McLaren 12C. Saudi Arabia. The Hidden Kingdom

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On the long, straight highway to Buraydah there’s little of note to describe. We push on as fast as we dare in the darkness, unaware of the surroundings outside. Phil and Faisal are dicing with each other, but I’ve heard horror stories of Saudi driving, and seen a few videos that back up my concerns, so I’m content to stick on cruise control at a still fairly hefty speed, and keep my eyes peeled for idiots. Thankfully, aside from a few locals crawling along the inside carriageway with three of four lights out, dangers are relatively few. Only a fuel stop interrupts the journey. The sight of so many supercars parked up attracts a crowd of onlookers, including what appears to be a boy of no more than 13 driving a battered old Honda. That, plus the revelation that filling a phalanx of supercars and a couple of SUVs costs just $37, sends my eyebrows towards the sky for a while.

It’s very late by the time we crawl into Buraydah, and I crawl into bed, for we have an early start the following day. Our original plan was to visit Medina, but as several members of the party are non-Muslim, and that city is second in Islamic holiness only to Mecca, our presence is not allowed. So instead we’ll gun it to Yanbu.

Well, after we’ve looked around a little. Buraydah is a notoriously conservative town, and one very keen on its agriculture. Faisal has a friend, Ibrahem, who’s something of a bigwig in the city, and he takes us on a whistle stop tour of the town centre. After parking the McLarens in a square filled with watermelons for sale, we have a quick shufti around a nearby antiques store, filled with myriad curiosities from Saudi history, and a date shop. I learn that there’s far more to dates than I ever imagined, and that lots of them are very tasty. Face stuffed, I return to the square to find, once again, a crowd of people around the McLarens. They’re particularly impressed with the scissor door action.

No time to show off though – Ibrahem insists that before we can get underway, we have to see extensive collection of ‘50s American cars and east lunch at his house on the outskirts of town. He also keeps camels there, but we’re fed chicken and rice in traditional style rather than anything with humps. This proves hilarious as a bunch of Brits attempt to master the technique of flicking food into our mouths with the thumb as we sit on the floor. It’s harder than it looks.

After saying our thanks, it’s time to get going proper, heading away from Buraydah and onto highway 60 heading west. Now, with the sun shining through the dust overhead, I get my first proper glimpse of Saudi Arabia, away from the city. And it’s pretty stunning. As we blast our way towards the Red Sea, the landscape changes from sprawling, featureless desert to soaring mountainous terrain, reminiscent of American cowboy films from the 1960s. The highway skims and sometimes cuts through the landscape, fast, straight roads where we can stretch the McLaren’s legs without fear of speed cameras. I won’t divulge just how fast we went, but if someone told me that the official top speed figures were conservative, I wouldn’t be surprised. What really impressed is just how stable the 12C feels at these speeds, the aerodynamics keeping things rock steady until very close to V-max when the front starts to bobble juuuust enough for me to lift off.

The highway was largely deserted – hence our fuel-burning exploits – but after we’d got the cobwebs out of our system and settled to a more reasonable cruise, I began to realise why there are so many deaths on Saudi roads. For whatever reason, a huge proportion of motorists appear to lack any semblance of common sense. Seatbelts are virtually unheard of, lane discipline is a rare occurrence and we regularly saw cars heading the wrong way down an eight-lane motorway, SUVs overtaking us on the fast line hard shoulder, half riding in the dirt, and general lunacy that makes Dubai’s roads look like a genteel village in England. As the light fades, maybe half bother to put their headlights on.

At one point, as we parked the cars at the side of the road to take some pictures, a saloon full of kids, all sitting out of the window on top of the door, flew past at speed as they all shouted words of greeting. The greeting was appreciated, but seeing youngsters precariously balancing inches from death by road rash gave me the heeby-jeebies.

Still, when I’m not worried about being sideswiped by an enthusiastic Camry, I’m soaking in the huge expanses of virtually untouched landscape. As the sun sets in front of us, the horizon turns a hundred shades of pink and orange, lighting up the rocks and casting long shadows that are promptly punctured by the crystal beams of the McLaren convoy. We circumnavigate the lights of Medina and head up the coast, past vast oil-gathering equipment that seems the size of a large town before we reach Yanbu itself, again in the early hours of the morning after almost 800km of highway. We’re now more than 1200km in and I’m pretty fed up of motorway – kart track aside, there’s been no handling exercises to be found. Still, tomorrow Jeddah, and then all being well, motoring nirvana.



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