Every night we convene for “prayers”.
I have no idea why our evening meeting is called prayers.
It just is.
It’s one of those words that has become a concept in its own right.
There is no praying involved, the format typically involves a medical debrief from Sean, an operational debrief from Gus and then a laying out of any issues or dramas the team have encountered through the day.
It concludes, traditionally, with beer fines. Anyone who has done something exceptionally stupid through the day gets a beer fine. OFficially it is then their job to provide a slab of beer for the team to drink that evening. On my first year I was told of this concept and bought a slab because I was told to. This year we simply have a beer stockpile and a cooler. Every afternoon, Anne our administrator fills the cooler with beers and ice and every night we, as a group, drink it empty.
It matters not who bought the beer, because it’s all going to end up communal anyway.
Anyway, prayers. Yes.
Day one prayers are uneventful, except for an official introduction and welcome to the Ulster scientists who have travelled down to the desert independently, arriving that afternoon. They will be flying with us the next day and, as I said previously, the idea of carrying non-team passengers makes me nervous.
I’m reassured when Gus lays out the rules. “The SAR guy is the final word on all aspects of your presence here. If they tell you to sit in a particular seat, you will sit there. If they tell you to unbuckle your seatbelt and move while the aircraft is in flight, you will do so. If the space you are occupying is needed for a patient, you will be left at scene. We will endeavour to drop you with other people, such as at a checkpoint. This may not be possible. If you are dropped in the desert we will provide you with as much water and food as we can spare. You will not move from that spot, regardless of what happens. If you move from the location at which you have been left, your chances of survival are extremely grave. Let me repeat that. If you wander away from your location in the desert, you will die.”
The scientists, sat together at one side of the circle, glance at each other before nodding solemnly.
We discuss other aspects, such as the fact that we’ve arranged refuelling bowsers to stand by at the primary hospital we fly to. I’m luxuriating in the knowledge that we won’t have to worry about long flights to an airbase to refuel, when someone mentions that we’ll have to potentially deal with multiple helicopters coming into the same HLS while we’re refuelling. It’s not insurmountable, but another thing to be thinking about.
The next morning our schedule is determined by the dawn, as soon as it’s bright enough to see, it’s bright enough to fly. The race can’t run until there’s an aircraft in the air, so we have to be off the HLS sharpish. I fly with Alix and Magnus. The former being SAR from last year, the latter a Desert Virgin from Sweden, brought to us by veteran Rolf. Magnus is the business, I have infinite time for him having worked with him at the Grand Prix last year, he’s incredibly quiet and enormously witty and sharp. A fantastic guy.
Also flying with us is Paul, one of the Ulster scientists. We have a good chat about his research – it turns out that my original understanding of what they’re doing is pretty inaccurate. What they’re actually trying to find out is if the marshalls (who tend to camp out on the race route for the week) are adequately hydrated even before they hit the desert, and then to investigate any health problems that this may reflect.
Paul’s job today is to get people to piss in little plastic tubes.
He’s never flown before, so again we run through the basics.
We lift off and buzz out over the sand, he grins broadly as we go and I nab his camera to get a shot of his first time up.
When we land at a checkpoint he sits down next to me.
“Last night? When Gus was talking about not wandering off?”
“I thought he was laying it on a bit thick, being sort of over-dramatic about the whole thing. But now I’ve seen the scale of the place.”
“You get why we’re so paranoid about stuff?”
“You’d never be found out here, would you?”
“Probably not, nope.”
He rearranges his pee bottles in his bag and nods to himself.