I had no idea where I was going, except that the map in the book was telling me what to watch out for. Now that I was at the bottom of the escarpment, I was surrounded by impressive rock formations, all weathered and gnarled by the centuries of wind and sand. I didn’t know whether to look left or right, so I drove slowly and tried to look at everything.
Eventually I had travelled the distance dictated by the book, and could now see a gravel track going off to the left. At this point it looked like a simple gravel road, so I didn’t hesitate to turn my little rental car onto it and continue away from the main road. Ahead of me the gravel road climbed gently until it went over the top of a rise about a kilometre away, so I carefully drove towards that point. By now I was fifty kilometres from Riyadh driving a Hyundai Excel with a 1.2 litre motor and standard tyres, driving along a gravel road heading further into the desert. What I didn’t need at this point was a flat tyre, an overheating engine or a rock through the sump.
It wasn’t long before I got to the top of the rise and found that the gravel road deteriorated gradually to a gravel track that continued on around a few winds and turns. There were now rocks and holes in the track that I needed to carefully steer around. What I also found was that the track was descending into a small valley of some sort, with almost vertical cliffs on either side. At the bottom of the cliffs, which were roughly thirty metres high, were many large boulders that had broken away from them over the eons. As I carefully drove further I could see the cliffs gradually widening out. I knew now that I was in Hidden Valley and could easily see how it got its name.
The landscape in that small valley, for a first time visitor who was a keen bush walker at home, was mesmerizing. I slowly drove along the track trying to look in every direction at once. Going off the main valley on both sides were other small valleys. Every twist and turn in the track found another treasure to investigate. A number of times I was so busy trying to absorb everything that I was seeing that I almost drove off the track or hit a rock. Luckily I was crawling along as slow as I could go, so I wouldn’t have done much damage anyway, but inadvertently damaging the car at this point in the proceedings was not a good idea.
After crawling along for fifteen minutes, I finally decided that it was time to stop the car and go exploring on foot. I pulled off the track and opened the door, only to be smacked in the face by a wall of heat. I had been driving with the car window down, but I had also been sitting in the shaded protection of the car. Once out of the car and on foot, I was exposed to the full force of the sun. And even though this was only early summer, it still had a force that I wasn’t expecting. One redeeming feature of the summer heat of the desert around Riyadh is that, being 400km inland, the humidity is zero. We found it amazing when we went to Dammam just how much hotter it felt. Zero humidity compared to 100% humidity is a vast difference.
I gathered my stuff together in my backpack and took off to the right on foot. The floor of the valley, or “whadi” in Arabic, was covered in rocks, so walking was difficult. And the rocks were sharp and brutal. There was very little plant life, but there were scrubby looking bushes with huge needles on them for self protection. There were also one or two strange looking small trees with papery bark that simply peeled off. These strange trees had large, leathery green leaves and I was to learn later that the westerners call them Scrotum trees. Later in the year the trees were to bare large seed pods, each with two large seeds inside, that had an uncanny resemblance to well, based on the name you can probably work it out for yourself.
I was in exploring heaven. I walked for what seemed like hours, over rocks, past cliffs, along narrow goat tracks, all the while slowly moving away from the car. At last I sat down in whatever shade I could find to have a drink of water and turned my attention in the direction of the car.
It had vanished.
I thought I hadn’t walked far, having walked very slowly and sat down and rested a number of times. But now, as I looked back towards the car, it simply wasn’t there any more.
This was my introduction to something that I saw others struggle with as well over the years, when I took newbies out for their first experience of the desert. As there are very few landmarks, or at least not the sort of landmarks that we are used to seeing in our home countries of Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.A., Canada and particular England and Europe, our way of navigating is compromised. Even though we hardly ever consider it at home, we must subconsciously keep track of trees, light poles, fence corners, creeks etc, to have a subtle understanding of where we are and how far we have travelled. But in the desert, where most of those landmarks just don’t exist, our in-built navigation system doesn’t work. Here I was looking back in the direction of the car, expecting to see it half hidden behind a large, fallen boulder, and it had simply vanished.
I didn’t panic, but I also can’t say I wasn’t concerned. Don’t forget that this was my very first experience of exploring the desert, and now I couldn’t see the car. To make things worse, as I looked back in the general direction of the car, I could see that there were two whadis coming together, but with their coming together bit pointing towards me. So I was now looking down two whadis. Which one had I walked along to get to where I was now standing? My gut told me it was the one on the right, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked for anything that might be a landmark, such as a bush or peculiarly shaped rock, but there was nothing. It all looked the same! I was rapidly losing confidence that it was the whadi on the right that I had walked along.
I sat down again to collect my thoughts and calm down a bit. I wasn’t in full panic, but I could see it coming over the horizon. I looked at the two whadis and, after some careful consideration, could see that the one on the left was coming slightly downhill to where I was, whereas the one on the right was generally level. I thought back over the last half hour to try to remember if I had walked down a hill at any point. I thought back over all of the giant rocks and boulders that I had climbed around and over and wondered how I could ever tell if I was going up or down. But I finally concluded that it wasn’t likely that I had been coming downhill, so I decided to try the whadi on the right.
An hour later I was back at the car and breathing a small sigh of relief. My choice of the right hand whadi had been correct and consequently I had found the car. It was a lot further than I had expected, causing me a number of times to reconsider my choice of the right hand whadi, but I persevered and had finally found the car and safety again. This was a lesson for me that I was to call on again and again over the next five years in Saudi.
There was a funny episode some years later when my friend Nick and I took a Canadian newbie out for his first desert exploration walk. We were again in Hidden Valley, but this time many kilometres further along. We measured it once in the car and the Hidden Valley area is 92km long. After having breakfast as the sun came up, which is a surreal experience in the desert, the three of us had set off for a long walk. We intended to be away from the car for six to eight hours, so had plenty of water and food.
After hours of walking and exploring, our Canadian friend was obviously getting weary, so we started heading back to the car. During the day we had climbed cliffs, crossed over the high point from one cliff to another, traversed a number of whadis and generally had a good time. We had stopped for lunch and boiled water for a cup of tea on a makeshift camp fire. Nick and I had given Bill a grand introduction to the desert and the beauty of the country outside of Riyadh. But now it was time to be bringing the day’s activities to a close.
As we emerged from a whadi and faced the huge expanse of the greater Hidden Valley, Bill looked along the valley and could see a bright sparkle. He gasped with relief and gushed that it was the sun reflecting off the windscreen, so we were almost there now. He then proceeded to hurry along towards the car so he could enjoy the comfort of a soft seat and some shade. I told him that we were further from the car than he might think and we still had a way to go, so he still needed to pace himself. He couldn’t believe me and pointed at the car. “It’s just there!” he said, and scampered off in that direction. Nick and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.
An hour and a half later we reached the car. Bill was red in the face and way past his comfort zone. He flopped into the seat of the car and guzzled from the can of soft drink he had left behind for that purpose. He struggled to understand how the glint from the windscreen that he had seen was over 5km away. That is one of the many astounding things about the desert. Nick and I loved it. Bill, not so much that day.