We’d been at Elfoud for three days. Base camp had been a lovely palace turned hotel just outside the city. Each morning we had piled into either a Prado or Land Cruiser to venture out to see the geology that Morocco had to offer. The idea was to gain some insight on how well and how likely any type of Mars spacecraft might fare if we ever sent one there.

From the images I have seen, parts of Morocco look like Mars, steep hills and fine sand all strewn with rocky boulders. There are parts that are even red.

Mostly we were geologists and biologists with crossover tendencies and the odd mission specialist, a philosopher or two and some engineers. Minds of each sort are needed should we ever get to Mars to look for life, present or past. Whether it makes you consider theology or merely finds you curious, whether you hope we do or don’t, trips like this one last week aim to find the protocol that will allow to detect if there is or was life on Mars.

We had looked at test sites for rovers. We had considered and debated engineering possibilities of sample return, angles of bit drilling and the likelihood anyone, China, the US, or Russia would get funds and build anything that could get back samples that could be analyzed for life’s signals. We had taken tallies on who would be willing to go or who wouldn’t, our own way of measuring who would we most likely vote to succeed in the adventurer department. (It’s not likely any human would get back from Mars without considerable damage. That magnetic field around our lovely planet that allows us to marvel at the Northern Lights, protecting us from devastating radiation all the while, would not be available as a Mars bound spaceship hurtled towards its destination.)

Over the past week, we had grown familiar with each other. The teams in each vehicle had been set the day we set out from Marrakesh. The rule was that whoever you left Marrakesh with, you would remain with, a safety structure that forty some odd scientists types could adhere to. Each of us had a driver.

I ended up with Abby, Sherry, David, and Toufiq, five of us crammed into a gray Land Cruiser. David had rudimentary French ability which Toufiq spoke eloquently. Toufiq also spoke Berber (as that was his ancestry) and Arabic. I pretty much used hand signals.

It was our last day and we were warned, it would be a long one. We were headed for a mud mound at the base of an interior small mountain range almost to the Algerian border. It was my luck in our rotating sequence for front seat position with Toufiq, it just so happened to be my draw to ride shotgun the last day.

Toufiq was a good driver. No, he was better than good. Aggressive and competent, we would start out at the back of the pack and in a game that all eleven drivers participated in, we would see how fast and how cleverly Toufiq, our car, made our way to the front.

We headed out of Elfoud, past irrigated fields of olives trees and the low, mud flat roofed, rose colored adobe homes that indicated the end of the city suburbia. Within fifteen minutes, we had left the dusty road and looked out towards the flat Mader basin. Wide open and undulating with low mounds of wind swept sand, the valley looked to harbor a wide open sea at it’s end, as the rising sun posted a mirage there for us all to see.

We barreled across the sand. Within minutes, all eleven vehicles were fanned out across the desert floor, spraying sand and dust behind. Toufiq was in his element. Comments had dwindled to nothing in the car as seldom under 50 mph, Toufiq chose what seemed to be the most unchartered territory. It was easy to see how far apart we were from the less adventuresome. One hand on the wheel and the other resting comfortably on the stick shift, Toufiq wrestled the Land Cruiser.

It was exhilarating and the girls in the car sort of fell in love with Toufiq. How could you not. He seemed so… competent.

As the cars slowed to a stop to view the mud mounds that had sprung up all around the base of the west mountain range some 400 million years ago, Toufiq stopped the car. Yaseen, of the green-blue laughing eyes, so like the National Geographic woman of fame, framed in a brown hued face, pulled up next to us. Jeering and taunting in good natured conversation, they both left us and ventured towards the other drivers, lighting their cigarettes.

“I think we have the best driver,” said Sherry. Abby and I thought so as well.

I watched as the exhilaration of the ride had taken the imagination of many of the others. There was the little French woman, older, with flowing long blond hair and who had taken to wearing the traditional Moroccan dress, a white caftan . She was feisty and could be charming, but was more often demanding. Unkindly, she had been given nicknames. There was a tall Swedish gentlemen, somewhat portly and with not such good teeth, from the Pufendorf Insititute. He was the excitable sort, frequently red faced and academically blustery, but frequently smiling. The science artist, a TED fellow, having captured the attention of at least one of the younger women, usually attending to the most physical aspects of any hike or hill we were observing, had clearly enjoyed the ride. It was in a word exhilarating.

That was the omen for how the day would go. If we had been preoccupied with science thought for most of the field trip, the most of our last day would be about machine and man and sand.

We finally left the last fossil collecting spot at about 3pm. The goal was to get across a different pass that led us very close to the Algerian border at which point the group would be broken up into two groups: those that wanted to go the closest Saharan dunes and those who wanted to go to the market.

The decision would be made once we arrived at the Nomad cemetery some thirty minutes away. Toufiq took the back position as usual. The going was different this time. Rather than flat open valley floor, the landscape of vivid reds and deep yellow mountains revealed dunes riveted with deep rutted paths that crossed through desert vegetation. The first fishtail that slid the land cruiser around and threw sand onto the windshield so thick we couldn’t see, caused everyone in the car to grab the nearest handle. Toufiq maneuvered the four wheel shift, never slowing down. We climbed out from between the dunes, the transmission of our car grinding in mechanical strain. The back tires spewed sand behind us. We came over the rise and through the dust saw hands waving frantically.

Just beyond the curve, two of the Prados, one some distance behind the other, were mired to the top of the tires. Left hand on the wheel, we braced again as Toufiq pulled the land cruiser up a little beyond the closest stranded vehicle. Toufiq orchestrated from outside as Yaseen of the blue green eyes operated our vehicle. Nothing was done slowly. Once moving, the lead and the tow car had to be pulled to more stable ground before stopping. Within twenty minutes both cars were out. Within an hour, those two would get stuck again as well as another. Time after time, the deep ruts bogged down the Prados or the drivers, there was spirited debate on which was at fault, and each time Toufiq and Yaseen, pulled them out. The last two, most all of us sat on a hillside dune to watch. Each time it was our Land Cruiser that did the pulling. We named her Gertie.

The truth of the matter was that it had been exhilarating, but time consuming. Straining to make it out of this mountain range and back to Elfoud was going to be tricky. David, speaking his limited French to Toufiq had found out three things: Toufiq had driven the Moroccan portion of the Paris-Dakar Rally; we didn’t want to venture close to the Algerian border, and we would make it back to Elfoud, Inshallah.
I watched as the sun went down and calculated we had about 30 minutes of light left.

“Comment savez-vous quel chemin prendre?” David asked Toufiq. How do you know which fork of each of the roads to take, as we watched him maneuver slightly away from the vehicles that by this time were some distance behind us.

He says “They almost always go to the same place.” David translated for us.
Toufiq stopped the vehicle. He had done this frequently to let the others catch up. It was dark now. Abby, my Aussie girl, the girl who can talk to you forever about microbial fabrics and what they were like 3. 7 billion years ago, who is so smart and kind, had been wiggling a bit in her seat.

“It’s about to become seriously problematic, mate”, she said to David. “I need to take a pee.”

Not much moon out, Toufiq agrees readily and Abby and I head out to find a bush in the dark. My back to her holding up a barrier, I watch as forty people exit their vehicles and fan out between Abby and me and the cars.

Actually, they fairly jumped out when they saw where Abby and I had were headed. It was the fastest I ever saw these forty people get out and then get in again during the whole week. Black desert night and the little bit of niggling doubt that we knew where we were going, made this pit stop fast.

I knew the minute it happened. I think the whole car did. Toufiq took the road less traveled to the left, something he was want to do, but in the dark, one couldn’t really see if this particular path led to the pass or not. It didn’t.

Nine cars took the right path. We watched as their headlights disappeared over the hill. One Prado followed us. We kept left. The terrain was getting terrible and Toufiq’s hand tightened a bit on the stick shift. I hadn’t seen that reaction before. Looking towards the mountains that we were trying to get to, silhouetted black against the night sky, they seemed impenetrable. The Prado pulled up to us. Even on a good day, the Arabic spoken among the local people sounds slightly aggravated. The conversation between Toufiq and the Prado driver had escalated to seriously irritated tones.

Toufiq slammed the cruiser into gear and spun around. The Prado followed. An hour later, the Prado blinked their lights and Toufiq roared up to where it sat on the hillock. They rolled their windows down in unison and spit their words at each other and we did another turn again. I wondered vaguely whether anyone had a compass. There were IPhones with google maps, but the driver had been checking his own phone for service for the last hour. There were no bars where we were.

It’s not the first time I wondered how man navigated with sextants and the stars.
I had noticed something. While our car was concerned but calm, the other car seemed frantic, more so each time we stopped for the moments drivers argued. We each peered into the other’s vehicle. In the Prado front passenger seat sat the man from Pufendorf. Right behind him sat “The little while ghost of the desert” (one of the kinder monikers given the little blond French woman). It seemed to me they might be contributing to the panic. Having seen them as relationships had developed over the last week, I figured this was a reasonable assumption. Our car had determined a plan of action. If it became obvious that we were not going to be able to find out way out, we would just spend the night in our vehicles until morning. Not the most pleasurable outcome, but doable. I thought about it. All of us were confident of Toufiq. He had proven himself. We had Abby. She is a small, petite woman who has ventured to the Pilbara on her own. We had Sherry who made the next very sane suggestion.

“Tell them you have to pee, Janet. We all need to regroup. We need some time to calm down,” she said.

I made the hand signals for ‘I am desperate for a toilette’.

With the vehicles side by side, the drivers stepped out and lighting cigarettes, walked a bit in front. Sherry followed them. Abby went over to them. David, ever unflappable, jotting notes down for his blog, went over to help with any translations. I got back in the car to watch and thought about where we were and who I was with. What it meant to have confidence in the people around you, despite the mistakes we might make.

About that time, the little ghost of the desert jumped out of her Prado, her yellow hair flowing around her in the headlights and gesturing wildly, she began pointing to the stars. I could tell she wasn’t letting anyone else talk, which was a habit of hers, ever more forcefully pointing towards the sky, until a couple of other hands pointed likewise. I saw Toufiq by the light of his cigarette. “Yeah, we are in agreement, my friend,” I thought to myself.

Over one of the hills, a dim light moving steadily, but erratically towards us becomes obvious and the little white ghost of the desert was the last to point in its direction. Communities this far out into the desert have no electricity. Whoever it was had heard and seen our commotion. A young boy stopped the bent up but functional bike and with a broad smile spoke in Arabic to Toufiq. They talked as if we were out on a holiday, just taking a break from the jostling ride. The man from Pufendorf, having taken another opportunity to relieve himself behind the vehicles and now desperate for rescue and considering that it might just happen, came running up to the group, fearful that no one else would recognize how valuable the boy bike rider was to our continuing existence.

Ahh, so it was he who contributed to the mounting hysteria in the Prado. He and the little white ghost were an unfortunate combination.

It would take almost another hour and half to find our way back. Half way through there was cell coverage. With increasing evidences of civilization, we all relaxed. David translated as Toufiq spoke of the conversations. We had been close to Algeria. Very close. It was not good to let anyone know you were lost, not even the boy on the bike. The desert can be dangerous and sometimes bad things happen because there is opportunity.

If a team ever does go to Mars, despite the inherent danger, it would be a good thing to have this class of people. I hope it see those people from my car again. I will keep them all in my prayers, Muslim, atheist and agnostics. Yes, I hope to see them again, inshallah.