The Wrong Box.
A mix up leads to an exciting days desert driving.
Queuing at a busy Christmas checkout in Sainsbury’s, my pal Ian Reeds and I were frantically filling carrier bags with goodies to sustain 26 Archaeologists through a three month stint in Libya. It was a juggling act, as we knew that some items had to go directly into my Carawagon heading for one desert destination and others into Leicester University’s TD5 Station Wagon for a site 300 kms. further south. They would not see daylight again until we arrived at our respective destinations a week and 3000 kms. later.
The day after Boxing Day, both heavily laden Land Rovers and a Minibus, piled high with scientific equipment, began the long haul south. First to Dover through an England still carpeted with snow, then across into France and our first overnight stop in Chalons-en-Champagne, where we rewarded ourselves with a drop of the local produce! From there to Avignon, within striking distance of the Port of Marseille ready for the morning ferry to Tunis. 24 hours later we stepped out into warm North African sunshine. We were slightly ahead of schedule, so hoofed it down to the popular holiday destination of Hammamet for New Years Eve and a slap up meal!
We made it to Medenine in Southern Tunisia for our final night before crossing the border into Libya, where we had to jump through the usual hoops at the Ras Ajdir border post, but after four hours of argy bargy we were in and met the rest of the team who had flown to Libya, in Tripoli. The next day we made an early start in an attempt to reach our respective areas of study. Most of the team headed to Germa, 1000 kms. south, but myself and a small group of Geologists, turned southwest and went straight into the desert. It was round the campfire that evening that we realised we had put one box of important equipment in the TD5, now 300 kms. Away. It should have been in my Carawagon - Oops!
This was a pretty big error, as without his box of specialised kit, Dr. Mark Hounslow could not conduct his study into how often the World had changed it’s polarity over the last few million years in relation to our project. Yes. There have been many times over the Earth’s history when your compass would have pointed to the South Pole, not the North! We slept on the problem and the following morning made a satellite phone call to the others in Germa. A local driver was prepared to make the 150 km. drive north across the dunes to meet us in the town of Idri, 150 kms. south of where we were camped.
Geographer and fellow Landy owner, Kevin White and I, made an early start in my Carawagon, out through some low dunes to a vague track that followed an oil pipeline to a Police Checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. They invited us in for tea, amused to meet anyone right out there, let alone foreigners. From the checkpoint it was a couple of hours across flat gravel to a small oasis of twisting sandy tracks demanding enthusiastic technical driving - full left lock, then full right. Thrilling stuff! The final 40 kms. into Idri was a vile corrugated track that shakes the fillings from your teeth.
We met our contact, Hassan, at the petrol station in Idri. He was calm and relaxed having done the dune route many times. It is his weekly commute to work! He invited us into his house for lunch and despite being on a mission, it would have been rude to refuse, so Kev and I joined Hassan’s family for a feast of local produce, which was delicious. We could not allow ourselves to get too comfortable as we had a long way to drive back to our camp and preferred to complete it in daylight. Hitting the road at 3.00 pm, we were an hour later than intended, but reasoned that if we did have to drive the last 30 kms. in the dark, it was pretty easy.
As the sun sets in the West a long shadow of Toby’s Carawagon is cast across the warm sand of the Desert.
We reached the Police Checkpoint at dusk and faced the last hour of desert driving in complete darkness. It is an eerie experience driving across a totally flat expanse of desert, devoid of all features, or visual reference points. The lights pick up the 20 metres of gravel ahead, the GPS assures you the course is correct, you remember there are no hidden dangers, but it still all feels very disconcerting. We had phoned ahead with an estimate of our arrival time and Mustafa, a key member of the Desert team, was standing on a dune adjacent to the camp waving a torch to guide us in the final hundred metres. We had made it and the research could continue in the morning.
Night driving in the desert is spooky and requires knowledge of the terrain, a GPS loaded with waypoints and good lights!
Copyright Toby Savage.