Desert Manoeuvres.

Desert Manoeuvres. Training academics how to drive a Land Rover.

This is the time of year that I start to get twitchy about the annual haul down to Libya with my academic pals - a disparate group of Archaeologists, Geographers and Anthropologists from around the country. And I have many reasons to be twitchy. I seem to have inherited the responsibility of organising the overland trip, this season involving three vehicles and three drivers. I shall be undertaking the 5000 mile round trip in my Carawagon, accompanied by the trusty old Toyota Minibus, packed to capacity with Archaeologists dig tools and, for the first time, the Universities recently acquired 2002 Defender 110 TD5.


They bought the immaculate Land Rover from Nene Overland, largely on my recommendation and so far it has been a good choice. Nene fitted it with a robust aluminium roof rack and it is heading up to my son Matt’s place next for a compressor, sand ladders and a service prior to undertaking the biggest trip of its brief life so far.  Whilst I am only with the group for a month, the rest of the team are heading on to the desert oasis town of Ghadames for a further two months and the Defender will be in the hands of academics for that period. Part of my role will be to teach them basic maintenance, how to drive in sand and how to recover the Land Rover when it gets stuck.


The Professor who runs the whole show is well aware of the costs of untrained drivers being let loose in Land Rovers to roam around the desert.  I was invited to join the group way back in 1998 as a result of the Prof. having got their old Series 3 Station Wagon well and truly stuck on a route we have tackled subsequently with ease. They departed the small town of Germa, where we stay for the duration, to enjoy a day off exploring the relatively popular Oasis route that comprises about 100 kms. of mixed desert driving. Making that fateful assumption that a Land Rover is unstoppable they found within a couple of hours that in untrained hands it was quite easy to get horribly stuck.


Having become stuck, they then managed to get more stuck by spinning the wheels and digging four nice holes for themselves! The Prof. hurt his back quite badly trying to push - he still suffers now!  Eventually they burnt the clutch out and had to abandon the Land Rover, luckily getting a lift back with a local who just happened to be passing. The following day they returned with a mechanic from the town, who assessed the damage, found a replacement clutch and fitted it over the following week, lying on his back in the sand. It was a harsh and expensive lesson, and the whole experience was entirely avoidable.



Getting stuck in the desert is fine - if you know how to get unstuck!


With this in mind we arranged a training day at Avalanche Adventure, Leicestershire, at the tail end of the summer, with the aim of making those that would use the Defender aware of how to make the most of it. Avalanche Adventures' site offers a good selection of conditions from steep banks to deep mud and during the course of the day I was able to teach them how to drive it, how to recover it and, above all, how not to get too stuck. The day was heralded a great success, but with uncanny certainty, none of those present on the course are in the overland group!  It is now too close to departure and too muddy to run another course, so the plan is to steal a day when down there and have some fun in the sand.


The good aspect of this is that we shall be able to drive in real conditions and experience the many styles and skills required to get safely from A to B in a variety of settings. From memory, the terrain around Ghadames is fairly flat, but does have some tracks that are like driving on corrugated steel. These are quite the most vile surfaces on which to drive and none of us has ever come up with a solution. Too slow and you feel every ripple, too fast and you rip off shock absorber mounts and risk further damage.  Lowering tyre pressure improves things, but wears out the tyres quickly. They will have two months of this and I sincerely hope we can find a compromise!



How many Archaeologists does it take to……..?


Assuming all goes to plan, I hope to write the next thrilling instalment live from the warmth of North Africa and report on the journey across France, the ferry from Marseilles to Tunis and the cruise down through sunny Tunisia to the little island of Djerba where we stay for the night prior to hitting the Libyan border at dawn to catch them napping!


Copyright Toby Savage.