Sahara – The Empty Quarter – Part II

Originally published in Overland Journal
See also: VW Taro build
Intro here • Part 1 here

SEQ mapMany times during my decade of despatching in London I’d longed for the irritatingly reliable engine of some middleweight Honda I’d ridden day-in, day-out for years to explode into a thousand pieces. Nothing less than a terminal meltdown with conrods rupturing the block and cogs spitting out of the muffler.

Now, a long way from the interminable Clerkenwell Road, I was faced with the inevitability of my VW Taro’s imminent demise. The engine knock might last for days, but in reality I knew its sudden escalation meant this car would not see another dawn.

seq1 - 32At least the dreaded dune crossing had turned out to be an anticlimax. It was all over before we realized and ahead of us the ridges subsided into a rolling sand sheet. We could now resume our easterly course towards the Malian border.

Our convoy followed me as I nursed the VW along, keeping the revs low and the load light. For a while I thought it might make it, but make it where? We were just at the start with a thousand vacant kilometres of Empty Quarter to cross. Mile by mile the ear-wincing clatter grew louder until a hideous hammering suddenly filled the cab as I tiptoed out of a shallow sandy bowl. I stamped on the clutch pedal and cut the engine, but of course this engine had just switched itself off, big time. We’d reached the VW’s grave.

seq2 - 2If you’d asked me to point out the least desirable place to have a serious breakdown on this trip I would have guessed somewhere beyond the dune crossing but before the full traverse of Mali; somewhere like N20°03′ W08°00′, give or take a hundred clicks. From this point the nearest towns of Nema, Chinguetti or Timbuktu in Mali were as far as they could be: the better part of a week’s round trip.

I rolled back down into the dip where we hitched up the front end and pulled off the sump, expecting to find it full of shrapnel. No such drama although a bit of prodding revealed #4 big end was definitely shot. I had no spares of course; these days if you think you ought to carry new big end shells for a Sahara trip, what you really need is a better car.

We cleaned ourselves up and considered my options. We could wait here for a week, eating into our supplies while someone headed off to track down a big end. With the right part I might be able to limp on before making a proper repair in Algeria. But judging by the sudden, pre-terminal racket the crankshaft could have snapped – a distinct possibility as the engine was locked solid. Establishing this would be a lot of heavy work in the middle of the desert; dumping the car or trying to recover the remains made more sense.

The problem with dumping it was there was literally no space for me in the other cars, let alone my gear, which now had a value greater than the pickup. And with a replacement engine from somewhere, the VW – which was otherwise in great shape – could ride again.

We got on the Bat Phone to the Ambassade on the far side of the Quarter. A truck had just left Timbuktu but with a full load, while an empty up north near Taoudenni was having gearbox problems. They’d have a think and call back in a couple of hours.

Presently the phone rang. There was a MAN in the yard but the 2000-kilometre round trip would cost as many euros. It would take a couple of days to track down enough fuel for the round-trip too; after that they’d meet us in three days. It was marginal but I figured along with the convenience of getting my gear to somewhere useful, there was a chance of getting the pickup re-engined or sold on. Calling in a recovery from Timbuktu was not an option; we’d blow our cover in Mali with who knows what consequences, most likely with the waste of a lot of time and money  while losing our chance to finish the crossing of the Empty Quarter.

seq2 - 4With the recovery underway we put on a brew. A little later Ron came back from a wander, having found various Neolithic trinkets: flint knifes and hand axes from several thousand years ago when hunter-gatherers roamed what would have then been a grassy savanna teeming with game.

Did the disaster bother me? Not really. Vehicles are best treated as expendable in the Sahara, on this trip more than most. My desert travels had gone rather well these past few years so I was due for a calamity; it just wasn’t the one I was expecting out here. The crux was not being alone and having back-up plan from a place like the Ambassade. It was a shame to waste all the work and money put into building up the Taro but it had got this far and, for a gutless old ute, the gazelle had proved itself up to the point when it croaked.

seq2 - 3By next morning we were already getting restless, and with the thought of a week’s waiting for the lorry to trundle over the eastern horizon, the tricky topic of towing re-emerged. It was clear that only the VX was capable of it: Sue didn’t mind but Roger was less keen. I saw his point; towing even the lightened ‘gazelle’ across unknown terrain for a thousand kilometres was a shortcut to prematurely ageing the transmission; I knew desert travellers who’d found this out the hard way. In the end though, the call to action prevailed and a fee of a euro per kilometre was agreed. I dished out the masses of fuel I had left and divided my kit for burning or portage. With the pickup as light as it could get, we roped a kinetic line to the VX and set off.

seq2 - 5They say never tow with a KERR, it will ruin the rope, but I can tell you the elasticity is most welcome when a torquey VX is yanking you from one tussock to another hard enough to give you whiplash. Unless you’re a lost camel with an appetite, these tussock fields, stretching for miles at a time, are the bane of this part of the Sahara. In between them I relaxed on the rolling sand sheet and even had a chance to shoot some video reports. As we alternately cruised and bounced along I was surprised to see fennecs (desert foxes) dashing out from their holes.

Inevitably we hit a soft patch and spent half an hour getting the seq2 - 8running cars out before we could even turn our attention to the dead pickup with much digging and all the tow ropes joined together. But progress was good and by lunchtime next day we pulled up at seq2 - 920°N 6°W to record the point for confluence.org, a website that’s collecting images and descriptions from every terrestrial longitude and latitude confluence on earth. Our shots to the four points of the compass were all interchangeable: blue sky over flat sand sheet whichever way you looked.

seq2 - 7This point also marked, near enough, the border with Mali and our entry into the badlands of the ungovernable far north. Sure enough we soon crossed the fresh tracks of a single vehicle heading north far off any recognised route. Whoever they were, like us they didn’t want to be seen. That night we camped out on the wide open sand sheet with no lights.

seq2 - 6The next couple of days would be tense. At one point around 3° 40’W we would have to cross the widely braided Timbuktu-Taoudenni salt route. Although its meagre traffic would probably be legitimate, it would be a whole lot better not to have our incongruously eastbound convoy seen by anyone. If we did get hijacked the raiders would have quite a jackpot; and as we were soon to find out, they were closer than we thought.

seq2 - 11

seq2 - 12As the sun rose next morning a lone dove flew into our camp and staggered around. I’d encountered such bird behaviour before in the desert and presumed they were stragglers, weakened during the southward migration and close to death. But once we got going again all thoughts of the lost dove were shaken out of me as we hit another interminable band of tussocks. The problem was when the VX steered around a lump, the pickup got towed on a direct line. Result? Head-shaped dents in the roof of my cab.

By mid-morning Mohamed received a text that the lorry was already in the area. Amazed by its swift progress but preferring not to use voice calls in case it set off any alarms down south, we texted back our position and waited.

seq2 - 13For hours we listened intently over the wind for the growl of the big engine. What was taking them so long? After a few false alarms we finally spotted the sand-coloured MAN trundling past a couple of miles away. Ron hopped into his 60 and dashed out after them.

Their transit of northern Mali had not been uneventful. The previous evening they’d been held up by gunmen in a lone Cruiser and relieved of a drum of fuel and the power lead for their Garmin. Once the batteries had expired they’d had to locate us with the basic GPS in their sat phone which had no handy ‘go to’ feature. The two drivers, truck owner Hassan and his mechanic didn’t seem too perturbed by the robbery. Luckily they were empty and had wisely not disclosed the nature of the mission. They still had the truck, a 19/240 troop carrier specially built for Algerian desert forces in the 1980s and now the long-range desert smugglers’ choice over the more complicated and expensive Mercedes.

seq2 - 15We sseq2 - 14et about finding a way to load the VW. A mile or so away we found a hardened platform of calcrete – the weathered remains of what geologists call duricrust which here had one edge exposed by the wind a couple of feet proud of the desert floor. By digging two wheel channels into the crumbly edge, the lorry could back up almost level with the car positioned up on the pan.

A couple of hours later we’d all taken our spell with the picks and the levels were closing up. Some firewood and sand plates made a ramp and with a run-up the pickup rolled into the back.

seq2 - 16

When it came to lashing down you’d think these guys knew their business; it didn’t look like it. My tyres were deflated (to reduce rolling I presume), heavy fuel drums were then piled on the Taro which was then secured over the lorry’s flexing side gates which was to do a lot of unnecessary damage to both machines over the next few days. But no one listened.

seq2 - 19seq2-fulAt just about every stop within the Empty Quarter, we easily found prehistoric artefacts and geological oddities lying near the camp. Among them were pieces of fulgarite – sand fused into delicate coral-like tubes or flakes of glass by lightening strikes. It’s something that never ceases to amaze me – solidified lightening. In Egypt we once found a rod of fulgarite as thick as my arm twisting deep into the sand in a shallow helix form created as the charge earthed itself.

seq2 - 22By towing from Mauritania we’d saved the truck a good 800 kilometres and a few days so Mohamed was working on Hassan to try and reduce the price. It wasn’t looking too promising. Like Mohamed, Hassan was a Berabish, the little-known Arab tribe from around Timbuktu, descended from the tail end of the Islamic conquest which had whipped across northern Africa in the 8th century. Essentially Moors, and notoriously sharp in their business dealings, the Berabish run much of the bush commerce in that region. Unlike the better-known Tuareg (whose ethnicity Mohamed feigned as it was good for business in Algeria), they have no time for either playing up to tourists or making rebellions, unless there’s good money in it. Getting a financial break from Hassan would cost the proverbial pound of flesh.

seq2 - 18One of the truck drivers was particularly aggressive at the wheel so I took to sitting in my car to try and limit the damage. Leaking diesel drums had the pickup it sliding around on its flattened tyres, the sidewalls getting further pounded by the rims’ edges as the VW bashed against MAN’s sides. I persuaded them to part re-inflate the tyres but all my gear was getting either crushed by the drums or soaked in diesel. As the side gates bent inward, the ropes slackened and the car beat itself up. I’d have to crawl out of the seq2 - 20window, edge over to the MAN’s cab like Indiana Jones and thump on it until they stopped. They’d hop out and hang off the ropes to get them good and tight against the creaking side gates. It was painful to watch, but on the move the grunt of the 240-hp truck was something to behold. Rated at 19 tons but carrying only a fraction of that and running singles on the dual rear axle, it ground its way over small dunes like a digger.

Presently we started bisecting the salt route’s countless north–south tracks, the only piste we’d see in the Empty Quarter. An hour later as they began to peter out I spotted a distant MAN on the southern horizon, probably heading back to Timbuktu with a cargo of hand-hewn salt slabs from the pits at Taoudenni.

seq2 - 26Despite my troubles we had not forsaken our commitment to the advancement of climate research. Learning of our plans to cross this remote region, a scientist friend back at Oxford University had asked if I could collect dust samples from a couple of ‘hot spots’, the darker red patches above.
The Sahara is the world’s biggest source  of dust which, when launched up into the atmosphere by seasonal windstorms, is seq2 - 25thought to have a significant effect on global climate, including Atlantic hurricanes. After western Chad, much of this dust comes from the Empty Quarter but samples had never been obtained seq2 - 24before. As we passed through one of the hotspots, composed of the same calcrete we’d dug into a loading ramp, Sue interpreted my gesticulating from the cab and stopped to collect some samples.

seq2 - 27Next afternoon we passed the place where the truck had been ambushed on its way out, and later spotted our first tree since Ouadane in Mauritania. Soon rocky hills rose out of the unending sand sheet, heralding the start of the Adrar des Iforhas highlands.
We joined a piste and as the sun dropped behind us we rolled seq2 - 28into the compound known as l’Ambassade in the No Man’s Land trading post of Il KhalilBou who managed the place gave me a warm welcome, especially seq2 - 29when I handed over a solar panel and some Garmin 72s I’d promised him.

New big end shells had been ordered in from Algeria and gritty negotiations with Hassan got underway. The Taro was now in a sorry state but he was unapologetic. Nevertheless both seq2 - 30he and Mohamed were interested in buying it. In no mood to do Hassan any favours, I let Mohamed have it for the combined cost of the recovery, Rog and Sue’s towing fee and a haircut in Tamanrasset. A total loss in other words, but better than expected considering my helpless position.
The VW kalkarswas shoved into a corner, had is wheels removed and locked in the storehouse and was covered in a sheet. It’s probably still there today, but full of bullet holes, as Il Khalil ended up on the front line of the current war and got bombed by the French.

As ever, the chirpy Bou was full of business ideas. Could I ship a container full of Land Cruiser or old Land Rover parts out to Togo, or maybe we could slip a brace of Renault prime movers up into Algeria, how much are they in France anyway? And what about three double-cab Hiluxes? I said I’d find out and get back to him.

We’d crossed the Majabat, some more successfully than others. The Mauritanian guide who’d been out of his depth got paid off, and I took his place in Mohamed’s 80 as we headed for the Algerian frontier at Bordj Moktar. After their epic crossing, in 1975 the JSE had been turned back near here and sent down to the Sahel to continue their eastward traverse to the Red Sea. We weren’t going that far but insh allah hoped to range a little further across the width of the Sahara.

But our entry into Algeria was no forgone conclusion. How were we to explain our unused Malian visas? I’d already considered this and figured the worst they might do is send us down to Tessalit, the nearest Malian entry post 120km away and, with Tuareg bandits on the prowl, a risky proposition according to the Ambassade’s travel advice unit.

It was time to face the music so we rocked up at the Gendarmerie at Bordj, handed over our passports and let Mohamed schmooze the cops. He knew well it was the best way to get the better of the countless ‘Men in Hats’ you have to deal with in Algeria, but it didn’t look good. Under orders from the Free World to seal its massive and porous southern borders as best they could, what were they to make of a bunch of tourists blithely roaming across Moktar bin Moktar’s territory? The brigade commander was already on the phone to Tamanrasset, 600km away, when by chance Mohamed recognised an officer from In Salah, his home town. The guy was swiftly persuaded to vouch for Mohamed’s peerless credentials as a renowned desert guide and with, as far as Algeria was concerned, all the correct paperwork and permits in place, we were grudgingly let off the hook.

It had been a lucky break and an example of why it had been worth hiring Mohamed. In sub-Saharan countries like Mali and Niger a tourist might pay their way out of situations like this, but in Algeria I knew well (and have found out again since) that bribing small-time border officials is not done. It’s actually one of the things I like about Algeria.

Al hamdullilai!’ (‘Allah be praised’) exclaimed Mohamed, delighted to be back home after his fraught round trip to Mauritania. We had crossed Le Quartier Vide, evaded the attentions of Moktar bin Moktar and his henchmen (well, almost) and were safely back in the land of milk, honey and cheap diesel.

After a celebratory feast at a friend’s house (for which we’d all start paying very soon), we headed northwest for Tamanrasset and the Hoggar, retracing the route I’d taken with the burgundy VX a few weeks earlier. On the way we diverted to the gorge of Tim Missao (left) which I’d not visited since the 1980s in my 101 (right). The gorge is a lovely spot and represented the most animated topography we’d seen since the Guelb near Ouadane. We decided the Empty Quarter was aptly named. It made up one of the biggest sand sheets in the Sahara, void of trees, outcrops any higher than my knee and even significant sand seas. Algeria on the other hand was full of diverse landscapes: smooth granite monoliths, gnarly volcanic ranges, eroded sandstone escarpments lapped by sand banks, and of course sand seas that would cover Belgium. It was one reason why I returned here again and again. Another was that while exploring the gorge, the ever-observant Ron easily found the paintings of Garamantean horse-drawn chariots I’d missed on previous visits. The ancient rock art suggested that some two millennia ago traders from this mysterious civilisation based in southwestern Libya may have ranged much further across the Sahara than previously thought. In late 2007 similar discoveries near Jebel Uweinat in the far northwest of Sudan may do the same for the hitherto Nile-bound Ancient Egyptians.

Whether it was the stress relief or what we ate in Bordj, for us Tamanrasset passed by in a three-day blur of dozing and scurrying back and forth to the toilet block. Once the worst was over, Mohamed headed back north to In Salah and we got a change of crew for our final leg, east to Djanet.

The two new guys made me realise how lucky I was with Mohamed. To them, and many other guides, Mohamed’s crossing of the Quarter with us was seen as madness. Why risk your car out there when you could earn safe money transporting regular tour groups across the Hoggar and Tassili N’Ajjer tram lines? For all his faults and bullshit, Mohamed enjoyed a true adventure much like ourselves. We may never choose to go there again, but with his help we’d seen it for ourselves.

Already a warm, retro -spective rosey view of northern Mali’s barren sand sheet was setting in. Now it felt frustrating to be hemmed in along washboard tracks. Still, one look out of the window made up for it: the shark’s fin blade of Areggane mountain, the sand-swept canyons and rock arches of Tagrera, circular paved pre-Islamic tombs I’d never noticed before, and steps carved eons ago into a rocky sentinel that Ron had discovered on a previous trip. Our drivers had to be persuaded to make the deadly 20-kilometre diversion off the track into the unknown and once there, feigned indifference.

It was early December now and the weather was turning. Frost coated my sleeping bag after a night beside the Erg Admer dune passage which led to the oasis town of Djanet. By early afternoon the cars had clawed their way onto the dune slopes to the crest from where the tawny Tassili N’Ajjer escarpment unrolled across the northern horizon. In no hurry to reach town, we camped earlybelow the cliffs, cooked up the best of our remaining food and watched the same full moon rise as it had done over our first camp together in Morocco, four weeks and nearly as many thousand miles ago.

In Djanet next day we organised a day trip up to the Jabbaren rock art site up on the plateau. A car collected us before dawn and as the sun lit up the Erg Admer dunes behind us, we were already panting steadily up the goat track that led to the plateau top. As we trudged up, a lone figure scampered down with a cheery salaam. Behind us a hoard of bedraggled ‘illegals’ from sub-Saharan Africa had emerged fro the rocks, following our path uphill. Dropped there overnight by who knows who, they’d been instructed to wait for the guide who’d lead them across to Ghat in Libya, two days away. From there they were expecting to get to Malta and mainland Europe, but likely as not would get deported in one of Libya’s periodic purges. Less than a decade later Gaddafi had fallen with other North African despots and the trickle of migrants became a tsunami.

Even back then, it all put our own adventurous caper into perspective, but we were still pleased with ourselves. We’d driven laterally across as much of the Sahara as was possible without ensuring serious trouble and our own deportation. Now it was time to head north.

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Sahara – The Empty Quarter – Part I

Originally published in Overland Journal 2007
See also: VW Taro pickup
SEQ Intro

As with most of us, the blanks on the map have a certain attraction; who knows what you’ll find in the places nobody goes. And though I’ve been traveling in the Sahara since the early 1980s, the desert there stills holds plenty of blanks for me. Most Saharan travel occurs in the centre, a spectacular region of plateaux, sand seas and mountain ranges filling most of Libya, Algeria and Niger; the homeland of the Tuareg nomads. To the east was the so-called Libyan Desert covering parts of Libya, Sudan and Egypt. I’d been there too.

But there was one region where no one went, which no tracks crossed and where even wells could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among other names it’s known as the Majabat al-Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’ and it spills over the Mauritanian, Malian and Algerian borders a hyper-arid half -a-million square miles of not much at all.Part of the reason Saharan travellers avoid it these days was the higher-than-average chance of getting robbed. The Malian part of the Empty Quarter had in the last two decades become a runway for smugglers taking drugs, cigarettes, arms and lately kidnapping tourists. A German guy I knew who’d led an expedition across the Quarter had his group cleaned out by bandits in Mauritania, while unrest by the Kel Iforhas Tuareg in the northeast meant travellers were at risk on even the regular route south to the Niger River.

At this time banditry was a relatively new, or revisited phenomenon in the Sahara and I’d heard of or had my share of tense or close encounters since the nomadic rebellions and Islamicist activities disrupted Saharan tourism. But smugglers usually avoid all contact on the move, while bandits tend to prey in areas where they can be sure to make a hit: recognised tracks or events like the Dakar Rally, natural bottlenecks or border areas where they can make a quick getaway. By travelling off-piste in an uncommon orientation we should stay below their radar.

Nevertheless without local knowledge the run would still be too risky as we had to bend a few immigration rules to make it happen. What I needed was a local guy with good but not necessarily legitimate connections; a guide unlike most Saharan guides who was happy to get out of his comfort zone rather than follow the well-worn tourist tramlines.

I had my eye on a guy who ran an agency in Algeria and during a trip with him I put the question: how did he feel about joining me on a 1300-mile traverse across ‘Le Quartier Vide’ from Atar in Mauritania across northern Mali to Bordj Moktar in southern Algeria?

Mohamed sucked in his cheeks, raised his eyebrows and with a nomad’s typical understatement replied “C’est loin…” [it’s a long way]. He maintained good connections out there from his own smuggling days but such a trip wouldn’t be cheap, there were ‘lots of mouths to feed’. How about nice European spec turbo-diesel 80 series Land Cruiser which were then unknown in Algeria, I asked? That would do nicely. We had a deal.Ten months later I blasted across Algeria in a burgundy 80VX, from Algiers 1000 miles south to a semi-abandoned mud-brick trading post in No-Mans-Land along the north Malian frontier called In Khalil. You won’t find it on any map, even Google Earth barely picked it up, but here at a depot nicknamed L’Ambassade (below left) fuel, flour and other ‘soft’ contraband slipped out of much-subsidized Algeria into remote northern Mali.
The introduction was made and with the help of sat phones the guys at the Ambassade would offer a key supporting role if we got in trouble in northern Mali. The 80 got picked up to have it’s identity reprofiled and I flew home to get ready for the main event.

I’d never tried to pull off anything like this before – something I might have once dismissed as a stunt. But part of the appeal of pursuing adventurous goals is to push yourself a little further every time, as your experience and confidence grows.

To help subsidise the cost I invited a couple of others to join me. Roger and Sue’s ageing 80VX nicknamed ‘Eric’ were up for it. They’d joined me on my first tour to Algeria in 2000 following the turbulent 90s. Meanwhile gardener Ron with an old 60 had a bit of desert previous too and was up for it. A few other parties I turned away, some rather too attracted to the clandestine nature of the trip, while another wrote himself out by asking if we could pick up any good ganja along the way!

Both parties understood clearly that their vehicles and, at worst, their liberty were up for grabs, but recognized that actually getting shot was as likely back home in the UK unless we too produced guns – a dumb idea even if we could get them. Instead, Mohamed would be our negotiator, something which on a good day the genial former nomad could manage well.

On my recommendation Mohamed decided not to risk the plush VX I’d paid him with, but planned to use an old, ex-police Land Cruiser which he’d had converted to take the ‘African’ IHZ diesel engine. We planned to meet up in Atar, Mauritania in early November 2006.

Always liking to try something new, for this trip I’d bought myself a Volkswagen Taro – basically a badged Hilux 2.4 D from the early 90s. After several Cruisers the Taro was a very light ride and with 80,000 kms on the clock was in great shape. The original tray was missing so I got a mate to build a steel-framed plywood flat bed, cleverly modify the chassis to hold two spare tires, fit some BFGs, a Kenlowe fan and a set of OMEs all round to help carry of fuel and water across the Quarter.

I set off for Morocco as confident as I could be that my untried rig was up to the task. But when venting a thick black plume of soot while pegged out in second gear over Spain’s 10,000-foot Sierra Nevada, I did wonder if the little Taro would budge once faced with the Ouarane Sand Sea and an extra half ton on board.

Ron, Sue and Roger turned up a day late at out rendezvous in the southern Morocco country town of Tata, having been pushed back by mud slides and floods taking a high route over the Atlas. After a quick chicken and chips we set of south towards the Atlantic Highway and Mauritania.

Halfway down Sue suddenly had an idea for a protocol we should set up should we hit trouble. A mutual friend of ours back in the UK had contacts in the security services and so we tracked down a working fax and explained how we’d text him at each key stage of the trip. We’d been advised not to use our sat phones in Mali which we would be crossing ‘unofficially’ for fear of the calls being picked up by spy satellites and resulting in the dispatching of an unwanted patrol or drone. It may all sound very ‘James Bond’ but a year earlier the US had launched operations like ‘Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara’ (OEF-TS) and the ‘Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative’ (TSCTI) to try and ‘protect borders, track movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability’.

One particular guy they were after (and we were hoping to avoid) was Moktar ben Moktar (right), an Algerian-born emir holed up in northern Mali running a smuggling operation of not-so-soft goods. More brigand labeled a terrorist back then and as damned elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, his smuggling heyday was on the wane but as we were to find out, events in northern Mali were to set him right in our path.

With out man in the UK on standby we settled back for the long drive to the Mauritanian border. Just south of Layounne we filled all our tanks with the last cheap fuel from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. I’d picked up an 50-gallon drum for nothing while Ron had ‘tiled’ his 60 with a carpet of jerricans. Roger and Sue had a built-in 400-litre set up. If the pump attendant was on a commission he was having a pretty good day, while for us it was an opportunity to find out how our rides performed at near-maximum payload. With relief my Taro still managed to pull up the odd incline without protest. Perhaps the Sand Sea would not be the death of it after all…

A year or two ago the Chinese – the new best friends of many African nations – had blitzed a new coastal road from the south ‘Moroccan’ border to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, so completing the first sealed north-south route across the Sahara. That meant border formalities between the two countries had eased up (it wasn’t to last) and we slipped out of one country and into the other in just a couple of hours.

Now in Mauritania, we set ourselves a 350-mile off-road run to Atar over small bands of dunes alongside the iron ore railway. As is often the way, no matter what your experience or tire pressures, you often get stuck on the first dune day until you re-acquire a feel for the machine. For some reason too, crossing the border saw temperatures jump into the 30s. Luckily the wind was in our face (as it would be for the entire crossing) and I at least drove my VW on the temperature gauge with the Kenlowe whirring away. With our half-ton loads, all our vehicles were working hard and after traversing each bands of dunes we’ll pull up the hoods to give them a breather.

Expecting my little 60hp four-cylinder to be getting a thorough wringing, I’d bought some 50W oil and one hot evening set about changing it. One time years ago a chronically overheating Land Rover 101 had been transformed by running the engine on axle oil. This time the Taro’s gauge didn’t register much of a difference but every little bit helped.We took a cross-country excursion to cut a corner – always a thrill – and by rejoining the main piste and crossing a couple of escarpments arrived in heat-struck Atar at the base of the Adrar plateau in time for our rendezvous with Mohamed.

He turned up a day later outside town but too scared to come in. Despite adopting the shaven-headed Moorish appearance and ubiquitous blue robe, Mohamed’s Algerian ID had given him a rough time through southern Mauritania. And that wasn’t all. Following rains and tyre-destroying double punctures he’d also knocked out his low range and subsequently stressed his clutch on the way past Timbuktu. Then the guide he’d lined to lead us across eastern Mauritanian had been recognized as a former rebel and was ejected from Mauritania where he was wanted for a raid. Successive checkpoints had cleaned Mohamed out forcing him to drive by night to avoid the bribery, but the replacement guide he’d hired to get him to Atar was out of his depth. Or so the story went… Back home many had warned him that the crossing was not worth the risk, even for a free VX, but to his credit Mohamed too saw the simple appeal of a desert adventure.

Next morning we did the Big Fill Up – fuel, water and food to last us two weeks and up to 1600 miles across trackless and waterless desert; an extreme range even by Saharan standards. Ron’s old 60 was cooking on the ascent onto the Adrar plateau, Mohamed’s brakes were seizing on, cone washers were falling out of his rear hub and my Taro was not setting any land speed records on the upgrades either. Only ‘Eric’, carefully maintained by Roger over 15 years or more trundled quietly along.

We were not the first to attempt this particular traverse; we were probably the second. Clued up Landistas will know that in 1975 fellow OJ contributor Tom Sheppard led the Joint Services West East Sahara Expedition (‘JSE’). A couple of months earlier I’d spent half a day at the Royal Geographical Society’s library studying the expedition report, jotting down their waypoints laboriously gathered with sextants and almanacs twenty years before GPS came on the scene. Back then, running the Rover V8s down to 4mpg, the JSE had to carry huge fuel loads all the way from the coast. With our diesels we were expecting to consume 14mpg at worst which dispensed with the need for the JSE’s trailers or air support.
A hundred miles from Atar ruined medieval dwellings spilled down the escarpment at Ouadane, the last town. While taking lunch under the last trees for pretty much the same distance, Mohamed placated the soldiers at the nearby checkpoint, telling them we were on an innocent day trip out from Atar. In fact we were heading the other way, east into the Majabat and out of Mauritania without any formalities.

I’d kept our exact route quiet as I knew well that both the Dakar Rally and fellow travellers had been ambushed in remote areas when detailing their intentions too clearly. In fact, for want of anything better I planed to follow the JSE’s tracks into the Ouarane Sand Sea. This initial combination of dunes coupled with maximum payload would be the crux of the trip but however daunting, if the JSE had managed it then so could we.

An hour from Ouadane we left vehicle tracks for good and camped on the virgin sands, on the south side of the huge Guelb er Richat crater. Viewed from sat pics people often assume the concentric rings thirty miles across to be a huge impact structure; in fact Guelb is merely an uplifted and eroded magma dome pushed up by a magma plume from below, a sort of low-energy volcano.

Studying the maps and sat images yet again that evening, I realized I’d made a small navigational error. In a hurry to get going eastwards I’d not led us far enough south as the JSE had done to escape the outer rings of the Guelb. It underlined the meticulous attention to detail they’d made back then and how lazy we can get simply linking up the lines between GPS waypoints.

Were the outer rings truly mini-escarpments as depicted on the aged French maps or could we find a passage through? How much fuel would it consume? And what about the unseasonally high temperatures which would reduce our water range, or the 20-mile dog-leg we’d have to take through the dunes that had taken the JSE two days? After all that, Mali had a whole different set of potential dangers. In Atar we’d received bad news. Backed by Algerian and probably US support, the Malian Tuareg in northeast Mali had turned on Moktar ben Moktar and his crew, pushing them back west in a series of skirmishes directly into our path.

These thoughts gnawed at me that night with troubled dreams, a measure of the pressure I was under as we stood at the rocky shore of an ocean of sand. I hadn’t had it this bad for years, but dawn brought the unavoidable need for action and we drove into the sun as it rose over the outermost rings of the Guelb, bound for a distant JSE waypoint. We rode the undulating terrain, sometimes sand, sometimes rock, sometimes soft car-trapping sebkha or claypans where transient rains had pooled in the depressions between the ringed ridges of the crater.

Up ahead a power-sapping sand slope rose up 150 feet to a rocky cliff the height of my car; no way through there. I turned south to run clockwise around the vast crater rim, looking leftward for a gap. A few foot recces proved fruitless but eventually the terrain gave way; Mohamed spotted a car-wide ramp and went for it, accelerating hard to pop out onto the sands, free at last of the Guelb’s clutches. We snicked into low range and followed him up.

Ahead of use lay the sands of the Ouarane; low intermittent dunes aligned at around 60° and which rolled unbroken for 300 miles to the Mali border. The sand ridges were separated by easily navigable corridors. The technique would be to follow a corridor ENE while taking any navigable passes between the dunes to the south to maintain an easterly bearing, the most direct route. At first I was too preoccupied chasing JSE waypoints, figuring they were the key to the maze, while also half hoping to come across 30-year-old traces of their passing. But after a while I saw, as Tom might put it ‘the big picture’ and figured any way east was good: navigate ‘ground to map’ not the other way round.

Traversing the rolling sands in the corridors we all had our share of boggings, most usually when the lead car mired in an unseen soft patch which the rest steered round, or when we took our southward hops over the dunes. Mohamed’s 80 seemed particularly prone, due we decided later, to the diesel conversion not married to a diesel transmission. The over-geared wagon lacked the torque at key revs to pull itself through. In the meantime I’d christened my VW El Ghazal; the gazelle. For the first time I discovered the blessings of modest horsepower. The four-liter Cruisers all had the power to get well and truly stuck; the Taro, probably half-a-ton lighter and with half the power, baulked early and could be backed out to find another way. No one was more surprised than I when I was able to lead the heavy Cruisers over and around the crests from one ridge to the next.

A wind stirred up from the northeast, finally cooling temperatures but also reducing visibility and as always, bringing the worry of an all-out sand storm. After a while banks of grass covered the sands, making for rough going over the tussocks. Anywhere else this place would have long ago been grazed to a dust bowl but out here, far beyond the range of the nomads’ camels, the thick grass grew unseen, withered and died.

Somewhere along our route a Comanche aircraft had dropped in on the JSE to replenish their fuel. The report detailed how they crew had laid out an 1100-metre runway in a dune corridor. Wherever it was, the winds of three decades had long since blown any traces away and not so much as an oil drum remained.

After two days we reached our first goal: N20 43.5’ W08 50.7’. It didn’t look much different from anywhere else around here; a corridor of undulating sand between higher but now more spaced out lines of seif dunes.

This was the point where on the 9th of February 1975 the JSE had decided to make their run ‘across the grain’ of the dunes; 20-miles as the crow flies to the southern edge of the Ouarane Sand Sea and the flat sand sheet beyond. On top of the demanding terrain, vehicle problems meant it had taken them over two days to make that crossing, taking a zig-zag course around the dune peaks.

After months of trying to visualize the scene, our Saharan Rubicon did not look too bad. Some dunes were high it was true, but big dunes usually take linear formations with clearly defined passes and wide corridors. Small dunes like Algeria’s Grand Erg were much worse; a dense chaotic mass of crests and pits like storm-tossed waves.

Inspired by our good progress so far we checked the tires were down to one bar and set off in the cool of the dawn towards the first ridge, paused and turned left and then right to slip between the wind-carved summits. Another corridor, another sand slope and, always keeping to the high banks to keep a decent in hand should the sand soften, I worked my way around the barriers. When stuck I backed out while someone else went off to explore an alternative route. We worked out way south with surprisingly little drama but as I hopped from dune to dune a light mechanical knock I’d dismissed as axle play became increasingly prominent. Revving in neutral proved that is wasn’t some worn CV. I called Mohamed over for a listen. Tapping the throttle his face dropped, it was a sound he knew too well: a crankshaft bearing about to meet its end.

Part Two


 

MAN truck in the Sahara

Heading off to Algeria having only driven the MAN down from Matlock, cramming it full of bikes and heading for Portsmouth was of course not ideal. But, as much as any old banger I’ve bought, I had confidence in this one. The motor and trans had fewer miles than my girlfriend’s 05 Micra, only the rubber components – not least the original tyres – were a worry, along with all the usual anxieties.

Matt came with me to Marseille do the lion’s share of the driving and we got from Le Havre to near Montpellier in a day. Not bad at 80 clicks, but it did involve on-the move driver swaps and only a 20-min break in 14 hours.
The load of only around 1.5 tons did not make much of an impression on performance and on the hilly-but-free A7 autoroute over the Massif it was no slower uphill than my late Hilux.

Fuel consumption
MPG was the big unknown but turned out much better than the 10mpg expected: sitting on 80kph we eked out an all-time-best of 5.6kpl or nearly 17 mpg. More normal road figures were in the 14mpg range. Off road figures in the desert, including some tricky cross-country driving, sand sheet, rock fields, reg and all the rest came in at around 3.5kpl or just under 10mpg. This was with a modest fuel and water load of up to 800kg at the start of each of the three 800-km stages.

On the road
As mentioned earlier, driving the 8.136 is much easier than expected; you get great visibility, good turning circle and are never going fast enough to get into trouble. Just as well as the mass and short wheelbase of the machine felt quite intimidating when hitting an experimental 125kph in neutral down a long A7 hill on the way back. Handy to know but I won’t be trying that again. Road and engine noise are very good with the windows closed, but once open, the norm in the desert, it comes at you from all sides. Grinding through the sands it was too noisy and attention demanding to hear a sat phone ringing.

On the dirt
Off road took some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest drawback of trucks like these is that you’re sitting just ahead of the front axle. Whereas in a 4×4 station wagon you’re sat at the neutral pivot point of the seesaw (the seat at each end representing an axle), in an FC lorry you’re even beyond the ‘seat’ and so suspension travel becomes body travel too and is much the limiting factor in off-road speed. The sprung driver’s seat helped greatly but wearing a seatbelt off road (desirable in a tank like this) was not possible as it was attached to the cab floor and so locked up hard on every jerk. Interestingly one of the riders observed that the high walled tyres accounted for much of the suspension (I ran them at a ‘high-as-possible, low-as-necessary’ 35-40 psi on the sands and 50 fully loaded on the highway).
Driving across run-off channels too close to mountains and hills was the worst as it forever broke any rhythm and dropped speeds dramatically and frustratingly until I adopted a more Buddhistic approach to progress.
It’s common to claim that one’s chosen vehicle is the best there is but elsewhere off-road the agility of the 8136 was quite an eye opener. My conclusion was that gearing had a lot to do with it (even off-road you run only 2nd to 5th), aided by the foot of ground clearance and pretty good tyres. At the low 20s they got the lorry back over the Erg Admer crossing in one go (on the way out it
was more of a messy learning curve reminiscent of my 101 crossing in ’88 as described is Desert Travels. That time I had to learn the value of low tyre pressures; this time it was remembering that this thing had a central diff lock. After that I learned to turn on the air-controlled switch when anything tricky lay ahead.)
I wished I could have got some pictures of the crossed-up MAN at full chassis twist squeezing through some narrow off-piste pass or working its way through a dune-filled oued. You just have to take it from me the big tyres and clearance, gearing which makes the most of the 136hp, more diff locks than door locks, short wheelbase and great visibility gave the little MAN mobility that was never worse than the accompanying guide’ 80. But you can’t get 8 bikes and the provisions for 3 weeks in the back of a TLC.
Another thing that became apparent, although was not altogether surprising, was the vehicle’s toughness in taking its off-road beating. As mentioned, the tyre suspension had much to do with it, but the OE shocks seem to have survived without puking up their innards and the springs beat off endless misjudged hits. Nothing broke, leaked or came loose.

Vehicle adaptations
All of Matt’s work performed faultlessly. I was worried the tail lift would break off or burn up but, although the running chains got gritty with sand, it never missed a beat and was probably the best thing we could have done to the lorry.
I barely used the rear spotlight as it was wired up to the main bats and I didn’t get around to wiring it to the aux ones. Anyway, the much less powerful inside fluo lights were fine for cooking on the tail lift.
The inverter in the cab survived although the 4-way cig socket wiring got chaffed in half by the bouncing cab body and was easily fixed by a re-routing. Sand plates on the back of the raised tail lift were very handy for the 4 or 5 times I got bogged and the air line extensions on each side of the body were very handy, although one old bit of airline section developed a leak.

Vehicle problems
The worst thing that happened was the clutch slave cylinder went. It took a couple of weeks from when I first noticed (and discovered where and what a slave cylinder looked like). One of the riders who had years of Landrovering behind him assured me they can take months to go as long as you keep topping up. When it finally went we were in a crumby auberge in Hassi Messaoud – a rough oil town full of heavy machinery. As luck would have it, not two minutes walk away was a lorry parts place which dug out a slave cylinder seal matching mine, and between that place and the auberge was a resto for some nosebag, a natty clothes shop for an urgently needed new pair of trousers, a place that sold clutch fluid and another place that cleaned out the rust that had formed over the years inside the cylinder in front of the piston and which obviously knackered the seal. With a 1000kms and a ferry to catch in less than 48 hours, the whole delay cost us just £3 and 3 hours.
The tyres, which worryingly had ‘Made in West Germany’ stamped on the sides, held up OK as I made sure to keep them on the firm side, but by the end they were full of cracks and are not up to another desert trip. I had one puncture in the UK when I realised what heavy work it would be working on a split rim.
A steering wobble developed on turns which occasionally got very bad once back in France. For a depressing moment near Millau I thought I might have bent an axle or something, after the day in the desert when the whole rig jumped a metre off some sand ridges made invisible by late afternoon backlight (one rider hit one of these hard and mashed himself up pretty badly – like ‘hitting a landmine’ was how he described it).
But I needn’t have worried, an out of hours call to Matt the Lorry Doctor came up with some possible causes: shagged steering damper? could not find one; worn track rod ends? as solid as a cricket ball; a badly worn tyre? Sounded plausible and sure enough on fitting the spare the truck rolled smoothly up to Le Havre and home. Thank you lorry doctor.
It’s possible there’s a leak in the air system – to be expected after the bashing, but it seems irregular. I still haven’t got to the bottom of air brakes and whether overnight cooling in the tanks reduces the pressure significantly. Anyway, on some mornings it takes only a minute or two on tick over to release the brakes and charge the tanks back up to 8 bar.
And that’s it. The thing never got hot (85°C was max – 90 being the red zone) although I did whack on the heater and fan for the slow dune ascents. No punctures. Not a single thing broke off or came loose or leaked (apart from the air?) nor even a glass jar got smashed in the back.

Future adaptations
I may well do another bike tour to get the lorry to pay for itself but will need to make some improvements to:

  • Petrol, diesel and water storage (this time I used a local oil drum for petrol and water bags and drums for water).
  • Spotlights on the roof rack would greatly improve night-time visibility (see movie).
  • Space could be made by removing the whole rear heater system and using it for a tank
  • Mich XZL tyres on tubeless rims
  • Better storage and general utility in the cab
  •  A tank underneath the rear chassis somewhere
  • Replace OE tank and 4 jerries with a single 200-250L lorry tank
  • Music would be nice

Conclusion
For the money I don’t think I could have got a better lorry for the purpose: transporting 8 bikes to the desert and supporting them on a 3-week, 2400km tour, much of it off-piste. But touring in it would be quite an extravagance when you consider the comfort and utility of a regular 4×4 or even something like the Iveco, right. Of course having a nicely fitted-out living module on the back could change all that – and this was what the next owner or two ended up doing.

VW MAN 8.136 ~ a truck for the Sahara

man1
overlandershandbook2man2Even though for regular desert touring I’m not that positive about them in the old Sahara book [OLH2 has since replaced it], the opportunity came up to get some first-hand experience with a truck in the Sahara.
bouharetUp to a point I’ve been here before; a deafening and costly experiment with a diesel Land Rover 101 in 1988 (right; an experience detailed excruciatingly in my Desert Travels book).
man3Now (2006) for about the same price I have an M.A.N 8.136 (i.e.: 8 ton GVW with 136 hp). I spotted these a few months ago while going through a truck phase and was immediately drawn to the manageable size (driveable on a pre-1997 UK car license) if not the price. Jackson’s quoted £12,000; a place in Belgium and Denmark both asked about £9000 and later in 2009 I saw one advertised in the UK as a gunbus for nearly £18,000 plus tax!

mattsavBack in 2006 I forgot about them until a couple of days before leaving for SEQ when Matt and I tracked down a much less expensive example just down the road at Leaversleys. We checked it out and after thinking it over I figured it was worth a gamble and told him to buy it as I set off for Mali.

The new MAN in my life
As far as I can tell an 8.136 is comparable with a Unimog 1300L, but was about 40% cheaper at the time and more conventional all round: a 5-speed/2-box/3 difflock trans with long leaf springs and with a similar 5.7 litre aspirated six, but with full time 4WD and as forward control as they get without falling out and running yourself over.
I hear that the 8.136 was a 1980s collaboration with VW for the Danish army (you may recognise the VW LT Transporter-ish cab). Luckily, since the Norsemen pillaged the Isle of Wight in AD 999, peace has reigned supreme and so these MANs have not been used much; many got given away to Iraq. Mine is about 1990 with a winterised radio suite in the back (above left; since removed) and with only 10,000km on the clock.

man cabIt’s all a bit extravagant of course but my excuse was I needed a proper support vehicle for my upcoming 8-bike Algerian tour instead of making do with a station wagon with little or no capacity for broken bikes and riders. (This time, to save the long and boring road haul, I am delivering the bikes to Djanet vwdedezwhile the riders fly in.) My VW Taro pickup was to sort of fill that role but of course is no more. There it is right, on the back of another MAN, a 19/240, and about to get even more wrecked.

I like trucking…
… and quit evidently, I like to truck, but for the moment I still stand by what I said in Sahara Overland. In the Sahara the only thing a truck can do is carry more, or offer a higher level of overnight comfort but at a cost to road speed and fuel economy (a reputed 3 kpl and 90kph with the MAN…), let alone all the other drawbacks listed on p.101. We proved on SEQ that (with one exception) a regular 4×4 car can manage a two-week/2000km off piste payload in the desert. Were it not for the bike tour offering the convenience of a vehicle to transport the bikes to the desert and support them while they are there, I would not have needed the MAN.

So far Matt has managed to MoT it so all it needs now is registering (various options exist), repainting and other domestification as well as a check over.


With less than 6 weeks before I set off with a vanload of bikes to get bogged down at Tunisian Customs, we need to keep MANly mods essential, fast and simple:

  • service
  • repaint
  • back tailgate
  • increase fuel capacity
  • other jobs to make it functional

manfanbeltsI went up to do some donkeywork. One good thing with trucks is there’s no back-busting grovelling underneath, as with cars; with the cab hinged up the motor is right there like a diner counter. You can imagine when they were designing it there was no great need to jam it all in, like a modern hatchback. Need a compressor? Stick it on the side of the engine; spare tyre? Lash it to a winch behind the cab. Airtanks, mysterious brackets, metal boxes the size of a small fridge? Bolt them to the chassis – aerodynamics be buggered!
The motor oil looked fresh (it was demobed a year ago) so that’s 20 litres saved, the antifreeze looked OK too, but the four rubber belts powering various things were all changed after which I replaced the LHD headlights (Matt fitted RHDs for the MoT). We may well have a go at the hoses too, thick with green camo paint. Even though the mileage is low, I believe it‘s best to replace all rubber components which age despite the kms.
One thing soon became evident: the thing was covered from all undersides in a thick greasy gloop which has done a great service against Danish sea salt, but sure makes it messy to work on or even brush against. Next job prior to painting, off with the cab roof rack which weighs a ton (I’m getting used to it; everything does), and while up there unbolt more clamps, brackets and cabling – more scrap for the yard.
Couldn’t get some NATO sand paint as used on my Merc 190, so we popped down to Paint-u-Like in Matlock and got 4 litres of like-coloured hue mixed off the colour card menu. When it warms up we’ll hand paint the lorry to save time and if it looks too rough do something neater when I get back from Algeria.

mansideNow I know Denmark is a small country but the fuel tank is a paltry 140 litres, enough for 500kms; twice that would be handy. Obviously a used lorry tank would be the go and the place we bought the MAN off was going to chuck one in. But they didn’t and the hassle in finding and fitting a possibly rusty and leaky right-sized giant item with only four shopping days left to Xmas made us decide on a rack of jerries. So it was off with the big metal box to remount in the gloop on the exhaust side and, shortly, on with four chunky MoD jerry racks from our good friends, Anchor Supplies and heck, why not, four new jerries for the first time in years. That will give me 220L or 770 clicks, still not enough, so I may well just get me an oil drum in Algeria once the bikes are out; there’s plenty of room.

Attack of the Winged Ferret

Honestly, when Matt moves it can give you whiplash – but it does help if Barry is in the vicinity and gassed up. We had been umming and ahhing about how to get bikes into the
back of the shoulder-high deck without hernias or damage. With a shortage of trees to swing a pulley from, my instinctive solution was a scoffolding pipe A-frame hinging off the back corners – the way the ancient Egyptians used to erect their obelisks and a bit like a skip lorry lifting its skip. Another car pulling the rope and/or the MAN reversing with a tied off rope (so lifting the bike) was the plan. NIce, light and simple; you wonder why all delivery vans don’t do it that way.

mantaillift

Matt liked the idea too until various operational flaws manifested themselves: ideally the A-frame needed to be not on the back corners but inboard a bit like a skip lorry – but the tarp and frame get in the way. Then Matt had the bright idea of an ex-lorry tail lift and sure enough, after a couple of weeks he located a nice one nearby off a 2002 Iveco at nearly the right width and for a couple of hundred quid.
Sure it weighs a lot but lifts 500kg and anyway weight is one thing you don’t have to worry about too much with a truck. It’s unlikely to have any effect on performance and manpspin the desert the MAN will be barely loaded anyway.

Some recently acquired sandplates hooked on the back they’ll make a nifty ramp for rolling bikes on. As it is, none of the desert bikes weigh more than 200kg. Another benefit of the tail lift is a very handy variable height table (VHT).


manfulWith only a couple of days before I leave for Algeria on a bike tour I’ve finally done a couple of hundred miles in the lorry and in a nutshell:  it’s easier to drive than it looks.
The whole lorry deal can be daunting if you’ve never done it before and every time I see it after a while I’ve thought “cripes, I can’t drive that thing safely“, but then again we all thought the same about cars and bikes once. Only difference is, we were young and carefree then! Fact is, you just need to remember it’s no wider than any other bus or lorry, and about as short as it gets, being only half-a-metre longer than Matt’s VX Tojo.

Before I left Matlock we nipped down to Anchor for a tarp and strung it up over the uncovered back (mostly hidden by the tail lift), and then bolted a couple of pegs to the tail lift platform to keep the steps or sand plate/bike loading ramp in place. That tail lift is manliftergoing to be a real boon; I just hope it lasts as the greased runners are exposed to dust and sand. At least if it packs up we’ll have enough of us to reload by hand. The lift platform has been locked out against the frame with a hinged hasp for off-roading and is switched on inside the cab to deter messing about. In the cab is also a switch for a back floodlight which has already proved useful for unloading and reloading bikes until they all jammed in with inches to spare.

The auxiliary batts are new and now running a 24-volt inverter and 4-way cig jobby with a 12-volt dropper. Main batts are original but look OK. The 4-jerry rack on the fuel tank side now gives 220 litres or around 800kms. Most of what you can see is now a shade of sandy ‘blush’ with matt black trimmings.

What’s all that smoke on the left? Is the Pope dead again? No, we were just playing with the back heater and wondering how it works other than on diesel and with a fan. A little metre indicates it’s clocked up 347 hours warming Danish cockles over the years which makes me think the MAN has not been as idle as it’s speedo indicates. Right now there is little use for this heater apart from stopping the bikes catching cold across France. It got flogged.

Initial driving impressions
Coming down the M1 I kept a close count of the vehicles I overtook topping out at around 2: a 12-axle mega-crane being escorted by vans with flashing lights; and a propane-powered roadsweeper that must have got lost on the way to the tip. The MAN sat steadily on 80 kph up all the grades and touched 90 when I wasn’t looking, but 80 seems fine. Engine is lovely and smooth like any six, it didn’t feel strained or crude or wander the lanes and was altogether a pleasant surprise.
There are some great sound effects besides the roar of the 5.7 being gunned: there’s a superb whistle in the middle gears as zillions of cogs mesh about, and of course that squirrel-traumatising psssSHTTT as the air tanks blow off every time you touch the brakes.
Steering feels good even on those knobbly tyres. Suspension is like any empty 4×4 with the edge taken off by the suspension seat. Cab noise is OK (Defender-ish levels – you can talk OK although it’s more rewarding if there’s someone else in the cab with you), and the cab heater could double up as a mobile beef jerky factory. For a full-time 4WD there virtually no drivetrain lash which is a relief – must be the low mileage.
Only the air brakes take some getting used too – they lack the progressive feel of hydraulics and the potentially destructive momentum of the 4 or 5-ton brick is probably the most intimidating thing about driving it at the moment. Although the brakes are powerful enough to lock the tyres, all in all I’m quite pleased it will only do 80-90 max.
Those Mich XL knobblies are not as bad as the squishy and slippery XSs they resemble. I did notice the overlanding lorries at the Adventure Show last weekend all ran my sort of tyres. I suppose the weight has a lot to do with it, but I would prefer normal XZY-type road tyres – and in the more widely-used (in Africa) 14″ size instead of the 12.5s it runs now. Here, they cost hundreds of pounds each of course, but I may be able to pick some up in Algeria. There is a faint hope 14s may raise the gearing and so top speed a notch, but it has to be said the gearing feels spot on right now; you pull away in 2nd and reach the long range of 5th asap.
All this heavyduty gearsticking, ginger braking and clutch hauling, as well as the stress-of-the-new and even just getting in and out of the thing is tiring of course, so it’s a relief Matt is coming with to Marseille to share the load.
Have you ever noticed the full array of mirrors lorries have? I thought it was just my MAN but now I see they all have 3 or 4 on the offside at varying angles and curvatures to see all sorts of angles, from the white line-indicating alongside the offside front tyre (nifty in the extreme) to blind spots in all directions. Very gratifying when things get tight.
In town the lack of speed is not such a problem (in fact it isn’t anywhere) but besides all the rest, you also suddenly start paying attention to bridge heights, other lorry mirrors, too far out lamp posts and the like, as well as those red roadsigns with max permitted lorry weights. Luckily the 8136 is a ‘normal’ 7.5 ton size which gets into most streets while bringing with it a certain ‘Moses parting the Red Sea’ effect on traffic. All very nice while it lasts. And when you get it wrong the shortness is very handy and saves a lot of crushed walls.

Read: MAN in the Sahara

Mercedes 190 Desert Sedan

If you buy your gran some trainers and a tracksuit and take her
on a triathlon don’t be surprised if she has a fatal heart attack…
Mercitus, 2005 AD

mersnowLate 2003. Having travelled far and wide in the Sahara on trail bikes and in 4x4s, there isn’t much more to prove with these types of vehicles; not surprisingly, they work. With my Land Cruiser and Honda XRL sold I had plans to get a normal car, but could not resist something that, with a minimum of expense, would also make a functional desert car. I like things that do it all.
vwlrdgTwo-wheel drive exploration in the Sahara dates from the British WWI Light Car Patrols and as we know, the LRDG roamed all over the Libyan Desert in Chevrolet trucks. Fast forward and these days the likes of the Plymouth Dakar Rally shows that 85% of old bangers can make it across the desert so, with a bit of work, a robust two-wheeler should do well in all but the sand seas.

What car?
I was looking for a well-known and plentiful, reliable, economical, tough, basic, big diesel for around £500. I started with Citroen ZXs and lingered over Peugeot 405s and 205s but was not convinced by FWD. Although I couldn’t recognise one in the street, I considered Toyota sedans too but, with their great reputation for reliability, they’re expensive for a boring old car. I then discovered how cheap and prolific Mercedes 190s were; a Poor Man’s Merc from the mid 1980s. The usual web resources produced promising reports: high mileages were common with no rust problems and great reliability.

Most diesel 190s seem to be up north where I eventually picked up a five-cylinder 2.5D with 228,000 miles for £800. Problems added up to only small oil leaks (common and not worth worrying about) and… that’s it. Everything worked, the inside was amazing for the mileage, it had had a recent cheap respray and there was no rust (or so I thought…). Engine oil pressure was good too, though the machine was much plainer than I imagined for a car from a classy marque; inside it sure looked like a basic entry-level Merc. I did however like the sun roof – what a great feature!

On the way home the well-known chronic gear change manifested itself, and also an annoying fore-aft wobble on slow changes as if the engine mounts were shagged. And… what a slug (after a torquey HJ61). I’m sure glad I didn’t go for the 2-litre four. Still, it sits on 80+, brakes and corners with no slack in the steering or worrying noises. First mpg was 46 – pretty damn good for a quarter-million mile diesel.

First thing was to do a few long runs to try and find some more faults, but nothing except that wobble cropped up. So after a month I decided it was safe to take the plunge.

With a Morocco research trip lined up for February 2004, I set about fixing the 190 up for a bit of stony off-roading. For the moment this added up to:

• Bigger tyres
• Taller suspension
• Bashplate
New clutch

mer - 11While I was in the Gilf over Christmas I left the car with Andy at Allisport in Gloucestershire with instructions to replace the oil-soaked plastic ‘bashplate‘ with something with more of a clang to it. A month later AlliAndy had done a great job. How rare is is that you ask someone to make a custom fabrication and get exactly what you asked for. The plate was 1.5m long, covering the sump and gearbox, with a special cowling going up round the front to protect the bottom of the radiator, a weak point when road cars nosedive off dunes which they have to attack faster than a 4×4.

mer2tyresWith the bash fitted, the car still refused to blow up in my face so I set about sourcing some tyres. I didn’t want off-road tyres, as long as it’s dry, normal road tyres work fine in the desert at low pressures. But I wanted something a tad taller than the normal 185/70 15s. Only a few tyre websites offer full details of dimensions, but Continental was one of them (or at least they replied to the enquiry fast): Their reinforced Vancos were 655mm tall over the standard 625mm (left). Once the suspension was raised they’d fit in – probably, and the width was only 20mm greater so hopefully would not foul the shocks or body. My Tyres did five Conti Vanco Contact 195/70 R15 97T RF (reinforced) for 40 quid each, mail order.

mer - 5Mercedian Desert Dealer Gerbert advised me that jacking up a 190 was easy; you just replaced the spring pads on top of the coil springs; they are available in various thicknesses. He usually gets it done on the way out in Morocco or Tunisia as its a tricky job. I wasn’t so sure about stressing the original springs with thicker pads as I had a few trips in mind and one spring had recently been replaced. So I ordered a set of new springs from Coil Springs in Sheffield, recommended by Matt. My request was an educated guess: 20% heavier duty and about half an inch longer. I wasn’t after a radical lift as I didn’t want to stress the steering or final drive joints, and didn’t really know what I was doing. And anyway, the 20% HD would keep it high. (FYI, 190s are more typically lowered; apparently it looks mean and sparks nicely off speed humps…) With independent suspension, an inch at the spring mounted half way along the wishbone adds up to double that at the wheel (basic geometry) so Coil Springs asked me for loaded and unloaded measurements and got on with it.

mer - 1Fitting them was a nasty job, especially on the back where Coil’s version was way too long and caused much aggro until I finally worked this out. They chopped them down a bit and sent them back quick. But even with spring compressors it took a few African solutions to ‘explode’ them into place, and not without some blood and bruises. At the same time I slapped on standard new shocks. With the car jacked up I went round the block waiting for something to snap, and then nipped off up the road to Derbyshire.

I‘d booked in for some surgery at Matt’s with the help from his old mate, Barry. Various bits were ordered off Eurocar Parts or GSF, including a clutch kit (who knows how old the current one was) a spare water pump, belts, hoses and filters. And, a bit of extravagance: a 5L tin of ‘NATO Sand’ paint from Anchor.

mer - 4By a stroke of luck a guy in the barn next to Matt’s was scraping his 190 and invited Matt and myself to pick it clean and dump it for him. An hour later we’d grabbed the top front shock bushes, rad, blower fan (it was an auto), lights, wheels and ash tray. After just four days Barry emerged from his shed with all boxes ticked: new clutch, respray, new upper shock bushes, fuel/brake line protection plate and an extra fan at a great price. It would have taken me weeks to make a mess of the same job.

mer - 6A week later I picked up the 190. The height looked just as I’d envisaged it: a couple of inches at the front and double that at the back where the weight will go. Driving it with all the old wheels and other junk in the boot was just right, a bit firmer and higher but nothing weird. And, praise the Lord, that infernal for-aft wobbling was all but gone. Was it the new clutch or prop grease. Who knows; we reckon it’s the anti-radar paint.

April 2004 – Morocco
[in brackets] refers to Morocco Overland routes

I had to cook up some new Moroccan routes for Sahara Overland II and the test run with the Merc was a chance to kill two birds with one radiator fan. Heading out across France in late February with an unknown car, I fought off the ingrained paranoia born from years of running cheap cars and bikes. In the end the worst thing was a dodgy indicator; fuel consumption at 70mph was in the low 40s (15kpl), it wasn’t devouring oil and ran smoothly and quietly. I picked up the geef at Malaga airport and after a night in a posh Malaga hotel and a walk through the fabulous Atarazanas covered market, we drove to the port and bought a single to Melillia.
I hadn’t been here since staggering back from my very first Sahara trip in 1982, and with a tank full of duty-free fuel we rolled through Nador border crossing and south into the hills of Rekkam.

mer - 20Our first piste was across the Rekkam plateau, an easy-looking track to see how the car would cope. After a few kilometres we tried out a thinner piste heading south, but once over an escarpment came across a oued crossing that looked a bit of a gamble at this early stage. So we backtracked up the hill, inched over shallow creeks and continued on the eastbound plateau track.
We spent a freezing night in an abandoned building, the gale whistling through the empty windows, and next morning fuelled up over breakfast at Ain Benimathar. The 190 had managed its first piste without complaint.
mer - 22Encouraged, we headed south down the highway to Bouarfa, a spacious desert town in the clear spring sunshine, and stocked up with fruit and veg for the night’s camp. South of town, near the Algerian border, we headed out on a very stony piste to Beni Tajite [ME4]. This one was a bit more challenging with the odd CLANG!! from the bashplate or floor. There were many more wash-outs and oueds to cross too, but the raised angles got the car through with barely a scrap. Berbers were camped alongside the track; the young girls dressed in colourful tasselled outfits like gypsies.

mer - 8A couple of big oueds had washed-out concrete fords which we had to drive around, then halfway along the track petered out in a very stony oued. Reluctant to carry on and probably get stuck, we took another track south [ME5], hoping to get to the N10 Desert Highway we’d left that morning. Soon that petered out too – the usual Saharan scenario – and we were driving cross country over merbellygnarly washed-out mud banks and steep-sided oueds which needed to be approached at an angle to get over. Just a couple of kms from the road we were trying to work round a mini canyon, probing here and there when my early over-confidence got the car well and truly bellied out.
With a wheel or two sticking in the air and unable to go forward or back, I airjacked the car to get some rocks under the wheels. A few tries of this proved useless; they just got spun out (an LSD might have helped here). We weren’t getting far so I jacked up again, dug away at the side of the ditch on which the car rested and tried reversing out on the sand plates. Hey presto! the car was freed. By now though, I was covered in dust, soaked in sweat and worn out, so we decided to camp right there and work out tomorrow, back-tracking all the way to Bouarfa if need be.
As dusk settled, I climbed up a hill and has a good look a round. There was no way anything was going to cross the sandy 20-foot high banks of the oued which lay between us and the road, but maybe we could get round it a few kms upstream where it wasn’t so deep.
mer - 23It’s never comforting to spend the night stuck or lost, but with the road so near we knew we’d make it somehow, even if we had to leave the car there.
Sure enough next morning we came across a nearby mine from where a track led back to the Desert Highway [MS11]. The car still steered straight and ran smoothly after yesterday’s beating so at the Guir Bridge mer - 27we headed onto a lovely piste up the Oued Guir to Gourrama [now sealed] passing the lovely old ruins of Tazouguerte and the old Legionnaires fort at Atchana (above) along side the river. This was more like it.

Backtracking east to Boudenib via the amazing Ziz Gorges and Rissani, we were ready next day for a run across the desert to Erfoud [ME2]. However, the wind had come up overnight and with no one at the fuel station and an unfixed puncture, it looked like our short cut to Erfoud would have to wait. In Boudenib we got the tyre plugged and followed the regular route down to Zagora along the Oases du Ziz. Erfoud looked dreary in the haze so we set off for Erg Chebbi along the rubble road and then got on the sands.

mer - 10Like many before us, we got mixed up on the way to the Erg and in the poor visibility ended up running cross-country to correct our mistake. At one point I descended a small dune too timidly and got stuck pointing up a v-slope: time to learn 2WD sand recovery.mersand
In the end it took the whole deal with lowered pressures and air jacking onto the sandplates to get the car out, two metres at a time. After that I drove with a bit more panache and we recovered the Merzouga track (now a road). By now the car and our clothes were full of sand and visibility was getting much worse with the car getting hot in the stiff tail wind.
I wasn’t looking for new routes down here, just a chance to film a 2WD supplement to my Desert Driving dvd against the backdrop of the Erg (the only decent deserty location I knew of). Clearly this was not filming weather or even much fun, so we turned round to head for Erfoud. The guidebook spoke of Chez Michel, a plush auberge up the track, and within two hours of kicking sand in each other’s faces we were spreading out in a lovely big room at the auberge. Never mind the expense, you’d never get this sort of place in the central Sahara so we lapped it up. The food that evening added to the experience and the patron introduced himself and told us about his early days exploring the area in an old Renault 12.

mer - 17190s have the steering lock of a London taxi, but the last day or two the left wheel had been scraping and bottoming against something and the steering wheel was off true. Time to bend down and take a look. Turned out the rusty old wishbone had curled up (left) under the beating of recent days. A rock had kneed the box section in the guts and it had lost its rigidity. Oh well, I was in the right country to find used Merc spares; in some towns more that half the cars are old Mercs and it’s not unusual to be driving along with Merc in front, Merc behind and two Mercs passing the other way.
We took a road west which ended up in Rissani which seemed much livelier than Erfoud. Asking at the first garage we got on the usual African run around town with a guy on a moped; to one shop, then another and finally some dude’s lock up where a few 190-looking arms lay on the mer - 16floor. Negotiations commenced. In the meantime I’d called Matt on the bat phone to see what a 190 wishbone costs in the UK to give me a clue what I was bargaining for. I was happy to drive to a dealer up country and get a new one, but in the end, with all parties playing the usual games, we settled for a price with fitting.

We headed east for Tazzarine where we hoped to cut a track down to Zagora [MS2].
Recent rain had some huge bugs on the wing, swarms of locusts were splattering against the screen. Tazzarine had a huge auberge-hotel (the Bougafer resort) clearly set up for overnighting tours with karaoke and other tawdry allurements. Not our sort of place but after Michel’s we weren’t counting.
South along the track to Zagora grading and sealing was in progress [to Tarhbalt on MS3], but beyond that we got mixed up around some village with a maze of half-finished tracks and the same intimidating kids you get north of the Todra Gorge. Bollocks to that and bollocks to them; if a road was on the way there would be no piste for the book so we headed back and took the long way round to Zagora. We spent the night in the Hotel de Palmerie, same as five years ago; one of the original hotels in town with great food and much cheaper than the flashier places down over the oued.
We weren’t having much luck logging new pistes, but from Zagora we were determined to take a route north of Jebel Bani to Foum Zguid [MS5; now a road]. How hard could that be to find? In the end it turned out the turn off was right by our hotel and so we fumbled out around the back of town on our way west. Passing plenty of agriculture and palmeries, the piste started off busily and route finding was pretty easy as all we had to do was drive west with the jebel to our south.

merms5By half way the gardens were behind us with only the odd Berber tent in he distance. Around mid-afternoon we made it to Foum Zguid, having given the bash plate and suspension a full work out. Foum is a lovely quiet town, at the very foot of the ranges with the Sahara unrolling before it: next stop Timbuktu. We parked up in the town square under a big tree for fresh orange juices and decided to head for Tata that night mer - 18along the Desert Highway [MS11]. On the way the bugs were now out in full flight, splattering continuously against the front of the car; by the time we got to Tata the rad was plastered in mashed yellow insectiods. After a night in the Rendezvous in a room just a bit bigger than the bed (but with a good meal in the Relais hotel down the road), we were heading for the big one: [MW6] 400kms across the desert to Smara in the Western Sahara.

mer - 14But before any big piste one weigh things up and I thought the gearbox was making some odd noises. It’s hard to tell as a 190 gear change feels like stirring chopped-up tennis balls in porridge. I’d never got round to changing the gear oil before I left; now was the time to do so before we headed on what might be a tough two-day piste. I pulled off the road and lifted the car onto a jerry, unscrewed the bash plate but found I couldn’t undo the filler plug without a big hex drive (the sort of thing that should be checked at home. Have I not read Sahara Overland?).

mer - 13No worries, we tied the bashplate onto the roof through the doors and headed for the next town, someone would know how to fix it. In the back street of Akka we came across Aboullah and his hole-in-the-wall repair shop. He drained out the black ATF and showed me the result, swimming with bronze grit.

“Le zinc roue”, was the problem, he said.

Cinq roue?”, I said (zinc wheel, fifth gear?).

“Oui!”

mer - 24It was only a couple of months later I realised he was saying synchro (‘san-kro’) with an Afro-French accent. He showed me one off another gearbox; looked like a gear wheel to me – is that a synchro, who knows?mer - 12 I knew gearboxes pack up gradually and a year later it was still running fine – but I thought pushing on to Smara alone was a risk, so we decided to head for some place called Marrakech. But on the way we could not resist one more piste. And it turned out to be a beauty, [MA2; now also mer - 25sealed] a lovely drive not on any map up a long gorge from Aït Herbil via Igmir and through the western Anti Atlas to Tafraoute.
The bash plate was clanking away merrily and at times the 190 was a handful, spitting up rounded stones along some river beds, but it was a perfect finale. mer - 26Out of Igmir gorge the engine was well and truly cooking. Running with heaters and fan on max, we stopped halfway to cool off and them again on top. I’ve since realised that the rad cap has a habit of somehow undoing itself or blowing off, which can’t help matters.
So, after a fun couple of days exploring the tourist souks of Marrakech, we bombed back up to Ceuta, Spain and home. Mission accomplished.

Test run summary

  • The Allisport bashplate clearly was a winner; without it we would have got sumped in the first few days.
  • Departure angles were amazingly good too; the rear tow arm spares the bumper and incredibly the exhaust survived. But from the state of the bashplate I think the front could be a bit higher; full thickness spring pads would give another 20mm in height.
  • The airbag was great, but does underline the need for an exhaust pipe. A couple of brackets cracked but overall I’m amazed it made it unscathed when you see the state of the floor pan either side.
  • Tyres. Well, one puncture right on the tread edge was par for the course. I never really got to experiment with them much at sand pressures. On rocks anything black and round works as along as it lasts.
  • Other problems, minor electrics like interior lights not coming on/going off, and since then, other sand/dust related gremlins.
  • The overheating on steep hills is a pain. The second fan was not wired in but will clearly be useful.
  • And the gearbox? Well, I’ve got used to it now; I was probably just panicking; it could be 236,236 miles old like the rest of the car. For road driving it’ll last a few more years.
  • Some sort of drive axle brakes or LSD may be worth investigating…
  • Other than that, engine still rattles along as fast, quietly and efficiently as you like.

Epilogue
Apart from the inconvenience and expense, I did not regret dumping the 190 a few weeks ago in Croatia and now, with the luxury of hindsight I can make some preternaturally wise observations on Project One Niner Zero.
The plan of course was at least, interesting: to try something different. The whole 2WD v 4×4 motivation was worthwhile, and the car scrapped through its task in collecting both routes and first-hand 2WD experiences in the Sahara. But, assuming mine was normal, I would not buy another 190 2.5D: too slow, that fore-aft wobble, dodgy electrics (like wipers coming on with the lights), doesn’t steer that nicely (even before springs), and actually 800 quid was a lot for an 18 year old car with 230,000 miles.

I still feel all my mods were in the ballpark, though they may appear excessive as I had plans for a few more Sahara trips, not one and a half. Preventative maintenance? Well I could have done more, but where do you start with an old car? The whole point is to run it till it drops and that box has been ticked. Nevertheless, for a single trip with less expense:

• Bashplate: essential – and the fuel line protection was useful too
• Bigger tyres: not really necessary (but of course good/new tyres are)
• Suspension: I would just fit the thickest spring pad, and maybe new springs and not bother with shocks or longer/harder springs. Let the bash do its work.

That said, the firm springs and bigger tyres did all add up to great angles on the dirt. The gearbox was still going OK 15,000 miles later (but maybe could not hack another Sahara trip). As for the steep hill overheating, I was a bit lazy and didn’t really look into it apart from the obvious things.

P6020011.JPG

going…

When we took the Merc to Croatia with our two kayaks I had an idea it might not make it, but I usually think that with my cars. Sure enough, it started overheating up steep hills and the bigger alpine passes took a few cooling stops to get over. At the top of one we packed the rad with snow (above) and refilled the spare bottles from a stream. Pulling away for the downhill stretch I thought the steering was a bit stiff; maybe just low revs with the steering pump? But half an hour later, having whizzed through a stack of hairy hairpins, the front wheel half broke off….

Zernez

going…

Turned out the worn steering knuckle had had popped out. We deliberated over dumping it, but that would cost dearly in tidy Switz, so the new part arrived at the village next day and we carried on. Now running the engine on new gearbox oil (the mechanic had to be restrained at the very idea! He thought the car was a rusty abomination), the passes where crawled over in one go, though still inching into the red and with heater fans on stun. Then in Italy the alternator went, the fan could not blow, the windows or indicators would not work. Mulling it over on the autostrada and through Slovenia, unsure what would break next, we decided to try and flog it or just dump it the next time the engine stopped.

Conclusion: As is often the case with old cars, components do not wear evenly as the mileage piles up; engines typically last longest of all and so you think: ‘I’ll fix it as there’s still a bit of life in it’. Now it is clear that the heavy duty and longer springs plus the Morocco trip exacerbated the wear on the aged wishbone knuckle ball joint thing. It may have been a Merc before Mercs lost their build quality in the late 1990s, but it was still a tinny old car with a very high mileage.

As the great bodger-philosopher Mercitus observed: If you buy your gran some trainers and a tracksuit and take her on a triathlon – don’t be surprised if she has a fatal heart attack.

P6060025.JPGGone!

March 2009. After the 190 went I ran an Audi 80 tdi for a couple of years; a much better-built machine for a similar price. Now, if I go back in a desert 2WD I’d get a French hatchback like a Twingo or an airey C15-D, or a Micra or an Audi Allrad if I’m having a good year.

VW Taro (Hilux) Desert Pickup

I’ve always been attracted to the simplicity of a pickup in the Sahara. Where weather, payload security or (inside) passengers are not issues, what more do you need; a self-propelled platform with a steering wheel and a seat, just like the LRDG (left). The tray behind the cab is big, loads low and is easy to get to.
First choice would have been a 70 series Toyota (right) but the extreme scarcity of 70s in the UK and the expense of bringing one in from Europe or Australia meant not this time.

Tojo 60s were cheap and easy to find in the UK then, and had the same running gear and engine as an early 75. And heck, while we’re cutting off the back body, why not cut the thing in half and slap an extra metre into the chassis to make a useful, US-sized bed?

So Matt collected a 60 sight unseen for 1100 quid; a TLC in dire need of more TLC. But driving it around a bit more proved it was just too shagged in the transmission to be worth investing in, so I flogged it to a mate in Niger with fewer reservations about its condition. Amazingly, I came across it a few weeks later near Bilma with a bunch of happy Eclipse punters in the back, following five days of intensive mechanical surgery in Agadez. Even today old 60s are still much sought after in the Sahara. But in the meantime I’d decided an extended pickup cut out of a 60 was not worth the din of the angle grinder.

I’d always liked the idea of a Land Rover HiCap (right). If nothing else it would add a useful promotional angle to our Empty Quarter crossing which was first completed by prototype LR 101s. But even before you’ve juggled the lottery of buying an LR, the prices of HiCaps proved to be two or three times more than a Todje of the same age and in no better condition. Old Todje’s really were a bargain in the UK back then; you got a lot of car for your money.
If I was working a 4×4 year-round, a TLC have been the obvious choice, but all I do is a couple of desert trips a year while the rest of the time the car (well, the sort of car I can afford) rusts and depreciates and is a dog to drive in the UK. A Hilux pickup should handle the load and landscape, hopefully scrape through the dunes where power is a premium, use less fuel and all in all, be sufficient for my needs even if it lacked the grunt of a 2H engine.

I ebayed £847.12p for a ’91 2.5 diesel Hilux (left) on its second owner with 180,000 miles. I met matey at the station, asked if there was anything I needed to know, and set off back to London, hoping I’d not bought a crate. After driving 60 and 80-series tanks, the lightness of the Lux was a treat – at 1400kg it’s 30% lighter than a 60 but with 80% of the horsepower… That’s an idealised way of looking at it.
With the red Hilux’s vibrating and clanking UJ and props It was hard to tell how it really ran, but it started, pulled and braked well, kept cool and didn’t look too bad for a working pickup. If you think TLC models are complex, Hilux are no less confusing to an uninitiate, but it seems this was a Mk 3 LN105 with 24-volt starting, leaf springs with a 4-cylinder 2.5 non-turbo engine (the turbo 2.5s found on Surfs etc are said to be head crackers). It could be the same model as the famously unkillable Top Gear Hilux.

After a TLC, a Hilux’s undercarriage looks unnervingly skinny: shocks like pencils, diffs like tea cups. The crux is obviously not to drive and load it like a Land Cruiser. A closer inspection at Matt’s didn’t reveal any great dramas: filthy air filter, gravel in the tailgate, crappy rust repairs, a missing tailpipe and a UJ and prop bearing with more play than Wimbledon in June. Nothing too bent, broken or missing. With Milners just down the road, Matt set to fixing the obvious flaws.

Then a Volkwagen Taro came into our orbit; a VW-badged Hilux sold in Europe during the 90s. No, I’d never heard of them either. Hiluxes (and their derivatives, Surfs and 4Runners, aka Tacomas in the US) are effectively light duty Land Cruisers, but how bad could they be for the desert? Their reputation is no worse than TLCs, they’re all over the Sahara (especially Mauritania) and there are plenty of old ones rusting quietly away in the UK.
The Taro had been resting since at least 2003, another early 90s LN105 in all but badge, but obviously in much better nick and only a couple hundred quid more than the red one. Formerly used on Linda McCartney’s donkey sanctuary (or some such) with 70,000kms, LHD and missing a back tray where a cabin had sat. It had a bench seat, horrid 16″ splits and one 12v bat with space for another which suggested an African ‘export’ model.
A quick drive back along quite Peak district roads with Matt’s 80 covering my bare rear proved it to be a bit gutless – the squashed header pipe we’d noticed or just the reality of an aspirated 2.4 in need of a damn good thrashing (or a turbo)? Time will tell. And of course the unloaded back bounced all over. But the gearbox felt tighter than the red one so, with less than 50,000 miles I think I’ll take the Taro please waiter. The red Hilux is heading to Niger with the white 60’s engine, box and the Taro’s springs and other spare. Matt will take the chance to steam and waxoil the back before we tuck in the new bed.

Taro Readings
This Taro will have to go a bit further than most for its first desert trip, lugging enough fuel and water for a week-long, 1000-mile stage across the Sahara’s western ‘Empty Quarter’ from Mauritania to Algeria. But with only me in the vehicle the payload ought not top out at more than 600kg, and three quarters of that will be ever-diminishing fuel and water. So, apart from renewing the perhaps ageing rubber and repairing what is worn out or broken, what is initially needed is:

New suspension. I hoped to experiment with parabolics again but none available, so we sourced some OME springs from Italy.
16″ steels on BFG ATs. Yikes, 6 of them cost nearly as much as the car but they do work.
A pokey 13″ 265W Kenlowe fan. Hiluxes get hot working in dunes I’m told.
New timing belt (normally due at 100,000km).
A custom-made flatbed back tray. We did follow a rusty Mk 2 bed on ebay which didn’t sell for 50 quid but even at that price we thought it would be easier to start from scratch and built something better than standard.
This tray is going to take some organising, but a flat-bed is easiest to make and darn useful. They are commonly fitted to Hiluxes in Australia. It turns out regular-tray Hilux wheel arches are much higher than they need to be, so the flatbed can be not much higher than normal. Space underneath can be used for storage, fuel or whatever. I’m still undecided if I just chuck it all in and rope it down under a tarp, or make some built-in dividers. Probably the former as the marine ply floor Matt has lined will be easy to partition.
For the SEQ the simplest tarobackframelong-range fuel solution is a 205-litre drum which I can dump when I’ve finished with it. I found a couple outside a local garage which hopped obediently into the back to the red ute. Haven’t had a chance to pin down a 105s fuel consumption yet, but if a 4-litre 2H engine gets 15mpg (4kpl) at worst then I hope the Taro will max down at 20 (7kpl). Averaging 20 mpg for 1000 miles is 50 gallons which is the drum, the normal tank and a couple of jerries.


As with all custom jobs it has all taken much more work and been fraught with complications, but I’ve been there and done that so the less I have to know about that the better. With nothing available in the UK at any price we sourced some OMEs from Italy (below right) – as usual the price was substantially less than in the UK. Along with the new BFGs the pickup was now right on its tiptoes and the barely long enough shocks were getting dizzy under the strain. This was without the full back body, let alone 400 liters of Mauritanian gasoil, so we’re hoping it will settle down a bit once it’s all built up. I do wonder if I may have gone OTT with the ‘400kg-permanent load’ springs which the VW will exceed only occasionally. Time will tell if it rides like the Forth Bridge or if we need to try and take a spring out of the back. I suppose this is where those airbag assisters  would come in handy but it’s just another thing. I want to keep this one as simple as.
Recognising the OME set up might lead to spinal injuries we decided to mount two spares right at the back rather than ‘Dukes of Hazard-style’ in the tray off the roll bar. Being big BFGs they take up a lot more space when they’re off the axle but as luck would have it, they just squeezed in between the back springs and pipe. And once Barry moved the tyre-winch crossmember up a bit they fitted without buggering up the departure angle too much. To spare the tyre winch a hernia the top spare is wing-nutted directly to the crossmember on long studs while the lower, more readily accessible spare tyre is held on by the winch chain as normal. Holes had to be cut into the tray rearmost cross members to enable the crank handle to get in there.
I got to thinking how is it that Tojo spare tyre winches hold the tyre in place over all terrains so securely but just simply wind or unwind on the crank handle without any rachetting or locking. Dr Matt drew on his pipe, tucked his thumbs under the unfashionably large lapels of his lab coat and explained: it’s probably all to do with worm-drive gears and ratios. A worm drive (a gear like a drill bit with spiraling teeth) actuates on a regular roundy-round gear to hoist the wheel up because the ratio is set at a Newtonian optimum. But the wheel – attached to the regular big gear by the chain – can’t undo the worm because the ratio is too high. Worm can crank up the 20kg tyre easily but tyre can’t undo the worm anywhere near as easily. That’s what we guessed goes on inside a Tojo tyre winch assembly. We could all be terribly, terribly wrong.
Anyway, 40kg of tyres fitted in, out-of-the-way and give the stubborn OMEs something to think about.

Tray bien
With that done (and a quick waxoil spray job all over the back chassis and area while it was easily accessible) Baz the Rod sprung into action  finishing the back body, levelling it off on rubber mounts and filling in any holes to limit internal rust.
One thing they mentioned was that when ordering steel to build something like this, it’s a whole lot less work to order exact lengths from the supplier instead of buying in a whole stock of 2 by 4 or whatever. This way the ends are perfectly cut on an ion particle saw and not at a variable parabolic 8.5° angle using your junior hacksaw and a lot of blades. Makes butting up for welding a whole lot easier too.
The tray frame then got painted and clad in 18mm marine ply. All three flaps or gates fold down but can be levelled off for use as long narrow banquet tables with corner post chains. Talking of which, the back two corner posts as well as the tops of the roll bar posts have welded on JATE rings (well actually old shock absorber ends) to help lash down motorbikes, canoes and the like.

Even though there’s plenty of room in the back, it’s still handy to have things out of the way so I requested a cantileved platform/rack extended forward off the roll bar over the cab roof, giving a few quick instructions. I went up the Pennines for a few days, came back and the job was done exactly as I’d envisaged. With no roof rack to hop onto, this rack will be a handy viewing platform when lost or separated in the Sahara – something that in my experience is more useful than you think.

With the tray fitted and wood in place, Matt sourced some robust plastic mudguards out of a trailer and caravan catalog, sawed them in half and nailed them under the tray. They give plenty of clearance for shovelling away sand when bogged – one thing pickups have in their favour. Mudflaps to limit spray are on the list, too.

Apart from lights and a number plate, that’s about it. Still haven’t even taken it for a drive but by the time you read this the VeeDub will be up in the far northwest of Scotland. Looking forward to getting an idea of the fuel consumption and hoping it will be in the high 20s (9kpl) or even low 30s (11kpl).

I drove the old red Hilux back down the other night, straight to Portsmouth docks for export to Niger. Even with a Land Cruiser engine and gearbox in the back (and then some), the old banger managed to keep its speed and pull away sharply (admittedly on 205s – not 750 x 16s). And the ancient springs didn’t even bottom out. I’m reminded how, over a short range, how light and pleasant a Hilux is to drive after a TLC tank, without necessarily being any less tough.


While I was away Matt fitted a second battery (left) and a what I consider a foolproof ‘split charge’ system which avoids diodes, schmiodes and gnashed teeth with two dead batteries and fries.

With the chunky red dashboard key in, both batts are connected and get charged off the alternator while the car is running. Come night-time or a lay over, put the key in the ash tray and the second leisure bat can be run down with ancillaries run off a dedicated four-way cig connector.
That toggle switch is for the Kenlowe fan. The thermostat broke off before it even got used so it’s been eliminated but I prefer to turn the fan on manually anyway as I always have an eye on the temp needle.

A q/d shovel has been tucked onto the side for easy deployment during boggings and for going to the bog. And on the back across the tailgate with easy-to-use screw down handles (not shown) are the ally sand plates last used during my Mercedes 190 experiment a couple of years back. These will be matched by a pair of red Soltracks which I’ve bought for all of us from France for €70 a pair. I’ve cut the corners off mine to better tuck them under cleared wheels, a la Grand Erg plates. Light and harmless, they feel pretty tough, but a few days of 2 tons mashing down on them may change that. I’ll be interested to see how they stand up to it. All these trips of mine include trying out new things and ideas for my own interest as well as the next edition of the book. The Soltracks will also make handy under mats, wind breaks, ping pong bats and windscreen shades to keep the cab cool over lunch.

Tarps are always tricky to keep tied down until you get a degree in rope management so I’ve come up with a neater idea, an old fishing net bought off ebay to simply stretch over the tarp and hook down onto the sides. Haven’t tried it yet but there’s always lashings of rope it if fails – and who knows, it may have some sort of use in the desert an a communal sand hammock.
I was going to take two 200-litre drums plus a jerry for measuring it out, but checking the insides of one drum today revealed some rust and water. Who knows how it got in but I can’t be bothered to trace a leak if there is one, so I’ve dumped it and decided to use one drum and a few more jerries.
As it was I was thinking that two part-filled and unbaffled drums will surge undesirably, 300 kilos of diesel mounted high slopping left and right could push the car over the brink on an off-camber dune slope.
This already narrow ute has turned out higher than necessary, a combination of desirable 750 x 16 wheels and the not so necessary 2-inch lift you get whether you like it or not with with heavy duty OMEs. Too late to do much about that now but it gives me more space in the back.
For the big stage across the Empty Quarter my car ought to easily get by on 350 litres – (2100km @ 6kpl) which is a near-full drum, 5 jerries and the fuel tank. I nailed on some blocks of wood to help keep the drum in place for the duration with the help of a chunky lorry tie down.

And that is about it, baring the usual last-minute dramas. Overall I’m confident in the young Taro’s untested set up. It’s a nice light car to drive, young enough not to be shagged out and I’m sure the ease of access will have its rewards in the desert. With a bit of carpet tiling on the load bed and my mattress over the top, it should be pretty quiet too. If it tips over at least it’s easy to unload and light enough to pull back up without doing much more damage.
My biggest concern is the lack of power, not helped by the over-sized tyres. It’s been a few years now, but whatever I drive I think I still have not got over my HJ61’s bark-stripping grunt. The toughest section of the Empty Quarter will be getting through the Ouarane Sand Sea east of Guelb where all the cars will be maxed out on payload. A grunty 60 will manage OK, but the limp 2.4 Tojo engine will not have to poke to gain momentum to get up over the dunes. It will be like being in a Series III all over again – claw its way along, one bogging at a time! This picture of the Saviem expedition in the Aïr comes to mind.
Oh well, que sera sera. If crossing the EQ was easy someone else would have done it by now. Pop back around Xmas to see how it went. Or click this.

Mazda B2500 Desert Pickup

maz - 1My project vehicle for 2008 was a Mazda B2500 Rap Cab pickup. No, I’ve never seen one either until I looked, but they may be better known and are much more numerous as Ford Rangers, built by Mazda for Ford in Thailand – the second biggest pickup market in the world after you-know-where. Ford partly owns Mazda – or did back then.

Apart from describing a constricted space where one can get down, ‘Rap Cab’ is Mazda’s naff name for Ford Ranger’s identical Super Cab and similar to Nissan Navara’s King Cab and a Hilux Extra Cab – or as I call them: a cab-and-a-half. (‘RAP’ actually stands for Rear Access Panel).
Double cabs are more common in the UK but all I needed was an extended cab to securely store more gear than a single cab and tip the seat back, plus a longer bed than a double to transport and tow 3 + 3 bikes on a bike tour as well as a recce in Morocco.
I was interested in ‘commercial’ models with manual features but with air-con. The then trendy, over-accessorised lifestyle models like the Navara and L200s weren’t even looked at (Nissan engines were time bombs, it seemed at the time). 4×4 Magazine produced a handy booklet of 40 reprinted pickup road tests which helped with comparative specs, but was not exactly a thrilling read as all these vehicles are boringly similar.
I located a nice-looking 2.5 Isuzu D-Max Rodeo, only 30,000m, 2003, canopy, for £7000. but was it was a 118hp Thai direct import which much web-trawling revealed that it lacked at the very least an intercooler, under sealing and the CD of official, 130hp UK models. And I was not keen on the electronic button for 4WD engagement.
Normally I’d play it safe and chose a Toyota, but post-2003 2.5 D-4D Hiluxs are over-priced for a lame 103hp, and there were no Extra Cabs in the UK before the introduction of the 3-litre 2006 model (which has no rear doors, a big part of the appeal of RAPs and similar). I had a spin in the nearest-to-me double cab 2.5 D-4D anyway. A couple of years old, chock-solid with mud underneath, a ply-lined load bed falling apart and oil filler cap missing. And stilleto-clad dealer babe wanted 12,000 quid! I felt sorry for her.

Of course I wanted an extra cab Hilux and, looking in Europe, found plenty in Germany from around €11000 for 2003 onwards. But although LHD would be preferable, going there and the whole re-rego thing would add another £grand. And common rail back then was still a bit of a gamble with dodgy desert fuel. There are enough possible problems out there.
mazcab
Then, hamdulilai! parking at Tescos one day I spotted a Ford Ranger Super Cab. I was obsessed with cab-and-a-halfs by this time but I’d dismissed Rangers as being a ‘Ford’. I took off my blinkers and did some research: 108hp – the last of the pre-CRDs up to 2006 with lever-actuated transfer on a switchable front diff engagement button. A very nifty forward-opening rear ‘half doors’ (great for loading), intercooled, front torsion bars, rear leaves, 15”s. All in all, nothing too radical and rated as unfashionably functional. Suits me sir.

Then I cottoned-on to the even less fashionable but identical Mazda B2500. Ford or Mazda, it didn’t bother me by now as I had it licked as long as it had air, low miles and a canopy. Eventually I settled on a 2003 Mazda in Wilts with 50,000m on FSH for £6500. Off it went to Matt’s Barn in Matlock.

Mazdifications
Being only late 2003 with 50,000 miles and newish tyres it didn’t require any drastic mods – just the usual desert stuff which included:

  • New clutch
  • mazbatLSmall second battery with a switch inside the cab (inset) to connect it to the alternator on the move and isolate for night lighting etc. Might be just enough to start the car by itself too. By the right hand pole you can see the compressor air PTO.
  • Compressor. Matt fitted a new automatic Viair model under mazpumpL
    the lid, rated at 2.5 cfm. When you release the trigger it stops; pull and it starts up – whatever next! Besides tyres it’s needed to lift the back suspension too.The pump breather was extended to get it out of the dust.
  • Uprated OME front torsion bars. Easy to fit, tricky to fine tune precisely said Matt. Firms up and raises the front by 20mm without frightening the horses.maztbarsL
  • maz2bagsLAir-adjustable helper springs over the back leaves. Pump up for carrying and towing 6 bikes or when maxed out with fuel and water; deflate for shopping at Tescos and dealing with speed bumps. A Schrader valve near the back numberplate does the business up to 100psi.
  • maznetsLStorage nets inside the cab roof for… storing things. Still handy today.
  • mazlashLMore lashing points in the bed to keep bikes and oil drums from rolling around. Some Ranger rope rails bolted to each side of the load bed. Very useful.
  • mazroofLGot an old Volvo estate roof rack off ebay for a fiver. Matt shortened it, braced it a bit and we mounted it over a pair of steel Thule roof bars. It’s not the neatest, lowest-profile, toughest system, but without good old gutters what can you do? It all worked fine.
  • mazicoolLmazcoolerLI decided to get an Allisport intercooler and a chip to help with the towing and hopefully improve the mpg. Result? More poke; but same mpg. OE and Allisport coolers.
  • A chunky 3-bike trailer. Found that on ebay too. It will get a repaint, new tyres and a spare wheel.
  • Oh and another NATO Sand paint job why not, it’s Christmas after all!

mazL

mazb4aLI came back from a desert trip and there it was, all done and smelling of day-old paint. As always Matt and his unidentified associates had done a brilliant job and making the right decisions all for a couple of grand with parts. It’s nice to be able to leave a vehicle with him knowing he’ll stick to the script and do the right thing.

“It looks better than I thought it would with the new paint” he said. “Why wouldn’t it?” I asked (this was my third NATO Sand car). “Well it looked fine before”. It seems that painting over a perfectly good (if wanky) factory paint job had caused him a Dark Night of the Spraygun, but who over 8 years old wants to drive around with fake silver mud splash and ‘Rap Cab, 4-Work, FreeStyle!, Live Life to the Maxx ’ stickers on their car?

Car’s got noticeably more torque after chipping, as you’d expect; probably as much as my old 130-horse HJ61 but without the trans-mashing grrrunt or the 6-cyl smoothness. For a 2. 5 it will do nicely though.


mazda x countrySince then I towed six bikes to Algeria and back, no problems apart from a ‘misfire’ at a steady 60 when I got back on the highway. Assumed it was crap in the fuel line or choked airbox, but Matt thought it may be a sticky EGR valve which can be disconnected and blocked off. It’s a common problem with EGRs and it rarely happens now and seems to have gone away.
On a fast run it gets quite hot in the small cab with the bigger intercooler, or maybe it always did; the cubby box and cup holder areas maz - 6get very warm. Means you need a/c when you don’t really want it, but will be handy in winter. I know Defenders with bigger intercoolers get very hot. I guess it’s the price of more power. The water temp needle never moves above normal no matter what you do.

Plenty more power with the same economy – usually 25mpg or 8 kpl, can manage 30 and best ever was 34 down to France with a tail wind that was blowing trucks off the road. P1140042 - Version 2One day in Algeria I had it down to a 15mpg towing fast against the wind. Good thing it’s only 11p a litre out there.

In April and May 2008 I then spent a month alone in Morocco researching the original edition of  Morocco Overland. Morocco tracks can be rough (the canopy got repeatedly dislocated and the front window glass came out due to chassis twist) and I broke some of the OE sub-leaves on the back. The good thing is the airbags kept the car high and level so I didn’t even notice until a broken mazayounleaf worked loose and banged on the wheel rim. So airbags are like a backup suspension: write that down! I fixed one side in Ouarzazate then noticed the other side was broken too but left it and got some OME leaves back in the UK. It’s pretty bumpy when empty but a guy suggested I make sure the air bags are fully purged when deflating.
That rattle on 
maz - 4some low gear hard power clutch changes is still there sometimes. It can’t be the release bearing and it survived Morocco and another year so whatever it is, it’s not important and the gearbox is the same as ever.

So after 20,000 miles and two desert trips it still runs as well as when I bought it. No noises whines or leaks. Just what you’d expect really, if not more from this little-known marque. You’d assume a much more common Ford Ranger will be as good.

IMG_6062 - Version 2