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.
Marathon des Sables – Long and Winding Road
“OK, so what’s got you all excited?” asked Donna when I got home.
“Well,” I said, as I hesitantly began the sales pitch, “I was reading in the paper on the way home that there’s a big walk that I was thinking that I might do.”
“Hmm?” she said, cautiously inviting further information.
“The thing is” I continued, “it’s quite a big deal, and it won’t be cheap.”
“Yes?” she prompted.
“It’s a 240km endurance race over in the Sahara in Morocco.” Donna looked at me with eyes that were slightly narrowed.
“When you say won’t be cheap, how not cheap are we talking about?”
“Well,” I said, “I was thinking that we could turn it into a holiday for us. You know, make it an opportunity to see a place we haven’t been to yet. And Marrakesh has always been one of those exotic places that ……. “. Donna held her hand up.
“You’re starting to babble. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it properly. I would have some strict rules and would expect you to stick with them.”
“Yes, of course.” I blurted.
Donna continued. “Firstly, you’re going to train properly. Secondly, you’re going to go see the diabetes doctor and find out what you need to do to be prepared. Thirdly you’re going to go see a sports nutrition expert so you can work out the food. And last, you’re not going to cut any corners. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it properly.”
“Yes, OK” I said. What else could I say?
And with that, the Marathon des Sables adventure was underway.
Marathon des Sables – Preparation
I’d always been a bit of a walker. I enjoyed bushwalking and “went bush” on the rare occasions when time and circumstances would allow. I had even had a stint at distance running when we were living in Brisbane. That only lasted for a year or so, until my knees and hips started to give me problems. From that experience I learned that the diabetes makes distance running difficult. Obviously with the number of marathon runners who have type 1 diabetes, distance running is not impossible, but it does have an extra dimension of difficulty and risk that, when combined with the deterioration of my knees and hips, meant that walking the Marathon des Sables and not running was a no-brainer. However that wasn’t going to be a problem because the event has been designed to allow for those who wished to walk. So long as you could maintain an average pace of 3.5kph, you could complete each section within the allowed time.
The training started that same weekend. Now that I had the bug in my ear, I couldn’t wait to get into it and was itching to get out there to start preparing. I had given myself two years to train, even though I thought that twelve months would have been ample, but I soon came to realize that I was going to need the whole two years. There was just so much to do.
The main lesson I learned from my first few walks, which were only short stints of 5km, was that I had a heck of a lot of work to do. I was old and wise enough by then to have realized that, even though I had been bushwalking for years, that didn’t mean that I knew everything there was to know about endurance walking. Some years previously, in what could be looked at as a false start for the Marathon des Sables adventure, I had participated in the Oxfam Trailwalker 100km walk for charity. I had trained hard for that and had thought that I was fully ready. Heck, at the start I even felt a bit sorry for the two young ladies who were part of our team of four, because they didn’t have the bushwalking experience that I did and I thought they might not even finish. Well, did I end up eating my words?! They had been waiting at the finish line for myself and the other fellow for around an hour as he helped me stagger over the line in a state of almost complete collapse. To parody the words of Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men”, “Do you have a memory of that?”, with Tom Cruise answering “Crystal!” The memory of the finish line of the Oxfam Trailwalker was my base line for the Marathon des Sables. I must not put myself in that situation again.
From those early training walks, I reluctantly realized that the gear I was using was not good enough. My initial intention had been to not change a thing and dress in similar clothing, use the same boots and have the same backpack as I had always used for my bushwalks. I had many fond memories of delightful walks with this gear, both in Saudi and in Australia, so I considered it had been tested and proven. Looking back now, that was an absurd thought, as were many of my initial thoughts as I was to learn. My boots were simply wrong, being too heavy and nowhere near tough enough. My backpack was all wrong, so needed to be upgraded. My clothes were wrong as they were too heavy and just not fit for purpose. And the food I was eating as I walked, to keep my sugar at an acceptable level, was also wrong. So after four weeks of training I had learned:
- My boots needed replacing
- I needed a whole set of new clothes
- My backpack needed replacing
- I needed to learn about my food requirements for the desert
- I needed to learn about my insulin requirements during endurance walking
- I needed to toughen my feet and/or learn how to deal with blisters
In essence, I was back to square one.
Entry to the Marathon Des Sables is not as easy as you may think. After hunting around on the internet I was able to learn that, as the event is a French event, its primary focus is on having French people participating. Next in the order of preference were countries close to France, such as Spain, Germany, The Netherlands etc, so people from those countries received next preference for participation. This was followed by Great Britain then the rest of the world. Over the years the organisers had learned that the best way to manage who could be part of this incredible event was to allocate spots to regions of the world. There was Western Europe, North America, South America, The Middle East etc. Each region is allocated a number of places in the event and an agent is given the job of managing the booking process for each region. In 2008, Australia was part of the North American region, I suppose for reasons of language and simplicity, so I needed to work with a fellow in Colorado to get myself a place.
Unsurprisingly, my diabetes quickly became a potential sticking point. The agent in Colorado strongly recommended that, before progressing too far with the process, I get confirmation from the central management of the event in Paris that I would be allowed to participate. That was certainly easier said than done. First of all I had to find a contact for the central management group, then I had to overcome the language barrier. I came to find that, in a similar way to my French being effectively zero, not many French people speak English.
After many emails and a few late night phone calls to Paris, I was finally able to contact someone in the management team who spoke English. Then I had to explain to them why I was contacting them and that it was important that they understood the reason. All of this took a number of emails and phone calls, all the while with me fretting that I would miss out on making it onto the waiting list with the Colorado agent. He had explained that he ran the list on a first come / first serve basis, but even though I was one of the early ones to contact him about the 2010 event, there were already names on the list. So I was also racing against time to obtain confirmation from Paris.
Eventually I either got lucky, or my persistence wore them down, but I was able to get a team doctor on the phone in Paris who was able to confirm that, so long as I fulfilled their extra requirements for fitness tests, related to my diabetes AND my age, they would not stop me from being part of the 2010 event. They would email me details of the extra fitness test requirements. It had taken a long time and a lot of frustration, but I had finally made it over that hurdle. I immediately passed that news back to the agent in Colorado so my name could be added to the list. It was then that I found that the marathon aspect of this event had already started, because before he could put my name of the waiting list, I had to get a 25% deposit to him.
I almost cried in frustration.
Once I calmed down, I thought about this latest road bump and decided that it was a reasonable request. The agent was running a business which spanned the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and one or two other countries, so it was quite reasonable for him to want a financial commitment from people before putting their name on the list. But getting the money to him became the next issue.
As you can see, the marathon had already begun, without me even leaving my chair. Roadblocks like this littered the pathway in those first few months as I went through the paperwork and over hurdles just to get on the list. I was to find out later, after the dust and drama had settled from these early days, that the agent had quietly been holding a spot open for me. I think he was as intrigued as the team doctors in Paris to see how I would go in the Sahara.
Doctor, I’m Walking Across The Sahara
One of Donna’s requirements for giving me her permission to pursue this adventure was for me to have a full review of my diabetes management with a proper diabetes doctor, known as an endocrinologist. As I hadn’t seen one for, ummm, way too long, that was a reasonable request.
“Hello Alex. How can we help you today?”
“Hi. I’m planning to walk across the Sahara desert and I’m here to find out what I need to do, so I can complete this adventure without dying.”
“You are planning to do what?”
“Walk across the Sahara.”
“You have type 1 diabetes. You do know that you shouldn’t be doing something like that, don’t you?”
“Yes I do. That’s why I’m here, so I can learn what I need to.”
This was how the “Endo” and I started our discussion. She knew simply from the fact that I had been living with type 1 diabetes for thirty four years, and was planning on walking across the Sahara, that I must have been doing something right for all those years. Many of the people with type 1 diabetes she saw daily, who had less years living with this illness under their belt, were in a much worse state of health than I was. Many would have been suffering with failing eye sight, failing kidneys, problems with their feet resulting in amputations along with other complications. And yet here was I proposing this wild adventure. So she let the normal doctor / patient routine drop and we began discussing the logistics of what I needed to do more on an even, one-to-one basis.
We talked about my history with type 1 diabetes so she could get a feel for how I manage it. She was also judging how much I knew about the biology of the illness and its management. I asked some questions to do with food, which she answered in a very matter-of-fact way. I could tell that she had concluded that even trying to talk me out of this would be a waste of her time, so she dropped any thought of doing so.
“So how do you do your injections?” she asked.
“Disposable syringes.” I answered. At this she sat back and said “Oh well, there’s something we need to change.”
“I’m quite happy with the syringes, but I’m prepared to consider other options.”
“Well,” she said, “I advise that you go onto an insulin pump, but I get the feeling that you’re going to resist that suggestion.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I am.” I said.
“Do you mind if I ask you why?”
“Not at all. For thirty four years I have been in total control of my existence. I manage my food, I manage my injections, I take responsibility for when something goes wrong and that’s the way it needs to be. If I go over to using a pump, I’m giving up some of that control and responsibility to a machine and I can’t have that. I can’t rely on a machine to keep me alive, not when I’ve been doing it every minute of every day for the past thirty four years; especially when I’m putting myself in danger over in the Sahara. I need to be in more control, not less.”
“That’s fair enough,” she said. “Then I have another suggestion that I strongly encourage you to consider.”
That was when she introduced me to the insulin pen.
“Hmmm, I’ve heard about these.” I said.
“They’ve been around for quite some time now” said the doctor, rolling her eyes slightly. “This is how they work.”
She then proceeded to go through the workings of what I had been resisting for many years. A lot of people had been recommending that I swap across from syringes to the pen, but I had been resisting. I had been working on the “If it aint broke, don’t fix it” life philosophy.
She worked through the mechanics of the unit, the vial of insulin that it used and the various advantages that it had over the syringes. But it wasn’t until she brought out one of the needles, screwed it on to the pen then pulled off its cover that I was finally convinced. The needle was so fine it was actually a little difficult to see. And the fact that each pen comes as a complete, self-contained kit was the final selling point. I was convinced.
So after thirty something years of using disposable syringes, I was finally convinced to modernize the next step. I had started all those years ago with the glass syringe and their tram track needles. They were cumbersome, would often stick as you pushed the plunger and rather painful. The needles were reusable and quickly became blunt. The whole process, while a life saver, was wrought with pain and on-going management problems. I had progressed on to the disposable syringes after a couple of years. These were a vast improvement on the glass syringe but, having hundreds or thousands of injections every year for decades resulted in growing problems, even with them. The fat under the skin gets hard and lumpy and becomes impossible to inject in to. Also the insulin can stop being absorbed, which of course then affects the ongoing management of the diabetes. So progressing to the pens and their ultra fine needles would be a significant move.
Next on Donna’s list of requirements was a visit to a sports nutritionist. I didn’t rush off immediately to find one, really not being sure of how they would be able to help. I just continued on, week after week, with my ever more demanding training walks.
By now it was late 2008 and I was walking twenty or thirty kilometres each weekend, often walking on both Saturday and Sunday. Plus I was leaving an hour early for the trip to work most days, getting off the train at an earlier station and walking into the city from there. All of this was taking a toll on my diabetes management, with my sugar levels sometimes swinging wildly. One morning, as I was walking to work, I was ducking across a busy road. This road is a main thoroughfare in Melbourne, carrying trucks around the city centre. As I was half way across, judging the timing of the traffic lights at each end of the bridge I was on, I realized that my vision was wobbling and I could no longer clearly see what the traffic was doing. I was able to duck between two cars that were momentarily stopped in the traffic and get to the other side. I was rapidly losing control as a severe low sugar episode swung into action. My legs were now starting to wobble and cave at the knees, so I took off my backpack and dug into my emergency food for a fruit juice box. That was enough to get me the last ten minutes of walk to the office, where I again dug into my emergency food.
Worryingly, that sort of situation was becoming more and more common. If it had been two minutes later when I was on that bridge, the chances are good that I would not have been able to judge the gaps in the traffic, or the speed of the oncoming vehicles, or have been able to see clearly enough to get through the line of traffic without being hit by another car or truck. Being killed crossing a road in peak hour traffic was not why I was doing this, so something needed to be done. The situation I found myself in at this stage of the training, when I was only a quarter of the way towards the event, was only going to get much worse as I upped the distances and the times.
Meanwhile, with the increasing distances I was covering every weekend I was starting to suffer foot problems. When I first noticed it I considered that it was temporary and would fix itself. One day I’ll accept that magic like “It will fix itself” rarely happens in the real world. I persevered for a few weeks until it became obvious that it was getting worse, not better, and this was when I was doing fifty kilometres per week, not two hundred and fifty.
I hunted out a sports podiatrist whose practice was close to work and made an appointment. Being a sports specialist, he wasn’t overly surprised by a type 1 diabetic attempting to do the Marathon des Sables. Over the years he had treated many people from the strange world of extreme sports.
His help was invaluable. He was able to show me on a model exactly where my foot pain was coming from and what was causing it. From his many years of treating runners, jumpers, sprinters and many other people wearing lycra, his understanding of the engineering of the foot was unquestioned. From my two, rather expensive, sessions with him, I was able to continue my training with the confidence that I knew how to manage the errant ligament that had been damaged in a childhood accident when I was eight years old. He showed me how to tape my foot to replace the job that the damaged ligament was unable to do.
In retrospect, my second visit to the podiatrist was a little bit cheeky on my part, although at the time I didn’t think twice about it. Keep in mind that I was preparing for an event in the Sahara desert on the other side of the planet, where I would be isolated from normal civilization for a week.
As soon as I had got home after the first visit, Donna and I carefully stripped off each piece of the strapping tape. We measured it and I made a diagram of where it had been on my foot. I then proceeded to tape and re-tape my foot numerous times, in order to learn how he had done it and to understand the purpose for each piece of the complex taping process. A few weeks later, after I had done numerous training walks and had gone through the taping process many times, I made another appointment with the podiatrist. My reason for the second appointment was to get his confirmation that my taping efforts were good enough and that I had correctly remembered the process. I figured out while I was there that his understanding for why I had made the second appointment was so he could tape my foot again. When I told him quite proudly that I had undone his taping and made diagrams of it, the look on his face told me everything. It was only at that moment that I realized that he saw his job as being my ongoing, official taper.
Oops. I still haven’t worked out how he expected me to tape my foot when I was in Morocco. Maybe he thought he would do it before I left Melbourne, and it would last all the way through until the end of the event. Oh well.
Meanwhile, normal life still continued. We still went shopping for groceries each week, went to work and drove the kids to their sporting events. Donna and I were also working on another part of our “agreement”, being to turn my extreme marathon effort into an exotic holiday for both of us.
The plan so far was that we would fly to England and spend a few days with Donna’s sister in London. I would then fly to Morocco and join up with some of my tent mates in Marrakesh, from where we would travel to the meet up point of Ouarzazate (Wah_za_zat) to join the rest of the competitors managed by the Colorado agent. The original plan was that Donna and our friend Nick would, a few days later, fly to Marrakesh then travel on to Ouarzazate, to be there when we all returned after the event. Everybody who knew me knew that I’d be a physical wreck, plus also facing potential medical difficulties. Managing type 1 diabetes during extended periods of exercise has an added complexity, in that the body uses up some, most or all of the natural store of glucose that is stored around the liver. Everybody has this storage, but the process of using and rebuilding it is automatic for people who don’t have type 1 diabetes. For me, as my body automatically rebuilt the storage around the liver, it needed to use some of the carbohydrate that I was eating daily, meaning that there was less available hour by hour for my normal living requirements. Does it sound complicated? Once you understand it, it’s not so complicated, but as none of the rebuilding can be controlled or managed, making allowances for it in the days after the event was going to be very tricky, and potentially dangerous for me. The coach trip back to Ouarzazate from the Sahara was going to take five hours, and I would need to still eat like I was doing the event. But once back at Ouazazate and back to normal eating, I was going to need the safety of somebody to be with me.
After the reunion at Ouarzazate, the plan was then that the three of us would return to Marrakesh, spend a few days or a week, then all fly back to England and spend some time in The Lakes District with Nick.
Meanwhile, normal life in 2008 continued.
We went to IKEA one weekend to buy a bookshelf for Donna’s work room at home. Donna loves IKEA. As she was helping me to load the bookshelf into the car for the drive home, she whinced momentarily then mentioned that she’d hurt herself slightly. She mentioned a couple of times on the thirty minute drive home that her back was hurting, but we both cast it off as being not really important. The next morning, however, it was starting to look like something serious may have happened.
Over the next few months, Donna went off to the doctor a number of times as her back was still hurting, and seeming to get worse. The doctor was prescribing pain killers of increasing strength until she eventually advised that further investigation was needed and referred Donna to a specialist. As you read this, please remember that I’m compressing months of pain and anguish and doctor’s visits down to a few sentences.
The specialist was concerned that there was some real damage, so gave Donna some ultra-sounds, followed by injections directly into the spine. He had found that while Donna was helping to load the bookcase into the car, she had twisted slightly and caused one of those incidents that notoriously reduce a person to a life of pain. She had damaged one of the disks in her spine. Any wonder she was in so much constant pain!
As time progressed, so did Donna’s pain. The injections didn’t help and eventually the specialist was out of ideas. It’s not a good thing when the back specialist has run out of ideas. Donna’s GP was now getting concerned about the amount of pain killers she was on, as one of them was being referred to on TV as “Hill Billy Heroin”, and her dosage on that one was increasing week by week. She was now on a very strong dosage of that and a number of other life altering drugs, just so she could get through each day. This was starting to seem like an episode of Jerry Springer, but it was all genuine and easily explained. But that didn’t ease the doctor’s concerns.
Donna was now on the books for an operation on her back by a spinal surgeon, at The Alfred Hospital. The original timing for the operation would have allowed Donna to still make the planned trip with a little bit of time to spare, but sadly it was delayed a number of times. Donna wasn’t happy and neither was the GP. Neither was I. As you can imagine, there was a lot going on in our house by now, with me deeply involved in training and doing the preparations for my big walk, and Donna deeply involved with her back problems and trying to organize the rest of our holiday.
After a number of delays to the operation, it was with great regret from all involved that we decided that Donna was not going to be able to make the trip. This was not a decision taken lightly. There was so much going on in our house at that moment in history that this really became the only possible choice. It was either that, or give up on twenty two months of training and around $5000 spent on preparations. The timing now was such that, even if Donna went in for her operation the next day, there was not enough time left for her expected recovery to enable her to make the trip. This was a gut wrenching decision that would have to wait until 2012 before it could be rectified.
Why Can’t You Increase It?
By early 2009 I’d reached the limit that my food choices could take me to. My training was now sixty or more kilometres per week and I was noticing some problems. My food choices were getting difficult to eat for hour after hour, becoming cloying and sickly. But also I was finding that by the end of a long training walk, say thirty kilometres, I was simply out of energy. I’d stumble through the door a mere shell of a human. This was certainly not going to work non-stop in the Sahara. Something needed to be done.
After finding a specialist sports nutritionist on the internet, I went to speak to her, not holding out much hope for anything of great importance. It was one of Donna’s conditions that I didn’t skimp on doing what was necessary to do the event properly, so I swallowed my pride and went along.
Well, again I was shown how to eat crow. The young lady that greeted me was from South Africa and explained to me that she had worked with many athletes to fine tune their diet to maximize their ability. When I asked her about her understanding of type 1 diabetes, she explained that she had specialized in sports nutrition requirements for diabetics.
Now that we had clarified the ground rules, she went on to change my life. I know that’s a big statement, but it’s the reality of what she was able to teach me. She brought me to a new level of understanding of diabetes, exercise and nutrition that astounded me. Why hadn’t I known this from the beginning?
At this point I must stress that any person with diabetes reading this must not take my words as being true and correct. Before even considering changing anything, you must first consult your diabetes management team and discuss with them. Also I will not be giving details, as the potential consequences for anyone who did try to follow my advice without proper backup are too serious for me to do so.
The sports nutrition lady described to me the way the body gets energy, and specifically from carbohydrate. Of course it’s the carbohydrate that is the focus of diabetes. She told me the science of calories and grams of carbohydrate, then went on to ask me questions about the Marathon des Sables. She wanted to know how far I’d be walking each day, what the temperature would be in the Sahara, how much I weighed and how much my backpack would weigh. I really didn’t understand the reason for all of these specific questions, but answered them anyway. She then pulled out a chart and showed me, based on the information that I’d given, how many calories my body would need to complete the distance each day. Then, given the science behind grams of carbohydrate and calories, how much carbohydrate I would need to eat each day to be able to walk the expected distances.
I was gob-smacked! She made it all look so straight forward and scientific. It was purely mathematics. I was speechless. Then she asked me what my intension was for my insulin. I told her that I intended reducing my insulin each day, obviously. That is the standard approach taken by a diabetic when they are doing some exercise. She asked why I was planning on reducing it, to which I answered that it was the standard way. She would know that, surely. Then she said something that almost made me gulp. She said that, rather than reducing the dosage, she was going to advise that I raise the dosage by a significant amount.
What? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I told her that I was very nervous about doing that and she agreed that she expected I would be. She must have heard that reaction previously when advising other diabetic sports people. To put it into simple words, she was advising me that I would use petrol to put out a fire instead of water, and that it was safe to do so. Then she went on to explain how the exercise / insulin / carbohydrate process works in a way that nobody else had ever explained it. Putting it into my simple words, she explained that insulin was like the pipe down which the carbohydrate flows into the cells to provide energy. When the cells need more energy because of exercise, they need more carbohydrate. To get more carbohydrate to them, they need a bigger pipe. As insulin is the pipe, they need more insulin. So more exercise? Then more carbohydrate so more insulin.
This was the case when the exercise was of the endurance type. When exercise is of the sprinting type, or just one day, this approach is not necessarily the right one. But for extreme endurance events, this was the way it worked.
After 34 years of managing my diabetes, I was in awe of this young lady. She had simply opened the door to whole new level of understanding for me. So much made sense now. I was able to think back to situations in the past and now understand how they had come about. If she happens to be reading this, thank-you very much for educating me.
Marathon des Sables – Preparation
Training for an event like this, in essence, involves lots and lots of kilometres over lots and lots of training walks. There is nothing that can be done to substitute for many kilometres on the road. By April 2009, after twelve months of pretty full-on training and preparation, I was regularly walking a marathon on one day of a weekend, plus a shorter walk on the other day. This in addition to the ongoing walks to work most mornings of the week. To say that our family life was centred around my training would be to understate it considerably.
By now I had overcome the problems I had discovered with my foot and overcome the issues surrounding the food I was going to be eating during the event. I had found food that was loaded with carbohydrate, was light, self contained and packaged in such a way that made it easy to carry and tough, so it could withstand the rigors of the desert. I still had to determine the food that I would be eating in the morning before each day’s walking and in the evening after each day’s walk.
I also had the extra consideration of the long stage of the event, which was a distance of between eighty five and ninety kilometres. This stage was non-stop for that distance, so was going to take me at least twenty four hours and possibly as much as thirty six. So I needed to have food that would get me through that period without jeapodising my health and safety. I couldn’t just eat the “walking food” for that whole period; I would also need something more substantial during that time. But that was a decision for the future. Meanwhile I pushed on into the unknown territory of endurance.
In my humble opinion, one of God’s gardens is the Wilsons Promontory national park in Victoria. This park of 125,000 acres, two hundred and twenty kilometres south east of Melbourne, was rescued from the ravages of mining before too much damage could be done. After much thinking, planning and plotting, I decided that Wilsons Prom could become part of my training. There are a number of rugged walking tracks around The Prom, with a loose network of tracks in the southern prom leading to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is near the southern most point of mainland Australia, but can only be approached either on foot after a long and arduous hike from Tidal River, or by boat with the threat of being dashed against the rocks of this forbidding piece of coast. It had always been a desire of mine to walk to the lighthouse, but now I had a real reason to do so. Plus now I’d been training for twelve months, so was more likely to be able to make the trek.
After making inquiries and getting all the maps I could find, I learned the track does a loop south along the west coast from Tidal River, then Oberon Bay, then down to the lighthouse, on up the east coast of the prom through Waterloo Bay, Refuge Cove and Sealers Cove, then back to Tidal River, a total distance of between fifty five and sixty kilometres. After twelve months of training I considered that I was now ready to tackle that challenge.
The original plan for my inaugural Wilsons Prom walk was to practice for the ninety kilometer non-stop leg of the Marathon des Sables by first doing the Lighthouse loop of around fifty five kilometres, followed immediately by a forty kilometre lesser loop track. The downright humour of that concept was yet to strike me.
After much consideration, planning, working through “what if” situations, determining my potential food requirements then multiplying them by one and a half, I considered I was ready. It was May 2009 and I set off for The Prom, as it is affectionately known in Victoria. Was I ready for this? Well in the last twelve months I had covered over two thousand kilometres of slogging up and down hilly, gravel roads with an ever increasing weight on my back, hiking along in all weather conditions except snow. I had walked through sunup into rain and completed marathons in the hail. I had never stopped and never given up. Yes, I considered I was ready for this.
I was wrong.
But before we jump to that conclusion, let’s get there in a step by step process that will open to you the humour behind my thinking. After leaving Melbourne and taking a couple of hours to drive to The Prom, everything was going to plan. I left Tidal River on time, at five o’clock in the morning, and walked in the dark south along the beach with my headlamp on. It was a bit eerie being in the dark, hearing the surf crashing on my right. Everything went to plan and I found myself at Oberon Bay on time and feeling OK.
By the time I was at the lighthouse, I was a little bit behind schedule. It had taken maybe an hour or so longer than I had anticipated to get there, but as this was my first visit to the lighthouse, I was thrilled just to be there. I had a rest, filled up my water, then continued on. So far I had completed about twenty kilometres of the planned ninety or more.
Forty minutes after leaving the lighthouse I came on a long, long up hill struggle which, by the time I got to the top, had my legs wobbling. I had felt this in the past with one stretch of the Oxfam Trailwalker. It too was a long up hill struggle and had caused similar difficulty. I pushed on up in some considerable discomfort, eventually getting to the top. Down the other side and on to Waterloo Bay was quite easy, but now I was some hours behind schedule. I was also starting to consider that the full double loop that I had originally planned may not be feasible. This became more apparent when I got to the end of Oberon Bay and was struggling along a wonky stretch of boardwalk. By now it was four thirty and my original plan had me almost back to Tidal River by now. And yet here I was only just over half way along on the first loop, with the sun soon to go down. This wasn’t looking good.
The marathon distance of forty two kilometres came and went with me now in considerable difficulty. Here I was in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black at ten o’clock at night and my body was simply out of energy ……… or so I thought. My legs were shaking with the relentless up and down and bumping of the rough track …… or so I thought. I was so exhausted that I was losing my balance on slippery rocks and getting an agonising stream of leg cramps. This was no longer fun and I wasn’t enjoying myself. Oh, and to make sure that the picture was complete, it was now starting to rain lightly.
In my exhausted state my brain wasn’t working at 100%, so when confronted with a rocky area at the top of a hill, with an unclear track, I was unable to clearly determine the correct way forward. I tried numerous times to find which way the track went, even backtracking and then making another approach, to see if the direction suddenly became apparent. Sadly that didn’t happen. I knew that I was exhausted and therefore it was likely that my sugar was low. I also knew that I was close to the edge of a cliff, as I could hear the crashing of the waves way down below. With this combination of conditions, being exhausted, not thinking clearly and effectively lost, I decided to stop right there and sleep on the rock under the large poncho I was carrying.
Miraculously, the rest of that night went without drama. Sure I was exceedingly cold and uncomfortable, hunched as I was under a poncho on the top of a huge rock, but I had managed to survive the cold and light rain and was clear headed when dawn finally arrived. If anyone had seen me, it would have looked comical as light rain was still falling as I was trying to have my morning injections. So now I was sitting on a rock, under a poncho, fumbling around with my insulin pens trying to keep everything clean, dry and in order as I injected myself.
Another consideration at that moment was that Donna had no idea where I was or if I was still alive. Mobile telephone reception at Wilsons Prom in 2009 was rudimentary, so I hadn’t been in contact with her since three o’clock the previous afternoon. I was starting to imagine what she could be thinking and what she might be doing, but on that rock in the early morning light I was powerless to do anything about that. All I could do was get myself together and move towards Tidal River until I eventually found some signal.
Three hours later, after a long haul of climbing and slipping in the muddy conditions, my mobile phone suddenly sprang to life. It was now over eighteen hours since I had the last reception and people were getting concerned. As soon as the phone beeped the first time, I stopped where I was to avoid losing that pocket of signal. Message after message came flooding in from Donna, from one of my brothers and my daughters, all of them gravely concerned for my safety. By now my ancient phone was running short of battery, so I messaged Donna to tell her I was OK, and asked her to pass the message on. Not wanting to become like the boy who cried wolf, I wanted to allay people’s concerns so they had some left if ever I really needed it.
Once back in the comfort and safety of home, I winced at how this inaugural Lighthouse Loop had turned into a black comedy of errors. I struggled to believe how misguided my thinking had been and vowed to learn from the many mistakes. Not only did my original plan have me completing the big loop within twelve to fourteen hours, which on the gravel roads around our house was certainly possible, but it also had me then completing a second but smaller loop in the next eight to ten hours. I was kidding myself to the extreme. It finally took me around thirty hours to finish the first loop, and I could have died in the process. Sure I learned a lot along the way, but my misguided thinking was a real slap in the face. That had to become an important, if severe, lesson.
Four weeks later I was off to do it again, only this time changing many aspects of the plan from the first failure. Plus I was four weeks more fit. These Wilsons Prom adventures were only the icing on a very large cake of training day after day after day. By now I was walking sixty to seventy kilometres each week and often doing a full marathon on one day of the weekend. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when thinking back to this time, that I realized just how fit I had been in 2009. The strange part about it though was that I was constantly so exhausted and tired that I felt like the walking dead, rather than a honed athlete ready to take on the Sahara.
Many aspects of this second attempt remained the same as the first. I still left from Tidal River at the same time of day, heading in an anti-clockwise direction. But this time I had totally discarded any foolish notion of doing a second loop, being satisfied to simply finish the sixty kilometre main loop non-stop. That was my goal for this second attempt.
Well, it didn’t happen. But I did at least get further than the first time before having to stop. This time I had brought an alarm clock with me, so I could have confidence of waking up if I needed to stop along the way. And the alarm clock came in useful, if not maybe for the reason it was intended.
Being more aware now of what the conditions were like, I was able to make much better progress. It was still late afternoon daylight as I passed over the top of the rock that I had slept on the previous time. With a shiver I saw just how close I had been to the edge of the cliff that first time and was also able to see why finding the path down off the rock had been so difficult. I pushed on hard as the sun went down and the headlamp came out.
Walking along bush tracks with the headlamp is hard work, as the light from it is focused directly only on whatever is directly in front of you. It’s a bit spooky to be honest, until you get used to it and care is required when the ground is rocky. It would be far too easy to “do an ankle” on a slippery rock or tree root, so progress is significantly reduced. This was a good lesson for the overnight section in the Sahara. The rocks there won’t be slippery, but there are plenty of them and they can be rough and jagged.
Again I was a shell of a human being as I blundered into the Sealers Cove camp site at close to midnight. I was now working on autopilot, so considered that I could keep going, even though it was dark, cold, wet, miserable and still a long way to go. From Sealers Cove there is an unforgiving climb from the beach, along a damp, muddy track, to the top of the saddle and I wasn’t looking forward to that.
I thumped unceremoniously down the last bit of slope from the camp site to the water crossing. Anyone who happened to be camping at Sealers Cove that night would have thought that they were under attack from a Yeti or something. But I was stopped in my tracks when I got to the water’s edge. I knew that there was a wet crossing and was prepared for it. At extreme low tide, you can be very lucky and wade through quickly with not much water getting into your boots, but for most of the time this crossing was at least knee deep and often much more severe.
This was one of those times.
When I got to the water’s edge and turned my head to see where the water was, I had to stop and think for a moment. What was I looking at? I was expecting to see a strip of sand, then the water, then more sand about 30 metres beyond that. But instead I was seeing just water, right up to the small step down to the sand. The tide was up high, meaning that a water crossing would have me stripped off and holding all of my gear above my head, as I headed into the dark towards sand that I couldn’t see because it was too far away, with water possibly up to my neck. All of this while wearing my headlamp and trying to keep it dry.
Obviously none of that was about to happen. I had been stopped in my tracks by a significant high tide and had no choice but to find a place to sleep until the tide went down. So I turned around and headed back in the direction of the camping ground, which was back up the narrow track, in amongst the trees and bush. There were a few tents scattered around, so I crept around as best I could so as not to disturb those campers currently snuggled in their sleeping bags. Fortunately for me, over the years the park rangers at Wilsons Prom have gradually improved facilities and Sealers Cove now sported a wooden toilet block with a small verandah forming a shelter from any rain. So, putting any pride I may have left in my back pocket, I laid down on the hard boards of the verandah right outside the toilet doors, set my clock for the morning and tried to get some sleep.
After a short while, maybe thirty minutes, maybe only five, I became aware that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I should have been asleep by now, but instead my mind was racing in weird circles. Due to my current circumstances, it was clear to me that I needed to be hyper-vigilant as I was now into what I refer to as “endurance mode”. My current circumstances were tough and likely to get tougher before I got back to civilization, so when I recognized something odd happening with my head, I chose to assume the worst and have a fruit strip. As the effect of this started to kick in, it enabled me to realize just how bad my blood sugar level really was. It hadn’t occurred to me when I had stumbled in to Sealers Cove, but it was now becoming clear that I was on the verge of a desperate situation.
I took out one of the sports gels from the food pocket in my trousers and squeezed that down my neck. Then I followed that with another fruit strip. I sat there on the hard boards of the verandah to consider how I now felt and decided that another sports gel was required, as these are easier to get down than the fruit strips and act much more quickly. All of this was telling me just how bad my BSL had been when I had arrived at the camp ground. After another fruit strip, washed down with some water, I was finally confident that I would see morning, so curled up on the hard boards and got some sleep.
The next morning, when the world looked a whole lot different in the bright, morning sun, I pushed up the long hill from Sealers Cove, stopped to receive the anxious messages from Donna at the signal spot, then finally arrived back at Tidal River. When I called in to the rangers office to let them know that I had returned, the lady behind the counter was interested in what I was doing. I told her about the Sahara and then about attempting the Lighthouse Loop. She told me that doing the loop was a well known activity for those wanting to do something extreme, then asked me a strange question. She asked me which way I had gone around. I thought it odd that she should focus on that, but I told her that I’d gone anti-clockwise.
“Oh no, no, no” she said, “That’s the wrong way. You need to go clockwise.”
“Why?” I asked, intrigued that she should even have an opinion on the subject.
“Everyone who does the loop, and there’s a few extreme people who do it, all know that anti-clockwise is much too hard. Clockwise is easier. For a start, you’ve got that hell of a climb after you leave the lighthouse …”. Yes, I knew about that one.
“Then you’ve got the climb out of Sealers which, by that stage of your loop, is a real killer. No, the best way to do the loop is clockwise.”
So now I knew. My two attempts so far had both been virtually doomed to failure from the start, even by the experts. Learning this so suddenly and succinctly both sagged my shoulders and gave me a boost. I no longer felt like I’d failed and was immediately looking forward to the next loop in a month’s time. As Bullwinkle says to Rocky, “This time for sure”.
A month later I had managed to convince another fool, er I mean adventurer, to do the loop with me. Robin from my work was a long time bush walker although, being from New Zealand, he was more correctly a tramper. It was great to have somebody else along facing the challenges with me.
These walks were not easy by any stretch, so to be able to share the experience also meant sharing expertise. One of the things that I had learned by now was the importance of hydration supplements in the water, or electrolytes, or whatever you wish to call them. They all achieve the same purpose, no matter how you have them. Robin had never attempted anything quite as grueling as this before and found at about the half way mark that he was spent, and was suggesting that he was going to take the shorter path back so as not to stop me from completing the loop. I could tell his condition by how he was looking. With some encouragement, and by showing him the package that they came in, I was able to coerce him to give them a try, so put two in his water bottle. These supplements act like magic and over the next ten minutes his mood and his physical condition picked up significantly. By the time we got to the spot where the tracks diverge, he was feeling good enough to continue towards the lighthouse. Still drinking the water with the supplements, by the time we got to the lighthouse he admitted that he felt magnificent.
Robin never again suggested he was going to cut a loop walk short. Electrolytes are important. This was going to come back much into the future to haunt me.
Midway through 2009 my training had brought me to a point where I was starting to consider myself almost ready. Physically, I couldn’t expect a lot more improvement. At fifty two years of age, what I was achieving week after week was, to cast modesty to the side for a moment, quite amazing. I had never been an “athlete”, so had started this endeavor from a very basic starting point. I was now at a level where, with ten minutes warning, I could be on the road and walk a marathon with no problems at all, with enough food on my back to last a week.
With regards to the management of my diabetes, I had made enormous strides, pardon the pun. I was now settled on the food to eat during a day of walking. I was fine tuning the food to eat at the start of the day and at the end of the day. I still had some decisions to make there, but the general approach was now decided. I had learned about the need for electrolyte supplements and considered that subject now closed. I now had most of my final gear for the Sahara, with only some of the less important items to get. I did still need to get the sleeping bag, but had already found that it wasn’t going to be difficult to get that. So I considered now that almost all of my focus could be devoted purely to training.
Three weeks out of four I was now doing marathon distances combined with twenty or twenty five kilometres on the other day of the weekend. When I thought back to where I started at, when five kilometres was comfortable and ten was a long way, I knew I really had come a long way. On the fourth weekend of each month I was doing a Wilsons Prom lighthouse loop.
By now I had become sophisticated enough that I was carrying a satellite tracker with me on my Wilsons Prom trips. I had recently learned about these and had bought one and set it up so that anyone who had the web site could, at the click of a mouse, see where I was. I introduced these to the picture with a dual purpose. Firstly it brought an extra level of safety and comfort when I was doing the lighthouse loops on my own, as Robin didn’t always join me. The other was to fine tune how it worked for both myself and those who would be watching me progress across the Sahara. Modern technology is amazing. My team mate at work asked me one Monday after I had a done a loop, why I had stopped for about twenty minutes just after I had left Waterloo Bay. I was amazed. Yes I had stopped and it was because it was half way up the long climb out of Waterloo Bay and I was feeling tired. I sat down for a rest and dropped off to sleep for twenty minutes while sitting on a rock. He was also to ask me in the future, why I had turned off the tracker in Spain. But we’ll get to that much later.
My performance on the loops was getting consistently better and better. So was Robin’s. He didn’t come on every walk, missing about every second one. But he was there to share some memorable experiences. There was the time we were crossing over the low point to the lighthouse right at the moment that a thundery squall struck. For ninety seconds we were pounded by howling winds, thunder and lightning and general mayhem, dramatic enough that I nearly lost my poncho and backpack. We had to grab on to each other and help each other across to where we could shelter in rocks. Of course that was just in time for the squall to blow itself out.
Then there was the time that Robin, who was walking behind me, suddenly gave a shout of shock.
“Didn’t you see that?” he asked.
“See what?” I asked.
“The snake. You stepped over a snake!”
There was the time we were climbing out of Sealers Cove, heading for Refuge Cove. The weather was glorious sunshine and we were in high spirits. Suddenly we heard a sound coming from behind us and turned to see what it was. We couldn’t see anything until Robin pointed to the middle of the bay and yelled “Look! It’s a whale!” We stood there for the next ten minutes watching a whale blow through its blow hole, lift its enormous side flipper into the air and slap it down on the water surface with the sound of a cannon and generally make us glad to be alive and here to see it. Robin was like an excited, little boy for the rest of the day after that. He loves all creatures great and small. Which is why he nearly fainted with joy one night when we were just stepping down onto Norman Bay beach, just thirty minutes from the finish of our loop, when we were confronted in the light of our headlamps with a wombat, standing right in the middle of our path. We stood there and waited as it slowly waddled out of the way and we could keep going.
Robin was also with me the night that, at the fifty kilometre point of the loop, I started to feel quite strange. We’d been pushing along that day and, as we were on the fire track near Roaring Meg, I started to lose control of my legs. I was already suffering painful cramps, which was a regular aspect of these walks for me, but this time they got worse until I was having trouble walking. Finally, with great regret, I sat down on the track to give the cramps a chance to go away. I was feeling exhausted and Robin was a little concerned. So was I to be honest. Understandably I considered that my sugar might be going low, so I had an extra fruit strip and sports gel, but they didn’t seem to help. Eventually we got going again and I struggled along until we got to Halfway Hut, where we chose to have another good rest. I was worried about what might be going on, so I reluctantly agreed with Robin’s suggestion that we stay there in the hut for the rest of the night.
I was to learn later that this was a flashing, screaming warning light, yelling at me that there was a problem. All I could think of was a sugar problem, maybe combined with exhaustion, so I pushed it aside. Oh how I wish I had taken more notice.
Murphy’s Law Revisited
Finally it all got too much for Donna, who was living with immense pain every minute of every day. She called the hospital to find out the latest status for her operation and started crying as she spoke with one of the senior admin people. Fortunately he was one of those “can do” people who went to work to actually help people, not just shuffle papers, and started asking questions. He was able to determine that Donna’s case had indeed fallen between the cracks and her operation should have happened months previously. As a result, he organized not only for Donna to go to the top of the list, but also that she would be given the preeminent spinal doctor in all of Melbourne.
La Grande Adventure
After two years of hard work, training, planning and organising, I would have hoped that the last couple of weeks before leaving would have been calm. But alas, that was not the case. Right up to the moment of departure tickets were being printed, passports were being checked, final arrangements being made. Not least amongst this was the all essential backpack. The first “final” packing of that was two weeks prior to departure. The final “final” packing was the afternoon before departure. But at least, as I was to work out later, I didn’t forget anything.
At last it was time to leave for the airport. It would have been nice if I was calm by this stage but alas, this also was not to be. I was stressed and tense and just eager to be on the plane. Our friend Karen, who was going to prove to be a great help for Donna over the next few weeks, arrived early to pick us up and drive us. All of my family, brothers, mother and assorted others, were there to say good-bye, so it was a loud and jumbled farewell.
I wish I could say that the flight to London was boring, but unfortunately a small drama happened on the way. The flight to Doha was quite normal and comfortable, as was the connecting flight to London, up to the point that I asked for an orange juice. When I took my first sip of the juice I thought that maybe I’d been given mango juice instead. It tasted a little odd. I took another small taste and then I realised that something was definitely wrong. I mentioned to the hostess that there was something wrong with the juice and she went away to get a fresh one for me. Meanwhile my mouth started to tingle and I could feel a strange sensation in my mouth and throat.
Suddenly four hostesses came rushing up the aisle and asked me if I was OK. They urgently gave me an ice-cream, a fruit juice in a box and a bottle of water and were showing great concern about my welfare, which I found odd and strangely perplexing. My mouth was definitely feeling odd and now I had a sickening taste of chemicals in my mouth, throat, nose and sinuses.
The poor hostess, who I felt very sorry for, confirmed what had happened. The dishwasher used to clean the glasses had only been through half it’s cycle, leaving the glasses covered in the cleaning solution rather than being rinsed clean. And now all I could taste and smell was the nauseating affect of chemicals. This was to last until the next day in London before it finally went away. The rest of the trip to London went without any further dramas, luckily, leaving me standing out in the public area of Heathrow a few minutes early waiting for my ride. Tina, my sister-in-law who lives in London with her husband Ken, had been caught in traffic and was a little late arriving to pick me up. By the time she arrived I had created visions of me being stranded at Heathrow airport as night fell, not knowing where I was meant to be going. However they finally arrived and all was fine.
London – what can I say? There is something about London, and England in general, that makes Donna and I go a little funny. This was now my third trip to London, but I was still over-awed to be there. Donna and I have tried to work out what makes us go all mushy about being in London, and the best we can come to is some mystical sort of tribal memory. It’s either that or simply that Donna and I are just repressed Anglophiles. Who knows, but I now had that mushy feel again.
Over the next three days, as I played with my backpack and other luggage, and as the details of the Ryanair flight to Marrakesh became more clear through talking with Tina, it became apparent that a major rethink of my luggage requirements was in order. Having never flown with joyful airlines like Ryanair or Easyjet before, I wasn’t until then aware that they make their money by charging for absolutely everything. If my booked in luggage was even a few hundred grams over the 15kg that Tina had arranged for, it was going to cost me substantial amounts of money. And as this trip was already costing a lot of money, this was a “joy” that I could well do without.
So I packed and unpacked, packed again then repacked. I tried nearly every combination of checked in and cabin luggage I could think of, eventually finding the right combination of what goes where and what to discard and leave behind. This meant that my race backpack needed to have some contents transferred across to my cabin luggage bag and the race backpack became my booked in luggage. It also meant that I needed something lightweight to protect my backpack from damage. As I sat there in London, the most important thing in my field-of-view at that moment in time was my backpack.
The next day I took myself off to the centre of London on the tube. I simply cannot go to London and not spend at least one day wandering around the city, travelling on the tube, seeing Buck House etc. My goals for the day were to find something that would protect my backpack as it travelled to Marrakesh and to see some of the famous sites of London. The first was achieved with a visit to an outdoor shop in Oxford St. There I found a tough, adaptable and light weight bag that I could use, so that job was now half complete.
As I was walking up Oxford St, calling into Marks and Spencer to browse around and be astounded at the range and quality of the food available for lunch down in the basement, I experienced the first bout of low sugar since leaving Melbourne. As I had left Melbourne thirty six or forty eight hours ago, I’d lost count, I was actually doing quite well. It was not far off lunch time and it quickly became obvious that I didn’t have time to buy lunch to get rid of the low. With rapidly diminishing options, I stopped and pulled out a packet of emergency biscuits from my backpack. The sugar was dropping rapidly, so I ate quite a lot of biscuits to catch it and bring it back up. Even though this was the first low I had experienced since leaving home, I wasn’t happy that it had happened. Here I was on my own in the centre of London. A major low was not a good idea.
The rest of the day was filled with activities that are, in my opinion, a must for anyone visiting London infrequently. These included a walk from Leicester Square down to Buck House past Nelson’s Column, around St James Park, up through some amazing buildings with beautiful architecture, past 10 Downing St, back up to Trafalgar Square, where I then sat and watched all the people for a while, then back to Leicester Square and the tube back to Tina’s place. In Paris you visit the Eiffel Tower. In London you visit these places.
The next day, Tuesday the 30th of March, was the last day in London before I left for Morocco. A visit to Harrods was a great way to see another side of London and an opportunity to buy a few small presents for the family. Over the years, Donna has accumulated a number of bags from Harrods, and now she had one more. While there, Tina and I got talking to a nice couple who were amazed by what I was about to do in the Sahara. The fellow was himself a type 1 diabetic, so he understood the danger I was facing and the difficulties I had been working with through the training and the event itself. It is conversations such as this which make all of the hard work seem more worthwhile.
Finally it was Wednesday the 31st of March and the day to leave London and fly to Marrakesh. This was the start of a whole new challenge. I was leaving the relative safety and comfort of London and travelling to a new and exotic country, a city I’d never been to before but had grown up with songs on the radio about. And not only that but I was starting an extreme adventure. Was I nervous? Me? What do you think?
Ken drove me down the M-whatever motorway to Luton airport, getting me there only half an hour before departure time. Having never been to Luton before, I found it to be a cavernous building simply full of people, all lined up for their various flights. I eventually found the RyanAir queue for Morocco at the farthest end of the building and rushed to join it, only to discover it was moving at a rate that would have us all booked in by around midday. As the plane left at 5:25am, less than half an hour away, that could have been a problem.
And so it was. With a lot of hand wringing on my part, and shuffling from foot to foot, I finally got booked in five minutes AFTER the plane was scheduled to leave. With a smile on her face, the girl behind the counter suggested to me very politely that the plane was waiting to leave “So I’d hurry if I was you.” After running for what seemed like forever to the departure gate with my bags, and risking tripping and breaking my neck, they closed the door as soon as I was on the plane. Then RyanAir, in all their audacious ingenuity, offered to sell me a beer so I could get my breath back after running to the departure gate. That’s what the bright and sparky recorded Irish voice said over the PA. The rotten mongrels had it all planned.
I will never fly with Ryanair again if I can avoid it.