Crossing the Sahara, twice

An original overland story

Crossing the Sahara, twice

May 4, 2023
min read
Charles Forman
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Sand covered the inside of the Land Rover. There was sand in their hair, in their eyes, ears, and noses, even under their fingernails and between their toes. Hypnotized by the sameness of the barren landscape and sweltering in 100-degree heat, Alec and Jan drove on and on.

The year was 1977 and the crossing of the Sahara Desert was a major milestone — and triumph — of my parents’ travels across Africa, Asia, and Europe. The crossing route that my parents took through Algeria and Niger was a thousand miles long. In the days before GPS, their sole navigation tools to lead them through the roadless wilderness were a map, compass, and binoculars.

The Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world at 3,600,00 square miles, is home to one of the harshest environments known to humans. The topography ranges from plains to plateaus to sand dunes reaching up to 500 feet in height, with little vegetation or shade. Tracks and corrugations lead through the sandy desert, making for rough and slow travel. In the softer, smoother sand, vehicles can easily get stuck.

The Lore and Lure of the Desert

Though seemingly barren, the Sahara Desert is a treasure trove of ancient historical sites and home to nomadic people groups such as the Tuareg and Berber. For many centuries, trans-Saharan caravans provided a crucial trade route between the Mediterranean and West Africa, trading gold, camels, dates, and salt — one of the desert’s most valuable natural resources.

The ancient site of Timbuktu, founded more than 1,000 years ago in modern-day Mali, was the trading post of the nomadic Tuareg people. Its wealth, mosques, and universities became legendary across the Arab world and even Europe during the 14th century as the capital of the Mali Empire. My parents’ route took them past sites in Algeria such as the Marabout of Moulay Hassan, an ancient white tomb in the desert, for which the custom was to drive around it three times for good luck.

My parents and other overlanders are one link in a long line of travellers who have sought passage over the mighty Sahara, drawn in by the thrill and the challenge of the landscape. The same year of their crossing, French rally driver Thierry Sabine was lost for several days during the Abidjan-Nice Rally, and inspired by the mountains of sand and difficult terrain, he founded the Dakar Rally across the Sahara Desert as the ultimate off-road race. From 1978–2008, the race drew amateur and professional bike, car, and truck drivers to try their fate against the terrain.

Twin Crossings

My parents first crossed the Sahara Desert southward in March of 1977. Nervous for their first crossing, they went about their preparations at the last outpost — filling up two tanks and twelve jerry cans of petrol, plus three plastic jerry cans with water, and registering at the police station so that the authorities would know to search for them if they did not report to the police at their destination in the expected time. It was crucial to have the maximum amounts of fuel and water onboard.

“We felt well prepared for the challenge and excited to see how our Land Rover would perform off road, using all its cross-country capabilities,” my mum recalls. As the last road ended, there were “no markers, no cairns, no stakes, just dozens of wheel tracks going every which way through the sand.”

Excerpt From ‘Strangers Like Angels — With a Devil or Two to Boot’ by Alec and Jan Forman

Outside of their manual map-and-compass navigation, she kept a log with mileage and landmarks that would come in handy if they lost their way. For example:

3,830 — plateau of rough, rugged land, a herd of camels, few horses, donkeys and cows were grazing. First sand dunes spotted on the horizon.

3,902 miles — plateau surrounded by rocky hills with tussocks of grass

4,655 miles — compass-bearing 190 degrees, rolling, rocky plain with soft, sandy dips.

4,891 miles — took a sandy route off the main road to avoid the torturous corrugations; after 2.5 miles the track petered out so we had to retrace our steps. That was not a good idea!

They were able to drive in convoy with a couple in their Ford Dormobile and often followed corrugated tracks, which marked the way but made for rough driving, “when even your teeth felt as if they could fall out,” from the vibrations felt through the Land Rover. My parents and their companions were stuck in the sand several times, but were able to pull themselves out by digging out the wheels and placing sand ladders underneath them. Dad’s capstan winch came to the rescue when the Dormobile was stuck rigid.

Finally reaching their destination, my parents explored several countries in West Africa as planned during the spring. Unexpectedly, they found themselves retracing their steps back north through the desert when their first plan to drive to Kenya and board a ship to India was blocked by geopolitical unrest in Zaire. Their second crossing, in June 1977, meant they would be crossing at an inadvisable time of year because of the heat, and also meant that they would have few fellow overlanders to help them if they broke down.

However, they did have the benefit of experience from their first crossing. To mitigate the heat, they often took long afternoon siestas and drove more in the cooler evening hours. Despite several setbacks and temperatures as hot as 120 degrees, they arrived at their destination safe and sound.

Solitude in the Desert

The unforgiving landscape of the desert could be disorienting, but also entrancing. They encountered scenes they would never forget, like being surrounded by hundreds of camels at an oasis, with the pungent smell of the camels’ dung in the heat. At other times, they encountered local nomads.

“After forty miles driving in the wilderness,” my mum recounts, “we came across three children who beckoned us for water. There was no sign of any adults, nomadic dwellings or animals in the vicinity. The children did not appear particularly distressed, but of course we gave them a drink and a few Polo mints too. It was unnatural for us to just drive on and leave them there, but our travels in the desert had shown us that all is not what it appears to be. How often we had stopped far away from anybody, only to find someone mysteriously show up out of nowhere.”

Though the difficult conditions could induce stress and anxiety, moments of beauty also overwhelmed them. My mum recounts one lingering memory:

“It was a cool, moonlit night, so after supper we rested for a while outside. We lay flat on our backs on sleeping bags spread on the hard sand and looked up to the star-studded heavens. A tranquil moment of bliss as we relaxed in the quietness and solitude of the desert.”

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