“My throat is so dry I can barely swallow. With every shallow, labored breath the intense cold burns my lungs. My head aches so badly it feels as though it’s being squeezed in a vice, threatening to pop my eyes from their very sockets… It was the last climb up Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina that actually put me on this path in West Africa. While I was freezing, I decided my next adventure had to be warm, giving me a much-needed break from high altitude trekking expeditions,” says inventor and adventure trekker, Ron Laikind.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself embarking on a month long trek deep into the Sahara desert to the mining town of Taoudenni, with one guide, one translator, three camels, and very sparse provisions of food and water. Until 1828, no Westerner had succeeded in making this same trip and living to tell the tale of it - the few who attempted either succumbed to the harsh Sahara, or were felled by the torturous swords of the Taureg warriors. Despite countless warnings from concerned locals, frequent Sahara-travelers, and even the U.S. Embassy of Mali, this journey of a lifetime began.
Out of place, yet totally in his element, Ron and his caravan left all creature comforts behind, and set off into the brutal sand and sun. Battling the uneven soft sand floor, they began leading the small caravan by foot into the vast expanse ahead. Though walking in this initially unfamiliar environment came with it’s challenges, so did riding atop a 7 foot tall, staggering camel. For no reason was stopping permitted unless it was planned. Since the water wells were spread far and sparse throughout the desert, the caravan could not afford to lose any time, for they would simultaneously be losing precious, though repsulive, water.
Every two to four days, they would come to a well. Sometimes upon arrival, crowds of other caravans and desert nomads would be waiting for their turn to draw the precious water from deep below the sand. Water collection began with a large bucket, a wooden and hemp pulley system, and a camel. The bucket would be tethered to the pulley, and the hemp string would be tied to a camel to be led a few hundred feet away until the bucket surfaced. Usually covered in large, black crickets as the bucket emerges, it’s dumped into 55-gallon drums cut in half, for animals and humans alike to enjoy. Despite it’s foul smell and taste, deep green hue, and inevitable dysentery, this water was a treasure. After attempting and failing to purify a few liters, wasting precious rest time, Ron had come to the realization that he had no choice but to drink the murky, almost-boiling water.
After hard days of travel, sleep came easy, but waking up was not so comforting. Often waking buried in bugs and sand, the three travelers would sit for a tea ceremony, a precious ritual of the local culture, before setting out for the day. During the first half of the journey, the caravan would find the occasional thorn tree to retreat to, rotating underneath it as the sun in the sky moved the shade under it’s sparse branches.
Ron recounts the amazement, yet great hospitality of the local desert dwellers, “They were always amazed to see me, an obvious outsider in their desert, and when explained I was crossing [the desert] for no apparent reason, they thought I was crazy.” As the three drew closer to Taoudenni, they began to encounter other caravans on their way back from the salt mines, a sometimes fatal trip for camels loaded beyond capacity with slabs of dense, heavy salt.
Despite exhaustion, illness, injury, immense weight loss from the lack of protein, and low food and (clean) water rations, the caravan could finally see the “gates” of Taoudenni. Ron writes, “I had some expectations from reading about Taoudenni; however, what I was actually about to encounter I never could have fathomed. The dryness of the salt-scorched earth was foreboding. The temperature intensified as soon as we passed through the so-called gate. Moisture was sucked out of our pores like a vacuum had been attached to our skin… flies began to swarm upon us, increasing with every mile we rode.” Despite the even harsher conditions of the small mining village, the caravan was grateful to have reached their final destination.
After a few days of tea ceremonies, treating the local’s various wounds and ailments with his medical kit, and childlike sense of wonder and mystery, a small truck arrived to transport him and his translator back to the town of Araouane as the caravan guide began the long trek back with his camels. After being flung around the bed of a pickup truck with two other people, whatever was left of their supplies, and 55-gallon metal drums with jagged edges, they had arrived back at the beginning, in a town that previously felt small, where their journey began. Ron recounts his Saharan adventure as the trip of a lifetime, recalling stories and anecdotes from his travels often, and fondly.
He says it was on this trek that he originally had the idea to design and invent a Personal Cooling System - something that could help people stay cool when they needed it most, something he wished he’d had on this long, and sometimes treacherous, journey. When Ron originally thought of the cooling system he wanted to design, he never imagined it would turn into what it has. Now, his system has saved lives, fiercely battled dehydration and heat-related injuries, cleaned gnarly wounds… and this is just the beginning.