It was longtime friend and fellow hasher, Johnny Johnson, who – putting his head round my apartment door that August morning – uttered the immortal words, “I’ve got a map. We leave in an hour.”
Bloody hell did he have a map, but we left anyway. The family who were reputedly more knowledgeable in the ways of the desert than we (as it turned out their experience was based on family picnics in the desert), we parked up while our ‘picnic family’ squeezed as much of their ‘stuff’ into their four-wheel drive vehicle as possible. We must have sat there for nearly two hours, finally getting on our way at noon, the sun scorching down from directly overhead.
Outside temperatures were by this time more than 50 degrees centigrade. Our small group of four or five vehicles got under way heading for the family’s favourite picnic spot. Once we were a few miles into the deserted desert proper, it was apparent that we had no idea where we were going; we needed help. Parked up on some hard sand below and to our right was a typical, picture-perfect desert Bedouin tent with a few desultory camels wandering about outside. Maybe we should go and ask the way.
Nobody else seemed to want to be the one to make the approach, so I stepped out into the searing heat and walked the 150 or so metres to the tent. As I approached, I could see the whole family in the low tent were seated around their mid-day meal with baskets of dried dates, fish and rice laid out in front of them. Shit, I thought, I’m going to have to sit down and join them, and experience the true desert hospitality. It would be considered insulting to refuse if they offered hospitality but I really didn’t have time to stop for a MacDonald’s.
As I got close, it was indicated I remain standing in the sun outside the shade of the tent, I then saw the dark angry look on the father’s face; I was clearly not welcome, which was a relief. As he looked up at me from a few yards away, he implied by the unasked question, “What the bloody hell do you want, and where do you think you’re going?” I did the respectful “Salam Ali Cum” bit and then asked, in my very best (crap), Arabic: “which way to Saudi?”
He waved a piece of fish in such a way that it indicated nothing. Clearly he had no interest in being helpful and simply wanted me to go away. I tried again. “Is this the way to Saudi?” He probably thought it was too bloody stupid a question to answer. Anywhere in a 90 degree arc south would lead to Saudi. Fortunately at this point one of his many children, a young lad of no more than nine or ten, jumped up. “Follow me,” he announced and set off striding back towards our small group of waiting cars.
Jumping up onto the running board, he pointed in the direction we needed to travel and we were off. We probably drove for about three miles, far enough for me to begin to worry as to how the boy would be getting back to his family. Each time I tried to inquire he would merely reply “marlish”, which pretty much meant “never mind”. Finally I decided that his walk back was far enough and made him get off. After profuse and profound “Shukhrans”, he was off striding back, dish-dash fluttering in the light breeze that had sprung up, to return to his interrupted lunch in the 50-plus degree heat.
At one stage we spotted Iraqi soldiers on the western horizon, sitting out the heat of the mid-day sun. None of them moved to intercept us – I guess they had lost interest in soldiering until later in the day. As we drew closer to the border we could make out through the haze a black line stretching across the horizon. Gradually, as it came into focus, we could see that it was a huge sand bund, maybe as much as 10 metres high, that had been pushed up over a great many years to define the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. A few days later we learnt that a Range Rover with four Brit occupants had tried to drive over it and got stuck. All four people had died.
The Saudi Border Police Station was like something out of a Beau Geste movie. In my memory it was a two-storey building and looked like it was made of mud and wattle. When we finally reached the front of the queue, an official took our passports to check, but failed to return them. “Aliens over there,” he said, indicating where we should park. HURRAY – WE WERE OUT – FREE AND CLEAR
An abbreviated extract from the book ‘Our Man in Phuket’ by Alan R. Cooke MBE. Available only from Island Furniture. Copies are free to clients, hashers and cricketers.