Aral Sea Wasteland

“You better run you adorable little child. I’m going to murder you.”

Roberta Ettel

The Marabby has a steel armored undercarriage, iron knickers if you will. Thus, when I left her high centered, wheels spinning in the air, in what used to be the Aral sea, I felt pragmatic and justified in purchasing the sump guard.

The decision to visit the ship graveyard wasn’t my own. Although driving to the worst environmental disaster in watershed history at the center of a desert wasteland sounds like jolly good fun, I had somehow forgotten to put it on my list.

In the end though we managed to not see the remnants of the polluted Aral or the ships, and got to spend 48 hours in the desert wasteland instead.

“It is an hour drive to the graveyard from Aralsk. So a couple hours there and back.” a convoy member told us.

Roberta groaned quietly.

She has learned that “a couple hours” is a useless time measurement. She has also learned that the more men you have estimating “a couple hours” the longer it takes. With 14 men this is an estimate most heinous.

In the end, it would take two days to almost reach the ships and come back. On team Gobi or Go Home we don’t blame our convoy friends for being slow, but the pace was atrocious. Like herding cats with ADHD.

We entered the village that would lead to the ship remnants drawing the usual bewildered stares of the locals. Children came and crouched to watch as some of the convoy members asked about “supermarkets” and “shops”.

To my trained American eye, none of the wooden shacks looked likely to hold a Walmart in them. There may have been one just past the camel stables but I was more interested in finding which road lead to the rusted hulks of ships.

Roberta and I sat in the Panda watching and waiting as we often do in the convoy. We were parked across the dirt road from the Thunder Yaks and their Renault van when the back door opened and the kind-hearted Thunder Yaks brought out giant buckets of toys.

“Oh, this is no good.” Roberta said and we both rolled up the windows and locked the door.

“This is going to end in tears.” I agreed.

Why this seemed a propitious time to drop a Christmas hand grenade into this sleepy town is unknown to me.

The result was chaotic unadulterated greed.

The largest horde since Ghengis Khan descended on the convoy, pillaging the Yaks of their toys. Hans, caught up in the excitement waved us out of the car. I double checked the doors were locked as we meandered to the outskirts of fray.

There Roberta had a chat with some of the shyer young teenage girls. They were sweet and fell in love with Roberta immediately.

“Hey! Get out of there!” shouted one of our compatriots.

Perhaps the distinction between toys and personal sunglasses wasn’t clear. Reasons aside, a small boy was running away with one of our friends shades, plucked from their dashboard. The scramble became our own as the Brits tried battening down the hatches.

Many souvenirs went missing in the end, much to the Thunder Yaks consternation. A bit disillusioned at the maelstrom they had wrought, it was decided we would attempt to drive out onto the sandy flats towards the original destination.

Oddly, the Marabby was already well ahead of everyone, chugging her way out to the desert away from the children.

Leading the pack meant we played superman with our car first, perched high centered on a sandy lump. Our colleagues stopped a hundred meters or so behind and ran up to give us help. A lot of this help involved offering well-meaning advice.

Most of the convoy ran back to their cars, presumably to get tow ropes. This took a good while and noticing the sun was setting I walked back to my rescuers. Two of the three remaining vehicles were also stuck.

To the rescue came the Great Danes (Not their team name at all, but they are from Denmark and are pretty great). One by one the cars were pulled out of their quandary, leaving the Marabby the last one spinning her wheels in the air. Someone had let a fair bit of the air out of the tires to improve grip on the sand. If the wheels had been touching the sand this might have helped.

Breaking the Marabby free ultimately required the Thunder Yak van, a half dozen men pushing, Marabby reversing, and some camel bones under the wheels followed by some sand rails.

Such is the unbounded optimism of ralliers we would have made another bold attempt to get stuck but for a fact more grim than the Reaper himself.

The children had caught up.

I would like to relate it to being attacked by Indians in the old west, our caravan being overcome by pillaging raiders. I would like to make it a funny story but getting the cars unstuck and out of the desert with 20 wild, adorable, unpredictable kids jumping on them, pulling on tow ropes in between cars, and diving at the wheels is one of the more awful experiences of my life.

We managed to get the Marabby out and the children off the back and drove into town leaving one of the Great Danes in the desert to make sure all the little ones were escorted home in the dark.

The feeling of unease amongst the crew was palpable and we made camp far from the village that night.