We had to improvise. We left our friend Aid a message and started out alone. While on our way south and passing through the hamlets and small settlements, we kept scanning every storefront and market shop near the road for some kind of Ersatz-canister. But when we reached Tan Tan in the evening, we still were without the urgently needed devices.
On the morning of our second day on the road, just after we had passed one of the many police checkpoints that were usually located at the village entries, the object of our desire was finally within our grasp. A street vendor, obviously trading in agro-supplies, had a dozen heavy duty plastic canisters piled up next to his shed. We stopped and rolled to a halt in front of his shop. At first he appeared to be upset that our cars masked the view on his displayed goods, however, in expectance of the big business that three cars full of Westerners would surely bring, soon a shy grin appeared on the face of the middle-aged owner. The grin under his chech, which he had tightly wrapped around his head to protect from the morning cold, grew into a broad smile when I mentioned our interest in his complete stock of second hand plastic canisters.
Because they are susceptible to UV degradation, plastic canisters are not the ultimate choice when it comes to transport containers in the Sahara. In our case, however, apart from having been used before, the 20 litre units hadn’t suffered too much sunlight exposure and still seemed durable enough to put them into service again. After a little bargaining, the canisters were ours. Happy about the early business, our seller casually slipped the small bundle of Dirhams in his pocket. Contributing to his delight was probably the fact that we had helped him get rid of some shelf warmers. We didn’t mind at all, because now we could tick off a crucial point on our to-do list.
What at first had appeared as a classical win-win situation soon had to be re-evaluated in terms of mutual benefit. After Andi and I had stuffed four of the bulky cans in the back of our car and on top of the piled supplies, we continued on the road, but were soon annoyed by the gurgling sounds that were caused by the remaining liquid in the canisters. Unfortunately, the labels were gone, so we could only speculate what they had contained.
‘We better stop and rinse them with water’ Andi suggested. Good idea. And so our convoy pulled over beside a group of low sickle dunes and the six of us started to wash out the remaining liquids. Heavy wind and blowing sand complicated this endeavour.
My question to the seller as to the original contents of the canisters had been shrugged off an instant too quickly for my taste. Marc unscrewed one of the caps and conducted an odour test that gave no further clues. Adversity is the school of wisdom I thought, and so I painstakingly avoided contact with the rinsed contents and cleaned my canister at arms length while I carefully paid attention to the wind direction. So did the others. This all went well and half an hour later we were ready to move on. Despite having expended several litres of precious drinking water some diluted fluid still remained in the containers. That got me thinking.
Andi had obviously not taken as much caution during the cleaning job. This much, at least, we concluded from the fact that soon after the interlude one leg of Andi’s pants as well as part of one shoe, which apparently had gathered some spray during the rinsing, started to slowly but steadily disintegrate. Namely the black staining around the developing holes allowed us to identify the substance in question as highly concentrated sulphuric acid.