Travel outside the reach of the law

So much of Land Rover ownership is to do with being within the law – obeying the law, what to do when you fall foul of it, and so on. Overland travel, however, often occurs in areas outside the law, or beyond it – places where the police cannot, or will not, reach you – you are on your own. It might be worth passing on a few experiences of this sort of thing as a primer for “what can happen”, and what travellers need to be ready to address! The point here is not scaremongering – it’s to suggest that, when away from the “cover” provided by laws, police and military, you need to be self-sufficient enough, and confident enough in your own ability, to make judgement calls upon which a lot could depend.

Camp at Three Castles on the Libya/Egypt Border

            Not all the folk you meet on your travels are law-abiding. Many go out of their way to avoid police altogether. The southern border of Morocco plays host to a number of these – south of Erfoud the border is very sketchy, for example, and for years was regularly crossed by fundamentalist gun-runners. Back in 2000 I was there in Elsa my white Defender, and ran into a large group of these whilst camped at night, around two days’ drive from tarmac. We’d had to halt for the night in a very remote area as my friend and his wife, travelling with us in their Nissan and ignoring advice to hydrate, had contracted bad heatstroke during the day and needed medical treatment. That night, after treating them, I was woken by vehicle noise, and saw two mid-sized 4x4s and two large trucks heading our way across the desert with no lights on. What to do…. Mike, my friend, couldn’t drive, he was still recovering. Same with his wife. Do I put the lights on and advertise our presence, or what? Snap decision. Lights off? They might drive into us. Lights on? They might object to us being there. But it might also provoke a reaction whilst they were still about a mile distant. So, hoping I’d made the right call, I flicked the Defender lights on. Instant consternation. All the vehicles stopped; watching through binoculars I could see guys jumping out, waving Kalashnikovs. Marvellous. Just what we need with two non-walking medical cases. I was waking the others and getting them into the Defender, ready to get moving, when the four mystery vehicles abruptly turned south and headed away from us, into Algeria. To cut a long story short, that was the last we saw of them. The next day locals told us the unknowns had seen our cars, white and blue, and assumed we were police. “Men with bad Islam” we were told by the Moroccan locals, “Bad men with bad Islam – not like our Islam” who ran from what they thought was a police checkpoint. Food for thought! These days that border has many Moroccan army posts and a big ditch to keep this sort of thing to a minimum, but you can still encounter the odd cross-border smuggler.

Desert morning

            A similar thing happened to me in Tanzania – I’d crossed the border from Kenya the day before, and was driving across the plain of volcanic ash at the foot of the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai on the way to the Serengeti. A group of American tourists in a 4×4 had been kidnapped there two days before, so I was being a bit careful. As night fell, in the middle of a vast black dusty treeless plain, I needed to make camp, so drove well away from the defined track and put the roof tent up. Sure enough, there was a lot of strange vehicle activity that night, locals in large trucks, all with lights off. This time I was in a dark blue Defender, covered in dust, so we blended into the background in the lightness, moonless night quite well. Merely by being a good bit away from the track we avoided encountering anyone and remained unobserved – locals in that part of the world are generally very friendly, so maybe we wouldn’t have met trouble, but better safe than sorry.

the Rift Valley

            Both these trips were without guides – intentional as I much prefer relying on my own judgement in remote areas. It’s sometimes as easy to run into difficulty with guides as without. A couple of years ago I drove 2000 miles across the Sahara through Egypt, the Sudan and Libya, and our guides forgot to tell the guards on the Egyptian border from Sudan that we were legitimate travellers (there is an accepted procedure for this) – as a result they opened fire, and one vehicle was hit 14 times. The military border guards were dressed in civilian clothes – only when our mandatory police/military escort turned up late, did they pull uniforms on, rather sheepishly – which led us to conclude that they moonlighted as bandits. Our guide made a bad judgement call, and our escort proved totally incompetent. Most guides, I hasten to point out, are reliable, though things can happen which guides don’t expect.

Out there…..thataway

            In a nutshell, if you venture beyond the reach of law and order, into the wilderness areas of the world, be prepared to encounter folk or situations which need individual solutions created by you alone – you cannot necessarily rely on others!


One thought on “Travel outside the reach of the law

  1. “and our guides forgot to tell the guards on the Egyptian border from Sudan that we were legitimate travellers (there is an accepted procedure for this) – as a result they opened fire, and one vehicle was hit 14 times.”

    That is terrifying! It’s a miracle that no one got severely injured or worse!

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