Against the Elements.

Against the Elements. The drive north through a sand storm in the Great Sand Sea.

In this final instalment of an ambitious desert adventure mirroring the activities of the Long Range Desert Group the team honour their forebears, then tackle the drive north through a sand storm in the Great Sand Sea. 

Despite the concerns of our military escorts, we enjoyed an uninterrupted night camped on the edge of ‘bandit territory’ and awoke ready for another glorious day of driving our matched pair of LRDG replica Jeeps along routes used during WW2.  We were near a famous landmark called ‘Three Castles’, comprising three enormous rock outcrops that are clearly visible from about 80 miles in any direction.  These were used as surveillance points to track enemy supply convoys and it was on one of these that we elected to place our own memorial to the brave lads who endured hardship, danger and adventure 70 years ago.

 

Sam Watson instigated the design and making of a brass plaque and John Carroll had manfully struggled out with a large poppy wreath in his hand luggage with the intention of us mounting both in a suitably poignant spot.  High on one of the ‘Three Castles’ seemed perfect and with epoxy adhesive and bits of bent wire we fashioned a reasonably permanent epitaph to our heroes.  Sam said a few words and we observed a minutes silence in memory of those who did not make it back, before climbing back into the Jeeps and heading off.

 

As we were in the vicinity we took a brief break from LRDG history and looked instead at the rock art spanning 10,000 years of habitation of the area.  Two major sites were within easy reach, the ‘Foginni Cave’, depicting bizarre headless creatures and hunting scenes, then on to the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ with red ochre paintings of figures supposedly swimming.  This cave had clearly had one WW2 visitor, however, as carved into the soft sandstone were the initials ‘G Yates M/C 1939’.  

Daily check over.

The Team.

 Culture break complete, we carried on first skirting back southeast, then north to tackle the famous Aqaba Pass.  This pass, if we could make it, would save a long detour back around the southern edge of the Gilf el Kebir.   Pulling up at the beginning of the pass we stopped whilst our guide, my friend Mahmoud, did a recce in one of the Land Cruisers.  As Mahmoud had overall responsibility for all of our safety as well as the safety of the (new) Iveco 7 ton truck and both Land Cruisers, he was anxious that we found the best route up.  He returned ten minutes later to confirm there were two options; a steep climb offering reasonable grip, or a longer, flatter route with more soft sand.  He suggested we try the steeper option with a Toyota leading, followed by the two Jeeps, then the Iveco followed by the final Land Cruiser.  To reduce weight to a minimum each Jeep would just have a driver - passengers all travelling in the Land Cruisers.

 

Rick Péwé and myself became designated drivers ; Rick due to his unequalled experience and me thanks to my considerable financial investment in the Jeeps!  With both Jeeps stripped of all excess weight and the tyres down to 10 psi, we felt we had a good chance of making the half mile climb.  Rick went first soon disappearing up the narrow rocky gorge.  I followed at a respectable distance using 2nd, low, but prepared for a nifty down change to 1st, if required.  The biggest problem was not so much the climb, but more that it sloped off to the right in an exaggerated camber.  I saw Rick gradually slipping down to his right and opted to stay high on the left close to the rocks where the sand was a little firmer.

It worked and I had no option but to leave Rick to get himself going again as I carried on to the top to a big cheer from the Toyota drivers.  Rick lost no time in finding an alternative route and soon joined us, as did the big Iveco that just crawled up on very low tyre pressures.  The Aqaba Pass separates the north and south sections of the Gilf el Kebir and once through it we were at the southern edge of The Great Sand Sea.  A sea of dunes the size of England!

We opted to take a relatively easy route north in an enormous inter-dune corridor roughly 10 miles wide.  First site on this route was a ‘Waterfall Grille’ Ford truck.  In its day this would have been a supply truck lugging fuel and provisions across the desert for various units in the field.  Now it is just a slowly rusting hulk alone in the vastness of the Sahara.  

 

We pressed on with a hot southerly wind on our tail.  Whilst this meant we could maintain a decent speed it was not good for engine cooling as the wind was not on the radiators.  About every half hour we had to stop and face into the wind to allow the engines to cool, but this simple technique did the trick until we had our first serious breakage on one of the Jeeps.  The rod that connects the clutch pedal to the operating cable broke - meaning a sudden loss of clutch.  Rick was soon under the Jeep with Taraq, the Egyptian mechanic.  They soon formulated a plan based on converting a barbecue fork into a clutch control rod.  Taraq is an absolute master of improvisation and would have been an asset to the LRDG had he been around 70 years before.  Within an hour the barbecue fork became a perfect replica of the clutch rod and we were mobile again.  So good was the repair that it is still on the Jeep today. 

 

Our destination for the night was ‘Russian Well’, an abortive attempt by a Russian Oil Company back in the 1970’s to find oil resulting in finding a reliable source of fresh water!  Having not washed for over a week we all enjoyed holding our heads under the fresh water and washing some of the sand from our hair.  By now the wind was really fierce and pitching camp was a battle with flapping nylon.  We had those easy to erect folding tents that go up in 10 seconds, but take forever to get back in the bag.  Taking care to pitch them with the doors facing North, away from the wind we eventually settled down for a noisy night as tents flapped around our ears.  Trying to get to sleep as the sand storm raged outside, I was aware of my tent morphing into a wind-formed shape with me a hapless captive!  Soon the sand started to come into the tent and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  What was happening was that the wind was changing direction from southerly to northerly.  Bob Atwater who braved nipping out for a pee said he could not see his hand in front of him for the swirling sand and in the morning everything had moved, even the Land Cruisers were at jaunty angles where the sand had been blown from under their wheels!

 

Me dressed for the elements.

The Sand Storm blew all the tents onto their sides!

Rick takes a well earned wash at Russian Well.

Back on the trail the change of wind direction helped the cooling but had whipped up loads of dust making the next two days hard work.  Wrapped up well against dust and a cool wind we battled on to pull in visits to ‘Pillar Rock’ where we found evidence of a radio transmitter mast (thick wire attached to the top of the rock) and then a very lonely looking Ford way out in the middle of the dunes, its flathead V8 engine dumped in the sand in front of it, Champion spark plugs still looking serviceable.

 

It had taken us five long days to cross the Great Sand Sea and after 12 days in the desert we were ready for a shower and a proper bed.  We had built up a true appreciation of exactly how the LRDG Patrols had lived and gained first hand experience of the difficulties they faced.  Like them, our destination was the Oasis town of Siwa.  Once an LRDG base, now an isolated town 200 miles south of the Mediterranean.

 

Siwa made an ideal end to our desert adventure and served us well for two nights giving an opportunity to check over the Jeeps and rejuvenate ourselves ready for the fast road trip back to Cairo and the peace and tranquility of Mena House for a final night before most people flew home the following day.  We enjoyed a celebratory meal and all reflected on the glory of our adventure.  Our achievement was only just sinking in.  We had driven two bog standard 70 year old Jeeps over 2000 miles of which 1200 miles was pure desert.  Breakdowns had been minimal and easily fixed thanks largely to the skill and ingenuity of Taraq and Rick Péwé with the spanners.  The trip was judged by all to have been a great success and proof that all you really need is a simple 4x4 to undertake even the most challenging of expeditions.

Mena House Hotel - Fantastic!!

This was our exact route. Thank you Jason Paterniti.

 

Captions.

 

An evening ritual soon established itself with small teams handling, jeep maintenance, tent erection and an evening meal - in much the same way as the LRDG would have done 70 years ago.

 

The team on the road (sand!) Two ‘Troupies’, an Iveco 7 ton truck and the two 1943 Jeeps.  Essential for trouble free adventure.

 

Jason Paterniti dressed for the sand storm.  A mixture of modern and traditional kept the worst out.

 

A plaque and wreath were attached to one of the ‘Three Castles’ as a tribute to the bravery of the LRDG and their vital contribution to victory in WW2.

 

A kite camera shot of one of the abandoned LRDG Ford trucks, it’s flathead V8 dumped in front of it.

 

Pillar Rock - a landmark and makeshift radio mast. Remnants of thick wire were found attached to the top that would have helped transmit messages to HQ in Cairo over 500 miles away.

 

Rick Péwé enjoys a shower for the first time in over a week at Russian Well.

 

The morning after the sand storm and Toby’s tent has morphed into a wind formed shape!

 

How to dress when driving an open jeep north through a sand storm - modelled here by the author.

 

The ancient Oasis town of Siwa will have changed little in the past 70 years and signalled the end of desert driving and a welcome hotel bed and shower.

 

Once accustomed to the 34º heat an constant wind the screens were lowered and stayed down for the rest of the trip.

 

A ‘Waterfall Grill’ Ford truck that would have carried supplies across planned routes to replenish LRDG units.

 

Another Ford 4x4 Truck.  Note the machine gun mounting points along the side.  Just lengths of gas pipe welded onto the bodywork.

 

The sight of a jeep making swift progress around the southern edge of the Gilf el Kebir in a setting sun is an evocative sight.

 

A commemorative plaque designed by Sam Watson will, hopefully, act as a lasting monument to the LRDG.

 

What at first appeared to be a White truck was actually a pile of various bits from several trucks!

 

Time for bed with the whole Milky Way stretched out from one horizon to the other.

 

Nervous moments for Islam, the driver of the Iveco.  It was his first time in the dunes with his boss’s new truck.  It is quite easy to roll over in these conditions.

 

Trying to recreate the old B&W photo that had inspired the whole trip.  After 10 days in the Desert the 8 team members certainly looked the part.

 

Driving into the north wind for two days was not pleasant, but gave some great photo opportunities.  Jason Paterniti at the wheel, Bob Atwater as passenger and Karl-Gunnar Noren hanging on in the back.

 

Siwa seemed to have been created as a perfect stop over point for weary desert travellers from the LRDG to modern adventurers.  A chance to service both Jeeps prior to a fast tarmac run back to Cairo.

 

Made it!  Against many odds both jeeps had a remarkably trouble free run over 2000 miles of desert adventure.  Time for celebration at Mena House Hotel.

 

Toby Savage June 2012