Into the Arabah Desert Storm

“Imshi! Imshi!” Our driver shouts, pounding impatiently on the car’s horn. His wrath "Go! Go! Hurry." directed at the car creeping slowly along the road ahead of us, its hazard lights flashing. He swings the wheel wildly, making to pass the car just as an oncoming truck bursts through the thick brown veil of the sand storm engulfing us. The truck barely misses our vehicle as we pull back to safety behind the crawling car. The intermittent points of flashing lights marking the car’s place metres in front of us suddenly disappear, just as the car and its occupants had seconds earlier vanished from sight in the driving wall of sand. We can see nothing ahead. Without warning our driver pulls out again, accelerating into the murky brown.

Earlier that day my Man and I had been enjoying a freshly barbequed fish lunch, munching and chatting happily on a beach by the Red Sea. We had no premonition of any calamity lurking only a few hours away on our journey to a luxury resort at the Dead Sea. Now we are a dangerous hazard flying unseen along Jordan's Arabah desert highway.

As arranged, after lunch our driver picked us up and we cruised along the highway, travelling beneath a blue sky stretching cloudless in all directions, watching the barren land roll by. Distant rugged mountains an imposing backdrop to the dry and desolate, windswept landscape scattered with occasional clusters of small, hardy green bushes.

From this, from nowhere it seems, the first tendrils of sand sweep across the road ahead and sensuously slither over the car. Soon, however, the sound of the sand changes from a soft hissing to an ominous rasping. The sand ripples in continuous waves over the bitumen, coarse grains colliding against the windscreen, every outside surface, getting increasingly fierce, drowning the purr of the car engine and taking on the rough intensity and sound of a hail storm.

The air is thick, laden with swirling sand particles shrouding the sun’s rays. We pass vehicles pulled over to the side of the road, lights on, hazards flashing.

As our driver careers wildly along, anxious to out-run the storm’s striding march my Man, usually full of witty commentary is reduced to bare basics. “This doesn’t look good...Oh sh**...Not good." Unable to convince our errant chauffeur to pull over we stop talking. All goes dreadly quiet as he concentrates on keeping us all alive (we hope).

Through the almost impenetrably thick cappuccino-coloured sand a herd of camels materialise suddenly on the side of the road, barely metres away, and then are behind us as quickly as they appeared. Moments later a sign post bearing a single exclamation mark inside a triangle with Arabic writing above and below becomes visible in the now slowly clearing air. We can only imagine the meaning to be something along the lines of "Do not, under any circumstances, travel with a crazy man in a blinding sandstorm!"

Then suddenly we are thrust into clear air, clear blue skies again. We all three burst into relieved laughter as we breech the storm wall. Looking back we see the storm, a huge brown blemish on the horizon, squatting like a biblical plague over the land, marring the otherwise bright sunny aspect.

Our driver pulls up by a police car parked on the side of the road and engages in an excited tirade with the two officers. Again our lack of Arabic means we have to guess at the meaning – possibly "What are you waiting for? Close the road. No-one can drive in that."

By the will of Allah we arrive some time later, unscathed, to our Dead Sea hotel 391 meters below sea level. We check in and then descend lower into the earth, (as close as we want to get to hell on this trip), to laze on our backs in the buoyant waters and contemplate our narrow escape.

C MacKenzie

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