I love my Toyota Land Cruiser Prado even more today than I did this time last week. For five days last week it was our principal hang-out, and performed admirably through a variety of challenging environments while at the same time keeping the family in safety and comfort.
We'd been invited to a desert trek in Dubai by friends Gerard and Rachael, to include a night camping out in the desert, so it was for this reason that we drove to Dubai -- a place that ordinarily we'd fly to as it is 1100km away from Riyadh. This long drive was on my mind early last Monday morning, as I loaded up the car with all our camping gear, a suitcase of clothes for five days, some food for the journey and a selection of electronic gadgets to keep the "are we there yet?"'s to a minimum. Karen couldn't get time off for the whole trip so the children and I did the drive down, with Karen to follow by air on Wednesday evening.
Once I'd got the children in the back seat my last prepatory ritual before setting off was to smear the entire front of the car with Fairy Liquid; a common precautionary measure in these parts against the erosive effects of sandstorms on the bodywork, which I first encountered on our first ever trip to Bahrain back in April.
We set off at 8am on Monday morning, allowing my SatNav system to decide the route, having been instructed to find the quickest way there. The first leg took us out of Riyadh to the North East on the Dammam Highway, then turned off after about an hour to the road for Al Hufuf. I should point out that the scenery for the entire Saudi part of the journey was pretty much the same: desert. Long, straight roads cutting a swathe through the sandy wilderness stretch out to the horizon in the bright sunlight. It's a pretty boring vista when you're trying to stay alert, but the lack of traffic and uncluttered roadsides made for relatively stress-free driving, so the two cancelled each other out pretty much. There were occasional road signs and petrol stations, and lots of camels, but that was about all there was to see apart from sky above, and sand to left and right. Oh yes, and pylons. Lot of pylons. The main nagging concern throughout is, "what if I break down out here in the middle of nowhere? No mobile phone signal and 200km away from the nearest town." So as I cruise along I'm keeping an eagle eye on the road surface for any debris that might puncture a tyre, and listening out for any unusual noises coming from the engine.
We arrived in Al Hofuf after about three hours, and stopped for petrol and a toilet break. The petrol station's toilets are best left undescribed! Al Hofuf is a pretty large town; large enough to be taken seriously, but small enough to retain a more provincial character. Onward again, this time towards Salwa, which we skirted rather than entered, then Southeast along the Qatar border and the Gulf Coast before reaching the U.A.E. border another three hours later. We were averaging 100km per hour including stops, border crossing etc., so it was easy to monitor progress: six hours = six hundred kilometres, so well over half way.
Once into the U.A.E. things brightened up considerably. The roads were in better condition and were better tended and decorated, we were driving along the coast road so had sand only to our right, and now ocean to our left. Even the petrol stations looked more inviting. The allure was short-lived however, when I found that petrol costs twice as much here as in Saudi, this time costing me a full £15 to fill my tank -- criminal! We had also put our watches forward an hour by this time, as there is a timezone change at the border.
Another three hours and we skirt around Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, before driving the last 150km leg to Dubai. Coming into Dubai along the massive Sheik Zayed Road we hit our first and only traffic jam of the trip. Sheik Zayed Road is either a quick expressway through the centre of Dubai or the World's biggest car park, depending on how close to rush hour you are.
Still, crawling along in first gear at least gives you the chance to check on the Burj Dubai's progress.
The Burj Dubai, currently at just over half its final height, already dominating Dubai's skyline. When completed it will be the World's tallest building, by a long way.
We finally arrive at Gerard's house (he's putting us up) at 7.30pm, ten and a half hours after setting off. Another family -- Dave (another Novell-er), his wife Roz and their two young daughters are also staying at the house, and we all unwind with a couple of cold beers and by watching Pink Floyd's Pulse -- truly a legendary concert that we decided to put on in preparation for going to see Roger Waters play live on Wednesday night!!!
Tuesday is our lazy, creature comforts day, because things are going to get rougher and sandier from then on. I take the children to the Mall of the Emirates where we mooch around the shops in this truly massive mall, amble past the ski slope (with real snow), and then we go to the cinema to see The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith. A bit overlong but a very moving and inspirational true story that made me shed a tear at the end. We finished the evening off with dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (the children's favourite) before heading back to Gerard's and falling into bed.