Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No lane, no gain

Bus lanes, those single lanes of highway pavement for the sole use of buses, perhaps taxis, and in some cases bicycles and motorbikes, are an inexpensive urban traffic management measure that can relieve congestion. If the buses aren’t being held up by other traffic, they can stick to their timetables and consequently offer an attractive alternative to the private car. Bus lane critics, including such luminaries as A. Tom Topper in his bookVery Advanced Driving’ (ISBN 0-7160-2127-7) are very keen to note with considerable envy the strip of asphalt that spends 80% of its time empty when it could be full of Land Cruisers. Actually, the envy is more closely related to “If only I, and I alone, were allowed to use the bus lane I wouldn’t have to queue.” What these detractors fail to realise is that a single bus can successfully remove up to around 70 cars from the road.

Of course, a bus lane can only succeed if it is always empty of delivery vans, cars parked just for a minute outside the shwarma shop, and the car driver who apparently believes that he’s driving a bus.

I applaud the decision and eagerly await a dedicated bus lane between Sharjah and Dubai. But what I await most is how other traffic is going to be kept out of it. Police presence perhaps? That’ll work for a week or so, until Plod gets fed up with standing around with a big bag of Black Points to dispense. A camera on a stick doesn’t seem to eliminate driving on the hard shoulder, so why should a bus lane be any different?

The only solution I envisage working is a dedicated lane, kerbed to keep other vehicles out, and with some form of smart barrier. There would have to be lots of “Buses only. No other vehicles allowed, on pain of getting your car kebabbed” signs. The bus has a transponder that drops the barrier, which shoots up the moment the bus clears it and impales any following vehicle. This video clip shows the deserving victims of such a barrier in England.

To be honest, I look forward to the Schadenfreude of seeing an impaled Mercedes, BMW or even Sunny.

Incidentally, I wonder how long it would take for the appropriate transponder to become available to any self-styled V.V.I.P. who fancied one?


Saturday, November 22, 2008


Regular readers of this blog will both notice that there have been some subtle changes. Thanks to Keefieboy for pointing me at the new Blogger template.

The system for adding Gadgets looked easy - right up to the point when I tried to reinstall the ClustrMaps map. I tried and tried to write the widget, but the HTML code wouldn't play. This despite my having cut and pasted the entire template of the old blog on to a text file first. Getting the disclaimer footer displayed at the bottom of the page was easy; why was the ClustrMap being so obstinate?

Eventually I discovered the correct Add A Gadget: One of them is for inserting Java/HTML. After pasting the HTML into there, the rest was easy.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Signs of the times

The commute from The Crumbling Villa into Sharjah used to be relatively painless, and even now certainly beats the Sharjah Schlepp past Al Mulla Plaza every morning. There are, however, a couple of hot spots caused by queues of cars on Sharjah Ring Road. The thing is, in order to turn right, loads of drivers seem to think that it’s perfectly OK to queue in the left-hand lane of the motorway and push in at the end of the diverge taper. From time to time, Plod stations himself at the diverge splitter, but this causes the four-lane traffic jam to merge into a single lane about 300m further upstream, just far enough away that Plod can’t read the number plates.

Thus Muggins, who does not wish to turn off, nevertheless gets stuck behind those who do.

And then at the north end of the ring road the situation is reversed. The population of Sharjah converges on Safeer Mall and makes a U-turn to head south and thence into Dubai. Both lanes are packed solid, plus two lanes of traffic on the service road, to say nothing (or at least, nothing polite) of the occasional imbecile trying to drive the wrong way up the service road.

Up until recently, I used a rat-run around the back of Safeer Mall, along with the small number of Sharjah-bound commuters. Then one day, I noticed new burqa-clad traffic signs on part of the rat-run. Inferring from the shapes under the bin liners that a one-way street was about to appear, I found an alternative route to work.

Sure enough, a few days later the signs were unveiled, and one of Sharjah’s constabulary was waiting at the junction with Al Ittihad Road to dish out tickets and Black Points to those who hadn’t noticed or had chosen to ignore the new road signs.

And, in keeping with local custom and practice, after a week or so the novelty wore off. There is now no police presence, and this pointless and malicious one-way street is being ignored. Once the signs disappear I’ll be back on that route.

Perhaps drivers simply don’t understand the traffic signs. This is very odd; as an educational feature the Sharjah Police website offers a multiple-choice traffic sign test that includes the following gems which are entirely appropriate for the Middle East.

In other news, I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind the Sharjah Police recent decision to regulate the evening commuters’ merge on to the Emirates Road. I presume that somewhere there was a decision. My guess is it that came out of the same Good Ideas Lab that had National Paints Roundabout shackled with road cones apparently solely to see what would happen.

For several days last week the southbound carriageway of Sharjah Ring Road was jammed solid. Half an hour to travel 500m, except for those who used the breakdown lane with impunity or shoved in at the last moment. And at the front of the queue? A police car parked on the Emirates Road merge taper and a uniformed officer standing on the roadside waving vaguely at the traffic.

I am pleased to note that the novelty of this has also worn off. For the past couple of evenings there has been no police presence on Sharjah Ring Road, and no traffic jams either.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Up, up and away

Beloved Wife and I finally managed to use the wedding present given to us by our friend Syl. I had known since way back that Madame was interested in going hot-air ballooning. Syl pipped me to the post, giving us a voucher for a private flight, good until the end of 2008.

The voucher had been pinned to the corkboard in the Crumbling Villa for months. We were too busy in the spring, and hot-air balloon flight isn’t possible in the UAE during the summer because the air outside the balloon is as hot as that within. Something about relative density, I believe.

Beloved Wife telephoned Amigos Balloons early in November and fixed a date, subject to weather. The air has to be fairly dry, cool and not hurtling along at twenty knots. We were kept on tenterhooks until after 9pm on Friday before getting the ‘Go’ message, because Friday afternoon had been a tad breezy.

Our pilot collected us from the Crumbling Villa at an unholy 5:30am on Saturday morning, and we drove to Tawi Nizwa to meet his ground crew who were busily inflating a 75000 cubic foot nylon bag with air, using a fan attached to a petrol lawnmower engine. Then the propane burner was lit and the air in the envelope gently warmed with a 3m long roaring flame.

Within a minute or so the balloon was upright, into the wicker gondola we climbed, the tether to the support vehicle was released, and the pair of us along with our pilot Tariq floated buoyantly up a thousand feet or so to see sunrise over Jebel Buhays (N25º01' E055º47' approx).

Apparently it’s possible to control, or at least to influence, the direction of a balloon’s flight by varying its altitude. Wind direction varies with height above the ground, and in order to go in the correct direction our pilot took a low trajectory, scooting level with and just to the north of Pink Rock (aka Qarn Maliha, N25º01' E055º44' ish).

So we got to see sunrise again, over Pink Rock. And then a third time, having dropped to merely a few dozen feet above the dunes.

Apart from the regular intermittent roar from the propane burner, the flight was uncannily quiet. We whizzed along at an average of about 9kph. Beloved Wife expressed a preference to this over dune-bashing – partly because of the view but mostly because of the smoothness of the ride, and of course you don’t get sand in all your bodily orifices.

LOST: Recently abandoned...

...and miles from anywhere

Our nominal one hour flight ended as smoothly as it began. The ground crew was waiting for us just on the Sharjah side of Tawi Nizwa with picnic chairs and tables laid out for a small buffet breakfast. See: I said the pilot could control direction. The crew grabbed on to the gondola, and as the hot air was vented we touched down on to the sand. Then after toasting the end of the flight with an anonymous fizzy drink that can only be described as ‘green flavour’, Madame and I had our breakfasts with Tariq, received our novelty Certificate of Ascension: “This is to Certify that Madame Cyn and the Grumpy Gaot [sic] slipped the surly bonds of Earth…etc” while the crew rolled up the balloon and put it all away. The whole thing: envelope, gondola, fan, gas burners and bottles all fit nicely into the back of a small pick-up truck.

I think we need to go ballooning again sometime. Thanks, Syl.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

My eyes are fully open

If I had the misfortune to live in a flat in Sharjah
Where a beer is not permitted, and the rent is getting larger,
Public transport's non-existent and my bicycle's illegal,
And to get to work on time I'd have to turn into an eagle,

I would leave at 5am, sit in my air-conditioned motor,
(A Ford perhaps, but probably more likely a Toyota),
And listen to the radio or maybe read the paper,
And learn about the latest, tallest, most expensive caper.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
When transportation is the only thing of which we chatter,
If they make it any worse, it isn't really gonna matter.

The RTA's solution that is offered for the crisis
Is to get us all to understand that public transport nice is
If you never have to take an awkward package to Jumeira
And the bus is never late (a situation getting rarer)

And there isn't any problem walking to the metro station
Where you loiter in the heat with folk from every other nation.
Capacity exceeded on the first day of the service?
If I had thought it up, I would by now be getting nervous.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
The RTA executives, all led by Mr M*****:
They know it all, and everybody else just doesn't matter.

There isn't any way you can avoid the toll called Salik
So you pay and shrug your shoulders in a manner that is Gallic.
You can pay again each year when you go off for registration;
You can pay to park the car - but there's no parking at the station.

If you want to share commuting costs, you'd better have permission,
For control by Central Government is all part of the Vision,
And if you've any money after paying this year's rental
You can buy some local real estate, assuming that you're mental.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
You thought you'd get a visa if you went and bought a flat, or
Spent your money on a villa. Were you madder than a hatter?

This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn't generally heard, and if it is, it doesn't matter.

Idea, rhythm, tune and last two lines pinched from W.S.G. and A.S.S.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Petrolhead central

Believe it or not, marshalling a desert rally is rather more than simply turning up on the day. A lot of people spend many, many months behind the scenes agreeing routes, obtaining permissions and dealing with competitors’ applications from the GCC and abroad. This was my fourth consecutive year spent in Liwa for the whole event, and my third in an official marshalling capacity rather than as a groupie.

Ron, the Desert Challenge Chief Marshal, contacted me a couple of months before the event to ask if I’d co-ordinate the scrutineering marshals. He needed a responsible person and, because if anything ever goes wrong I’m normally responsible, I was the ideal candidate. I sent out several email lists at various times, and eventually had around twenty volunteers who would show up at Dubai Marina (DIMC) on the Saturday preceding the rally. Actually, there were more than enough marshals for most of the day, which was ideal for the motorsport fans who wanted to chat with the teams and take photos.

FIRE ENGINE: At the scrutineering. UAE style

During the week of the rally I was allocated to the Start Team. To tell the truth, I’d volunteered before realising that this entailed camping in the desert and getting up so early it felt like it was before bedtime. At least the Prologue was on Sunday afternoon.

Just a note here that this long and rambling blog is a ‘what I saw’. For actual rally results and drivers’-eye views you can check the teams’ own words from the hyperlinks I’ve scattered around. The final results are here

The Prologue is the opportunity for the general public to see an entire rally stage. This year the venue was at the Jebel Ali hotel on the off-road bike track where what used to be called ‘scrambling’ takes place. The circuit arguably offered a distinct advantage to the local bike and quad pilots who race there regularly. The track itself was very lumpy with plenty of chances to get airborne. With hairpin after hairpin it was going to be very tricky to negotiate in a car or a truck.

I ended up starting the whole thing. Consequently I was stuck away from the action and my camera, setting each competitor off. Bikes at 30-second intervals and cars every minute. The Chairman of the Organising Committee, the man who invented the UAE Desert Challenge, Mohammed ben Sulayem, actually waved the flag, but as he couldn’t see the official clock he took his cue from me. Mohammed commented that he liked my hat: a natty red and white number with embroidery and something to keep the sun off my neck.

Monday saw the start of the special desert stages. A ceremonial start occurred at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel, after which the competitors headed down to the start of the first Special Stage, near the Al Wathba minus-seven-star resort and spa. Again at 30-second or one-minute intervals the racers were set off on a long zigzag route that would finally end near Hmeem at the eastern end of the Liwa crescent.

Meanwhile, after the last racer had gone, the Start Team packed away, collected the prodigious quantity of empty water bottles and other refuse, and set off by pylon track and road to see the end of the Stage. I briefly sneaked off to help an Abu Dhabi TV film crew who had mired their Land Cruiser not half a mile from the start. After pulling them out, I politely suggested that going and buying a tow rope might not be a bad idea.

Near the end of SS1, there was the opportunity to observe some nutter from the Magic Kingdom driving in the sand in his Lexus.

MAGIC DRIVING: From the Magic Kingdom. And completely stock vehicle too, apart from when the back bumper fell off

Special Stage 2 was due to start early on Tuesday morning about 30km up Madinat Zayed Road at the other end of the Liwa crescent. We just about found somewhere suitable to camp near the start before night fell with a dull thud.

Tuesday dawned about an hour after we were all up and at ’em. It transpired that my airbed had a puncture so I was in for an uncomfortable few nights. Attempted repairs with gaffer tape and vinyl glue were doomed to failure.

We had to be ready this and every morning at least an hour before the first competitor was due. And this meant that a five o’clock alarm call constituted a lie-in. Two people greeted each competitor and tried to get them all to queue up in their start order, two more operated the arrival time control (ATC) and a further couple ensured that each racer set off exactly to time, five minutes after entering ATC. This is as per the Rules.

We made a point of greeting each competitor every morning with a smile and a few words, and wishing them all good luck. It’s appreciated, apparently.

I learned that the Team Saluki was out on Day 1 after holing a piston, and Team FJ’s co-driver Tim had been hospitalised after crushing a spinal disc. Ouch! Tim had an operation on Friday to insert a shim or two and is currently out of hospital and walking wounded.

The silence is deafening after the last vehicle has departed and all the litter has been collected. We struck camp and headed off. I went to watch some of the racing in the hope of taking some photos. Then I headed to the bivouac at Moreeb Hill to use the facilities and to gas up. Then it was back up Madinat Zayed Road to camp prior to setting up the start of Special Stage 3.

An even earlier start on Wednesday. Special Stage 3 was a very long and hard route, heading west and crossing the Ghayathi road several times. Like SS2, it finished at the Moreeb bivouac. I managed to get a couple of photos, and then had to deflate the Goatmobile’s tyres to escape from a powdery bowl and get back on to asphalt.

AIRBORNE: The UAE's Ali Al Shawi and Yahya Al Amri get some air

Special Stage 4 started very close to the bivouac, and therefore entailed an exceptionally early start. Crack of sparrow-fart? Who was I kidding? The sparrows hadn’t even finished their refried beans. The preceding evening we pitched camp near to the start and headed off to the bivouac for some food. Not good food, but at least it was warm, nourishing and there wasn’t any washing up. Then back to the campsite for G&T.

As was usual every evening, all the Start Team sat and socialised. There was no moon, and in the absence of light pollution the stars were very clear. I haven’t had a decent look at the Milky Way for several years. Naturally, astronomy was one topic of conversation. Other topics were eclectic, ranging from the fuel management computers on an Airbus, through Beach Romps, to some extremely politically incorrect jokes that I can’t possibly reproduce here. I think we even discussed the rally itself from time to time.

We fully expected fog in the early morning and a consequent delay. You can’t race in the fog because it’s impossible to see where you’re going, and the safety helicopter can’t take off (or more importantly, land). Miracle of miracles: no fog! We finished by just after 9am, meaning that a quick trip to the bivouac got me the remnants of breakfast, such as it was.

NewTrix Racing later declared the stage as ‘faultless’, although there were certain confessions later involving having to reverse out of a bowl, and a minor dent to a Pajero. I finally had time to get my camera set up and took some photos.

BOWLER: Mr Bowler's Nemesis

FLIGHT: David Donald gets airborne

HOT PURSUIT: A Baltic Bug, (Corrected. Thanks Ian) being hotly pursued by Minky Botha and Peter Rutter

MORE PURSUIT: David DeSouza follows Sean Curnow

PANTECHNICON: Three vodka-fuelled Russian nutters

NEW TRIX: Giving it some stix

Sitting in the shade of the Goatmobile, someone approached me and asked if I was the Grumpy Goat. He’d recognised the snorkel and bumper from here. Outed in the desert! Hi. Thanks for the positive feedback.

As Special Stage 4 finished near Hmeem at more or less the same place as SS5 would start on Friday, the Start Team rendezvoused (that can’t really be a word, can it?) after SS4 finished. I took the opportunity to get out of the sun for an hour. I parked under one of the Hmeem Road underpasses in the shade – and the flies – and jotted the first draft of what you are now reading.

Thursday night was the last night of camping, and it turned into something of a session. It was just as well the start was over 100km from the bivouac because it took a while for the competitors to arrive. We had chance for a serious lie-in and didn’t have to be mobile until 5:45.

Special Stages 5 and 6 aren’t too exciting. They’re a means to get the racers back to Dubai. But they’re still competitive stages nevertheless. Immediately after breaking camp, I hit the road to be back at DIMC in time to help marshal the vehicles prior to the Ceremonial Finish.

FINAL FINISH: Cooling down at DIMC

After passing through the finish gate, I directed all competitors into a Parc Fermé. This is a fenced area where no-one is allowed to go until after the official scrutineers have decided whether or not they need to re-inspect any rally vehicle. The public, and more importantly the teams, aren’t allowed the opportunity to remove any illicit performance-enhancing goodies that might accidentally have stuck to their cars during the week. The Parc Fermé was finally opened at around 7pm, and I crawled off home for a shower and early night.

That was Friday. On Saturday evening Mohammed ben Sulayem hosted a party in his back garden on Palm Jumeira to thank the marshals. I’ve never been on the Palm before, and found the traffic signage extremely confusing. I finally got on to the relevant frond on my third attempt at driving up the trunk. Oh, and I wasn’t the only confusee, so it’s not just me.

As for next year, it seems unlikely that DC09 will be in October. Abu Dhabi is hosting a Formula 1 in November 2009. The Desert Challenge may therefore be preponed (is that really a word?) by half a year or so to March or April 2009.

My new air bed is poised and ready.


The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.