My oh-so-clever sleeping arrangements of the previous night fail to take into account the fact that extreme rally drivers probably aren’t all that careful with their vehices and there may be mechanics working on said vehicles for some time after dark.
And by “may be” I clearly mean “are certain to be”. Also, by “some time after dark” I clearly mean “all motherfucking night”.
From sunset until I wake at quarter to five, they hammered and welded, testing their motors, revving engines and hurling bikes and quads up and down the dirt tracks that circle the bivi. I clamber out of bed and dress by the light of a head torch. Rolf will be up in an hour , but I remember how lovely that extra hour was for me the other day when he was getting up early. Breakfast is a hurried affair, I pack sausages, bacon and rolls into a polystyrene box for the sweep drivers who won’t have an opportunity to eat before we set off.
Baz drops me off at the Liwa rest house, a decrepit building with crumbling baroque stone work, populated by hundreds of screaming, yapping finches, their shit dribbling down the flaking plaster facade. There’s a concierge, an eldery man in a stained robe who holds holds the door and points for me when I ask my one piece of pidgin, phonetic arabic. “WC, fen?”
Ablutions complete, I introduce myself to the sweep team, hand over breakfast and am claimed by a driver. We all head out of Liwa in convoy,swinging off the tarmac at an anonymous and apparently unmarked spot and cruising into the sands. The drivers leap out of their trucks and begin letting down their tires, softer wheels have a greater surface area and are less likely to dig themselves into the loose sand. The team is clearly tightly knit, they’ve worked together for years and I struggle to break into their conversation of race and leg leaders, mechanical intricacies and engines.
“Do we follow the riders, then, or what?”
One of the drivers grins at me “Its sort of like running with the bulls, we’ll let most of the pack pass us, then head along the rally route. The remainder of the riders will overtake us as we drive, we normally arrive a checkpoints alongside the slower racers.”
He’s barely finished talking when we hear the distant thumping growl of a quad. It’s amazing how much noise these little things make. When they’re idling it’s easy to mistake them for an approaching helicopter. The red quad comes screaming through the concrete underpass we’re parked beside, spitting sand from it’s back wheels as they dig in to power up the side of the adjacent dune. The noise is awesome, the speed exhilirating and I’ve hardly time to turn to the sweep team and grin when another six bikes and quads hurtle past in quick succession.
The drivers are mildly entertained by my excitement and smile in good humour before tucking back into the cold sausages and flat bread I brought from the bivi. Fully breakfasted we pile back into the vehicles and head into the desert after the racers.
Desert driving is a skill I know nothing about and my driver fills me in briefly on the concepts behind it. Keep the wheels turning, keep the momentum up and pay attenion to the other drivers’ tracks ahead of you. We’re the middle car of our three vehicle sweep convoy, the first seems to have the hardest job, picking a route over and through the dunes for the rest of us.
We start off on small dunes, gently rolling waves of sand but within a few minutes we’re driving up the sides of sheer slopes, swinging the vehicle back and forth as we climb like a shepherd climbing a tough hill. At the top of each one we pause, check our route down and then plunge dizzyingly down slopes several storeys high at angles up 80 degrees. The drop is amazing, the floor comes up to the windscreen fast and I’msure the front of the truck will bury itself and we’ll flip end over end, winding up upside down in the desert. But the driver’s competent and guns the truck hard, spinning the bonnet back up onto the flat.
It strikes me, again, how dangerous the terrain really is, you wouldn’t want to be Joe-Shmoe in a hired 4×4 out on a day’s jolly. These are proficient drivers handling these vehicles, but we still get stuck at times. The trucks ground on the arretes between the dunes when they drivers don’t push them hard enough; huge sand bowls suck us down sideways, the tires drifting laterally away from under the vehicle. At one point the first truck vanishes sharply over the top of a dune and the lead driver’s voice comes back “That’s a bit of a sharp one.”
My driver hits the arrete hard, the bonnet slams down near vertically, an inadvertent “Ohhhh you mother fucker” slips out of my lips, followed by nervous laughter when we make it out the other side.
We follow this pattern hundreds of times through the day, the windscreen shows me sky, then sand, then sky, then sand. I’m tired, very very tired, the car is hot and, as the driver explains, “The AC doesn’t work too well in my truck if the vehicle is working hard.”
“Like, working hard like dune bashing?”
“Yeah, like that.”
I struggle to stay awake, the rocking of the vehicle, my driver’s concentration cuts down on his conversation and the heat (which I later discover tops out at 52 degrees today) is immense. And when he says the air conditioning doesn’t work? He doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. When it stops working, it blows oven-hot air into the car. My head nods up and down as the truck roams over the dunes.
My eyes won’t stay open, the motion of the vehicle rocks me to sleep but my brain is yelling hard that I’m working, with a stranger, that this is my first time working on this event, that I have to make a good impression.
My eyes flip open and closed; I start to micro-sleep, dreaming as soon as my eyes are shut. The images from my dreams are over-laid on top of the view through the windscreen, waking and sleeping merge irretrievably. I am, effectively, hallucinating.
An alligator marches, grinning, down the side of a sand bowl. I see it clear as day.
The lead vehicle transforms into a massive, green John Deere tractor. I mention this to my driver. He glances at me nervously before returning his eyes to the sand.
We do this for hours.
There are no patients.
We recover one motorbike, I stand aside and photograph the team as they load the bike onto the trailer.
By the end of the evening we park up on a ridge, overlooking a fodder farm in the valley below and the lead vehicle breaks open a cooler full of beer.
We sit, six blokes in the desert and drink cold lager, watching the sun begin to set in the distance.
The team chat to me, they ask about my job and I ask about theirs, we understand each other, we natter about home and families.
They drive me back to the bivouac.
Patch seems concerned by my knackered face, he apologises “It’s a part of what we do here…”
I’m not bothered in the slightest.
Sure, I’ve had a long day and it’s not been exciting.
But I’m here to work, to do my job.
Back in Edinburgh I frequently work long days that aren’t exciting.
This is what I do.
It’s just today…I did it in the desert.