I glanced in the mirrors and Maurice had disappeared. His yellow and green Magirus truck had been following mine for the past half hour, and now the mirrors showed only tarmac and desert. Maybe he’d been held back by another truck – he was notoriously averse to overtaking – but since I hadn’t passed anyone myself, there shouldn’t have been a truck between us. Not that he could get lost. There was only one road through the Saudi desert down the H4 oil pipeline, and no turn-offs for hundreds of kilometres. I slowed to a trundle for a minute or so, but there was still no sign of him. Finally, I pulled over to the wrong side of the twolane blacktop and let the engine idle, keeping one eye on the nearside mirror, which showed the shimmering road behind. To my right, the rough sand sloped in a shallow drop-off from the road, and fifty yards away the black pipeline angled south-east, held up on low concrete pillars where the desert fell away into a gulley. I’d been warned never to park on the pipeline side of the road; the authorities were apparently manic about sabotage and I’d be arrested as soon as I set the handbrake. Where the cops would come from, when the last sign of life had been at least a hundred kilometres back, at the Jordanian border, I had no idea, but I certainly wasn’t going to risk it on my first trip. Even as a newcomer, I already knew that the Saudi police had a heavy-handed reputation.
I gave the engine a couple of minutes to cool down and switched it off. The sudden silence was broken only by the ticking of contracting metal beneath the cab. I fidgeted in my seat, wondering whether and when to go back for Maurice. After another five minutes, the decision was made for me. A large Jordanian Mercedes truck appeared, tall and rugged on twenty-four-inch desert wheels and tyres, with its wide, imposing bonnet in the standard sun-faded orange of Middle Eastern Mercs. The driver drew up beside me and gesticulated back the way we’d come; I didn’t need any Arabic to know that my running mate was in trouble some way back. I waved my thanks and the Jordanian set off again. I fired up the Magirus’s V10 engine, checked that the sand beside the road looked solid, and swung the articulated truck round in a wide arc to avoid bogging down. I regained the tarmac facing the way I had come and set off again, cursing Maurice roundly.
The desert road undulated beside a rocky outcrop at that point, obscuring the road I’d come by, and I’d gone a few kilometres before I saw what I’d feared. Maurice was in deep trouble. His truck had ploughed off the road and was up to its front bumper in soft sand. The rear of his trailer was clear of the road, so the momentum of his truck – grossing 32 tons plus – had carried him at least twenty yards off the blacktop.
Maurice was standing by the cab of his Magirus, waving at me. I slowed my own Maggie to a stop on the road and climbed down. “Where’ve you been?” Maurice demanded, as if it were my fault he’d run into the sand.
“I was waiting for you,” I said, “and a Jordanian told me you were in trouble. What happened?”
“Blowout, on the front.”
Another one? I could hardly believe it. This was the fourth tyre Maurice had blown since we’d entered Yugoslavia a week earlier. Nobody could be that unlucky. As Lady Bracknell might have said – if she’d known what a tyre was – to lose one tyre might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looked like carelessness. And Maurice had lost four. The only reason we still had a spare between us was that we’d met some homeward-bound colleagues the previous evening and between them they’d given us three replacements. I knelt down in the warming sand to examine the problem.
The Maggie’s front wheels were sunk in deeply and the right front tyre had collapsed, leaving the axle at sand level. Maurice and I looked at each other. We both knew what was coming next; he didn’t have a jack. As usual, he’d be using mine.
Maurice was a likeable guy, and we got on well enough, but we were a mismatched pair, and our driving styles were sufficiently different to have caused a slight, unspoken friction since we’d set off from England ten days earlier. And leaving without a jack was a weird mistake for an old hand to make, setting out on a journey of nearly 8000 miles, on a round trip across Eastern Europe and the deserts of Arabia to Dubai. For, all appearances to the contrary, Maurice was the experienced one, and had spent two years driving within Saudi Arabia, doing what was known as ‘internals’. This was my first trip to the Middle East and my new boss, Jack Harrison, had partnered me with Maurice so he could show me the ropes. I was learning, but not the way Jack had intended.
The front tyre is the worst one to blow on a big articulated truck. For one reason, it’s easy to lose control, as Maurice had done, and for a second, the wheel drops onto the rim, so it has to be lifted higher than the extension on a truck’s ten-ton bottle jack before the new wheel and tyre can be accommodated. At the rear, the wheels are twinned, so if one tyre blows, the other gives it some support, and the wheels normally clear the ground with one lift of the jack. In this case, we’d have to hoist the front axle, support it somehow while we repositioned the jack, and then raise it a second time. And we’d be doing it on soft sand. It would have been an interesting problem, but for the time of day. Maurice and I had set off at dawn from our overnight stop, to cover some miles before the thermometer climbed to its midday level of forty degrees Celsius or more, and it was now getting on for eight in the morning. The temperature was already becoming noticeable and we both wanted to get the heavy job done before the heat became unpleasant to work in. I lugged my jack across the sand, took a block of timber from under my trailer and started work. I scrabbled some sand away and shimmied the timber and jack into position under the axle. As a temporary support, while we repositioned the jack for a second lift, we used the spare wheel on its side. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.
It’s heavy work to change a 75kg truck wheel, but after half an hour or so we’d managed it. Now all we had to do was get Maurice back on the road. We scooped the sand away from behind his wheels and hitched a chain from the back of his trailer to the rear of mine. I pulled forward far enough to take up the slack, and Maurice let in his clutch and tried to reverse out with the help of my truck up on the blacktop. The trailers swayed into line with each other, and with much over-revving, Maurice’s truck scrabbled its way off the loose sand and onto the hard road. We grinned at each other. Whatever the cause of the original problem, we’d laboured together to solve it and it felt satisfying.
“Tea?” suggested Maurice.
Once more heading deeper into Saudi Arabia, and towards Qatar 1500 kilometres away, we drove on for a couple of minutes until we’d found sand hard enough to park on. We swung off the road and pulled up side by side, our two yellow and green Magirus tractor units, and red rental trailers, looking in much better shape than their drivers. Using some of our precious water supply, we washed ourselves and put on the kettle.
Two mugs of tea and a half hour later, we were on our way again. This time, Maurice took the lead and I dropped back a couple of hundred metres behind him. No need to crowd together on a virtually empty road. Occasionally, another truck passed us heading north, and once Maurice swung across the road to skirt a broken-down vehicle. In what I discovered was the standard Middle East practice, the driver had left a warning line of rocks angled across the road behind his truck, but had then apparently abandoned it. The road was mostly flat and straight, with occasional bends around small rocky outcrops. I scanned the truck’s instruments as usual and then looked again. The air pressure gauges were dropping. They continued to drop as I watched them, and at any second I would have no air to actuate the brakes. I depressed the clutch and revved the engine, but the air compressor didn’t respond; the needles kept falling. In my preoccupation with the air pressure, I’d lost sight of Maurice round another outcrop and couldn’t flash my lights at him to pull over. I rolled to a stop and the fail-safe system clamped the brakes on. On a truck with brakes actuated by air pressure – as all trucks have been equipped since the 1960s – the brakes won’t come off unless there’s enough air pressure in the system, with the very sensible intention that if the truck has insufficient air pressure to stop it, it shouldn’t be able to start. Unless I could build the pressure up to at least 80psi, the brakes wouldn’t disengage again and the truck wouldn’t move.
My first thought – unfortunate as it turned out – was to tilt the cab and investigate the compressor. In a ‘cab-over’ truck – the universal European design – the engine and all ancillaries are under the cab, which has to be tilted for any kind of maintenance or repair. I bundled my possessions into the passenger-side footwell so they wouldn’t crash through the screen when the cab rocked forward, and groped for the cab tilt bar from behind my seat. I jumped down from the truck, brandishing the bar, and inserted it into the small hydraulic pump behind the cab. As I pumped furiously, the cab started lifting and tilting, and only when it lurched sideways as well as forwards did I remember that one of the front cab mountings was broken, a legacy of hard use on the road to Tehran in the hands of the truck’s previous driver. I was lucky the whole cab hadn’t fallen off, but at least I could get at the compressor. I had just tilted, and partially dismounted, the cab when Maurice turned up. Now the boot was on the other foot. Maurice was, strangely, more panicky than I was. He listened to my description of the breakdown and quickly offered his diagnosis.
“It’s the compressor; it’s knackered.”
If he was right, I was in serious trouble. The compressor provided air pressure to power the air brakes, and without it I’d have no way of stopping, even if I could have moved in the first place. Heaven alone knew where the nearest replacement was, and any sort of town was several hundred kilometres away.
“You won’t be able to go anywhere,” Maurice stated the obvious.
We considered our options, and with almost indecent haste, he came up with a solution. “You’ll have to stay here while I tip my trailer, then I’ll come back for yours and I’ll go and tip that. Then when I come back again, we’ll find a way to get your truck onto mine.” In the back of both our minds was the resourcefulness of the new colleagues we’d met the previous afternoon as they were heading home. They had managed to load a broken-down truck – and its trailer – onto two other trucks in the middle of the desert, without having a crane at their disposal.
I thought about it. The one virtue of the plan, unspoken but obvious to both of us, was that we’d no longer have to live with each other. In all other respects, it was unsettling. I figured it would take Maurice about a week to get to Dubai, unload his trailer and get back to me. And then I’d have to wait another week while he delivered the contents of my trailer.
It was a crazy idea, but he was sure it was the only solution and, after all, he was the experienced Saudi driver.
“I’ll leave you some of my water,” he said, “and I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Oh yes, and he’d have to take my jack, which, with his record of blowing tyres, he was likely to need.
Less than half an hour after Maurice had come back to find me, he was again on his way to Dubai and I was left alone with my truck, stranded in the middle of Saudi Arabia. Only then, in the silence of the desert, did I begin to think. To begin with, I had broken a key rule of Middle East driving. “If anything goes wrong,” an old hand had told me a few days earlier, “don’t do anything until you’ve had a cup of tea.” This very British advice actually made perfect sense, because the time it takes to make and drink a cup of tea is the time you need to ponder your problem,
whatever it is. If I’d paused to brew up, I might not have tipped the cab off its broken mounting; even if I were able to sort out the air problem, getting the cab back in place was going to be a real headache. I sat with my tea in the shade of the trailer and applied myself to the facts, thankful that I no longer had Maurice chattering at me. The sand stretched to the horizon, with no sign of life apart from a solitary small bird that startled me by swooping into the shade of the truck and perching on a spare tyre.
It cheered me for a moment, but it didn’t diminish my predicament. But one thing was certain, whatever else happened I wasn’t about to sit in the desert for two weeks, waiting for Maurice to sort me out.
Extracted from George’s excellent new book, ‘Into the Distance: The Long Lost World of Long-haul Trucking’. Buy it here.