Driving the Desert
From Khamis Mushayt in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern corner, the road back to Riyadh is a looping shot across the country: 900-odd kilometers on a tarmac highway that skirts the edge of the Rub al’Khali, the Empty Quarter. An extended long weekend took us to Abha, Baha, the hanging village at Habala, and other dots on the map that presumably used less a‘s and b‘s in their names but were in Arabic, so I couldn’t understand anyway. We needed to be home by evening so we kept driving. Every hour or so we passed police checkpoints. They were signposted a long time ahead, the police obviously being aware of the physical impossibility of staying under the speed limit, and understandably not wanting to share their lunch with two tons of speeding Japanese 4×4. The first sign was 2 kilometres out: Checkpoint Ahead. A pattern of raised bumps littered the highway, pattering under the wheels of the Pathfinder. Then another sign at 1 km. Then 500 metres. We slowed down, juddering over a speed bump. There was a small building on the side of the road. A zebra-striped barrier pole was locked in the up position and on the other side of the highway was a liveried pickup truck with a mounted weapon covered in canvas. A Saudi flag snapped smartly in the breeze. A policeman in taupe uniform drab ambled out of the building. He glanced over, smiled, and flicked his fingers down the road. We barely slowed down. It would be hard to imagine the policeman caring less about our presence. We passed several more of these, all equally as strict. At one, literally in the middle of nowhere, with a 360-degree view of absolutely nothing, the barrier poles were up, and a half-dozen policemen sat drinking tea and playing backgammon in the stamp of the building’s shade. They did not even look up as we passed.
Much has been made by travelers of the ease and simplicity modern methods of travel bring to what was once an arduous endeavour. As a glaringly pedantic aside, the word travel stems from the Old French travailler, meaning to toil hard, but the etymological root no longer seemed to apply as we leapt across the desert in a single bound. Wilfrid Thesiger, one of the twentieth century’s greatest desert explorers and one of the few for whom the Empty Quarter could be considered “old stomping grounds”, expressed happiness that he was taking the time to travel slowly, to observe in detail the land through which he passed. I had to grin wryly at Thesiger’s comments on desert travel in vaguely the same area through which I now passed: “I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.” Precisely what I was doing, sipping on a non-alcoholic Beck’s beer and feeling like I was on a yacht racing through heat haze on a sea of sand. The speedometer rarely dipped below 150 kph, and I often kept it level on 160. As can be imagined, the vehicle gulped fuel prodigiously. I was often left with a feeling of mild surprise at how often we had to stop to fill up, and then realize that almost 500 kilometres had passed in three hours. Thesiger took over two weeks to cover the same distance. To put that into even more shocking context, the distance Thesiger traveled on a good day, I now covered in 14 minutes. I moved forward to the thought’s logical conclusion: that it was only fitting for previous travelers to feel at the very least mild scorn for those that would come much later.
The desert sailed by outside the tempered-glass windows. In some places, where the knobs and knuckles of basalt that pushed through the sand were miles from the road, looking out the window gave the illusion of non-movement. If you looked into the middle distance the scene did not change, and after several hypnotic seconds you would jerk your eyes back down to the speedometer for confirmation of motion, for reassurance that something was happening. With the windows up and the air-conditioner on, the hermetic whoosh of air outside could act as a soporific. This would be an easy road to fall asleep and die on. Clear evidence of this was presented along the roadside, as the carcasses of cars and trucks punctuated the road’s boundary. Some were smashed and condensed, barely recognizable as something that was once automotive, the abridged shell of a truck lying empty yards from the asphalt and, off in the desert, hundreds of metres from the road, an empty and sandblasted hulk with no windows or wheels. Every so often the road would boast an amoebic black shadow, curlicues of burned matter staining the asphalt, the residue of some conflagration that had claimed a pair of vehicles in an obvious head-on collision.
The road narrowed to two lanes, its perimeter lined with bits of rusted metal and the occasional empty pop can or splintered plastic jug. Gossamer-thin grocery bags would chase each other on the wind far into the desert. Sometimes they would catch on low scrub and there would be a small field of tiny pastel dots fluttering in the heat. Ex-pats call them ‘desert flowers’. Oncoming traffic was scarce but constant: you could count on a vehicle every 2 or 3 minutes. These were dominated by big Mercedes or MAN trucks daubed in gaudy colours, more often than not carrying a massive bale of green fodder that was twice as tall as the truck itself. The drivers were all from the sub-continent, Indians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who were no doubt going quietly insane from making this drive three times a week. We passed one of the ubiquitous white Nissan pickups, it’s bed loaded with contented-looking goats. These goats had probably made the journey from New Zealand, 6 weeks in a cargo vessel up through the Indian Ocean, through the Bab el Mandab and into the Red Sea to make port at Jeddah, loaded into massive pens and then somehow managing to dodge the bullet of the Eid al-Adha sacrifices, when the alleys of Muslim villages in the Middle East run with blood. They had at least secured an immediate future, and were justifiably happy goats.
We stopped to stretch our legs and I wandered a few hundred metres off the road. A camel’s carcass, mostly just bones now, lay half-covered in the warm sand. The scene belonged on the dust jacket of a Louis L’Amour paperback. I picked up the skull, which was an eye-jarring white, cleaned entirely of flesh by wind-driven sand and scavenger action. The wind was a quiet yet constant sound. Occasionally there would come the distant rising and falling drone of a vehicle on the highway. I looked towards the east, and was dumbfounded to think there was nothing but sand for a thousand kilometers.