Broken down in the desert


Sometimes I look up in the sky and marvel at the fact two brothers from just over a century ago invented both, the modern bicycle and the airplane. The airplane, they invented on the quiet beaches and dunes of South Carolina. I visited there as a boy. The first place an airplane ever flew.


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Perhaps I even occasionally thought of my visit to the Wright brother's memorial as I took my turn flying, taking pilot lessons some years later. The memorial sits on a breezy hillside close to the sea. Another memorial museum to one of my heroes, Antoine De Saint Exupery, is here in Tarfaya Morocco. Also on breezy wind swept beaches, but this time on the edges of the Sahara Desert on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps the flights Antoine De Saint Exupery made from here in Tarfaya out over the Ocean were in homage to the wit of two brothers. Or perhaps even his flights were in homage to the child spirit within all of us.


Of course also of seeming importance in the world of flight, from the perspective of an African coast line. Here in Saint Louis Senegal, was made the first trans-Atlantic postal flight, from Africa to the Americas. Also a memorial on wind swept beaches of the African continent.


I wonder though, which came first, the modern bicycle or the airplane?


Perhaps the comment that my friend Jean-Pierre made to me before we left the Netherlands was the most insightful of all. “Your ability to continue such an adventure”, said he, “‘is not only based on courage, it based on your capacity to inventively resolve problems”‘. OK, perhaps he used other words. But the thought remains. It only makes me wonder… How inventive were the Wright brothers in the face of challenges in the international competition to be the first in flight. How inventive was Antoine de Saint Exupery when his airplane got stuck?


These days, in South Carolina, or anywhere else in the western world, when you have a problem with a bike, or an airplane, or a tent, or a stove… Well… You call the store and generally speaking, they fix the problem for you. If it’s broken, they replace it. Ok, perhaps not with an airplane. But that’s what we’ve learned in our western throw away world. The solution is only a phone call away.


Here in Africa, things are slightly, very different. First of all, the rules of the game are as follows: there is much less available. Take the most simple of things, a bicycle tire pressure gauge for example. One would expect that if you happen to want or need one, you get up on Saturday morning and hop over to the bike shop and get one. In our case, I have been searching just about every single bike shop on our path in the last four countries (the last three and a half thousand kilometres) and have not found a single tire pressure gauge. Often it has been a challenge to find someone who even knows what such a thing is. In Morocco we were lucky to find a few tire patches and glue. That was the extent of generally available bike parts and it was already very luxurious. Ok, cables and spare tires too in some dark run down hole-in-the-wall shops in small villages as well.


A bike, a tent, a stove running on benzine or diesel. What happens when one of these breaks down? Well, dear Henry… You fix it!


I suppose the eight months I spent with Jean Habets in his bike shop in Schin Op Geul The Netherlands were quite useful to me. I can true a wheel, tune a derailer, change a chain… But what happens when our stove breaks down? Well, actually, we were smart. We prepared for this beforehand and brought our old MSR stove as backup. That’s why when our benzine-air-pressure stove started clogging up and breaking down in Spain already, we did not worry too much. Ok, I spent time cleaning and fixing it (at least once per week). But we always knew (or at least we thought) we can’t have too many problems, because we can always use our backup stove.


Several thousand kilometres further, the clogging and cleaning and fixing are just not enough. The stove is just giving out. And to top it off, the last time we even saw the unleaded fuel it needs, at a gas station, must have been, well, also several thousand kilometres ago. We have not breathed enough black smoke and fumes from the daily passing trucks, so let’s try diesel with our stove. Coming back from this experiment with a black face, black hands, black lungs, half a centimetre of black soot on the bottom or our pots pans, and a hotel room that smells like an airport for two days, we decide to never cook with Moroccan diesel ever again. I suppose it is no surprise that it is a this point that our stove decides to really give out. Turning the gas up actually randomly turns it down then up, then down. It is a fine tuning experiment to get it to cook at all. In spite of everything, Chantal has become quite good at it. The high pitch has become lower and lower over the weeks.


With diesel in one hand and a non working stove in the other, we decide to run the backup solution. Out with our old stove. It is just to our luck that it breaks in half today. It has had good years of service, taking Chantal on bike trips through Scotland and France. Taking us on a bicycle trek through the Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey. Taking us through Denmark (with a canoe trip in the lakes of Sweden) to Stockholm. I suppose Dakhla is as good a place as ever for our backup stove to give out.


Perhaps then we can bring our main stove back to life with some good fuel. Clean burning white-gas fuel. Asking the painter across the street… Asking at least five or ten different shop owners brings us to a city-wide search of Dakhla for white gas. Some say it is called “Jupiter”. Some say it exists. Some say it does not. To make a long story short, we are successful. We end up with some “White-e Spirit-e”‘ called “Jupiter”. It works and our stove limps along. But the supply is limited and expensive.


Taking the cooking problem in hand, and remembering Jochen from Essouira, we buy a tin can full of tasty peaches in syrup and with a pocket knife and pair of pliers, I build a “hobo stove”. These stoves were used by the hobos of the Great American depression after the First World War The first time we cook with it, is in a pile of sand, at a gas station in the desert, not so far from the Mauritanian border. I suppose it’s normal to cook when you are hungry and are at a gas station. It’s just that this stove burns wood in open flame, right inside a tin can. I get enthusiastic help from the “Atlas Blue” gas station attendant, who helps me rip apart a crate and build a fire right in their gas station. Amazingly for an over-fatigued biker, we did not blow the place up.


After arriving in Mauritania and discovering that a badly closed fuel bottled and high temperature has let all our preciously found Jupiter White Fuel evaporate, our backs are up against the wall. Having stove problems can be a very big challenge when you are tired, sweaty and very hungry. We have a working hobo stove, and that’s it. That is of course, unless we want to try diesel again with our MSR which is just barely creeping along. Fuel which takes a whole box of matches to light and leaves the whole camp covered in a layer of black soot… I suppose that we can still call customer service and ask for a new stove. But then you have to deal with the postal service of Africa. And that… Is another story…


Every piece of technology can also break down. Our stove keeps us fed and our wonderful little North Face tent keeps a roof over our heads. That is, until you can’t close the door anymore.


The zipper on our tent has broken. We are making our way towards the end of the Sahara desert and within a few days we will be entering “Malaria zone” with a front door which no longer closes. OK… No problem. Pick up the… Hey wait, we don’t even have a phone.


The western side of me says… Well, the short story is that North Face never even responded to our email.


A visit to the supposed “expert” in Mauritania’s capital of Nouakchott only gives our tent a second broken zipper. Paying him anyhow, we must now resort to magic and resourcefulness. Where can we find more of precisely the right zipper in a continent where there is so little of this type of technology. Resourcefulness says that our tent has other less used doors. All along we have been carrying a spare zipper or two without knowing it.


Taking out the sewing tools I start ripping our tent apart in several places and with Sylvie’s help carefully removing and re-shuffling zippers.


Sylvie and Hans Obenaus are missionaries with whom we are staying a few days in Nouakchott. Sylvie, a Swiss woman, who was born in Madagascar and raised in Indonesia, has lived many years in Cameroon, Senegal and Mauritania. Besides being a nurse and missionary, she is also a seamstress. Together we spend an afternoon puzzling and she sewing. We are able to come out of it with a working tent that has a front door which closes.


From now on, we will be able to sleep in the jungle without having to worry about snakes and scorpions, tsetse flies and Malaria infected mosquitoes. At least during the night that is.


We have reached the very edge of the Sahara desert on the Senegal River. Our little zippers won’t keep large animals out. Our little hobo stove won’t scare them away either. But at least for now, we are still on the road.


The biggest challenge now, is keeping our courage higher than the stifling heat, the fatigue, the mosquitoes, challenges and fears…


I suppose zippers and stoves and tents were not the worries of the Wright brother of of Saint Exupery. But perhaps inspiring others to live and be inventive was.

1 Reactions to: “Broken down in the desert”

  1. 1 Marian Febvre

    Hi A & C.
    You are resourceful and courageous! And you somehow manage to keep on going. The photos show you looking well and cheerful, in spite of the challenges…or perhaps because of the challenges that you are overcoming daily. And after all, I know that is a large part of what your trip is about. Learning the world, thinking and living ‘outside of the box’.
    There are as many perspectives of how to live as there are people, countries, religions, and you are exploring and experiencing them.
    We love you! and love reading what you write! Thank you for taking the time to share your travels with us ‘armchair travelers’.
    M & P

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