A Dune too far.

A Dune too far. Trials and tribulations of filming in the Sahara. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.

It all seemed a good idea at the time. As Chris Scott and I sheltered from the rain in a London pub we discussed the possibility of making a film to accompany his successful book, Sahara Overland. Major 4x4 product manufacturers would be beating a path to our door with offers of funding. We would end up spending a month in the Sahara playing at being film directors. A cast of thousands available at our every whim. Maybe even a casting couch. The idea positively bristled with exciting possibilities. Reality kicked in over the following 12 months as proposed sponsors ignored our letters and calls and the sponsorship budget topped ten pounds in stamps.

Feeling somewhat disheartened we opted for ‘Plan B’.  Self funding. Cameraman Rich Gurr was up for it on a peppercorn fee, as was I. The thrill of a trip to the Sahara being fee enough. Chris opted to write and direct it, and my son, Matt Savage, would act as distributor, selling the video and DVD  through his independent Land Rover spares business in Ashbourne. Chris worked out that if we lived off stale jam sandwiches for two weeks and slept rough from the moment we left home we could do it for not much more than the price of a week in a fancy hotel. Our main costs would be the Marseilles to Tunis ferry at about £500 per car and the toll roads and fuel across France. If we sold the target 500 copies in the first year we would, according to Chris’s financial spreadsheet, make £3.55 each profit. That is several million more profitable than Eurotunnel, Vodaphone etc etc. So the scheme was viable.

Engine in bits.

An added twist was that Chris was going to be out in Algeria dumping fuel for a forthcoming bike trip, so his travel expencies were shared with that trip and he picked up a passenger to help subsidise the cost as well. I would pick up Rich and his film making gear in Brighton and meet Chris behind the second sand dune on the left  (I'm not joking, those were his full instructions!) after the oil town of In Amenas on a  specified date. The plan developed it’s first hiccup when I had to have the head gasket replaced on my 200 TDi engine with just three days to go. My local independent Land Rover specialists, Swinfield Cooper, did a fantastic job under a lot of pressure (miss the Marseilles Tunis ferry and we would be snookered). As I picked the Carawagon up at 4.30 on the afternoon of departure, their farewell words were ‘Take it easy for the first 1000 miles and check all the levels often’. With just an hour to bolt on all my desert junk and fling in a change of underwear I was in Brighton meeting Rich later that evening, and on the Newhaven Dieppe ferry with just ten minutes to spare. By 4.00 am. we were well and truly lost in a college car park in Paris. After a cup of coffee and a good look at the map things improved and we made the Marseilles ferry the following day emerging into glorious Tunisian sunshine 24 hours later for an unhurried run down to the Algerian border crossing at Nefta.

Despite having no other migrants to deal with, the smiling Algerian officers took an hour to process our documents before we were away to meet Chris some 800 miles further south. We had been able to maintain contact up to that point by text message between my mobile phone and Chris’s satellite phone, but once away from Tunisia my mobile lost it’s signal and we had to hope that Chris’s ‘second dune on the left’ accompanied by a GPS waypoint would work. It did and he actually had supper prepared to coincide with our arrival the following evening.

As the sun set and the jam sandwiches settled in our stomachs we had, what could loosely be described as, a production meeting. We had just seven days to try and shoot all the scenes Chris had planned, as well as drive about 500 miles of desert piste to show some variation in terrain. It was a tall order not helped by heavy grey cloud the next day. Somewhat disheartened we tried a few shots less reliant on sunshine and stunning scenery. Use of maps, describing the functions of diffs and transfer boxes etc. Viewing our efforts that evening on a laptop we were disappointed. The sun would be essential as grey desert background is totally uninspiring.

Some English Patience

The following day was the same so we opted to head further south in search of sunshine, our available time now cut to five days. When the third day dawned to yet more cloud we took the decision to not bother making a film, but just have a holiday and enjoy the driving.  This was the mystical trigger for sunshine and with just four days left we set too with a vengeance working form dawn till dusk. We forced ourselves to get stuck to illustrate various recovery techniques and found that with so much power from his 4 litre turbo diesel engine Chris could really get his Land Cruiser stuck in a big way. With an uncanny realism we even got both vehicles stuck simultaneously to show use of both high lift jack and airbag jack in combination with sand plates and some rubber ‘Bakkie’ mats of South African origin. With daytime temperatures soaring to 30 degrees we were sweating like pigs, without a shower to resort to in the evening. The work was good fun though, with the authenticity of desert travel coming across well when we viewed our efforts that evening around the camp fire.

Brief Encounter

Most of the video was filmed on the ‘Graveyard’ piste, a 200 mile track running northwest from Illizi up to Bordj Omar Driss. It’s illustrated on the Michelin 741 map as a thin red line punctuated by the odd well.  Chris chose this piste as he was familiar with it, and it offered a changing landscape within manageable distances. It is so called because of the many graves along it’s length spanning  from pre Islamic occupation through to the Colonial years. Though we thought we had the place to ourselves the desert always holds a few surprises and stopping to look at a tomb we were soon joined by two Tuereg woman and a young boy who wanted... well, anything we had to offer. I gave them a shirt and some food, whilst Chris donated his old motorcycling boots. Rich tried to chat them up and was having some success, joining them on a cross cultural drumming session on two jerry cans with the women ullulating in rhythm to the beat. It was a shame to leave this burgeoning party, but we had work to do and our next stop was the well at Ain El Hadjadj Fort, a disused French military outpost where hapless soldiers had been posted during the French colonisation. The area made a good location for our filming with rock desert to the west and sand sea to the east.

One smashed Camera, two to go.

Our next task, and the most enjoyable for me, was to illustrate how to cross a big dune. Basically you run your tyres at about 18 psi and drive straight at the dune keeping the attack line at exactly 90 degrees to the dune. If you are skilled, and I’m not, you stop with the front wheels right on the dune crest and take a look over to check for nasty little vertical drops. These wind formed terrors can easily have you over. I chose to drive up most of the way then get out and peep over the edge. Assuming it’s a clear up, over, and down the other side, you then back off and take a good run at it in third or fourth gear, low ratio. With practise you have just enough momentum to crest the top, but not so much as you launch yourself into orbit on the other side and come down with a mighty bang.

Dramatic filming of this required Rich positioning himself at the bottom of the descent, Chris with the second camera on the crest and finally my camera being mounted on the nearside foot step at sill level for a close up of the front wheel. The resultant shot, whilst offering a very dramatic title shot of my front wheel clawing for grip in the sky, cost me the camera as the resultant bash it took knocked it all out of alignment. The price of good filming I guess.

Despite smashing the camera, my first attempt was rather half hearted resulting in me getting the old Carawagon stuck right on the crest. No problem. It would make a good ‘if this happens’ shot. A bit of digging cleared most of the sand from under the chassis rails, then we attached a KERR (Kinetic Energy Recovery Rope) to a webbing tree strop to form a bridle and distribute the pull evenly to both my front recovery points. The other end was attached to Chris’s Land Cruiser and away he went. The KERR rope acts like a big rubber band and stretches and stretches until all that kinetic energy just yanked my Carawagon out with little difficulty. Be warned though. You need a very strong chassis and tow points to use these. I have seen the whole rear cross member of an old Series Three ripped clean off!

Airbourne in the dunes.

Chris had a go at the same dune and went just a little bit too quickly with his front wheels a clear four feet in the air on the other side. Somewhere between the two is best, though both made spectacular footage featured in the video. With practise we got it just right and the sensation of hurtling up a 45 degree slope of sand with a view of sky out of the windscreen, backing off a tad on the summit, then driving down the other side is every off road drivers idea of heaven.
With the exception of the Tueregs we had had the place virtually to ourselves, when along came a remarkably normal 110 Land Rover. In it was a Frenchman on a brave solo trip around Niger, Mauritania and Algeria. It turned out he worked in Evian for the company of the same name and spent all his life surrounded by water. By way of a change he chose to take his holidays in sand. We stopped filming to join him for a coffee... finest espresso in his honour, and to compare travel notes.

Bandit territory.

With our hectic four day shoot nearing an end we headed up to Bordj Omar Driss where a checkpoint guard expressed surprise at us emerging from a closed piste. This was news to us so we lied and said we had come cross country, through the sand sea. Clearly very impressed, as this route would be almost impossible, he waved us through, but insisted we camp with in sight of the checkpoint as there were bandits about. This was probably true as the area is known for smugglers transporting contraband from Central Africa up to the more prosperous coast. A  year previously Chris had been leading a bike tour when a convoy of about 70 assorted trucks belted right past his camp at full speed with no rear lights. They had no interest in his group, but it had been a close call with the darker goings on in this region.

Half naked.

Our final date in the desert was a little further north at Hassi Bel Guebbour. Having been on the baby wipes for 8 days we were minging and Chris knew of a small hot spring hidden in some bushes. As darkness fell the three of us bobbed around half naked soaking away the aches and embedded grime of the trip. We reflected on our triumphs and the next task of editing 20 hours of digital video tape down to about an hour during the cold months of the English winter. Refreshed and dressed in clean clothes we headed back up to the border with Tunisia, but not before filling up with cheap Algerian diesel. 500 litres between two cars would be enough to get all the way home and then some. The total cost? £40. Gulp.
The results of our efforts went on sale this summer and feedback from the first purchasers has been very encouraging. Another 400 sales and we could just see that £3.55 profit each become a reality.


Leicester Coffee Shop, ready for action.

Useful contacts:

The definitive guide book to Saharan travel, Sahara Overland,  the Video and DVD of Desert Driving , and all accesories are all available through Matt Savage.
01629 55855

For up to date information on all Sahara travel:

‘Bakkie’ mats and vehicle preparation:
+44 (0) 1733 362 999

Repairs and servicing:
Swinfield Cooper. Leicester.
0116 254 5657

Copyright. Toby Savage,  <toby@tobysavage.co.uk> www.tobysavage.co.uk   

Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.