The first event on the agenda was the eye test, and I was directed to the medical room, which had a deceptively high step at its entrance. I entered the room by sprawling headlong on to the floor. The medical officer, sitting behind an impressive oak desk and with a baton under his arm, peered down at me over his glasses.
'I've come to take the eye test,' I said.
'Really?' he said. 'Not a very good start, is it?'
Half an hour later, it was on to the police interview room for the oral test to identify road signs, a seemingly pointless exercise, as if there's one thing that's completely ignored in Qatar, it's the road signs. I was directed to an officer who was sitting at a desk on which were stacked about 20 worn cards, each depicting a different sign.
He held up a card. 'You know this?'
It was upside down. 'Yes,' I said.
He stared back at me suspiciously, returned the card to the pile and then held up a second.
'OK. You know this?'
I looked intently at the card, and once again replied: 'Yes.'
He had a third go. 'OK,' he said, holding the card he'd started with - still upside down. 'You know this?'
'Yes,' I said quickly, not wishing to change a winning formula. The officer thought for a moment, then said: 'OK, pass, go.'
On to the obstacle course. For the next three hours I was to witness a scene of carnage performed to the din of crashing obstacles, jeering spectators - other candidates and their families who had come along for the fun - and policemen's whistles. Two identical courses had been constructed, each comprising three different obstacles, so six drivers were under test simultaneously.
A policeman was allocated to each obstacle. He would signify if you'd failed by blowing his whistle, signify if you'd passed by blowing his whistle, and signify all other instructions, as well as his tea break, by blowing his whistle.
It was now almost 10 o'clock and the temperature in the shade was 122F. I was second in the line of vehicles waiting to enter the stadium, behind a young Filipino who looked terrified. He was meant to have parked with his front wheels just behind a white line at the stadium entrance, but had stopped too far forward. When a policemen noticed this, he immediately blew his whistle at the poor guy and waved at him to pull back.
This he did, reversing straight into me. Unfortunately, although in neutral, I had forgotten to apply my handbrake, and immediately ricocheted into the car behind, which did have its handbrake on, causing me to rebound and whack the rear of the Filipino. We had managed a triple collision before we'd even started.
The first obstacle required the driver to reverse through two rows of metal posts, placed in an S shape, with the gap between each row looking marginally less than the width of the car. The posts fell at the slightest contact, resulting in failure.
The Filipino drove slowly towards the two rows of posts on his way to the starting point, and hit the first post he reached. The policeman in charge of the obstacle blew his whistle. The crowd of about 200 cheered. The poor guy's driving test had lasted 10 seconds.
It was now my turn. I drove slowly into the S obstacle and through to the starting point. As I began reversing, there was an almighty crash from across the stadium. Two other cars had collided head-on.
The policeman in charge of the S immediately dashed across to assist. I took the opportunity to reverse, at a considerably slower speed than is allowed, through the full length of the obstacle and the man returned as I emerged unscathed at the finish. He looked surprised. 'OK, go,' he said, blowing his whistle and pointing to my next destination.
This was the L obstacle, a steep ramp about the height of a double decker bus. The object was to reverse halfway up between the posts, stop, drive back down, then reverse up again, this time to the top, then negotiate a right-angle bend before the ramp levels off - at which point you stop. As I reached the start, another driver was about to begin his ascent. He was already in the reverse position. I could clearly see the fear in his eyes.
He completed the first part surprisingly efficiently, but at the top his luck ran out. As he manoeuvred around the right angle bend, he gently touched one of the posts, which fell with a clank. The policeman blew his whistle. He'd failed.
Unfortunately, his disappointment must have caused him to panic. Instead of applying the footbrake, he obviously hit the accelerator and shot backwards before shuddering to a halt with his rear wheels hanging in mid-air over the side of the ramp. There was a moment of total silence, then all hell broke loose.
From all directions, whistle-blowing policemen appeared. Five of them clung grimly to the front of the car to stop it plunging groundwards, not helped by the driver, who naturally preferred to get out, ignoring the fact that it was only his weight that was anchoring it to the ramp. The last I saw of him, he was being escorted away by practically the entire Qatari police force.
Next it was my turn, but I was lucky. No sooner had I reversed halfway up the ramp than the policeman, presumably confused by events, blew his whistle, waved me away and said, 'OK, go,' and indicated that I should proceed to the last obstacle - the P.
This final hurdle was a parking bay, made up of collapsible posts, into which the car had to be reversed - a formidable task, as the bay appeared to be of a size sufficient only to accommodate a bicycle.
I drove slowly backwards, and was halfway into the bay when I just touched two of the posts and watched in my wing mirror as they simultaneously began to fall.
Then the posts, presumably placed too closely together, struck each other on their way down and miraculously balanced against each other, like the tip of an arrow. For a few seconds they shuddered. The policeman hesitated, willing them to fall. The crowd laughed and began throwing rubbish to knock them over . . . but they didn't fall. The policeman slowly withdrew the whistle from his lips, disappointment clouding his features.
So I'd passed the driving test. I constituted 50 per cent of the successful candidates that morning; the other 50 per cent was an off-duty policeman.Reuse content