Book review: The Hunt for Zerzura ~ Saul Kelly

Saul Kelly, 2003

This is the background behind the English Patient fiction: the international bunch of adventurers who opened up the exploration of the Libyan Desert between the wars and then went on to become adversaries in WWII (what a great film that would make!). In case you’re wondering, Zerzura is a lost oasis of ancient legend mentioned in the Arabian Nights and Herodotus, and retold to British explorer Wilkinson in the late 1800s, describing a Shangri-La in the wastes between the outlying oases of the Western Desert and the oases of Kufra. What emerges was that behind the noble search for Zerzura was a need for strategic intelligence from the little known Libyan Desert. By the early 1930s Mussolini had pharaonic aspirations in Brit-controlled Egypt and with every trip, the blanks on the maps were filled in and handed over.

Of all the characters, Laszlo Almasy’s background and motivations are most intriguing. Even in the book’s latter re-telling of daring WWII LRDG escapades, there is still a hint that Almasy was hedging his bets as the fortunes of the Axis powers declined. We read that Almasy’s own Operation Kondor – delivering a pair of agents to Asyut on the Nile all the way from Cyrennecia via the Gilf – failed to help Rommel’s advance, though through no fault of his own. But a decade or more earlier, it’s still hard to tell whether Almasy’s urge to explore the Libyan Desert in Egypt and Sudan was purely strategic as hinted, or just a love of adventure inherited from his explorer-father. The competitiveness and envies absent from Almasy’s own account in ‘Unknown Sahara’ are to his credit, because the Brits didn’t take to him at all.

For the record, Zerzura was pinned down to the near-barren Wadi Abd el Malik in the western Gilf. As late as the 19th century, following rain in the Gilf’s highlands, Tubu cowherds from Kufra pastured their beasts for a few weeks here. Today, increased aridity see only a few trees and some vegetation survive, but its position between Dakhla, Abu Ballas and Kufra does support the legend of a former watering hole used by camel-borne raiders attacking the Nile from Kufra. Much like the legend of Timbuktu, that got embellished into a city of splendour and riches.

‘Zerzura’ will only appeal to those who’ve travelled in the Libyan Desert and have an interest in the protagonists. It doesn’t read like the author’s been there which is a shame. Despite the racy blurb, it reads as a well-researched, fact-heavy and scholarly version of recent and Saharan history.