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Across the Sahara – in 1970

El Golea – The oasis town – is located at the gateway to the Sahara where records of all vehicles setting off on the Hoggar route are kept. Certain standards had to be demonstrated before permission could be granted to cross the next dangerous part of the Sahara. Our main worry was ground clearance. Being hard-pushed for money half of our household effects took up much of the car space. Thus a four foot mirror, an electric sewing machine, all our glassware and crockery, a fan heater, breakable ornaments, and other such homely items travelled in the car with us.

Much more important luggage joined this assemblage in London. Ross added five jerry cans; a set of tools; a first-aid box; three five-gallon plastic containers for drinking-water; a reasonable collection of car spares; maps; a small selection of tinned food; and three spare wheels tied on to the roof-rack. The jerry cans would hold twenty-five gallons of petrol to cover all eventualities, and the water containers when full would see us across the Sahara between towns. But the weight we carried forced the car body closer to the ground.

Arriving late in the afternoon we wasted no time and went straight to see about permission from the ‘Sous Prefecture’. We’d read the list of requirements in our AA and O.N.A.T literature and done all we could barring an improvement of the car’s ground clearance in its heavily laden state.

The official walked around the car in his white shirt and long black trousers, a dapper vestige of the colonial regime, ticking boxes on the form attached to his clip-board. His hair had been plastered over to one side with hair cream. The minimum ground clearance was thirteen cms and he took out a measure from his back pocket. We had repacked everything to redistribute the weight favourably, and left our petrol and water supplies low. He measured the distance, scratched his head and measured it again, then wrote a note on his pad. We waited. Forty minutes later after much deliberation and a thorough examination of the petrol and water capacity, the engine and wheels he wiped his hands on a rag and nodded his head. Our doubts evaporated when he announced ‘Bien,’ with a smile, and felt this to be an endorsement of the car’s suitability.

Resolution coursed back through our veins from his vote of confidence and we examined the prospect ahead. Our responsibility would be to report into the ‘Sous Prefecture’ of every town on our route, and if we failed to do so others going the same way in either direction would be looking out for us.

The next day, the hardest day of our short lives lay ahead and we had our suspicions from the start. Contrary to my childhood imaginings the Sahara desert is not covered in beautiful rolling sand-dunes or erg. There are also gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadis), and salt flats. But mostly it is made up of stony plateaux called hamadas which account for seventy per cent of the Sahara’s surface

The piste loomed up ahead to mark the start of a truly challenging part of our journey. The metalled road ended spectacularly.

‘Travelling on laterite roads is a knack,’ the London AA man had explained. ‘They quickly become corrugated by traffic. To stop bumping up and down you have to take the car to an ideal speed of around thirty to forty miles an hour to float over the top of the corrugations and then you can travel more comfortably.’

The first section of the track we would be following rose on a stony incline that in no way matched the description we’d been given. Heavy trucks had churned the ground to get purchase on the slope, throwing up stones and deepening the furrows. Already we felt we had the wrong vehicle and wondered at being given permission to travel. Even with good ground clearance the stony rutted surface ahead would give any vehicle a challenge.

Ross stopped the car and we sat silently looking at it. ‘I can’t risk taking the car up that,’ he said. ‘The lowest part of the engine is the sump and if a stone hit it badly enough all the oil would drain away. We’d be finished!’ With this sobering thought we decided to clear a reasonable path up the hundred yard hill.

Back in the car we tried again, but still the loose stones and corrugations made the car and everything in it judder as we ploughed onwards.

‘I can’t take this much longer, I’m going to try the floating theory so hang on to your seat!’ Ross wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. With the engine revving we bumped violently over the stony ridges at speed but never arrived at the ‘floating’ stage and our nerves soon gave out. We felt ill both from the shake-up and the realisation that neither we (nor the car) could survive much more punishment. At last we reached the top of the hill hoping for a smoother ride but still the car juddered over the corrugations. My head spun from the heat, the shaking, and from racking my brains for a solution.

For the first time since leaving London I had serious doubts about what we were doing, but knew it was too late for these thoughts to be spoken and regretted the disregard I’d shown for all the warnings. A few minutes later we stopped for a rest and a rethink. Ross investigated another noise coming from beneath us and found the rear-suspension bump stop had broken loose and looked irreparable.

Our poor new car! He decided to stick it back on immediately with epoxy resin and hoped for the best.

This was the Tademait plateau, a ‘hamada’ covering the area between El- Golea and In Salah. Flat, dull, stony desert stretched forever all around us. Not a creature, building or vehicle disturbed its arid eternity. We were completely alone. A few scrubby bushes provided a scattering of growth and they would also soon disappear.

Boulders lined the side of the piste but we could see vehicle tracks in the dust at the side of the road which suggested that others had chosen a different ride. Ross shoved three smaller boulders away from the roadside to make a passageway for the car. He cautiously steered onto a better surface off-road. We enjoyed a couple of miles in less discomfort but as soon as the tension in my shoulders loosened the car sank into soft ground. ‘Sand ladders’ would have been useful if we had them. We had yet to find out about these, and we didn’t even have a shovel to dig ourselves out. Unfazed we soon found other resources. Rummaging through our belongings in the boot I pulled out two large Tupperware containers.

‘We could use these for digging couldn’t we?’ I asked. Although they could have done with being more rigid, they became our makeshift shovels throughout the Sahara crossing and would see plenty of hard use unmentioned at Tupperware parties.

After this unexpected new hazard we returned to the less comfortable safety of the piste for a while, but Ross was soon ready to risk another attempt at following the vehicle tracks. We studied the land as he drove looking for telltale signs of soft sand.

‘The soft sand seems to look paler in colour, don’t you think?’ I asked. We peered over the black vinyl trim of the dashboard studying the desert floor as we went. Ross avoided the paler patches and we got into a rhythm of watching and weaving to make headway at a maximum speed of twenty five miles per hour until we arrived at a dry river bed.

There seemed to be nowhere suitable to cross. Bumping along the edge we explored the river bank by car, then on foot until we found a shallower section of the bank to drive down on to the dry bed. The texture at the edges felt more solid but a stick poked into the sand on the river bottom sank every time into softness. Bent double and walking backwards, we excavated a ramp down to the river bed with our plastic boxes. Ross walked back along the sand approaching the bank and located the firmest patches of ground. He planned to accelerate for fifty metres following the track to the river’s edge and building up enough speed in the process to span the squishy barrier. Hopefully this would carry the car to the opposite bank with its own momentum.

I stood aside ready to push if needed and he started the engine. Accelerating furiously and managing to reach forty five miles an hour the car and driver shot across the ramp only to plunge straight into the sandy middle as if it was water. Pushing would only have made things worse. The wheels on the roof-rack broke their bindings and went flying. The battery had been wrenched from its mountings and lay at a drunken angle beside the engine, and the car sat immersed in sand.

I denied myself the luxury of tears. We jacked-up the back wheels one at a time and since sand seeped above the bodywork we first had to clear it away with the now ingrained Tupperware containers.

With the jack supporting the car’s weight and the wheel clear of sand we could dig below it and place what stones we could find under the first back wheel to provide a solid base.

‘Take care when you’re scraping under the car that it doesn’t fall on top of you!’ warned Ross. We expected much from the slender pillar jack which had come with the car. It held the weight of half the vehicle on top of its fragile metal frame on a base that was none too solid.

We scoured the sand away from the wheels and as more of the weight shifted on to the jack, golden metal creaked in warning. Our heads sprang up to watch in horrified anticipation then the movement settled and our arms and heads went back under the bodywork to scrape some more. We repeated this procedure with the other wheel and then dug away enough of the sand behind the car to lay a small stony track. Our clothes stiffened with evaporating sweat and the silent sun deafened our brains. An hour later with the battery secured back in place and the wheels on the roof-rack tied back down, we gulped some more water and took a deep breath. I leant my weight against the front of the car ready to push while Ross started the engine and engaged reverse gear. The wheels spun but only to force our laboriously laid stony track under the sand. Stuck fast again we realised our pathetic track was futile and we’d have to put more than stones under the wheels.

‘FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!’ yelled Ross still in the driver’s seat, banging his head on the steering wheel with each expletive.

‘We could use the spare wheels to drive across,’ suggested Ross bouncing back from his despair five minutes later and climbing out to untie the ropes on the roof rack. ‘We won’t progress very fast but at least they’ll provide a firm base.’

All over again sand had to be hollowed out beneath the back wheels and we laid the spares in the hollows. The sun never lost its ferocity. Ross reversed as far as he could using the spare wheels as a platform, but it was never more than a few extra inches before we were back in the sand’s clutches. So a little over a wheel’s diameter at a time we repeated the whole procedure until at dusk we finally succeeded in making our way back out of the river bed centimetre by tortured centimetre. In all we’d spent five hours of exhausting, dirty work in baking conditions without making any progress in our journey and we still had the river bed to negotiate the next morning. Our first day off the unpaved road had been a trial from first thing in the morning to this potentially disastrous obstacle which would continue to dog us the following day.

Sitting in the dark car that night we made plans for further attempts in the same vein. The work in prospect looked enough to keep a team of navvies busy for a day. The two of us with our Tupperware were not looking forward to tackling it. I felt catastrophe snapping at our wheels.

Extract taken from:

Appointment in Zambia: A Trans-African Adventure
Sara Dunn
Published by Matador Publishing
ISBN: 9781780882383
eISBN: 9781780888248

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