Lost in the Sahara Desert
Have you ever asked yourself “… what the hell am I doing?”
Midnight in the middle of the Sahara Desert can be every bit as desolate, uncomfortable, and terrifying as you might imagine. Hamza was driving my friend’s Jeep, and four hours earlier we had stopped in Douz, after a nine-hour drive south from Tunis, to fill up our gas tanks, pick up a large jerrycan of drinking water, and meet our local guide. Our plan was to take two, maybe three more hours to get to Tiniri Camp, in the middle of Tunisia’s Jebil National Park. The first hour was on a paved road that was rapidly losing ground to the local sand dunes, then an hour on an unpaved but mostly defined road, and then we entered the dunes. Thirty seconds later I beached my Land Cruiser in deep sand.
Like an idiot, I had blindly followed Hamza’s Jeep and driven straight into the dunes without letting air out of my tires. Worse, I even knew in advance that I needed to lower the tire pressures from 38psi down to 15psi, to create much larger contact patches and allow the Land Cruiser to float over the sand. I assumed that if Hamza hadn’t stopped to let air out of his Jeep’s tires, I didn’t need to do the same. So, I quickly become stuck and needed to be recovered.
I opened the door and felt like I was stepping upwards, since the sand had almost reached the bottom of the door sill. The nighttime setting was surreal — bright as day due to the high-powered spotlights on both of our vehicles, but outside of a 100-yard radius, pure darkness, no horizon. It felt like standing on a huge soundstage at a major movie studio, with enormous fans blowing sand past us. Sand quickly filled my shoes as I methodically let air out of all four tires on my Land Cruiser. It felt ridiculous to see my family’s transporter stuck in the Sahara desert with the Milky Way far overhead. Fifteen minutes later, with the help of Hamza’s winch, we extracted my car and continued on our way.
However, this was not the moment where I asked myself “… what the hell am I doing?” That happened about two hours later. I was tracking our movements on GPS, and it became clear that our guide was lost. By midnight we had spent two hours wandering in circles. Worse yet, the guide spoke no English, and Hamza’s English was mostly limited to basic phrases and not well suited to explaining to an American with limited off-road driving experience how to crest dunes and drive in deep sand. A lot of thoughts raced through my mind. Is the guide messing with us? Is he lost? Is this guide any good? How long will we be out here? We have water, but why didn’t I pack a bunch of energy bars? Am I going to catastrophically damage my Land Cruiser 10 days into a three-month trip? Will we see the sun rise before we get to camp?
Instead of a sunrise, we got a moonrise instead. I found seeing the moon, hanging over the dunes, oddly calming. I think the guide did, too, because shortly after that my GPS indicated that we were moving in a coherent direction towards our destination. My emotions wildly swung back and forth as we made progress towards camp and I experimented with how to maneuver my Land Cruiser through a series of dunes which were anywhere from three to fifteen feet in height.
Hamza’s advice? “Follow me.” Well, thanks a lot, that’s super-helpful, Hamza. I asked him a series of questions. How fast should I crest the dunes? When should I apply throttle? Which gear? Will the dunes get bigger? How much longer? Hamza’s response? “Follow me.” Hamza was super-friendly, but I had to figure this out for myself and fight off the panic I was starting to feel. So I closely watched his maneuvering technique, and then thought about the differences between his Jeep and my Land Cruiser. The biggest technical difference was what’s called breakover, an off-road vehicle term which describes the geometry of how much room exists between the bottom of the chassis and level ground. Hamza’s modified Jeep had roughly twice the breakover clearance of my Land Cruiser thanks to a higher lift and much larger wheels — kind of like a gaming “cheat code”.
That meant that I had to be more aggressive than Hamza in cresting dunes, bringing enough momentum to punch through the crests, without launching my vehicle into the air on the other side. If I didn’t bring enough momentum, I would get stuck at the top. Or if I hit the front of the dune too fast, the car would punch nose-first into the dune. That meant the right speed at the bottom, engaging the slope without compressing the suspension too much, applying a lot of throttle right after nosing up, and then reducing throttle at the right time. I made every mistake you could imagine, including launching it a few times, dramatically slamming it down, scrambling my nerves as well as all of the contents of my Land Cruiser. All the while thinking that maybe, just maybe, going straight to an African desert during the first two weeks of a three-month European drive in a car I treasure with 220,000 miles already on it wasn’t such a great idea after all.
Just as I was starting to get the hang of it, Hamza and the guide managed to get stuck ahead of me. Crap! I stopped my Land Cruiser about 80 feet behind them on firm ground and walked up to where he had trapped his Jeep.
Five minutes and a lot of sign language later, I maneuvered my Land Cruiser past him, over a small dune, to another patch of firm ground from where I could pull him out of the sand. Then once I was back in the Land Cruiser, thinking as I shot past, don’t fuck this up. Smiles, laughter, and high-fives between the three of us when I made it — the universal language of happiness, joy, pride, teamwork, and relief.
After extracting Hamza’s Jeep, we continued onwards. Finally, we found the main track to camp that the guide had missed about four hours earlier. Now that we were on a proven route, the miles flew by, and we rolled into Tiniri Camp at 2:15am under a waning gibbous moon.
The guide didn’t drink, but Hamza and I each had a Beck’s before heading to our tents. Nothing is more draining than a long day and massive emotional swings, but I felt extremely grateful to Hamza and the guide for such an amazing experience. I fell asleep within minutes.