Rain all night last night. It hasn’t happened for years. The morning felt fresh and rank with petrichor. I drove through huge puddles on the way to the desert. Occasionally little disconsolate groups of men with mops worked hard at the roadside in order to do nothing to affect the flooding.
The atmosphere on site was tense but expectant. Race day. All these hard-working teams were about to go all out for a result through the damp bumpy sand under the warming desert sun. Some of them had lent engineers to the team with the damaged car, and they had worked all night though an electric storm in this hostile desert just to get the machine up and running again. They managed.
I started what I thought would be a peaceable day in accreditation telling people they couldn’t get in. A small unexpected pick-up happened but nothing out of the ordinary until at about lunchtime when a mild voice on the radio asked for me to drive my car round the back of the compound. That’s a new one on me. On to the compound I go, very quickly, curious but not really thinking I’ll be off site for the rest of the day. I’m expecting to be asked to get some fuel and be back in twenty minutes. No flask. No coat. No water bottle. Laptop just sitting in an open fronted shipping container halfway into that desert.
Next thing I know I’ve got a car full of people and I’m going in convoy with Samwell the interpreter, pedal to the metal back to Tabuk, heading into the restricted zone – the Military City – chasing a helicopter.
I think I can say this by now. One of the drivers had an injury. That was who was in the helicopter. I was carrying two of his family and two people close to his team. After triage, Dr Jesus sent him off to the King Sultan Military Hospital in the militarised zone. I have been curious. I’ve driven round the edges forever. Now I’m going through the gate. Samwell is in front of me. The guard just waves him past. I’ve got a car full of westerners and I’m wearing a trilby. His arm sticks out. We are stopped and turned around. Bugger.
Not to be deterred we try another gate. There are loads. It’s like York with guns. These guys at gate two are just as dour but not as busy. Samwell works his magic. They confiscate two of our passports and give us a piece of card. “No photos!”
We drive into the military city. It’s heavily monitored, like everything else here but double. I keep expecting to have people in uniforms jumping onto us but we get to the hospital unscathed.
The driver is already being scanned to see what the situation is. X-ray and MRI. We are ushered to a waiting room but his mother is told she can’t wait with us because she is woman so she must wait in woman room. We all wait in the courtyard instead.
Time passes and eventually we are ushered up in a lift. We find ourselves in the Royal wing, in the royal suite. A secure door opens onto a few rooms, only one occupied, with dedicated security and nurses. The occupied one is for the driver. He is wheeled in and expertly deposited on the bed.
These men and women are sportsmen at peak fitness. Injuries will be taken very seriously indeed. There’s a tension as we wait for the results. Somebody comes in on a helicopter and Samwell and I shake his hand on the helipad at military city. It all feels very secret agent all of a sudden. We all crowd into the king’s suite. It seems the news is good.
I witness a debrief. The whole team is in a hospital room, talking animatedly about the community they are part of here, adrenaline and relief loosen tongues and flood endorphins for positive outlook. I really like these racing driver people. We share an addiction to adrenaline. I leave smiling, having caught their excitement and relief. I join everybody for an exhausted communal meal. I leave my hat in the restaurant. Shit. Somebody picked it up, or so they told me when I got back.
That’s this event over for now. Tomorrow we start to dismantle it. Then I’m back home. It seems a long way now I’m used to the desert.