The month of dune

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Phil Clisby recalls a hair-raising escapade through the Western Sahara into Mauritania in 1992

We’d been in the desert for five days, with no idea how long we would be here for. We – that’s our old Bedford truck, another English overland vehicle, a Polish 4WD and a couple of Land Rovers – were camped up about 20km outside the small town of Dakhla in the Western Sahara.

To the left of our camp (or right if you were facing in the other direction), there was a sea inlet; and if you followed the shoreline around, there were a couple of beached shipwrecks and the occasional fisherman. I had no idea where these guys lived, though, because to the right, ahead and behind there was nothing but sand, sand and more sand.

We were waiting for permission from the Moroccan Ministry of Interior to proceed to the Mauritanian border. The Western Sahara was a hot political potato at this time. A sparsely populated area of desert, between Morocco and Mauritania, it was annexed by the Moroccans in 1975, and had since been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute with the indigenous people.

As we waited, despite the war being officially over, we heard of sporadic gun battles still going on, and the area through which we hoped to travel was apparently littered with land mines.

The road itself was allegedly safe, but we would have to travel in convoy with the Moroccans providing us with an armed escort as far as the border. This all filled me with a sense of foreboding.

Mine’s a pint
The plan once, or if, we got over the border was to catch a 3km-long iron ore train to take us into Mauritania’s interior, and by doing so avoid a really bad coastal road. But in the meantime, all we could do was wait. And wait.

Finally, after eight days of living in our sand village, which had now grown to a population of 80-odd, we received permission to cross.

We congregated at the Dakhla police station to receive our travel documents and get our passports stamped. Each person had to be interviewed, and two hours later our truck had been processed. Just a few more vehicles to go…

The following day, we reconvened at the cop shop. After a bit more paperwork, the convoy kicked into gear two hours behind the scheduled start time – but this is Africa, after all – accompanied by three soldiers who were supposed to see us safely through the land mines.

However, it rapidly became clear that they were surplus to requirements. We spent the best part of the day trundling along what was a relatively new tarmac road. Then, on reaching the last Moroccan police stop, the soldiers disembarked, waved goodbye and left us to negotiate our way through no man’s land – an area covered in mines, so we were told – on our own.

There was no road, just sand. A narrow ‘safe’ route marked by lines of intermittent rocks. To make it harder these weren’t the only stones lying about, meaning the ‘road’ wasn’t always clear. Plus, it was now dark. Thanks!

Our truck, being the slowest, was designated to ride shotgun. The track was bumpy to say the least. And we were stuck between this quandary of needing to travel fast enough to make the ride as smooth as possible, and not get stuck in the sand, and driving slowly enough so as not to lose the rest of the convoy or, worse, lose the way and wander off into the land mines.

Bouncing all over the place, we twice got stuck in the sand. So, in the pitch dark, with mines either side of us, we had to jump off the truck and, armed with shovels and sand mats, dig ourselves out of the soft sand. The adrenaline was certainly pumping. But, thankfully, all our sand matting practice during the idle days camped up near Dakhla paid off, and we were quickly on our way again.

Suddenly, we came to an abrupt halt – our driver unsure in which direction the track was heading. After some deliberation, along the lines of ‘do you cut the red wire or the yellow one’ we opted for the right fork. There was no bang.

We pressed on, coming across a sort of road (a flattened down section of rock) until, horror of horrors, in front of us appeared two silhouettes carrying machine guns. Was this the border or an ambush? God, I could do with a strong drink.

Mind the gap
A hushed silence fell over our group. You could almost taste the tension in the air. We sent, or was it pushed, Rob, who spoke fluent French, up front to enquire, while we watched nervously, peering over our seatbacks into the darkness through the open sides of the truck, trying to hear what was being said.

After what seemed like an eternity, Rob returned, smiling. Fortunately for us, and especially Rob, it was the border. By border I mean five soldiers guarding a small gap in a sand dune. But our relief was short-lived, as disaster struck. Five yards from crossing into Mauritania the clutch went.

The rest of the convoy, having successfully crossed the border, parked up on the other side of the dune, where we planned to bed down for the night. The guards quickly placed a circle of stones around the vehicles, explaining that it was not safe to cross them. It seemed that mines had no respect for borders.

Meanwhile we were still in the Western Sahara. Our mechanic, Dave, having removed the offending clutch, asked for the spare. “ No, that’s the knackered one. Give me the new one,” he growled. Or words to that effect. “That is the spare one,” came the nervous reply from Mark, the trip leader. This exchange didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Dave soldiered on, and two hours of swearing later, he emerged from under the truck – the clutch successfully replaced. But the truck wouldn’t start. We were going nowhere. The guards allowed us to walk over the border into the ‘safe’ area, leaving our transport in a different country. We bedded down in sleeping bags on stony ground and I spent a restless night with sand being blown into my face.

Awake early, we crossed back into the Western Sahara, where we tried to get the truck started, but to no avail. One of the other vehicles drove back through the gap to help – but got stuck in the sand. We managed to dig them out, and they were able to tow our truck to bump-start it. The engine purred into life. Foot down, Mark drove at full pelt towards the gap, ground to a halt, wheels spinning uselessly in the soft sand, and then the engine stalled.

Our ‘tow truck’ towed us back, and then Mark made another charge for the border. This time, our vehicle managed to keep going, careering through the gap. “Don’t turn the engine off, whatever you do,” we chorused. Finally, we were in Mauritania.

Off the rails
We were back at the head of the convoy, travelling down an excuse for a road that quickly vanished into soft sand. Chaos reigned. Gradually the convoy got spread out as vehicles got stuck in sand. We powered on. We couldn’t afford to stop for fear the engine would die again. The plan was to follow the railway line into the nearest town.

It was like a scene from Wacky Races. The lead constantly changed hands; trucks spun out of control; we got stuck, sand matting out or getting towed; and sand flew everywhere. Eventually the dust got so bad we decided to drive down the track itself.

Then the concrete either side of the line disappeared, derailing us, and we swerved all over the place, luckily coming to rest safely. The truck behind us also flew off the rails, blowing a tyre. They were out of the race.

Our progress then came to an abrupt halt, as a massive camel train crossed the track in front of us. There were hundreds of camels. Goodness knows how the herders kept them in check. While being held up by these comical animals is not an experience I had faced before, their keepers looked equally bemused by the sight of half-a-dozen vehicles careering down a railway line.

Eventually, we were back on our way, and the convoy regrouped as we hit the customs post (literally for one of our number, as they reversed into the flagpole), before heading on to Mauritania’s second-largest city – Nouadhibou. To clarify, that didn’t mean a lot – it was more of a small town. But it did have some luxury items, such as telephones, postcards and baked beans. Not Heinz, mind.

It is a coastal city, and we headed for the beach to find a place to camp. Our ‘campsite’ looked out over the port – a real ship’s graveyard – sunken wrecks as far as the eye could see. But no sooner had we erected the tents, the police arrived and ordered us to move on – apparently there was the possibility the beach was mined. Bloody hell.

We relocated to a football pitch (well, an expanse of dirt with two goals on it), next to an airport, on the outskirts of town. There were about 200 kids running around, and we joined in a game of football with them – all of them. Chaos, and slightly unfair sides led to a crushing defeat – but it’s the taking part that counts.

It was from Nouadhibou that we planned to catch the train, but it proved impossible to get a berth on a flatbed trailer, and to be honest, no one fancied 22 hours sitting on the truck unable to leave the confines of the vehicle. The alternative, though, took us along a dodgy coastal road in the direction of the capital, Nouakchott. A 70km stretch of beach, with a tight timeframe – just four hours – to get through before being cut off by the tide.

We left Noddy’s Boots (as we had affectionately named Nouadhibou), along with another truck and one of the Land Rovers, in what was to be a hard five-day slog across the harshness and wilds of the Sahara to Knocking Shop (Nouakchott).

Tides wait for no man
We had selected a guide the day before from a gang of people claiming to know the way. But after the first day, we were beginning to think our man didn’t have a clue where we were going.

First off, about a mile out of town, we came to a police stop, where a policeman informed the guide he had taken a wrong turn. We hadn’t even reached sand yet!

Nevertheless, into the desert we ventured, seeming to get stuck in every bit of soft sand we could find. So it was sand mats out, dig the sand away, mat down, drive out, run like mad with the mat you’ve just driven over and place it in front of the advancing wheels until you reach hard sand again. We were like a well-oiled machine. We covered just 100km in eight hours, and who knows in what direction.

Camping up as dusk arrived, we found a sand dune (not too difficult in the desert) to provide a natural buffer to the bitter Sahara winds. They seemed to come to life as night fell, whipping up the sand and flinging it against body and face. Luckily, I had purchased a large piece of material in Morocco for just such an occasion. Wrapping the cloth around my face so that only my eyes could be seen.

We spent the next day pottering through the desert, still not entirely convinced the guide knew the route. On top of one dune, the truck, dwarfed by the size of it, sunk up to its axle, and it began to lean at a very precarious angle. It took a good half-hour of intense digging and matting to get it out; all the time conscious that we could not afford for the truck to topple over. Tow trucks and garages were not plentiful around here.

The Sahara is truly one of the world’s wonders. Travelling through this vast nothingness gives a real sense of isolation and fear. Fear of being lost and never found, left to drive round and round in circles. How can anyone survive out here? It’s continually hot, dry and dusty. Yet, at night it is freezing.

Contrasting with the fear is the sheer beauty of the place. The yellows, browns and reds of the huge sand dunes rolling in waves, eating up all that is living in their path; then giving way to enormous but spectacular plateaux. Above was a deep blue sky, with not a cloud to be seen. Often I would leave the truck and walk along the ridge of a dune, marvelling at the mystique of it all.

We pitched our tents after a more productive day distance-wise –180km – behind some dunes, and built a massive fire, as it was Bonfire Night. Fireworks were not easily obtainable in the Sahara, so we just made some whooshing noises and shouted ‘bang’ a lot, followed by some oohhs and aahhs.

On Day 3, a miracle happened. The desert may cover more than 5 million sq km, but we came across another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. What are the chances? After a chinwag with our guide, they drove off leaving one of their number behind. It seemed we had an additional guide – at least he might know the way.

By now the famous desert mirages were setting in. Starting initially as pools of imaginary water, by the end of the day, I was positive I could see pizzas. That night, we stopped short of a fishing village that was the gateway to the ‘beach highway’.

We set off at 7am, and 20 minutes later arrived at the village, only to find the tide was in, and we’d have to wait until midday before we could move. “Best laid plans” and all that. No such thing as wi-fi to find out the tide times in those days. Probably wasn’t even Google. Or even computers. I used to write letters with a pen and paper back then, you know.

With a few hours to kill we took the opportunity to explore the village, and sample the local delicacy – dried fish. There were several washing lines of fish drying in the harsh sun to preserve them. The smell was horrific, as was the taste.

We discovered six dead sharks on the beach. Apparently the fishermen catch them, cut the fin off and send them to Senegal for shark fin soup. The villagers, though, won’t eat shark. Local legend says: ‘Don’t eat the shark and they won’t eat you’. Makes sense, but I think it would be safer just to stay out of the water.

At midday, the charge was on. We steamed down the beach, right on the water’s edge, where the hardest sand was to be found, racing the tide; and panicked when the truck got stuck and the water crashed into its side.

Bouncing about 2ft in the air off the seat, as we flew at break-neck speed, items of clothing and then a spade flying out, dramatic chases to retrieve them and leaping back on board while the vehicle was still moving. We were stopping for nothing or no one. There was no time to lose.

At one point, a sand mat fell off the side and Mark clambered out of the window of the cab to try and retrieve it and promptly fell off the moving truck, rolling dramatically over and over. Luckily, the sand mat was unhurt.

Next to this chaotic scene, a pod of dolphins cavorted in the sea, following our progress, as if laughing at those stupid land creatures.

We reached the end of the beach, pulling into a safe area to camp, just as the tide lashed in – covering the way we had just come. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The following day, we triumphantly entered the capital, marched into the Hilton hotel and washed in the bathrooms. I pity the poor cleaner after 20-odd people had scrubbed a week’s worth of sand from their bodies.

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