Lady Macbeth and the Long Drive Home
The exciting adventures of my 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo continue! In the last thrilling instalment, I succeeded in getting the off-road vehicle stuck in a beach within about 25 metres of leaving the road and was only saved from my own stupidity a passing group of kind strangers. However, it was now about 8:30pm, I was a good 300-km drive from home, I was covered in sweat and sand and I was absolutely terrified and exhausted. I wanted to feel safe and comfortable after my massive freakout on the beach. I wanted to drive home.
The decision to do so was one of my dumber ones.
The first thing I needed to do was get my tyres reflated. The Omani guys who had dug me out of the beach had done so by letting out much of the air in my rather warn road tyres to increase the surface area in contact with the fine sand, enabling them to get some traction. They had warned me, before they departed, that I would need to put more air back in if I was going to drive on tarmac without shredding the rubber. Fortunately, this ended up being the easy part. I wasn’t that far from Al Ashkharah town and there was at least one mechanic’s shop still open. In Oman, it being a desert country, shops tend to open late but also close late as much of their trade is done in the evenings, when it is cool enough to be outdoors without melting.
Even this simple transaction was a cause for stress and concern. The mechanic (who, again to my good fortune, spoke excellent English) explained that there were different pressures which he could inflate the tyres to. Being almost completely ignorant on the subject of basic car maintenance, this came as a surprise to me. This was in 2010, long before I owned a smartphone with even 3G internet, so I couldn’t just Google it. I checked the vehicle owner’s manual and was still no wiser. I can’t actually remember how we resolved the situation. Either I just guessed and asked for whichever number sounded right, or I dithered for so long that he just put in air until the tyres felt right. Either way, it had the desired effect – I could get back on the road without panicking at every speed bump, images of my tyres exploding flooded my mind.
Bumps in the Night
With my fear of ‘sleeping policemen’ assuaged, I felt confident enough to put my foot down a bit. With very few obstacles around the eastern part of Oman, barring the occasional desert, most of the roads are pretty straight, so I could maintain a good speed. I wasn’t going insanely fast because I had heard that the cause of many a motoring fatality in the desert is camels. The blacktop roads retain the heat of the day’s direct sunlight a lot better than the surrounding sand, so these giant walking speed bumps would sit and sleep on the road to keep warm on the cold desert nights. Being very large and heavy creatures, there was no guarantee that I would come out of a collision with one unharmed, even in a 1.775-tonne Jeep!
I didn’t see a single camel on the drive home. What I did see was at least one school, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This very nearly proved significantly more dangerous. The funny thing with schools in Oman is that the roads passing in front of them always have a set of three closely spaced speed bumps just before them and another set just after, regardless of whether the building is in the middle of a town or the middle of nowhere. When I say “closely spaced”, I mean that each bump is barely 30 cm from the next one, making driving over them roughly akin to navigating a cattlegrid. Being unpainted, the only indicator that these bumps are there is a road sign warning that you are coming up to a school. The school itself is theoretically a good indicator, but one unlit building by the side of the road looks much the same as any other and, in either case, is virtually impossible to see in the dark.
On at least one occasion, I came upon a school while travelling at rather high speeds. The road sign is usually right next to the first set of bumps and isn’t always especially clear, being obscured by dust or nearby trees or just being positioned at an angle where my headlights failed to reflect off it at the correct angle. On one particular occasion, I realised that I had no hope of slowing down in time to hit the first set of bumps at a reasonable speed without locking my wheels and potentially wrecking. I took my foot off the power and braced myself. Shortly after the follow-up set of bumps, I pulled to the side of the road, got out and checked under the car to make sure the suspension was still attached.
Now driving significantly more carefully, I soon came upon the outskirts of Sur. This brightened me significantly – I knew these roads and knew that Sur was just a couple of hours along a high-quality highway from my home in Muscat. Keen to get to the comfort of my own bed, I was frustrated to be stuck behind a car travelling justunder the speed limit. He was still going at a pretty reasonable pace and I was making good time, but I could have been making better time and I urgently wanted to.
Also, the car in front was a cop.
Generally speaking, my rule is to never overtake a police vehicle. I consider that such a move is just asking for trouble. However, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight, at the time, and I’d just watched another car overtake him without any significant reaction, so I braced myself to follow. Unfortunately, I hit a section of winding road just to the south of the city, where the road markings forbade me from making a move and, when they didn’t do so, there was always a car coming in the opposite direction.
Finally, I hit a good stretch of straight road. All I needed to do was wait for one oncoming car to pass, hit the gas and I’d be away! This seemed to take way longer to happen than it should. Time seemed to slow down, as if it was settling in to enjoy the show of my second act of breathtaking stupidity for the evening. Finally, the car passed. I could see that the opening for overtaking was shrinking as there was a T-junction ahead and the road markings would soon revert to solid lines. It was now or…well, now or be a bit more patient and wait for the next opening, actually, but it really felt like now or never. I reached down to the button just to the left of the steering wheel marked “OD” – Overdrive. I punched it and the accelerator, sweeping out to the left, into the other lane.
Nothing happened. Lady Macbeth did not, as I had envisioned, gallop forward with a surge of speed. Instead, she crept up on the police car at a negligible pace. Suddenly, an oncoming car was oncoming directly at me, and yet I was barely gaining on the police car, let alone overtaking it. I panicked (again) and just kept at it, in spite of the flashing headlights ahead, in spite of the instinct to back off and get back behind the cop, in spite of the blaring horn. By pure good fortune, the road happened to be wide enough for at least three cars driving abreast. I know this because, as the oncoming car passed me on the left, the police car was exactly alongside me on the right.
I suspect that the cop was the one to ease off the gas because I finally got ahead of him, shivering with fear at my near-death experience and show of astounding stupidity. The officer flashed his hazard lights at me and, my brain still powered primarily by liquid dumb, I just flashed mine back. Then he flashed his blues and I understood what he was getting at.
Panic set in for the…was this the third or fourth time? I think the near-miss was too sudden for me to really panic. My continuing to overtake in the face of near-certain death was more a matter of tunnel-visioned grim determination than ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ fear. Call it the third time. Now I was picturing spending my weekend in an Omani prison, 200 km from my home in Muscat and about 6,000 km from my family in the UK. I had just come within metres of causing a potentially fatal accident right in front of a policeman! There was no way he was going to go easy on me, right? Mind racing and hands shaking, I wound down the windows, switched off the engine and prepared my driving license and identity card.
A squat and rather dumpy policeman came up to the passenger-side window. I forget the exact words he used, but the gist was “that was extremely dangerous”. I do remember the words I used because they were all pretty similar to each other: “yes, sir. I’m very sorry, sir. I know that was a stupid thing to do, sir” – and so on. He took my license and ID and walked back to his car, leaving me to stew and panic.
A small eternity later, he returned. He gave me back my cards and gave me a warning. That warning consisted almost entirely of the following words: “Slowly slowly”. His English wasn’t first-rate, but his meaning was pretty clear. I apologised some more, using the word “sir” at the end of every sentence. Then he went back to his car and drove off.
Too stunned to move, I stayed exactly where I was for a good 10 minutes, waiting for my pulse to get down to a reasonable level and revelling in how unbelievably lucky I had just been. Perhaps he thought I was an oil worker or something, since my ID card does not show my occupation and Sur is an oil town. Well, it’s actually a liquified natural gas town and is all but owned by Oman LNG, which might have influenced him a little bit. Either way, once the road had considerably cleared, I very carefully set off back towards Muscat.
Tower Block on Wheels
The home stretch, as it were, was the Sur coast road – gently curving, well-lit, in pristine condition and, for reasons I have never quite fathomed, almost always empty. Also, notably, completely devoid of speed cameras. While it would have been illegal do so, this would have been a very good opportunity to [comparatively] safely test the actual capabilities of Lady Macbeth’s 4.0-litre engine. It would have been the ideal place to, for example, get up to about 95 mph (150 km/h) before realising that a Jeep Grand Cherokee has all the aerodynamics of a tower block on wheels and that it shakes disconcertingly at high speeds. I’m not saying that’s what I did, of course, nor am I suggesting that anyone else should do so. I’m just saying that, had I been tempted to commit such an illegal act, that might have been the sort of place I would have done it.
What I can absolutely confirm that I did do was spend the last hour or so of the journey listening to Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 hit Somebody to Love on repeat, at full volume, singing along as best as my now extremely sore throat could manage. Given that the song is a little under three minutes long, that means I listened to it at least 20 consecutive times, but almost certainly considerably more. I was immersed in an overwhelming feeling of euphoria. I had endured so many difficulties and extreme situations, and yet had come out of the other end not significantly worse for it. Now I was approaching home at around midnight, loudly (and badly) singing with glee at the fact that I would soon be safe, in familiar surroundings. That is what makes Somebody to Love now firmly one of my favourite feel-good songs, and is why this is the story I told when my friend asked me what my favourite memory from my time as an expat is.