A few shots from a recent two-week fly in tour to southeastern Algeria with Wustenfahrer. For the full trip report, click here.
Video by Tony S.
A few shots from a recent two-week fly in tour to southeastern Algeria with Wustenfahrer. For the full trip report, click here.
Video by Tony S.
In the northern Nubian desert between Egypt and Sudan lies Bir Tawil, an unoccupied 800-square mile quadrangle claimed by neither state. It’s a bureaucratically difficult and potentially dangerous place to reach but has been on my list for some time.
Terra Nullius is a Latin expression for ‘nobody’s land’; it was how Cook described Australia in 1770. Here in the Nubian Desert, it originates from a bizarre situation stemming from the simplest of borders: a straight line along the 22nd parallel drawn in 1899 when Britain formed Anglo-Egyptian Sudan following Kitchener’s campaigns in Sudan. In 1902 Britain sought to modify that boundary to reflect the actual use of the land by the region’s tribes. It counters a complaint commonly made these days about Foreign Office officials blithely marking maps with rulers and in part causing the current grief in the Middle East and Africa.
Bir Tawil lies below the 22nd parallel but the land was traditionally grazd by the Ababdu tribe from Aswan in Egypt. Similarly the adjacent Halaib Triangle, a much bigger area to the east and above the parallel was placed under British Sudanese control as its Beja inhabitants were culturally and ethnically closer to Sudan. Today Egypt resolutely claims the 1899 border including the Halaib Triangle, whilst Sudan sticks to the administrative border of 1902. As a result both claim the Halaib Triangle with its 130 miles of Red Sea shore, but neither are interested in the barren wastes of Bir Tawil.
Bir Tawil is not an easy place to reach, requiring permission from either government to visit; a two-day trip into the desert risking encounters with armed gangs or smugglers. I opted for Sudan as I wanted to get a feel for the country to which I plan to return to climb the highest peak in the troubled Darfur region. (In 2004, before Sudan divided to form South Sudan, I climbed Mount Kinyeti, then the highest point in that country).
In Khartoum I organised everything through Tour-Sudan agency. The owner Midhat Mahir was by far the most pro-active individual I contacted and as it turned out, the best connected. In Sudan government permits are required for everything from registering lodgings outside Khartoum to photography and even permission to buy a detailed map from the Surveyor’s Office. The Sudanese clearly like their paperwork as well as keeping track of you. I needed a dozen copies of my travel permit to hand out to checkpoints along the way.
The plan was a week’s trip leaving me two days in Bir Tawil to locate and climb the highest point. Midhat’s brother Moez would accompany me with two drivers on the 500-mile trek north of Khartoum, around half of it on tarmac the rest across the Nubian desert.
Forget snakes and scorpions or the possibility of breakdown and never being found, the road to Abu Hamed felt like the most dangerous part of this little adventure. Terrible driving and being forced off the road by unlit vehicles was the nearest brush with death I’ve had in a while.
In Abu Hamed we filled up with fuel and water and a few miles north of town left the road and crossed over the railway lines for the last time. I input some coordinates from Grant, my go-to person when tackling unclimbed peaks in dodgy countries. You can’t beat the thrill of heading into a remote place with little available information.
We headed north along flat desert towards the Wadi Gabgaba which would bring us to within 20 miles of our objective. Very soon we started to pass gold miners and for the next hundred miles found the desert had been turned upside down. A gold rush was underway and several thousand men were working hundreds of excavators while individuals were trying their luck with metal detectors. All unlicensed and unregulated, with tons of litter blew across the desert it looked very ugly indeed.
Hoping to keep a low profile, that night we camped well off the main route and away from the miners. In Khartoum I’d gotten hold of a colonial-era 1:25,000 map from the National Survey and the next morning we found ourselves on old routes marked as ‘fair going’ by surveyor W Jennings-Bramley back in 1925. By camel he might have covered 20 miles a day; we did the same distance in just an hour.
Our initial destination was the 609-metre peak of Jebel Bartazuga marking the southernmost corner of the Bir Tawil quadrangle. It came into view, very prominent in the otherwise flat desert. I thought we had left the last of the gold miners but I was wrong; a camp had set up here too on the very boundary of Bir Tawil.
On my return leg I climbed Jebel Bartazuga, topped with an old trig point by the British to mark the boundary when they surveyed the area. Flags have also been placed here from others who’ve recently been laying claims to the territory, but they’ve all long since blown away.
Probably the first westerner here in recent times was former Guardian journalist Jack Shenker in 2011. American Jeremiah Heaton followed in 2014, claiming the area as the ‘Kingdom of North Sudan’, thus delivering on a promise to make his daughter a ‘princess’. He’s in dispute with a Russian called Dmitry Zhikharev who made similar claims, and in 2017 Indian adventurer Suyash Dixit planted a tree and put up yet another flag. There are other claimants including the ‘Kingdom of the State of Bir Tawil’ with its own national anthem and the ‘Empire of Bir Tawil’. I wasn’t interested in such claims but was of course intent on climbing Bir Tawil’s highest peak which I believed had yet to be done.
Once over the border we headed towards the eastern end of the territory and Jebel Hagar el Zarqa. On the 1925 map it was shown as the highest point in the land at just 705m (2313’), but one man’s hill is another man’s mountain. It lay some 30 miles away and we headed straight for it; in reality zigzagging through a maze of sandy wadis. Just five miles away our target came in sight and, as I’ve said before on my travels in Africa, once I was so close it would take an army of natives riding a herd of wild elephants and throwing landmines to stop me. Given that we saw no one during our time in Bir Tawil, I felt confident. We weaved our way nearer and nearer and by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve parked up at the base of the mountain.
My aim was to sleep on summit but Moez my guide warned it might be chilly. It may the mid-winter but this is still the Sahara so I replied I’d probably survive but suggested he took his big down jacket. Around 4pm, as the sun’s heat diminished we set off, following the edge of a gully until we met a ridge about half way up. Here it was mostly scree but in less than an hour we were on the summit. With a new African peak ticked off, Moez and I shook hands.
Low hills surrounded us and Egypt’s actual border was just eight miles to the north. There was a cairn here so I was not the first, but probably the first in a very long time. Moez suggested we drop down a little out of the wind but he knew what my answer would be: we would build a windbreak right on the summit. We set about clearing an area for our wall and once done, even Moez seemed reassured. The wind did pick up later but our wall did its job.
That night the stars were bright as they always are in the desert and some 100,000 light years away The Milky Way beamed over us like a highway to another world. I envied the future explorers and slept well in our starlit bedroom.
As often, the desert brings on reflective thoughts. I was now 50 years old; where had all the time gone? It’s scary that you’re over half way through your life and find yourself looking more to the past than the future. When you’re young the world is infinite and filled with mystery – immortality beckons. As years roll on the world remains thankfully mysterious but feels less big and the impression of immortality slips through your hands. Death was something that only happened to other people and time was unlimited so you don’t push yourself or do the things you promised you would. But once you grasp mortality good things can result – the ticking clock helps you focus on new challenges.
The sun rose around six and was all ours to see; our bivi on top of Jebel Hagar had served us well. After a few more photos we headed down for our Christmas breakfast of coffee, porridge and eggs. I spent the next two days exploring wadis I’m sure no one has seen in decades and hiking a few other peaks to make sure there was nothing higher. With my short visit to Bir Tawil coming to an end, we headed back to Jebel Bartazuga for our last desert night.
I enjoyed my time back in the Sahara; it reaffirmed my view that there’s still adventure to be had in this world, you just have to get out and find it. The greater the effort, the more worthwhile the journey.
A good friend of mine who died on Everest in 1997 certainly lived his life that way. Mal Duff was old enough to be wise yet far too young to die. His gravestone bears the following words from a poem by fellow Scot, James Graham and twenty years on, it feels a good time to remember his epitaph:
… I had reason to believe that there existed, in the Western Sahara, a vast depression which might be submerged by the waters of the Atlantic, thus opening a navigable way to [Timbuktu]…
Visit Tarfaya on Cape Juby and just offshore you will see the curious Casa del Mar fort (left), beyond the St Exupery monument. Port Victoria or Mackenzie’s factory are other names for the trading post of the North West Africa Trading Company, established by Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie in 1882 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward swing of the trans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin). In fact in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon it in favour of the Moroccan sultanate.
It reminds you that colonisation at the time wasn’t purely a state affair, where armies marched off to conquer distant lands. Ahead of them strode adventurer-entrepreneurs with funds raised from venture capitalists and who gambled everything on striking it rich. It was their reports, or better still, a government charter to supply a commodity or service, which preceded more cautious colonisation, very often spurred by other European rivals nosing around for an as yet unclaimed slice of the cake.
It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive on the wind-blown sands.
This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
It’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas near Cape Juby. The biggest of these is the Sebkha Tah, some 55m below sea level and just 15km from the Atlantic, but still no bigger than Malta. For some reason he believed that the vast El Djouf (part of the million-square-kilometre Majabat al Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’) was a huge depression which had once been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.
Mackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado – present day Khenifiss – and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era; map right) but had read of other larger desert depressions in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those near Cape Juby. All these basins held seasonally dry salt lakes which may have suggested that flooding was plausible. He believed an inland sea the size of Tunisia or Oklahoma would soon be formed, paving an inland seaway to Timbuktu.
Mackenzie diligently read up on all your great 19th-century Saharan explorers: Barth, Rohlfs, Caille, Duveyrier, Clapperton, and in 1877 published an exhaustive proposal [available online] to ‘The Presidents and Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain‘ stressing ‘the importance of holding commercial intercourse with the interior‘.
Vividly detailing at third hand the riches, economy, geography and ethnicities in this corner of Africa, he firmly believed his northern route reaching down into the African interior was the key, avoiding the disease-ridden equatorial jungles and pagan tribes further south in favour of the more sophisticated vestiges of the West African Islamic states. Under his proposal land distances for the annual camel caravans from Timbuktu would be halved, with Cape Juby just nine sea days from Britain. De Lesseps himself, the force behind the Suez and original Panama canals, supported the idea of Saharan flooding, believing a side benefit would somehow improve the European climate while greening the desert for agriculture.
Mackenzie also thought that trade and communications would help liberate the sub-Sahran population from the slave trade. And this wasn’t just a ploy to appeal to investors’ morals or religious beliefs – Mackenzie’s later work in East Africa after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.
According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork.
I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, you’d think in creating a shallow, hyper-saline lake, the only thing that would grow would be salt crystals. The fact is the interior of the Sahara, including the dune-filed expanse of El Djouf spanning the Mali-Mauritania border, is a low plateau some 3-500 metres above sea level. Someone ought to tell Conde Nast Traveler.
Mackenzie had slightly less difficulty finding investors for Port Victoria a few years later, and decade or three after that, Jules Verne fictionalised the idea in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.
I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.
Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira.
Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names.
By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.
Cap Juby (today’s Taryaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu.
Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.
Mauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.
In Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.
In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari) and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.
A few months ago the British Film Institute released archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deep into the Libyan Desert. (Click BFI if youtube below gets deleted). The map top right shows all his expedition in the 1930s.
The film is 49 minutes long and describes the first recce in 1929 into the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert via Ain Dalla spring. It was here that Bagnold’s group found lowering tyre pressures, as well as using sand plates and rope ladders, enabled heavy vehicles to traverse dunes.
A year later they set off towards Jebel Uweinat, a massif located by Ahmed Hassanein Bey less than a decade earlier during a camel trek from Jalo in Libya. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued to Jebel Kissu south of Uweinat, then east for the Nile via Selima oasis.
The tallest peak of Kediet ej Jill, rising above Zouerat mine site is well known; a metal mountain that’s slowly having its iron-rich core eviscerated and railed across the desert (right) to the port of Nouadhibou.
In the old days you curved round this flat-topped outlier of the Adrar massif on the way to the rough climb up the Amogjar Pass for Chinguetti and Oudane. The distinctive summit of Teniaggoûri would have been a key landmark if coming round from Atar or in from the arid playa of El Beyyid to the east.
Now the newer and more direct Ebnou Pass (right) climbs straight onto the plateau out of Atar.
But a quick look at a French 200k map (left) shows an unnamed spot height, 7km to the southwest of Teniaggoûri and which is labelled at no less than 820m. Set in the middle of the ridge, it may not be a prominent prow and landmark like Teniaggoûri, but even Google Earth’s estimated elevation data shows comparative heights of 771m for Teniaggoûri and 786m for the dome cluster. From the Oued Amogjar valley to the south, either point is little over a hundred metres elevation and a couple of miles walk above the desert floor.
Left; just north of Zarga, the peaks on the horizon are what out guides called ‘Amogjar’ and what could be Teniaggoûri given the impression of additional elevation in the heat mirage.
Of course it’s quite possible the local name for this entire ridge may be Teniaggoûri, so there may be no real need to rename the point, just the location. Now we know.