Saudi Arabia

Part 2
Blog - February/March 2020

Previous Blog: Saudi Arabia Part 1

Saturday 22nd February - Camel Farm, Desert

Headed off into the desert mildly concerned about wind and water. The wind can really make or break you out here. There's no protection from it. With 700km to cover before the next town it's important to your morale to feel some semblance of progress. A strong headwind will kill you and could leave you projectile weeping by the side of the road. Providing your body has enough moisture to produce tears. However a nice tailwind will have you skipping along without a care in the world. There is no water out here. None of the trusty water dispensers I found in the mountains in the west of the country. There are gas stations along the way but they are 200km apart. Afternoon temperatures will be in the 30's so I will have to load up with water. It's always a fine balance working out how much water to carry. Food is fine. 2/3 days worth of food won't weigh you down too much but water is heavy. You want to make sure you have enough but you also want to make sure you aren't carrying too much. Having said all that neither proved an issue today. There was a cross-wind which neither helped nor impeded my progress. Some guys pulled me over and invited me to their camel farm in the desert for lunch. They said it was 16km up the road. I said I'd be there in 40 minutes. They actually meant 60km. I wasn't there in 40 minutes. They were still waiting for me though and I followed them to their camel farm a few kilometres off into the desert. I ended up staying the night. They plied me with chai, chicken, rice, water and camel milk. There were a few Arabians, a Sudanese and a Pakistani all working this tiny farm which consisted of a gypsy trailer, an Arabian style gazebo and a small pen of camels. Witnessed something unspeakable done to a camel that I'm not ready to talk about. Not wanton cruelty. There was a practical purpose but still...poor camel. We sat around playing cards all night. Wasn't sure what I was doing exactly but still won a couple of hands. Tough guys. They are out here all year round. Even when it is 50 degrees in the summer. They just doss down on the floor at the end of the day. They were all amused when I bought out at my air camping mat, sleeping bag and pillow to sleep on. To them that is glamping.

Sunday 23rd February - Desert

The chaps loaded me up with camel milk, which I have taken a liking to, and I headed back to the road and off into the desert proper. I wouldn't say I have grown to love the desert but we certainly get along better than we used to. My first experience in Kazakhstan on the worst road in the world in searing heat was horrific but since then things have improved. I've almost enjoyed cycling across deserts in Chile, China and Uzbekistan. The camping is wonderful. It is so peaceful out in the middle of nowhere underneath a night sky filled to the brim with stars. The early morning/late afternoon cycling is excellent with the sun low in the sky when the desert turns into a hundred shades or orange. However from 11-4 the desert remains an inhospitable place. The sun beating down. No shade. No water. It is nowhere you want to be. I have preached elsewhere on this site about the need to hold back a bit each day in order to keep moving in the long run. Cycling a little bit within yourself most days will enable you to cycle month after month after month. That is the rule. The desert is the exception. Just get across. When you are tired, cycle a bit more. When you are exhausted, cycle a bit more. When you finally can't possibly cycle any further, cycle a bit more. Take advantage of any tailwinds. Persevere with the headwinds. Just keep going. I managed 185km today with mostly cross winds. The cycling was surprisingly good across an elevated plateau known as the Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. Hit a gas station at the end of the day and was able to load up with water. Which was a relief.

Monday 24th February - Desert

Tough day. The wind really picked up. It wasn't necessarily against me. Coming across me once more but it whipped up the sand and at times I found myself cycling in a mini sandstorm. The air filled with sand. Visibility was low. Fortunately a guy gave me a face mask the other day for such an eventuality. I was able to breathe fine and keep going. A couple of times people pulled me over and offered me a lift. I politely declined and then wondered why as I watched them disappear into the sand cloud. No doubt there's a bit of pride mixed up in there but I feel accepting lifts is a slippery slope I don't want to get on. Once you accept one you are more likely to accept the next and before you know it you are no longer cycling across continents. Just doing bits here and there when conditions suit. It's important to take the rough with the smooth. You enjoy the good days even more if you stick out the occasional shocker. Plus I didn't feel in any danger. I was by no means enjoying myself but did not feel like I was in trouble either. I could always flag someone down if things got worse. The sand storm abated and I began to make decent progress again but I was unable to make the next water stop and was running low. I'm massively grateful to all the Saudi people who pulled over and gave me water. Barely an hour would go by without someone giving me some kind of refreshment. This has happened all over Saudi but now I really needed it. Often a car would beep and wave as it went past. A kilometre up the road the driver would be waiting for me having fetched water, oranges and biscuits out of his boot. I had enough water to survive but nothing to quench a thirst. The water I am given by the locals is bonus water. I drain it and get a little relief from the insatiable thirst that dominates my afternoons. I've found a good way to stave off thirst in the evenings. Cucumbers. I would take a cucumber and spend an hour nibbling it lovingly, ever so slowly, savouring each tiny morsel and using it as a lip salve on my dry lips. During that time I can fend off thoughts of how thirsty I am. Digestives however were a bad choice.

Tuesday 25th February - Desert

Almost made it out of the desert. Another 185km day. Today was much more like we always picture a desert back home. Rolling sand dunes as far as the eye can see. A bit like the old Windows screen saver. In reality it is rarely like that. The majority of the time it is just a great big flat expanse of nothing. Made it to the final gas station and drank 2l of orange juice, 1l of milk, a Sprite and loaded up with water. Wind turned in my favour today and I took full advantage. I could have gone on and made it to Riyadh but there was no need. I had done almost 700km in 4 days and I was exhausted. My legs were so tired I could feel my bones ringing. I looked like a dead mule. My shirt was covered in salt stains. A sure sign that I was over doing it. I found an excellent camping spot in the folds of an enormous rock that gave me perfect protection from the wind and camped out under the stars.

Wednesday 26th to Friday 28th February - Riyadh

Cruised into Riyadh this morning. Conditions were in my favour. The wind picked up once more. It was behind me. The road was ever so slightly downhill. I barely needed to pedal. So I didn't. Checked into a hotel and slept it off. Riyadh is a place I first became aware of when I was a kid. Already curious about the world I would read the back of my Dad's newspaper looking at the weather forecast of far away cities all over the globe. I was always drawn to Riyadh as it was invariably the hottest. Often nearing 50 degrees. A mind boggling temperature for a lad growing up in the north of England. Today it is a balmy 31 degrees. This is the cold season. Riyadh is a pretty charmless place to be honest. Lots of 3 lane highways, skyscrapers and yellow buildings. It's about 40km across and it all looks the same. I didn't care though. When you've been battered by wind, sun and sand for a few days you don't really want to go outdoors. I revelled in the wonder of walls for a couple of days. Enjoying the fact that I could put something down and not worry about it blowing away. Getting lots of food and water down me as I gather myself for hopefully my last desert dash to the United Arab Emirates a little over 500km away.

Saturday 29th February - Desert

Headed off into the desert again. Less concerned with water this time. There seem to be gas stations no more than 100km apart so I shouldn't go without. This section of desert seems to be slightly more populated as well, which means mosques, which means water. They always have a water dispenser outside. As I'm an infidel I always ask if I can fill up my water bottles but it's never a problem. Still worried about wind. We've all heard of the Aussie 90 miler. The longest straight road in Australia. Well I'm about to embark on the Saudi 185 miler. The 540km section to the UAE border includes a 298km section of runway flat, runway straight road. If the wind is against me it will be a lesson in suffering. I have had good luck with the wind so far. It's certainly been more behind me than against in my time in Saudi. Lucky considering I've cycled in every direction except west. Today my luck held and I made good progress out of Riyadh. Ploughed through the industrial suburbs and out into the desert proper.

Sunday 1st March - Desert

Today started badly and ended badly but in between I managed 190km. The wind picked up during the night and battered my tent. I got up before dawn as I was worried my tent poles were going to snap. Too windy to boil water I had to forgo my morning coffee and oatmeal which put me in a bad mood. The wind was coming across me more than anything but it was ferocious. Sand flying everywhere. It was pretty hary for a while. My arms were beginning to sting from the force of the sand flying across the road. Everytime a truck came alongside the sudden wind vacuum would drag me to the left then when the truck was past I would be flung to the right again. There was a shoulder so it was manageable but I had to brace myself everytime I heard a truck coming. I got my head down and got on with it. Stopping every 10km to empty my shoes of sand. After a while I saw a sign saying Burger King 30km. Not something you expect to see in the desert but sure enough there was a gas station with a BK. I sat under the air conditioning for an hour, had a whopper, a Sprite, then a coffee, another Whopper and got going again feeling a little better. The going was easier after that and I started to zip along. I made it to the next gas station on my last legs. A Saudi took me into a restaurant told the waiters to feed me and promptly left. I wasn't allowed to pay. I left the restaurant feeling good about the world and the people in it to find I had 2 flat tyres. I hadn't had one since I set off from London. There was a thin piece of metal sticking out of each tyre. Quite frankly I suspected foul play but what you gonna do. Luckily there was a cheap shit motel at the gas station for truckies so I checked in and fixed my flats. I often go long distances without punctures but I find that once you get one they keep coming. You break the seal. London buses. I hope not. I'm in an extremely windy desert.

Monday 2nd March - Desert

No punctures but the dreaded day arrived. I had a chance of getting out of the desert today. I had 190km to go and I’ve been averaging a little less than that recently but my luck with the wind ran out. I started off doing 15km/hr but was soon down to 10km/hr. I knew there was a gas station 90km up the road so I made it my mission. I had to get there to load up with water. There are not many things more depressing than a desert headwind on a ruler straight road. You just feel like you are getting nowhere. Sand creeping into my chain and making my bike squeak. The kilometres ticking by painfully slowly. To pass the time I tried to count the number of things I’d rather be doing. I gave it up at around 700. I eventually made it to the gas station and found it shut. I could have cried. I was about to but a couple of Yemeni’s came out of a shack adjoining the gas station and invited me in. They gave me water and brewed up some tea. They convinced me to stay the night. I didn’t take much convincing. Praise the lord for the kindness of stangers. The guys from Yemen were working to open the gas station in a few days. There was a also a Pakistani truck driver who had broken down and was awaiting a spare part. He pulled down a compartment in the side of his truck to reveal a fully equipped kitchen and made me omelettes Pakistani style and we talked cricket. Had a nice evening.

Tuesday 3rd March - Persian Gulf

The calm after the storm. The desert was as serene today as it was wild yesterday. I was grateful. I started early keen to make the most of the rare benign conditions. The desert looked glorious in the early morning sunshine. To my right is what is known as the Empty Quarter. The worlds largest uninterrupted sand mass. 250,000 square miles of sand. It covers parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. If I thought cycling along the edge of it was tough the Italian desert explorer Max Calderan became the first person ever to cross on foot a month ago. 680 miles in 18 days. Way to go. I came out of the desert and had an ice cream. End of the road for me in Saudi. I have enjoyed it. I'm glad I came. I haven't met a single Saudi I didn't like (I didn't meet the guy who put metal in my tyres). Tourism is very new here and I've had a warm welcome everywhere I've gone. It remains an extremely conservative country but is showing signs of opening up. The fact that I was even able to visit reflects that. Today I read they have announced a women's football league in Saudi. There will be 3 teams. It will be a short season. They have a way to go with women's rights but activism is on the rise and hopefully things will continue to progress. I was a little relieved to get over the border. With Coronovirus still not under control I wondered if I would be able to pass over freely. Saudi has only had a couple of cases so I had no problem. All the immigration workers were in the full Coronavirus contamination suits. Headed to the coast. After 2 weeks in the desert the sea was a beautiful sight. Camped behind a deserted beach hut and had a swim in the Persian Gulf.

Continue: United Arab Emirates