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Sand Trials (Part 1) – Erg Chebbi


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We headed to Merzouga, which lies next to Erg Chebbi, the site of the famous Saharan sand dunes. We arrived a La Petit Princess camp site right at the edge of the dunes. There was no cash machine in Merzouga so we had to head back to the previous town, Rissani. We found a cash machine at a MasterCard friendly bank and withdrew some cash. We then decided to stop and hear what the young Moroccan man waving us down had to offer. His name, Mohammed, and he was selling a parking space and a tour of the local market. Why not. We left the truck with the assigned guardian and followed Mohammed into the market.

Our market guide, Mohammed.
Our market guide, Mohammed.

It was crowded, and smelled of curry, cumin, rose oil, cinnamon, mint, turmeric and a variety of other spices, oils, and teas. Mixed deeply with these smells, as a foundation, was the smell of cattle, sheep, and raw meats.

A very remarkable spice stand. In this market you get to try before you buy.
A very remarkable spice stand. In this market you get to try before you buy.
Armed with her experiences in India, Celine expertly negotiates the purchase of a few spices.
Armed with her experiences in India, Celine expertly negotiates the purchase of a few spices.

As we passed the goat heads used for celebration stews we came to the market parking area. As a local, you ride your donkey in from the mountains or desert and park it in a dirt square.

The local market parking lot. Donkeys are the transportation option of choice.
The local market parking lot. Donkeys are the transportation option of choice.

From there we walked through the cattle, sheep, and goat markets. We came to a large nut stand where we purchased a half kilo of almonds and a half kilo of peanuts, all fresh and unmolested by any kind of enhancer, pesticides, or preservatives. We then entered another dimension. Mohammed took us to a carpet store where we were offered tea, and a brief history lesson, a lesson that turned into an hour long education on carpets from all of the regions of Morocco describing all of the techniques: woven, embroidered and knotted. Other topics covered were dead and live wool, the designs in each carpet and what they represent, as well as how different types of wool feel; camel vs sheep. It was very interesting, only because I know nothing at all about carpets, and because the gentleman giving the presentation was quite animated and punctuated each of his teaching points by expanding his eyelids opening them to their fullest as if he had just been startled by a ghost.

We declined the set aside for purchase, or place back in storage portion of the carpet class, and headed back into the crowded streets where I thought about buying a new pair of shoes, but they were just too big.

Shoe

By now we were quite hungry so we opted for the Berber pizza. We had some fresh squeezed orange juice while we waited patiently for the pizza. Did I mentioned I went and inspected the kitchen?

While we waited for our pizza I decided to check out the kitchen. Nice!
While we waited for our pizza I decided to check out the kitchen. Nice!

We ate our pizza, packed up and headed towards Merzouga late in the afternoon. As we drove the giant sand hills of Erg Chebbi, looming in the distance, came closer and closer until they dominated the skyline. It was far too tempting to pass up.

The dunes of Erg Chebbi loom and beckon from the distance.
The dunes of Erg Chebbi loom and beckon from the distance.

At this point, prior to the following story, a clear statement is required: Our truck is not currently setup for deep sand driving. For running dunes the truck needs to be empty, as light as possible, and have its tires deflated to increase the surface area of the patch (the area of the tire in contact with the driving surface). Once emptied and tires deflated the truck is gradually accelerated until it reaches a high speed with high revs (rpm) at which point it “floats” across the sand. With a heavy truck and fully inflated tires the trip will be very short. We opted for the short trip. With a full auxiliary tank, a full refrigerator, roof rack, roof tent, supplies, tools, compressor, sand tracks, spare tire, high-lift jack, and high psi tires we took the first dune descending into a fairly packed area enabling us to achieve the necessary speed to launch over the second dune and land in a deep, deep pit of sand, surrounded on all sides by high, loose hills of Saharan powder. The momentum actually carried us across the pit and partially up the next incline before we slid backwards back down. I attempted a u-turn, which I succeeded in achieving. Facing in the correct direction for an attempted escape I gunned it and headed in the direction we would spend the next four hours going… down. The back end sunk deep into the sand. It was going to be an uphill battle. I will save you from experiencing the excitement, but will leave you with clarity on the experience: dig, lay sand tracks, drive forward a few feet, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. In the end the truck was empty, the tires deflated to 1.3 bars, sand tracks laid, and sporadic rock and grass found in the surrounding area were strategically placed to add traction to the sand. To be clear, this sand is very deep. The spot we were in had easily another 4 feet of loose sand under every shovel scoop. And with each scoop out came an equally large pile back in. It was a very time consuming venture. As the sun faded and the land became dark the lighting system provided by ELS saved our bacon. It was dark, and as dead as the desert may seem, it comes to life int he form of spiders, strange beetles, flies and a plethora of other insects. Back on the hard surface of the desert floor just outside of Erg Chebbie, we re-enflated the tires and continued the “short” trip back to Merzouga.

What is special about this sand is that there is about 40 more feet of loose sand under the visible sand. Zero traction.
What is special about this sand is that there is about 40 more feet of loose sand under the visible sand. Zero traction.
A slow process. Dig, place tracks, drive forward. Repeat.
A slow process. Dig, place tracks, drive forward. Repeat.
It was after nightfall before we got out of this mess.
It was after nightfall before we got out of this mess.
The rear lights from ELS provided reliable artificial daylight which assisted us in  getting back on the road instead of spending the evening out in the desert sands (not that it would have been bad).
The rear lights from ELS provided reliable artificial daylight which assisted us in getting back on the road instead of spending the evening out in the desert sands (not that it would have been bad).

ELS Lights

Re-enflating the tires after escaping the sand trap.
Re-enflating the tires after escaping the sand trap.

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