Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thirty – ‘til We Run out of Road.

Everything’s gone black.
I’ve panicked.
But I haven’t passed out, though that might have been a blessed relief. With the two tracks before me I couldn’t immediately see where the track was going, so I couldn’t anticipate the movement of the car. Closing my eyes really hasn’t helped (thanks for nothing Obi Wan!) so I open them again.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Soon I’m gasping like an asthmatic at Lamar’s class. It seems to help. The two tracks spread apart and I can see what’s coming next.
Hard left.
Hard right.
UP and down.
I’m mentally addressing the track. “Please don’t spiral. Don’t go upside down, no fancy stuff. We’ve all had a bit of fun here, now let’s just calm down and head smoothly back to the platform”.
Amazingly the track capitulates, and we slow down and pull back in. I’m gasping, I’m drenched in sweat, and there’s a tight band of pain attempting to form in the left side of my chest. I’m afraid that’s 3 for 3 in “me not enjoying roller coasters”, but at least I gave it a shot.
They’ve fixed the F1 simulator and it’s the same as the ones the real drivers use, so I’m looking forward to my go, but another person has thrown up in it. After my distress on the coaster I can understand people having uncontrollable reactions to movement, but it’s a simulator! You’re in control. If you feel woozy, stop and get out!
So Mark and I have to make do with the F430 simulator. It’s a laugh, but you’d have as much fun at home with your mate shaking your chair. (Doesn’t everyone have a force-feedback steering wheel, a ten foot screen and a bucket seat at home these days?)
We’ve done practically everything. They’ve finally opened the vertical slingshot ride, but the queues are ridiculous, so we leave. Right next door is the Yas Marina circuit so we head over to see what we can see. Not much today, but we sign up for a tour on Saturday. Awesome.
Back to the Holiday Inn, and a nice steak at the Vista restaurant next door, with a view of Dubai’s 7 star hotel. Tomorrow we have to be up early to go on a “desert safari”, otherwise known as “dune bashing”. After my experience of the roller coaster I’m worried about being driven off-road by some lunatic. However I’m reading Jenson Button’s book and he says it wasn’t so bad for him, and he’s a terrible passenger, so it should be OK.
“Oh my friend did that and got whiplash” says the lady at the next table. Great.
Though she does tell us an amusing story about life in Dubai: One night, with her husband in dire straits (medically, not musically) she calls the hotel reception:
“I need a doctor, and make it quick”
“Yes madam, right away”
Lady waits ten nervous minutes, her husband is very ill, but there’s no sign of the doctor, so she calls again:
“Where is he?”
“On his way”
Another ten minutes, then a knock at the door. Thank goodness. Relieved that her husband will now get some much needed medical attention, she opens the door to find member of hotel staff cheerfully brandishing a small plastic item.
“Here you go ….adaptor!”
But at breakfast I’m still worried about my reaction to the movement of the dune bashing vehicle, and wondering how much I can offer the driver to take it easy. Sarah’s looking worried, though she’s concerned about us hitting something. I don’t know why, there’s nothing to hit in the desert is there?
An Indian bloke called Dennis rolls up in his Toyota Land Cruiser, complete with high wheel clearance and roll bars. We drive for an hour to reach the dunes of the desert, then he pulls onto the sand and lets the air out of the tyres.
Here we go. He charges toward a dune and the strangling sensation wells up, then subsides! This ain’t so bad! On the soft sand he can’t get past 40mph, and I quickly understand which lines he’s aiming for. Soon I’m enjoying myself, though I’d still rather be driving, and Dennis isn’t wearing his seatbelt so he obviously isn’t worried.
“How long have you been doing this?” asks Sarah.
“Ten years” replies Dennis, missing an easy chance for a wind-up.
“…and have you had many crashes?”
“No crashes” comes the reassuring answer, especially after he’s told us there can be up to a thousand dune bashing cars out there!
“…but I’ve rolled many times”
Ohhhhhhhkayyy. But my discomfort is physical, not mental, so I’m happy to bounce around while the radio plays “Staying Alive”. We meet a few camels, then head out to the camp in the desert for our next dice with death.
Quad bikes are a good way to get hurt. Just ask Ozzy Osbourne. Obviously your helmet will protect your head, but they can roll over easily, and if you’re lucky, they’ll just break your leg. At least I’m in control, so I climb aboard my steed, ready to receive my safety equipment and instructional briefing.
“These stop. This go. Follow me”
…and he disappears off in a cloud of sand.
Mark follows him, and I try to follow Mark, steering wide onto the soft stuff to avoid getting eyes full of sand. A helmet and a visor might have been handy!
Mark slows and lets me past, shortly before the guide blasts up a steep slope, turns sharp left and accelerates along a sandy ridge. I chase after him, it’s tricky to be fast enough to make the climb, but slow enough to make the turn onto the ridge. I glance back but Mark isn’t up yet. I daren’t look back too long else I’ll fall off, so I hope the guide turns around soon.
Seconds pass. Do I dare risk another glance? Will the guide hear me yell anyway? Then he turns round and his psychotic smile turns to a puzzled expression. There are two possibilities. Mark ran out of power and stalled on the incline, or he’s rolled, pinned and screwed. The guide whips round a tree, drops off the ridge onto a path, and floors it. Thirty yards behind, I’m faced with a choice. If I turn round here I can probably get straight back to the slope and Mark, but if I’m wrong I’ll be lost in the desert. If I follow the guide I’ll have to go flat out to keep up, risking my own big crash.
I mull it over for several milliseconds before the answer springs to mind:
“Boot it!”
…and we zoom back across the dunes to find Mark sandy, but intact and upright, trying to start his machine.
Somehow Mark pulls off proud and embarrassed at the same time: “I rolled it!”
He’d stalled on the climb beginning the turn and fallen backwards. The quad had come for him, but Mark won the rolling race and survived with the odd bruise and scratch. The guide was very impressed. He got Mark’s quad going again with some magic tool, yelled
“Oh my God!”
…a couple of times and careered off into the dunes at full speed.
We made it back to camp, and I chastised Mark for his lack of judgement. “Why did you let me past and then fall off? I’d have loved to have seen that!”
We bashed our way back across the dunes and to the hotel. Enough time for a Sub and a shower before the next driving experience.
Dubai Autodrome is another modern racetrack facility, and my sister had decided that I might enjoy the chance to bomb around it in an Audi R8 V10. Oh, go on then.
I keep trying to avoid the adjective out here, but the place really is deserted. There’s me, Mark, and one other chap here to drive, I go first in case Mark rolls again, and I have the entire track to myself as I learn the lines in an Audi TT. Then it’s into the R8 and off to the moon. I stopped looking down at 240 on the straight and screeched through the corners, following the instructions of a bloke from Wigan. Three times past the pits and it was soon over. Awesome car.
Would I have one? Nah, too planted, too smooth, the Nissan GT-R was more fun. But then maybe I just need a few more laps to find the R8’s limit…
Out on the town for Friday night. We find a pub with a “live band” but it turns out to be two girls performing awful karaoke, with a backing track and some poor sod on guitar who I can only think is sleeping with one and related to the other.
After the excitement, a much needed lie-in on Saturday, before our tour of the Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi’s Grand Prix track.
We’re in luck, there are no cars running, so we get to ride the bus round the track, and stand on the grid.  We head for race control and then the podium, where the guide asks if anyone knows what the drivers spray to celebrate. Jenson finished third here in 2009 so I know this one:
“Rose Water” I shout, proudly. I’m so clever.
“Wrong. Rose water is like a strong perfume. If we used rose water the ladies would have no fun at the party afterwards because all the men would be chasing the drivers. We use sparkling grape juice” …and he shows us the bottles to prove it. Thanks Jenson!
We also get to sit in the North Stand which has a clear view of a large amount of track. They don’t want to make a profit at this track, so there are only 44,000 seats, which means they’re all in good spots.
Sarah and Mark have a plane to catch, back to Qatar and the unpredictable construction industry. I fly home tomorrow, with no idea what will happen next. But sitting in the stand of this amazing venue, we’re sharing a thought for the future.
We’ve got to come back for a Grand Prix!

Twenty Nine – Back on Track

It’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re not well, even in the best places in the world. On the upside I have a nice room with a view down the river to the Marina Bay. In the distance I can see a giant ferris wheel, and what looks like a ship balanced upon a sky-scraper – have I started hallucinating?
On Saturday I feel a bit better but my stomach’s still sensitive so I don’t fancy straying too far from the hotel. The sky is overcast and it’s the usual 30 degrees and massive humidity as I walk down the river, so like most people over here I head for a shopping mall. I wander round, pass on the karaoke, stock up on books and check out the “longest wall of HDTVs in Asia!” I’m in need of a sit-down when I spy a couple of massage chairs like the ones you see in British service stations. Only the Singaporeans are at a whole new level.
The chair automatically reclines. Cushioned clamps form around my lower legs and pin me in the chair. The sides squeeze me until I worry about the camera in my pocket. An unexpected pressure massages my, er… the base of my spine and, well, it’s very effective. As my five minutes are ending a Japanese lady sits on the other chair, peruses the instructions, fingers the money slot speculatively, then decides to have a go. Judging by her squeals I think she enjoyed it!
I’m finally staying put long enough to follow a Grand Prix weekend. Even better, Singapore has a Hooters, so I’m looking forward to plonking myself at the bar with a plate of boneless wings, watching the qualifying and hopefully meeting some interesting people.
“Welcome to Hooters!”
…chorus the girls at the door.
“I’ll have a seat at the bar please”
“Table for one?”, comes the confused, and confusing reply.
“No, a seat at the… er….where’s the bar?”
There’s no fricking bar!!!!!
Looking around in shock, I can see there’s a small one, outside in the sweaty uncomfortable world, with no seats to watch TV, but there’s literally nothing in here. I’m still hungry, so I’ll sit alone and have some..
“Where’s the boneless wings?!”
“We have chicken strips”
…which turn out to be unpleasantly gritty. Arggh. I don’t even get the trademark Hooters banter with a friendly waitress. I later read that Singaporeans don’t do small talk because it’s considered rude to ask a stranger direct questions. I don’t know if that’s true or if I just got a grumpy waitress, but I can’t get out of there fast enough! Feeling tired again I return to the hotel, but I pass an Irish pub which looks promising for tomorrow.
Sunday is race day so I head for the Irish pub. It’s 7.45pm but still hot and sweaty, so I luxuriate in the air conditioning inside as I look for a good seat where I can see the big screen showing football. Hang on, football?
“We’re showing the F1 outside, sir”
Well that’s just great.
I look around for an alternative venue, but the other sports bar is showing the footy as well. Returning to the Irish pub I can’t find an empty table outside but there’s a bloke sitting alone who turns out to be John from Holland. Well, I think he said John, though that doesn’t sound very Dutch. “John” is happy for me to join him. Being Dutch I wonder who he’s supporting in the race.
“Lewis, and then Jenson”
Good answer.
John says something about working as a taster, or maybe a toaster, which is intriguing, but we’re soon distracted by the race. We cheer on the Brits, argue about tactics and swap jokes over beer. It seems a long while since I’ve had some enjoyable company and we have a good laugh, especially when John tries to buy me a beer and the waiter keeps giving him my entire bill, cottage pie and all!
Monday was uneventful, partly because I’d begun reading “127 hours between a rock and a hard place”, adventurer Aron Ralston’s account of being trapped beneath a boulder. I couldn’t put it down and missed out on sleep, desperate to know how long he’d be trapped for, and whether he’d live to tell the tale.
It wasn’t the best preparation for Tuesday’s early start to catch a flight to Dubai. I was also disappointed that Terminal 1 in the legendary Changi airport doesn’t have a good brekkie place! But I enjoyed “Limitless” on the plane, and sat next to an Aussie from Brisbane who was flying out to surprise his daughter. He had annoyingly wide shoulders but was a laugh to talk to, which helped pass the time in the Dubai airport queues.
I met up with my sister at the Holiday Inn Express in the district curiously named Internet City. Sarah moved out here a few years ago when the UK construction industry dried up. She’s since moved to Qatar, but she’s come back because she’s loving and caring for her little brother (..and by the sounds of it there’s sod all to do in Qatar). She’s brought along her house-mate Mark and they’ve got some fun stuff planned. Or at least that’s what they claim, as they’re not telling me what it is, but I’m hoping it includes the Abu Dhabi GP circuit, Ferrari world, and an Audi R8 has been mentioned!
I’m excited but nervous about being in a muslim country. I don’t like the sound of restrictions on where you can get a beer, but I’m not so bothered about the lack of pork as I don’t really eat pork.
We start by heading to an ex-pat bar, and meet their friend Chris and his girlfriend. Chris is a real character, a cockney Geezer, with the appropriate tattoos and outlandish stories. He’s planning a party where the guests have to buy outfits from the Carrefour supermarket for less than 100 dirhams. Given that that’s about 17 quid, including shoes, it sounds like fun, but won’t fit in our schedule. After hearing some more stories, it sounds like it would wipe out more than an evening!
Wednesday morning and it’s busy at breakfast. A poorly designed buffet and the holiday of Eid make for a long queue, and I can’t find the sausages or the bacon. We have fun watching people from a wide variety of cultures, united by their efforts to burn down the hotel by stuffing the toast machine.
Mark drives us around Dubai and it’s unlike any place I’ve seen. Singapore, Hong Kong and Manhattan all have many sky scrapers, but here there seems to be nothing else. Few smaller buildings occupy the gaps. And because everything has gone up in the last twenty years, there’s no variety of age in the architecture, just gleaming towers of glass. Its 42 degrees in the shade, and baking in the sun, so there are very few people outside, giving the feel of a ghost town.
We visit the beach, but it’s too hot to hang around, so there’s nobody there either. We head to the mall, and find all the people. The top activity for the Eid holiday is not shopping, but window shopping. The mall corridors are packed, but the shops themselves reasonably quiet, since most of the immigrant workers don’t have the money to splash on a ten grand watch, even if George Clooney recommends it. Other popular activities in the mall include ice skating, skiing, snowball fights and watching sharks swim around a three floor aquarium.
But we’re heading for the top. The top of the world in fact. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest manmade structure in the world with over 160 floors so we jump into the lift and head for the “at the top” viewing platform on the 124th floor. You don’t need a fear of heights to feel wobbly up here. It’s in a different league to other viewing platforms, with a view I associate with helicopters, not balconies.
After the sun sets, we return to earth for a very nice Chinese, though there’s no beer. For that we’ll need to fight our way through the traffic back to the hotel. There’s no quarter asked or given out here. Rules are for fools. If you see an indicator it’s probably a trick. Signal your intentions and you’ll watch the traffic close up to block you. It’s like driving in India, (where most workers come from) but with more porsches.
No Porsches on Thursday though, we’re off to Ferrari world. The world’s largest indoor theme park, resembling a red Millenium Dome and covering a space the size of seventeen football pitches. Home to the fastest rollercoaster in the world, which isn’t running. In fact nothing’s running when we get there, as the park doesn’t open til 12, so by sheer luck we’re the first through the gates twenty minutes later. Mark and I make a bee-line for the Ferrari simulator ride, and Sarah game-fully climbs aboard another hydraulic rig so we can race each other and five people unaware they’re about to get embarrassingly beaten.
The gangway falls away. Each of our rigs rises into the air, and I find myself in an F430 on the grid at the Abu Dhabi GP circuit. The red lights come on, the revs rise, the computer crashes and we return to earth with a jolt.
An engineer is summoned, he applies the level of deep knowledge of technical systems we’re famous for and turns the system off and on again.
“Sorry folks, can you come back later”
So we ask when we can go on the expensive, ultra-real F1 simulator
“Ah. That’s broke too. Someone threw up in it last night”
Great. But from then on things improve. We’ve come at the quiet time so there’s hardly any queueing. We move from attraction to attraction, and by good luck and good judgement, never have to wait. There’s car displays, movies, an interactive quiz, motion simulators that jiggle you around and even a live show with (as my old mate Wuz would put it) “angle grinders and the lot!”
…and a roller coaster.
Now I’ve ridden two roller coasters in my life, and I hated every second of them. I don’t get scared, or sick, but the physical sensation makes me massively uncomfortable. Imagine holding your breath as long as you can, then, just as you gasp for air, someone covers your mouth and nose. So I’m very glad the super-fast coaster isn’t running, but they have another one. …or two to be exact, as they have two intertwined tracks where 12 seater “F430s” race each other.
Oh crap.
Maybe it’ll be OK. I’ve had some luck fighting the sensation on racetracks, being thrown around at ludicrous speed by professionals. If I can relax, go limp, let it flow, maybe I’ll be OK. Who knows, maybe I can have as much fun as I would if I were controlling the thing.
We trundle forward from the platform. As we exit the huge dome, we’re hit by the outside temperatures, the air is thick with humidity, the sun is scorching, but I don’t even notice. All I’m aware of is the plummeting drop before us, and the tortuous, twisting, tangle of track ahead.
We pick up speed…