Snow on the Sahara

October 30, 2000

My writing projects seem to have piled up like so many logs in a log jam.

The restrictions of my movement have given me the opportunity to write about one of my favorite photographs, one that is connected in my head with images of snow, and the Sahara.

The year was 1972, the month was April, and the place was the Sinai Desert. Our school had let off for a week of spring break. The university had a sponsored trip to tour the Sinai and about 40 of us signed up for the adventure. Granted it was not as exciting as touring the Greek Islands, or sunning on Cyprus, but it was also all I could afford.

April in the Sinai can bring a conglomeration of weather events. Although it might be considered an extension of the Sahara Desert, the Sinai has mountains that reach over 6,000 feet, or 2,000 meters. It can snow there, but on the day in question, we embarked on our trip after several days of intense cold rain.

The basic trip plan was fairly simple, we started out in Jerusalem, drove south through Hebron and entered the northern part of the Sinai near the former Egyptian town of El Arish. We were to cross the northern part of the peninsula, stop at the Suez Canal (war zone permitting) and then travel down the Western edge of the desert. Our itinerary was to include a stop at an ancient turquoise mine, a visit to the Monastery of St. Catherine (mentioned in an earlier entry about the Adventure travel top 25), climbing Mt. Sinai and a stop to snorkel in the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai.

Motorized travel through the desert often follows a dried up river bed, or a Wadi, as it is known in Arabic. Dried up is an important concept here, for when it rains, the river beds become, well, rivers.

The moment captured above happened about an hour or two after our first tour bus became mired in the mud. We had tried to negotiate a very small rise in the river bed when the rear wheels began to sink.

After we all piled out of the bus and surveyed the scene, our predicament did not seem like it had gotten out of hand. Both of the trucks carried special corrugated strips of metal to drive across soft sand or mud and we also had plenty of chain. However, since our wheels were buried, the first course of action was an attempt to pull our bus backwards out of the mud and off of the rocks.

After about an hour, the drivers unchained the busses and decided it was time for a new approach. Fruitless spinning and spinning had only served to dig our wheels deeper and deeper into the mud.

Finally, a bright idea came to one of their minds, a true flash of light, an inspiration worthy of a hall of fame somewhere.

Since bus one was stuck, they would drive bus 2 around it and pull it out from the front.

Remember, the front bus became stuck when it could not navigate the slight rocky rise where the river bed changed from sand and mud to rock. To the left of our bus was even more rock, and it was angled.

Not to fear - Our drivers attempted the impossible, and ended up with the probable. In attempting to drive around bus number one, bus number 2 slid down the slope and became stuck, leaning against the first bus.

You had to be there, or at least, you have to see it to understand just how stuck we really were.

Folks, we were stuck. We were 100 or 200 miles from the nearest anything, our radio's would not work in the middle of the desert, the ground was wet, and by night fall, it was going to get really really cold. And guys, hey drivers... isn't this a RIVER bed?

We students were not impressed.

Up until this point, I had been watching with some degree of amusement, and had kept my distance, since the drivers obviously had it "under control." The photograph that is my favorite captures one of those random flashes of inspiration that got us into our predicament in the first place.

"Wait.. I've got an IDEA!!! - That's what I call the photograph.

That may have been his thought, but in my head, perhaps the cell that got triggered next was the one "engineer" brain cell bestowed upon me by my father. Or perhaps it was just a memory about digging cars out of the snow, but I was the one with the next bit of inspiration. I thought of snow, and I thought of the Egyptians.

I asked our trip leader to get the drivers for me, and to ask them to listen for a minute. I then proceeded to tell them that I came from a place where we had to dig cars out of deep snow from time to time, and that I thought I might be able to help. They listened.

I walked them around to the rear of the second bus, that was leaning on our first bus. Although it's front wheels were on rock, the rear wheels were on dirt. I suggested that we place a jack under the rear of the bus and then dig a big hole under the left wheel of the bus. When it was deep enough, we could lower the jack and drop the wheel into the hole, and the bus should straighten out. I then suggested, that 40 students could pick up enough rocks to build a kind of road that both busses could crawl over.

Hey, I didn't suggest that we build a pyramid, and besides, the situation was looking grim.

It worked. Bus number two fell into the hole we dug under its wheel. With the help of about 10 students pushing, it made it to dry ground in front of bus number 1.

I suggested the jack trick for the first bus, only this time I suggested we fill the holes under the wheels with rocks and all of us could try and push the bus backwards out of the hole.

It worked.

We filled in the holes with more rock, build a small ramp up the creek bed, and finally we were able to board the busses after 3 or 4 hours.

After looking back and remembering this story, I am not sure whether I was all that inspired or simply terrorized.

Personally I think it was the terror.

All that waiting in the middle of nowhere.

I just wanted to get the show on the road.