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


 

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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

sequnderban

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.