The team reached Cairo on Sept 7, where they stayed in view of the Great Pyramids at the Oberoi Mena House Hotel. The chaotic hive of activity that is Cairo, a place of heavy tourism and tight state security, was a key opportunity for the team to actually take a breather and take in some sights in this bucket-list destination. The team then moved on to Alexandria, rich in history from the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and WWII eras.
The mechanical failure that nearly derailed the mission was the breakdown of the automatic gearbox on the Land Cruiser piloted by expedition leader Halim Rahman. The dry, sandy environment of the Sahara creates the effect similar to every instrument on the vehicle being constantly rubbed by sandpaper. The vehicle had to be towed 1,200 km to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, where repair was uncertain due to the uncommon nature of automatic transmissions. But the repairs were accomplished, and the mission back on.
The Libyan crossing also saw a lack of fuel stall the trip – ironic, in a country so oil-rich that oil is said to literally seep up through the sand. But what looked like a straight trip on the map ended up winding hundreds of kilometers off course due to harsh terrain; fuel consumption was high due to the rough running; and the planned refueling stop ended up being fresh out of diesel. The team scrounged up an emergency fuel delivery from a local supplier, which got them further but still 200 km short of the next fueling stop. Halim ended up collecting the last dregs of diesel from each vehicle to fuel up a small convoy of cars to make a fuel run to Waw el Kabir (still three hours away), while the rest of the team camped and got a much-needed break to do vehicle maintenance, play rugby or football, and enjoy a little R&R. This kind of teamwork and problem-solving exemplifies the spirit of a great 4×4 adventure in the elements.
The team passed through several major battlegrounds of World War II in Libya, as well as remains of the ancient Roman civilization that thrived here, although there little no time for sight-seeing. Impoverished under the Gaddafi regime, signs of poverty and poor social service were everywhere. Locals tended to gawk and stare at the impressive fleet of growling diesel trucks, flying the teal Petronas colors on their wraps and the uniforms of their drivers, lumbering through their usually sleepy towns. Two local looky-loos even got into a car accident while staring, and had to be treated by the PAT expedition doctor, Khairuddin Mohd Ali.
Libya also saw the onset of the only real rainstorm of the trip. Rain is virtually nonexistent in the Sahara, and when it happens, it channels into usually dry riverbeds and makes the desert particularly hard to navigate.
The gateway to the Sahara desert proper – the iconic rolling sand dunes – is a historic war zone, due to WWII battles and subsequent border disputes. Live mine fields still exist in the sand, and a local guide was brought on to navigate the team through the mines safely.
The team found the Algerian people friendly and the scenery beautiful, but the government insisted on the team traveling under guard, for their own security, of heavily-armed paramilitary security, or “gendarmes,” true to the country’s French-colonial history. The armed guard limited the team’s ability to explore, confined them to hotels instead of camping, and added tension due to the constant presence of fighters with machine guns on patrol. Still, the team appreciated the government’s attention to their security – especially if their paranoia was well-founded! Still, the trip through Algeria was mostly uneventful.
Despite questionable sanitation, the crew remained in good health, until, ironically, a ferry detour from northern Algeria to Spain, where nearly the entire crew caught food poisoning, most likely from the orange juice served on the ferry.
From there, it was on to the final leg of the journey, under the shadow of the Atlas Mountains and large canyons of Morocco, the buzzing markets of Marrakech, and finally, the joyous arrival in Casablanca. After 39 days on the road, the Petronas Adventure Team were exhausted but overjoyed that they had achieved their goal, and ready to return to their loved ones and their home land in triumph.