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.
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'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.
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.