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Badawï Trail, Syd Stelvio | Day 5 Tabuk to Al Ula – 495 KM

Badawï Trail, Syd Stelvio | Day 5 Tabuk to Al Ula – 495 KM

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that this rally diary has skipped a day. Day 4 was penned into the diary as a transit day, a simple hour’s drive to the border from our desert camp in Wadi Rum and then, once through the unavoidable border bureaucracy, another hour the other side to our hotel in Tabuk. Well, the best-laid plans and all that…

Even the most pessimistic of us would not have predicted just how long some of us would sit and wait on the Saudi side of the crossing. The exit from Jordan was the usual to and fro from one office to the next, to get various stamps, pay various charges and get the necessary paperwork to leave. I’m sure the way they do it makes sense to them, but their version of the border dance was full of plenty of legwork and extra steps.

In contrast, the entrance to Saudi Arabia actually began very easily; efficient, simple, everything you wanted from a border really. When we pulled up to the customs queue for the cars, they even distributed lunch bags for us, and whilst this seemed a lovely gesture, it might have been the first indication that we were going to be here for a while.

A while was in fact 12 hours, for those in right-hand drive cars anyway, which are illegal in Saudi. This was not unforeseen, and permission had of course been granted for us well in advance. The long version of this is complicated, the short version is that there had been a clerical error and even when presented with the correct paperwork the border team still wanted a higher power to confirm everything, as this was very much above their pay grade and I for one don’t blame them.

Thankfully within the team and within the field of competitors there are people that have the contacts to get these things sorted, but these solutions can never be rushed and as such it would be 2am before we would exit the border facility. The experienced amongst us know that this is all part of the fun, and in a way, it is strangely relaxing being stuck somewhere. After all, in our busy lives we have no time to stand and stare, but in this situation, this is forced upon us. A peculiar serenity descended upon all of us, as we chatted and watched the world go by, waiting for the moment that the gates would be lifted. We shared stories, we shared food and the border team also looked after us with water and coffee and good humour.

Eventually our captivity came to an end, and we were released into the desert night and onward to our adventure in Saudi Arabia, that would begin slightly later than planned after just a few hours’ sleep.

For those that were struggling from the fatigue of the previous day there was the option to head straight to the hotel at their leisure, and nominal times would be used to adjust the competition accordingly. It’s senseless to press on if it’s dangerous, but some will still wish to compete, so this is the fairest way to go forward. Most did opt for the original route and boy were we in for a treat.

The scenery in Saudi Arabia is nothing short of spectacular, the roads too are tremendous. The interference from law enforcement appeared to be well and truly behind us and everyone will have enjoyed the run to the first regularity of the day, a 200 km drive through Mohammed Bin Salman park, on a roller coaster of a road that danced its way through the incredible rock formations and often opened up into spectacular panoramas across the desert, with canyons and mountain’s stretching into infinity, telling the story of millions of years of erosion. It was mind blowing.

The navigation on the competitive sections was also proving mind blowing for some, with many wrong slots on the first regularity, too numerous to mention. At one point the only thing that could be heard above the din of gears crunching and engines being thrown into reverse was the voices of navigators screaming at drivers, the loudest of which was certainly Tisa Pusnik, who I think could be heard from Tabuk to Dubai as she impressed upon Father Ivan the need to get their Alfa Romeo turned around.

If the regularity had confounded people the following Desert sporting section was set to flabbergast even the most experienced, as the route criss-crossed a hundred different track options, leaving cars cutting routes in all directions. The photographers were perplexed, it was impossible to know where to stand to capture the cars as they picked their own paths through the rocks and sand. Even previous King of the Desert Lars Rolner, who with navigator Annette Rolner had cleaned all of the first desert sections on the competition, was making a mess of things, as were several other big names and a glance down the results sheet showed that a good proportion of the field had missed controls completely.

It was now unbelievably getting into the afternoon; the day was going by extremely quickly and progress was swift. The roads were quiet and when we did pass locals they waved and cheered, taking photos and gawping at the spectacle as the cars passed through. A tremendously steep climb awaited us all on the second regularity of the day, peaking at 500 metres on a short but abrupt ascent onto a windy plateau.

This was followed by a run into a landscape that resembled Mars, with strangely eroded sandstone rock formations reaching into the sky. These rock pedestals were vast in height and size, created by millions of years of wind erosion creating their unique forms. One of the most famous of these is the Mushroom Rock, where the days last passage control was located, with time built in for some, at times, exuberant photographic fun around the rock. The final run of the day into Al Ula would reveal similar landscapes, which were looking particularly ethereal as the sun began to drop and the orange and yellow hues of the sandstone were accentuated by the light of the waning day.

Once the scores of the day had been calculated the Argentinian pairing of Jorge Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta had reclaimed top spot, with car number 12, the Ford V8 crewed by Michael McInerney (IE) + Jose Arana Villavicencio (CA) moving into second ahead of Tommy Dreelan and George Barrack in third. In the competition for the post war cars Filip Engelen and Ann Gillis had now captured top spot with a brilliant day, with Peter and Louise Morton a couple of minutes behind, followed by Lars and Anette Rolner in third after amassing 4 minutes of penalty on the day.

It has finally felt like we have begun, and no doubt everyone will be raring to get going again after the competition only rest day on day six. If this is what Saudi Arabia has got to offer, it is going to be a fantastic week or so exploring the Kingdom.


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