A scary night in Saudi desert


‘Shhhhh,” Dan whispered as softly as his voice would allow. “I think there may be three — four of them.”

Was that a tremble of fear I heard in his voice as he struggled to pull on his shorts while lying underneath his sleeping bag?

Crunch, crunch. The walking stopped immediately in front of our tent, then we heard it resume again, faster this time. The crunching was just barely audible over the blowing wind outside our tent.

Click. “Oh, my God,” I stifled the words under my breath.

Dan had opened his 4-inch folding buck knife, which he often kept near him when we were away from home.

The desert was in the “Empty Quarter” called Rub’ Al Khali by the Saudis. It occupies most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, and is aptly named. During the entire day while driving 14 hours, I had not seen a living thing, not even the ubiquitous vultures that usually stayed high above us, floating on the drafts of hot air that lifted off the burning, barren desert.

We were somewhere between Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, and our destination, the mountainous Asir region to the south. The Asir was adjacent to Yemen. Is it possible that Yemeni bandits could be this far north? I wondered. But how could that be possible? We still had 155 miles to go to reach the Asir. My mind was racing. But the sound of people walking on the smooth, hard desert floor had awakened both of us at the same time. What was it? Who else could be out here?

Soon I heard Dan slowly open the zipper on his sleeping bag. Each click of the teeth drowned out the beating of my pounding heart. Scared witless, I didn’t know what to be frightened of. I felt Dan trying to turn around in the confines of our small tent, struggling to remain undetected by our nocturnal visitors, but every jostle seemed to echo across the desert. We purposefully had chosen a narrow, two-person tent, which was meant to exclude the enemy, our children, as we would often joke.

Oh, my God, the children. They were in their own tent next to ours. Had they heard the sounds of people walking? Was that Jean Marie, one of our then-7-year-old twins, whimpering? Or was my imagination running wild?

Dan had managed to get himself turned around in the tent when whoever was walking outside seemed to brush up against it. “Dan,” I whispered. “Shhh,” he repeated, except this time more forcefully and abruptly.

Then it started again. The sound passed by our tent. How many were there? I tried to decipher from the sounds. Maybe they would just take the provisions from our station wagon and leave us alone.

Once the crunching started again, Dan ever so slowly unzipped our tent flap. I could feel the cool night wind from the desert. With the flap open, the light from the oceans of stars enabled me to see the knotted muscles of Dan’s shoulders and the knife clutched in his hand. He slithered out, and then there was only silence. Gone was the comfort of his presence.

My instinct was to go to the children, but would I just draw attention to them? Thoughts jumbled together. With each minute I kept waiting to hear a shout, a scream, but there was nothing but the crunching sound on the desert floor, sometimes loud, sometimes just like a whisper on the back of the wind.

Finally, I saw Dan’s silhouette in the doorway of the tent as he bent down to climb back inside. I couldn’t see the slightly embarrassed grin on his face, but I sensed it was there when he said, “Rolling sagebrush.” And then he was asleep.

I stayed awake, listening to my beating heart and the rolling sagebrush as it continued its night’s journey across the empty Saudi desert. “Why do I keep allowing myself to be talked into these crazy escapades?” I thought as I drifted back off to sleep.

Barbara and Daniel Sullivan served for 20 years as foreign service officers working at U.S. embassies overseas. Now retired, they live on Daniel Island and enjoy recalling their experiences of many countries and cultures, including Saudi Arabia.