28-Oct-2006 -- It was December 2004 with a group of desert enthusiasts under guidance of Peter Gaballa. The group was energetically driving/digging its way through the beautiful Abū Muharrik dunes - WEST side. These dunes run North to South like all the other dune ridges in Egypt from just before Baḥariyya Oasis all the way to Kharga Oasis. When the dunes end, one has to descend two final escarpments, the "Madman's Pass" (with 80 m slip face!) followed by the "Labyrinth of Fear". Travelling the Abū Muharrik west side is hard work. Definitely having more immediate problems on our minds, we failed to notice we were passing by the 27N 30E confluence within only 6.6 km distance. Now "only 6.6 km" is a relative concept in Abū Muharrik... You will get very stuck in that short distance of soft sand dunes. 6.6 hours is more likely!
You will understand after having returned to Cairo, this little blemish on my desert career kept itching - for about almost two years. Reports from others said the EAST side of Abū Muharrik was much easier to travel: where the rocky gravel area meets the dunes, there is a very wide dunes' "foot", that is not horizontal, but at about 10-20 degrees slope, and with a very good quality hard sand.
The confluence point is 500 km away from Cairo, 250 km asphalt road and 250 km desert. So I reckoned this should be do-able within a weekend. All of my family, including our desert dog Gorbatsjov were in Holland, so I thought this was the ideal opportunity to make up for what was missed in 2004. Meaning: on my own, 1 desert addict in 1 Pajero... Well, I work for one of these oil majors - yes, the one with the green and yellow logo - and they ensure their employees are properly safety conscious. So I set out with 230 litres of petrol, 50 litres of water, a serious amount of tools and spares, 3 GPS systems (1 on laptop with satellite images) and 2 compasses, a satellite phone, and an "Ozzi" booster antenna, and I did a journey management plan with risk assessment.
So off I went! Finding the beginning of the Abū Muharrik dunes east side took some more time than I had expected from my satellite image map study. It brought me though through a very nice area with rocky outcrops and nice views. I wish I had known that earlier, it is certainly a nice alternative for another weekend "Whalebone Valley". Later than planned I arrived at the dunes' foot, where indeed I found travelling was fast. Even up to 110 km/h in 2WD! But you always have to remain careful. Where the rocky outcrops get very close to the dune slopes, there is only a narrow passage with lots of soft sand. In total during the weekend I got stuck 7 times! And of course, being on your own, you have to do everything yourself, all the digging and sand laddering, everything. The sticker in front of the passenger seat "Shut up and start pushing" doesn't help anymore. I had already learned from earlier single trips you have to fight the urge to get "unstuck" as fast as you can. This can wear you out very quickly. You have to take your time, think strategy first, rest, and drink sufficiently.
Driving relatively fast over this dune foot, dune line patterns are constantly moving dynamically. Like in slow roller coaster. You cannot capture it in a picture, only on a video. Really very nice!
80 km away from the CP, it became too dark to carry on. I must say it is quite special to camp on your own under the usual wide sky with moon and stars, knowing that the next human being is a day driving away from you. At night I was visited by a desert fox, as I found tracks around the tent next morning. You wonder how it survives. Camping on your own becomes very functional, so without further redo I found myself driving again already 08:00 hrs in the morning.
Around 12:30 I arrived at the 27N 30E confluence point. Nobody else was there, had been there, or probably will be there ever again. Just "Sand & Silence"... I got stuck again within view of the CP. I knew I was running behind in schedule, as the 50% point of the trip was the CP. The return trip started off quite efficiently, as the only track that is there is the one you made yourself going towards the CP. Reading "my brother's track" (it feels a bit like that), you can see where the hard and soft patches are and avoid the places you got stuck before.
Eager to find out what I did wrong finding the beginning of the trip, I decided to continue on the foot of the dunes to see where it would bring me. Boy, was that a stupid decision! I got really very stuck in the last bit of Abū Muharrik, with only half an hour of daylight left... Not good!
After I made a fantastic ROI (Return on Investment) on my Egyptian sand ladders and Chinese shovel, I decided to return southward again to escape from Abū Muharrik and find my own track back again. I was on the point of giving up and pitching the tent, when in the last minutes of daylight I found a passage through sharp rocky ground and got back to my brother's tracks... al-Ḥamdu li-Llāh!
When it is light you can see soft sand, sharp rock areas, impossible passages, etc., and you can decide your strategy. In the dark you only see the few meters in front of you within headlight reach, and you are caught by surprise over and over again. Not so if you follow a reliable track. There might be a more efficient route, but you know brother's tracks will get you were you want without any trouble. Getting closer to the road I followed the wrong tracks a few times, but then the satellite image navigation sets you right very quickly. So I drove about 2.5 hours in almost total darkness, quite a unique experience! Only cost me one Paracetamol to fight off stress headache, but around 20:00 hrs I was back on the road, and 23:00 hrs back home!
I love the desert, and I know the Degree Confluence Project is just for fun, but I must say, this 27N 30E one, I "bloody donders" (pardon my Dutch) earned it!