West Sahara Meteorite Hunt 2014

Six months ago I received an email from my friend Tomasz Jakubowski, a Polish meteorite researcher and managing editor of the Meteorites journal, which specialises in research publications. His message was short: “I’ve begun considering the trip. Would you like to come along?” We had been talking for a long time about going on a trip to hunt meteorites. After the initial rush of enthusiasm, I began racking my brain about how to broach the subject at home. Whether due to my lucky stars or not, my wife would give me permission to embark on the journey.

Tomek and I would be accompanied by Jan Woreczko, who on previous expeditions with Tomek had found hundreds of meteorites. Both were familiar with many deserts and types of conditions. After considering our options, we decided to go to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The reason was obvious: nearly all meteorites found in the Sahara pass through Morocco, whether found by the Bedouin in the restless northern parts of Mali, in Mauretania or in the Algerian borderlands. Apart from hunting for meteorites, we might also meet local meteorite dealers.

None of us had any previous experience of the Western Sahara. When I asked about it, Tomek just retorted “It’s just a desert, they’re all alike.” However, being a doctor of geology, he explained that, judging by satellite images, the area seemed promising. There would be several flat rocky plains suitable for hunting that floods had not touched for millennia. There would be no sand or dunes, which for a meteorite hunter was a good thing, because meteorites get buried in sand and sand makes driving extremely difficult.

So, on Thursday, 6 March 2014, I hoisted my backpack and headed for Helsinki Airport from where I would fly to Warsaw to meet the Poles. From Warsaw we would fly to Agadir, and from there take a jeep straight to the Western Sahara. In the weeks preceding the trip, we had made a thorough inventory of our equipment. Woreczko and Tomek had drawn up a detailed day-by-day itinerary, and Jan had assembled satellite images. He combined them with the GPS data of previously discovered meteorites, as well as the locations of minefields laid out during the military conflict between Morocco and Mauretania in the early 1980s. After travelling for 27 hours without interruption, we arrived in the village of Tarfaya about a hundred kilometres north of El-Aaiún, the unofficial capital of the Western Sahara. We found lodgings on the outskirts of the village and, exhausted, hit the sack. Tomorrow we would be in the desert.

We woke up early in the morning and drank Bedouin tea, which became a habit we indulged in whenever we could. The tea is strong, with big lumps of sugar and herbs. One of the Bedouin we met said it is the only way to keep alert in the heat when you are travelling across a monotonous desert. In the morning, we asked locals about meteorites. Because these communities are small and everyone knows everyone else, asking often gets you what you need. An old man was summoned who told us that his relatives in Tissint had found meteorites, but we were already familiar with these famous Martian meteorites. In his broken English, the old man wished us well on our journey. In actual fact, he said: Don’t die.

We began driving towards Bou Craa, the area where we would begin our hunt. When you search for meteorites, you drive along at about 20 km per hour and try to spot from the car. At 20 km per hour you can still scan the terrain in detail, and it enables you to cover a maximum area in the course of one hour. The windows should be rolled down and you should not wear sunglasses. Visual observation is so sensitive that you can’t allow any obstacles between your eye and the terrain. Most meteorites are matte black. After prolonged exposure in the desert, they acquire a patina and start blending into the ground. Flintstones that have a slightly bluish hue can easily be mistaken for totally black meteorites if you use sunglasses we simple called them fake’s.

Driving in the desert, you must try to keep the sun at your back at all times. This turns daily hunts into very big curves. In the morning you drive south-west and west, at midday you turn towards the north and in the evening you drive east, this simple rule is sometimes forgotten by hunters. Keeping the sun at your back ensures that the shadows in front of the car are as short as possible. From a distance, a black shadow easily looks like a meteorite. The optimal terrain for meteorite hunting is of course a light-coloured, finely grained, flat desert. Unfortunately not very many of these exist. Jan and Tomek told me that several such deserts can be found in Arabian Peninsula, where countless meteorites have been discovered since 1954.

From the above description of the search method, you can tell that you need a measure of madness to hunt for meteorites. As the minutes turn into hours and days, you start wondering about the point of the entire venture. During the first days of the hunt we scanned the desert and found hundreds of camel turds and blackened tin cans that looked strikingly like meteorites from a distance. Gradually, we learned to distinguish from the mere shape whether the object was camel poo, a partially buried tin can or a fragment of a grenade or bomb from the war. We tracked our progress with two GPS devices, and had two satellite phones as communication back-ups.

We inspected many sites of previous meteorite discovery on our route, but without any luck. The argument for inspecting such sites is the assumption that the meteorite may have disintegrated high up in the atmosphere, as is often the case, and many fragments may have landed in the same area. The common wisdom is that you should look for meteorites in places of previous discovery. However, when inspecting sites in the desert where meteorites have been found, you should bear in mind that not everyone reports the true location of their find, giving instead coordinates that may be a hundred kilometres off, so that they can return later to search for more fragments.

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