There’s no feeling like it, that sense of being so deep in the Sahara and so far from civilisation that you wonder whether you’ve fallen off the end of the earth. The glorious sense of solitude and the gravitas of a desert landscape sculpted by the wind are among the many rewards of travelling in the Sahara. That is until something happens to your vehicle. And so it was that we awoke one morning in the sands of the Sahara to find that the car’s battery was a complete nonstarter.
I have become accustomed over the years to drivers in this area being able to fix anything – for them necessity is indeed the mother of invention. I have watched, 300km from the nearest town, as my driver dismantled a Land Rover’s suspension and then rebuilt it in just over two hours. I have marvelled as my guide and driver changed the entire gear system of a Toyota Landcruiser in a deep valley of a sand sea. So I wasn’t worried at first.
We dug the wheels from the sand and pushed. When that failed, my driver and two guides jacked up the car and tried to spin the wheels, hoping that would coax the engine to life. They dismantled the fan belt and tried to charge the battery by hand. They talked excitedly and with purpose which suggested that things were not as bad as they seemed to me. Then came the moment when my two guides and driver stopped peering into the engine and, as one, began to look hopefully towards the horizon. That’s when I knew we had problems and began to wonder just how much trouble we were in.
And so it was that one guide and one driver set out to walk 25km across the sand to the nearest police post, leaving us to contemplate what it truly meant to be stuck in the sand with no prospect of passing traffic in one of the most remote corners of the Sahara. As the hours passed, with the sun overhead, we crawled under the car for shade. What if they got lost and never returned? What if the police vehicle was under repair or away on patrol? We knew we had enough food and water for at least a week, but the sense of helplessness soon morphed into morbid thoughts.
Although my usual rule is to venture into the Sahara only with two or more 4WDs, I often break it when I am with an experienced driver who knows his car. Off the beaten track, I also always travel with a satellite phone. In this case, I had no phone and no second car.
Finally, after six hours, a police car with mounted machine guns appeared over the horizon, bearing our guide and driver and the means to restart our car. A happy reunion. Relief that you could almost taste. And one of the most important lessons of Saharan travel learnt – always know your vehicle before taking it into the desert.