Jul 14 2012

“A little dust, and the engine kicks.”

So I've written in the past about Sweep duties. You can read about my previous adventures here and here and here. I'm not going to lie – the attraction of driving through the desert is one that is largely lost on me. I love the novelty of it, I love the landscape, I love the omnipotence of the sand; much like the Cairngorms, there's a clear message from the terrain that, whoever you are, the landscape will kick your ass if you don't respect it.


But tooling through the sand for 14 hours just because?


Not for me.


If, however, you're the type of person who would LOVE to drive around dunes for hours on end, you want to get in touch with Marina at Living Life To The Full In The Empty Quarter. She blogs about her weekly drives through the sand with some awesome pictures that should make you smile.



This year my day of sweep involved driving out to meet the sweep teams at their accommodation early in the morning,

I'm not great at driving on the wrong side of the road. I'm a pretty good driver in the UK, but a huge amount of the “odd” stuff that we do as emergency drivers happens by instinct. When I'm driving on the wrong side of the road in Edinburgh, it's not that I'm suddenly working on a complete reversal of the rules of the road, but more that I'm operating under an absence of them.


Driving abroad fries my brain, I have to think long and hard every time I make any kind of manoevure, typically chanting “Drive on the right, drive on the right.” to myself whenever I have to navigate a junction or similar. Roundabouts are a fucking nightmare, I simply cannot get my brain to remember that you indicate right to pull off at an exit, rather than to the left.

So the prospect of driving a hundred clicks in a country where the average motorist isn't known for his religious adherence to the Highway Code? And further more where the application of the law can be described as “subjective” by local law enforcement? Was not one that filled my soul with enormous enthusiasm and deep joy.

I was even less reassured when I questioned a colleague on the directions that read “Don't do a U-turn on this bit of motorway…do it at this bit.”


“Because a U-turn there is less illegal,” he answered.

How jolly.

Most irritatingly, James, one of our desert virgins, was due to drive the other truck and was skipping about in the dawn light, singing about convoys and looking for all the world as though the thought of our little sojourn bothered him not a jot.

My concerns notwithstanding, after the opening minutes of gut wrenching terror (including the U turn on the motorway, yes) I have to admit I sort of enjoyed the trip. I even managed to find some suitably Arabian shouty-waily-ululatey music on the AM/FM radio in the cab and barrelled along with one window down, my arm hanging out the side. I was a Middle Eastern trucker.


An hour or so later we made it to Liwa, only slightly behind schedule. Lisa and James hopped into their respective units and headed off into the dust, while I took advantage of the fact that I was Sweep 3 – the last out and the last back, for sure, but that allowed me time to catch a quick cup of coffee in the canteen.


Outside Streaky, my driver for the day, and two other members of his team set to the job of preparing their trucks. Spanners and gaffer tape, filthy jokes and hastily assembled packed lunches, not to mention the traditional slotting of pies into the engine compartments to bake in the sun through the day.


We lost one member of our convoy early on.

We'd all three gone over a lip that led to a fairly heavy hit at the bottom of the bowl Streaky and I were heading onewards when a voice on the radio called us back. The last man in the convoy had taken them same route as us but struck the sand harder than expected, his vehicle taking a sufficiently solid impact to dislodge his bumper and push it backwards a couple of feet. He had no head or neck pain and hadnt struck anything in the cab, but told me he felt “funny”. He was a bit pale, a bit sweaty and his pulse at the radius wasn't awesome. All in all he seemed like a man who'd dumped his blood pressure, probably through the fright of the hard landing. I kept an eye on him for a while until he felt ready to continue but within a few miles he was back on the radio.


“I don't think I'd be smart to carry on…”


Sweep drivers are no wilting violets, so I figured if one was telling me he needed to bail out, then it was as good a diagnostic sign as any.


One problem, how to get him back to the pc point and onto home?

“I reckon I can drive back myself…”


I wasn't thrilled with the idea, but we set up a network for him. He took my cell phone number and we checked that he had a working GPS. As he set off for the PC point (where I knew there'd be an aircraft standing by) I SMSed my SAR colleagues and told them to watch out for him, telling the driver not to leave the PC point until a medic had seen him. We also arranged a fail safe, whereby we estimated how long it would take him to get back, doubled the time and agreed we'd scramble a helo for him if we hadn't heard back.


And with that, as safe as I could make it, I shipped a patient off into the desert under his own steam.


Comfy much?


The day was typical sweep, over some brutally unforgiving routes. We grounded and stuck time and again, each time having to dig or tow each other out of the sand. At one point the bottom of one truck got so embedded in a dune that we snapped a tow-line trying to haul it out. It was tested for 11,000 lb.


All day we picked up and dropped off broken down riders, often simply bussing them to the nearest major road where their support teams could rescue them. One chap we collected climbed into the back of the truck and so promptly fell asleep that we forgot he was there; he scared the shit out of us when, miles down the road, a voice from the back seat came out with “Do you have any water?”


It was late afternoon and we were enroute to collect a broken down bike when we crested a rise and found a quad lying on its side in a puddle of fuel, a helmet lay next to it, but no rider. We pulled over and fanned out around the crash site, looking for foot prints, looking for any clue as to the rider's location, recognising that he might be riding out with his support team already. Strange that theyd leave the quad, though, and stranger to leave his lid. I walked back to his quad to kick sand over the spilled fuel and casually picked up the helmet.


Turning it over in my hands the situation suddenly became much more grave. The visor was snapped from its hinge, there were fractures marks along the jaw line and at the back of the helmet an ugly dent was stoved right through to the lining. It wasn't hard to imagine the mechanism; a heavy landing throws your head forwards, smashing first the flimsy sun visor off your forehead and then slamming your chin guard against the handlebars.


You flip forwards and off the quad, but although you've stopped moving after a roll and bounce or two, all four of the quad's wheels are still spinning and propelling it forwards, bouncing and spinning after you “like a fucked off dice” as one rider once described it to me.


There are no big rocks on the road, no kerbs at the side to dent your helmet, so the only explanation for that hole in the side of his lid is that his quad spun into him, hammering a handlebar, or foot plate, or even just a protruding corner of chassis into the back of his head as he lay on the ground, dazed and frightened.


I needed to know where this guy was, right now.

Thankfully my SMS back to control was rapidly answered with the information I wanted to hear. He was in the air, flying hard and low and fast towards a trauma centre. I took photos of the helmet and communicated the damage back to Patch, just in case the receiving crew had missed it; an easy enough point to skip when you're focussed on your patient, but a useful piece of knowledge to have when deciding imaging and treatment options back at hospital.


By the end of the afternoon we'd got stuck again. I was knackered and there was little that could be done without a tow line, so I eschewed a shovel for my camera and backed off to a nearby dune to take the following video, recognising that a photo doesn't always capture the perpetual unending permanence of the sand.

Id like to apologise for my Barry White-esque timbre and gruffness. It was hot, I was dry and tired. I'm normally more melodious.


Jul 12 2012

Whiter than white.

Every year we spend an evening cutting loose, letting our hair down (which is sometimes tricky, when the best haircut for this environment is a half-all-over) and kicking it to some crazy beats.


Wednesday night. The fancy dress party. This year's theme?


The 80s.

I was born in 1981, so I was kinda tempted to turn up wearing a pair of Osh-Kosh dungarees and eating a Wham bar while inviting people to debate whether Panthra was cooler than Lion-O.


Clearly, Panthra, obviously.

But no, instead I did my normal trick of walking into the awesome costume shop near the university in Edinburgh and saying “80's themed party, Need a costume. Less than £40.”


The lovely woman behind the counter rummaged around before coming up with satin bloom pants, a shoulder padded jacket, dollar sign medallion and oversized shades.


“Wanna be Vanilla Ice?”





Come the Wednesday evening, though, my claims to being Vanilla Ice were quickly shot down by everyone walking up to me and saying “Ooooh! MC Hammer.” respect went to Ed, though, who'd spent several days before the event painting squares onto a cardboard packing crate in a Rubiks pattern, then wrapping said crate in brown paper, packing his gear into it and using it at his luggage.


His. Luggage.


I hate clever people.


The evening ran on as it typically does, beer flowed, the music struggled to be heard over the associated hubbub (every year we bring shit speakers, every year they don't work), the police officers stationed at the event sat and glowered at our haram dancing, drinking and canoodling and I was just about to turn into my bunk for my 0430 start the next day (sweep duty after the party…yeuch) when we were all gathered into a huddle by the Clerk of the Course.

“I feel it's only right that we recognise the fantastic work that the SAR/MED crew do, and as such this year we've brought along some prizes to thank you for your excellent outfit efforts.”


He worked his way through a number of themes, you know the sort of thing, best male, best female, best dressed, most imaginative deployment of hot pants. People were ushered up to the front where they shook the Clerk's hand and received their prize, a box from a Variety pack of breakfast cereal.


“And now we have the glittering grand prize, the prize that will be issued to Mr or Mrs 80s. It's….a box of Coco Pops.”


The crowd dutifully oohed.


“And the Coco Pops go to…..MC Hammer!”


Slaps on my back, cheers around me. I'm trying to tell them “But I'm Vanilla Ice!” when a hand pushes me to the front of the crowd.


Fuck it, I'm MC Hammer.



Apr 08 2012

Lofts in Berlin

Tag: PhotosKal @ 8:32 pm

Have portholes full of sunshine.

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They’re lovely.

Apr 07 2012

Vanishing point baby, aftermath.

Tag: PhotosKal @ 7:44 am

IMG_0193 copy

And beyond the vanishing point?

There’s a baby who’d like you to fuck off with the camera already.

Apr 06 2012

Vanishing point baby.

Tag: Photos,UncategorizedKal @ 7:42 am

IMG_0191 copy

It turns out?

At the point where all lines converge?

There’s a cute baby.

Jul 02 2011

Aye aye

Tag: PhotosKal @ 5:48 am

In the world of the training department, with its anatomical homunculi and simulated death, things aren’t always as they seem.

That pocket mask box ain’t got no mask, son…


Mar 09 2011

Gone Fishin’

Tag: Photography,PhotosKal @ 5:32 pm


These boys laughed at me in Bali as I chased them up and down the beach, shooting images as they sent boat after boat of their fishing fleet out into the water.

What they didn’t understand (and I couldn’t communicate) was how much I was revelling in the similarity between these guys pushing a boat out into the water and the creeliemen in Orkney who’d do exactly the same thing.

Only wearing more clothes.


Feb 13 2011

Warhol Cat

Tag: Photo Challenge,PhotosKal @ 12:09 am

Gabriel Warhol

Janet asked for “Warhol Pussy Cat”.

I’m glad she put “cat” in there.

Because, you know, that could’ve been a totally different image.



This is Gabriel, who lives with us (I hesitate to describe him as “Tammy’s cat”). He rather enjoys biting people and frequently stalks into my room and wakes me with a low “mrow?” before savaging the shit out of me.

When I wake in the night and peer into the shadows, I’m sometimes lucky enough to spot an eye glinting at me.

It’s like this, but less colourful.

And, thank fuck, there aren’t nine of him.

Original image, btw, is just as scary.


Feb 11 2011


Tag: Photo Challenge,PhotosKal @ 11:47 pm


Graham Devine asked for “Yarnbombing” which, for those of you who aren’t up to speed, is guerilla knitting.

Clearer, huh?

Anyway – last year I was privileged to be asked by my mates Jen and Annie to go up and record their massive Yarnbombing of Inverness. They produced some amazing pieces of work (lots of which you can see by clicking on the image above and exploring the photoset in Flickr).

This shot stands out in my head though, as encapsulating the whole weekend.

Jan 18 2011

Winter Dawn

Tag: Photo Challenge,PhotosKal @ 9:45 pm

Rural isn’t a concept that applies to Edinburgh very readily, it being, you know, a city. So when Piper requested “A snowy rural scene, with dawn or sunset light” I knew I was going to have to make a special effort.

In the south of Edinburgh there’s Blackford Hill, a rounded peak with the Royal Observatory on the top of it and rolling fields with gorse bushes beyond. My only real experience of it is when patients (mostly older dog walkers) trip or collapse and call, letting us know that they’re “on the hill, near the observatory”.

This is rarely useful, the observatory being at the top of a largely circular mount. Ergo, you’re on the hill, you’re near the observatory.

I digress.

The snow that caused us such issues over Christmas was gone by the time i came to take the photos, so when the forecast warned of flurries over night I knew I had to take the opportunity.

Up in the dark, I parked my car on a nearby street when the tires started spinning too fast to climb any further. Hauling my gear up the hill I was gutted to realise I was too far west to get a decent shot of the sunrise. Looking towards an orange smear on the horizon, the foreground was a mass of streetlights, houses and high rise towers.


I’m goin to have to get up again tomorrow morning and headc out to East Lothian to get the hills in the background. Plus, my tripod is broken so I’ll never be able to hand hold the camera in this dusk.

I’m sulking and stomping around the snow, checking out the observatory for an interesting angle when the light kicks into action, silhouetting this sharp wee tree to make me breathe hard.

Twenty minutes later, the snow has soaked through my jeans and long johns and the first of the morning’s dog walkers are starting to creep into frame. I’m breathing easy, standing on the hill’s peak and beaming at the city spread out at my feet.

Its a beautiful morning, the air is crisp, the shops are open for breakfast and best of all?

The shot’s in the bag.

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