Race to Confluence 32N 114W

Unimogs Dominate the Altar  

Trip Report:  January 20-23, 2005

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Sunset as Viewed from Confluence 32N 114W.

Quick link to start of daily log and photos Day 1: 20-1-2005   Crossing Border to Tacos Duros

Behind the Race to the Confluence

After our late 2004 trip to the Altar desert (which caused so much carnage), we heard of the Confluence Project which can be seen at www.confluence.org

To quote the Confluence.Org website, the concept behind the project:

The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location. The pictures and stories will then be posted here (at www.confluence.org).

After the completion of the last Altar trip, we saw on another visitor's site that they were attempting to get to the confluence at 32N114W by the mid-February timeframe. While there is no remuneration for being the first to visit a confluence, we would have to make do with the fame and glory that would result from being the first to visit this coordinate. There were a number of documented failures to reach this location due to the difficulty of the trip, the general logistics and the soft sand.


Northwestern Sonora in Mexico is one of the largest remaining remote areas south of Canada.  This area is hard core desert, cruel in the summer and unforgiving of mistakes.  Four wheel drive clubs in the southwest have been making crossing of the Altar Dunes from either the Sonoita area or from San Luis del Colorado south of Yuma, AZ. for many years.  This area offers one of the last remaining true adventures within easy driving distance from the US.  I had done this trip in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004 with nearly the same crew, so we had good knowledge of the rigors that faced us.  Indeed, the Altar is a test of man and machine as well as your logistical planning skills.  To make this trip a little more memorable, the objective was to get to the confluence at 32N114W before others that were trying to reach the goal. Along the way, we intended to visit the site of a plane crash site deep in the dunes. We got the coordinates from a group of Mexican four wheelers on our previous trip..

The Trip

The planned trip involved getting the four Unimogs across the Mexican border at Mexicali, Baja California Norte (BCN) then head south toward San Filipe. Once we were out of the Mexicali area, we turned to the east and followed BCN 4 toward El Gulfo de Santa Clara. We planned to travel east on a dirt road to get close to the dunes and the starting point for our attack on the confluence. The planned trip duration was 4 days, so we did not bring a tremendous amount of supplies. Likewise, since we did not have quads, we did not have to bring quad equipment (helmets, gas, etc) thereby easing the logistics and amount of cargo.

The general plan was to get to the El Gulfo area via paved roads, then head east on one of the graded dirt roads that the Mexcan government "maintains". Once we were within traversal distance of the dunes, we would leave the road and head across the tundra to the dunes and proceed notherly until we hit the plane wreck. From there, we would proceed east to the confluence. Assuming that the terrain would allow, we would attempt to reach the confluence before dark on the second day and camp there. The following day, we would head to the northwest through the Sierra El Rosario and camp near the flanks of these rugged mountains. On the last day, we would traverse the remaining dune fields and head back to the boarder crossing at San Luis del Colorado.

Like any trip to a foreign country, substantial pre-planning was required. To do such a trip required detailed knowledge of what conditions were expected as well as research on issues beyond just road conditions.  To prepare for this trip, we utilized experience gained from previous trips, tide charts, satellite photos, Mexican maps as well as other intelligence gathered from the local four wheel clubs. But, unlike the previous trips, we organized and executed within 3 weeks of learning of the objective. Not bad considering the number of working adults that had to adjust their schedules to meet the objective.

To insure the success of a major expedition in a foreign country, it is absolutely essential that the proper team of vehicles and operators was assembled.  Of  key importance was vehicle reliability.  The size of the Altar dunes basically precludes the ability to tow a truck as dead weight.  While theoretically possible, the time required to complete the winching make recovery a practical impossibility.  Therefore, special attention was given to mechanical preparations prior to the trip.  And, in general, this paid off in a relatively trouble-free trip. This trip, unlike any other in the past, was totally free of tire issues. I am proud to say that there was not even one de-bead or flat among the 4 vehicles. Several of us did get stuck however, but resolving being stuck is easier than reseating a tire. I am guessing that the reason that we had less issues is that the sand was harder due to moisture from recent rains allowing operation at higher tire pressure, thereby reducing the likelihood of a de-beading.

The Equipment

The away team for this expedition consisted 11 humans and 4 Unimogs:  In the photo below, the trucks, from left to right are Bill Caid's 1300L, Rob Pickering's 1300 "double kabine" (DOKA); Kai Serrano's 416 DOKA; Roberto Espinoza's 1450 DOKA. In the photo below (left to right) are Kathleen Jones, Bill Caid, Dan Johnson and Mike Bennett.

The Team

Left to right are: Shane Pritchard (Colorado), Rob Pickering (Colorado), Bill Caid (San Diego), Kathleen Jones (San Diego), Mike Bennett (Fresno), Dan Johnson (Indiana), Kai Serrano (San Diego), Jose Aizcorbe (Celaya, Mexico), Roberto Espinoza (Celaya, Mexico), Alvaro Nieto (Celaya, Mexico). Missing from the photo is Frank Nesselhuf who is taking the photograph.

 All drivers had substantial experience in hard-core off-roading.  All except Espinoza had completed the Rubicon and the hardest trails in Moab. Additionally, Caid, Serrano, Pickering, Johnson, Bennett and Espinoza had previously successfully done the high dunes of the Altar Desert in 2004 and lived to tell about it. However, the balance of the group were "Altar Virgins".

 Geography of the Altar Desert

The area traversed is hard core desert; massive dunes that go for hundreds of miles.  This consists of alternating desert scrub (AKA "tundra") and big, razor-back dunes.  Some of the dunes are over 500 feet high and are composed of very soft sand the consistency of flour. Figure 1 shows a satellite photo of western Mexico.  Figure 2 below shows a zoom of the area of operations for this trip.  True north in these photos is about 30 degrees to the right of the left border.  See maps below for more accurate representation.

In Figure 1, San Diego bay is just below the top edge on the left.  The large lake is the Salton Sea.  Farmed areas are shown in red.  The road in Mexico that parallels the border can be seen.  Refer to the map below for reference.

Figure 1. Satellite Photo of Baja and Northwest Sonora, Mexico.

In Figure 2, the large dunes are evident and can be seen as forming a set that roughly parallel the coast to the south.  The destination was El Gulfo de Santa Clara, and this is due east of the end of the largest "gray colored" island at the mouth of the Colorado River.

Figure 2.  Zoom Photograph of Area of Interest.

Trip Details

Maps of the Area

Figure 3 below shows an overlay of our waypoints on the satellite photo. This figure has waypoints from several trips, but this will give you an idea of the area that was traversed by the team. In the top right of the photo is the global view of Baja for a better perspective.

Figure 3.  ZoomPhoto of the Altar Desert with
Ozi Explorer overlay of waypoints on satellite photo

Day by Day Details and Photos

Day 1: 20-1-2005  Crossing the Boarder to Camp "Tacos Duros"

Day 2: 21-1-2005  Camp Taco to Confluence (Camp Pork Chop)

Day 3: 22-1-2005  Confluence to Camp Bratwurst

Day 4: 23-1-2005  Camp Bratwurst to USA


Conclusion and Traveler's Tips

The only checkpoints we encountered this trip was manned by the Mexican Army regulars looking for drugs and weapons.  They did want to look inside each vehicle.  While I cannot be sure, the fellow that went into my truck appeared to be the same guy as last year.  There were no problems encountered and all the personnel were amiable.  However, it is a law within Mexico that all vehicles (particularly those owned by foreigners) have liability insurance for their automobiles.  This means that you will have to have valid registration and plates for your vehicle.  Additionally, there are frequently tourist visas that must be obtained at the border.  I say frequently as it seems to change like the tides.  (It was not required this trip, nor the last but was required the one before). These not only require check in, but surrender of the documents upon departure from the country. These visa cost 170 pesos (about $20).  The good news is that they are not currently requiring them.

El Gulfo is a very small town; this is primarily a fishing village, but does cater to tourists, particularly Gringos around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  There is a Pemex station, and it probably has gas.  I say probably, because in Mexico, if the fuel truck does not show up for what ever reason, then there will be no gas or diesel.   There is a store and ice is available along with plenty of fresh fish, shrimp, clams and sometimes other shellfish. Water is in short supply, but can be purchased at the town OXXO store. There are several RV parks in town and several "hotels".  The quotes are used here since one of the selling features of the hotel is that it has indoor plumbing.

The locals make their living fishing, and good seafood is available at all times.  The best restaurant in El Gulfo is the El Delfin and has excellent food although modest accommodations (they did, however, have hot water in the washroom). 

Miscellaneous Information

Although our crossing was made in January, it was warm to  hot during the day.  Typically, the evenings can be cold, so come prepared.  Rain is not out of the question, and it did rain on us 3 of the four days we were there..  Wind is highly likely, so protection from blowing sand, including goggles is a requirement.  And, should the wind come, having a fallback for cooking is a good idea.  High wind and blowing dust will put the chingas to any BBQ and will make a task as simple as boiling water a challenge.

Firearms are prohibited in Mexico.  Handguns, in particular, are frowned upon.  If you are caught with one in your possession, you will go directly to jail.  There is a very high likelihood that you will be unable to "buy" your way out of the situation no matter how much money you have with you, so this situation is better avoided.  While lack of a firearm in the wilderness will place you at somewhat of a disadvantage should trouble arise, the penalty for possession is so harsh that it is not worth the risk.  The proposed area of operations is known to be used by drug smugglers.  However, the open desert crossing is not the preferred route, so the chance of encountering anyone is nil.  But, the Mexican Army does patrol both the north end and the sea-side of the desert and if they stop you, they will most likely do a thorough search of the vehicle.  They pose no threat to honest Gringos that do not break the laws of their country. 

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