Stuck in the Western Sahara

Sahara Auberge in Nouakchott

Sahara Auberge in Nouakchott


Adventures with mechanics seem to be plaguing us for this dry desert leg of the return journey. We left the Sahara Auberge late in the day which is no surprise. Both ourselves and the Daf have had an oil change. However despite numerous taxi rides to garages, the purchase of three different filters, the return of one of them, I have been unable to find a Cummins 5.9 Daf filter. So I am reusing our old one. The two filters I have passed to a local garage along with our 30 liters of oil which shall be reused in Mauritanian trucks.

Leaving late in the day means we made little progress out of the city, camping some 100km north. We are all grateful to be back on the road. Nouakchott begins to feel oppressive when we are stuck with a problem (oil filter). The cost of the auberge coupled with high food prices hit our budget hard. The drive north is against heavy north easterly winds and our fuel consumption has shot up. Mauritanian fuel is notoriously bad quality so one tank of 130liters only got us to the border (450km). A full tank should give us a 600km range under normal conditions.

Crossing the border was painless. We arrived late in the day, were the last to cross and missed the touts and money changers who had already left for home. On the Moroccan side I had my two machetes confiscated which was a sad moment. One machete was a gift from an old school friend, a crude hacking blade from kenya. The other was from Brazil, a beautiful, heavy bush blade. The machetes were spotted when the Zil was scanned. At least they did not fine me on top of the sentimental loss.

Across the border was a convoy of Italians doing a charity run to Senegal. Some of the crew were free party people that Bertrand knew from the past. As it was getting dark we spent the night on the Maroc side of the border.

The next day we set off again passing the Motel Barbas, 80km from the border. It is a complex of new housing for possible Moroccan emigrees, hotel, service stations and shops. The shop only sell tinned food, there seems to be no vegetables in the desert. We lost sight of the Daf entering the town so continued on banking on them either being ahead of us or that they stopped for some supplies and would catch us up.

Thirty five kilometers on and we have our next mechanical challenge on the Zil. The fan mounting bracket cracked apart causing damage to the fan belt. A shard of metal from the disintegrating bracket pierced open the radiator. Three faults. Remove the fan bracket, remove the radiator, remove the belt. Then get a ride back to the Motel Barbas with a family of obliging Sawahari in their ancient Spanish landrover. On the way to the village I pass Bertrand and Yenka on the hard shoulder looking out for us. They had doubled back 50km scouting our position incurring a 300dirham speeding fine! Now I ride in the comfort of the Daf to the village where we chance upon a gentleman that can oversee the repair to the bracket. We leave the unit with him overnight whilst he cuts a new plate to weld on to it and drills out new bolt holes. It is stronger than the original Dennis unit ever was. The belt should survive until we reach Agadir where there is a truck supplies store. The radiator I repair with chemical metal. Unfortunately nothing ever runs smoothly. Bertrand and I damaged the auto belt tensioner trying to reassemble the parts.

Fan mount with green enamel has cracked open

Fan mount with green enamel has cracked open


Setting off late the next day we encounter further issues. This time it is the Daf. Its fan wheel is no longer been driven by the engine. The fault could be worn compression rings meaning the fan wheel is not able to grip the stud coming out of the sprocket wheel. We must camp beside the road again. At least this being a desert road there is little traffic.
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Carrying out repairs in situ is really pushing us. The wind is relentless, blowing clouds of grainy sand that gets in the eyes, mouth, tools. I have constructed a tarpaulin shelter around Bert’s truck in an attempt to make the work bearable. After hours of oil and sand covering our faces Bert finally came up with a way of getting the wheel to function. A bit of a bodge but it is working perfectly and once again we are off.
more tarps are added throughout the day as the wind picks up.

more tarps are added throughout the day as the wind picks up.


After another two hour we are now 80km from Dakhla. Our plan now is to continue along the N1 to Boujdour where we hope there are banks with cash machines as we are all out of cash and both truck only have fuel to reach Boujdour. Tonight we dine on delicious omelette. Its great to be back in Morocco – food is just so much better than in the south.

Returning through Mauritania… A vehicle rescue drama

The border again, nothing changes, held to ransom at each barrier (three barriers), the Police, Customs, then more Police. Total cost of 30 euros to enter Mauritania (and 10euros toll for the bridge).

Past the border.
The national park ranger tells us some Europeans are stuck off the road further up. It turns out to be our French and Czech friends (Bertrand and Linka) in their Leyland Daf 12tonne converted cargo truck. Linka is the one that was spending six weeks on a game reserve studying giraffes. Bertrand is a high energy traveler that has runs hi own sound system and has spent time with our friends in the Arsenal squat, London. We had all pulled together to get a van out of the sand on this very road going to Senegal. Now on their return they are stuck themselves. Front wheel went off the road and was instantly sucked into the mud drawing the rear wheel too, sliding the truck away from the road to come to a halt at a precarious angle. A few attempts at reversing out only resulted in getting more stuck. Ten minutes after our arrival, Pawel and Linka (she shares her name with Bertrand’s Czech girlfriend) arrive in their converted blue Iveco cargo truck.
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What to do in a situation like this? Who do you call to get you out? One the first day a rescue team arrived offering their expert services for 300euros. On agreement five men returned with a renault water truck. Unfortunately it was empty so much lighter than the Daf. Worse were the Renault’s rear wheels, both inside wheels were flat with a mixture of wires and tread hanging off. The wheels rattled too. The first day five men were there. The second and third days three men but it really makes no difference as there is only ever one man working at any given time. Along with late starts, hours lunch breaks and early finishes, it now made sense what they initially said about taking up to ten days on a job. Bertrand’s exasperation was rebuffed with ‘inshallah’s, if god wills it then the the truck will come out.

Their technique was to jack up the wheels using our bottle jacks against the wheel rims (destroying the rims at the same time – African style – a short term approach). They then filled the empty space between wheel and mud with sand. This achieved nothing. Meanwhile the truck was sinking further down. Next they tried a rusty sand ladder under the front wheel. ‘Accelerate’ they shouted ‘Fast!’. Bertrand did so only for the metal plate to flip up, rip off a section of bumper and the cab ladder, sinking the wheel further in and tip the truck so that one rear wheel was off the ground. We arrived on the third day. It looked bad. By the end of the day it was worse!

There were other comic moments with this laurel and hardy team. They got the Renault truck sunk into the mud. This I could pull out with ease. They reversed into my truck almost tearing off my gas storage box, then my battery box. Eventually they leave. Bertrand gives the boss 50euros for his crew but he pockets it all much to the anger of the lads.

Then we have help from another Mauritanian team, this one spends several hours jacking up the chassis, letting it down, jacking it up again. Perhaps its their first time playing with jacks? One day later and no success. They leave disgruntled.

Our tow line snaps. We get help from Jeremy of the Ocean campsite, Saint Louis. He arrives with two tow lines and camps with us for three days. He tried to bring some Senegalese soldiers with heavy duty jacks but the Mauritanian border guards would not let them through. By now the blue Iveco’s clutch is near burnt out so its down to the Zil alone.

Then a tractor is commissioned. Just getting a tractor was a challenge. Nobody seems to own it. Or more correctly everyone seems to own it and quotes outrageous hire prices from 1000 to 3000 euros. We have worked out a cut goes to the broker, actual owner, crew guy, police, park officer and perhaps a few other people. This is Mauritania cut throat style. I am reminded of the advise given by a Dutch emigree we met on our first arrival. When you are down, people will trample you even further.

The tractor is a heavy plough. It can not pull out the truck on its own. Without tracks it can not get enough traction on the road surface. Between the tractor and Zil we only manage to rip off the Daf front cross member and bumper losing our front end tow point. The tractor arrived late in the evening and left soon after.
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Next we try the French Embassy. They get back to Bertrand advising him to entrust the truck to a local for safe keeping and retreat to Dakar as it is not safe in Mauritania. She tells him flatly that the others in his party (Czech, Brit, Austrian) are of no concern to her. Given that every Mauritanian here seems to want a piece of something it is not possible to imagine entrusting the truck to anyone.

Meanwhile we are the number one attraction on the road. A Dutch tourist bus stops for a photo shoot. The bleached white tourists on route to Gambia on a charity run are full of good advise, ‘use a bull dozer to puch it back onto d’road’, ‘The body is fiberglass’ Bertrand replies. Some French overlanders in their Toyota’s have more practical advise, ‘build a ramp.’ Some Russians stop to change two flat tires and provide us with water. Some more Dutch give us a sack of food. Many Mauritanians stop and hand us bread and water. The local police send us two meals, fish and chicken with steaming rice. The nearest shop only sells tinned sardines and pasta. One Mauritanian comes back to help us three days in a row. I think he comes for the girls. First he strips down to his underwear before swinging a pick axe wildly. He considers himself an authority in vehicle rescue as he has lived in Morocco. Actually his advise gets to be a pain in the arse. In our time here not one overlander over 3 tonne comes past.
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Then Jeremy contracts a Senegalese tractor on a low loader. Its a small digger but it is tracked which makes a huge difference. They come with two extra hands for digging. This proves to be our salvation. After a day of trying different approaches, in which the tractor gets stuck in the mud for a nail biting hour, we discover the best technique is for the tractor to lift the rear clear whilst the Zil pulls the rear onto the road. Repeat for the front and we are back on the road!

Amazingly there is no major damage apart from cosmetic. The brakes work. The radiator is intact. Suspension survived. Electrics need some attention. The chassis has a few twits from the tow lines. Meanwhile Anika has entertained herself these past seven days, with her bag of toys, in the different trucks. Miki has been on heat, driven wild by the two male dogs. Just as we finished the recovery I spied another incident further along the road. The mini bus must have slipped off the road down into the mud. This time though we are going to leave the recovery to someone else.
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So now we are in Noukchott. The roads are still crazy, the city maddening. We are escorting Bertrand and Linka back through Mauritania. But for the next two days we are staying in the Auberge Sahara, using their wifi (very very slow), taking showers, having a break.

Its been a fun time. Special shout outs must go to Jeremy of the Ocean campsite. He roughed it for three days, sleeping in the Iveco cab, spending his days digging whilst subsisting on a diet of sardines and marlboro, all the while his campsite in Saint Louis was left neglected. Also Pawel and Linka, a wonderful couple. They pitched in day and night, Pawel digging, Linka cooking, opening their truck for emergency accommodation. Great truck too – all their own work.