Sons (and Daughters) of the Desert


Morning Has Broken, Like my Right Ankle. Pic: Andy Preston

Those of you who have seen and loved (and I am assuming that’s all of you) Ice Cold in Alex, the epic, almost perfect 1958 British war movie, will remember the scene half way through where John Mills (as a brave British Alcoholic), Anthony Quayle (as a dirty nazi spy) Harry Andrews (salt of the earth sergeant) and Sylvia Syms (a stunning example of British womanhood) have to winch an ambulance up a hundred foot sand dune to escape from Gerry.

The scene takes ages, full of sweat, pain, close-up shots of vexed faces and bulging biceps, and then Sylvia buggers it all up by letting go of the crank handle, allowing the truck to roll all the way back down the hill. Silly cow. So they have to start all over again.

On the other hand, you may be more familiar with The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s classic 1965 flick about a British Military prison in North Africa during World War II. In the movie, Harry Andrews (he was in all of ‘em) shouts a lot at Sean Connery and Roy Kinnear and has them running, climbing and crawling up and down a dirty great mound of sand (‘The Hill’ of the title) as part of their punishment. It’s grueling stuff. Sean won’t let the buggers get the better of him, but poor old Roy’s only got little legs. Hot n sweaty stuff again. If you’ve not seen it go get it out (or illegally download it, as I hear you young kids are prone to do nowadays). It’s great stuff.

I only mention this because this time about a week ago, I was merrily drinking my own bodyweight in duty free booze when someone had a brilliant idea:
We were sat in a camp in the Omani desert, having arrived far too late to sit on top of a dune and watch the ‘spectacular sunset’, as it says in all the guide books. “We’ll sod that, then” piped up someone, who may or may not have been me, “Let’s get up, sparrows, and climb up top and watch the sunRISE!”. Hurrah said a few of the gathered pissheads, and we set about drinking ourselves into an oblivion that only British tourists go to when they are in a “dry” country.

The party finished (I am told) when the booze ran out. By a later count it would seem we’d averaged about a litre of something each (I’m sure someone else must have had my share). Anyway, apparently I nodded off because I was woken by the incumbent who announced we were off up the dune. It was about five in the morning. I’d been on it for around ten hours, followed by seventeen minutes sleep. I rose and wobbled off into the darkness. Like Saladin, T.E.Lawrence and Michael Palin before us, I and a few close, pissed friends strode out, with only the moonlight to guide us. Saladin, I’m guessing, was teetotal, Lawrence had the help of the Bedouins, Palin a BBC lighting and camera crew. I’d enlisted the help of a bottle of Tanqueray gin and a couple of Nurofen. My fellow trekkers had done similar but also had this fat pissed old bloke to look after. And not a Harry Andrews in sight.

The dark, intimidating dune loomed ominously in front of us. It was huge, A hundred feet, maybe 150. (I say this NOW, but I honestly have very little memory of any of this, most of it is first and second-hand testimony from people who were considerably less pissed than I was). I can remember the first twenty yards-or-so not being too bad. Perhaps I wasn’t so drunk after all? Perhaps all that pre-tour training had finally paid off? No, hang on: I was very pissed and I hadn’t done any training. I was just numb and stubborn.

The Incumbent and I stop for a breather

The next section was another story. Softer sand, steeper climb, I was beginning to sober up rapidly. Several of those above me made the unmistakable sounds of fit people having fun. They laughed, they gasped, they talked about stuff OTHER than how much pain they were in. I made no such polite chitchat. I was pleading with my legs to keep pumping, and for the Incumbent to give me a piggyback. She politely refused and suggested we stop to catch our breath. Too late for me. I’d left my breath back at camp during a recital of Status Quo’s finest at the party earlier that night. However, we dug in half way to the summit to rest.

It was steep, and damp, but the sand was cool and soft. I could have stayed there forever, or until after I stopped hurting- whichever came sooner. The incumbent took off her flip-flops which she’d nearly lost several times on the way up, I thought about writing a will. But for reasons beyond me we were soon on our feet/knees and heading slowly for the top. Our friends had already disappeared from view, and were presumably readying themselves for the great spectacle to come. I didn’t want to miss it, having come so far. So gasping, coughing and swearing at myself (well, it saved anyone else doing it) I gradually emerged over the brow of the hill to see such a wondrous sight: my mates sitting on top of ANOTHER dune 40 yards away. After a brief pause for a word with my sponsor, we made our way over to the other peak and collapsed. Some took photos, some looked for their flip-flops, some merely closed their eyes and wept at the pain and the heat that their quadriceps and lungs were emitting.

And there we sat, like that bunch of old gits in Close Encounters, waiting for something to come over the hill. We didn’t have to wait long. Five or six minutes later a beautiful, perfect yellow sun came up over the horizon and shed it’s pale golden hue on all around. It gave us a warm glow to know we, out of all others left down below, had made the effort to come up top and witness this sight. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart, though that could have been from the gin and a dodgy prawn earlier.

Like Hillary and Tenzing, just a little more dignified. Pic: Andy Preston

But we’d done it, without the aid of 4×4, guide or even Harry Andrews. We stood there and gawped for minutes.

Then we went back down the hill for brekkie.

Days later by a hotel swimming pool I suddenly sat bolt upright and remembered what a prat I’d been to attempt such a thing in such a state. I could have killed myself and been left up there on the desolate peak, like a discarded flop-flop. Such was my distress that I had to order another gin. “Better make it a large one, I’ve got to play cricket tomorrow.”

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2 thoughts on “Sons (and Daughters) of the Desert

  1. Old man, I felt like that on Mont Blanc, without an incumbent or the gin to make it bearable. Why do you, me and Sir Edmund do such things? A noble lot we are, eh?

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