September 2005 - Sandstorms
Whilst watching some Dutch clients packing up their tents at a campsite in Wales near Pennybont during a weeks Greenlaning in June I was reminded of an incident that occurred to one of our support team(Matt Warner) when he was a client in the Moroccan Sahara near the Jebel Sahro.
What prompted the memory was seeing one of the Dutch tents blown a few yards by the wind whilst drying in the sunshine.
The particular trip in the desert that I was reminded of was during February a time when temperatures fluctuate from 35 degrees centigrade at the heat of the day down to minus 1 or less often with a dusting of frost on the dunes, sounds crazy doesn’t it. This fluctuation in temperatures can result in sudden violent sandstorms.
On the evening in question we had arrived at a wild campsite on a plain between tall mountains in bright sunshine and still air full of the heat of the day. Our tents were soon up and we settled down to an evening meal enjoying the utter silence and stillness of the desert. The evenings talk revolved around the challenges of the day successfully conquered and the ones still to come. This was our first night in sandstorm territory so I made everyone aware of the precautions that we needed to take in order to have a trouble free camp as well as the signs to look for so that you could know a sandstorm was imminent.
During the day it is easy to see the black storm clouds approaching from a distant horizon and everything can be stowed ready for the onslaught but at night it’s difficult. As you sit enjoying a sky full of silver stars from one horizon to the other you may become aware of the first sign of an impending storm when a small corner of the sky low down on the horizon starts loosing its stars. If you have missed this the next warning normally gives you only a minute or two in which to take action. The silence of the night is interrupted by the sound of an express train coming out of a tunnel. When this is heard you need to move quickly to make sure that everything is under cover and your tents securely pegged. Every night when we camp we always take a precaution with our tents which is to tie them at one corner to our cars. It would have to be a violent storm of world ending proportions to whisk a car across the desert and it wouldn’t matter then anyway because your house back home would also have been blown down!!
When a sandstorm hits the force has to be experienced to be believed. Imagine, every raindrop has its own razor sharp sand grain that stings your skin and irritates your eyes. It has been known during prolonged storms to make car windscreens opaque but that is a very rare occurrence. The Arabs have a wonderful answer to the problem of the sand by covering their faces with the cloth of the turban. A real turban’s cloth is see through so it is possible to continue to go about your business whilst a storm is raging whereas westerners are incapacitated in tents or cars waiting for the storm to die down.
As we enjoyed our evening meal the sky to the west began to cloud over and a small hot breeze drifted across the desert. Visibility was deteriorating and some ten minutes later I heard the sound of the approaching sand storm “hear that” I said “ it’s the sound of a sand storm so we need to put everything away before it hits us”. For the next few minutes everyone busied themselves “battening down the hatches” so that we were ready for the storm.The storm hit us with incredible force, visibility went down from “as far as the eye could see” to just a few yards in seconds. The air was full of sand lit by the sun above infusing the storm with an eerie yellow glow. As we took shelter I noticed that Matt’s tent was straining at the leash, hanging like a kite at the end of its tether some six feet in the air “Matt, you’re tents loose” I shouted which galvanised us all into action. The guy-rope snapped just as we arrived and the tent was whisked away from outstretched hands to disappear into the storm.
Quickly grabbing a torch I ran in the direction the tent went, picking my way through gulleys and jumping over rocks hoping that the tents trailing rope would catch on one of the small acacia trees just long enough for me to rescue it from the hands of the sand storm. My progress was hindered by the ground and I soon lost site of the tent. Matt and his brother meanwhile had jumped into their 90V8 and were making their way towards my light. I have a good sense of direction so knew where the camp was and there was no danger of getting lost in the storm. We searched for half an hour looking into the bottom of gulleys and checking each tree as it appeared out of the gloom before reluctantly giving up and returning to camp. We agreed that we would have a better chance of finding the tent in the morning after the sand storm had passed when hopefully it would be attached to a tree and easy to see.
Matt and his brother spent an uncomfortable night sleeping in the front seats of their 90 but were high in spirits at breakfast confidently predicting that their tent would be seen sooner rather than later.
You could not have seen a clearer sky as we enjoyed breakfast. Not a breath of air, the suns heat was intense as soon as it appeared shimmering above the eastern horizon. It was going to be a very hot day.
After breakfast our plan was to spread out in a line just keeping each other in sight so that we could cover a greater distance and give us a better chance of finding the tent. Just before our breakfast was finished I spied a small dot approaching from the direction that the tent had blown the night before, it was a Moroccan who had seen us and was coming as is the norm to talk and enjoy a drink before moving on to where he was going. When he arrived my first question after the formality of greetings was “had he seen a tent at all?” his reply of “yes about 2Km away in a tree” saved us a lot of time. Matt was despatched with the Moroccan sitting in the passenger seat to recover the tent, and returned in triumph after an hour
We fed our friend and gave him some food and water to speed him on his way before Matt told us of the Moroccans astonishment as he drove the 90 down into gulleys and over steep rocky hills. Driving cars over such ground is alien to most desert people as they do not drive or own cars.
The tent. Well it was still in one piece after Matt had carefully extracted it from the tree but for the rest of the adventure, each night the brothers had a magnificent view of the sky through its hundreds of thorn holes in the fabric.