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Sweating for a Sand Cat

Sweating for a Sand Cat

After my visit to Botswana, Namibia and South-Africa my worldcatlist had reached the impressive number of four! So there is still enough room for improvement! A cat on which I’ve had my eye on for quite some time is the Sand Cat. This animal is about the size of a house cat with a preference for desert like areas. For some years the most reliable place to see it is the Western Sahara near the town of Dakhla. We went there in January to try and see the cat.

Driving around at night while shining with a spotlight into the desert offers the best chances of seeing it. You try to pick up the eyeshine of the cat. Sighting by day are also possible, but that is much more difficult as the cat usually rests during the day and it is very hard to find them because they are well camouflaged. We have a week to find it. On the third day early in the morning we finally have our first look at the cat: yes! Sadly we have not pictures of that encounter so, determined, we keep trying.

We rented a 4×4 pick-up truck to search for the cat off road. Off road means you are on your own and it could be problematic when something happens to your car. There is also no cell phone reception so the only option is to walk back. And if that is not enough: in the Western Sahara there are still supposed to be some landmines around. There shouldn’t be that many, if indeed any, around anymore because the local inhabitants and the dromedaries also walk around everywhere, but it still gives an uncomfortable feeling. However the area we explore is crisscrossed by 4×4 tracks so we determine it should be pretty safe.

Our efforts are not in vain though, because we do find a Sand Cat at daylight! We pretty much owe this sighting to a team of French mammalwatchers who went before us and found out that some Sand Cats like to use old raven nests to sleep in. Back when I first wrote this I couldn’t go into specifics on how we found it because they had not yet published this interesting find, but that’s all right now. Our sighting is even mentioned in the article! We are very grateful that they were so kind to share this information with us beforehand. We are very happy that we were so lucky to see the animal during the day and we got some great photos out of it.

The Sand Cat playing peek-a-boo in the nest

It also 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 we could in front of the tree in the sand. The problem is however, that where the desert almost everywhere consists out of hard gravel, on this place it’s loose sand. No problem right? We’ve got a 4×4! On the first attempt to drive away, the tires slip. We stay calm, 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 some more around the tires and try again. We have no luck and the car digs itself in even more. The sand is now almost touching the bottom of the car. Now we are starting to sweat a bit.

We’re about 30 kilometres from the road. It is well possible to walk that distance and because it will be almost dark we have all night for that, but it’s still not an appealing prospect. We’d really have to rely on our phones GPS too, because the area looks very much the same everywhere. It’s easy to get lost. Following car tracks is also not so easy because there are many crisscrossing everywhere. My phone still works fine though and we would probably have made it, but it’s still something we are obviously 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 I quickly change gears – but don’t speed up too much or the tires will slip again- yet definitely don’t slow either! When the car has picked up some speed I put my foot down, I take the car right over the grass clumps. At a certain point I’m quite sure the car took to the air with all 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 the Sand Cat have become even more special to us. Still: worth it? I think so:

Sand Cat

What could (and should!) we have done differently? It’s possible to take sand ladders with you to put under the tires. The very least one can do is taking a shovel in the car. It’s also possible to let some air out of the tires so they get more grip in the loose sand. I saw this trick in Africa, but now we relied a bit too much on the all-terrain tires of our pick-up truck… Never underestimate a piece of sand! Just try to avoid stopping 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! Our experience has given us some valuable insights for next time.

I am very happy with Sand Cat, but it took some sweating!

Read about our nocturnal searchings for animals.

Look here for pictures of the attractive birds of the Sahara.

Look here for some pictures of the Western Saharan landscapes.

Look here for a trip report!


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