Merzouga to Zagora: Crossing a part of the Sahara (Part 2)

Upon leaving Merzouga and the sands of Erg Chebbi we wanted to travel through the desert West to Zagora. All of the locals stated emphatically that it is an easy trip and that it could be done in one day, but that we should take two so we could see the sights as they are, “very nice, very nice.” It is good that we didn’t have a tight schedule, as our post desert plans wouldn’t have worked out. As we studied our map we saw what appeared to be a nice road leading straight across the desert between the two cities. As we pulled up Google Maps we discovered that it also showed a road that seemed to go straight through every type of obstacle you could think of. It went straight though mountains, sheer cliffs, riverbeds, and colossal mounds of sand. I think that it even somehow crossed into Algeria. The turnoff from the road south of Merzouga appeared to be go right into a field and nothing more. We dismissed it as a fault of Google not having updated imagery.

We headed out with enthusiasm and confidence. To our dismay, we could not find this road turning off into the desert. We eventually just took a right near the point where Google showed the turnoff, and drove over rocks and ruts until we hit a small dirt road. Now we’re on track, we thought. We stopped for a quick lunch in the shade of a tree, and from there things became a little bit trickier.

Well, not yet actually. Before the real challenges arose we stopped near a rocky hillside thinking the border to Algeria might be right behind the mountains, and  we wanted to have a look. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but it wasn’t too bad actually. The border wasn’t there; just more mountains, and a closer look at the map revealed we weren’t actually close to the border at all. We were told that after the bombings in Casablanca the Moroccan government changed both its opinion of and policy towards radicals and have since put up cameras along the border which detect movement within a distance of 4 km. These security measures are what peaked our curiosity and had driven us to climb the hills to assess things for ourselves. Though we didn’t see any cameras, and no border security deployed to our position, the walk was still quite interesting because we found a lot of rocks with tiny fossils of sea creatures in them. In fact, they were everywhere, and apparently this is where the people go to find all the little treasures they peddle to tourists (or try to trade for headlamps).

On our way back down we found a well, a very deep well. We tied a 20 m line on our bucket and tried to get some water but the line wasn’t nearly long enough. We were so focused on what we were doing that we didn’t see a guy approaching on his motorbike. All of a sudden he was right there. He was a local shepherd in search of cigarettes. Though we had none to give he continued to stand there staring, giving us a negative vibe. I don’t think he was any more than just curious, but his gaze through his headdress and face rap seemed sort of ominous. Maybe our discomfort had more to do with the fact that Celine was wearing a sleeveless shirt and I no shirt at all. We stopped fiddling around with the bucket and all the line, packed up and drove off.

Once back on track, things went crazy. I think we took a left turn sometime because we started drifting north instead of going west. Maybe we shouldn’t have, I don’t know… The tracks we had been following, that were so clear became less distinguishable and then non-existent. Let’s quickly review our resources. We had a map that only showed a straight line across the desert, a desert that was shown as a white space on the paper, and that was it. We also had an iPad with various map applications, all of which relied on some sort of cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity. Shortly after pulling off the road or connection was lost and we were stuck with a display of the area that sat at about 10,000 feet. To clarify, there wasn’t much detail to use for navigation purposes. We knew where we wanted to go, but it quickly became clear that there were many obstacles between our destination and us. This trip was not going to be from A to B, but A to B through all the other letters of the alphabet. There were brief periods where there were tracks from other vehicles, and we found it was best to follow them when possible, as they would surely lead you through tough areas. The problem was that they split all the time, and they split in entirely different directions. It was never clear which way one should actually drive, so quick checks of our limited mapping resources, combined with binocular scans, and gut feelings carried us forward. Only later did we figure out that it is best to follow the deepest tracks regardless of the direction they take. The first day we didn’t get very far, at least in regard to the distance to Zagora. We did drive for 8 hours, though. At some point we tried the Garmin, which amazingly had a route. We followed her for the rest of the day, but unfortunately she guided us south. It was interesting. We drove through all kinds of different areas and terrain: dirt road, flat area, mountain, sand, rocks, etc. She took us on a goat trail. Literally, the truck climbed and bounced slowly over the rocky sides of mountains following the hint of a small path. It was fun, but also very tiring. It got dark as we finally emerged from climbing through the mountains and found an au Berge/camping site. Their most convincing argument for us to stay was: it’s getting dark. I said, “really? Well, you haven’t seen my lights yet!” We did stay, though, and made a quick dinner inviting the campsite guy to eat with us. As we finished our meal of corn, tuna, onions, chickpeas, mayonnaise, and bread the host’s brother emerged from the darkness along with a local friend. They gathered some instruments and performed some traditional music for us, playing various drums, singing, dancing, and shouting. There was an amazing moonrise.

The guy running the campsite tried to explain to us how to get to Zagora. He said that the way we were headed led to a riverbed that contained 5km of deep sand and that it was better to go north and pass the river at a small bend that had rocks in the bed. He also made it clear that the bend was difficult to find and offered a guide service for 50 EUR. We decided to find our own way, and spread the map out in our laps. A terrain and route study revealed a horseshoe bend in the river near a mountain slope that appeared to be far narrower than the rest of the crossings. We made that our destination and set out. We had to backtrack a little through the mountains, but instead of taking the goat trail we decided to head east to a small town nearby. Once we got there we discovered that a new road was being put in (dirt) and we hopped on it to find that it went around the mountain we had passed through the previous night. The entire trip back north took just 45 minutes as apposed to 4 hours. Once we reached the turn in the river, the desert began to play its tricks again. It looked like huge sand dunes all the way across. However, as we approached one dune, a rocky flat space would reveal itself, winding between each sandy hill. We had to select the route carefully as some of the areas led to dead ends. After a bit of slow and selective driving we managed to pass through the area. According to the guys at the campsite, after crossing the river the route becomes easy and clear; perhaps they meant after crossing the river and the next desert plain. As we came into the wide-open space there appeared before us… wait for it… more huge sand dunes. From a brief observation and the application of common sense about wind and sand we observed and realized that the terrain here in the Sahara is ever changing. Mountains of hot granules block passable areas after every sand storm. Shifting sands is literal; following tracks proves futile, and each traveller must find their own pass.

The way ahead seemed impossible and a study of the map revealed what appeared to be a small pass to the south, just between the mountains to our left and the sand on the right. Seeing this, and hopeful, we took a left turn. However, our map studies do not reveal much detail. Again, we were working from the 10,000 plus foot perspective and our paper map showed a large white area with a road running straight through. This was route reconnaissance in pure form, exploration. Our turn gave us what seemed the definition of the cliché “smooth sailing” for about one kilometer. The dunes began to pinch us into the mountains and the ground in the middle became minefields of huge, jagged rocks. I foolishly thought, “We’ve come to far. We just have to press ahead.” Amongst the rocks were sudden washouts that didn’t appear until we were at the edge. Route selection became critical and every move was step by step. Washes of sand began to appear, weaving through the rocky field. Each one was deep, and each one a challenge to pass, and would remain a challenge if we had to turn around. The field began to shrink considerably as the rocks grew and the sand filled around us. We crested a hill to find the skeleton of a camel, white washed by the sun and smoothed of all flesh and sharp edges by the blowing sands. It was a clear reminder of the mercilessness of the austere environment we were travelling through. Even camels, designed for this life, were brought low by the heat and aridness, then soaked into the dust. The Sahara, in fact all desert, is unforgiving to the unprepared. Tears evaporate before reaching the earth, sweat greedily drunk, the suns rays beating down on every inch of exposed skin. Slowly the life is drained, mouth dried to crust around its edges. Thirst defeating hunger pangs, and brain sizzling in the skull. I began to question our level of preparedness, not in a panic, but as a revelation. Even our “training runs” are quite serious. If these rocks slash the tires, a question that arose from the sight of the sidewall rub, it would create time and energy consuming events. If we rolled over a large rock and the tire slipped it may puncture a vital fluid reservoir. We were armed with ideas, and a few items to patch things, but no extra fluids, no sure and tested means for stopping the flow of the trucks life source. We would be stranded with no maps, compass (left that is South Africa) and no easy means of carrying a few days supply of water. This could get serious fast if we didn’t stay focused and make good decisions. After four hours of winding through rocks, wadis, rivers of sand, and mountainous dunes the terrain began to get far more technical as well as steep. We got out on foot to scout ahead in hopes of finding a path between the rocks and sand to the flat and hard packed desert just on the other side. Celine headed towards the dunes and I up the mountain slope. Our path was channelized into a dry riverbed filled with boulders. The bed wound up the side of the mountain and its walls grew steeper with every turn. I reached the top and crested the stone rising out of the right side of the riverbed. As I stood on the ridge my heart sank a little as I witnessed the endless rock and sand that spread before me. We aren’t going to get through here. We have to go back, all the way back through the open plain of jagged rocks, sand, and deep wadis. Ok, we can do this. I got back in the truck where I found Celine shading after a fruitless search in the dunes. We each shared our wonderful news and then whipped a U-turn and started back. We followed the trail we had created on the way in, but bypassed the excursions made in search of more suitable driving surfaces. There were no suitable driving surfaces. We were very thankful for new slightly larger than standard tires, bash plates, and a suspension that lifted the truck above all the rocks. We prayed for safe passage back and enjoyed a much easier ride, easy until we got stuck. I was trying to keep momentum up for the sandy patches that were mixed within the rocks. The terrain made it difficult to judge what tire pressure, gearing, and speed was necessary for successful passage. Sand requires lower tire pressure, but rocks like this need a higher tire pressure to protect the sidewalls. Also, the rocks were mixed into the sand so with low pressure and too much speed, it was possible to crack a rim. Ours are aluminum so the rim would be difficult if not impossible to repair if dented, and definitely if cracked. There were too many rocks, so I kept the tire pressure up and tried to gain and keep momentum for the sandy parts. We seemed to be breezing along until one sandy area suddenly became a hill. A hill? Do I remember this? We hit the area with good momentum, and then recalled that I had indeed come this way. Right in our path were two large bushes. On the way down I had slalomed through them. They were spaced exactly the length of the truck, but the sand was sloped between them, not flat. On the way in we had enjoyed the hill and the swerve to dodge the plants even shouting, “wooo-hooo!” in our heads. Not so this time. The hill, and now less packed sand worked against us. When we came to the bushes I swerved, but this time the circumstances slowed us until we grinded to a halt. In the process the backend had slid around and the truck now had the first bush exactly behind it. We could not back up. Celine and I got out to take in the situation. The back tires were not dug in, yet, and nor were the front tires. Ok, this should be ok. I got back in and switched into low gear and tried again while Celine watched the tires. No movement, and the back tires dug a little. We missed something. Looking again, the tires all around were good, but the left side of the truck was resting on the sand slope coming from the bush in the front. It was a partial high center. We also noticed that the dry branches from the plant were extending under the vehicle. After seeing the abandoned and burned carcasses of Range Rovers, Jeeps, and other trucks left in the Central Kalahari I head done some reading on vehicle fires. The majority of them were caused by drivers stopping over vegetation that reached up into the exhaust system and other hot areas of the trucks. The grass would catch fire and the vehicle quickly followed. We made our first priority clearing the fire hazard from under us. After that we broke out the sand tracks, shovel, and tire deflator. We went down to 70% on all the wheels, set out the tracks, and began to dig the sand from under the left side. Digging from one side was going to be fruitless. As one shovel comes out, the sand adds another two to the hole. I went to the right side and began to pull from there. Eventually Celine and I were able to clear the sand and smooth the hill a bit. We discussed the situation and decided to go four-wheel low, and to start in second gear. Because of how the weight was distributed we also thought it best to apply the front and rear lockers. The lockers insure that both wheels, left and right spin with the same amount of power. Without the lockers engaged the differential will transfer power to the side that had more movement so if one tire is firmly grounded and the other off the ground or on a loose patch, the differential will transfer power to the loose tire. This will get you nowhere as that tire has no traction. Engage the lockers and the tires turn with the same power. You can’t do this for long and there has to be spin in the tires as it puts a lot of stress on the gears. It also reduces your ability to steer. I set everything up and jumped back in the seat. She tore loose and powered up the hill onto a flatter, rocky area. Celine and I were relieved and we put everything away and adjusted the tire pressure again. Shortly after we arrived at the turn we had made 4 hours prior. We headed back northeast for a bit and then turned to the west, heading towards the wall of sand. As we approached small rocky patches revealed themselves, and we were able to wind through a maze of dusty piles until we reached flat open desert on the far side.

Amazingly, we found a desert campsite and negotiated a price by writing in the sand. We started the stove and cooked some food before the sun set. I fiddled around with my camera taking some night shots of the campsite and mountains before we headed to bed. We wanted to get up and head out early.

Our guard remained up for the remainder of the trip, being careful to follow tracks with the deepest ruts, but the rest of the route was uneventful and fairly easy to follow. We finally reached a large gravel road that took us straight into Zagora. As the miles passed the sands and rocks transformed into palms, grass, and fertile lands.

We had big plans to stop for gas and groceries and wanted to spend a few days in Zagora. I pulled off one of the main roads in town so that we could check the Internet for campsites, etc. As I did I noticed a guy pass by on a motorcycle. He looked at us then at the truck and made a U-turn at the traffic circle and came back. He stopped just cross the road from us and began to look at the truck and made a phone call. I thought he was suspicious, but I ignored him. As we pulled out onto the street to continue the trip he came speeding up next to us revving his engine and pointing at his ear then our car. I ignored him and kept driving. Then he came up on the other said and began yelling that he was a mechanic and that our truck was making a funny sound. He could hear it coming from our back left tire area. He said it sounded bad and that we should come to his shop so he could fix it for us. I laughed and kept going. He followed us all the way through the city before he finally gave up. People of Zagora, if you want people to stop and spend time and money in your town quit trying to scam them. The truck has been, is, and will be fine. We decided that we were going to head all the way to the coast to the town of Agadir. We made good time covering half the distance that evening and we stopped at a nice campsite and spent the evening next to the Rotel (Rolling Hotel). The time was uneventful, and the sleep was good. We left the following morning and continued on to Agadir.

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