By CNN crew member Adil Bradlow
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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- One could almost feel the need to do a double-take at seeing the steadily emptying Grand Mosque in Mecca from outside our hotel room window.
Whereas in the last few days the streets of the city were crowded with worshippers making their way to prayers, or sitting in quiet contemplation on the marble outside the Grand Mosque -- today the city is bustling with activities relating to departures.
Hotel porters (with sweat on the brow of many of them ... ) rush about in the lobby pushing huge loads. The elevators are filled to capacity, creating nightmare scenarios for anyone attempting to get to the ground floor in less than 30 minutes.
The shopping concourse outside the hotel is overflowing with people: The Movenpick ice-cream stand is doing a roaring trade, so is the adjacent pizza joint. Queues snake around the aisles in the supermarket. Many of the shoppers are carrying staples of what one may assume to be a camping trip. Fold-up chairs, water bottles, umbrellas, mats and cooler bags.
But the pilgrims aren't heading off for '"some time by the sea" -- but into the vast Saudi Arabian desert, to the valley of Mina. It is here that they will spend the night in the huge tent city, as per Islamic tradition -- then proceed at dawn to the plain of Arafat: The culmination of the Hajj.
We decided early in the day that we needed to capture the hustle and bustle of the pilgrims' departure -- to give CNN International viewers a sense of how these millions of people, from all walks of life, with relative order: proceed on their way to perform rites that their co-religionists had instructed them in the seventh century. But with all the crowding in the streets, we decided we would only brave them at midday, when there was a teensy-weensy bit less chaos.
And so down into the streets we went: the idea being to make our way towards the Grand Mosque at midday prayer time -- after which the faithful head for Mina from the buses, cars, mini-buses, mopeds and the like that ferried them there. Previous experience having taught us so -- we knew that no sooner would Adil set up his tripod, then a crowd would gather.
Zain wanted to do what we television types call a "walk and talk" in the street, explaining where the pilgrims are heading to -- but at the same time capture the 'scene.' As Muhammad, Schams and our minder Khaled stood by and manned the fort (also known as keeping the crowd at bay and out of our shots) Zain was given her microphone, and Adil gave her the cue.
True to our predictions, Zain was nearly instantly surrounded by a throng of ihram-clad pilgrims: Smiling broadly and chanting the talbiyah -- the prayer all pilgrims recite during the Hajj, which roughly translates to the words: "Here I am, Lord, at your service."
After finally perfecting the walk and talk (after three or four times being either tripped up by pilgrims, or having to shoo away those who were waving to Mum back home from behind Zain,) it was back to the hotel to pack up.
We were due to leave for Arafat ourselves in the early hours of tomorrow morning. There was a live-shot position to be disassembled, the notorious black boxes to be packed -- and...provisions to be procured.
Those of us on last year's Hajj team had collective (and awful) memories of being marooned in the Ministry of Information compound at Arafat sans refreshments to get us through the sunrise to sunset day: Which we knew well would be crammed with live-shots, package editing and running around after Adil (carrying his tripod and ladder.)
It seemed almost an optical illusion to see the Grand Mosque late this evening. The marble outside the mosque was virtually empty -- with all the pilgrims off to Mina. Seeing a window of opportunity, Adil and his missus decided to get in another "tawaf" (circumambulation of the 'Ka'aba) before heading off to Arafat. And so into their ihram they got, and headed for the mosque for some last minute supplication and quiet before heading off.
But not before making a vital expedition to the supermarket downstairs. And so, at 2 a.m. the team set off to Arafat in our shiny Chevrolet: In the back a healthy supply of Red Bull energy drinks, bottled water, cigarettes, M&Ms, potato chips and various assorted munchies. And a sleeping bag. Though we all knew we would be delusional to think we would be actually using it ...
The crew keep crowds at bay as Zain Verjee practises her lines.