The day gets better and better from then on.
On the occasional stretches of tarmac we drive to cut corners off the rally route and catch up with the pack, we play “Name that tune” by blasting Ipods into the two-way radios between the vehicles. We stop for lunch and the driver of the lead car opens the bonnet to reveal a half dozen chicken and mushroom pies, wrapped in tin foil, that have been baking in the engine compartment all morning. They’re boiling hot and delicious and I scoff mine with relish, turning my body against the wind to avoid the sprinkling of sand the desert offers as garnish.
Driving along the rally route we get stuck.
Several times my driver’s vehicle grounds on the ridge of a dune and we have to get towed off by our companions. On two occasions the drivers drop down into hollows and crash into shrubs and bushes, the branches tangling in the wheels, tying the trucks to the floor.
We’re winding down for the end of the day, cruising along dirt trails, matching the pace of the last few riders on our final approach to Abu Dhabi and the race finish when a message comes over the radio from the last car in our convoy.
“Boy on a bike here wants to talk to the medic.”
We pull over and the motorcyclist catches up with us, barely manages to dismount on shaking legs and sits down heavily in the sand.
“Have you any salt?”
He’s made a serious error in his rehydration plan, drinking nothing but water all day is all well and good but doesn’t replace the salts, sugar and electrolytes the body sweats and pisses out through the day. His metabolism is shot, despite drinking enough water to float a battleship.
It’s the end of the event and I can’t see that I’ll have any use for them back in Scotland, so I skip the Dioralyte in the medical bag and instead mix him up a sachet of the raspberry isotonic energy drinks I brought over. Each day I’ve mixed a canteen of this stuff and chucked it in my bag in case I became dehydrated, each night I’ve drunk the remainder over dinner. It doesn’t taste bad, like very sweet, faintly salty juice.
I’ve been mixing mine in a litre canteen. This rider gets a whole sachet in a 300ml bottle. The drink is so thick and pink by the time the granules have dissolved that it makes my teeth itch to look at it, but I press it into his hands and encourage him to drink, chasing it down with another litre or so of chilled water from the cooler in the back of our vehicle.
In minutes he’s standing, smiling, laughing.
“How do you feel?”
“Amazing! Fantastic! Thankyou!”
We’re chuckling at his miracle cure when one of the sweep drivers pulls me aside.
“I’ve had a call from Rally Control, they’re shutting the event down, he’s too late to finish. They say we’re to pull him, load his bike and transport him to the finish line.”
“But why? He’s not medically unfit, he’s fine.”
“It’s an ops thing, they want him pulled off the course, he’s the last racer of the pack.”
“But he’s nearly finished, there’s only another 20k to go”
“I know. Ahhh, fuck it.”
The driver calls Rally Control back and explains that he’s not prepared to pull the rider, they agree that the rider can travel to the next check point and they’ll review the situation on his arrival. The racer, number 40, jumps back on his bike and burns off into the distance. We smile at his dust cloud and make our own way to the third and final check point before the finish line, 40 only visible as a grimy smudge of exhaust fumes and kicked up dirt on the dunes ahead.
At the checkpoint , number 40’s bike is up on its kickstand by the official’s desk, we spot him walking across the sand towards a helicopter touched down in the distance. I jog after him and Christina, Laura and I check him out comprehensively.
He’s fine. The figure of health, a professional racer raring to finish his job.
The officials still insist that he is to stop racing. He’s now 12 kilometres from the finish. It’s just not fair.
As a group, we three medics contact Patch and argue 40’s case, he’s not unwell, he’s capable and competent and he’s been working at this race for the past four days. Pulling him from the event here is inhumane.
Patch agrees, pulls strings in the background and a few minutes later a checkpoint official grudgingly approaches us; the message has come through. 40 can finish his race.
We’re all beaming; never mind saving lives, saving someone’s race is just as satisfying. 40 high-fives the three of us in turn and once again takes off into the distance. We all mount up into trucks and choppers and make for the finish.
Another five kilometres pass and we happen upon the Kamaz, that beautiful behemoth we’ve been lusting over all week. Technical difficulties have crippled the vehicle, her Italian crew stamping up and down the sand alongside, spitting and swearing.
We speak almost no Italian, they no English, but we all bump along together in French. There’s no way we can tow the Kamaz out over the sand, it’s far too big; their support team are en route in another Kamaz to pull them to safety. We leave them with the leftovers of our breakfast and lunch and a crate of water, as we drive away the three crew members are hungrily decimating cold bacon sandwiches and woody apples in the cab.
We’re minutes from the finish line when my mobile bleeps, a message from Gus at Rally Control with a message that makes me shiver.
“Racer 40 now stationary, no distress call received”
The message is followed by a bewildering GPS coordinate that leaves me scratching my non-military head. I text back:
“Locus in laymans, please?”
I can see Gus shaking his head at me and laughing back at Control, but he replies in my language.
“Four clicks from you now, helo to over-fly as backup. Keep us up to date.”
We floor it, bumping and bouncing through the sand. The fact that 40 hasn’t hit his panic button or contacted Rally Control worries me – has he collapsed? Come off? Is he unconscious? Crippled?
Is 40, our rehydrated, race-finishing champion, now lying in the dirt staring at the clouds?
A few minutes later we come across him, sitting in the dirt, his bike lying silently on its side.
He’s sobbing, his face in his hands, he looks up as we approach.
“Fuel pump. Can you believe it? Fuel pump.”
His bike has given in before he has. We’re two kilometres from the finish line.
We help him into the back of our truck, the sweep team load his bike onto the trailer and we’re about to set off when the helicopter swoops overhead. I cross my arms over my head and as they swoop lower make a big “OK” with my fingers before waving them on. The pilot gives me a thumbs up, turns the helo in the air, the thudding of the blade turn from treble to bass as they push away and they leave us to it.
We drive 40 to the finish line where his support team are awaiting his triumphant arrival, having heard he’s being allowed to finish. They are equally crushed to see his bike jacked up on the trailer, to see him slump from the back seat of the truck.
The whole team rendezvous in Abu-Dhabi, at the same club where the event started five days ago. Each rider is brought up onto a podium for photos with their vehicle, to shake the hands of the organisers and receive their awards.
The bikes celebrate by wheelying off the podium and down the avenue of adoring spectators.
There’s a party atmosphere at the club, but we’re all beat – we hail cabs, hijack Patch and Gus’s cars and drive in a slow convoy back to the hotel.
We are not the clientele the Crown Plaza in Abu-Dhabi are used to. Grimy and sweaty, wearing camo gear and boots that shed little piles of sand with every step, we slump at the reception desk while the staff cock up our bookings.
Everyone just wants a shower, a bath, a seat, some coffee, maybe a half hour of shit telly.
Home comforts are only missed when they’re so close and yet denied. Gus, calm and exact as a Stanley blade talks the hotel staff through their own booking system, he seems to be restraining himself from grabbing the ledger off the lassie and doing it all himself.
There’s a gala dinner planned for this evening, the rota was swung so that only male staff worked on the sweep vehicles and the women flew in choppers today, the thinking being that they’d have more time to get glammed up in the hotel.
Right now the thought of a shower I don’t have to wear flip flops in or a bed that doesn’t fill up with sand if you do something revolutionary like, say, turning over in your sleep sound like some form of cosmic orgasmic nirvana.
Rolf and I are sharing a room and we trudge the length of the corridor. Rolf enters first and I’m still struggling with my bag when I shout out to him.
“Is the room ok? Are we happy?”
He laughs his big keg Swedish laugh at me.
“I think you’ll like it.”
I find myself standing in the lobby of my hotel room.
From here I walk into the living/dining room. Then on into the hall (with bath and shower off) and through into the master bedroom with its king size bed crowned in cool, crisp linen.
But only one of them.
I shout through to Rolf.
“Ummmm…mate? I think we may have a bed problem…”
But he’s way ahead of me.
“I’m not staying. My flight home is tonight, I’m leaving straight after the party.”
“So why did you check in?”
“I registered my Platinum card at the desk for any expenses, I knew if they THOUGHT I had money they’d upgrade me and I thought you deserved the treat. We don’t have a bed problem. Welcome to your hotel suite.”
Whattaguy. Seriously. Whattaguy.