Saudi Arabia and the Empty Quarter

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

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

The Empty Quarter – January 1998
(part 1)  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (the final part)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empty Quarter trip was over.