Monday, 17 May 2010

autobiography #2: learning to drive

Like many other British teenagers, I had my first driving lesson shortly after my seventeenth birthday. And, in 1963, there were few if any professional driving instructors around, so my father assumed the role of teacher, a role for which he showed little aptitude. Having learned to drive himself during the Second World War, he deemed it necessary for me to double declutch before changing to a lower gear, even though synchromesh gears had been standard in family cars for years, and this arcane manoeuvre was no longer necessary. But double declutching was too difficult, so I wasn’t allowed to change down, which, unsurprisingly, led to other problems.

He also thought that a hill start would be too difficult for me to master all at once, so he would operate the handbrake while I did the rest. Given that a successful hill start requires the coordination of clutch, accelerator and handbrake, you may safely conclude that I was unsuccessful, despite several tries. Anyway, after only two ‘lessons’ I gave up, and for more than four years I made no further attempts, and had little opportunity, to learn to drive a car.

Fast forward to 1968, and I had started my first job after leaving university: as a wellsite geologist with an oil company in Libya. I flew from Tripoli to an airstrip somewhere in a vast sea of sand, the Sahara Desert, to relieve a colleague whom I’d met just once before, in London. He was waiting at the airstrip, and as far as I can recall he had only one thing to say to me:

“That’s your Landrover over there. The rig is seventy kilometres due south.”

In situations like this, it helps to show a little panache. I climbed nonchalantly into the Landrover, closed the door and pushed the starter button. But nothing happened. All right, so the starter motor turned, but the engine stubbornly refused to start, and I was beginning to feel self-conscious. Just then a friendly American leaned through the window and switched on the ignition key. I hadn’t realized that in Landrovers of that vintage the starter button and ignition are not linked, as they are in modern vehicles.

Anyway, I finally got the Landrover moving, and I spent the next hour driving up and down a ten-kilometre stretch of bitumen road to get some kind of feel for the vehicle and how to drive it. I finally decided that it was time for me to head south, which I did with the confidence of someone who has no idea what he is likely to have to contend with. Within half and hour, I’d become bogged down in sand up to the axles.

At this point, I’d like to pose a question: in these circumstances, what would be absolutely the best thing to have available to help? That’s right! A Caterpillar D6 bulldozer, less than 100 metres away (the blacktop was about to be extended to the new production area where I’d be working). Preposterous coincidences like this one clearly could not be relied on, so I made sure that I never committed this mistake again. Although driving in loose sand is a skill that I’ve never needed since I left Libya, and have probably now lost, it was essential here.

I’ve no idea why I became bogged down, because travelling north–south was usually straightforward. Travelling east–west was far more difficult, because the dunes formed ranges, three or four dunes wide, running from north to south and separated by ‘valleys’ a few hundred metres wide consisting of flat and much firmer sand. Finding a driveable way through the dune ranges was never easy and was made harder by the need to establish a new through route every time there was a sandstorm.

And I learned how to double declutch, the Landrover not having synchromesh on first and second gears. This, too, turned out to be a vital skill, because the only way to drive up the slip face of a dune, where the sand is at the maximum angle possible for loose material, is to take a run at it and change down into first gear at the last moment. None of the Americans with whom I worked were familiar with double declutching, so they resorted to brute force to effect the required gear change, frequently without success. I can do little more than speculate on the amount of damage done to the gearboxes of the company’s Landrovers by this heavy-handed treatment.

The company I worked for provided Volkswagen Beetles for its employees to get around when they were in Tripoli, but almost nobody dared to take their chances with the city’s traffic. I was an exception. And nobody guessed that as a driver I was entirely self-taught and had been a non-driver only a few months earlier. However, I did make one error that still sticks in my mind. I was returning to the company’s staff house, which was located in a district that was popular with foreign embassies, and turned into a one-way street, not well signposted, the wrong way. An embassy guard stepped out into the road and signalled me to stop.

“Where is your licence driver?”

At times like this, it pays to appear to be a complete idiot, especially if you are not in possession of the item demanded. I pretended not to understand what he was saying. The staff house was nearby, so I sought permission to go there. I emerged clutching my passport.

“No, no! Where is your licence driver?”

More feigned bewilderment on my part. I was then taken off to see a real traffic policeman (my original encounter was with a mere embassy guard, who in fact had no jurisdiction in traffic matters). I was asked the same question:

“Where is your licence driver?”

After ten minutes or so of failing to get through to a clearly deranged foreigner, the two men abandoned the attempt, and I was allowed to continue on my way. And continue learning to drive. As described in Near-Death Experience, which took place the following year, I’m still learning.


  1. since i have just started blogging this is one of the first ones i have read. you are very talented at writting with so many different stories but given your job profile im not suprised. i really enjoy reading them so good to see something that paints a picture so well and so personal.

  2. This is a very entertaining piece, Dennis. Thanks for linking. I would love to drive myself over the dunes! Incidentally Chris Coffman threw a remark in your general direction on my Tunisia piece. I mention this just in case you want to respond.

    1. If you do decide to try driving over sand dunes Ana, my advice would be to find yourself an older vehicle. Modern 4×4s may look flashy, but they lack the sheer grunt of models from 40 years ago. An Australian friend told me of coming across a Toyota Land Cruiser bogged down in coastal dunes. What should be available to pull it out but a Land Cruiser of approximately the same vintage as the one I drove when working in the Outback in 1970. Half the size and twice the power!

    2. It is Ana, or should I say ‘was’.


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