Safety aspects of fieldwork
in North Africa
Safety is of prime importance in North African fieldwork
Fieldwork forms part of the typical geological duties, and represents a welcome change to office work to most geologists. Fieldwork in North Africa is especially rewarding because of the excellent exposures, exotic landscapes and the attractive climate, particularly in winter times. Nevertheless, trips to the field in North Africa require very detailed preparations, including full and critical risk assessments, which may be unfamiliar to those used to working in climatically moderate, more populated regions. Because of the remoteness from infrastructure, help may be a long way away in the typical study area in North Africa, so that additional precautions have to be in place.
Typical hazards in the field in North Africa
Landmines represent a serious danger in a number of regions of North Africa. The mines are related to various conflicts, including WW II (E-Libya, W-Egypt), and bilateral tensions e.g. between Morocco-Polisario, Libya-Egypt, Libya-Chad, Egypt-Israel. Many landmine fields are known, mapped and mostly even fenced-in. For other landmines, however, no information exist so that they pose the greatest threat.
A number of landmine hits, ranging from fatal to harmless, have been reported by geologists and other desert travellers. It is the explicit aim of the North Africa GeoNet to compile as much landmine hazard information as possible and post this data freely on these pages in form of tables, text, maps and ArcView GIS files. Please report to us all locations of landmines known to you, so that we can include them in the database. It is of course clear that areas for which the database does not contain landmine information, cannot automatically be regarded as safe. When in doubt, always liaise with a local guide for information and guidance.
Resources for landmine information for North Africa:
-Sahara Overland (by Chris Scott)
-Klaus Daerr Expedition Service (in German)
-Comprehensive overview with maps (in German) on desert-info.ch
-IMSMA Development Center for Security Studies
General landmine resources:
-The latest landmine news on www.landmine.de
2) Breakdown of vehicle in remote areas
Well-maintained, well-equiped four-wheel-drive vehicles are a prerequisite for most kinds of geological fieldwork in North Africa. Crucial vehicle equipment includes a jack, tyre pump, several spare tyres and repair kit, fuel and water containers etc. If going into remote terrain (e.g. more than 30 km from the next road) at least two vehicles are needed in case of breakdown. If possible at all, arrange for radio contact between the cars and a base station in a town.
In case you cannot access radio equipment/licenses, think about a satellite phone. For North Africa the THURAYA system appears to be ideal and cost-effective (information in englisch, german, arabic; this system also works in Libya, but note that the use of satellite telephones is forbidden in Libya). Compare with the Globalstar and Iridium systems that also work well in most of North Africa (Globalstar: tested successfully in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia; no connection in Libya). Handheld phones for the THURAYA, Globalstar and Iridium systems have only double the size of an ordinary mobile phone and are available from less than 1000 US$. SMS and other digital services are partly avaiolable. Alternatives to these handheld systems may be the more expensive and significantly larger Inmarsat system which works worldwide or an Orbcomm GPS which allows to send emails via satellite.
Every vehicle should be equipped with GPS navigation systems. Make sure someone of your team knows how to repair minor defects of the car. Also consider taking an offroad-driving course or study the subject using an illustrated textbook (e.g. Off-roader driving, by Tom Sheppard). If your time is limited and your budget allows, you may want to involve a professional expedition logistics provider, such as 'Expeditors'.
A vehicle stuck in a sand-water mixture in the Sahara. While the first vehicles of a convoy passed the wadi with this water-filled quick sand without problems, their vibrations led to the quick sand substrate to eventually collapse under the weight of this later-coming four-wheel-drive. After several hours, the car was rescued using a winch of another Lancruiser, which (again) proved to be an important piece of standard equipment.
3) Escarpments and heat
Fieldwork includes logging of sections, partly in relatively steep escarpments. Exert extreme caution in steep terrain and always make sure that you have a stable substrate to stand on. When in doubt, terminate work in a dangerous section rather than accepting great risk. Expert medical help is in general not readily available in the typical study area in North Africa. There is also usually no vegetation which may soften the fall.
Prepare yourself thoroughly for the typical desert heat in North Africa. Always wear a hat and make sure you carry enough water and food with you for the duration of your trip plus additional water and food as safety precautions. When feeling uncomfortable during field walks due to heat and/or physical exercise, terminate the field walk immediately and inform your colleagues. Never try to exceed, or even come close to your fitness limits as this may be extremely dangerous under desert conditions.
Arrange for a (two-yearly) first-aid refreshment course for all participants of geological fieldtrips to North Africa prior to going to the field. Also check whether you have to refresh vaccinations. Always carry a first-aid kit with you. During field walks in complicated areas carry two GPS receivers and enough spare batteries in case of failure of one of them. Always carry torches in the field, in case you cannot return to your vehicle before sunset.
4) Animal bites
Scorpion and snake bites are fortunately rather rare. Nevertheless, scorpions and snakes and their traces are routinely spotted in many areas of North Africa, including the remotest parts of the Sahara. Try not to build your camp in wadis because it is here where snakes and scorpions may mostly occur. In the rare event of a snake bite, keep the patient calm and transport him/her immediately to the next hospital where an anti-venom can be administered. If operating in remote terrain far from human infrastructure, consider bringing your own anti-snake venom.
While on fieldwork in North Africa, most local people will be friendly and are usually extremely helpful. You will always benefit from good relations with the locals in your study area. However, at the same time you should also be cautious because, as everywhere in the world, there is a small fraction of people who try to obtain your possessions and/or do you harm.
When choosing a campsite, always try to find a place in a good distance to local settements or beduin camps. Check whether your campsite (and the light at night) can be spotted from nearby roads. In some areas (e.g. southern Libya) cases of car hijacking have been reported. Be careful in the El Oued-Touggourt area in central eastern Algeria where some children have been throwing (in some cases rather big) stones at car windows.
More serious are potential attacks by e.g. fundamentalist groups (e.g. in Algeria, Assiut area in Egypt) or people based in nearby areas with raging civil wars (Sudan, N-Chad). When travelling to those areas, liaise well in advance with the local security authorities who possibly can arrange protection for your team, if your studies are considered important to the development of the region.
The information contained in this page is provided as a service to the North Africa GeoNet community, and does not constitute official advice. We try to provide quality information, but we make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to this web site and its associated sites.