Today's lesson in Arabic is the phrase "Ya Humar". It means "You Donkey". Or, "You Ass". On the Trans Sahara, it is a daily award presented to the participant who made the silliest or funniest mistake the previous day.
AS the Petronas Adventure Team (PAT) ticks off the 30th day of the Trans Sahara 2004, the gruelling marathon starts to take its toll on both people and machinery.
Tensions rise – not quite up to boiling point, but it simmers – as homesickness creeps in. The absence of roaming cellular phone services in countries like Algeria and Libya deepens the depression.
|It's not all sand ...|
Cars are beset by more problems day by day. These gremlins test the expedition mechanics’ skill and ingenuity, but pose no major challenges.
In the early days, dawn brought exciting prospects of new places, experiences and landscapes; unusual dwellings and friendly natives, and a dozen or more varieties of sand. As time went by, the novelty wore thin and the 34th new experience was significantly less awe-inspiring than the fourth, and the 67th left you totally unmoved.
Anticipation used to be the order off the day. But now, each kilometre chalked brings joy because it means we are moving closer to the day we’ll return home and see loved ones again.
But these difficulties are an intrinsic part of long overland treks, PAT veterans say. Expedition medic Khairuddin Mohd Ali (call sign Kilo Delta), who modestly admits to having studied psychiatry “only on a superficial level”, notes that mood swings and mild depression are normal when a group of people spend so much time in close proximity, and under stressful conditions. His prescription: Patience, tolerance and a sense of humour.
It also helps that the PAT begins each day with a touch of home; they have a roll call, raise the Jalur Gemilang and sing Negaraku, heartily.
There is usually a light moment with the presentation of the Ya Humar (Arabic for “you donkey”) award to the participant who had committed the silliest or funniest mistake the previous day. Answering a phone call by pressing the two-radio’s microphone to the ear; trying to top up lubricant by pouring oil into the engine’s filler cap instead of the hole; complaining that a car’s air-con is faulty when the thermostat has been switched off; and an avid rock collector picking up dried camel dung thinking they are stones are some of examples of “Ya Humarism”.
|An unexpected sight in the desert ...|
wreckage of an old Italian biplane.
The vehicles are holding up well, considering the pounding they have been subjected to since being flagged off from Khartoum, Sudan, seemingly an eternity ago. Think about the abrasive quality of sandpaper and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like for finely-machined components to have to cope with wind-blown sand particles of all sizes getting into their every crack and orifice. Other challenges include jammed fuel injectors; dirty fuel or fuel contaminated with water; a broken pulley and alternator; a couple of punctured tyres; and broken engine mounts and roof luggage racks.
The most serious mechanical breakdown to date has been the failure of the automatic gearbox of expedition leader Halim (Echo Lima) Abdul Rahman’s Land Cruiser. It had to be towed 1,200km to a repair facility in Tripoli, Libya. Even then, there were worries about whether replacement parts were available because automatic versions of the vehicle are not sold in Libya. Somehow, the mechanics came through and got it fixed.
Algeria is a beautiful country and the people seem quite friendly. But the government’s security concerns (which, to some PAT members, border on paranoia) has forced the convoy to travel everywhere with ever-alert gendarmes (well-armed paramilitary police) as escorts. Thus our freedom to move around and interact with the locals is restricted.
There is little pleasure in getting up early every day, climbing into our vehicles and driving from one town to the next, without stopping at any of the villages we passed through other than to refuel or pee. We didn’t see much of towns like Ouargla, Ghardaia and Tiaret. Camping is out of the question, and everyone is confined to hotels at night, with policemen toting AK-47s patrolling outside.
However, the PAT participants appreciate the great lengths to which the Algiers government and their security personnel, in particular, went to ensure the safety of everyone.
Since crossing over from Tunisia, the convoy has been greatly aided by Abdul Wahab Arifin (Orang Minyak), a Kelantanese from Tanah Merah, who has been project accountant and the No. 2 man with Petronas Algeria for the past three years. He and his Algerian colleagues have been invaluable in liaising with the local authorities and providing insights into the landmarks and distinctive features of the country he is in.
As the convoy moves north towards the sea, the scenery around us has changed from the oh-so-familiar sand dunes to a gentler, milder Mediterranean landscape. The temperature has dropped progressively from 40°C to 20°C; as night falls, it dips way below that. The air is cold and Arab-style garb is giving way to thicker, warmer clothes as we move into a sunny yet chilly autumn.
|The natives are friendly. And armed.|