Bismallah at-Rahman ar-Rahim," —"In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful..." intoned Suwayyan Mas'ud and switched on the ignition. The Kenworth's diesel engine roared to life, and our tractor-trailer rig went hurtling down the highway at the vertiginous speed of 23 miles an hour, headed toward the nothingness of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, the most awesome sand desert in the world.
Barring the unforeseen, in eight days we would reach our destination, a tiny bastion of aluminum dwellings, steel machinery, iron men and, everyone hoped, golden opportunity on an island of round-the-clock activity more than 600 miles away in the vast, indifferent sea of sand.
The end of our trail would be the site of an Aramco exploratory well, punching deep into the earth's innards to discover if there, in a remote corner of the Empty Quarter, petroleum in commercially exploitable quantities underlies the surface as it does in other areas of the Arabian Peninsula. If it does, every precious drop must be pumped to tankers on the distant Arabian Gulf coast by pipeline. Meanwhile, the drilling rig's appetite for soft sand and hard rock must be sustained with a daily ration of casing, cement, drilling mud, diesel fuel, acids and other malodorous chemicals, diamond-tipped bits, steel cable and similar necessities delivered to the site by another kind of pipeline—a pipeline on wheels.
We rumbled out of Aramco's Dhahran headquarters at the grim hour of 5:30 on a dark winter's morning, as one of a convoy of the sort which at regular intervals supply Aramco camps scattered across the Arabian subcontinent. Ours comprised four Dodge Power Wagons, and nine Kenworth tractors hauling a dozen big trailers ranging from a mobile dormitory unit sleeping four in private, air-conditioned rooms, to water- and diesel oil-tankers and a long, low bulldozer transporter to pull us out of the sticky patches.
From what I'd heard, the patches would have to be very sticky to stop the Kenworth's 434 horses. Designed to withstand the choking dust and intense heat of Arabian summers, it skims across the desert on six Goodyear 16-ply nylon, tubeless sand tires retailing at $1,100 a pair delivered, is powered by an apparently indestructible diesel engine, has six-wheel drive, power steering, air brakes, air conditioning, a compressed air supply to inflate its own tires, a 530-gallon fuel tank, davits and hoists on each side to facilitate tire changes, and a winch aft of the cab to drag itself up steep inclines. And although it has neither dashboard clock nor radio—which in any case would be drowned out by the engine's tremendous din—the Kenworth does boast a fancy price tag: $75,000.
It was soon evident that, in his secret heart, Suwayyan Mas'ud would have preferred the money spent on a Formula One Ferrari. Like the seasoned Grand Prix racer, every Kenworth driver is fiercely possessive of his vehicle, preens it, protects it, pampers it, and keeps other drivers at arm's length, exactly as if its 434 horses had been transmuted into a single magnificent racing mare. Suwayyan had exchanged his flowing ghalabiya for khaki shirt and trousers, but spiritually he was still one with his desert forefathers, a raider who likes the feel of the wind in his teeth and a fast mount beneath him.
South of Abqaiq, where civilization is represented by the occasional rusting hulk of an abandoned automobile, a plume of greasy smoke from some faraway gas flare, and slithering among the dunes great twin black serpents which turn out to be nothing more ominous than an oil gathering line and the Dammam-Riyadh railroad, Suwayyan turned abruptly off the road with an almost visible sigh of relief and struck off across the desert, into the open country which is the Kenworth's natural habitat. Anyone can steer a truck down an asphalted highway, his manner seemed to say, but it is a different matter to navigate among the dunes, without map or compass, landmark or guidepost, and hit the next rendezvous unfailingly.
I fashioned myself two sets of very white knuckles, while hanging on tight as Suwayyan crashed over yard-high salt bushes and bulled our way through the rolling hills of sand. His eyes restlessly patrolled the unfamiliar ground—for no ground is familiar where wind storms can reshape sand mountains overnight. My eyes followed his lead, but where I frequently saw nothing at all, or at most a vague alteration in the hue of the sand in our path, or a slight variation in the wave length of the sand ripples, Suwayyan saw trouble.
"Wajid muu zain,"—"Very bad," he would mutter, straining hard on the big wheel to swing the Kenworth and its wobbling diesel tanker and dormitory trailer in a wide arc. Beneath the deceptively innocent surface, he knew with a certainty he was powerless to explain, lay a layer of sand as velvety, treacherous and tenacious as the tentacles of an octopus. He repeatedly tried to indoctrinate me in his methods, to no avail; it was like trying to teach piano to a deaf mute wearing boxing gloves.
The ease with which desert drivers read the sands never fails to astonish me, but I learned later that the ability is common among the Bedouins, to whom this type of desert detection is often the margin between life and death. In the country we were then traversing, for instance, experienced Murrah tribesmen could examine a set of camel tracks and determine the beast's size and weight, how recently it made the marks, whether it was tired or fresh (and thus how far back along its trail forage and water might be found) and, if similar hoof prints were previously identified, the camel's name and pedigree.
As we rolled out of the dunes onto the flat brown plain, our pace grew hotter, along with the rays of the sun. By 10 o'clock the wind was a steady oven blast, and the sun was mirrored back at us from every grain of sand. Suwayyan Mas'ud, inured to Saudi Arabian summers, when sun temperatures soar into the 160's and above, didn't bother to turn on the air conditioner, nor did I want to appear effete by suggesting it. And so, until shortly before the sun set at five o'clock, I had seven idle hours to regret my timidity and to catalog the joys of desert travel: skin that shrivels to that of an exhumed mummy in the baking heat, eyeballs that ache and twitch from the blazing glare, lungs that rasp with dust so fine and penetrating that it seeps even into bottles with tops tightly screwed down, cracked lips, thirst that clutches at the throat five minutes after it has been slaked with a draught from the canvas water bag, soreness in bone and muscle magnified with each bounce from bush and boulder, ear drums ringing from the howl of the diesel engine, a brain that as the day went on slowly emptied itself of all but the numbed perception of animal discomfort.
Then suddenly, at five, the other trucks magically appeared, some arrived before us, others steaming up majestically toward us across the horizon. The mid-day stop with the sun directly overhead had been, like most reprieves, a blessing mixed with the realization that worse was to come; the final halt at day's end was unconditional release after serving a long stretch in the Kenworth cab. The roar of the engines ceased, and we could hear at last the infinite silence of the desert. The sun slunk out of sight, and almost at once the cool, cloudless sky was filled with the biggest stars ever seen by man.
For some minutes the drivers lay full length in the still-warm sand, savoring the contrast between the day filled with thunder and the night as it has always been in the desert—serene, immense, somehow overpowering, inspiring men to speak in whispers. Soon a campfire of dried sticks scavenged along the way sprang to life, and coffee was roasted, ground, brewed and served to the silent circle in the most ancient ritual of the Arab race.
Only after the traditional three tiny cups of bitter coffee had been drunk did the conversation become general and preparations go forward for the unvarying dinner of rice and mutton—the latter from a small herd of sheep purchased on the hoof near Hofuf and corralled in one of the trucks to be slaughtered as needed. The crew ate dinner in the fraternal manner of the desert, all seated in the sand around a large circular tray heaped with rice and meat, and dexterously forming little spheres of rice with the right hand and popping them in almost the same motion into their mouths: where water is a luxury, the Arabs long ago learned the economy of washing hands rather than dishes and cutlery.
When ablutions were finished, the drivers sought the solitude of their sleeping bags, and by eight o'clock the only sound to be heard was the snore of the adenoidal and the sibilance of the wind rising through the scattered salt bushes. Looking up at the stars, I found it impossible to believe that I was in the same world as war and riots, forests and rivers, prisons and universities, overpopulation and urban sprawl. Here all was quiet, all was peace, all a vast emptiness.
The camp was astir at 4:15, a ridiculous hour to be awake and on the move. It was also cold, and I had time only for my three cups of steaming coffee and a mouthful of dry bread before the impatient growl of the diesels told me that the frustrated Indianapolis Speedway artists were ready to go. The first streak of dawn was the signal for a general revving of engines, and as the great wave of sound rolled out across the desert, we rolled right after it, almost as if we thought we could catch it.
There followed another day of hard grinding through the dunes, like the one before, like the ones that came after, dissimilar only in details. At lunch-stop that day we heard about—but unfortunately did not see—the snake that had been killed while trying to mount a Power Wagon running board; in the first telling the snake was four feet long, but before we dispersed for the afternoon it had grown to five, with no signs of shrinking. Later in the day we hit the first bad stretch of sand, forcing Suwayyan to reduce tire pressure from 35 pounds to 25, whereupon the increased flotation pulled us through a slow inch at a time. Toward sunset, we emerged from dune country to the hard, fiat plain, and for an easy hour we sped along at top speed, sending up a spume of gray dust that could be seen for a dozen miles. That day, too, during a brief afternoon stop, we were greeted with a solemn "Assalaam 'alaikum"—"The peace of God upon you," by a solitary nomad wearing, of all things, a blue U.S. Air Force overcoat with two chevrons. He had come out of the desert from the south-west, on foot, and was heading north to seek work in the city. A few words of conversation, a grave salutation, and he trudged onward the way we had come, never looking back.
Nor did we. For two days we went south, then turned east, meeting no one but an occasional cameleer, or a tiny encampment of Bedouins grazing their camel herds near one of the two wells on our route. But to meet us, at every stop however brief, were swarms of voracious black flies that buzzed out of the empty sands to attack us. We could only speculate on what they fed when we weren't there, for the nearest scrap of vegetation was often miles away.
On the fourth day, we came at last to the red sand mountains. These awesome formations rise as high as 800 feet from the intervening plains, which here are flat brown sabkhas, or salt flats which catch the runoff of rains that sometimes come only at 10-year intervals. We would claw our way up to the top of the sand mountain, often—owing to the steep incline—at a half mile per hour, often with two or even three trucks hitched to each other for mutual support. Then, unhitching, we would roar down the opposite side at high velocity, straighten out on the pie-crust surface of the sabkha, which might be up to four miles across, and labor up the next mountain. I counted 55 sabkhas on the way—and the inexorable routine soon became deadly.
But now and again the routine was enlivened. We invariably accelerated downhill to get speed to sail up over the next smooth ridge without losing momentum. Frequently, however, we discovered on clearing the top that, instead of a gradual descent, before us the mountain dropped away at a sharp angle, hundreds of feet down to the sabkha bed. Only a frantic spinning of the steering wheel averted disaster, and that threatened to send our trailers jack-knifing into the cab in which we rode. I could never quite get used to the taste of heart in mouth, but if the near misses bothered Suwayyan Mas'ud, he was careful not to show it.
Considering the relentless pace, I wasn't surprised when, on the evening of the sixth day, we topped one last mountain and zigzagged down the slope to the exploration camp, two full days ahead of schedule. Nor, having accompanied him and watched him at work, was I surprised that Suwayyan's Kenworth led all the rest.
I had no doubt that, with the full day of rest he and the rest of the convoy now had coming, Suwayyan would be somewhere up front all the way home. With now-empty trailers, everyone, in fact, would be traveling faster. I suddenly had the happy thought that under those circumstances, no one would criticize me if I found an even quicker way back.
There happened to be one. A Fokker 27, used to ferry in personnel and fresh provisions, was at that moment sitting on the end of the sabkha air strip. A short time later I was sitting in it, but only for the 11 hours it took to make the six-day trip back to Dhahran.
Daniel da Cruz is Chief Correspondent in the Middle East for the McGraw Hill News Service.