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Desert Links

by J. Leo Giroux

When it came to hazards, the Bedouin Golf and Country Club was unique among golf courses.

Few people get the chance to see the world the way military personnel do. Following my World War II and Korean War service with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, I decided to remain in the forces. I served with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Germany from 1954-55 and was posted to Egypt in 1959 to serve as a peacekeeper with the United Nations Emergency Force.

My posting to Egypt lasted about a year and the experience exposed me to the best and worst parts of human nature in the Middle East. It also exposed me to the incredible resourcefulness that exists among military personnel who work in remote locations.

The trip to Egypt began at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont., where I boarded a North Star passenger aircraft. The flight to El Arish lasted 12 hours, not including the time we spent on the ground at four different airports. During flight, it was so noisy on the plane that it was difficult to carry on a conversation with the person sitting next to me.

After landing in Egypt I was assigned to a camp at Rafah, located roughly 100 kilometres from UNEF headquarters at Gaza and 12 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The camp was an adventure in itself because in addition to having a large contingent of Canadian peacekeepers, it had a number of units from different countries.

At times, life at the camp could get pretty difficult and pretty boring. There was very little to do during off hours and the days were unbelievably hot. During the summer months the temperature would go above 45 C. Needless to say, tempers also flared. Indeed, sometimes it was an effort just to keep the peace among the peacekeepers! Everyone in our contingent was permitted two weeks holidays during a posting, either to Cairo, Beirut or Jerusalem. And believe me, everyone was grateful for the break when it came.

The camp was surrounded by a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire, and every night the perimeter was patrolled, not so much out of concern for our personal safety, but to prevent thieves from breaking in and stealing our supplies. Outside the camp, a favourite target for thieves were the United Nations supply trucks. Thieves would string wire across the road forcing the driver to stop and get out of his vehicle. While the driver removed the wire, young thieves would climb onto the back of the truck and steal supplies.

The Canadians realized early on that they needed to find some way to take the pressure off and to relax during off hours. Many read books, wrote letters, played cards or took naps. Others dealt with the uncertainty and potential of danger in wild and reckless ways that are best forgotten. Still others had dealt with their circumstances by making the camp a bit more home-like. The best demonstration of this occurred prior to my posting when a group of Canadian servicemen established the six-hole Bedouin Golf and Country Club.

Before describing what this little course looked like, I can do you a favour by suggesting that you forget for a minute what most golf courses look like. Imagine instead an entire golf course built on sand—fine, dry, scorching hot sand that was constantly shifting in the wind. The greens—if we can call them that—were made playable by putting to use the discarded oil from the service corps vehicles. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this bit of resourcefulness proves that we started recycling oil long before it became popular.

The oil was mixed with the sand to create a sort of paved surface for putting. After we finished putting, we would pull a small tarp on a wooden handle around and around the green to wipe out our footprints or any other marks made by the ball.

For driving, we stood on a coconut mat that was placed on top of a box filled with—you guessed it—sand. The exception was the fourth hole where the tee was located on the roof of the camp’s kitchen. Golfers equipped themselves with three clubs, namely a driver, a putter and a nine iron or sand wedge. The latter club was used often on this course.

My sleeping quarters were located in an old building constructed by the British. This location was very convenient because it was close to my work station and close to the first hole at the Bedouin Golf and Country Club. This was an advantage because there was usually a shortage of golf clubs at a course that operated on a first come, first serve basis. The only drawback to this choice golfer’s location was that the door to my room was worn down and there was a huge space at the bottom that made it easy for scorpions and ants to enter. It was not unusual to find a few uninvited guests beneath the covers of my bed.

Golf hazards in Canada are nothing compared to the ones we encountered in the desert. The golf balls we used were British red balls, which are somewhat smaller than the regular golf balls used in Canada. Every time we played we were sure to lose some of our balls in the lizard holes. Of course, we never knew from day to day where the new lizard holes would be.

Most golfers know that the first time playing a course is usually the most challenging. This is because you are not familiar with the lay of the land. On our course, every game was like the first game because the windswept fairways shifted and changed constantly. One afternoon you would have a clear shot to the green. The next day you’d find a dune rising on the same fairway.

Most players on Canadian golf courses don’t get too upset if their ball strays a bit from the fairway and lands in the shrubs. It’s easy enough to pick up the ball and carry on. But at our desert course, retrieving a ball from the rough was the most dangerous part of the game because you never knew if there was a scorpion hiding in the sparse desert shrubs. A sting from a scorpion could mean a painful end to your golf game.

During the winter season, which is only slightly cooler than summer, we were granted permission to bring in some heavy equipment to improve the Bedouin Golf and Country Club. Our heavy equipment consisted of camels. The beasts were used to eat the shrubs, but their presence created another hazard on the course. If you had to retrieve a ball that was lying near a camel, you risked being bitten. Camels are notoriously bad tempered, especially after they’ve been accidently hit by a golf ball.

There were no electric golf carts at the Bedouin Golf and Country Club, but we sometimes used donkeys, a mode of transportation that kept our feet off the hot sand. It also led to the invention of a new game: Polo golf.

It is always amazing how people find the energy after work to do the things they really enjoy. The standard work day for the forces posted at our camp ended at noon because the incredible desert heat made it impossible to work without risking heat stroke or dehydration. We were advised to stay in the camp—in the shade of the tents—during the afternoon heat. It may have been too hot to work, but for some of us it was never too hot for a round of golf. It just goes to show that the old saying is true: Sportsmen will put up with almost any condition to have their game.

Drinking wasn’t forbidden on the golf course. However, it was a freedom that led to unfortunate results because the heat and the alcohol did not mix well. In fact, it was not uncommon to find a sleeping body or two lying on the green. We of course would just remove these obstacles and play through.

Next to the tee for the number two hole was an outside building that served as the “facility” for members of the Indian Army contingent. The building was covered with tin and I can recall one particular day when I teed off with a heavy hook on my ball and it made a direct hit on the building. You can just imagine the noise the ball made hitting the tin. And I had no idea that there was somebody inside at the time. To this day, I still don’t know whether I helped him or not, but he sure left that building in a hurry.

The unfortunate end to the story is that the Bedouin Golf and Country Club had a relatively short life. It ceased to exist when the UNEF left Egypt during the 1960s. Over the years I have played and enjoyed the game of golf at several different courses, but I still treasure a photograph I have that proves I was a member of the Bedouin Golf and Country Club. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that somebody passing through the area today found one of those little British red golf balls.


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