Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Desert Driving

Most of the teenage children belonging to families at the Embassy go to boarding schools in the UK, so at the start of the Easter holidays (end of March) they all came out to Riyadh to visit their folks. The Ambassador's daughter and three sons were part of this influx, as was his brother and family. We're in the opposite situation – with Elliot and Abigail living and going to school here – and are about to return to the UK to visit family and friends, but before we go we have a couple of days with all the families together here, so Sherard (that's the Ambassador) invited us all on a trip to the desert – his family to camp there overnight, and the rest of us to go for the afternoon and evening, then return to the city.

We set off from the driveway of the Residence at around 2.30 pm, picking up a couple of other families en route. There were two lots of Cowper-Coles, us, and four other families, plus Sherard's Close Protection Team (bodyguards), which all in all made up our convoy of nine 4x4's, seven of which played Follow the Leader down the motorway as we headed Southwest of Riyadh, with the two guards' vehicles swooping in and out as we went along.

We left the motorway after about an hour and drove for another hour along more minor roads before finally turning right onto sand, where we stopped for about ten minutes to rendezvous and to let our tyres down.

We were about to go driving over the sand dunes of the desert; soft terrain in which it is very easy to get stuck so there are several common sense precautions you take. One is to always travel in groups of at least three vehicles, so that there will always be one not-stuck car to pull out another, a second is to carry digging out equipment such as shovels and sand ladders, but the third and most important precaution is to let some air out of your tyres – about half of their regular pressure. This has the effect of making the tyre's “footprint” on the sand flatter and larger, and therefore less likely to sink into the sand. So I – along with the other drivers – let my tyres down from around 30psi to 15psi, and off we went.

Our leader for the desert section was Simon, who is with the British Army here and highly experienced in desert driving, camping etc., so we felt in good hands. Simon snaked around the base of a large sand dune – with all of us following, then drove up the gentle side and rolled to a stop at the top so that we could all get out and look over before driving over the edge.

I now wish I'd taken a couple of photos from the top of the dunes as they look MUCH steeper from up there than they do in these shots.

We did about four of these large dunes and I was really enjoying it, but I did feel for Karen who – in the passenger seat and with no steering wheel to cling on to – was having less fun. I can imagine being in the passenger seat as the car dips over the top of the dune, and I don't think I'd enjoy it from there either.

The key is to keep up a steady speed up to the top, then to tilt over the edge slowly and then let gravity and the sand take you down, only putting the revs back on as you reach the bottom of the slope so that you power away from it without getting stuck. I got the hang of this quite quickly and was just getting warmed up when we moved off to find our camp site.

We “circled our wagons” at the base of a very large dune and as the adults began to unpack the equipment for camping, picnic etc. the children legged it up the dune as if it were just a gentle slope.

I tried it myself later and it's not gentle I can tell you! The bodyguards set up their own camp atop another dune about ½ mile away, from where they could keep an eye on us without being intrusive.

Sherard and I and a couple of others took photos and video of the children playing on the dune; me with my small but perfectly formed Sanyo digital camcorder and he with his big black Canon digital SLR and large zoom lens. He's actually a pretty good photographer and I'll ask him for a couple of photos from the day that I can post here for you to look at.

The rest of the evening went as it usually does; we ate, drank, chatted and built a fire as the sun went (quickly) down, then wrapped up as the wind picked up and the temperature fell.

The Cowper-Coles families were in for the long-haul and were to sleep on camp beds out in the open – no tents. I haven't done it myself yet but I'm told sleeping outside in the desert under the stars is a pretty incredible experience. That's for another time for us though, and at around 9pm the rest of us set off back to the city, taking about 30 minutes to weave our way back to the road between the dunes in the dark, then finding a petrol station where we re-inflated our tyres before driving the two hours back to Riyadh and a nice warm bed!

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