Monday, April 10, 2006

The Savage Beauty of the Sahara

A minor sandstorm overnight left those sleeping under the stars feeling well exfoliated, but spirits were high and we set off for our safari around the Ubari Lakes after a leisurely breakfast.

The first lake has been dry for six years, but there are still deep rooted palm trees and bushes growing here. They provide a lush green foreground to the golden sands behind. Animal tracks on the sand are a reminder that there is still life here, even without water in the lake. There was also life around us last night - we could hear a jackal's howl late in the evening, found snake tracks through camp this morning and had a crow lazily circle right above our heads after breakfast, waiting to get its chance to peck through any scraps left behind. In more ancient times, some of these might have been considered bad omens.

The second lake, Mavo, was pretty. Palm trees and reeds surrounding a pool of slate blue salty water. Since there are no permanent rivers in Libya, these lakes are fed by groundwater that picks up salt and minerals on its subterranean path. Apparently there are occasionally rivers that temporarily flow through the desert here, although it never rains in the Libyan Sahara. The rain falls in Algeria, then flows across the border.

The third lake, Gebraoun ("Grave of Aoun") is enormous, perhaps 75,000 square metres. On its Western shore lies a ghost town, forcibly abandoned when the government decided to modernise the locals and move them to new homes nearer the highway. They have left an eerie ghost town behind, with gaping open doorways and a crumbling mosque. The 'modernisation' move may have had some ecological justification too - apparently these desert towns (perhaps combined with the Great Man-made River) seriously lower the local water level. A local geo-physicist that we had a brief chance to talk to said that the water table has shrunk from 7m below ground to 50m in some places and that, if left unchecked, this entire area will be completely devoid of lakes and vegetation in just 10 years. Visit while you can. Much as we wanted a chance to look around the ghost town, our local guide did not deem it noteworthy enough for a stop and we drove straight past.

This was becoming something of a theme and most frustrating, creating a running source of friction between us and our guide. The Saharan Safari part of this trip is entirely in the hands of a local company that provides the guides, food and 4x4 land cruiser vehicles. The details of our itinerary are entirely up to them and out of Dragoman's hands. Which is a shame, because they clearly do not understand the desires and motivations of a western tourist.

They have driven past most of the cave paintings most highly praised in the Lonely Planet; taken us to a petrol station for 35 minutes instead of dropping us in the nearby town for us to look around; and hooned through the most stunning desert scenery without stopping to allow time to take it in, or take photos of, some breathtaking vistas. I guess this is largely a cultural clash, with them not being in tune with our mindset of wanting to explore every village, nook and cranny we can.

But it is poor organisation too. With more intelligent use of the available time we could have seen much more - like Ghat, one of the few living, breathing Tuareg cities left in the world or even the open air museum of cave art and natural rock sculptures that is Wadi Methkandoush. (I have to reiterate here - this is all no fault of Dragoman, whose drivers and organisation are consistently excellent, but rather a failing of the local company.)

Still, with this new disappointment of not stopping in Gebraoun town gnawing away in the backs of our minds, we set off up the dunes. It was like crossing an ocean. A massive ocean of sand, more than 150m high in places. Driving across, and over, these peaks reminded me of scenes in The Perfect Storm where the little fishing boat is tossed around by the massive waves. The only thing moving here was us, but it was still a stomach churning ride. The giant dunes are roughly crescent shaped and shallower on one side, which we drive up, then, with a windscreen full of nothing but sky, we coast over the summit and tip forward, pointing straight down the slope until the next in the series.

Working our way up from Lake Gebraoun the dunes climb in stages, one on top of another, and we climb to the top, then begin our descent, with short saddle-shaped plateaux between the peaks. Gun the engine to get enough speed, then coast the final part, up - sky view, over - see nothing but sand, whoops and screams from the passengers depending on their preference for this kind of no-safety-bar thrill ride. Down into the saddle. Then the engine roars, the fan belt screams (its slipping a little since sand has got into it), we see the lead land cruiser go over the next dune and follow a safe distance behind, another vehicle in our group is several metres to our left, and just behind. the engine roars, fan belt screams, then we coast, up - sky view, over - nothing but sand, whoops and screams, then the dull sound of crumpling metal is punctuated by a cry from the lady behind me, I hear glass shatter, then see a rolled up tent slide past on the sand to our left, followed by a tire. I look left and see an overturned jeep, but the slope is too steep to stop - and there is a chance that the next car might hit us if we do - so we continue to the bottom. As I look downhill again I see the free wheeling loose tyre narrowly miss the lead car as it rolls past.

I later heard from others more details of what happened. The Land Cruiser that crashed had gone over the dune too quickly - normally you use speed to go up the bulk of the dune (otherwise you get stuck in the sand), but crest the top almost at a standstill, tip forward then drive down the rear face. It appears that this car went too fast, and the driver did not decellerate in time. The car hopped over the top of the dune and the crest then struck the back of the car and flipped it forward. It landed on its radiator before rolling onto its roof. This explains why it lay in the sand pointing uphill. Note: I did not see any of this myself.

We stop at the bottom of the dune. I leap out, grab my water bottle and look up the dune. It's by far the tallest and steepest one we have crossed, perhaps some 120m high. The upturned car is about 20m from the top and I can see 2 people crawling out onto the sand. There were 5 inside.

The dune mocks our attempts to climb. Each steep forward step sinks deep into the sand, turning the 100m ascent into 150-200 and sapping our strength. The lead climber is screaming, howls punctuated by panic stricken cries for the following cars (there were six vehicles in total in our party) to stop. His friend shouts up at him not to panic as we struggle up the slope.

One third of the way up. I see another person emerge from the car. Clearly shaken, barely moving. Her partner and the driver are still inside. The food truck is stopped above them on the dune, just over the ridge of the dune, there are three at the bottom of the dune - that leaves one.

Two thirds of the way up. I have to stop and catch my breath, as do the other climbers. Our Dragoman trip leader (I'll call him 'Jack') who was apparently in the last car is now at the scene - that's good, it means they stopped too, and on the other side of the ridge so no other cars should come over.

I struggle on and arrive at the crash scene. My lungs are full of sand, my legs are on fire. The last passenger is being pulled from the upturned land cruiser. He's a big, strong man (who I'll call 'Alan') but he's wailing as he's pulled so very slowly from the vehicle, "I'm f***ed, I'm all broken..."

I see our trip co-driver (I'll call him 'Frank') lying just clear of the car, looking totally dazed, lying still, staring up at the sky, blood slashed across his face from a horizontal cut on his head. I talk to him - he says that he's ok but he thinks he has a dislocated shoulder. I see the other three passengers now. One has blood all over his head (call him 'Tom'); one is lying on the ground (call her 'Lucy'), she is writhing a little and complaining about her neck - somebody says that they think it's probably whiplash and tell her to lye as still as possible; Alan is lying very still. His left arm is limp, his legs are not moving, his face is a fixed grimace of pain.

Everyone helps how they can. I help Frank to sit up, give him water from the bottle I brought with me and shade his head with the Tuareg headscarf I am handed by somebody behind me. The sun beats down. It's about 11am and unmercilessly hot. In previous days we measured the temperature in the shade as 43C and 53C in the sun.

As the injured are given water, shaded and made as comfortable as we can, two of us ask Frank about the satphone and GPS that we were talking about just the night before when Frank had gone for a wander 1km across the dunes, using the north star and GPS to find his way back. We get the description of the bag, find it at the top of the dune in the rearmost vehicle and ransack it to find the devices. Once we have them we call Jack over, so that he can call in the cavalry. Part of me wonders who could possibly help - 450km from Tripoli as the crow flies, in the middle of the desert, base camp was 2 hours by road from a major town... But the calls are placed. Dragoman will find a way. They have to. Don't they?

Our local guide is characteristically useless. Running around waving his arms like a headless chicken. The head driver is also a liability, but he's apparently in some sort of shock as he wanders around the wreck. It's getting dangerous so I shout at him to move away from everything and everyone - he was trying to move people unecessarily; walking too close to Alan, pushing sand down on him and shifting him slightly causing pain; leaning against the wreck, risking it moving or sliding downhill. The Tuaregs, on the other hand (our drivers and cooks), are helpful and try their best to help.

Suddenly I think of the driver. I don't know who was driving. I turn and ask one of my fellow travellers if he's out yet. The reply is grim: "No. He's still inside. Not moving. He looks very dead."

Shocked, I turn instinctively to look inside the car, peering past Frank to try and see under the crumpled roof. I couldn't see anyone. I peered closer and asked someone else about the driver.

"It's ok. He's out," I was reassured.

Then I see him. Visibly shaken but crawling on all fours. I am flooded with a sense of relief then wonder what else I can do to help. Now that the cals home for help have been placed our attention turns to two things. What can we do locally to get a doctor on the scene and/or an airlift out of here and what can we do safely to make the people here as comfortable as possible. I hear Jack ask the local guide to go back to camp and do anything he can to get a helicopter in.

"Impossible," he replied. His usual response ot any query tat might require effort to achieve.

Jack reiterated, "The cost is not important. Money no problem. Where it comes from is not important. Just get one. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I'll get a jeep."

We clearly had a problem, so I offer to go back with him to make sure everything that could be done was done. Jack agreed that I should go and I find out which car they want to drive ("Take this one. Strongest car."), it's the one at the top of the dune still. I briefly protest that it's both at the top (useful in case you need it for some reason, the other cars couldn't drive back up) and clearly marking the fact that there is a problem here. But the locals won't listen and insist on taking it. I give in, take the jerry cans of water and day bags out of the car, carry them 20m down the dune to where the casualties are, note down Jack's satellite phone number, the number for Dragoman and the current GPS location then set off - first over the top and down the dune. (If I'd had time to think, I would have walked that bit...)

At the bottom the driver stops and the locals shout at each other for a minute. I take the chance to jump out of the jeep, grab my bag and camera from the other car and take the photos of the scene that you see here, so I could show the people back at camp the exact situation. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when there's any form of language barrier.

About 10 minutes into the drive, speeding across the sands, I realise that I have no idea how far we are from base camp. I turn on my phone (it was off since there is no roaming in Libya, let alone reception in the Sahara) and check the time: 11:59. I turned on my camera and checked the time of the photos I took when leaving the scene: 9:47am GMT. We have been driving for about 12 minutes.

Some 35 minutes later we reached camp, having travelled at up to 150km on the flatter sands, but more slowly where required (the driver was incredibly skilful).

Over the following four hours I did what I could. Chasing up the local company to try to get a doctor to the scene or a helicopter for an airlift. Trying to keep tabs on the people and the jeeps - some had apparently gone to a hospital in nearby Ubari with the injured Frank and Tom and the injured driver had been taken somewhere by the head driver too. First word was that only three people were left on the dunes - Jack, Alan and Lucy - and that everyone else was in Ubari. When this came through the local company tried to organise a minibus to go to Ubari and collect them (1 hour's drive from base camp in Tekerkibe by asphalt road).

However, the numbers did not add up. There were nowhere near enough jeeps left at the dunes to do this, unless another party had come across them and helped out. So I try, several times, to contact Jack at the dunes on his Satphone, but cannot get through.

"This number is not currently in service." Every time.

But I had checked the number twice, and reread it to Jack to make sure. I called Dragoman to confirm his number again - they told me the same number I had. I tried dialling with +86..., 0086..., and all manner of variations to no avail. I need to check exactly where people are, so I call Dragoman instead and ask them to check with Jack and get back to me. It seems my main role here, alongside chasing up the locals, is dissipating the many Chinese whispers that are being generated between Dragoman, Jack on the dunes, Fezzan Tripoli (head office) and Fezzan Tekerkibe (base camp).

The head driver turns up and gives me his stock phrase (the same one he gave when two jeeps almost collided on the first day): "No problem."

I shook my head in disagreement.

He then told me that Alan and Lucy were much better after I left and both were sitting up and talking ok. I found this difficult to believe, but Fezzan take it literally and push for us to get them out by jeep rather than wait for an airlift that may never come. I stress again that there is apparently one neck and one spinal injury and moving them by land is definitely not a good idea.

Eventually news trickles through that the British Embassy has arranged a plane from a local airfield to go and help. At camp we wait and wait for a doctor that could drive out to the scene, in case the plane is delayed or cannot land. An ambulance turns up, sirens blazing, and Dragoman asks that I send the driver out to the scene in a jeep. I double-check first and find that he is not a doctor, so that wouldn't work. The wait for a doctor goes on.

I also eventually hear back that there are 14 passengers left on the dunes and only one had accompanied Tom and Frank to the hospital (I later found out that this was incorrect and 2 had gone, but an overestimate of the number of people at the dunes was more useful than an underestimate when trying to get enough vehicles out there to bring them back). There was also one drivable jeep left.

Eventually a doctor arrives just as I am on the phone clarifying with Dragoman whether to take passports and cash out to Alan and Lucy. They said yes, but asked that I go with the passports and to help at the scene. Racing back across the sand dunes again was not high on my priorities (once bitten twice shy), but I agreed after a short initial hesitation. However, Fezzan's drivers had already set off - somewhat prematurely given that both the doctor and I were still in camp and had to be called back.

Fezzan called them back and, as we are about to leave, I get another call from Dragoman, confirming that the plane had just landed and a doctor was on the scene, so there was no need for another one. So, we leave behind the doctor that it had taken us four hours to source, and race off. Two jeeps from Fezzan and two from the oil company.

As I get back to the top of the top of the dune I can see that the plane has landed in the distance on what looks like an impossibly short strip of harder sand/rock and everyone is sheltering from the sun in tents at the base of the dune. I choose to get out and walk down the dune, rather than go over in the jeep for a third time.

As I reach the bottom I go across to the makeshift shelter and see, under the fly sheets and tent poles, a chilling sight.

An Alan sized mummy, covered from head to toe in a purple Tuareg scarf. He's not moving at all. I hear Jack say, "We can fit six people around the body. It's a long way to the plane [perhaps 1km] so we need some extras to rotate in as the first six get tired."

Hearing the reference to 'the body' I fear the very worst, and look over in shock at the purple clad mummy on the sand. The wind blows the scarf off his face and then I can see.

Alan is strapped into a stretcher, his head secured with straps and a neck brace. The scarf was just for shade.

As we struggle to lift and carry him across the sandy ground to the plane, Alan manages to find the energy to crack a few jokes. We pause every 50-100m to rest, then push on again. One of the fellow passengers jokes that it's always the heavy ones you have to carry. Gallows humour, but laughter is always welcome. The oil company land cruiser carries him the final few hundred metres to the plane. As he was finally positioned in the plane next to his girlfriend Lucy they both confirmed that they could move their toes - a very good sign. I give them their passports and all my cash I could get at ($100). The doors close and they take off at about 6pm, bound (I think) first for the oil field from where a larger plane would take them on to Tripoli.

We who were left gather our thoughts and trek back from the makeshift landing strip to the dune. Some finally let their emotions flood out after being so strong for so long, caring for the injured for almost seven hours. We pack away the tents, gather our litter and head back, subdued, to base camp. At much less than 150 kph. The sun sets behind the dunes before we are home, but we crest the final dune and descend into camp just as the last light fades.

We were 'home'. Everyone was apparently as safe as they could be or in the best possible hands. Jack had been great and done the right things (although he later admitted that the first two hours were a complete blur - this was the first major accident he'd had to deal with in many years of overlanding and he was, justifiably, in shock for a while), the group had pulled together brilliantly, Dragoman and the British Embassy had worked miracles and the oil company was the unlikely provider of the international rescue team (German pilot, Swiss plane, Jordanian doctor, Libyan nurse, Romanian driver).

To the two flown to Tripoli, and all involved, get well soon - both physically and mentally.

Addendum: News the following morning was good. Lucy had fractured a vertebra in her lower back but was recovering well. Alan had crushed/compressed two of the vertebrae in his neck but an overnight operation and bone graft had gone very well and the outlook was positive.


Note: names of the individuals in this account have been changed and some of the events have been simplified for brevity. The account on this website should not be read as comprehensive or used in any legal context. I can supply an official statement to any party that requires one.



At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phew! What an account. Read three times and felt "there with you".
Let us have update on your injured friends. Hopefully to full recovery. Did other group members have photos that you can add to this incredible Blogg? We wish you all Safe Travelling for the rest of this journey.

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phew! What an account. Read three times and felt "there with you".
Let us have update on your injured friends. Hopefully to full recovery. Did other group members have photos that you can add to this incredible Blogg? We wish you all Safe Travelling for the rest of this journey.

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phew! What an account. Read three times and felt "there with you".
Let us have update on your injured friends. Hopefully to full recovery. Did other group members have photos that you can add to this incredible Blogg? We wish you all Safe Travelling for the rest of this journey.

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phew! What an account. Read three times and felt "there with you".
Let us have update on your injured friends. Hopefully to full recovery. Did other group members have photos that you can add to this incredible Blogg? We wish you all Safe Travelling for the rest of this journey.


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