Last week when we left the story Nick and I had, in the space of five minutes, managed to get both cars bogged in the sand. There hasn’t been much mention of type 1 diabetes during this adventure you’ll notice. But that’s the nature of the illness. It might be invisible sometimes, but it is always there, 24 x 7, ready to take control and ruin a perfectly adventurous day. It was my job to make sure it didn’t.
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.