1. FIRST TO CROSS THE SAHARA DESERT BY WIND POWER ALONE
2. LONGEST KITE BUGGY at OVER 2100KM
There aren’t many “Everests” left to conquer. Not on this planet anyway. And now there is one less because we’re the first in the world to cross the Sahara by kite! But we only just made it….Every day something conspired to stop us in the harshest of harsh environments they call the Sahara desert.
Our second goal was to break the 1000km record for a kite trip, and we smashed that with 2160km.
However we failed on goal number three to break the 24 hour record of 315 km. We only managed 215km. But “two out of three ain’t bad”, as the song goes, and to me, this is a good sign that we’re setting goals that really stretch us, but are still realistic.
Our expedition had a mountain of challenges, some life-threatening, and others more logistical that very nearly stopped us in our tracks. But it wouldn’t be a satisfying challenge unless there were significant dragons to slay on the way. As it turned out, those dragons breathed much more fire than we’d ever dreamed. I was going to need to call on all of my experience learned in my Adventure Racing career, and also good team-mates.
Like moths to a light-bulb, our Sahara quest attracted resourceful, solutions men. Unlike moths though, every single one of us had “MacGuiver knives” and we didn’t need to be asked twice to show off each gadgety feature! If there was ever a call for a tool, it was like a quick-draw show-down with Leatherman gizmos to the rescue. Not only knives, but solar gadgets, GPS, SPOT beacons, Satellite phones, 2Csolar hats and the list goes on. (We were ready to build brilliance with bare hands, Leatherman knives and duct-tape! Nothing was gonna stop us!”)
Blokes simply have to have gadgets, and the more opening and shutting clever bits the better. Females may call us predictable, maybe primordial, or primitively prehistoric even, but it’s a primal need, ingrained in our DNA as provider hunter and gatherer.
A sense of humour and an ability to laugh at ourselves is one of the essential attitudes that enabled us to succeed as a cohesive team over 30 high pressure days in the hostile environment that is the Sahara.
The main challenge for us was the huge vacuum of information about the corner of the world we were headed to. We quickly discovered a reputation for Al Qaeda style terrorism and there had been a few tourists killed. We decided against carrying any weapons for defence and instead opted to hire guides as prevention is better than cure. Besides, I have no interesting becoming proficient with weapons and those terrorists would out-skill me for sure.
We found weather records that showed us the ideal winds were in August for a North to South crossing but we needed to be finished before the rainy season hit the south in September. So we chose to start at Sidi-Ifni where the Atlas mountains end and the Desert begins and we’d aim for Dakar, 2500 km south to finish. Google earth showed us scant details about terrain, but we could tell that the first third of the trip would have very challenging terrain with a high possibility we’d need to walk and drag some sections.
Sure enough, the first week was diabolically slow progress, the main culprit being the rocky terrain, and the scrubby thorns and cacti that ensnared and tore at our kites every time we crashed them (once an hour). Our foot-pegs also broke prickles off and flung them into our seats. At first I thought it was scorpions biting me! Fortunately we used Ultra-seal in our tyres for puncture proofing, and at the end of each day there was the tell-tale evidence of wet-spots around thorn entry points. At a mere 30 km per day average (much of this walking) we fell well behind target and I seriously doubted we’d make even half of the desert crossing. Maybe the terrain would improve, but maybe not.
In that first week we trashed several kites, leaving our spares stock at zero. Desperately we hand stitched the least damaged ones. Finally the terrain opened up a little, with less of those punishing prickles, and some lovely looking sand-dunes. But we discovered with desperate disappointment that the sand-dunes were mostly too soft for buggying and they had a diabolically dangerous steep lee side! That side dropped off, cliff-like onto a hard rock floor! It was back to the slow thorny scrub! But then with huge relief, we found several massive, flat, open and hard salt pans.
We managed to get good speeds but once again we were disappointed to find we could get nowhere near the 80 kph we’d expected. At exactly 55 kph our buggy wheels got a death wobble that threatened to shake every bolt and nut loose, and our teeth too! This batch of tyres had an imbalance, arrrrrgh!
Fortunately though, the wind blew well into the night and we made up valuable distance at 54 kph, clocking over 200 kms several days. We were back on schedule and my Adventure Racing experience with managing sleep deprivation was paying off! But then disaster struck once again!
Craig discovered gaping fractures in his frame which broke clean through before we had time to rendezvous with our crew. Being MacGuivers we whipped out our tools and efficiently jury-rigged a type of trailer with the broken bits. But then disaster again.
We discovered cracks in all of our frames, hidden under the straps and seats! Once again the MacGuivers relished in the opportunity, splinting the frames with tyre levers until we met the crew. Fortunately Craig had the foresight to design our trailers to double as back-up buggies so we continued on these for 2 days until the main frames were welded. Things were on track again, … until the Land mines!
In Western Sahara, the U.N. warned us to stay on the roads and beaches below the high tide line only. There had been 11 land mines discovered in this area this year already. So we had to play chicken with the speeding Mercedes and trucks for the next 800 km. Unlike other countries these drivers never slowed down when passing and it was nerve-wracking! However, we got skilled at swerving off the road at the right time and made up good ground. But then we had terrorist threats to deal with in the south of Western Sahara.
At first I thought it was just propaganda, until we got shadowed by a very dubious Al Qaeda looking vehicle, and then that night in camp being confronted by an AK47 wielding dude! We headed for the safety of the beaches and once again started making good ground in good winds, until I had a very serious argument with a car sized rock at speed. The rock won! Despite my full face helmet and Thor Impact Rig body armour, I ended up concussed and bleeding from my face and a paralysed shoulder. My Oakleys were mashed into my forehead and had to be cut out. Credit to their quality, they didn’t fracture and saved me losing an eye.
We scaled a small cliff and Satellite phoned the crew to cart me to hospital. That was a mission in itself with multiple police stops! The hospital X-rayed me, kept me in for a day, bandaged me up and declared I had no broken bones. In agony, I rested for 2 days, but since they said I was not broken I thought I’d better harden up and get back in the saddle. It felt great to be flying again and it distracted me from the pain.
We were half way across the desert as we crossed into Mauritania and the terrain improved radically from here. Gorgeous open flat desert, and into National Parc Du Banc Aguin which was stunning for buggies. In stark contrast to the north, the locals were delightful!
Three weeks into our quest, we neared the Senegal river which defines the border to Senegal and the official end of the Sahara Desert. We need to head inland to the border crossing as the military post on the beach didn’t allow border crossings. At a mere 70 kms our world record was just one day away! Nothing would stop us now, would it? How about gale-force winds, rain where 3 drops and you’re soaked, lightening and thunder, and severe flooding?
Within minutes the thermometer dropped to freezing and the water was lapping at our knees. It was way too dangerous to fly kites and to keep warm we had to tow our buggies through the mud. We discovered that this was actually a dried up swamp we’d been buggying in. Lucky the buggies floated.
Through the night we slogged, until dawn saw the skies clear and a scorching sun came out, and not a breath of wind. The mud turned to a porridge that glued our feet and wheels to a standstill. We were out of food and water, and on the verge of heat stroke. On the Sat. phone we learned our crew’s special desert Land cruisers were also bogged.
Without rescue things were looking desperate until we spotted a bogged truck way on the horizon. It must be a road! By the time we got to the truck it was being towed out by a digger, and we were able to hitch a ride 70 kms out to a sealed road and some food and drink! Phew we were saved from near disaster. But we were in for more treats at the border crossing.
The police and military are appallingly corrupt. It cost us a $NZD3000 bribe to get across the border or be held for several days while they search our vehicles. With our wallets lighter we set out to cover off that remaining 70 kms. In a desperate but cunning move we ended up bribing the military to allow us back up the beach to the latitude we left off.
All was going well until we got hit by our second storm! On the beach this time we managed to fly our smallest kites in the storm into the night, until herds of camels camped on the beach stopped us. We were being lifted into the air by the gusty storm front and we had no control in the dark of our landing zone. After 3 near misses with camels we abandoned flying, and managed to scamper through the military post at dawn before the big chief caught us!
Storm battered and sleep deprived, we had no energy to celebrate crossing the mighty Sahara. Besides we still had 4 days left to cover the 500 km to Dakar and complete 2500 km as fundraising for the She Rescue Home. But once again we were thwarted by storms. By now it was obvious that the rainy season had come early. We managed to squeak out another 160 km before time was up and we needed to head back to NZ, but not before a well earned celebration.
Back in Godzone I was still a bit sore and got some scans done. To my horror I have 4 fractures in my face, a 6cm piece of scapula broken right off, a badly torn rotator cuff on my left shoulder and a damaged eardrum. No wonder it hurt! Fortunately the surgeons here managed to pull the bones back out in my face saving some rather more serious face–peeling surgery if the bones had not budged. There’s still work to be done on my shoulder.
Reflecting in my hospital bed, I realize the team-building skills I learned in Adventure Racing played a big part in getting four driven men through 30 extreme days as a cohesive and powerful team without wilting in the pressure-cooker of the audacious goals we set. They tell me I was lucky my crash didn’t do more damage. There’s no luck, I put it down to my years learning to crash my bikes well. Go multisport! I also realize that if I had died, I’d have died doing what I love best, adventuring and pushing boundaries. How’s your bucket list looking?
Our Big Foot buggies are the brain-child of our very own Ashburtonian Peter Lynn. He's world famous (but not in New Zealand as so often is the case) as a kite designer extraordinaire. Hes the craziest kite coot, an intelligent man but with wildly darting eyes and a keen sense of humour he is definitely a character. Mostly famous for his parafoil and carnival kites. Born and proudly bred a Cantabrian, with a Mechanical engineering degree, he has a busy factory in Ashburton churning out all things kiting. His team have equipped us with specially reinforced gear for our trip. Our tyres are so voluminous that the buggy will float with us in it so we can cross rivers where they intersect our path and there is even a 10 km ocean short-cut from a coastal peninsular that we are entertaining doing as a float!
SPOT GPS beacons:
These are not only emergency rescue beacons, but they also leave a bread-crumb trail that our supporters can view to keep track of our progress on the SPOT website. They are a fantastic new technology. You can buy the SPOT beacons from me, email email@example.com.
A Big Thanks to our Sponsors!
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NZ Herald: NZ athlete injured on Sahara quest
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