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A Date With Death

   BY GEORGE MATTHEW

The Musandam peninsula is the most northerly region of Oman. It has an abundance of sheltered fjords, some only connected to the mainland by narrow cliffs. Fjords created by fragmented rock stretch claw-like into the sea and the massive overshadowing cliffs towering above are magnificently reflected in the water below.

Small villages nestle along the tortuous shoreline, most of them only accessible by sea.  There is a magnificent road for about 30 km, built into the cliff side, with cliffs on one side and the sea a long way down on the other side, separated only by a narrow retaining wall.  The road itself is picturesque, every turn, every twist,   every hairpin bend brings you to new sceneries of land meeting sea in a hundred different ways.  As you drive, far down in the waters below you can see powerful speedboats from Iran (hardly 50 Kms away) bringing in goats and taking cigarettes and electronic products back…….

The mission – Open a store in Musandam, 500 kilometeres from base, complete with latest standards in inventory and merchandising standards.  Test and integrate dial up lines for data transfer, merchandise the whole store, pep up staff and get out.

The men – 1 marketing manager, 1 operations manager, 1 store manager, 1 computer engineer.

The time allowed – 24 hours

The date – October 16, 6 a.m. - As the brutish Land Cruiser made its way up the treacherous winding road, the four men in the 4 Wheel Drive relaxed, destination was only 20 kms away after a long hard drive of  5 hours which had started at 1 a.m. in the dead of the night. They could rest for a couple of hours, then start work and finish before evening and drive back.

At the wheel was my colleague,  a guy who like me had clocked over the years, more than 200,000 kilometers, accident free, trained in defensive driving, desert driving, off road driving, mountain driving, you name it. Man proposes, God disposes.

Four wheel drives are off road vehicles and do not necessarily have the best road grip. I had just given him the wheel, having driven 3 hours and feeling sleepy, told him to take over and get the brute to the destination.  Behind us, the two guys were lost in dream world, and in the cargo space, was a load of computer hardware.

We were about 5 kms up the road, actually, up and down and around and twisting back on ourselves, with every curve throwing a new surprise, I told him to be extra cautious.  I dozed off and was woken up by the vehicle’s horn, woke up to see a slow army truck being overtaken by my colleague, and one look into the truck confirmed it that the guys were not too happy to be overtaken.

We sped on, and at one point the tires squealed around another bend, a sign that the vehicle was too fast, I cautioned my colleague again and he slowed down.  Suddenly we reached a hairpin bend, and we went into it, it was the first time he was driving this lap, and inside the bend, suddenly we hit another curve.  As luck would have it, there was oil on the road, and as fate would have it, we saw a Pickup truck bearing at us full speed, out of his track and right in our track.

Instinctive reaction, my colleague slammed the brakes, forgetting the oil slick, the vehicle lurched with its fully laden weight, started slipping, gathered momentum and spun around, I shouted at my colleague to hang on to the wheel and keep it straight, the only way to keep a spinning car under control is to hang on to the wheel.  There was the most deafening crash as the Pickup slammed into us – I still remember the scared face peering at us from the Pick up,  our windscreen disintegrated, the bonnet flew up, the dash board caved in and pinned us by our knees, I saw one front wheel flying off, this was it,  death was laughing at us.

I prayed the vehicle would stop spinning, prayed we wouldn’t end up in a watery grave a few hundred feet down the cliff. The vehicle hit the retaining wall and took off a section of the wall, the rear right wheel went through – and as suddenly as it all started, it ended, we stopped. Not more than 2 minutes to totally write off two vehicles.

On the other side of the road I could see the pickup, a mangled mess of metal. My door wouldn’t open, our knees were pinned down between the dashboard and seats, behind me I could hear our colleagues groaning in pain, my colleague who was driving was shaking like a leaf and crying, muttering Oh God, Oh God………

I seemed to be the least hurt, succeeded in slowly pulling my legs out, not broken, thank God, crawled over the mess of metal and fell onto the road somehow. Took a stone and pried open the one rear door, pulled them out, then together we forced open the driver’s door and pulled him out.  I was praying that the fuel tank was intact since the whole road was flooded with green radiator fluid and engine oil from both vehicles ……

My mobile rang at that early morning hour…..answered it barely able to speak……. “Sir, you have advertised for a house maid? I’m a maid and I am ready to do anything”, with the stress on the ANYTHING.  Just the thing I needed. Told the lady to call the police if she could do “anything” for me… and I could hear a gasp and the line went dead.

We were trying to pull out the driver of the pickup when suddenly, there was a vehicle’s light in the darkness, it was the army truck catching up with us.  They jumped out, came running and took control, dragged the driver out of the pick up, whose legs were bleeding badly.

The nightmare was over, or had it just begun.  It was evening, almost 12 hours later by the time we came out of the police station……… The soldiers had their version about us, to tell the police.

That evening, as we sat in Koya’s little Mallu cafeteria eating Calicut Pathiri and chicken, he asked us if we had seen a ghost.  Our thoughts were so far away we didn’t answer.

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