2004 saw the Petronas Adventure Team take on the daunting challenge of harsh terrain very alien to inhabitants of the lush jungle landscapes of Malaysia – Africa’s Sahara Desert. The 39-day, 100,000 km trek could not have begun hotter, in late August of 2004. 18 vehicles, supplied by adventure sponsor Ford Malaysia, with tires by Korean sponsor Kumho, made the journey.
The adventure began in the nation of Sudan, at the time Africa’s largest country and a part of the ancient Nubian and Egyptian Empires of the Upper Nile. Sudan is now split into North Sudan and South Sudan, making the Democratic Republic of Congo Africa’s largest nation.
The trek wended its way through the history-rich desert trails of Egypt and the former ancient-Roman power center of Libya (birthplace of several Roman emperors and Popes, and at the time firmly under control of Muamar Gaddafi).
From there the team crossed the large nation of Algeria, until recently a French exclave – not so much a colony, it actually had the same political standing as if it were a part of mainland France, much like Corsica (birthplace of Napoleon). From there, it was on to Morocco, where the adventure finished to great relief, tears, and adulation, in the city of Casablanca, of silver screen fame.
The Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert. The only larger “deserts” are the Arctic and the Antarctic. Deserts are defined not by heat or sand, but by barrenness, lack of moisture and precipitation, so they can arise in cold climates as well. It is historically considered harsh terrain for life to take hold – and yet it always does! Deserts are thriving ecosystems.
The total area of the Sahara is over 9.2 million square kilometers. The vast swath of barrenness results from a semi-permanent high-pressure system over the equatorial jungle causes air to spill over and sink to the ground. This prevents evaporating water from rising and cooling, preventing cloud formation and leaving the region mostly rainless and with little protection from the pounding sun. Average temperature in the hot months ranges from 38 to 40 degrees celsius (100-104 Fahrenheit). The ground and sand itself absorbed the sun’s heat without the benefit of cloud cover, and can reach 80 degrees celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). Still, as the summer wore into fall, temperatures could plunge below freezing at night – conditions the Malaysian team didn’t face in their daily lives.
Still the early days of the adventure were rife with excitement. Surrounded by unfamiliar sights, boarding in unusual lodgings, meeting people of vastly different cultures, the PAT revealed in the scenery. Many of the locals they encountered had met few Malaysians and mistook them for Chinese, Japanese, or Korean visitors at first. They were as intrigued to encounter the new culture as the team members.
After nearly a month, however, the novelty wore off, and tensions mounted as car troubles, heat, red tape at borders, and simple proximity and close quarters with the same, mostly-male group caused nerves to fray and fights to break out, as breakdowns slowed progress. Harsh terrain slowed the progress too – some stretches as short as 100 km were so treacherous that they took 8 hours to cross. Lack of cellular service in Libya and Algeira contributed to feelings of loneliness and isolation in a strange land.
The challenges were compounded by the grueling schedule, which often prevented all but the most cursory of sightseeing. Many team members lamented passing by so many historical and natural wonders with barely a glance or a photo-op as the team high-tailed it to make up ground.
The team kept their spirits up by raising the Malaysian Flag – the Jalur Gemilang – and singing Negaraku, the Malaysian national anthem, daily, and with lighthearted rituals like the daily presentation of the Ya Humar Award. “Ya Humar” is Arabic for “You Donkey,” and the award would go to whomever made the funniest mistake that day.
The toughest border crossing was at the Sudan/Egypt crossing, where the vehicles were impounded for what seemed like an eternity as they were processed to be street-legal for Egypt. Days in border hotels wore on team morale, until the cars finally got their Egyptian plates and stickers, and the team was finally able to venture into the wonders of the Nile valley, the Valley of Kings, and the remains of one of the world’s most storied ancient empires.