Wet for the Desert.
Deep into The Sahara and a few showers.
Thunder, rain and hail are not things one usually associates with desert travel, but this Season we have experienced weather that only occurs once in twenty years. As I lay in my Carawagon listening to the drumming of heavy rain on the roof, I felt sorry for the rest of the team scattered around me in tents. Our first nights in Libya had seen sub zero temperatures, then the wind started, whipping sand up into vicious little needles that sting the back of your hand. On the horizon we could see menacing black clouds blowing our way. Whilst its great to see forks of lightning cracking down on the sand, it’s less fun when they strike a stones throw from where you are standing, followed by a huge clap of thunder. Then the rain started; a short, but heavy downpour, turning the dry sand into a quagmire more common to Wales than the Sahara.
It would be wrong to suggest the enjoyment was marred by this freak weather as, fortunately, it only lasted five days. Our team of ten scientists from various disciplines are spending our ‘usual’ month in Libya researching the Saharan Archaeology, Geography and Geology. For me, the highlight is the drive from Derj, near the Algerian border down to our base in Germa, taking in several sites of scientific interest. Our route involves a 700 mile desert drive in a landscape devoid of all facilities. An off road driver’s dream. In Derj I filled up the Carwagon’s diesel tank and 8 jerry cans (£11 in total!!!) and four water containers. This all sits in the back, lashed down with ratchet straps. As each can is emptied it gets transferred to the roof rack to make space inside.
Our back up this year consisted of four pick ups and four 4x4 cars, all from the land of the rising sun and each with a power advantage over my 200 Tdi engine. On the fast interdune corridors we hit 50 mph a few times. Heady speed with such a huge payload, but the Carawagon coped well with the Old Man Emu suspension making light of the load and the AlliSport intercooler enabling me to keep up the pace.
Linking the fast bits are technically challenging hops between dune corridors. As there are no signs of previous tracks it is best to let the local drivers lead the way, picking the easiest looking route, with me following, hoping not to make a fool of myself. These are like a trials section, but often a couple of miles long. Select either fourth, low, or second high and boot it up an incline of pure driven sand. All that is visible through the screen is sky. As you crest the dune, the trick is to be able to stop if there is a problem, or sail majestically over. Faced with a view of only sand through the windsceen you need to be ready to make a lightning quick manoeuvre at the bottom.If you hesitate for a second you will be stuck, but if you rush, you may damage something, or roll. It is very rewarding when you get it right and usually gets a cheer from the assembled crowd.
I must confess to being defeated by two climbs. The first sapped all the energy I had available and I had to winch myself over, using one of the support cars as an anchor. The second was because I was at the back of the queue and the ruts made by the multiple attempts of the leading cars hacked up the sand to such an extent that nothing could drive over it. Again, I winched. My reward was at the next big dune crossing, when one of the Land Cruisers got well and truly stuck and I had to winch him out! Revenge was sweet.
We had taken ten days to cover 700 miles, interspersed with lots of valuable research work. I am delighted to report that my Carawagon coped perfectly and all the gadgets worked. My twin solar panels and deep cycle battery facility charged all manner of laptops, satellite phones, cameras and ipods, my Webasto central heating kept me warm on the long evenings downloading photographs and, above all, my new cooker prepared the finest Italian expresso for all of us!
Readers may be interested to know that this is the closest this column has been to being ‘live’. I am writing it on my laptop in the back of the Carawagon situated in a vast inter dune depression at N 26º 51’ 54 E 13º 19 47, while the rest of the team work. When we hit civilisation in a couple of days time I shall find an internet cafe (Usually a dust filled, breeze block shop with an ‘@’ painted on the wall) and e-mail text and pictures back to Croydon.
Photographs by Simon Armitage and Kevin White.
Working in the luxury of the Carawagon.
Tackling a big dune.
Winching a stuck Toyota out of a deep hole.