As a kid, I saw the David Lean production of Lawrence of Arabia in the local cinema. I was fascinated. Of all the movie’s magnificent scenes, one continues to stand out. The one where T.E. Lawrence brings a young Arab kid into the officer’s bar in Cairo. They are both in Arab dress, filthy after having been in the desert for days, weeks. Lawrence approaches the bar and orders two lemonades. The inhabitants of the bar, the smartly dressed cream of the British ruling class military in the region, are of course appalled and there are loud calls for Lawrence to get out and take his mate with him. Lawrence ignores this ruckus, orders his two lemonades, passes one to his mate, turns to the inhabitants and remarks, “(The lad’s name) has just taken Aqaba.” This of course stuns these nattily dressed masters of the military.
Lawrence and a group of forty-five Arabs, and “Irregulars” would be an over description of their military caste, had executed an audacious landside attack on Aqaba, a Turkish stronghold. This victory was taken by their traveling overland and attacking from the town’s undefended rear.
This scene still sticks and has been responsible for an infrequently gratified interest in the early explorers of the region. The list is long. They commonly pop up when one is Wikipedia-ing the current state of affairs in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell, Wilfred Thesiger, Lawrence of course, Sir Richard Francis Burton, St. John Philby (father to Kim, of secret agent infamy) and others, “Arabists” (or sometimes “Orientalists”) all.
In my hotel in Bermuda before the start of Leg 2 of the Bermuda 1-2, the public area had a small “leave one, take one” library. One volume was Michael Ondaatje’s book, The English Patient. I saw the movie of the same name when it was first released, and Jill and I just watched it again earlier this week. I was again fascinated by the images of the desert. The scenes of flying across the sand dunes showing the wind-blown waves, ripples really, like those left on the flat beach when the tide recedes, up and down the face of the dunes, are a reminder of the forces of wind are potent and not only at sea. There is a scene where the future Patient and the love interest are verbally jousting, about stars, and the Patient remarks, “The stars will soon disappear” and points to the impending squall, er, sandstorm. This squall hurls sand, not rain, but the image is well known to sailors.
The relationship between the world’s great and empty places, the deserts, the mountains, and the sea, is close. All three are barren, lonely places and those who voyage into them must be, well, brave and prepared. The sea is the largest of them and the most remote and that place where, if it hits the fan, the travelers must be prepared to draw on all of their resources, physical and mental, to survive.
In my rummagings for this column, I came across the website of ARAMCO World, a site about all things Islamic. This site reports that the Arabian Peninsula is one million square miles. I searched the areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans and their areas are, respectively, forty-one million, sixty-three million, and eight million square miles. This latter number is more than two times the land area of the U.S.
The Empty Quarter, for ages the one place travelers could not navigate, is roughly 650 by 310 miles. Six-hundred and fifty miles is, or has been in the recent history of high-speed sailing in the ocean, about 16-18 hours for a 40-meter trimaran and about 38 hours for an IMOCA 60 averaging eighteen knots. OR about four days in a normal boat. Still.
The visuals of the desert scenes, shot in Tunisia for The English Patient movie, are glorious depictions of vast emptiness, in a thousand shades of red, orange, yellow and crimson. Set in the period just prior to World War Two, an underlying theme is the British mapping of the desert extending from Cairo out to the west and into Libya. For years, possibly from watching too many Bugs Bunny cartoons showing desert to be flat, my sense of that part of the world was well, flat, is put to rest in these scenes. Spectacular footage of mountains, or at least very scraggy hills peaking and descending, like a standing wave, into steep valleys and gorges, stucco’d with knife-sharp rocks layered up their near vertical sides. Not a tree, nor anything obviously living within sight. Dry. Hot. Inhospitable in the extreme. Not a rain squall to provide water, not a fish to catch for food.
One contemplates the travails of the early explorers in such remote regions. As sailors we likely think we have a fairly good idea what the sailors on The Great Races in the ocean think about, but what did those early travelers in the wastes of desert think about? Was it the same essential life questions?
The “Why are we here?” “How beautiful is the sky?” “How stunning is the landscape?” “What is God, or is there God?” “The weather is hard. Why did I come?” or more possibly “When can I return?” type of fundamental ponderings.
Is there any substantive difference between sailing hard under only your J5 in the grey, damp and cold depths of the eight million square miles of the Southern Ocean in the midst of a Force 10 maelstrom, being bounced around by the infamous pyramidal waves Moitessier refers to, accelerating and breaking as your foil’s inclinations take them and being hunkered down under one’s cloak, in the lee of your camel waiting for the Scirocco to abate? Hot or cold, wet or dry, sand or water? Is there in the end a difference?
Reading Moitessier’s accounts of life in the wastes of the Southern Ocean, one comes to think he would have been a fine ship (desert?) mate for any of these Arabists.
Granted, the times were different, and how. These differences put the exploits of the Arabists into an extremely focused light with respect to their, well, guts and determination. Reading passages from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his time with the Arabs fighting the Turks, is full of episodes that one, today, in our comparative cocoon of safety, wonders, “How on earth did he manage that?”
Sleeping on a camel. Falling off a camel while sleeping on a camel. Accounts of riding for hours under scorching sun, with apparently no “hydration.” Say it ain’t so. Sleeping for a few hours in the high heat of the day, under the lee of his camel, on a pile of sunbaked hot rocks on a road, equally rocky and so making travel on said camel an action reminding one of the mechanical bulls once so popular in bars. Sheesh, learning to ride a camel at all. An acquired art no doubt.
How different, if at all, might the camel riding motion be compared to managing to keep one’s 40-meter tri upright while sailing at 35-40 knots, asleep? Well, the tri skipper has a beanbag, and Lawrence had others in his party, most of the time. And at least the sailboat will not try and bite you, or as related by Lawrence in one episode, pee on you, though there may be other hazards connected to sailing at 40 knots asleep alone…Lawrence’s descriptions of the variations of surface that he travelled on suggest the range of conditions sailors find at sea.
Flip open Seven Pillars and search back and forth through a few pages, as I have just done, and there will be a description of the terrain over which they rode. The spectrum is wide.
Sometimes fast travel roads, flat sand with small tightly packed gravel, close to an autobahn in camel comfort travel terms, it seems. All the way down the scale to tortuous backcountry roads, of the type seen in a TV commercial for a pickup truck. Boulders, ruts, stones, rocks and pebbles, twists and turns, up and down in one camel stride, in no particular order or sequence. Tiring and frustrating for the camels, leading to slow speed and crankiness. Rocks large and small, stones with glistening quartz, reflecting the naked sun, in turn scorching one’s eyes, face and lips and cubing one’s thirst.
Reminiscent I imagine of steering your 70-foot, fire-breathing race boat offshore, in big breeze and waves, at speed. Your trick at the wheel a constant firehose blasting down the deck and across the huddled grinders just forward of you. They have the comfort of being able to duck under the worst. Meanwhile, you have the fine spray of birdshot zinging off the cheeks, salt stinging the eyes, shoulders aching from the fast and constant wheel turning needed to keep the boat in the right part of the wave as you blast over the top of one into the valley separating you from the next wave crest.
And I have not even approached mountains in this consideration of the travails of those who seek to wander in those areas where the faint of heart would not voyage for a king’s ransom. An absence, I think, for which those who do are grateful. ■