Hail in Ha’il…

So, as the rain continues to fall here in Sichon, and I wait (not very) patiently for outdoor exploring weather to return, it’s time for a little reminiscing.

Actually, today is probably the most unpleasant of my few months here in Thailand. Heavy rain started early morning and has continued in varying degrees throughout the day. I’m thankful that one of my early purchases was a UPS for my computers because as I type in semi-darkness, the power is off for the sixth time.

It’s only a minor nuisance. I don’t really need light, and today I hardly need aircon. Early afternoon the temperature has hit a balmy 24deg, which is probably the lowest I’ve seen for many months. And power is usually restored in less than an hour, often in just a few minutes.

Where was I? Oh yes, reminiscing.

When I first mentioned I was buying a Ford Ranger, I think I also said I would never buy anything like that without a test drive, as I had only once before driven a large pickup truck. Looking back, I realize that one time was a little unusual.

About ten years ago I found myself in Saudi Arabia. Well, no I wasn’t lost. I was asked to assist with the first ever FIA-sanctioned motorsport event in the Kingdom. And the vehicle they gave me to drive was a large pickup truck. Probably not too different from Bert, my Ford Ranger, except it was left-hand drive and had bald tires! Here’s the F350…

ford f350 saudi arabia
Ford F350 in Saudi Arabia

The event was an off-road Raid/Baja type of rally for trucks of all kinds. My task, along with a colleague from Dubai was to scrutineer the sixty or so entries. It might not be appropriate to use people’s real names without their permission, so my co-scrutineer and boss I’ll call Gerry.

The event took place in the desert around the medium-sized city of Ha’il. It’s about an eighty minute flight northwest of the capital Riyadh. From the air you can see that Riyadh stops quite suddenly, Ha’il starts equally suddenly, and between the two cities there is nothing but sand. The must be a road somewhere but I didn’t see it. There’s nothing but hills and dunes of varying sizes and colors.

Gerry had had a relatively easy trip, but I had to overnight in Riyadh after a stopover in Qatar. But life was made easier by the fact we were given VIP treatment, with a reserved lane at immigration and a suite at the Riyadh Hilton, with limos from/to the airport.

After more VIP treatment at Ha’il airport it was straight to work. By lunchtime Gerry and I were installed in the workshop of the local Toyota dealership, and we quickly created a checklist of things we needed to inspect. A small line of trucks was a already waiting for us.

Pre-event scrutineering is usually limited to safety items. Like, does the vehicle have FIA-approved roll cages, seats, harnesses, etc? And simple things like – do the lights and turn signals work? But being a desert event, it was also necessary to ensure they all had at least five liters of drinking water, plus solar blankets in case a vehicle was stuck in the desert overnight. This was February, and whereas the days were warm-ish, a bit like today in Thailand, the nights were really cold. Sub-zero in the desert.

Now, in the middle of nowhere you wouldn’t expect there to be too many FIA-approved vehicles. It was an international event and a few regular competitors had come from neighboring countries and from around Saudi, but most were local trucks. In order to boost entries the local Emir had generously given a large amount of US dollars to anyone who wanted to enter, and so most vehicles were properly equipped.

Unfortunately though a minority had cut corners in order to pocket some cash! Several roll cages were not properly welded. One cage was made from square tubing! That had to be a first. Some people had decided the standard seat belts would be just fine, and things like that.

One elderly gentleman had just gone to a local dealership and taken a brand new truck straight off the lot. He wasn’t happy that we wouldn’t let him compete, and reminded us forcefully that he was a good friend of the Emir. Not wanting to have a close inspection of the local dungeons we passed the buck and asked him to go talk to the Clerk of the Course. We never saw him again. The elderly gentleman I mean. The CoC survived!

A surprising number of trucks, despite having fully-compliant equipment, had no working lights or turn signals. “We live in the middle of the desert” they said. “Why would we need turn signals?” “Well…” we replied politely “because you have to drive on normal roads during the rally, and because the FIA says so.”

By about 9pm in a freezing cold open-fronted workshop, someone brought Big Macs and fries. I’d realized that flying halfway round the world I would at some point be confronted with food I wouldn’t eat at home, but I hadn’t expected it to be Big Macs! But they were very welcome, and with jet lag setting in, at around 10pm we were finished for the day. Hot chocolate at the hotel was the only body-warming liquid we were likely to get in Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately though, we had failed more than half of the trucks, and had to agree to restart scrutineering at 8am next day. It was amazing what some people had managed to achieve overnight, and eventually, by turning a blind eye to some minor discrepancies, we passed all but two or three.

Ha'il Baja Rally Service Park
Ha’il Baja Rally Service Park

But this story is supposed to be about driving the F350…

The Ha’il Baja Rally consisted of two 250kms stages. Actually the same route through the desert held twice, on consecutive days. Gerry and I had been asked to go supervise the mid-stage refuelling point. The black-top road didn’t go far outside Ha’il and was quickly replaced with what looked like a sand road. It had a hard surface, so I assume some kind of stones had been compacted into the sand.

road, ha'il, saudi
Typical Road

It wasn’t difficult to drive on, or at least, it wouldn’t have been if the F350 had had some tread on the tires, and the steering joints had not been suffering from the automobile equivalent of arthritis. It was more like steering an ocean-going supertanker than a truck. I pointed it where I wanted it to go, and a few seconds later it complied, sort-of. After a while I got the hang of pre-steering!

Our destination was more than three hours outside of Ha’il. Three hours of nothing but sand roads and dunes. And the trip had a very strange beginning.

We had to make a couple of stops in Ha’il before heading out into the desert, and each time we stopped I noticed a old wreck of a truck was parked a discrete distance from us. Everytime we moved it moved. After about thirty minutes I pointed this out to Gerry and he kept an eye on it through the door mirror.

About thirty minutes later, feeling a bit spooked, I looked again and the truck had been replaced by a police car. I made sure I obeyed speed limits. Even in the desert there are speed limits. I slowed to let him past, but no he wasn’t going to play that game, he was intent on following us. Another thirty minutes later the red & blue lights were flashing so I pulled over. There we were, two hours from anything you would call civilization and we were in trouble with the fuzz. Not a great scenario.

We exchanged our salams, apologized for not speaking Arabic, and the policeman apologized for only speaking a little English. Things were looking up… a little. We were told firmly that we couldn’t go any further. We explained politely about the rally, and that we really had to go further. Then it seemed what they were really telling us was that they couldn’t go any further … which was just fine with us.

So we headed on, and the police car headed back. When we queried this some hours later back in Rally HQ, we were told “Oh, they were there to protect you. You’re important people.” A nice gesture, but why the **** hadn’t someone warned us? Even the man in the rusty old truck, it seems, was a plain clothes policeman!

Anyhoo, we eventually reached a point where the compacted road ended, to be replaced by soft sand. I guess maybe that’s what the policeman was trying to tell us. We looked down into a valley and could see all kinds of stranded vehicles, so Gerry and I agreed there was no way we could negotiate that with bald tires. We headed back to the end of the stage, where we did nothing more useful than standing around trying to look important.

And while we were doing that I heard a voice behind me that said “Welcome.” I turned around to find three bedouins bowing and being generally respectful towards two honored foreigners. “Please. You come to our village” they pleaded. Refusing was very rude. But refuse we did, while explaining we were working and absolutely positively could not leave this spot. Looking dejected they disappeared over the nearest dune. I have no idea where they came from nor where they went to, because there was nothing to see but sand.

However; five minutes later they were back. With a silver tray of small glasses of ultra-sweet coffee and tea plus a plate of dates! It was like they’d just been teleported from somewhere. They sort-of materialized out of nowhere. So we politely sipped the drinks and nibbled the dates until they lost interest and teleported themselves back into the desert. Gerry and I weren’t sure if we’d seen a mirage, except for the sickly sweet taste in our mouths.

While in the desert I did learn something useful about driving on sand. Having survived ten Canadian winters, often driving through deep snow, I figured I knew a thing or two about driving on loose surfaces. I was wrong.

Driving on snow it’s helpful to use someone else’s wheel tracks if possible because if the snow is not too deep there’s a good chance they’ve cut through to the asphalt. Sand though seems to build up a hard crust, and if you drive on that, you get decent traction. Whereas if you drive in someone’s tracks, they’ve broken the crust, and you find yourself with no grip in the loose stuff.

ha'il scenery saudi arabia
Ha’il Scenery

After that though it was just a long trek back through the dunes into Ha’il, with only one more surprise in store. Shortly before sunset the sky went dark black, and before long it started to … hail … yes, hail on the sand. Truly bizarre. But it allowed me to add one more thing to the list of really really important things I’ve done in my life…

So, aside from seeing hail in Ha’il, I’ve had a pee in Pisa, a poo in Phuket, and I’ve been to the loo in the Louvre. Moving on from bathroom humor, due to a delayed flight I’ve had a sigh in Saigon. Not to mention that thanks to going to an F1 race in France, I’ve been to Nevers on a Sunday. And I’ve probably sinned in Singapore… it’s easy to do. I might even have mumbled in Mumbai.

wwiIn case you’re wondering though, even I have been to Japan, I’ve yet to visit Fukuoka!


...has been travelling the world for more than sixty years; having lived and worked in five countries and travelled to many many more.

He likes to write about his travels - present and past - along with his other main interests of Drones, Information Technology and Motorsport, and he adds a few general twitterings along the way.

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