Wise words of those with previous experience.
Short sharp expressions that give clear advice to off-road driving situations are fairly common in our community. Many focussing the use of footware. ‘Give it some wellie!’ and ‘Boot it!’ always being a firm favourites, regardless of the shoes being worn. But I came across a new one whilst out in the Sahara last April. A small group of us with mixed abilities were on an expedition across the vast swathes of desert stretching for hundreds of miles southwest of The Nile. By far the most experienced off-road driver was our American colleague, Rick Péwé. Rick is not only Executive Editor of the Worlds biggest circulation 4x4 mag, Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road, but also very much one of us, willing and able to carry out all those improvised repairs that tend to accompany any expedition by rolling his sleeves up, digging out the tool kit and fashioning, on one particular occasion, a long screwdriver into a workable clutch linkage!
Rick’s barked instruction from the passenger seat was ‘Long eye, short eye’ and in those four simple words he summed up a lifetimes driving skills learned the hard way. Namely you keep an eye on where the trail is heading and potential places where you may get stuck, whilst not ignoring the detail of rocks and potholes that may cause damage. Nowhere is this more important than in the desert where an accident assumes far greater inconvenience, as you may well be 300-400 miles from assistance. Travelling in a group of vehicles lessens the risk, but even a small incident wastes time and effort and can easily bite into half a day of precious adventure time. It is clearly better to try and avoid the problem in the first place.
I have heard other words of wisdom from equally experienced overland drivers. The Australian Ron Moon on his second circumnavigation of the Globe when asked if he had reliability issues, or got stuck much replied ‘I don’t go looking for trouble Mate’. By that he meant he preferred to assess the risk ahead and make a decision based on previous experience as to whether crossing that river/rock outcrop/muddy area could be done easily or would it get him horribly stuck like it did when he was way out in the Simpson Desert in his Dad’s ‘Ute’ as a fearless youth. We all have these experiences and hopefully learn from them. Whilst getting a bit stuck and mastering the art of a perfect recovery does give a certain thrill, it may not be quite so amusing for the rest of the party who do not share your macho enthusiasm for winching etc.
Our home grown expert, Tom Sheppard advises in the Land Rover Vehicle-Dependent Expedition Guide that if stuck do not worsen the situation by ‘applying bootfulls of throttle and wheelspin that will cause you to sink till the chassis is grounded and your digging debt is suddenly doubled’ Another footware reference, but you see Tom’s point. How many times have you seen a pal get a bit stuck then get REALLY stuck in a vain attempt at self recovery? Far better to stop, all get out, assess the situation and plan a suitable recovery. Usually a good push backwards from a well organised group of helpers will suffice.
It was with all these snippets of wisdom running through my brain that we tackled the Aquaba Pass from the west side of the Gilf Kebir up to the southern edge of the Great Sand Sea. The Gilf Kebir is a plateau about the size of Switzerland that dominates the central Sahara on the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. Easily identifiable on Google Earth is the Aquaba Pass that slices through the middle of the plateau separating the north and south rock outcrops. It is a fearsome climb and the ‘Long eye, short eye’ theory assumed great importance. The long eye telling us to keep left and hug the rocks avoiding the side slip to the right and the short eye watching for sharp stones and football sized rocks. The steepest part of the pass extends for about a mile and is a second gear, low ratio thrash punctuated by the odd bucking-bronco ride over small dune crests. Soft sand is a constant threat and getting stuck half way up would be a major inconvenience. Thankfully, after a pre-climb briefing from Rick we all made it to the top and the new challenge of the Great Sand Sea. The thrill of a success in the desert will always hold a romance to those who accomplish it and the last word surely goes to Thierry Sabine, creator of the legendary Paris Dakar who, when asked who would win the Paris-Dakar on one occasion in the early ‘80s, replied without hesitation ‘The Desert’.
Rick Péwé here using his long eye to work out what lies in store 100 yards away.
A graphic example of what can happen if you do not assess the ground below your tyres. Mahmoud Marai’s overloaded 109 hit a small sand bump descending a dune in The Great Sand Sea and fell over. Fortunately damage was minimal.