Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Kelly Quatre-Quatre (4x4) - Pronounced 'Kelly Cat Cat'

Nothing but desert ahead.

I could feel the blood rushing into my face as the car engine strained and then cut out. The entire Valdmanis Team Africa was suddenly stuck in a desert, seated comfortably inside our new Kia Sportage, which had become a virtual solar oven. It was over 100 degrees outside. I turned the key to restart the car, checked the four-wheel-drive was engaged, shifted into first and gunned it. Again the engine strained, but the wheels wouldn't turn and we stalled. I imagined lightly roasted Valdmanii as I looked around at the sand, a tall dune on either side of us, I wondered how we'd survive this latest adventure.

We were doing a day-trip from Dakar to Lac Rose, a lagoon so salty that when the sun catches it right, it appears pink -- hence the name. Apparently, it's 5 times more salty than the sea. On the south side of the lake, artisinal harvesters tend to mountains of the salt dredged from the lake bed, loading it up onto trucks bound for the markets of Dakar and Thies. On the north side, a lonely dirt track leads to a few quiet inns, horse stables and restaurants. We had just finished lunch at one of these restaurants, run by a French chef, and had inquired whether it was possible to circumnavigate the lake.

"If you have four wheel drive, it should be possible," was the response.

I was now regreting our choice to try. We'd followed the track, which quickly disappeared into abroad expanse of sand. We managed to climb a first large dune and slide down its side into a low area, and we were now imprisoned by hills of deep, thick sand all around us. I imagined Kelly and I having to carry Laird and Dylan under the opressive sun to go find help. I imagined the trouble we'd need to go through to find a truck tough enough to drag us out. Would we be stuck here for the night? For days? That's when Kelly Quatre-Quatre arrived like a super hero, occupying the body of my lovely wife.

"Calm down, you'll upset the boys," she said in a relaxed tone. "I'll take care of this, let me drive."

I got out of the car and Kelly Quatre-Quatre (Quatre-Quatre is four-by-four in French, and is pronounced "Cat-Cat") got into the driver's seat. She put the car into reverse and backed up 100 yards along the dune to the top.

"Reverse is the strongest gear," she informed as a wave of relief came over me.
We could now easily roll down the dune to the more solid dirt road and return to Dakar the wat we came, I thought. At that moment, two men from the village appeared and suggested that, instead of retreating down the dune like wimps, we should deflate our tires a bit and continue on the rest of the way.

"It should be possible," they said. "You just need to deflate your tires."

I was dubious, but Kelly Quatre-Quatre was full of confidence. She was certainly ready for a challenge. We allowed some air out of the tires, cranked up the car and waved our goodbyes to the encouraging villagers.
Kelly Quatre-Quatre gunned it down the dune and started plowing through the desert like a pro, the car rim-deep in sand. The steering wheel was cranked all the way to the right, yet we were going straight. The farther we went, the more nervous I felt. We were leaving help, water, a real road in our wake. A large dune loomed ahead. Kelly Quatre-Quatre downshifted and started the climb. At a snail's pace, the car rose up the hill and, impossibly, reached the top. Another descent, another hill. My heart was beating, as Laird and Dylan cooed in the back, clearly feeling the excitement.

"This is awesome," Kelly Quatre-Quatre whispered with excitement.
"Who are you?" I thought to myself.

A kilometer or two through the sand and we spotted some vegetation, and then, in the distance, evidence of a building, which surely meant a road. The engine continued to strain. We climbed the last sand hill and then dipped between some palm trees and cactuses and onto a potholed dirt track, home free.
"There, that's how its done," Kelly Quatre-Quatre said as we high-fived. "Now you drive."

I got into the driver's seat, and my lovely wife hopped in beside me.

Two of the locals letting air out of the tires.

Look how deep these wheels are buried!

And of course, camels...after all, it was the desert.

Laird looking out at the Salt Lake at the restaurant.

Dylan asleep with his beloved new Senegalese plane.

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