Sand Sea Adventure.
Three classic Land Rovers in the Ubari Sand Sea. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World.
‘It’s a desert truck’ I explained to my fellow traveller, Ian Reeds, by way of justifying the wet passenger seat and my damp right boot. ‘Perfect for arid climates’! We were on the long wet haul, south through France to Marseilles and the ferry to warmer climes. Geographers Kevin White and Nick Drake had identified various features of Geological and Archaeological interest in the Ubari Sand Sea in Libya, from high resolution satellite images. Our mission was to drive there take a closer look and take some samples back to the UK for analysis. The Ubari Sand sea is slightly bigger than Wales and consists almost entirely of sand dunes. Very few people go there and the population numbers zero. With no wells or grazing, even the Tuareg nomads give it a miss. It is indeed, a most beautiful area of unspoilt desert.
Kevin, Ian and I drove down, taking Kev’s 1998, Camel Trophy 110, my Carawagon and Leicester University’s Toyota Land Cruiser Colorado. It was a pleasantly uneventful trip. Dover to Calais, Calais to Marseilles, then 24 hours on the ferry to Tunis. A day to cross to Tunisia and into Libya the next morning, where we met the rest of the team who had flown in to Tripoli. Here we were joined by Libya’s top Geographer, Mastafa Salim in his cherished white V8 110 Land Rover. From Tripoli, Ian and the Archaeologists headed south, whilst our Geo splinter group took a nine hour ‘black top’ road west to Darj, just east of the oasis town of Ghadames on the Algerian border. This was where our desert adventure was to begin and we topped up with fuel and water knowing it would be our last opportunity for at least 10 days. For the record, 371 litres of diesel cost us £20.50! A short drive in failing light got us to the camp that the support team had set up for our first night in the desert. We numbered 20 with the crew and they had pitched a selection of tents on the totally flat and rather stoney desert floor. To support that number in the field they had provided a magnificent old Mercedes 4x4 truck and three ratty Land Cruisers, all boasting half a million kms. on the clock and held together with bent wire and the will of Allah!
That first night there was a full moon and the temperature dropped to -8 degrees as we shivered over a hot meal, anxious to crawl into our sleeping bags after a long day. By 7.30 in the morning, however, the thin orange band of light to the east grew, bringing warmth and colour to the desert as the temperature gradually climbed to an enjoyable 25 degrees and we set off on the first leg of the trip. It soon became apparent that, although it was great to have a big support crew , with tables and chairs and even a live sheep for later, the old truck was going to hold things up as it lumbered along, often getting stuck as the drivers, two twenty somethings fuelled on nicotine and strong green tea, deflated and re inflated the tyres. The three Land Rovers were in their element. With tyre pressures dropped to 16 psi we just floated across the sand as we hopped over dunes separating one vast interdune corridor from another. By the second day we had covered just 47 miles of the planned 350 and took the decision to sprint ahead and meet the truck later. With a glovebox full of Satellite Phones and GPS Units this was as easy as planning a pub crawl at home on a Friday night and meant that whilst we were taking core samples of long dried up lake beds the truck could plod on, pass us, set up camp and get the food on for that evening. This tortoise and hare system worked well until on the third day we came across the truck unsuccessfully trying to reverse up a dune. Rusty old military sand ladders, spades and dejected expressions told a story of desperation. It was an important dune crossing, as not to cross it would mean a half day detour to find an easier route.
Kev and I both have winches so this seemed the ideal time to use them. Tom Sheppard advises in his Land Rover Expedition Guide, that once stuck, take your time to properly assess the situation, because doing nothing for a bit will not get you more stuck. We applied this principal and took a long hard look at the problem, positioned our two Land Rover’s just over the brow of the dune, leaving enough flat space for the recovered truck. We then positioned Mustafa’s Land Rover and one of the Land Cruisers behind us to act as anchors. Moving all but essential people out of the way we began winching as the truck slowly reversed. Bit by bit,15 tons of truck and the sheep inched it’s way up the slope. It was a great Landy moment and we all celebrated by having lunch sitting on the soft, warm sand.
By the fifth day we had reached an area where we wanted to explore a few places within a 40 mile radius so a more permanent camp was set up with a big bell tent to eat in, a loo tent positioned a discreet distance away, and even a makeshift shower. This ‘base’ camp meant we could leave most of our heavy jerry cans and run light, which made for more ambitious driving over steeper dunes. It never ceases to amaze me what a huge difference deflating tyres makes. Try a dune with them at 20 psi and get stuck, deflate to 15 psi and sail over. Watch the speed though, as they get very warm at low pressures if you go above 40 mph. It’s also very easy to push a tyre off the rim at those pressures. Both Kev and I suffered a couple of punctures, but with two spares each this was a minor hindrance.
By now 200 miles into the crossing a good routine had evolved. The truck was still the slowest, but we were able to work whilst it made it’s own sedate progress, until we had a call to say there was a problem. On one particularly challenging dune they had got up okay, by dropping tyre pressures to 12 psi on all six tyres, but on the descent had ripped a valve clean out of the tube as the front wheel and tyre turned independently of each other, plus a rear tyre had a puncture. It’s a big job to jack up 15 tons on soft sand, change a wheel, then change a tube in the other wheel, so we called it a day and prepared to stay the night. Kev and Mustafa were about 10 miles away and we then had a call from Kev to say he had a problem too. ‘Terrible noise coming from the front axle’, was the plea. ‘Mustafa’s towing me back, we may need help’. In the space of an hour our reliable desert convoy had hit two major problems. Fortunately it was an easy tow for Mustafa and Kev returned to camp embarrassed on the end of a rope. There was nothing we could do that night as it was dark, getting cold and we were all a bit low!
As the morning temperature increased to a bearable level Kev and I donned overalls and jacked his 110 up. Turning the front wheel revealed that it had all been too much for his front diff and some pretty horrible noises were coming from it. Removing the prop seemed to do the trick, but would restrict him to 2WD for the last 100 miles of Sand Sea. With so many willing tow trucks this should not be too much of a problem if we transferred all the heavy equipment from Kev’s Land Rover to the truck and some of the Land Cruisers. The chaps had repaired the truck tyres and all seemed well again. As luck would have it there were no more big dunes to cross and Kev coaxed the Land Rover through almost everything only requiring a couple of short tows from me.
With so many great dune crossings behind us it was soul destroying to cover the last 100 miles into Al Awainat on a graded track used by trucks servicing the nearby oil wells . The surface was hard corrugations that shook every rivet, changing to choking talcum powder dust a foot thick for the final 50 miles. Even keeping a half mile distance between each vehicle the dust still penetrated every part of every car, our noses and eyes. We were all tired and thoroughly sick of the dust as light became dark and the problem seemed even worse. With still 20 miles to go until tarmac we could see very little of where to go. Myriad tracks confused all of us and we could not see the tail lights of the car in front. Following a GPS waypoint should be straight forward, but without sight it felt very dangerous as we moved slowly forward praying we would not get stuck to add to the drama. One by one we emerged onto the welcome tarmac albeit in about three different locations, each driver following different tracks. From here it was short hop into Al Awainat, the first hot showers for ten days and chicken and chips.
Despite making respectable progress there were still some alarming noises coming from Kev’s front axle and we decided to remove the drive flanges from the front hubs so that nothing within the front axle was moving. That did the trick, but left the wheel bearings unprotected from dust. A trip to the local hardware shop produced some metal plates that looked almost perfect to make dust covers from. Kev and I set too with a drill and a selection of files and made two very passable dust covers that bolted on in place of the drive flanges. These were so successful that they stayed on all the way back to Reading!
Al Awainat is a small dusty town, on the edge of the Sand Sea and quite well known amongst Desert Tourists. We had hoped to top up with diesel there, but, not unusually, the local station had run out. Our next destination was Germa, to meet up with the Archaeologists some 150 miles north. Cruising on dead flat ‘black top’ we made it to Germa only to find that filling station had run out as well. This is not uncommon in the desert regions of Libya, as deliveries are irregular. Our saviour was Dave Jones, who worked for a UK oil business nearby and offered us a fill up from their tanks. A generous 270 litres was pumped into our jerry cans in exchange for a tin of all butter shortbread biscuits. Gold dust to the oil boys! That fill up secured our return to Tripoli and onwards to home.
My Carawagon has a 200 Tdi engine fitted with an Alli Sport intercooler, LT77 gearbox with a Discover transfer box and runs on Old Man Emu coil springs with Air Assist bags incorporated in the rear coils to cope with heavy loads. Extras include 2 x Matt Savage compressors and air reservoir, Mantec sand ladders, 6 x Michelin X Type S sand tyres, 8 jerry cans, an Alli Sport water tank and 4 x water jerry cans. Home comforts include a Webasto water heater and central heating supplied by Tony at LRW’s pals All Drive UK.
Kevin White’s 110 is a veteran of the 1998 Tierra del Fuego, Camel Trophy. It now has an Alli Sport intercooler, Matt Savage compressor, ARB Locking diffs front and rear, Mantec sand ladders, 6 x Michelin X Type S sand tyres and 4 x jerry cans. Kevin has an Eezi Awn roof tent from Footloose 4x4 and a Webasto water heater for his shower supplied by Tony Sinclair at All Drive UK.
Both of the above are prepared by Toby’s son’s business, Matt Savage in Matlock. www.mattsavage.com 01629 55855.
Mustaf Salim’s V8 110 is immaculate and delightfully standard with the factory fitted optional air conditioning and carries Matt Savage sand ladders and 9 x petrol jerry cans.
If you have an idle moment and access to Google Earth here are my waypoints of the trip. The entire trip, including the European leg totalled 5700 miles over six weeks.
Tripoli: N. 32º 52’ 39” E. 13º 10’ 59”
Darj Camp: N. 30º 09’ 53” E. 10º 30’ 26”
Camp 2: N. 28º 38’ 21” E. 10º 20’ 20”
Camp 3: N. 27º 59’ 10” E. 10º 32’ 39”
Camp 4: N. 27º 38’ 11” E. 10º 50’ 27”
Camp 5: N. 27º 34’ 23” E. 10º 51’ 17”
Camp 6: N. 27º 22’ 06” E. 10º 56’ 18”
Al Awainat: N. 25º 46’ 57” E. 10º 34’ 11”
Germa: N. 26º 31’ 54” E. 13º 04’ 01”
Copyright words and pictures. Land Rover World. IPC Publications.