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


 

Sahara – The Empty Quarter

The late Wilfred Thesiger’s travels in the Arabian Rub al Khali or ‘Empty Quarter’ are well known, but the Sahara too has its barren regions.
In the east is the Libyan Desert, while the more obscure Majabat al Koubra (‘Great Emptiness’) explored by Theodore Monod in the 1930s, spreads across the Mauritania-Mali borders. These hyper-arid, million-square kilometre expanses within the greater Sahara are barely touched by human presence; they represent the essence of the place known in Arabic as al sahra: the desert.

In November 2006 our crossing from Atar in northern Mauritania, across the Ouarane Sand Sea and the bandit lands of northern Mali to Bordj Moktar in southern Algeria was a highly ambitious project which cost me my vehicle. In the end, by taking several liberties with border regulations and with a good measure of luck, we got within a day’s walk of the Libyan frontier, having crossed over half the width of the Sahara.

During our crossing we collected dust samples and imagery for Oxford University’s Climate Research Lab. Dust from the Empty Quarter (red areas, right) is thought to have an important effect on the global climate, but has never been obtained or analysed before.

Read about the SEQ Expedition
• View short movie clips (warning: pre GoPro era
• An expedition report is the Royal Geographical Society, London

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