Friday, 22 November 2013

The point of it all

AS the sound of 18 diesel engines died away for the last time in Casablanca on Oct 7, a wave of relief swept over every member of the Petronas Trans Sahara 2004 expedition. There were also feelings of triumph, and a sense of personal achievement and team accomplishment.
“We made it!” “Well done, you did it!” Congratulations were in order, and everyone went around shaking each other’s hands and patting one another on the back. There were tears of joy, and eager anticipation of the journey home to much-missed loved ones so far away.
Now, safe and sound at home at last, with all the creature comforts and the great Malaysian food that we craved for while out there in the desert, there has been time to reflect on the meaning of life, the universe, and what the whole Sahara experience has been about.
It was one great adventure. For some lucky members of the Petronas Adventure Team (PAT), there will be other places to visit in time to come, but many of us will remember this trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we were fortunate enough to have been a part of.
The Trans Sahara proved to be many things to many people. It was a journey of exploration, a long trek through nations and environments that couldn’t possibly be more different than the lush world that Malaysians know as home.
It was a test for each individual participant, who had to dig deep into his or her reserves to find the patience, the perseverance and the tolerance to put up with all the unexpected trials and tribulations that came along. Some of the challenges included seemingly endless waiting to cross borders, long hours of driving, extreme heat, gritty sand getting into everything, and having to go for days without a bath.
There were always some people you liked and some you did not, but everyone had to learn to get along, for the good of the entire group. When everyone was forced to spend so much time in such close proximity, the strain could blow the smallest misunderstanding out of proportion and spark off tiffs. But, in the end, the close bond forged by the shared experiences won through.
There were happy moments when things were great, when the scenery was dazzling or the mood enchanting, just as there were times when everything that could go wrong did. We all passed the test and, looking back now, the good times far outweighed the bad.
It was an opportunity for Malaysians, as individuals and as a group, to let other cultures know about us even as we were getting to know them. Initially, the curious locals of North Africa always mistook us for Japanese, Koreans or Chinese visitors. But when told that we were Malaysians, the reaction was always one of warm welcome.
Invariably, their faces broke into broad smiles, their thumbs went up and they shouted, “Malaysia very good, very nice people, welcome!” It felt really great to be regarded in such a pleasant light, even if we discovered along the way that such welcoming salutes were often ploys to lure unsuspecting tourists into souvenir shops.
As travel experiences go, a PAT expedition is not really the best way to visit interesting places. All too often, the need to keep to a schedule or having to pick up the pace to make up for lost time meant that we had to bypass many interesting places. While the 39 days allocated for the expedition might seem a long time, it still did not allow for much leisure because the convoy had to cover more than 10,000km, much of it over difficult terrain. There were stretches of the route which required eight hours of driving to cover just over 100km of ground.
While it was understandable that the needs of the whole caravan took precedence over the wishes of individuals, it did often lead to the frustrating feeling that one had travelled so far under such difficult conditions only to whiz past some place of great significance, such as historic battlegrounds like El Alamein and Mersa Matruh in Egypt, or the remnants of ancient Roman settlements in Libya.
The expedition did enable us to see plenty of interesting sights along the way. Even if the experience was often shallow, most of us agreed that it was ultimately better to have had these glimpses, however brief and fleeting, than not to have seen these wonderful places at all. That was another lesson: you can’t have everything your way all the time, so you should enjoy whatever you can get.
In the main, the expedition served to raise Petronas’ profile in the foreign countries where they have joint-venture operations, such as Sudan, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Wherever possible, the PAT members took part in community relations projects at local institutions such as children’s hospitals and village vocational centres, which receive support and aid from the Malaysian oil company.
For other sponsors such as Ford Malaysia, which sent along their 4X4 Everest and Ranger vehicles, and Korean tyre-maker Kumho, the gruelling expedition was as an ideal trial by ordeal that proved their products’ toughness and reliability, beyond all doubt. After all, they survived the kind of conditions and abuse the average consumer’s car and tyres would never have to undergo, even in 20 years of normal usage.