Tom Sheppard is much admired, especially among a certain kind of Landrover owner, for his technical manuals on overlanding. This book is what his many fans have been waiting for, the background to acquiring that know-how over a series of desert trips spanning more than 40 years, mostly in Algeria, mostly in 4WDs and almost all alone.
‘QFAT’ is based around a 2006 trip to Algeria, a place which many widely travelled Saharans agree is ‘the fillet mignon of the Sahara’. Here the author managed – though probably for the last time as he admits later – to dodge the mandatory escort requirement which was imposed in the south following a mass kidnapping of several self-drive tourists in 2003. Inevitably he gets pulled over at one of the many checkpoints on the Trans-Sahara Highway (TSH) and the absent escort leads to questions in nearby In Salah. Here his previous visits are regarded with suspicion and his large-scale maps, carefully annotated over many years, are confiscated. No longer considered a threat, he is released.
Shocked by this setback but undeterred and still without an escort, he heads west out of town and slips into the desert unnoticed with just a country map, waypoints from earlier visits and a lifetime’s navigational skills learned the hard way. Determined, daring and above all cautious (as his Air Force background suggests), he clearly revels in the mathematical, technical and even geometric challenges while engaging in and recording this sort of travel. As described, the nightly camp regimen verges on OCD but, like solo rock climbing, driving or riding alone in the Sahara is not something you can afford to do badly if you want to do it again.
Curling out and back southeast towards the TSH, he revisits old haunts such as the diminutive Adrar Kra dune field which, one suspects from the title page, means a lot to him and may even be the basis for his Desert Winds Publishing logo. As tension builds about the trouble he may be landing himself in, he reminisces over his many previous trips in the Sahara by Land Rover and motorcycle, as well as his now prized but still fallible Mercedes G-Wagen. Although it’s sometimes hard to keep track – it’s often the same place but different time – these asides are used skillfully to string out the denouement of the main 2006 trip. An ill-timed test of a rescue beacon in Libya a few years earlier saw him banned from that country; now in Algeria in 2006 it looks like it may happen again…
At one point, recognising this could be his swansong, he acknowledges with raw candour, “… these [solo desert] trips are my life …”. You can believe it. From page to page his boyish wonder for, and deep love of the desert’s grandeur and awe – from the tiniest plant to a lens-filling vista – are evoked with unshakeable passion, dry humour and some original turns of phrase. “Can the eyes gasp?” he asks. They can out here.
On several other occasions he seems to be oddly out of touch. He belittles the motives (the 2003 kidnappings) which begat the escort rule and which, as has happened elsewhere in the Sahara, sadly ended the party for independent tourists. He posits that being in his sixties and in a G-Wagen makes him a low priority target for abduction. It may just be ‘Black Flag Café’ bravado, but after six months in captivity those survivors of 2003’s kidnapping who matched or exceeded his age may not have seen it the same way. And those kidnappings were just the tip of the iceberg on the recent suffering the country has endured, where the ‘pouvoir’ continues to enrich itself from gas revenues before its own party ends.
Along with a plea to the right-wing broadsheets, he asks for the British embassy’s help in recovering his confiscated ‘property’, even though such detailed, colonial-era mapping is commonly restricted in many similar countries. Instead the embassy passes on a communiqué from an Algerian ministry: he ‘must be removed from the country’. He continues to insist to the reader that it’s all due to the ‘misunderstanding’ over his maps, rather than admitting it’s more likely his continued, arrogant flouting of the ‘escort’ regs. After all, the previous year he’d been led back north out of the Algerian desert by the authorities. While it’s true that the roadside implementation of the ‘escort’ rule was until recently inconsistent, as in similarly controlled places like China, down south in Algeria eventually they’ll catch you.
Elsewhere, the confidently asserted knowledge leads to some embarrassing schoolboy gaffes. A picture of an unusual, weathered lip of granite is mistakenly explained as being a double extrusion of lava. Earlier, after rebuffing a tour guide’s attempt to commandeer the unescorted Sheppard into his party, the author mocks him for not knowing the location or origin of a nearby arrangement of stones as being “…a huge French military insignia… So much for being guides…” he scoffs. Such insignia do exist in northern Sudan and Morocco, and clearly resemble what they are. But the adjacent photo he offers is actually a pre-Islamic ‘keyhole’ tomb (example, left), possibly several thousand years old and common all over the region. Knowing this, his following priapic quip given in the book is all the more mortifying. The idea that he actually assumes these ancient tombs to be the work of bored colonial conscripts is baffling, because elsewhere he proves to be rightly awe-struck by the vivid evidence of Saharan pre-history.
Towards the end of this book, his testament, he slams his cards on the table. Part of the motivation behind his dogged insistence in continuing to travel alone in the Algerian Sahara is blurted out with uncharacteristic coarseness: “…too many fucking people… [in this dumbed-down, ‘technophobic’ world]”. The book then winds up with a kind of manifesto – translated and presented as a formal report to the Algerian Tourist Board no less – as to how desert tourism should proceed in their country. (Short version: not as it’s done in neighbouring Morocco or Tunisia.) He presents a pertinent analysis of how tourism can wreck a place (it is the abiding paradox of tourism, after all…) but, if I understood it correctly, you can’t help thinking his proposal: no escorts, just a hefty bond deposited at the border and returned on good behaviour – comes across as blatantly self-serving and unpoliceable. It may suit responsible (and affluent) European self-drive tourists; less the few escorts, drivers, cooks and yes, even genuine guides (from whom we all learn a thing or two) who serve what little desert tourism survives in Algeria.
Self-publishing can often mean low production standards but, like Tom Sheppard’s other Desert Winds titles, ‘QFAT’ compares well with any ‘coffee table’ travelogue. Be in no doubt you’re getting £20 of lush paper and thoughtful design, with plentiful photos alongside the relevant body text. Some of these brilliant images (bigger would have been nice) are what readers unfamiliar with the region will most readily relate to. The apparent lack of an editor (acknowledgements list only software, technicians and machines) sometimes makes for convoluted descriptions; sentences of nearly 80 words require breathing apparatus. I’m familiar with many of the locations and journeys being described, but other reviewers and readers may also find difficulty keeping track of time and place. “Life is in the details” is the author’s frequently repeated mantra, but at times you can’t see the sand for the grains.
A desert blogger once wrote: “… the desert is a place that can only be appreciated alone. Only then do you see it for what it really is.” Alone, the wilderness experience is intensified. The frequent peaks and troughs of genuine adventure travel become moments of dizzy elation or gnawing despair. Having the strength, steady nerves and hard-won experience to deal with this acute range of clawing emotions is what sets desert travellers like Tom Sheppard apart.
‘QFAT’ is a poignant if flawed eulogy to a lifetime’s desert travel, a homage to the breathtaking Algerian Sahara. It’s not for everyone, but you get the feeling the author quite likes it that way (locations and place names are often disguised). As the man himself says: “being a perfectionist is not an instant recipe for popularity, but you’ve got to be who you are”.