Mauritania

Trans 333 Mauritania 2001

When can an event be described as “extreme”? Certainly it must be way beyond marathon distance and include at least one night out. The ability to cope with sleep deprivation is a key element. Ideally, there should be rugged off-road terrain. However one pitches the definition, Trans 333 qualifies in the front rank. It is a 333 kilometre (208 mile) non-stop desert race with a time limit of 4 days 20 hours and 16 check points at intervals averaging 20 kilometres.

The Trans 333 took place in December 2001 in Mauritania. The man in charge is a tough-looking Frenchman called Alain Gestain. He is reputed to have run from Dakar to Paris (the Rally route in reverse) with minimal support. Although unquestionably a formidable man, Alain lacks genius as an organiser. We had a foretaste of this before we even set eyes on him.

Our instructions were to present ourselves at Marseilles Airport by 2300 hours on Sunday 9th December. We were to connect with a charter plane coming from Paris, flying on to Atar in Mauretania at 0200. We soon learnt that take off had been delayed until 0630. There was no food available at the Airport and we just had to bed down on the hard floor. This did not seem ideal preparation for an event involving up to five nights without proper sleep. Fortunately our group had enjoyed an excellent lunch earlier that Sunday. We didn’t know that it was to be our last decent meal before returning to England!

Atar Cafe

Atar Cafe

We arrived in Atar, one of the largest cities in the country, yet still very backward by our standards. The tarmac road ended 40 kilometres outside the city and then we were on dirt tracks. In the city centre we stopped for some lunch which consisted of bread and strawberry jam. That’s all they seemed to eat. In hindsight that was partly due to our organiser saving money on food. We got into 3 army trucks which smelt of the diesel sloshed across the floor.

We sat there on the back of the lorry six-foot in the air, close-to but separate from the small boys below who clamoured for our attention and money. A couple of them marched about dressed in African general uniforms and practised deploying troops. One of these generals came over to me with a box which he thrust up towards me crying “L’argent, L’argent”. Inside crawling around and trying to keep its feet was a live black scorpion. For a moment I thought he might toss it in so that I could get a better look but to my relief it was too valuable and so he gave up and took it somewhere else.

We drove down the road a bit to the petrol station which was a series of 50 gallon drums with hand pumps. These were manned by small boys who continually jumped up and down in order to pump and crank the fuel into the convoy of cars and lorries. It took over 2 hours to fuel our vehicles.

Trans 333 is predominantly a French event. The Administration and the Doc Trotter Medical Team were entirely French as were most of the competitors. However, there was a British contingent of 18 shepherded by James Henderson. James acted as Alain’s agent, dealing with the British entrants. James speaks French well and this was of vital importance. For example, the pre-race briefing was exclusively in French so most of us relied upon James’s simultaneous translation.

M333-01a

I faced an ordeal but I did so amongst friends. David Seys, Rory Gilmour, John Downes and Anthony Taylor had been with me in Morocco in 1999 when all of us completed the Marathon des Sables. Anthony and I had completed the Jordan Desert Cup together in 2000. Malcolm Croft had come with us on our overnight training run all round the Isle of Wight. We did not expect to see anything of him during the race except his heels at the start. Malcolm is a quality runner and we wondered whether he might be a contender.

There were other familiar faces. Alistair and Jeremy had been with us in Jordan. Luke had addressed us at the pre-race meeting in the Yorkshire Grey pub in London. He had suffered from severe dehydration at Trans 333 2000 and talked about the importance of maintaining the right electrolyte balance.

We soon got to know the rest of the Brits. Notable amongst them was 66 year old “Death Valley Jack”. He had completed the 135 mile Death Valley event in California no less than 10 times. That entire event is on asphalt in extreme heat. Roraigh and Jamie were doing the event together. In fact they had no choice as they would be tied together by a length of rope. Jamie had lost his sight during Army Service when he was injured by an explosion. He would rely on Roraigh to act as his guide. Shirley had only taken up running a year ago. However, she had completed the Marathon des Sables already. James from Northern Ireland was almost as funny as Malcolm. Simon, Celia, Richard and Ian completed the party.

We had been served a couple of bread rolls on the flight to Atar so lunch was on our minds upon arrival. We soon learnt that nothing happened very quickly in Mauretania. We hung around at the landing strip eyeing a fleet of trucks and an open-backed lorry was identified as our transport. Alain engaged in an increasingly furious discussion with a number of officials. Apparently the officials wanted Alain to exchange hard currency for Ouguiya but he was reluctant. I can’t blame him for that; Ouguiya cannot be changed back into any recognised currency. Once you have Ouguiya you’re stuck with it. The problem must have been resolved since we boarded the vehicles, which delivered us to a modern hotel.

Expectations were high as we filed towards the dining area, but they crashed as we saw that it was open air, with a few boards and trestles. And then we saw the food. Each table was laid for four people. We had one small loaf each. On each table there was a pot of red jam and a half pound of butter in its original wrapping. There were tea bags, coffee bags and sugar. Waiters brought metal jugs to each table containing warm water. Tinned milk was available on request. The waiter deftly made incisions on opposite sides of the tin so that it poured. Our disappointment was heading towards the floor like a Stuka pilot as we saw the flies in their hundreds. The table was covered with them – all waiting for the jam to be opened.

After lunch we were to be driven to Ouadane. The race was due to start there at 1800 the next day (Tuesday). Before we left there was a fight in the hotel car park. Someone had tried to pinch an article through the window of one of the trucks. The truck driver objected strongly since any theft would have reflected on him. One aimed a wild kick. The other picked up a piece of wood. The combatants were held apart by the assembled throng. Whilst we stood by, we became the target for itinerant salesmen. One boy, offering a few bolts of thin cloth, was very persistent. He said he had come all the way from Nouakchott, the capital, hundreds of miles away on the coast. I was too polite and he then followed me everywhere under the false impression that I might be a customer.

The convoy departed but went nowhere. We thought our drivers had got lost in Atar. I couldn’t see any directional signs by the roadways. Later we realized that none of the vehicles had any petrol. Eventually we joined a queue by a petrol station. Each truck had three large drums loaded on the back. Each of these had to be filled, as well as the tank. Documentation authorising each vehicle to be fuelled had to be studied. Eventually our driver lost patience and joined a shorter queue at another petrol station. I am sure that many of the officials are illiterate; they just stare at the document without understanding, so that other locals think they are literate and they keep their job. I studied one and his eyes did not move in any logical fashion.

vast desert. I expected it to be intensively cultivated. Instead, large parts of it were covered by piles of refuse. Goats wandered at will through the streets eating paper and anything else they could find. The population seemed to be very poor. Mostly they were listless. Young boys sat on flat carts. These were supported on car tyres and hitched to a donkey. Were they waiting to be hired? I saw only three being used. They formed a short procession carrying rough building blocks. Otherwise there was little evidence of commercial activity. Lethargy hung about the place like an invisible cloak even though it was mid-winter and not very hot. Street urchins congregated around us and stared at us fixedly with expressions of astonished disbelief.

The journey from Atar to Ouadane was over 200 kilometres. We climbed up a spectacular canyon quite early on. Otherwise the land stretching away on each side of the road was flat, arid and stony with thin patches of trees, bushes and grass. A featureless wasteland stretching to the horizon. Occasionally we saw herds of goats grazing and, more rarely, camels and donkeys. There was not a soul to be seen on the entire journey except an Asian cyclist whom we were to meet on the road again days later. The convoy stopped by one ramshackle dwelling so that a vehicle could be repaired but there was no one visible.

At Ouadane we went to the tourist compound which was a few hundred metres from the village. Inside a surrounding wall, tents and huts were scattered about and we chose our berth for Monday night. This was our last chance to get some uninterrupted sleep before tomorrow evening’s start. Prospects of this were shattered when John saw a large, olive green scorpion on the pullover he had placed on his mattress. Simon was quick to put his boot on it but were there more? There were anxious discussions on the subject of whether scorpion stings were serious enough to prevent a victim from starting the race or whether they might even be fatal. No one really knew the answers. I consoled myself with the thought that these scorpions were concentrated in a nest underneath John’s mattress, which was on the far side of the tent from mine. Aah – team spirit!

As if scorpions were not enough, a new problem now loomed. David’s snores can be compared to a pneumatic drill in the road immediately outside one’s house. Once in a while one can laugh this off but it was vital to get some sleep. My concern was to ascertain David’s choice of tent and then to place myself as far away as possible. In Morocco he had to sleep outside the compound and nearly got run over in the dark by a jeep. Here again David slept out under the stars. No doubt his motive is to avoid converting those who might otherwise share his tent into life-long enemies.

Unhappily for me David laid his sleeping bag down immediately outside my tent. I didn’t realize this at the time as he was hidden behind a large painted board propped up next to the tent. Although the board hid David, it did nothing to quell the noise of his snoring. Provocatively, he copes with all this by total denial. However, Anthony had brought a dictating machine to record his experiences. He could have used this as means for David’s confrontation with the truth and salvation. Unfortunately, all of us were so tired after last night’s fiasco at Marseilles that we just fell asleep – one small gain for medical science was lost.

Tuesday 1530

We are due to start in one and a half hour’s time. The original start time has been brought forward by an hour. This gives us an extra hour of daylight. It will be dark by 1830. I have discovered that Ouadane is very old and is on one of the caravan routes. The brick buildings were single-storied and windowless. They are similar to the village buildings in Algeria made of Sun dried mud. There were a few shops; these were hard to find in the absence of any signs. It’s strange when you can’t differentiate between the two. We peered into dark interiors where goods were piled higgledy piggledy on the shop floor. I went into the village with three of the others earlier today. Almost at once we were surrounded by a large number of children. Even before entering the village we were adopted by three adolescents who relentlessly followed us all the way round the village and then back to the encampment, obviously in the hope of some gift. We found their company very irksome. We were not able to communicate with them except by way of a few words of French. They remained uncomfortably close to us, stared at us and generally took possession of us. People’s behaviour varies so much and we are guilty of bringing Anglo Saxon niceties to a barren wasteland like this. But that’s how we felt.

A number of the locals have spread out their wares on carpets in the encampment. I haven’t seen them make a single sale. A few are also stationed just outside the exit that leads to the toilet and shower block. They can be confident in that position of brisk traffic. People pass to and fro constantly but I doubt whether anyone wants to buy the goods on offer.

Although it is now winter, it can get extremely hot between 11 am and 2 pm. Fortunately we’re going to be able to make a lot of progress before we’re hit by the heat on the first full day.
Much of the last few hours are spent dealing with the drop bags. We are all permitted to have items taken ahead to await us at checkpoints (CPs). Most people have chosen to have about four drop bags with torch batteries, medication, changes of clothes, spare shoes and food. I have decided to have a drop bag at all sixteen CPs. Some of them just have a sachet of gel, a cereal bar and some dried fruit and nuts. This means that I am guaranteed food at every CP. I wasn’t totally confident about the food promised by the organiser. If we were at the back of the field it might all be gone.

The drop bag system worked well. All of them turned up in the right place. This meant that a small pack was all I needed. It was sufficient to carry my water system, night clothing, some food, a first aid kit and my head lamp. In my bum bag I kept my camera, my recorder and some food so that these items were readily accessible between CPs.

Alain addressed us this afternoon. We were to receive no map, no route description, and no compass bearings. This event was really extreme to the point of being the wrong side of bonkers. Alain described the route and James briefly translated. I don’t think much was lost in translation. Alain seemed much given to philosophising. At one point he said it was an event for “real men not pansies“. I love these Légion étrangère (French Foreign Legion) bods who have so much machismo you can see it leak through their pores. I do sympathise with them because over the various events I have Delta Force, Green beret, Commandos, even SAS and all sorts of special forces guys crying, but never a “Légion étrangère” they are as hard as nails. Any way I suppose it was aimed at the British contingent. We were as resolute as the rest of the field, although less talented, less well prepared.

Tuesday 1700

A motley crowd of locals have assembled to witness the start. They seem genuinely puzzled by our antics. A few more stirring words from Alain and we’re away. Nearly everyone is running. We start running in a conservative sort of way, conscious of the enormous distance ahead of us. As we leave the village it gets sandier and the gradient is upwards. It’s still quite warm. Now we’re walking more than running, and soon we’re just walking. I was with John and Rory. We plan to do the whole event together. There are a few like us but most of the field disappears ahead. Jamie and Roraigh go by tethered together but walking purposefully. I comment as they pass that we’re now about last. One of them says “That’s a good attacking position”.

After twenty minutes I tell everyone around me to stop and look back at the mountains in the sunset and the start is also CP4 and we will be returning this way in about 18 hours time hopefully.

2150

We arrived at CP1 (20 kms) at 2125. It had taken us 4 hrs 25 mins to do the first stage. This is rather slow and we fell right to the back of the field. Anthony delayed the party due to a 15 minute stop enforced by an unwise dosage of syrup of figs the previous evening. The effects of this had not worn off. David and Alistair are in the tent with us. Alistair is starting to have problems with his hamstring. I must say the Brits are making the rest of the field look like professional athletes. Anke steamed off at the start and that’s the last we will see of her for days. I’m feeling better and spirits are high. The CP crew is very helpful. Also the car headlights of the support vehicles are much in evidence. No doubt this will change later when the field spreads out. This will not happen for a while as the first 80 kms is out into the desert for 40 kms and then back to Ouadane. Later on the front runners will come back past us and we shall see how the race is evolving.

We left CP1 at 2200. After a while a marshal flagged us down and told us there was an Englishman in trouble in his car. He had been very sick and had been in the car for half an hour. He was now feeling a bit better so could he come on with us. We were astonished to see it was Malcolm in the car looking pretty groggy but he said he was ready to move again. Initially he was close to being his usual cheerful self. He warmed up and removed his fleece. Then we got to a difficult section of soft sand and he visibly wilted. When a medic drove up there was a serious possibility that he might not continue. John had a deep gash on his leg patched up by the medic and this gave Malcolm time to rest and consider whether to go on or not. He had cramps and a headache and was very down. The medic advised he should stop and Malcolm agreed without much further hesitation. He must have felt awful. The rest of us were depressed for some time.

Not long after Malcolm’s retirement we saw the first runner coming back from CP2. We applauded and the sole leader acknowledged with a surprisingly high pitched voice. Later we discovered that the leader was a woman. She already had a useful lead.

Wednesday 0200

We arrived at CP2 (40 kms) four hours after leaving CP1. Alistair seems to be getting worse. The British do not appear to be excelling at this. We are heavily over-populating the rear of the field. We just like being together.

0240

We left CP2 and turned back towards Ouadane. Quite soon we saw John running in the wrong direction coming towards us – he’d left his water bottles behind. We soon found Anthony waiting for him. They overtook us as Alastair was now in a lot of pain and going slowly; a thin crescent moon came up in the East. The terrain was mainly sand with the occasional hard section where we could make better speed. It all looked eerily silver in the night and I half expected phantoms to come out of the night. So much for coffee and an overactive imagination.

0500

We reached CP3 (originally CP1 – 60 kms) in 4 hrs 50 minutes. We were dead last. Alastair was limping badly and I needed some sleep. I asked him to wake me after two hours as he was dropping out. I felt alone even with all these people around me .There was no one behind, no maps no nothing; I felt exposed. But I still needed the sleep. He gave me a kick and I woke up a bit, but fell back to sleep. Then my world changed.

I woke up to look through the clear plastic bottle of my water. I could see yellow and a pretty clear blue. Behind me were the remains of a Portuguese fort from the 16th century three quarters covered in sand; the walls only stood two feet out of the desert to show what it originally looked like. Everywhere else was flat sand in all directions, with tracks in all directions and for a moment I was really scared. I was totally alone. I promised myself I would never oversleep again (and I haven’t) and then I tried to sort out the problem. I had seen a map of the general area back in England and I roughly knew where I thought I was and then using my watch and compass I decided to follow the tracks going due west. There were more in this direction and I thought they had probably been made by the runners.

After a little while I thought I would take 360 degree view photographs of the place otherwise no one would believe me. I headed off towards what I hoped was the next check point 20 kilometres away. After three and a half hours I ran out of water and by now I was getting worried. It was hot and still featureless. I couldn’t see any hills or valleys. I carried on for a while but my mouth was drying up and for the first time in my life I realised I had not only stepped outside the comfort zone but gone much further into a more dangerous place. I decided to pee into the water bottle and decided to strain it with a hankie; one of the few luxuries I took on races. The yellow liquid burst into the bottle like lucazade slightly steaming out of the top. I carried on for a bit staring at the liquid as if I was being stalked by it. Contemplating the thought of drinking it and being repulsed at the same time. Finally I took a small swig and grimacing spat it out but at least it had soothed the throat. It was a bit like taking medicine you don’t like, but I reasoned that it shouldn’t do me to much harm as it had already been inside me and not achieved anything.

I carried on and eventually saw the cleft in the mountains and I knew I was safe even though I got across the last couple of kilometres using sheer determination. Look into the horizon, then get my head down, staring at the sand in front; then after fifteen minutes of discomfort and heavy breathing together with a dull ache from the pack, lift my head and there is absolutely no difference on the sky line. It is soul destroying. I finally got to the checkpoint to see other runners lying around and to find out that rather than being last there were five people now behind me who I had never seen.

I wanted to have a go at Alain Gestain but he wasn’t there and no one seemed interested when I started to talk about my ordeal so I soon shut up. I went to get some food. Most of it was gone and what was left looked very unappetising. The food was set out under a small canopy in blazing hot sun and flies were all about. Despite all this I still scoffed a few bits.

Leaving CP4 having completed 80 kms, we must walk on roads for 60 kms. I’m feeling good and Rory seems OK. John is not in such good shape but he is highly motivated. It would take a major problem to make him even think about stopping.

M333-09

Thursday 0015

We reached CP5 (100 kms) at 2000 having taken 4 hrs 45 mins on the stage. We were three hours inside the deadline. John has stiffened up. We have slept and will soon continue. I find I am next to Anthony and David in the tent. He made the cut-off but fell ill some way short of CP5. He was accompanied in by a woman doctor. He says he will not go on and pointed out that we still had a distance to do equivalent to the Marathon des Sables. Later I learnt that he recovered and was all set to continue. Before re-starting he had a gel and fell sick again. He had to pull out after that.

0025

On leaving CP5 I accompanied Rory, John and Anthony and at first we made good progress. Rory started feeling sick. He slowed right down and was walking unsteadily. A medic stopped and asked how we were. Rory said he didn’t feel so good but would continue. Shortly afterwards Rory was sick and, when the medic passed by again, Rory decided to retire. He went off in the medic’s car. He made the correct decision.

The three of us continued and we saw what we thought was the light of the next CP light long before we reached it. The road seemed interminable. At last we arrived at CP6 (120 kms) at 0430. We decided to get some more rest and to sleep if we could.

0740

We are still at CP6. I am in the middle of an enormous plain of what looks like cat litter. My legs have swollen up around the ankles and I can’t see the tops of my shoes anymore. The French doctors slice the backs of my ankles to let out the pus, then wrap it up and give me a pain killer. John is very stiff but ready to go. Anthony suggested that he should move on ahead and we would catch up with him.

Anthony gets vexed. He keeps on losing things. He’s lost one gaiter and some cutlery. The lighting is often poor at night so it’s not surprising that this happens.

When I arrive at a CP I collect my drop bag, take items out of my rucksack, drink some coffee or whatever the CP crew offer. At each CP there’s a sack of small loaves. With the passage of time these are becoming rather hard. By dunking a loaf in the coffee, I am able to eat it almost with enjoyment. There isn’t much else to eat so we all rely on the drop bags.

0820

My feet have been patched up so the two of us set out after John. It took us two hours to catch him. Anthony has developed a blister on the side of his heel. We stopped while he put a Compeed on it and he was OK after that.

1245

We arrived at CP7 (140 kms). James was here taking a video as we approached. Alistair is also here to give us support. He came up with some weird contraption consisting of the bottom half of a water bottle with a separate top half slotted over the top of it. He said that this was to keep off the flies. I said thanks very much but I didn’t see how I could carry it with me. “You berk!” said Alistair, “It’s to keep the flies from the pineapple slices which I’ve saved for you to eat now”. I must have been half asleep. The pineapple slices were the best I’d ever had.

Simon has been detained at CP7 under suspicion of a thrombosis in his leg. He had passed us with Luke between CPs 4 and 5 going very well. The medics have pulled him out.

1400

I left CP7 and was now following a sandy track across a giant plain of cat litter. I looked around and could see nothing. The horizon stretched away in every direction and apart from the small blip of the Auberge behind me I was alone. I walked on for half an hour immersed in my thoughts when a thud came close by me and turning to my left I saw the front hooves of a camel. My gaze went up taking in the outline of the groaning beast and sitting on top was a Tuareg with an ancient long barrelled rifle pointing at me.

“Cadeaux?” “Cadeaux mobile phone?” I was being held up. I had read somewhere that if you act crazy you are considered blessed in Islam and they leave you alone. I started shaking and twitching. “Mobile phone?” “Mobile phone?” I kept repeating as this was the only two words I could think of. There I was alone in the desert with an armed Tuareg who could pull the trigger at any moment. Kathy would never forgive me.

The Tuareg looked thoughtful and probably decided that I was genuine. Who else but madman would want to come and trudge alone in the desert when for a few pence he could hire a camel? I had to be mad. So, with a look of boredom, he click his steed and left. The camel grunting and growling into the distance.

Later on this section proved to be dangerous. Shirley got into difficulties with some guys who stopped her, but she was saved by the organisers turning up.

I arrived at CP8 (160 kms). This is an Auberge. It is here that we must use a guide with a camel to take us over a section of desert to another Auberge. We booked our camel for 1930. Bernard will share it with us. Our plan is to get some sleep at CP9 where we also get a cooked meal. We’ll eat on arrival and then sleep for a few hours. Today we’ll have done our scheduled four stages. If we can do the same tomorrow, we can do the remaining three stages on Saturday, finishing on Saturday at midnight. This leaves us with a good margin since the deadline is 1300 on Sunday. We can have major setbacks and still do it.

I overheard someone say in CP8 that the next stage should take 3 hours as it was shorter than the average. Things went wrong from the start. We set out with Bernard. Apparently the guide asked what speed we wanted to go and Bernard suggested “doucement”. I agreed with that. Even this proved faster than comfortable. We were straining to keep the camel in sight in the darkness ahead of us. This rendered us unable to look down and avoid the numerous rocks on the path against which we repeatedly stubbed our toes. It took us some time to realise that we could dictate the pace from behind since the guide, wouldn’t want to lose us. If he got too far ahead, he would just have to slow down. For what seemed an age we stumbled on behind the camel occasionally struggling over dunes. I became almost hypnotised by the faint white shape of the back of the camel striding without effort over the soft sand. Once in a while the guide would stop and make some observation that we didn’t understand. Bernard said the guide didn’t speak French so we had no means of communicating with him.

I was under the serious misapprehension that the next CP was in Chinguetti. In fact Chinguetti was 120 kms further on. Without a route description there was no means of checking. Chinguetti is the Seventh Holy City of Islam. It had to be a sizeable place. When we were well into the third hour since leaving CP8, I began to worry that we couldn’t see any lights. We had been told that this stage was only 13 kms. When we had done over three hours and still couldn’t see any lights we began to lose confidence in the guide. He seemed to be treating us like tourists. Every so often he would stop and tell us something that we couldn’t comprehend. He didn’t seem to realise that our only concern was to get to CP9 as soon as possible so that we could eat and rest. As we approached the fourth hour we began to despair. The footprints we saw in the sand were our own. We were walking in circles. Was this guide of ours an imbecile or a villain? Perhaps he was being paid by the hour.

After four and a half hours we were in disarray. The event seemed to be over for us. The only question was whether this unspeakable guide would abandon us or remain to lead us ever further from our destination. We stopped to consider what we should do. The guide carried on so that we temporarily lost sight of him. It hardly mattered any more except that we did want to survive this experience. That was as much as we hoped to salvage from our predicament. Somehow we had to communicate with him.

I lost my patience and did start stalking loudly and slowly at the man in “frenglish”. Maybe he was doing his inadequate best and we would just alienate him. Anthony tried and started showing the man his watch which I think he wanted to buy. Nothing! Blank incomprehension: It looked as if the guide had not seen a watch before. Anthony tried again with no great success. Then, overcome by frustration, he started shouting. The guide took a step back with an expression of alarm. Anthony had made the situation even worse.

Later, as we blundered about on our knees on a particularly high soft sand dune, I stopped and drew a chart in the sand. This chart depicted such information as we had. So far as I can remember, it showed CP8 where we started, CP9 our destination, Chinguetti near CP9 and the position of the moon in relation to our theoretical line of march. The idea was, I think, to conduct a dialogue with the guide by reference to this chart. The problem was I had placed Chinguetti 120 kms out of position. He was looking at me without comprehension.

I lost it turned; went off in a huff, went up to the top of a dune and on the other side was CP9.

9 months later when we got home I realised why we had a guide: we had just walked by and through a minefield!

Miraculously we were outside CP9. We entered and half collapsed into the arms of Malcolm who immediately set about looking after us. We were quickly served a very palatable vegetable stew with boiled rice. What a relief! Two or three hours sleep and we’d be fit to continue.

This stage had taken us 4 hrs 45 mins and we were fortunate. One group was taken by its guide direct to CP10 missing out CP9 altogether!

Friday 0510

Conditions had not been ideal in the tent. Blankets were in short supply so I had to share one. I couldn’t move; my legs had swollen up again and the flesh enveloped my shoes so that I had to gingerly lift the skin when I took it off. Anthony and the others were in the dining room to discuss what they should do. My legs were so bad that all thoughts of the 333 were now over but there was still the 222 and I was not going to leave this country without an award. I had got a dose of prickly heat all down my legs which meant that everything below my waist was an itchy painful mess. I needed to stay back and have everything dressed by the medics. John’s feet were blistered but he’d had them patched up and was ready to go. They couldn’t afford to delay so they wished me good luck and left.

I had three desert stages to go, to get me to Chinguetti. It was early morning and I felt alone. I soon teamed up with Shirley Thompson who I last met in the Marathon des Sables a few months ago. Shirley is great and since I wrote this she has blossomed into the Race Director for the Jungle Marathon in Brazil where she now spends a lot of her time. Alastair had kindly loaned me a light top and his red pants so that my prickly heat would calm down. Underneath these my legs looked like porcelain as they had been liberally covered in a foul smelling ointment by the French medics, who kept looking at me and smiling. I couldn’t work out if this was benevolence or just them getting their own back for Napoleon. I kept thinking of them back at the Checkpoint laughing themselves silly at the thought of half the fly population of Mauritania seeking me out and coming after me. At least 10% turned up and my white top was covered in black flies.

Our pace was slowing as we trod over the soft sand. We talked about life and our careers and hopes. We felt really privileged to be in a country that no-one had heard of. Even after 12 years I have only met one person who has been there and most only stay at the coast and miss the interior.

We got to CP10 and teamed up with two French girls – Nicole and Marie. I was now in heaven surrounded by 3 beautiful women, whilst feeling very protective of them.

As the day got hotter flies, became a problem. Hundreds were hitching a ride on our hats, rucksacks and clothes. Occasionally I took a swipe at Shirley’s flies; fortunately you can’t see your own. They would buzz about for a while and then re-settle, some of them no doubt transferring to me. Although I killed dozens it never seemed to make any difference to the numbers. If one opened one’s mouth, a fly was likely to fly in. I pulled my buff up.

It’s remarkable the difference it makes if one pauses for a few minutes in the shade of one of the leafless trees. It is blissful to rest briefly and enjoy the cool and the faintest of breezes. Even the flies, unsettled by the stop, cannot spoil this. The three girls are enjoying this and we are continually going at the pace of the slowest. At CP10 (200 kms) we met Alistair again I told him that my main aim was Chinguetti because my feet were oozing pus and this was the best result I could hope for.

After resting at CP10 for one hour we set off for CP11 at 1220. This was the CP at which one earned a 222 kms certificate. James and I achieved the 222 certificate. Bernard, the French guy in the dunes missed it by 3 kms. I felt very sad.

We drove with the organisers to Chinguetti, where we came to a small hotel/Auberge in the New town. The Old town was about 1 km away across what we thought was an old river bed but was just a flattened dune making its way to the Old town.

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We were left to our own devices and we sat at the rear on a flat concrete platform with a pale green awning over the top. We lay there with the hot breeze somehow feeling cool as it wafted across us. I noticed a small boy sitting on the opposite side of the courtyard in front of a hutch. I didn’t take much notice as a French girl who was looking after us arrived to let us know what was going on.

I heard a light clanking nearby and I turned to see the little boy offering us some dates in a bowl. It wasn’t the dates that surprised me but the iron collar around his neck and the chain that had made the clanking slithering back to the hutch. I realised that I was staring at slavery for the first time in my life.

I was stunned and took a moment to tell James. The boy went back to his hutch and just sat there in the afternoon sun awaiting his next job. His skin was deep black and it was obvious that he came from much further south and to the east was well. I wondered about his family and where he came from but I had no way of communicating with him.

I felt incompetent. There was nothing I could do that would have helped him. If I made a fuss he may have been punished later.

We went to sleep and woke up next morning. We walked across the flattened dune to the Old town. We walked up the high street and went into Fort Sagan an old Foreign legion fort which is now used as a small hotel. We climbed onto the battlements to get a good view of the town and saw a collection of mud dwellings. The sand was building up on many of the walls and had completely blocked some of the roads into town.

One of the town elders came to see us. He was a thin moor dressed in brilliant pale blue robes that looked incredibly cool in the warm air of the Sahel. His constant smiling showed us his brilliant white teeth that shone out in bursts and reminded me of the beam of a light house at night. His arms were very thin more like sticks as they whirled with his gesticulations. After a short conversation he agreed to let us see inside the famous library at Chinguetti. This town is the seventh most holy town in Islam and like Timbuktu is famous for its ancient manuscripts.

We walked across the main road which was no more than flattened sand and into a side turning that led towards a tall mud tower that dominated the town. At the entrance was a low wooden door with an enormous wooden bar across it. The wood of the door was very dry and distressed. There were crevices along its length, evidence of its long service and I imagined people touching this thousands of times across the ages. It was like a physical connection to history. The ancient lock was probably 1,000 years old and was still serviceable.

The door creaked open and in we walked into a small dark gloomy room. The ceiling was 35 foot high and on the walls were dried mud recesses, on which thousands of documents were stacked all over the place. It looked a mess but was perfectly understandable to the Imam. We sat cross legged on the carpet and the Imam started to talk to us in French. The documents were over 1,000 years old and most of them referred to the Garamantes history in the area. The pages of each document were made out of antelope hide and the ink was made from gazelle blood. The writing was ancient but the Imam was an expert and quoted parts of a selection of documents that he presented. Some were reports on agriculture, most were commentaries on the Koran.

The Tower has seen all sorts of disasters from sand storms and wars to floods yet though it was only made of mud it was strong and it was still here. I was very impressed.

We walked back to the Auberge to find our French girl in some distress. She had spoken to Alain Gestain who had told her to get herself out of there and that she was on her own.

She had never left Paris and was worried. She had little money and it seems that the race was beginning to collapse. Furthermore, the landlord had not been paid and she was worried that he may take her to add to his collection in lieu of payment.

We sat down as things were getting serious. James was an ex-marine, who gave us some comfort but we also felt that we had to get out.

I got my money together and we went to visit the man in town who owned a Peugeot 305 that we had seen. We haggled for a long time but we brought the car, petrol and found a driver for a bundle of Mauritanian money. In hindsight we were robbed. The car was not road worthy in European terms but was superb by local standards. Inside were ripped seats, no mirrors, and only a couple of the controls worked.

Our toothless driver smiled frequently. We collected the French girl, some equipment and all four us crammed into the Peugeot. I was thinking about the slave boy and wondered what his fate would be as we left. I don’t know whether the owner was paid but later on I heard that Alain could not go back to Mauritania if he wanted to live. Several years later I was talking to Shirley, an American runner who went to Ouadane, and the owner still remembered Alain and wanted him dead.

The driver took us to the main square in the town and stopped by a house with two drums of diesel. A young boy got a pipe out, put in the petrol tank and then started to jump up and down on an Iron lever for all he was worth as he used all his energy to pump the car full of diesel. It wasn’t quick and from time to time we looked anxiously back towards the new town fearing a group of rushing Tuaregs with swords coming after us.

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Nothing happened.

After 20 minutes the car was full; the little boy looked exhausted and slumped against the wall still smiling away.

We drove off in the direction of Atar thinking that we could relax.

About 20 minutes outside of town we were brought to a halt. A group of police/soldiers blocked the road and our French girl told us that to pass we had to pay a toll. We had no money and the driver haggled with them in a friendly way. Two bright red water bottles and compass was the going rate and soon we were on our way again. A few minutes later the car again came to halt as the spark plugs needed to be changed.

We sat in the back with our buffs up and wearing our dark sun specs, as there was no glass in the car and the sand ripped through the inside as we went. It was nearly dark and we couldn’t see much through the dark glass in front of our eyes. We must have looked like bandits. Another twenty minutes and we were on our way again. With our driver smiling and nodding with his toothless grin.

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A few miles later on and another group of armed men stopped the car and demanded a “toll”. I kept my watch out of sight and we each gave little bits of kit which we would not use again. We worked out that we had enough for 5 such stops before we had to start handing over our shoes and clothing and we had a brief image of turning up butt-naked in Atar.

We were coming to the end of the high plateau which is the most western edge of the real desert. It seems to divide the country. Later I found that you could easily see this particular escarpment from space, such was the size and depth of the sudden drop.

Just before we got to the edge another group of Soldiers appeared blocking the road. This time they were not so friendly and we had to give more than we had before. This time they wanted the head torches and safety blankets which we gave them; we just wanted to go home.

The car got to the edge and the road started to wind down a steep valley. It was night now and the lights didn’t work very well. The car began to speed up and we became anxious; the driver was not smiling now but peering into the gloom to see the road ahead. The car was getting faster because the brakes weren’t working too well and once on this drop there wasn’t much to stop it. Half way down there was a hairpin which, by using the whole road including the opposite side, the driver managed to negotiate. We were all feeling very queasy and concerned that this might be our last trip. The car was going faster now and it was swaying as it went. I was frozen in the rear with every muscle tensed ready for a crash. I was freezing as the cold wind whipped into the cabin. We were so jammed in at the back that if the car hit something we wouldn’t budge but that didn’t make it feel any safer.

Finally the road started to level out and the car began to slow. Evidently the stress of this journey was just too much for it and the driver ran it off the road about 10k outside of Atar, where it breathed its last.

We got out and thanked the driver, gave some more kit and he started to walk towards Chinguetti. I have no idea how, or if, he did it. It must have been 70 kilometres back there and with little water I wonder if he made it. We gathered what kit we could, left the rest in the car and saying good by headed to the town and the finish.

I still dream that the car is still there, but it won’t be as the Tuareg use everything and it would now be a taxi with a new lease of life.

We walked on in the dark and after about an hour and a half saw the finish with its small group of tents. We were very lucky to find it as it saved us a walk to town, several hours further off.
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We dropped and started talking to the other runners. Alain was displeased at us not bringing all the kit and the French girl was crying as he berated her. We told him where the kit was and said that we had brought all we could the rest was down to him.

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I went into a tent and met Anke. This was our third race together but we had never really talked. We did this time and struck up a friendship that has lasted to this day. Friendships you make on these events last for ever. They may become a bit distant for a while as they are subsumed to other events and the general day-to-day but they remain strong and you pick up where you left off as if nothing had happened in between.

At the finish there was quite a crowd and we gave everyone a rousing reception. John and Anthony came in together hand in hand. They got a hug and a can of soft drink from Alain and hugs and handshakes from everyone they knew, applause from everyone else. Luke and Shirley arrived together as did the two singing French girls. They were inside the cut-off by an hour and 40 minutes and our total time was 4 days 18 hours 20 minutes. Everyone collapsed on mattresses in one of the tents and waited for the others to come in. Last of all was Jack. By now he was walking in a most uncomfortable manner, twisted round and leaning over on one side. He got a tremendous reception for carrying on to the finish despite his condition. He got the nickname of “the Leaning tower of Jack” he must have been in a lot of pain.

This encampment was about four hours outside Atar. Last year the finish had been in Atar but some of those finishing at night had felt threatened by the locals in the seedier areas of the town. Once Jack finished, transport took us to the hotel where we had had lunch after our arrival.

That Sunday evening there was a dinner in the hotel. While we waited to be served, David and Anthony went to the bar to get some soft drinks. Alcohol was not available. The attendant tried to give them Ouguiya as change although they had paid in French francs. There was a rumpus and they returned with no change but twice the amount of drinks.

After dinner there was a presentation. Alicia and Jack, the first and the last, both got standing ovations as they went up to receive their certificates, T-shirts and small gifts from Alain. I dozed through the presentation but jumped up when my name was called. John and Anthony came 48th out of about 75 starters. About 54 finished. I went up and got my certificate and a small ochre Mauritanian teapot. John had to leave the presentation to have his feet operated on by the Doc Trotter team, his blisters were so bad.

I told James that I thought the style of the hotel architecture was very Moorish. James replied that he found Guinness very moreish as well.

The event was over but we still couldn’t relax. There was only one flight a week, and our plane had been overbooked by 27 seats. We would be competing for places with a party of tourists. The plan was to get up at 5 am, breakfast at 5.30 and then go quickly to the airport to get to the front of the queue for check-in.

Next morning we were ready to go but our transport appeared to consist of one taxi. We were losing precious time. For all we knew the other party were also aware of the problem and might arrive at the airport before us. More transport appeared but, when we joined the queue for check-in, it was by no means clear that we were all going to get on the plane. We kept turning round to count the number behind us. So long as there were more than 27 we should be OK. Occasionally an individual without baggage would drift forwards. Were they queue jumping, having left their baggage in the care of a friend? It was impossible to control this. As we approached the check-in counter, David warned of an out-flanking movement by those behind us. We spread out in an attempt to avert this. It could affect whether we were on the plane or not. We got our boarding passes but then we were concerned about a couple of the other Brits who were further back in the queue. They were held up at the counter and it looked touch and go. One Frenchman further back became very vociferous. Others picked up his concerns and soon there were the beginning of a riot. The army were there and one or two guards started to click their weapons, whereupon a news crew on standby, thinking they had a scoop, started to get out the cameras. The Brits got their passes on the ground that they had connecting flights in Paris.

The unlucky ones had to travel by bus hundreds of miles to Nouakchott, the capital. There they were supposed to get a flight to Paris at midnight on Air Africque. This didn’t happen and I met Michel Bach at the MdS the following year, who said it took a further week to get back to Paris as they had had to leave Nouakchott and take the bus to Dakar in Senegal and did not arrive home until a week later. This must have been a nightmare after the rigours of the event.

Out of a field of 75, 21 failed to finish. Most of these were either ill or injured. Provided one avoided injury and illness it was not too daunting in these conditions to achieve 43 miles a day for the best part of five days. Most of the competitors did much better than that. Four finished in under 70 hours, three between 70 and 80, ten between 80 and 90, fourteen between 90 and a 100, five between 100 and 110, eighteen between 110 and the cut-off time of 116 and finally Jack on 119 hours 36 minutes.

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