We had separated only a quarter of an hour ago. The others were still zigzagging about a kilometre to our north, barely visible in the billowing heat. Thomas was driving. The terrain was still difficult. Steep but shallow hills popped up behind each other, intersected by erosion furrows and sand filled depressions difficult to observe. Occasional dust devils swirled past us, briefly obscuring the merciless midday sun which shone from a cloudless sky the colour of quicksilver. We had stopped talking a while ago and now where fully immersed in our task. Later, when I wrote down the day’s events I would remember the air full of suspense, like charged by an electrical current.
For several times, when the hills gave way to a more distant view, I used a steel or tin artefact to our far right as a reference point for orientation. I estimated it half a kilometre from us, about two thirds the way to where the other car was searching. As the Russian team was even closer, they probably used it for the same purpose too. The object had to be a sandblasted bucket, ammo box or canister of some sort, as it was too large for the common tuna can we occasionally found.
With a howling engine Thomas steered through a wide gypsum deposit he had recognized a second too late. In the powdery soil we lost momentum rapidly. Cursing he kicked in the differential lock and desperately fought to reach a patch of firm ground. There was a rocky bank fifty meters to our right, unfortunately the slightest turn would inevitably have bogged us down hopelessly. So dead ahead was the only way out. Through the white dust and at the foot of a slope we had just passed, I thought I had briefly seen a dark rock. It would have been a bad idea to halt on the treacherous surface so I tried to memorize the spot to return there once we had reached a safe haven.
Equipment maintenance. T. Fuellengraben and I. Andreiev. Mirrors in “prospection position” for better view
Up to our axles in the fine grained silt we inched forward, the vehicle’s frame vibrating heavily and the air filling with the stench of the clutch. After what seemed like a brief eternity we closed in at the bank and finally the front wheels gripped at solid rock as we abruptly climbed the steep slope which Thomas had aimed at in a sharp angle.
“Well done mate”, I congratulated us after we had gulped down several cups of water. “You won’t like to hear this, but you’ll have to get us back half way, we might have passed one” I said. After a long unbelieving stare, sweat dripping from his nose, Thomas replied: “You … can … walk!” I looked out the window into the billowing air and the prospect of walking the deep sand under the scorching sun seemed little auspicious. “Come on bro” I smiled, “keep our left wheels on the ground, follow that bank towards the small ridge over there, turn left, gather momentum and cross that depression, and then continue along the bank at the far side. Just hug the coast and we will make it.” “You push us out” he stated und kicked in the gear.
After some tricky climbing along the steep bank, tilting our Toyota to frightening angles, we found the rock I had seen. It was an upturned stone, casting a small shadow which I had mistaken for a solid object. We turned to resume our course and again I caught sight of the crumpled tin canister in the distance. “Let’s pass there” I pointed towards the now familiar landmark, which was redundant as Thomas had already steered in its direction.
We both continued to scan sideward and it was only after some time that I looked up for a general view around when I spotted the large can, which by now we had almost reached. It was twenty meters in front of us. With its bent and folded structure it was hard to imagine its original shape. I was still wondering about the former purpose of the device when we slowly passed it just a couple of paces to our right. “Stop” I whispered, and the car rolled to a halt.