Meanwhile, back in Saudi Arabia, I parted from my Iranian friends and set off south for Jeddah for the second time in a week. I was on the home stretch late the following afternoon and was planning to have dinner at the Weir Westgarth site; now that I knew where it was, there was no reason to fuel myself before reaching the city. As I cruised along at about 55mph in the late afternoon sunshine, I idly registered a pickup truck coming towards me on the other side of the two-lane blacktop.
I then watched the mirror in horror as the pick-up veered towards my trailer, hit the front axle and cannoned off across the road, where it came to rest down a small bank on its roof. I didn’t have to brake much since the offside tyres on the front of the two trailer axles seemed to have been smashed against the rear wheels, so that they juddered to a halt.
I climbed down from the cab and nervously approached the other vehicle, half expecting to find, if not dead bodies, then at least some serious injuries. At the back of my mind was the fact that I was the foreigner, and although the accident was in no way my fault, I thought I’d be held to blame. When I’d first driven to the Middle East, I’d been bombarded with advice and information, including the fact that if I were involved in an accident in Saudi Arabia, I would always be considered at fault. Apparently, the law would say that if I, as a foreigner, hadn’t been in the country, the accident couldn’t have happened, so if it did happen, I had to be the cause. I had hoped never to find out if this unassailable, if loopy, logic held true, but now I might have to.
As I approached the pick-up, its two occupants were already crawling from the wreckage, apparently unscathed. Within moments, we’d attracted a crowd. It’s a feature of Middle Eastern countries that although the landscape may appear completely deserted, as soon as there’s an incident, people pop up out of the sand to voice their opinions.
Sure enough, we were rapidly surrounded by a score of gesticulating locals, who, miraculously, seemed to be on my side. One man, with a little English, said he’d seen the incident and it was entirely the fault of the pick-up driver. This was certainly helpful, but I wasn’t completely reassured until I discovered that the driver was from Yemen. We were both foreigners and I almost laughed with relief. In a remarkably short time, two cops appeared and the friendly crowd seemed to be telling them my side of the story. Nevertheless, the officers insisted on taking the three of us to the nearest police station. I locked my truck and got into the back of their Chevrolet Caprice, a softly sprung monstrosity that the driver proceeded to hurl down the road with no regard for its appalling road-holding. Within an hour, we were at the police station, a little way up the road to Mecca and past the large, multilingual sign barring it to non-Muslims.
Having survived the ride in the Chevy, and knowing that the other driver was Yemeni, I was surprised to find myself quite relaxed. The senior officer at the station asked for our stories and, having no Arabic to speak of, I drew a sketch showing the progress of the pick-up, its collision with my trailer and the subsequent damage to my axle. The Yemenis said nothing, but when shown the drawings, they nodded in agreement. With the facts settled, the officer asked how much I wanted in compensation. Slightly surprised by this summary justice, I did a quick estimate that remounting the axle would cost £1000, so I asked for 7000 Saudi riyals. I reckoned to get the job done in Tartus, while I waited for the homebound ferry.
The Yemeni driver just laughed, with a universally recognisable gesture meaning ‘broke’. I tried to insist, but after a few minutes of argument the officer simply waved us out of the door, clearly indifferent to the fate of two foreigners.
The three of us walked back half a mile across the sand to the main road, where one of my truck’s assailants flagged down a minibus in the gathering dusk. I was glad he did, because I was unable to recognise that the bus was for hire. I was less amused to find that he wouldn’t even pay my fare, but on the whole I reckoned I’d been lucky to escape without any legal or bureaucratic entanglements. The minibus dropped me off at my truck and, in what was now the early evening, I made myself a cup of tea before investigating the damage to the trailer. I was much calmer than I’d been six months earlier when my unlamented Magirus had lost its air. Mug in hand, I squatted down to examine the trailer axles.
It wasn’t pretty. The front axle’s mounting bracket had been smashed free of the chassis rail, shifting the axle back until its two offside tyres had been jammed against the wheels behind them. This was what was called a ‘spread-axle’ trailer, with a couple of feet between each set of wheels, so the force applied must have been considerable – at least I’d learned that Toyota pick-ups were well built. As I considered the problem, I soon realised that with the light load I could safely run the trailer on only one axle and, besides, I had only fifty-odd kilometres left before I could unload.
Luckily, the large pipe sections were secured by several chains and tensioners, which, even if this had been my own truck, would not have been part of my regular equipment. I figured out which ones I could do without for the last few miles and used two chains to suspend the broken axle from the chassis rails, pulling them tight with the tensioners so that they wouldn’t sag when I removed the wheels. It was heavy work. Each of the wheels weighed seventy-odd kilos and the trailer floor was about at the level of my shoulder, but I managed to manhandle them aboard.
After an hour’s hard work, I was ready to roll. I washed off the worst of the dirt and sweat I’d accumulated, had another cup of tea and continued to the Weir Westgarth site.
A few days later, back in Tartus, I found a welding shop that agreed to restore the axle mounting for the equivalent of £500. It’s a measure of my independence as a Middle East driver that I didn’t look for a telex to consult Jack. When I got home, he did query the decision to spend so much on the repair, but I pointed out that without it I wouldn’t have been able to carry a backload from Austria, which would have lost him more money than I’d spent. He grunted his agreement.
I had completed my third visit to Jeddah and had crossed Saudi Arabia enough times to consider myself a competent Middle East driver. I had learned to negotiate a variety of different borders; I had figured out how to deal with cultures quite different from anything I’d met in Europe; and I had solved a number of technical breakdowns unaided. In doing so, I had developed enough confidence to overcome my habitual tendency to assume that others knew more about the job than I did, and at last I felt that I was on top of my game.
Extracted from George’s excellent new book, ‘Into the Distance: The Long Lost World of Long-haul Trucking’. Buy it here.