It’s Broke and I can’t fix it here.
After the adventures of the day, discussion around the camp that night was all about the “what ifs”. What if they didn’t let us go? What if they pulled the trigger and shot one or all of us? Sleeping under the clear desert stars and waking the next morning ready for whatever was next in our adventure. We didn’t have to wait long! The desert in this area was mainly small low lying hills and dunes that were covered in clumps of sunburnt and windswept bush. So for me leading the way it was great fun picking creative driving lines in and out of gullies and troughs and up and over the various rises we could climb.
Eyelids dusted off, camp packed and of we go into the desert proper, heading for the capital of Mauritania the city of Nouakchott. The plan was to head along the border area towards the west coast and travel along the beach to Nouakchott. By the time we got our gear together we were the last to leave the border post and head out into the desert. We had secured an old army GPS system before we left London. Back in 1994 these units were not a small unit stuck onto your windscreen. This GPS was huge and didn’t give much more information than a heading that you could follow. I had never heard of a GPS until I was shown this unit so it was all rather exciting. Shaun was in charge of this incredible device while my job was to find a way safely through the desert in the direction Shaun pointed.
An interesting observation was that over a few kilometers I had a tendency to drift to the right which meant that every so often I would have to cut to the left and get back onto to the correct heading. Shaun had us following an old road that had been built by one of the armies in the years gone by, but had been unmaintained for years. Therefore there were massive half moon sand dunes creeping around the place blocking the road. I had to navigate over, around and amongst these dunes while trying to head in the right direction. We traveled like this for 2 days stopping every so often to check out old ruins from what would have once been a military outpost defending that bit of the sandpit.
It was during one of my little sorties to get back on track that I realised I had angels watching out for me. Some time back we had come down off a plateau onto some lower ground. Where the old road had disappeared from view under a series of massive dunes leaving me with a decision of going left or right and trying to find a way around them. There was no way we could climb them with the overloaded and underpowered Landrovers. The sand was so soft and fine that it would have been tough going just trying to walk up the dunes. I decided to stay true to form and head to the right of the dunes. Because the dunes covered a large area this decision was really a case of head into the area and weave our way through the dunes as best we could. After some hours of weaving the dunes became smaller and the desert floor started to change into a plain covered in low lying desert shrubs. By now I was quite some kilometers of course. Shaun and I consulted our maps and compass to make sure the GPS was telling the truth and agreed that we should cut across country and find the old road.
So turning hard left we headed off on a slow bumpy crawl across this shrubby dry landscape with only a way point on the GPS to look forward to. For me it was great fun picking a driving line every 10 meters before I could work out where to head next. At times there was barely enough space for the 4wd to fit between the plants and every so often I would have to drive across the top of them hoping the dry timber wouldn’t puncture a tyre, rip a vital fuel or brake line out. About half way across this area I came to just another plant where the sand had built up all around the base forming quite a mound of sand. So that I could get past I had to head straight towards the plant and allow the sand to give way under the weight of the Landrover and slide it around the plant so I could get back onto the correct heading.
Unbeknown to me this sliding motion saved my life because under the surface of the sand right where the drivers front wheel would have gone if I hadn’t slid, was a landmine. The two 4wds behind me told me later that it was clear as day sitting where my wheel track would have gone, uncovered as I slid past. When we finally made it back to the road and the others came and told us how close we came to dying it sent chills up my spine. I knew my parents prayers for safety were being answered in that moment.
As the day was getting on it was decided that camp was a good idea so that evening was spent in the peaceful lee of a sand dune under the chandelier of stars thinking about how good it was to be alive even if I was only just alive.
The next morning we headed out following this old road that slowly disappeared into history leaving us following the GPS way points plotted in by Shaun. It was late morning when we started to find lots of vehicle tracks merging into a number of well defined trails that crisscrossed each other but all headed in the same direction. As we came up a small rise we entered a small clearing amongst a few small dunes with a sentry who indicated for us to stop. It seemed we had found a military outpost in place to keep an eye on all who traveled through the area, at least that’s what we thought.
We stopped and started to climb out of the vehicles when another soldier in full uniform strode towards us with his rifle pointed towards us in a very menacing way.
Like a brave man that I’m not I stepped back behind Shaun whilst muttering something about not knowing how to speak french so you should talk to him. The soldier would have been barely 20 years old but it seemed he was in charge of this outpost and he very quickly had those in his charge armed and positioned around us so that we had nowhere to go. Shaun asked with crude french what was going on to be met with a very stern “PASSPORTS” to which we all jumped and produced our passports from various hidden locations on our bodies. Once they were in “young fellas” hands he wandered back to the command post without so much as a word. We were well and truly confused by this so just stood around under the watchful gaze of the perimeter guards. A short time later the ‘young fella’ returned to inform us that our documents were not in order and that we would need to resolve that problem by paying the fine, to which Shaun told him that wasn’t the case and that we wouldn’t be paying any fines. Shaun’s lack of respect for ‘young fellas’ self perceived authority was met with a fair bit of yelling and gun waving and a very dramatic storming back to the command post. By now Shaun was starting to realise that this was not an authorised confiscation of our passports but somehow we had to get them back so we could go on with our trip. We had a team meeting and it was decided that Shaun and I should go over to the command post and have a little chat with “One day I’ll be a big man”. I’m not sure why I got relegated to the roll of bouncer for Shaun but I figured I could run faster than him and I wouldn’t hesitate to run without warning.
The command post was a small dusty concrete structure with very little furnishings and what was there was simple and rough. “My gun is bigger than yours” was sitting at a table with the passports spread out before him. Without looking up he indicated we could be seated. Shaun tried to lighten things up by chatting away in his broken french, to be honest he could have been swearing for all I could tell. Bottom line was “I own you” felt he had control and wasn’t going to be railroaded out of his extortion attempt by some wanna be James Bond like Shaun. It seemed the situation wasn’t going well so Shaun told “My life sucks” that we were going to go and set up camp in his compound and have a cup of tea. Lets face it, tea fixes everything for the British.
As we fiddled around unloading our tents and having lunch for the next half hour or so “I wanna be King” stayed quite planning his next strategic advance upon us. When he approached us next he informed us that he needed to search our vehicles for security reasons. We agreed as long as we did the unpacking for him, so we began unloading our bags and then producing dirty socks and backpacker undies. This was going along reasonably well until “King is not enough, I wanna be god” came to a bag belonging to one of the flower pot men (see part one) and thought he might unpack the toiletries bag. Well the scream for Bill interspersed with french obscenities not heard since the 18th century was a surprise to all of us. Now I don’t know what Bill had in the bag but maybe it was toothpaste with a little extra kick but regardless there was no way “I’m god” was getting to look inside that bag. This sudden outburst caught “I’m god”” by surprise but he was thankful for his military training, that kicked in with a swift shove with his rifle butt into Bills chest pushing him to the ground then flicking the rifle around pointed it at Bills head.
There was a brief although tense standoff before James Bond (Shaun) calmly started to talk the situation down as well as a few the other soldiers started talking in a local language to “You mean I’m not god”. “Not being god suxs” was in a difficult situation where he had no authority to do anything but needed to see the back of us. We could see him trying to find a way out of this situation that wouldn’t destroy his respect in this sandpit. After a few minutes with no one moving the rifle was lowered and “I feel stupid” stormed of back to the command center followed by a number of the other soldiers obviously feeling defeated. But we still had a problem, our passports.
We were all somewhat stunned by what had just happened especially Bill. By this stage we had been in the compound for a few hours and were keen to move out. As we tried to work out how to get our passports back we heard a bunch of yelling coming from within the hut when all of a sudden our passports came flying out the front door. We raced over and grabbed them and frantically, started throwing our stuff into the 4wds keen as to get our toys and leave this stupid sandpit. Just as we were about to pull out one of the soldiers who had been quietly sitting in the background the whole time came over to my window. In perfect English he instructed us that when we left the compound we needed to stay on the main trail as this was the cleared pathway through the minefield in front of us. What the!! it turns out all that outpost was there for was to warn us about a flipping minefield and had nothing to do with passports.
As we headed out of the compound struggling to get our heads around all that had happened in the last 2 days we had no idea that the fun was only just beginning. But fun of a different kind. My kind of fun.
I’m MadMatt stay safe on the trails.
When the ferry pulled into the busy port of the city of Tangier, I was greeted with a completely new world. Having grown up in a third world country in the wilds of Papua New Guinea I was used to things being different but this was certainly different to any other place I had visited. The hustle of men in dresses coupled into the new experiences of an old civilization had me keen to hit the road and get out of the city.
Fortunately after a little bit of shopping that’s what we did, hit the road. Now I could go on about all the traveling bits but if you’re like me you’re more interested in the exciting stuff so lets get down to the boarder with Mauritania.
Morocco and Mauritania had been at war for quite some years and were now in a cease fire. What this meant for us is, we had to cross a section of no mans land along their boarder. This section of Africa is a gateway from Europe into the heart of Africa and as such there are numerous guys who travel into Europe and buy cars to drive down into Africa to be sold. When we arrive at the boarder post we find all these OLD Peugeot’s lined up waiting to cross the boarder. The way the crossing worked was that on a certain day both boarders would be opened into the no mans land section so that crossings could be made. So everyone had to wait until that day arrived. While we we’re waiting we meet two guys who were definitely left over french hippies on their way to set up a sowing clinic in Africa. They had an old Landrover same as ours and in the end we invited them to travel with us for safety. I can’t remember their names so I’ll call them Bill and Ben the flower pot men.
The day arrives, the boarder gets opened up and all of a sudden it’s like an off-road rally is on as a hundred or so cars, trucks and 4wds take of into this No Mans Land. I must admit we got caught up in the hype and hooked into the crossing at a speed that was probably a bit fast but we survived. This part of the world is mainly desert and soft sand is the norm so knowing how to drive sand was a great skill to have BUT remember the old Peugeot’s? Yeh! Well some of the guys had never driven in sand let alone in a 2wd car so within a couple of Kilometers we started seeing cars broken down, bogged and struggling. Somewhere along the way we learned that the Mauritanian boarder wouldn’t be opened until all the vehicles had made the crossing.
Watching all the vehicles struggling I realised that this was a great opportunity to have a heap of recovery fun. I let the tyres down to a much lower sand driving pressure allowing me to drive wherever I wanted without getting stuck and went back out to help those in trouble. The first guy we came to had his front wheels pointing in opposite directions because his steering had busted, after a bit of thinking I was able to strap the broken bits together so that he could have a bit of steering. Hooking our Snatch strap on we began pulling car after broken car onto some harder sand where they could drive. Then we found a short wheel base late model Nissan Patrol stuck with the driver scratching his head wondering what to do. After a bit of a chat I said mate do you mind if I drive your Rig because I believe I can drive it out of the sand without any trouble. He’s happy as for me to do it. Well to say I was having fun now would be an understatement. This Patrol had a big turbo, big fat muds (tires), factory diff-locks and was made to eat sand for breakfast. It didn’t take much to get the Patrol free, air down and just a little bit of back and forwards packing the sand and out she came. When Old Mate saw I knew what I was doing he said I should use his Patrol to go and help the others, so with one of my mates as my offsider hooking up cars and overseeing the FUN we hooked in again. I was buzzing I was made for this.
All this took a few hours and by the time we got the the Mauritanian boarder there seemed to be a few pissed off people. Pissed because we had taken too long to recover everyone??? They could have come and helped! By the time we got processed across the boarder it was nearly dark so we settled down for the night camping in the desert. A stiff breeze had come up and so we decided we would set up our canvas tarp between the 4wds as a shelter from the wind and blowing sand. Rather cozy with 12 of us in there but the funny thing was that with the wind blowing the canvas all over the place the sand was being forced through the canvas and made the whole inside of the “tent” like a calm dust storm. When I woke up in the morning my eyelids were full of sand and so before I could open my eyes I had to roll over and tip the dust out of my eye sockets. Ahh the adventures of Africa.
Next I’ll tell you about the soldiers that point guns and land mines.
I’m MadMatt stay safe on the trails.
How about I tell you some more of My African Adventure story? Due to the length I will do this over a few Blogs.
Back in 1994, (I’m not too old am I?) I had the opportunity to go 4wding in Africa with eight others in two Series two Land Rovers. My role was to be the trip mechanic and the 4wd expert. We traveled from London through Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, down to Dakar in Senegal on the north west coast of Africa. At the time Australians were on the nose as far as Spain was concerned so I wasn’t allowed to travel into Spain. You may have heard of a place called the Rock of Gibraltar which is located in the bottom corner of Spain. Well Gibraltar is a British territory and so I was allowed to fly there from London.
Gibraltar has the coolest airport because they actually shut the main road so the plains can land.
So the plan was that I would fly into Gibraltar and Shaun one of the others on the trip would come pick me up and smuggle me across the Spanish boarder into Spain. I needed to get into Spain so that I could travel on the car-ferry with the rest of the team from Spain to Morocco. When the big day arrived Shaun met me at the airport and we walked across the airport to the Spanish check point. I was suitably nervous thinking I was about to get locked up in a Spanish prison to never be seen again. I asked Shaun how smuggling me across the border was going to work, thinking of the Australian Customs I had left a weeks earlier. Metal detectors, guards, cameras, dogs and guns. Shaun was one of those guys that you liked as soon as you met him, he carried himself with the confidence of an experienced traveler who knew the tricks of staying alive when you’re living on the road out of a back pack in wild Africa.
Shaun didn’t have much to say other than “you let me do the talking” and stay in the background. “We will walk in the front door and if you come in a little behind me then wander across the room and out the door on the other side of the room.” We were approaching the crossing by this stage and I’m thinking there is no way this is going to work.
Shaun asks me “you ready” and before I can say anything he’s walking in the door and I’m following him thinking I just have to wander across this room that’s all so I walk in the door to see Shaun happily chatting to a bunch of guards, creating a distraction. So I get to my meandering across the 10 or so meters of room waiting for the hand to grab me on the shoulder or the yell indicating I had been spotted but before I knew it I was out the door and into Spain without so much as a stamp in my passport. I felt like a real bad dude now I was officially an illegal immigrant into Spain.
Once we met up with the rest of the crew at the port where the ferry would leave from we started to plan for our departure across to Morocco the next morning. In the back of my head I’m thinking how am I getting out of Spain? I was trying to think of ways I could hide in one of the 4wds without being found. Later that night I hit Shaun up for the plan and to my dismay he says your going to just walk through the customs and onto the ferry. I’m not James Bond in case you hadn’t noticed. Standing in the slowly moving line watching the customs officer clearing all the passengers ahead of me with thoughts of Spanish prisons running inside my head gave me plenty of time to get scared. I hand the officer my passport which he casually flicks through once then a second time looking for a stamp that doesn’t exist. He motions to a guy with a gun to come over and asks me why there is no stamp in my passport? I play dumb which is easy when the brain is cramped with fear. They chat about which cell I should be put into and then decide I should go and wait in the corner for a bit. Now I’m thinking that the ferry will be leaving without me when Shaun shows up and starts chatting to people with guns. One of them comes over to me and starts asking awkward questions to which I play dumb, again not to hard, then he asks me a really easy question. “If I let you onto the ferry will you ever be coming back to Spain” Yippy I can answer that one, “No flipping way,” to which he says of you go. So Morocco here I come.
Standing on the rail of the ferry with my first adventure behind me feeling like I could take on the world was a fantastic feeling. Little did I know that in the months ahead I would have guns pointed at me, nearly drive over Land mines, rebuild a motor in the Sahara desert and almost get killed by a swarm of angry locals.
Part 2 next week.
I’m MadMatt Stay safe on the trails.