by Ursula Steiner
We set off to cross the Idehan Murzuk from Murzuk town to a supposed fort near Tilemsin on the western edge of the sand sea, a distance of around 300km direct. Although it’s not expressly forbidden, officially the erg is off limits. Things will probably stay that way until the first tourists have to be rescued. So if heading this way keep your plans to yourself.
Our group in 1998 comprised of four cars: a Dodge RAM, a Hilux, a Discovery, a G-Wagen and a Quad, Nine people (four female and five male Saharans). Having found the tap water salty, no bottled water and little food to buy, we left Murzuk late one afternoon in mid-October, heading towards Traghan/Tmissah, but soon turned off southwest across a soft sand plain. Tyre pressures were lowered but we got stuck anyway, so we made camp.
The next day was cold and windy but we made very good progress of about 100km along a broad valley. On the days that followed we managed about a third of that distance between camps, though of course driving distance with all the zig-zaging and backtracking was at times double that. We followed fresh car tracks up and over small dunes until the Dodge got stuck on the crest of a seif and the others in a dip, due to driving too close together.
We passed dry lagoons between beautiful dune chains and from time to time had to surmount barrier dunes which blocked the valleys. There were still fresh 4×4 tracks which was comforting, but in the heat of the afternoon one car slid into a vortex or hole and it took a long time to get it out. We camped, exhausted on the beach of a dry lake. In the Neolithic era these lakes dried out into ponds and swamps ringed with beaches around which we had our camp.
Day three dawned hot; already 25°C by 8am. Now the dune chains were getting higher but the car tracks were still plentiful. We got stuck several times; hard work in this heat but the colours of the sand, orange, beige, grey were amazing! We rode up high over sparsely vegetated dunes and slithered down the slip face into another flat lagoon.
These lakes got smaller and the dunes closed in, no more broad valleys to cruise through. From the summits the chaotic dunescape looked like boiling water. We camped near a small oued with green grass, a little more tired and tense, but happy to be here. Mouse tracks covered the ground and nearby the brittle white skull of a gazelle lay half buried in the sand.
Up and down, again and again the next day. If you hesitate you get stuck on the crest – but charging over is dangerous. There is no easy way. Often in the depressions there are soft sand fields with white-greyish fesh-fesh covered with innocuous-looking sand waiting just for us… We’re now in the midst of very high dunes, no way to drive around or to turn back. Sometimes one car is already on the other side but we’re unable to follow. It’s hardest for the last car as the narrow passage over the crest gets churned up with every passing vehicle. But once over we float down the terraces of sand, silently, elevator-like. Golden sand pours away like water. It’s absolutely spectacular!
We camp in the dunes near a lagoon filled with white sand. Evidence of Stone Age occupation is everywhere to be seen, from Acheul to Aterien to Neolithic eras: 300 000-4 500 years BC! That evening the G-Wagen crew gets a bit of a fright when they realise their fuel consumption has shot through the roof.
Our fifth day in the erg was cold but we’re only 80km from the ‘fort’ at Tilemsin as the crow flies. We can’t go straight on of course, there are a lot of narrow low dunes in front of us. We decide to attack a huge dune like ants and once down the other side we find several old lorry tracks. Relieved, we follow this unexpected highway which later disappears into the side of a dune… So we climb a very soft dune, over the crest and down the other side, carefully avoiding a few more craters. Sliding into these does not bare thinking about. We even have to dig away a small dune to push our way through.
After more effort than anyone wants we finally arrive at a dry lake several kilometres long and make camp. We’ve travelled only 30 km since the morning and the cold evening brings out our sweaters. The atmosphere around the fire is a little edgy. We’re close, but not quite there yet
Day Six. Cold. Loud music for breakfast but then we have to jump start the speaker-car. We set off but after an hour must turn back, it’s impossible to go on. For one hour we wait while the quad searches the dunes for a way through. And he does a good job, leading us out of this cul-de-sac like Moses parting the Red Sea. Another lagoon with yellow, red and white sand under the blue sky – colours we never saw before. Unforgettable landscapes. Some crests, some slopes, some precipices – we’re getting used to it now.
But the last pass is the most difficult of the whole expedition. Soft, and after trying again and again softer still. There’s no room for ‘contour driving’ to get a run up but somehow, as always, and after a lot of pushing, reversing and flat-out acceleration we get through to enjoy the thrill of cascading down to the next dry lake.
The last day and the dunes get smaller, more muddled. Up and down we go, but have to turn back again. Then suddenly a valley and – STONES ! A wave of relaxation and also a little sadness passes over us as we follow the valley winding through the low dunes. Only at the last minute do we spot, very far away at the edge of a plain, the low dark line of the Messak Mellet on the horizon. We pump up the tyres and find the so-called fort (just a pile of stones) at N 24° 43,49988′ E 011° 40,15987′
It’s nice to be out of the sands at last but for the evening camp we return back into the dunes!