Thursday, 21 November 2013

Oil everywhere, not a drop to be found

The Blast From The Past series continues with an ironic problem. In an oil-rich country where electricity is so cheap that the people leave their light bulbs on all day, the Petronas Adventure Team runs out of fuel deep in the desert.

With the cars running on fumes and no Petronas station in sight, set up camp.

AN oil crisis is the last thing anyone expects in Libya , where petroleum supposedly oozes from the ground. Yet, that was exactly what the Petronas Adventure Team (PAT) had to cope with as the sun set on Sept 13, 2004, Day 15 of the Trans Sahara 2004.
The convoy comprised 18 four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicles, rigged with extra fuel tanks and jerry cans that can carry about 200 litres of diesel each.
That evening, every driver had been mesmerised by the amber low-fuel warning light; it didn’t help that the nearest fuel station was at the oasis of Waw el Kabir, 178km away as the crow flies, but there are no crows deep in the Sahara , and no one here travels in a straight line for long.
The problem began when the convoy rolled into the oasis of Tazerbu, about 650km south of Benghazi , the scheduled refuelling stop, on the night of Sept 12. Unfortunately, the petrol station was out of diesel.
The scrounger score some diesel, but not enough.
The PAT’s scrounging skills worked, though, and the local fuel supplier sent four 200l drums to the camp at midnight. Each car got a ration of 65 litres, which was not a lot; nevertheless, the participants headed into the desert anyway, to explore an extinct volcano.
The difficult terrain resulted in higher fuel consumption than expected, and most vehicles were running on fumes by the time the convoy pitched camp as night fell, still 200km from the nearest source of diesel.
Expedition leader Halim Rahman then decided to collect every jerry can and fuel container available, pool every last drop of precious diesel to fill up a couple of cars and send them to Waw el Kabir to buy more diesel. It was a six-hour round trip.
While the quest for fuel continues, some
 people find time to practise their golf swing.
Meanwhile, the guys (and three women) took advantage of the rare leisure time to catch up on vehicle maintenance chores, such as cleaning the air filters. Expedition sergeant major Asst Supt Mohd Shahidan Mohd Mahmud, who had brought along 100 golf balls, finally got the chance to polish his chipping and sand trap skills, while the others played rugby and football.
The fuel eventually arrived and the convoy moved out just after 4pm, way after the usual 6.30 or 7.30am starts. The wait proved to be a good opportunity to experience the Sahara during the day. Temperatures there can soar to over 40°C, but, surprisingly, it was pleasant in the shade, especially when the wind blew, which seemed to be most of the time.
Several days earlier, the convoy had crossed from Egypt into Libya near the town of Salum and made smooth progress on sealed roads to the port city of Tobruk. This city was the scene of two major World War II battles – that between the German-Italian forces led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a.k.a. the Desert Fox, and the British and Commonwealth troops who distinguished themselves as the Desert Rats. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left for history buffs to see today, except for a small French military cemetery.
All hands on deck to help with refuelling.
Along the way, the convoy rolled through El Alamein (now called Al Alamayn by the Libyans), site of the British victory that proved to be the turning point for the Allies.
My first impression of Libya was that of overwhelming filth: there was garbage strewn as far as the eye could see. Plastic bags, in particular, looked like crops growing on the ground; many hung from the numerous barbed wire fences.
Libya could just as easily be dubbed the “Land of Green Doors”, since nearly every squarish house is either sand coloured or unpainted concrete, and has green doors. Apparently, the colour is popular because the Libyan flag is a plain green rectangle, and it seems to be effective in scaring away flies!
En route to Tobruk, the long line of uniformly-coloured PAT cars drew admiring stares from everyone, including the unfortunate drivers of two cars which collided with a mighty bang when the man in front slowed down to gawk, and the driver behind him, who did the same, did not slow down. Assistance was rendered immediately by Khairuddin Mohd Ali, the expedition doctor,who examined the injured drivers.
No fuel, never mind, we have authentic
Italian pasta cooked by authentic
Italian chef Alessandro Arada
The Sahara reputedly springs surprises on the unwary: well, there was heavy rain and floods in parts of the deep desert that the expedition was supposed to visit, thus forcing a change of route. It hardly ever rains, but when it does, the water does not seep into the ground. Instead, it is channelled into narrow riverbeds that are normally dry.
Is that a Petronas station ... nah, just a mirage.
“After lunch, the local guides will lead us through the minefields,” expedition leader Halim Abdul Rahman announced over the radio during a refuelling break just before the convoy was due to enter the real Sahara desert.
That certainly got the adrenalin pumping, but as it turned out, we did not have to drive through any minefield. However, the convoy did go near many thick barbed wire entanglements that marked out areas where there might still be mines left over from WWII and the subsequent border conflict between Libya and Egypt.
The Sahara proper is a fascinating landscape, vast and varied in textures and hues. It is not all just sand dunes, although there are many of these. There are also large areas of hard-packed sandy and rocky ground, strewn with stones which vary in size from pebbles to huge boulders. Colours range from white to beige to dark brown and black.
The expedition vehicles travelled over soft sand dunes that resembled the huge waves of a storm at sea, as well as perfectly smooth flat sand that afforded We drove through powdery dust (like talcum powder) that severely taxed the engines and cooling systems.
The Sahara is beautiful in a stark, wild kind of way. It is enchanting and entrancing, yet totally unforgiving because a traveller can go hundreds of kilometres without seeing a blade of grass, or so much as a beetle. There’s no life there, except that which passes through on the backs of camels, or in 4WD vehicles, like us.

More photos here

An extinct volcano in the middle of the Libyan Sahara (at 24°55'9.67"N 17°44'45.88"E).