When planning an adventure there is a lot to be said for items of luggage which have no practical use but do look good in a photo. With our ability to carry luggage at a minimum we decided on the inflatable guitar which, as it turned out, doubled as a surprisingly good pillow but was useless for navigational purposes.
The satnav (which had come back to life after Kaspars had accidentally fed it too many volts) appeared to be traumatised as it was insisting we should turn around because we were heading for the middle of a lake and that a speed camera was approaching. 6,000 years ago this would have been accurate (apart from the speed camera). The map was not much help either as you need to know where you are on a map in order to know which direction to go in. It was with some irony then that we based our decision on the one thing that would likely kill us first if we got it wrong. The sun.
Due east was to be avoided since that meant ending up in Algeria where we would likely be shot. Due south was to be avoided since that meant ending up in Algeria where we would likely be kidnapped, and shot. Due north was to be avoided since that meant heading home and we weren’t ready for that just yet. So due West it was, chasing the sun, even if we’d rather be running away from it.
As we motored on, ahead of us was a seemingly endless expanse of sand and rock and it invoked some mixed emotions. This after all was the reason we had come here, to experience the raw environment of the Sahara desert. But at the same time we couldn’t help thinking that if things went tits up our lasting impression on this earth would be a newspaper headline saying “Four tourists die in Sahara” but actually meaning “Four muppets on mopeds venture into the Sahara unsupported in July and die. Who didn’t see that coming?”
We were now so far in to the desert that access to any form of help or assistance would be through a pure chance meeting with another vehicle but we hadn’t seen one in four days. Mobile phone signals had long been non-existent. So we decided to pop our iPod’s in and ride as far as we could that day.
We were so zoned out that no one noticed that one of Charlie’s panniers had bounced off along the way. We had stopped to stretch our legs and grab a quick snack and water when Charlie realised there was only an empty space where the bag containing all his spare clothes should have been. Still it could have been worse, it could have been the bag containing the water. This minor incident aside we just kept racking up the miles hoping that a pub would magically appear in the distance serving ice cold cider and steak and chips. It didn’t.
As the light began to fade the riding conditions got more difficult. The terrain begins to lose definition and you lose your sense of depth, a bit like skiing in poor light. Everything starts to look smooth and you constantly have to strain to make out rocks and holes which is both physically and mentally tiring. We already knew we were on borrowed time when up ahead a huge arc of sand sprayed in to the air, containing what looked like a back wheel, then a front wheel, then Charlie.
The benefit of being behind the lead rider is that you can stop before the same thing happens to you. We all pulled up to find a rather dishevelled Charlie spitting out a mouthful of sand whilst his bike and luggage had spread itself in all directions. As it turned out this had actually done both him and us a favour. Not only had Charlie inadvertently found us a perfect camping spot but his bike had already unpacked itself.
The rocky hamada had turned in to a stretch of erg and the soft sand would be ideal for sleeping on. We set up the tents, lit a fire and tucked in to a well earned meal and even managed to rustle up a final cup of coffee from the dwindling rations. It was the first time all day that we’d actually sat still and talked to each other.
As the fire faded and we laid back on our roll mats to sleep we were met with one of those sights that you can just never do justice with a photograph. With zero light pollution there were literally thousands of stars above us and huge great swathes of the milky way which you could just never see in the cities. We just gazed for what seemed like ages, transfixed as satellites streaked overhead through the night sky as clear as anything.
We all had trouble sleeping in the end. A combination of feeling slightly vulnerable in this place, the sheer weirdness of it all, and Charlie and Oz’s farting which was always followed by a bout of schoolboy giggles. But then the mood changed a bit. “Charlie” Oz whispered. “Who or what the fuck is that?”
Just beyond the horizon was a shimmering light, small at first but getting rapidly larger. Our first thoughts were that it must be the headlights of a convoy of 4×4’s. We sat bolt upright and stared in silence as the light source got more intense and then suddenly swept up over the horizon. It took a few seconds to register, but the convoy of 4×4’s turned out to be…the moon. It was so weird. Back home, the moon is either in the sky or it isn’t. We’ve all seen a sunset and a sunrise, but certainly neither of us had ever seen a “moon rise”. Weird.
Eventually the exhaustion of riding all day took its toll and we slept if only for two hours or so. We all stirred about an hour before sunrise, woken by the same thing. An insatiable need for a drink of water. Bleary eyed we ate the last of our ration packs. All we had left now was biscuits, stale bread and boiled sweets. The oasis couldn’t come soon enough.
We packed up and headed off, struggling in the soft sand but at least thankful that the sun had barely risen so we had a chance to make distance and hopefully find the oasis before the desert became a furnace once more. There were some encouraging signs within a couple of hours. Firstly in the distance we could make out some dunes and then we spotted a camel, but significantly the camel had its two front legs trussed with a rope so clearly someone didn’t want it wandering to far. There must be someone around.
We perched atop a gently sloping dune to get a better vantage point and were busy slapping on sun block when in the distance two locals came trotting towards us. It was difficult to tell at first who was the more surprised, them or us. But once they saw our mopeds and that we were carrying inflatable guitars it was definitely them. They explained their camp was just a few kms away, jumped on the back of our bikes and guided us in.
Our spirits soared. It was the oasis. Food, cold water, shade! The camp was right at the foot of a vast section of sand dunes. It was the type of desert scene you see in the films. Huge dunes with sharp crescent edges as far as you could see. The berbers hopped off the bikes and asked if we wanted tea. We nodded enthusiastically but then got a bit carried away with ourselves and decided that before sitting down for tea we’d go and tit around in the dunes. Inflatable guitars in hand we then ran up the nearest dune and started stage diving off the top. Then we thought we’d try it with the bikes.
Things didn’t go quite as expected. Charlie got about twenty feet up the first dune before the bike ground to a halt and then almost flipped backwards. He was stuck with his front wheel pointing vertically skyward. Naturally our instincts were to leave him stranded, laugh hysterically and reach for the video cameras.
For the next hour or so we lost ourselves in the moment and took it in turns to see who could get to the top. We used longer and longer run ups so that in the end we were hitting the dunes at about 70 kmh just to try and get over one. This did eventually work but once we got over the first dune we realised that the only thing now on either side of us was another dune so we no longer had a run up. Dragging the bikes by hand back over the dunes took it out of us physically. It was now about 10.30am and fast approaching peak midday temperatures. The sand was now starting to get too hot to be stood in so we called it a day and went back to the camp.
Tea was served. Right then, time for lunch!! We were already salivating at the thought of fried chicken washed down with some watermelon. The berber guides rather apologetically explained that the camp contained no supplies at all. They were just a skeleton crew who looked after the place periodically during the summer months. They weren’t expecting supplies for another six weeks since no tour operators were stupid enough to venture into the desert from June to August. Our spirits sank.
They did find some cheese of the Dairy Lea variety but when it was unwrapped it was mostly green and furry. Our spirits sank a little more. It was now midday and we knew this meant we would be going nowhere for the next four hours. Too damn hot. At least they had water and plenty of it. We had no option but to sit things out. It was only then that we realised Greg had gone extremely quiet and in the space of about an hour had gone from looking tired to a terminal AIDS victim.
Something was not right.