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Sweating for a Sand Cat

Sweating for a Sand Cat

My worldcatlist has after my visit of Botswana, Namibia and South-Africa reached the impressive number of four! So there is still enough room for improvement! A cat on which I’ve had my eye  for quite some time, is the Sand Cat. This is an animal about the size of a house cat with a preference for desert like areas. For some years the most reliable place of seeing it has been the Western Sahara near the town of Dakhla. Together with a fellow Dutchman who also has a special interest in cats, I went over there in early January.

The best chances of seeing it, you have when driving around at night while shining with a spotlight into the desert. Then at some point you hope to get some eyeshine and that could be the cat. Daysightings are of course also possible, but are much rarer as it is very hard to spot because of it’s protective coloration. We have a week to find it and statistically speaking that should be enough. On the third day early in the morning we finally have the cat: yes! Sadly we don’t have photos, so that is something we are still determined to get. So we keep trying.

There are also some areas where we wanted to search off road for the cat and for this purpose we rented a 4×4 pick-up truck. The area off road is really the middle of nowhere so when something happens to the car, you’ve got a real problem. There is also no cell phone reach so the only option would be to walk back. And if that is not enough, in the Western Sahara also some landmines are lying around. They are probably absent in the far majority of the area, because the local inhabitants and the dromedaries also walk around everywhere, but it’s still an uncomfortable feeling. The area in which we are driving has however  4×4 tracks crisscrossing everywhere so we dare to drive there.

Our efforts are not in vain though, because we find a Sand Cat in daylight! Of course we are very happy that we are so lucky to see the animal during the day and we get great photos out of it. Mission totally accomplished!

It turns out to be the start of one of the more exciting moments of my life. In order to get good pictures of the cat, we’ve positioned the car as well as possible. The problem is however,  where the desert almost everywhere consists of hard gravel, on this place there is loose sand. No problem right? We’ve got a 4×4! At the first attempt to drive away, the tires slip. Stay calm, we dig ourselves out somewhat and try again. This time the car indeed moves, just to get stuck again a couple of meters from the original place. Oops, now it gets a bit more exciting. A sleeping mat is sacrificed to put under the tires, we dig somewhat around the tires and try again. We have no luck, the car digs itself in even more. The sand is now almost touching the bottom of the car. Now we start to sweat a bit.

We’re about 30 kilometres from the road. It is well possible to walk that distance and because it almost gets dark we have all night for that, but it’s still not an appealing outlook. You have to rely on your phones GPS, because the area looks very much the same everywhere and the road can easily be lost. Following car tracks is also not so easy because they are crisscrossing everywhere. My phone still works fine though and we would probably have make it, but it’s still something we are not looking forward too. At the very least we have to walk for about six hours, then hitchhiking along the road, then arranging a new car in Dakhla to get ours out. That will take up a couple of days of our vacation!

We try one more time. We again dig a lot around the tires. The pieces of sleeping mat are put in their place again. We also put a rock and some large tussocks of grass under the front tires and we try it again. I take the wheel now. Veeeery slowly I release the clutch. The car moves forward! Carefully I speed up. Now quickly change gears, not speed up too much or the tires will slip again, but also certainly not slow down! When the car has some speed I put my foot down, and speed the car right across the grass clumps. At one point I believe the car went into the air with al it’s wheels, but I don’t care! Soon I’m on hard ground again and the car can be stopped. What a relief! We both are very happy we got out. The pictures of our first Sand Cat will forever be special…

What could (and should!) we have done differently? You can take sand ladders with you. When you’re stuck you put them under the tires and that’s how you get out. The very least you can do is taking a shovel with you, we didn’t have one of those either… It’s also possible to let some air out of the tires. A trick I saw in Africa, but now we trusted a bit too much on the all-terrain tires of our pick-up truck… Don’t underestimate a seemingly hard piece of sand! Just don’t stop your car there. We had done it a couple of times before and then it went okay, but it turned out it’s also possible for it to go wrong. Perhaps it’s a good idea to avoid driving into the desert with one car altogether… Of course you can also take a satellite phone with you, but those things are expensive! At least our experience has been a good lesson for next time.

Our Toyota pick-up looked tough, but also had it’s limits!

The Sand Cat takes up a nice spot on the list, but it took some sweating!


For pictures of our nocturnal searches click here!

For pictures of the Saharan landcape click here!

For pictures from the area that don’t have anything to do with nature click here!

For a tripreport click here.


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