Stuck fast in the desert sands . . .
It sounds like something from Top Gear . . . build a hybrid Range Rover and drive it to a remote village on the edge of the Sahara. Oh, and the vehicle has six wheels. But it’s Trevor Alder’s dream and nothing’s going to stop him, as Steven Russell discovers
EARLY morning and, seeing as he’s here, Trevor Alder can’t resist driving his outsized Range Rover jalopy onto the sands of the Sahara Desert that lie just behind his hotel. Just a quick jaunt. It is a bit chancy, but he and his dad – a retired market gardener in his mid-70s and fellow traveller on this great adventure – won’t take any risks. The water and oil levels are OK, Dad checks the state of the ground with a stick, and the phone is working, in case of emergency. For a while the sands seem firm and innocent enough – but suddenly become softer and softer. Even with Trevor’s foot to the floor, the vehicle stops, wheels spinning in vain. It won’t go backwards and it won’t move forwards. “It’s at moments like these that you question your sanity,” Trevor muses. “Here we were, two guys from the UK’s home counties, alone in the middle of nowhere with a hand-built, fully-loaded, three-ton vehicle up to its belly...”
Luckily, they’d packed a couple of shovels. So Trevor digs away, the sweat pouring off him, but it appears a losing battle. They’re marooned in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, two desert nomads arrive on camels: a father and his teenage son. Not quite the AA, but as helpful. Despite being dressed immaculately in white, mainly, they are soon on their knees, shovelling out the orange sand with bare hands.
Everyone digs for nearly half an hour and Trevor remembers there’s some metal ladder shelving in the Range Rover, which could go under the wheels for traction.
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M’hammid, the father of the nomads, is keen to do the honours. With the clutch creating a horrible stench, and the V8 engine roaring, the vehicle gradually eases out of its trap.
The nomads happily accept a gift of thanks: cans of fish and evaporated milk bought at Morrisons in England! Trevor’s dad, meanwhile, fills a Tesco carrier bag with pesky Saharan sand. Back home, some of it is put to good use in cactus potting!
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The episode – in the autumn of 2006 – is just one chapter in what Ipswich man Trevor describes as “the oddest few years in my life”. Those years involved a race against the clock to finish the Range Rover conversion, forgetting to tax it (!) before leaving the UK bound for Africa, a scary moment when smoke poured from under the bonnet, Moroccan red tape, and setting up an impromptu camping-gas kitchen in a luxurious but dark hotel whose power had been knocked out by a devastating flash-flood.
The flavour of the expedition – 16 days away, covering 4,500 miles, plus the 18 months or so it took to build the six-wheeled leviathan – is captured in his self-published book The Merzouga Discovery.
Its roots lay in boyhood enthusiasm, the imaginative musings of a young mind and – sadly – adulthood tragedy. A major motivation for the project was the premature death in 1999 of Trevor’s wife Paula, which left a huge void.
He explains that “bringing up four children was not enough . . . I needed a special goal. I wanted to build a unique Range Rover hybrid on totally reclaimed parts that would not only be environmentally friendly but would also allow me to live my childhood dream ambition: to drive to the Merzouga region of Morocco”.
The village, best known as a place where rheumatics went in the hope of being cured by burial in the sand up to their necks, was “sandwiched between the end of remote civilisation and the beginning of a three-thousand-mile stretch of barren Sahara desert”.
Trevor remembers going to the cinema with his family in about 1970 or 1971 and watching a B-movie called Lost in the Desert – a moving yarn about a child and his uncle who had crash-landed in the Kalahari.
“The uncle had died at the scene and the eight-year-old boy had to find his way to civilisation, despite the odds against him. Despite never seeing this film again, it had been on my mind throughout my adult life . . .”
His primary school class studied the Sahara and Trevor became aware of Merzouga, in south-east Morocco. “I just had to get there one day, to find out just what was at this last outpost of civilisation.”
Then there was the means of making the dream come true.
Trevor has been a Range Rover enthusiast since the early 1970s, when his father and uncle bought an ex-demonstrator Tuscan Blue model for the family’s market-gardening business. His dad was soon bemoaning fuel consumption of 13-15 miles per gallon, but the 10-year-old son was “instantly hooked by OMV742K’s seemingly massive size, the sheer internal volume of the thing and the comparatively large amount of glazed area which made the already light-coloured interior even brighter; inside, it was akin to being transported in a huge mobile greenhouse . . .”
For many years he avidly collected Range Rover registration numbers, also noting the date and time seen, and body colour.
A man called Martin, a trader at markets that his dad attended, bought a Range Rover to carry his pet food and accessories. “I would occasionally stand waiting for him, just to hear the V8 exhaust note in the enclosed Chelmsford market under the multi-storey car park. I was well and truly hooked.”
Then, in about 1984, Martin upgraded to a red, six-wheel, former fire engine: a 1978 Carmichael Commando that cost him about �7,500 and was once owned by GEC Marconi at Rugby.
By 1986 Trevor – around this time working as a technical author at Marconi Radar Systems in Chelmsford – had become newsletter editor of the newly-formed Range Rover Register. Later, he was commissioned to write the Range Rover Super Profile book for Haynes Publishing Group.
Then he found and bought YVB153H – the special car used for brochures and the launch film at the dawn of the 1970s. It was the first Range Rover off the production line.
By 2001 he owned several early two-door models. That spring a red, six-wheel, former fire engine was spotted for sale by the A12 Boreham interchange at Chelmsford, not far from his parents’ small farm. It was CVC862T – market trader Martin’s vehicle.
It was obviously showing signs of age, but the chassis was solid. It became Trevor’s, passed its MoT, and was even used on a family trip to north Africa in 2002. But after that it largely sat under the carport at home, gathering dust and growing mould on the damp carpets.
Skip forward to New Year’s Day, 2005, and Trevor’s wondering about a new life for it. He scans onto his computer Land Rover line drawings he’d originally drawn and published in the mid 1980s, and electronically pastes them onto the image of a chassis lengthened by 36 inches.
A dream is hatched: to revamp the Carmichael and point it towards Merzouga. With a ferry booked for October, 2006, the clock is always running...
Trevor decides to use the Carmichael chassis, with a Discovery body grafted onto it.
Over 18 months he makes 65 separate purchases on eBay to assemble the jigsaw. Bodyshell comes from a scrapped 200 Tdi in Rugby bought for �30 – to be used as the central extension section – and from Norfolk comes the carcass of a V8 3.9i Discovery.
Many hours of hard graft for Trevor, his dad, mum and uncle, and a bevy of assorted helpers, finally sees the 19-feet-long hybrid finished. There are panics over the initially-non-running engine, and obstacles with the MoT, but these are overcome.
Trevor’s four young children are despatched to relatives and then – more panic! He can’t find the logbook and drives back to Ipswich from Boreham on a fruitless search. He has to grab old V5 documents that technically should have been destroyed. The Dover ferry leaves at 4am. “It was now after 1.30am and my adrenalin was on factor nine.”
On the way down, he and dad realise there’s a leak in the LPG system, the vehicle having been converted to run on both regular fuel and liquefied petroleum gas. Luckily, they can keep going – reaching the Dover ticket office with minutes to spare.
In France, reality dawns as the shattered adventurers grab some sleep at a service station.
“Driving here, my ego was very low and the penny dropped,” Trevor writes later. “We were in the dark, in a foreign country, in a car that we had cobbled together in a field with secondhand parts, that had never been road-tested properly, so was relieved to have stopped at a humble trucker’s stop. We must have been mad!”
Onward... and it’s while heading towards Spain that thick smoke starts pouring from the engine bay. Fortunately, it’s not a fire but an oil cooler pipe chaffing badly on a hot exhaust manifold.
They have to be retrieved from the motorway by low-loader and are taken to a workshop where ace French mechanic Jean-Claude makes them a perfectly-matching hydraulic pipe.
An early start sees them cross Spain in a day – and then the entry into Morocco through the port of Tangier is a madcap introduction to Africa for dad, who has never been out of Europe.
There are numerous forms to complete, and a multitude of locals to deal with – all offering to guide visitors through the bureaucracy – before joining the slow and chaotic queues. Behind big iron gates lies the noisy and colourful city. It takes the Carmichael/Discovery nearly three hours to complete the formalities.
Then it’s over the Haut Atlas mountain range.
Along the valley to the spectacular Todra Gorge there has been flash-flooding, which has closed the road – in some places sweeping away parts of buildings, roads and bridges, and drowning animals.
Trevor and his dad stay at a hotel – �6 for a twin room! – that’s been without power for 36 hours and therefore can offer no hot food.
Dad has a great idea and they set up their four-ring camping-gas stove in the main lounge of this luxurious building.
“Within twenty minutes the aroma of UK food was wafting out into the dark street, and we were feeding several assembled Moroccans with beans, cheese on toast, Morrisons vegetable soup, sausages, our free-range Essex farm eggs, followed by tinned pineapple and custard – and how they loved it!” Trevor writes in his chronicle of the adventure.
Later, at Erfoud, they find the road going south-east to Merzouga, about 50km away. A guidebook compares taking this isolated route to driving a lunar buggy on the moon! And a Moroccan tells them “some German tourists got lost last year and died in the heat when their water ran dry!”
The bumpy and make-do concrete surface slowly deteriorates and then disappears altogether, turning into a “rough piste” that also peters out.
One guidebook advises travellers to “‘stay within sight of the telephone poles that thread their way over the desert for forty kilometres and you won’t go far wrong...’ Trouble was, I couldn’t even see them!” says Trevor.
There are 10 or 15 tracks left by 4x4s and the English duo could take any of the “routes” all running vaguely south-east; “and as my dad said, as is usual in these circumstances, ‘Just follow your nose!’”
They strike out and find the surface is quite hard. The vehicle is soon “quite literally away from any form of civilisation . . . a complete silent stillness”. After a while they join a newish “proper” road running down from a different direction that was laid after the guidebooks were published.
Before long – after more than 2,250 miles by road, sea and rough desert track – they arrive. “We were now at one of the most southern settlements before the true, empty, Sahara begins, which in itself has a bigger footprint than the whole of Australia.”
There’s a slight feeling of anticlimax, with Merzouga smaller than expected and a lot more tatty.
The English visitors later learn there was one heck of a deluge five months earlier – with severe lightning and hailstones the size of golf balls – in this remote desert region that hardly ever sees a drop. “The weather men had worked out that over 20 gallons of water had fallen for each square yard of land.”
Water had moved across the sands like a tide, destroying a lot of the original village.
“Two-hundred and fifty mud-built dwellings had simply been swept away or collapsed in the torrents, along with six local tourist hotels, and an incredible twelve-hundred local people were made homeless in that disastrous single night,” reports Trevor.
Six locals drowned and hundreds of families spent months living in government-supplied tents.
After Merzouga – and their stuck-in-the-sand experience – father and son leave to explore the desert town of Rissani and then drive on to Tangier.
The return leg bypasses Spain by taking the ferry to S�te in France. It saves on fuel and motorway tolls.
“Overall, the trip proved to be tremendous fun and a credit to all the second-hand parts we used... Total trip cost? About �2,500 in fuel, tolls, ferries, hotels and food.”
Back home, the Carmichael proves a sturdy workhorse, covering many more thousands of miles and transporting everything from university-bound teenagers and livestock for the family smallholding. It also passes its MoT at its first attempt in November, 2007!
“I get asked if I would do it all again,” says Trevor. “Short answer ‘No’; with a void in my life after Paula had tragically died, and so young, the whole project, then the trip, was just what I needed at the time to divert my depressive thoughts.”
• The Merzouga Discovery – A unique Land Rover adventure is �16.99. Web link: www.merzougadiscovery.com
Trevor Alder has been collecting car magazines since 1975
An uncle took him to a steam railway open day at Wakes Colne, near Colchester
Trevor bought ten 1972 Autocar magazines for 50p
He’s since been hooked
From the late 1980s he sold road-tests, then complete magazines, at autojumbles
In 1992 he formed Transport Source Books, which pulled together vehicle test reports from a variety of magazines and presented them in booklets on single marques
His wife’s death made it difficult to continue this activity
Trevor now concentrates on selling through his Oldcarmags enterprise
It deals in old motoring magazines, car brochures, road tests, posters and other automobile-related items from the 1940s to the present day