Dehydration, and all manifestations related to it including heat exhaustion and heat stroke, or sun stroke as it is often known, are extremely dangerous conditions that can creep up on you very quickly. They are also easily preventable. You would think because we live in a desert region and visit the deserted landscapes on many occassions we would be properly prepared against these issues, right? Not always. If the locals who’ve lived here for many moons longer than us can sometimes get it wrong, and every now and then local media will run a piece on deaths in the desert due to lack of water to remind citizens how treacherous desert visits can get, it was probably only a matter of time before we got a scary summer reminder of how hazardous the desert heat can be…
…NZ Patrick had never been to the Edge of the World, although he’d heard all about it from other desert adventurers. Being a fellow Kiwi, and a good bloke, Hubster offered that we would take him out there. My husband said ‘we’ in this conversation mainly because he can never remember how to get there. Plus he knows if I’m included, so is lunch.
We have ventured to The Edge a few times since moving here: once with Mr Noor driving a taxi, again when we took Mr UK and friends, another time we accompanied a group of Canadians, and on yet another occasion escorted Miss Louise and friends to give the dogs a run.
So, on the appointed day NZ Patrick arrived bright and early at our compound. It had been decided, or so I thought from discussions the previous night, that we would leave earlier in the morning as it was the beginning of summer and the day can heat up pretty quickly. In my mind our plan was to arrive at our destination around 9.30/10am, look around, then drive back with a stop for the aforementioned post-Edge meal. I’m not quite sure what was going on in Hubsters mind. Dilly dally by the looks.
Patrick mentioned that he hadn’t bought a picnic chair, which wasn’t really a problem as we had packed two into the 4WD along with a carpet and Arabic cushions to spread on the sand as we planned to stop and snack ‘neath an acacia tree along aptly named Acacia Valley . However, Helpful Husband thought it would be a good idea to stop at almost every gas station or potential camp shop on the way out to Uyayna in search of said seat. As time ticked on I did start to wonder if perhaps he’d forgotten we were going to the desert and mentioned as much as he pulled into yet another parking space. He gave me this look of, ‘yes of course I know that’. ‘So, why’, I asked, ‘are we meandering our way there? At this rate we won’t get there till midday – when it’s hot!’ Apparently, this thought hadn’t occurred to the helpful one. I watched the slow computation as these words slowly sunk in. Hubster suddenly clicked into action mode and his foot hit the accelerator. We arrived at the Edge just after 11am.
A few cars were already there. We parked next to them, grabbed a bottle of water each, put on our hats and went to look out through the escarpment window. Then we started our way up the hill, meeting fellow Edgers as they were on the way down. We looked at the view of the escarpment taking photos and discussing the evolution of Saudi in general, then headed, as you do, over towards the two points where Edgers like to go for photo ops. We followed Patrick out to the first point. It’s a fairly easy walk. Hubster decided this was as far as he would go, so sat down and said he would take photos. Patrick wanted to continue. I ummed and ahhed and then decided to follow him to the second point, the table top. This was, as it turned out, not a good decision.
The sun was nearing its high point. The day had heated the earth and the wind blew warm across the desert and up the face of the escarpment on to the skin. And I am not exactly the most fit and healthy specimen on the planet. Since our last Edge outing a number of inches have been added to my waistline, and every other body line as well (due purely to a medical issue of course, not because I eat too much and exercise too little). This excess doesn’t help my heart and lungs that like to do this thing where they protest against uphill effort. And protest they did.
Getting out to the second point is mostly downhill. Getting back again is mostly uphill. In the increasing heat the walk felt further than previous visits. My water bottle was already half empty when we started over to the point so taking tiny sips was necessary to make sure the water would last. We got to the table top. We took photo’s. A blast of warm wind blew my hat off, fortunately just to the side of the track so it was easily retrievable. At that point it dawned on me that I was not looking forward to the upcoming return climb.
Lack of communication between myself and Hubster on this trip was proving to be a bit of an issue. What do they say, presumption is the mother of all stuff ups! I had presumed, mistakenly, that the Helpful One would hang about waiting for us as he knows that hill climbs are not exactly my favourite thing to do and I like him around to push, pull or drag me up the steeper patches where necessary. But when I looked back over to where we had left him so I could signal we were coming back, he had gone. He didn’t hang about. He got bored and hot taking photo’s so buggered off back to the vehicle to listen to music. Not very helpful after all.
Patrick was making his way back up the hill in no time because he’s in much better nick than me. He would stop and look back to check my progress – I was making my way at turtle pace, with lots of stops to heave in air and assess the best and easiest path through the steep, and sometimes loose shale rock.
It occurred to me, half way up, that something was not right. The eyes were not focusing at all well. I promptly sat down and thought, Shit! as I hung on to the rock beneath me and the view turned just a little bit fuzzy.
This, I remembered thinking, is not good.
What am I going to do?
I sat for a moment and took a few breaths to reassess my condition, before calling out to Patrick. ‘I’m not in a good way’.
Patrick had run out of water.
My water was almost all gone.
He shot off like a Jack Rabbit back to the car and water and help.
The rock I was sitting on was hot.
The air was hot and so very still in the lee of the hill.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm my over exerted heart, breathe slowly and relax…and while I was at it just quietly tell myself off for being an idiot.
There was, I remembered, wind blowing over nearer the edge of the cliff. I needed wind – it would cool me down. Thinking that falling off the side would not be a good idea, I made my way, just a few yards, over toward the edge. The movement of air once it hit my face, though warm, was somehow calming. It helped me think. I tipped the last of the water in my mouth and held it there, attempting to fool the body that lots of hydration was incoming. Then I decided to continue my way up. After all, I was halfway there already. The idea of stopping here somehow equated to giving up.
I do not give up.
Possibly not the best second decision I’d made that day, but in my mind moving would help me to focus and be a way to keep control of my thinking.
So I started off again moving slowly, concentrating on managing my breathing, watching where I put my hands and feet, and carrying my empty water bottle that, for some reason, I could not throw away to join every other biffed plastic bottle lying about the hillside because that is littering. (Seriously).
Once at the top, my legs began to shake as I stumbled over to a relatively smooth rock to sit and wait and keep deep breathing. Soon after, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Hubster trotting with two large bottles of water. He also, I noted, didn’t have a hat on.
Soon water was pouring over my head and body and a water bottle was thrust in my hand as I was ordered to drink. It felt so nice.
Thank you I said to his worried and, at the same time, disapproving expression and shaking head.
Then I asked him, Where’s your hat? You should have a hat in this heat.
Like, I should talk!
We walked slowly back to the vehicle with its air-con and more supplies of cold water. The boys waited patiently and quietly, with more looks of displeasure being cast my way by the bald one sitting next to me, as I cooled myself down with ice cold water from the chilly bin and the air-con jets pointed my way and got myself together before Hubster decided to call an end to this visit and started making our way out.
Once cooled and properly hydrated I felt fine. Really. In fact I convinced Hubster I felt good enough to stop, as planned, under an acacia tree and have some lunch. Plus I had to pee – a good sign, I told him. The distraction of lunch helped to lighten his mood a little, although his watchful eye still had my every move under scrutiny. I knew this little episode was not going to be forgotten for some time to come, probably for good reason.
Dehydration and associated heat related illnesses of heat exhaustion and sun or heat stroke are potentially fatal conditions especially out in the desert miles from help. They really are. And they can strike surprisingly quickly. The Saudi desert claims a number of lives each year because people are not prepared for or, like I did this day, make bad decisions in the hot conditions. We know this. And still, against my better judgement, because I like to do stupid shit, I went roaming off down a hillside quite ill prepared. In case you aren’t aware, here’s a little lesson on what dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are and what to do should you, or someone you are with, be affected.
Heat exhaustion is a condition that occurs with exposure to high temperatures. It is often accompanied by dehydration. Signs include profuse sweating, thirst, weakness, headache and loss of consciousness. Heat exhaustion may not be as serious as heat stroke, but it should be taken seriously and treated immediately with proper intervention because it can quickly progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a very serious life threatening condition, often considered a medical emergency. It is potentially fatal. In other words, you can die. The symptoms of heat stroke are similar to heat exhaustion so it can be hard to distinguish between the two. One warning sign of impending heat stroke is that the victim does not sweat. They have dry, hot skin. It is generally accepted that changes in mental status such as confusion or lethargy, and definitely seizure or coma, indicate a move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke.
To treat heat exhaustion it is essential to get out of the heat and rest, preferably somewhere with cool air-conditioning. If that isn’t possible then find the nearest cool or shady spot. Drink plenty of water, remove tight clothing, cool the body with a shower or bath, ice packs or fanning. Any cooling measures you can. If such measures are not working, seek emergency help because, as mentioned previously, heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke.
Treatment of heat stroke is the same – make every effort possible to cool the body – and call emergency services.
Of course, the best treatment for heat related illnesses is prevention. Properly hydrating before going into the desert is a good plan, taking plenty of water with you and continuing to drink it while out is an even better one. Not roaming around in the hottest part of the day sounds like plain common sense – yet quite obviously it is so easy to talk yourself out of common sense for unknown reasons. (Well, it is for me!)
Since this little incident I have been toying with the idea of buying a hydration pack. You know, one of those backpacks with a water bladder and a sipping hose. A friend of ours had one when we used to go motor bike riding together. He had a health condition that dried his mucous membranes so had to stay hydrated at all times and the pack was easy to use, easier to carry than water bottles and also held a lot of liquid. It seems like a good idea for any future desert roaming. Hubster just hits me with this look I’m sure he’s attempting to perfect…a sort of ‘don’t talk to me you walking disaster’ glare each time I mention such potential purchase. Experienced hikers have also suggested having electrolyte replacement drinks on hand in the truck as well because sweating out in the heat for great lengths of time can deplete the body of needed salts. Sounds reasonable. Will look into it.
I am extremely grateful that both the boys were there that day and that they acted so quickly. I am also acutely aware that my husband is watching every move I make when out and about during these current hot summer days. Any hint of thirst, dryness, hotness, ridiculousness, anything… and he’s on my case. Probably serves me right because, as mentioned throughout this post, dehydration is dangerous.