Thursday, May 21, 2009

Man vs. Wild… Wild Wins

It seems every time I leave the comforts of metropolitan Doha for the wilderness of the Qatari desert, something memorable inevitably occurs. These situations tend not to be pleasurable, in the true sense of the word, but they certainly build character. This past weekend was no exception.

Prior to the heat becoming unbearable, a group of friends and I decided to make one more foray into the desert. It was to be a relatively small group, nine people in three cars, and all spirits were high. Outside of Inna’s friend Mia that decided to come (on her first camping trip in life), everybody knew each other and almost all were looking forward to some fun in the sun.

The trip to the desert had its share of events (failed dune crossings, failing 4WD, aimless searching for the “perfect” camping spot) but was overall fairly routine. Driving for miles in the desert is bound to have some incidents mostly centered on being lost. One highlight of note involved Ben (driving a Jeep like mine… except with power windows) and a river crossing. Let’s just say that you can’t judge the depth of water very well until you are in it. Luckily for all, he got to the other side without flooding his engine. In short though, the trip there was pleasant. Once there we did what desert campers do, set up tents, played in the water, drank beers, cooked BBQ and played around the campfire. All in all a good time. That was all to change by morning.

Besides having some personal problems in the night, leaving me and my missus with some animosity, the physical conditions had deteriorated quite rapidly. On the way to the Inland Sea (the camping site) the worst thing we had to deal with was 46C/114F degree heat but it seemed on the way back we would have to survive a sand storm. I slept in my car and I could feel the wind shaking the car just standing still, attempting to crest dunes in those winds was going to take some marbles.

Unfortunately we were going to postpone those worries for a while. One of the cars, a Mitsubishi Pajero, was having some difficulties in the dunes on the way here and today was no different. As we were situated in a valley, we had to drive up a dune just to get out of our camping site. These dunes were not very steep, but for some reason this car was having no luck on its several efforts to climb the hill. It was not long before someone came up with the brilliant idea of trying to tow the Pajero up the dune. Hint: Towing is usually done with stationary (i.e. stuck) vehicles. So they attach the tow rope and the Jeep and the lagging Pajero speed up the dune face. It seemed that this was the one time that the Pajero decided to sprint because it ended up coming even with the Jeep running over the tow rope in the process. When a rope comes in contact with a spinning object, bad things usually happen. In this case, the tow rope wrapped around the axle of the Pajero and drew taught, springing the two cars together like it was a rubber band between them. Luckily there was no collision, but the Pajero now had a whole set of new problems… like the thick rope now coiled around its axle.

I am observing all of this from the bottom of the dune, and it plays out predictably. When the rope catches the axle it is more unfortunate than surprising. I continue to sit back in the car while they spend the next twenty minutes unraveling the rope. Luckily there appeared to be no damage to the axle/struts/suspension and the Pajero was free. Its next job was to back down the dune and try to crest the hill again. The Pajero backs down the dune alright… right into the ocean. This all happens slowly and painfully as well, here I am in the Jeep watching as our friend helplessly slides towards the water. In a matter of seconds his previously dry Pajero is now two wheels underwater. The car was somehow still on (as was evident by the bubbling exhaust, but the car was still sinking deeper into the water. Thus prompting the use of the just freed tow rope, yet again. Soon the Jeep is at work again towing the Pajero, but this time with much success. Danny (the Pajero driver) opens his car door to release the flood of sea water and mutters several phrases that captures our perils thus far. The good news is that his engine did not flood, the bad news was that his electrical system got pretty screwed up leaving his horn constantly blaring (which was fixed with a yank of the fuse).

The Pajero finally crosses the dune and we are on our way… except no one can tell which way that is. Visibility in the sand storm was terrible and we were leaving a different way than we came in. Regardless, we keep moving and eventually come across what was unmistakably a trail. We follow this trail and all of a sudden things start to look really familiar. Soon we are faced with a terrifying sight, the dune bowl that we got stuck in for HOURS on our very first camping trip. Sufficiently scared, we turn back around and abandon the path. We decide that we should take a road on the other side of the dune that appears to bypass our problems. **This was about the time we put on the Gospel music in the car in hopes that God will save us.** So we head to this new road and continue heading North, or what we guess to be north. It was not long before we were more like the Israelites in the Desert than a caravan headed home. Lost and hopeless we began to look for signs of other people. Eventually we see a couple of guys fishing and we ask for help. Evidently they did not speak English, but they could draw a map in the sand with no-problems. Following that map was another deal.

Whether the map was wrong or we got lost, we were soon in places that we clearly did not want to be. We all found ourselves in what can best be described as stinky quicksand. This whole time we had been driving through sand and mud and everything in-between, but this stuff was different. It smelled like Sulfur-laced-poo and had a sandy surface that yielded to a muck-like dark soil the color of petroleum. My Qatari friend later told me that it indeed does yield oil and that you don’t want to drive in it. He also explained why it was that we all got stuck (yes all three of us got stuck) the way we did. He said you never follow each other if you find yourself in that stuff because one car will destroy the soil’s rigidity making it harder for the driver behind to follow. This would explain why the first car (Ben’s Jeep) got stuck towards the end of this field, the Pajero got stuck in the middle of the field, and I, who happened to be eating a Banana at the time, got stuck in the beginning.

There seems to be two types of stuck in the desert. One is when the car’s wheels are spinning but the surface is so loose that you don’t move. Typically this results in huge amount of sand getting kicked into the air by the spinning wheels… which leads to the second kind of stuck. The second comes when the wheels are so buried in the frictionless material that the wheels no longer have the ability to spin. This is the worst place to be. That was my situation. By the time I gave up and got out of the car, the bottom of the Jeep was sitting on the mud with the wheels buried nearly up to the hub. Walking to the Pajero revealed that he was in a similar situation but his muck was much dirtier and slimy than the stuff I was stuck in. Ben, the first car, had already freed himself but was not going to risk coming back into this trap. For the next twenty minutes or so, we pushed, pulled, and rocked the Pajero until we were satisfied that the task was pointless. I asked for Danny’s portable shovel and headed back to my vehicle to dig my car out of its mess. About the time that I had exhausted myself, the other folks came and took over the digging effort. Between Inna digging with her hands and everyone else alternating with the shovel, we had Jerry the Jeep fairly excavated.

I hopped in the Jeep and floored it, to no avail. The tires were spinning but we were still going nowhere. But with everyone pushing, me flooring the gas, and with the technique of violently turning the wheels back and forth, the Jeep jumped out of the rut and I was able to guide it onto more solid earth. While all this was happening we had our real miracle. The girls spotted a Qatari guy in the distance and were able to signal for him to help us. He left briefly to get some extra supplies but came back and set to work freeing our last vehicle. To do so, he wanted to use my recently freed truck, to which the girls gladly agreed. I find out about this as he is walking to my truck clearly intending to drive it back into this muck. I should note that this guy was driving a huge Chevy Silverado with duelies (four rear wheels instead of two) which would easily tow all three of us out of our current mess… but I understand not wanting to risk getting your truck stuck for some strangers. Anyways, so we get to the truck about the same time, and I basically try and test the idea of me driving and him directing me. He quickly shot that idea down (in broken English) by saying that he had been doing this his whole life and that we clearly had no idea what we were doing. So, convinced, I give him the keys and he starts making his way through the muck. It was a good thing he took the keys because I would have either tipped my truck, gotten stuck or just been too afraid to attempt the stuff he did in getting to Danny’s Pajero. Eventually we get there, narrowly drive around Danny’s car, and park close enough to attach the tow ropes.

Up to this point he has been telling me how crappy my Jeep is and that it has no muscles. Once we attach the tow rope and give a pull on Danny’s car his insults became more severe. Our initial efforts to tow the Pajero left his car unmoved and my wheels spinning. Time for plan B. This involved backing up and essentially “jerking” the Pajero out of the mud. So he backs up close to the Pajero, gains speed and eventually the tow rope becomes taught. This violently shakes both cars (feel sorry for whoever buys my Jeep) but it does the job. The Pajero is free and we made it out of our predicament.

We were still far from home and the sand storm was still in full force. This trip would be far from over if it was not for the continued generosity of this Qatari. He volunteered to drive us all the way to Sealine (where the road to civilization begins again) and we gladly accepted. I can confidently say that it would have taken us all day to get out of there without him, but he got us back in about 30-45 min. We barely got his business card before he sped off, leaving as if he did this kind of thing for a living.

Tired and exhausted, we re-inflated our tires (you let the mostly out in the dunes) and drove back to Doha. The road was long and my car had developed the violent shakes from all the crapt stuck to the tire and underbody, but we made it home. We survived after all.

Still want to go camping?


Blogger Tatamwari said...

For someone so smart, you do some of the dumbest shit. You know you're not from the desert. Why would you take 8 other people for a jaunt out there with no one who knows what they're doing? Goofball. Glad you had fun ;)

10:09 AM  

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