Plane Crash Memorialized In The Deep Sahara

Google Earth

In a lonely corner the Sahara Desert, Google Earth shows what looks like a tattoo on the sun-parched sands: a dark graphic blot amid the vast remoteness of Niger’s Tenere region. The negative space in the center of the dot forms the shape of a DC-10 jet plane. Four arrows outside the circle point in each direction, like a compass.

The dark mass large enough to register on a satellite is actually an arrangement of boulders improbably hauled to the desolate area and hand-placed to create the precise image of a DC-10 – a memorial for the 170 victims of the UTA 772 plane crash on Sept. 19, 1989. A terrorist’s bomb downed the aircraft in Niger en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Paris, leaving no survivors.

Fifteen years later, victims’ relatives from the group Les Familles de l’Attentat du DC-10 d’UTA used some of their $170 million settlement to fund the memorial. (Last year, another commemorative site opened at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.) This photo gallery offers an up-close look at the arduous labor of love, illustrating such daunting tasks as excavating one of the wings, later incorporated into the design. Parts of the wreckage remained in the sand when the work began (a testament to the remoteness of the crash site), and the gallery includes stirring images of loose, twisted aircraft seats and other debris. Other striking photos show how the group spent two months moving stones by hand to outline a circle 200 feet in diameter and then fill it in with rocks, leaving an empty space in the shape of the aircraft with remarkable accuracy. Broken airplane windows ring the circle, one for each of the 155 passengers and 15 crew members who perished.

Considering that Lonely Planet describes the Tenere as a classic “endless, empty desert,” the photo gallery will be the closest look most of us ever get of this amazing memorial.

Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

The Marathon des Sables begins today

One of the longest running and most challenge endurance races on the planet gets underway today when the 24th annual Marathon des Sables, or Marathon of the Sands, begins in Morocco. Over the course of the next week, competitors from around the globe will challenge themselves, and each other, in a race through one of the harshest environments on the planet.

This year’s race is approximately 243 kilometers (151 miles) in length, with the competitors running the equivalent of a marathon each day for six days. As if that weren’t challenging enough, they’ll be doing so in the heart of the Sahara Desert, where temperatures routinely hit 120ºF and blowing sand can make a challenging run turn extremely brutal. The combination of long distances, heat, and sand is unforgiving on the racers’ feet as well.

To add to the challenge, the racers are required to carry all of their gear (minus tent) with them at all times, including food and water. They’ll receive resupply on the water when they hit checkpoints along the way, but otherwise they should be completely self sufficient when they head out on the course each morning.

This year’s field is the largest ever, with 1031 runners from 43 different countries taking part in the race. Most of those will be just happy to finish, but the elite runners amongst them will finish the entire course, spread out over the six days, in a combined time of roughly 20-25 hours. Pretty impressive considering the challenges the desert provides.

Al-Qaeda suspected of kidnapping aid workers in Mauritania

The Spanish government fears that three Spanish aid workers kidnapped this week in Mauritania were taken by Al-Qaeda’s North African group.

The three were taken by masked gunmen from their vehicle as it was driving in a caravan to deliver aid for the group Barcelona-Acciò Solidaria en Mauritania. They were riding in the last vehicle and were apparently stopped when the gunmen fired some shots. There is no information about whether anyone was injured. The caravan was driving on a road between the capital Nouakchott to the city of Nouadhibou, shown here.

While no group has claimed responsibility, the Spanish government suspects Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which recently kidnapped a French aid worker in Mali. In Mauritania they claimed responsibility for killing an American teacher in June. The spate of attacks and kidnappings are making travel in several Saharan nations increasingly dangerous.

Racing on foot through the Sahara

Last Sunday, an incredible endurance event got underway in Cairo Egypt, when the 2009 Sahara Race began. The 155 mile event pits 130 runners from more than 30 countries against one another in a six-stage race through the heart of the Western Desert, a part of the Sahara that covers more than 1.7 million square miles along Egypt’s borders with Libya and the Sudan.

Over the past few days, the runners have covered a variety of challenging stages ranging in length from 21 to 28 miles. In a sense, they are running a marathon each day, through the sand and heat of one of the hottest and driest environments on the planet. Along the way they passed through three or four mandatory checkpoints along the way, collecting water as they go. Upon completing the day’s stage, they camp in the desert for the night, resting up, and preparing for another run the following morning.

Today’s stage is the longest and most grueling however, with a 54 mile course dubbed the Black Desert March. The runners got underway at 4 AM this morning, and many will continue well into the night before they reach their next camp. If they complete the stage, they’ll finish up on Saturday, with a short run to the finish line at the Great Pyramids in Giza, capping the week’s events.

The Sahara Race is part of the 4 Deserts series of Ultramarathons, each of which take place on an annual basis. The other three events are held in the Atacama Desert of Chile, the Gobi in China, with the final race taking place in Antarctica, the largest desert on the planet. Each of the races offers its own unique challenges, pushing some of the world’s best endurance athletes to their limits in races against themselves and the environments around them.