Abdullah had driven us there in a large 4WD all the way from a reserve near Taif, a journey that had taken us most of the day. In the dark, we turned off the tarmac road on to stony tracks into quite mountainous, rocky desert and then drove maybe 30 km to the Saudi out-station – a group of portacabins and tents – on the western edge of the Rub’al-Khali.
Some days later we were leaving along the same track, though this time in daylight, to get to the southernmost Saudi town, Najran, close to the Yemen border. Abdullah could probably best be described as not the best at concentrating on his driving, spending more time loading his CDs of Arabic music and talking excitedly. We bumped along the track which was cut into a steep, arid hillside giving us stupendous views out over folded orange-pink sand dunes and small gravel plains, the kind of habitat suited to Arabian Oryx.
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Suddenly, he pulled the vehicle over to the trackside overlooking the steep slope down, ostensibly to give us a better view. Wildlife Travel Quotes We crunched to a halt with the front of the car very close to the edge. After a couple of minutes admiring the scene falling away steeply – very steeply – below us, Abdullah tried to reverse back on to the track. No such luck. After several attempts he had to give up. 4WDs aren’t all they are cracked up to be; at least this one wasn’t.
‘No problem, said Abdullah with glee written all over his face. ‘We go down instead’. Before we could remonstrate, we were over the edge of the track and at a frighteningly steep angle starting to accelerate and careering down the sandy slope. The slope was so steep, we were hanging forward in our seat belts and holding on to anything in the car we could grab. Dotted here and there downslope in front of us were rock outcrops, the kind of obstacles that would have torn into the vehicle and catapulted us into probable oblivion had we hit one. Somehow, Abdullah managed to steer us between them, staying on the sand and half sliding, half driving down the snowless equivalent of the Cresta Run.
Gradually the slope eased, we slowed, and Abdullah somehow got the vehicle under full control and drove us back to the original track much lower down where it had meandered its way off the hillside. Relief is an understatement. Abdullah was overjoyed, shouting about his driving abilities and telling us that there had been ‘no problem’ at all. We were glad to have survived unscathed.
Sometimes, of course, you have no one else to blame but yourself for getting into an impossibly difficult situation. Getting hopelessly lost in the Mid Wales hill country close to where I was brought up is one such situation, though I do have to plead youth and a great deal of hill mist in my defence. Plus a wide open, undulating, boggy landscape with few discernible features . fewer still when mist comes down and envelopes you.
On one occasion, aged about 14 and walking these hills on my own, I was heading north from the highest point, Drygarn Fawr (at 644 m not exactly a high peak) aiming to get to a tucked-away gem of a small mountain lake, Llyn Carw. (Now that’s an odd Welsh name for these parts; carw means ‘deer’ so I have no idea how long it has been since there were any such animals in these inhospitable hills. Certainly not within living memory.) This shallow lake, set in a depression in the blanket of boggy moor grass and sedges that clothes most of the country here, is the source of the Afon Elan, a delightful mountain stream that runs down over mossy boulders and peat-cushioned soils to the Elan Valley reservoirs, a huge Victorian construction built to supply Welsh water to Birmingham. It’s a hard 5 km walk from Drygarn to Llyn Carw; the route takes you down into wet, peat-soaked depressions and up again – seemingly endlessly – on to the drab, sedgy surface of the peat that clothes almost every square metre of land here and is the vast sponge that holds more water than all the reservoirs of Britain, releasing it slowly into the streams that gradually drain from it.
But the direct route between these two features crosses a much more dangerous bog in which the few farmers who graze sheep here tell of horses sinking over their heads, even horses and carts – complete with their shepherd – disappearing into its thick, black, peat-stained waters never to be seen again. It is called Cors yr Hwch. It means ‘The Pig’s Bog’ (actually the female pig, a sow!). But a pig of a bog all the same. Even though most of these bog horror stories, maybe all of them, are fiction, common sense rather than courage dictates that it’s sensible to divert from the straight route to skirt its edges . just in case. But mist plays tricks.
And it was most certainly such a day for misty tricks to be played. Before I realised that the vegetation was getting increasingly sparse and the peat-blackened water more abundant, I found myself in mild panic stepping, sometimes almost jumping, from one clump of Moor Grass to the next, trying to avoid stepping into the blackened mire water of unknown depth. As I performed these steps – an amalgam of dainty ballet in which I am not best practiced and balanced jumps the vibration caused the whole bog around me to heave up and down; I was crossing what would be more correctly defined as a lake (at least horse and cart deep I assumed) though with a layer, hopefully thick, of vegetation comprised mainly of Sphagnum moss covering its surface like a tablecloth covers a table. What is best left to the imagination is the depth of water and peat slurry underneath this carpet … and how strong the carpet actually is. I was glad to reach the carpet’s edge. To bog experts these places are known as ‘quaking bogs’ or by the German term schwingmoor, translated as ‘swinging moorland’ although such places quake more than swing in my experience.
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