05-Feb-2010 -- Background
My name is Rod Maher. My work takes me to many places that few other people will ever go, or want to go in some cases, I suspect. In February 2010 I was working on a seismic exploration crew in the Western Sahara Desert, Algeria, North Africa. The classic image of the Sahara Desert is a sea of sand dunes, and this is in fact the case for a lot of it. However, in the vicinity of 31N 1E there are also large areas of rocky outcrops called "jabal" cut by deep and wide dried-up river beds or "wādiys". In some places there's even water on the surface and although the desert does have a beauty all of its own, a splash of surface water makes a welcome scenic change from what can be monotonous mile after monotonous mile of dry barren desert.
I had been waiting for my next chance to visit a confluence point for over a year since doing a short job in Kurdistan, North Iraq in 2008 where I went to 36N 44E. I had been going in and out of Algeria for more than 2 years and despite the numerous unvisited confluence points there, I always missed the chance to visit one. Some time ago now I thought I was finally going to visit a confluence point in Algeria and submitted a plan; only to be thwarted by the strict security regulations in place in the country. I was within about 15 km of it but could go no further. This cannot be planned for because it is almost impossible to get security information ahead of time. You just go where you want to go until someone tells you to stop. I was expecting a similar situation with 31N 1E and so I didn't bother to submit a plan to the DCP.
Google Earth has for me become an invaluable aid to navigation in places where there are no roads and unforgiving natural obstacles that could stop an army of tanks in its tracks. As I waited impatiently for a chance to go, I would mull over maps looking for possible routes, avoiding large sand dunes and rocky outcrops. Without roads and without any previous scouting, it was going to be a magical mystery tour. And so the planning stage was largely comprised of sticking pins on the map and crossing my fingers.
The opportunity to visit the point came on 4 February 2010 when changes in the work plan made an area of previous little interest become the focus of attention. This area just happened to be within a few km of confluence point 31N 1E. A scouting trip was planned and I loaded up my GPS.
On the scouting trip were two fellow doodlebuggers:
- Top Tech Aussie Phil Andrews who has been working in seismic for so long it is rumoured that he actually invented it. Phil is also rumoured to have had his shaving razor stolen back in the early 80's and has refused to pay for another one until the culprit is caught.
- Also on the trip was Vibrator Mechanic Phil Kenny. Yes, Phil does actually maintain and fix vibrators. Those unfamiliar with seismic exploration may think this a rather peculiar occupation, but a vibrator mechanic is someone who deals with very large vibrators that can vibrate at a range of frequencies and a range of strengths. These vibrators are used to shake the ground producing seismic energy that is reflected off the different layers of rock. The reflections can then be used to draw a picture of what is beneath the surface. A bit like bats use sound reflections in air to draw mental pictures of their surroundings.
It was a very cold 5 February morning when me, Phil and Phil set off from our desert camp. The sun was barely above the dunes and the temperature was down into low single figures. A thin crust of ice still clung to the Toyota roof. We collected our lunch packs and our obligatory military escort and headed off into the unknown. Our convoy snaked its way through the dune ridges and clawed up the steep jabal. Google Earth was as good as its word and the points of least resistance I had picked out from the satellite image were taking us around the worst of the terrain.
As I have mentioned there's water in this area and consequently it is part of a route used by Bedouin and camel farmers. For the most part the water is 20 to 30 m below the surface and there are several hand dug wells like the one pictured. A pile of rocks on a nearby high point is a signpost that can be seen for miles around, guiding travellers to the thirst quenching water. The well in the picture was around 30 m deep and about a metre in diameter. It was incredible to think that many years ago it had been dug by hand with nothing more than picks and shovels. Old ruins can also be found near the wells depicting a time when these places were a hub of activity. Desert truffles grow here amongst the sparse vegetation and 'truffle hunters' can occasionally be seen pacing back and forth, head down scanning the ground for tell tale bumps in the sand.
Numerous animal tracks crisscross the dunes. The surface water pools in the area support rodents, rabbits, foxes, and gazelle. But you have to be very lucky to see one close up, let alone photograph one. There are several varieties of birds including large birds of prey. And of course there's the usual supply of lizards, snakes, scorpions, and various other underground desert dwellers.
Arriving at the Confluence Point
After the first 15 km or so of sand and rock we came out onto fairly open gravel plain and continued heading toward the point. The kilometres were passing uneventfully until a stern voice came on the radio; it was the military escort commander, the "chef d'escorte". I didn't fully understand what was being said but it sounded important. "Another failed attempt", I thought miserably. He is now going to tell us we are heading into a restricted area.
But no, it seems he was concerned about when they would be stopping for a morning cup of šāy - a small glass of over-stewed, sickly sweet tea that the Algerians love. Good for energy, no doubt, but not exactly my cup of tea.
As we got within a few hundred metres of the point, I took a few pictures of the area. It was clear that we were going to be in the middle of a large open expanse of sandy gravel plain. I was hoping there might be some features of visual interest; a jabal cliff, a nice sand dune, but it was not to be.
I took many pictures of the cardinal points and of my GPS. I was due to leave Algeria in a few days time and it was unlikely that I would ever get back to this spot again so I wanted to make sure I had the necessary pictures for the Degree Confluence Project.
The military "chef d'escorte" seemed quite unimpressed that the GPS was showing all zeroes but he took a couple of pictures of me, Phil and Phil standing on the point. It would have been good to get pictures of us all at the confluence point; there were actually many people there. But taking pictures of the military is not permitted.
Our convoy then turned around and headed back to camp following the tracks we had made on the way there. The Algerian military are for the most part very helpful and friendly. They joked about coming all this way to take a few pictures and then going all the way back again.
I think Phil Kenny has caught the confluence point bug because he is now talking about visiting some. And of course, as a doodlebugger he too will be going to places where no one has gone before.
31N 1E is not the prettiest most interesting place on the planet but during our day in the desert we had scouted the area of interest for the Seismic Exploration Project and we also got another point for the Degree Confluence Project.
So a good day all round.
Looking forward to the next one.
See my website for more pics from around the world... RodMaher.org.uk