Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
More Breakdowns in Libya
We decided to take a flight into the desert while we waited. A men’s magazine had commissioned us to watch for good adventure stories, and we’d just come across one of the best of them, the story of the desert pilots. When oil was first found in Libya and the boom began, there wasn’t an airline in the country; but the oil companies needed them. The drilling rigs were two, four, or six hundred roadless miles from the coast, and the cross-country trip by car was exhausting and dangerous. Planes were needed to take workers to the drilling rigs and to bring them fresh fruit and meat, and mail, and urgently needed parts; so little companies were formed to meet the demand-and the desert pilots took up the challenge.
We hung around Benghazi Airport for a day inter-viewing the men who flew the desert runs. They were all rovers and adventurers; no other kind would take the job. There were jet fighter pilots from the Korean War, jungle pilots from South America, a guy who’d been King Saud’s pilot in Arabia for five years, and another who’d flown for the UN in the Congo and then flown against the UN when he got a better offer from the rebels. They told us matter-of-factly of the dangers of their run: lack of landing fields, dust storms and ghiblis, the way the desert obliterated all landmarks, the fact that in an area as big as the United States east of the Mississippi there were only two strong navigational beams. Most of the planes that day had delivered explosives and equipment to fire fighter Red Adair who was trying to cap six blazing wells; but there was a flight into the desert the next morning, and we were invited along. We didn’t need a ticket-just our signature on a form releasing the desert air service from any responsibility in case we didn’t make it back.
From the air Libya is astounding. Benghazi is no longer a city: It is an oases of brick and cement on the edge of an endless desert. It looked as if a good sandstorm could cover it over-or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Marsa Brega from 8,000 feet is a pathetic speck surviving only at the mercy of the desert.
At Marsa Brega we turned south, leaving the Mediterranean behind, heading straight into nothingness. Our cargo: meat, fresh vegetables, and ten Arab laborers who sat on the floor and got airsick the minute we took off. Our destination: Sugar Seven, a fly spot on the map, a prospecting rig 300 miles from anything. Our pilot, Captain Steve Toich: “Look below and you’ll see our problem. Every mile looks the same as every other mile. There’s a cliff or a bunch of hills, but mostly it’s like this-miles of flat sand. It’s a bitch to tell where you’re at. The radio beacons are so weak you’re sometimes out of touch in half an hour. You try to memorize a few landmarks, then a ghibli comes along and wipes them out, and if you’re up here when a ghibli hits! Then you’ve had it. You’ll never know where you’re at-can’t even tell if you’re upside down. We try to fly a tight pattern until it blows over, but sometimes those mothers last for two days. See-down there-that plane, almost covered by sand-went down in a ghibli last winter and they still haven’t figured how to get it out.
“Sometimes we fly by the smoke, but that only works when we’re near the wells. Libya doesn’t use its natural gas-no pipelines and no local customers-so the oil companies burn it off. Makes a big blaze, 50 feet high, and lots of smoke. There-there’s one now-that’s Zeltan One, the grand old daddy of them all, the baby that put us in business.
“Another problem? The air fields. The only way I can tell them from the rest of the desert is ’cause they got camel droppings all around. These guys on the rigs don’t have time to put in a pro strip; so they just find the nearest piece of flat ground, run a bulldozer over it, line it with oil drums, stick a windsock at one end-and call it an airfield. Most of the times they’ve laid it across the wind or in the middle of a kangaroo rat colony.”
Sugar Seven was a drilling rig, a water pump, a storage shed, and half a dozen Quonset huts in the middle of an immensity of desert. But everything was air-conditioned, and there were recreation rooms, and radios, and movie shows, and a dining room handing out freshly baked Danish and pitchers of iced lemonade and bowls of ice cream. All the men had to do was work like hell and-if they didn’t get lost in the desert-collect a big bundle at the Benghazi bank when the job was done. The wages ran high: the rig at Sugar Seven was on a subcontract to drill a hole for $2,000,000.
Back in Benghazi the welders were just finishing the new undercarriage. It was as solid and substantial as we could ask, and the head welder assured us it would get us around the world. But in the process of building, he’d accidentally done something which was to wreck us a few days later and hang over our heads for the rest of the trip.
Minutes out of Benghazi we were back in the desert, a wasteland still littered with the wreckage of war. In the rainless climate, where nothing rusts or rots completely, we could still see the crushed C-ration cans and garbage piles where armies had camped in preparation for battle 23 years before, and where now there were solitary Bedouin tents. Where battles had been fought there were now only turbaned scavengers picking through the shell casings-and occasionally blowing themselves co bits on an unexploded mine, an estimated five million of which make nomad life in Libya an especially risky business.
More than half the people of Libya are still nomads, and we began to see more of them as we left the desert floor and slowly climbed toward the hills of the Jabal Al Akhdar. Here and there were bits of stubble and tufts of grass, and the scrawny goats and sheep and camels moved about them and chewed them into something edible. The sun beat down without mercy, and there was absolutely no shade, not a bush or a tree anywhere. I felt sorry for the animals who had never known the shade of a tree, or seen a green meadow, or stood in a cool brook.
When we stopped for lunch, I checked over the Land Cruiser and found the headlight fuse had blown. I put in a new one and it blew as soon as we moved. Al and I searched around with the wiring diagrams, but we couldn’t find the trouble. We’d either have to go back to Benghazi or drive without lights all the way to Cairo. We went back to Benghazi, and it was another day wasted, on top of the three spent for welding, on top of the two spent for my illness, on top of the three spent for Mann’s illness, on top of this on top of that. Were we never going to have a day without trouble or delays?
We almost made it the next day. By nightfall we were in Derna, a small town 200 miles from Benghazi and halfway to the Egyptian border, and we hadn’t had a bit of trouble. When we turned on our lights, the fuse on the Land Cruiser blew in a flash, and the red generator warning signal in the Jeep went on. Now it was double trouble, but I’d be damned if we were going back to Benghazi; we’d find a mechanic in Deena.
Deena is known for two things: It grows delicious little bananas, highly prized for their alleged aphrodisiac properties, and it was the site, in 1805, of a famous raid by American forces. When the young United States had refused to submit to the demands of the Barbary pirates, the Pasha of Tripoli had declared war on American shipping. Outraged by this, the American Consul at Tunis, one William Eaton, went to Egypt, where he organized, out of his own purse and without official sanction, an army of 400 men, including 38 Greek mercenaries, assorted Italians, Englishmen and Arabs, 190 camels, and eight American Marines. For six weeks they made an incredible overland march through the Egyptian desert to Deena. There they captured and held the fortress. Made bold by their victory, they were planning to march on Tripoli itself when the Pasha and the American government made peace. They never got farther than Deena, but their daring sortie is forever enshrined in American annals-with a thousand miles of geographical inaccuracy-as part of the Marine Corps hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli …. “
Anyway, that’s what Deena is known for: bananas and the raid. It is not known for having any auto mechanics, nor did we find any. But if the Trans World Record Expedition was ever to move itself from the shores of Tripoli to the halls of Montezuma, we had to do something. Al and I spent half the night with the wiring diagrams until we found the trouble, a smashed connection on the Land Cruiser’s trailer socket and a loose wire on the Jeep’s voltage regulator. We went to sleep late, wondering what disaster the next day would bring.
It brought a beauty, the prize of them all, which hit us 170 miles from Deena on what is probably as deserted a stretch of road as exists anywhere in the world. I was driving the Land Cruiser when I heard a loud thump behind me. I turned around and saw the left wheel of our camper bounding high in the air and bouncing off into the desert, followed immediately by a spray of sparks and the shrill cry of tortured steel as the naked axle dug into the road. The camper scraped on its belly for the length of a football field before I could stop. It was a mess: the floor was splintered, the sides buckled, the struts bent, and the new undercarriage cracked through in three places. Woodrow was almost in tears, and even Al wasn’t smiling as he and Willy snapped another set of” disaster photos.”
The accident was a mystery until I took a look under the trailer: The welder in Benghazi, in the process of fitting the new frame, had had to remove a small bend in the axle that had been put there by the manufacturer to give the wheels the proper camber. After he had straightened the axle in a gigantic heat press, the wheels were thrown out of camber, and the entire weight of the camper and its contents shifted to the spindles, one of which had snapped.
It could only be repaired in a welding shop, and the nearest one was in Tobruk, many hours back the way we’d come. Since it was impossible to pull the camper on one wheel, we’d have to take off the entire axle, put it in one of the cars, and take it back to Tobruk to have a new spindle welded onto it. It was an immense job. Even getting the camper off the road and onto the level desert floor was an immense job, and we sweated over it for an hour. Next we had to jack up the trailer on all four sides to get it high enough off the ground and steady enough so we could remove the axle. It took two hours in the broiling desert to find and carry back enough big rocks to do the job, and we were sun-baked and dirt-covered by the time the camper was propped up. I then spent a tense 30 minutes under the trailer, unbolting the axle, knowing the slightest shift of one rock would bring two tons of trailer crashing down on me; but there was no other way. The sun was down by the time we had the axle off It was too late to take it back to Tobruk, and since the next day was Friday, the Moslem Sabbath, when all shops are closed, we were stuck in the desert for two days.
By nightfall all our food and water were gone, except the box of matzos which Al insisted we had to save for the Pyramids. We’d been traveling light on rations because of the exorbitant prices in Benghazi, planning to stock up in Egypt, where food was reportedly cheaper, and we’d drunk our water cans dry in a couple of hours from our exertions. Only one car passed all day, and they had no water to spare.