I’m often asked what the food is like on a deep desert expedition.
What do we eat?
And how do we pack so food stays safe in 36C heat?
Well, first of all, unlike the pampered driving trips I’ve done in the southern part of Africa, these Land Cruisers are not equipped with fridges.
You can’t count on gadgets like that working when you’re so far from any possible resupply, because it would spell disaster if all the food spoiled. And given the unwashed state of my companions, I would not want to resort to cannibalism…
Bland and repetitive was the order of the day. Everything we packed had to be chemically blessed with eternal life, and able to stand extreme heat.
And I can’t pretend I’d be happy to see any of those food items ever again.
I’ll give you a rundown of a typical desert day…
We woke every morning before sunrise, and I had my tent packed and stowed just as the first glow of light was beginning to spread across the sky.
Breakfast was served on the tailgate of one of the Series-80 Land Cruisers. It’s easier to eat it standing up, and much faster because the loading of the vehicles could be done at the same time
Breakfast was based around a delivery system of Wasa crackers, a wonderful Swedish invention that resembles a sort of edible particle board with next to no calories and no nutritional value whatsoever.
These could be topped with packets of apricot jam, tins of liver pate, peanut butter (from the UK, but better than no peanut butter at all…), cubes of packaged “cheese”, or Marmite for those without functioning taste buds.
That same tub of marmite has apparently been to Algeria twice, to the Brandberg in Namibia, to Sudan, and now to Chad. And it will make its triumphant reappearance on the next trip too, where it will lurk on a tailgate, waiting patiently for a British or Australian team member to eat it.
Crackers were assembled and eaten standing up, and washed down with a couple mugs of instant coffee. And then it was time to get back on the trail and make some miles.
Lunch was generally served on the tailgate again, or on a small cutting board set in the middle of the large woven mats that we used for sitting on the sand.
This meal was basically a repeat of breakfast, but without the benefit of coffee. Wasa again, but this time topped with thick slices of cheese and greasy salami that had been flown in with the organizer from Budapest. And sometimes we were asked to eat a small tin of ham, which tasted very much like expired cat food.
You might be forgiven for assuming that our desert diet consisted entirely of fats and carbs, but about every 3rd day we supplemented our lunch with a jar of pickles, to get our weekly quotient of vegetables.
The lunch highlight for me — if I could be so bold as to call it a highlight — was actually the condiments: a tube of red paprika-flavoured paste from Hungary, and a tube of mayonnaise with horseradish. I was often so tired of cheese and salami that I took to eating Wasa and mayo sandwiches.
We also had a special treat on this trip. At the end of the midday meal, we each got a segment of grapefruit. I believe the intention was for the citric acid to cut the grease enough for it to successfully transit one’s arteries. The grapefruit was purchased in the market at Faya, and it lasted for the entire journey.
If we had wood for a small fire, we finished off lunch with a glass of tea, sweetened with powdered dates.
“The bar is open…!”
We made camp each day right before sunset. And when the tents had been pitched and the bedrolls spread out, it was time for a drink.
Each participant was required to bring one litre of spirits, purchased at the duty free shop in Istanbul airport. I brought a bottle of Tanqueray gin, and my wife contributed a litre of Ketel One vodka.
Sometimes we mixed this with tonic water, and sometimes we suffered it with a hideous can of Bitter Soda. This particular delicacy is a Libyan drink that has seeped across the Sahara like a filthy chemical spill. It looks and tastes like automatic transmission fluid. And it is a terrible sin to inflict on quality gin.
I think the Libyans vastly underestimate the weapons potential of this so-called drink. When we burned the empty cans in our campfire, they made a sizzling noise as the remaining liquid trapped in the bottom was vaporized. And when a sufficient quantity of gas had built up, flames shot out the end of the can.
Had we been overrun by hostile Tubu, I would have broken up some Wasa — which also burns with an open flame — to make a slow fuse, and then hurled cans behind us to cover our retreat.
Our evening drink was typically served with a plate of sliced salami, or some peanuts, or crumbled biltong from Namibia, passed from hand to hand around our circle until it was gone.
Despite the questionable mix, the cry of “The bar is open!” brought everyone over to the square of woven mats, and we sat there sipping quietly, scanning the star field for satellites until supper was ready.
Supper was served about an hour after sundowners.
On a good night we had chilli — really just canned kidney beans and tomato sauce, with a trace amount of tinned corned beef, liberally salted and spiced.
But more often than not, this particular expedition consumed freeze-dried camping rations. It was initially planned as a camel supported trek, so we had to travel light, and freeze-dried was the logical choice. Our plans changed at the last moment, however, and we were now vehicle supported. That normally leaves you with more choices. But the freeze-dried was there, and we had to eat it.
We had two different brands of curry, one quite good and the other barely edible.
Salmon and dill, the consistency of which made me suspect that these particular salmon had recently swum up the very same dry wadis we were driving over with the cars.
And worst of all, “mashed potatoes and meat balls”. That one was purple with strange orange flecks. And once it had spent some time in my innards, it used my body as a cocoon, where it gradually metamorphosed itself into terrifying farts that stressed the seams of the tent and turned the pages of my notebook an unhealthy goldenrod hue.
If we had the good fortune to avoid Freeze-Dried Night, we got spaghetti with canned sauce (quite good), or powdered mashed potatoes and “BBQ” (which was just slices of spam grilled on a campfire that took far too long to burn down to coals).
Dessert was a handful of dried apricots, which we would have eaten on the march had we done more trekking.
Oh, and hibiscus tea, or “karkaday” in the local vernacular.
My British friend Alan referred to this as The Red Kettle of Incontinence. If you wanted to wake up multiple times during the night, pull on your boots and pants and stumble around in the dark trying not to piss on a scorpion, then by all means pass your mug and fill ‘er up.
I’m convinced this stuff was a severe diuretic. And after several restless nights where I very nearly wet the bed, when the kettle arrived I held up my hand and firmly refused.
So was the food good?
Fuck no. But it was practical.
They say an army marches on its stomach, and an expedition thrives on its food. But we mostly marched to get away from it.
We griped about the food, of course. We mocked it openly, and we slandered the cook. We fantasized about building elaborate multi-roomed shelters out of the Wasa, and using powdered mashed potatoes to make lewd sculptures of genitals that would harden into permanence beneath the desert sun.
Mocking the food is a tradition on any expedition. But I absolutely agreed with the choices, and with the repetitive cuisine. It was practical, easy to pack, lightweight and dependable. And it was also very quick to prepare. The last thing you want after a long day of driving or hiking is to wait 2 hours for a local cook to build a fire and make something from scratch. At the end of the day, you just want to pitch camp, eat quickly and sleep.
It wasn’t all nitrates and chemical preservatives, however. We actually did have a cook on this trip. Or rather, the drivers did. And unlike most local cooks I’ve encountered, he was also very fast.
During those first days after leaving N’Djamena, and after resupplying in the markets of Faya, we were able to lunch on salads and fresh veggies prepared by Jonathan.
Those lunchtime salads were a highlight for all of us, and they probably kept us from succumbing to scurvy.
But apart from that, it was tinned, preserved and freeze-dried.
It’s not the sort of food you miss when you go home. But it worked. And it got us to the most remote forgotten corners the Sahara has to offer.
What more could we ask?