The desert is ruthless
It strips you of your vanities
Gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are
Character addressing Jesus figure in The Last Days in the Desert (2016)
More than other wilderness environments, the desert is commonly seen as a place for spiritual rebirth or just some contemplation. Some speculate that it’s no coincidence the world’s great monotheistic religions originated in the desert. Or perhaps it was the other way round: the Fertile Crescent along with timely wheat mutations and climatic cycles spawned great civilisations from which monotheism evolved. Anyway, just being in the desert it’s commonly thought one can be purged, cleansed and reborn. When striped of familiar surroundings and associations, you commonly hear travellers professing an awareness of their insignificance in the great scheme of things. Whatever, it’s always been seen as a good place to get away from it all, including other people.
Another one of those periodic ‘I want to cross the Sahara by camel’ posts popped up on the forum the other month. The OP ‘…thought to myself ‘I want to have a life changing experience’ and thought this would be just that adventure.’ Across the width of the Sahara from Atlantic to Red Sea. There followed some clarification, good advice and some scorn, and within a few days the thread blew itself out.
What is it about crossing the Sahara? Why do ordinary individuals get fixated on the idea of ‘crossing the Sahara’ at all costs? I know when I first went there the Sahara was something that was on the way to where I thought I was going, but so was France and the Mediterranean. I didn’t see crossing the Sahara as a life-affirming achievement or any sort of event – I was more looking forward to the simple challenge of some desert biking.
Perhaps the words ‘cross’ + ‘sahara’ add up to a compelling soundbite that anyone anywhere will get instantly, like ‘climbing Everest’ or ‘rowing the Atlantic’, but perceived as a whole lot easier.
I received a similar enquiry. A chap wanted to cross the Sahara with camels – it didn’t really matter where, it was the crossing that mattered. He suggested some catchy start and end points like Casablanca to Dakar without really thinking it through – padding alongside Morocco’s busy N1 highway with a troop of dromedaries strung out nose to tail. I made what I thought were some better suggestions that would give a real sense of travelling in the desert with camels while dodging the worst of the current political complications. I even sent him the camel chapter from the book (short version of this). I never heard back.
On the right is my answer to another enquiry which boldly stated the intention to pull off a hare-brained scheme so I’d have no doubt of the total commitment. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ Never heard from her again, either. Maybe I am too blunt but I keep these emails as evidence of ‘well, I did warn them’ should they ever crop up in the news.
It seems that people hungry for adventure lose something of their reason when it comes to crossing the you-know-what. They’re carried away by the concept which ignites the dream and set about with a steely determination to make it happen.
To my mind camel crossing the Sahara north to south and especially laterally requires a solid background of experience which is why I respect the achievement of Michael Asher and Mariantonietta Peru when they did it in the 80s and went on to write Impossible Journey. At least they had a good idea of what they were taking on. These days the journey is a whole lot more impossible.
There must be something about camel trekking across the Sahara that makes it sound relatively uncomplicated and easily done alone. You traverse the wilderness with the unspoken companionship of your caravan and maybe a nomad guide whose language you don’t speak: ‘horses with no names’ who won’t question insecurities or flakey motivation.
Aside from the practicalities or logistics of such a monumental task, what irks me is that very often there’s little curiosity about the environment or the cultures they’re passing through. The conquest trounces all, and the empty Sahara is just a backdrop for a monumental vanity project, as it was for Geoffrey Moorhouse back in the 70s and several others before or since.
As I was told recently by an individual who came close to death in his quest: It was a bad time and I made poor decisions. I desperately wanted it to be “me and the desert” and to have my own experience in solitude. I’m wiser now.
Once I get used to it and feel comfortable I like to be alone out there too, and in the desert that’s not hard to do. If anything it helps you re-evaluate human companionship which may be part of the catharsis some seek out there. But I find there’s no need to go to extremes to do this. One memorable desert camp is all that’s required to consolidate a feeling of well being. For me the image below sums it up nicely. Only a mile off the track to Djanet in 1988. For the moment the bike was running well and so was I. It was nice spot for the evening – comfortably alone. There have been many more nights like that out in the Sahara, with or without other people.
Usually though I’ve found travelling alone with a vehicle tends to extinguish any mystical retrospection. On a bike you’re totally preoccupied with keeping upright, not getting lost and all the rest – and in a car it’s the same plus the noise and the shaking. It is the evenings that are a blessed respite from the task, the heat and the wind and when the appeal of the desert is easily felt.
In a group, walking with camels and crew is a far more satisfying way to enjoy the desert day or night, most probably because there’s so very little to worry about. You don’t have to know any more than how to walk, sleep and eat. It’s the very simplicity of such desert travels that strikes the chord, even if this is a fantasy enabled by the hired crew of desert nomads. The actual practicalities of making it happen and sustaining camelling independently get quite complex as many accounts that I’ve read have shown. And now you have to account for the unglamorous and unromantic political overlay.
I suppose the hope is that when one gets to the Other Side one is reborn or cleansed or at the very least feels a sense of achievement which ought to trump all insecurities. But no account I’ve ever read has admitted to that. Or perhaps midway through the journey there is some sort of epiphany with a closure and acceptance and an understanding that life must go on, at which point the epic challenge may lose its purpose.
After nine days, I let the horse run free,
‘Coz the desert had turned to sea.
Me, I just like being in wild places including the desert. It doesn’t have to get complicated.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
See also: Vintage posters
A look at some old Sahara Maps to see what obscure places or routes were once conspicuous, as well as which ancient places survive today.
The earliest old map I have looks like it’s from the medieval era, but was probably based on Herodotus’ Histories which was getting on for 2000 years old by this time. It was he that brought terms like ‘Libya’ (North Africa) and ‘Aethiopia’ (sub-Saharan Africa) into common usage.
On this map ‘Mauritania’ is today’s Morocco, while the chariot-riding Garamanteans are correctly located around present day Germa in the Libyan Fezzan. It’s probably coincidental, but the ‘Barditi Montef’ (mountains) could be the Tibesti around Bardai – actually only 700km southeast of ancient Garama. (Left: rock art depicting chariots at Tim Missao well, 1200km southwest of Germa on the way to Mali. The Garamanteans are said to have got around.)
This map may have been the best that Moorish wanderer, Leo Africanus’ (BBC doc) had to go on for his 16th-century travels across the region, venturing as far as Timbuktu, Cairo and possibly even Mecca. Along with Ibn Battuta’s travels a couple of centuries earlier, it was Africanus’ Description of Africa (1550) which expanded knowledge of the Sahara. But despite the efforts of Africanus, even by 1700 or so, satirists like Jonathan Swift (right) were said to have quipped:
So Geographers in Afric maps
With Savage Pictures fill their Gaps
Fast forward a few centuries and there be no dragons or other medieval monsters (right) on this map of Africa dating from an atlas produced in 1803. It’s credited to William Kneass who later became Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Instead, the advent of scientific enlightenment had brought us longitude, latitude and the ‘Equinoctial Line’.
The mariners of the era had succeeded in very accurately mapping the outline of the African continent, but the interior, including the ‘Zahara or Desert of Barbary‘, remained blanks. South of the Sahara the most notable inland incursions were made by the early European colonies around Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, Angola, the Cape and Mozambique. In the north Egypt and the Nile are better mapped all the way into the Biblical lands of Abyssinia.
The Moroccan imperial cities are present: ‘New Salle’ being Rabat, with Marrakech labelled as ‘Morocco’. Never linked those two words before, but presumably they’re both based on ‘Moor’ so it makes sense.
South of the Atlas ‘Tatta’ appears to be close to Tata, with the Oued Draa known as the ‘Nun’. The 16th-century Portuguese trading post of ‘Mogodoro’ is Essaouira, and Tarfaya at Cape Bojador was then called ‘Tungarzall’. To the east you’d have thought that Sijilmassa near Erfoud might have got a mention. It was the northern terminus on the ’52 day’ caravan route from Timbuktu (left).
Further south in Western Sahara and Mauritania, ‘St Cyprian’s Bay’ became Golfe de Cintra after a Portuguese mariner and slaver got killed nearby at Arguin (also labelled). Inland from here, only ancient ‘Tisheet‘ gets a mention, on the old Dhar Tichit caravan route. I remember going to a talk in Nouakchott about the medieval glass trading links between Tichit and Venice. Tichit didn’t look like much when we were there in 1990 (right; it’s all in D. Travels), but it’s a historic settlement on a par with Timbuktu (left; as seen by Caillé in 1830), Oualata, Chinguetti and Ouadane. The latter may be the ‘El Waden’, misplaced way north of Timbuktu and not far from ‘Ensala’ which could be even more distant In Salah in Algeria.
At this point it was still a couple of years before the American sailor, Robert Adams briefly ended up a slave in Timbuktu. Among other things, his account helped kick off the race to reach this fabled Saharan ‘Shangri La’ and with that, the great age of European Saharan exploration as listed rather Francocentrically on the 1898 map below.
Eastwards on this 1803 map, many places in Algeria are recognisable: ‘Tuggurt’, ‘Guargala’, and over the border in present day Libya: ‘Godemashe’, ‘Mourzouk’ and ‘Ganat’. ‘Zeghen’ was less easy to pinpoint, visited by James Richardson while on the road from Tunis to Ghat and back up to Tripoli in 1845-6. At the time Richardson estimated Zeghen’s population at ‘200 men, 300 women, and 700 children and slaves‘. Our man Duveyrier (see below) locates it for us a short distance northwest of Sebha in the Wadi Ash-Shati, on the way to ‘Sockna‘. Here Richardson spent some time as a guest of the Turkish Caid and his comely concubines.
‘Berdoa’ is the old name for Kufra in southeast Libya, and south of there, on the page’s fold, is the enduring salt oasis of ‘Belma’ (left) at the base of Niger’s ‘Kawar’ escarpment. The hyper-arid and largely uninhabited Libyan Desert around Jebel Uweinat wasn’t to be explored until the 20th century.
Fast forward a hundred and one years and the Saharan blanks begin to fill up. Below is the ‘Northern Africa’ plate extracted from a Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of the World dated 1904 (source) and which differs very little from my 1888 version.
The interior is still sparse, but the proposed trans-Saharan railway gets a mention. Running across the flat plain of the Tanezrouft, in 1922 it was the actual route taken by the first cars – Citroen Kegresse autochenilles (half tracks; left) – to cross the Sahara north to south and back.
In the west ‘Shinghit’ is a bit out of line with Atar and Wadan, but in the ball park. To the south is the ghost town of Ksar el Barka and ‘Portendik’ must be early Nouakchott, though you wonder what became of ‘Mufga’ near grubby Choum of today.
Ancient Taghaza (as visited by Ibn Battuta) never gets a mention on any of these maps, but it’s replacement, the newer salt mine at ‘Towdeni’ was a key point on the ’52 days’ caravan route to Sijilmassa.
In northern Mali, ‘Essuk‘ whch hosted the early Tuareg music festivals before they moved to Timbuktu and long predates today’s Kidal. Meanwhile in Algeria the Amadror salt mines get one of their last calls. Wau crater in Libya gets a name check too, there’s brackish water there, but due to the mosquitoes it was never a settlement.
Up in the Mediterranean, Crete is oddly identified by its ancient name of Candia, perhaps intended as a poke at the despicable Ottomans?
Left we have Dufrenoy’s intriguing and detailed map from 1898, centred on the southern limits of French-controlled Algeria. The red lines identify the itineraries of that busy century’s wave of Sahara explorers, from Laing’s fatal excursion to Timbuktu in 1826, right up to Laperrine, who in 1898 set out to quell the southern Tuareg with his Méhariste Camel Corps and died in a plane crash southwest of Tam in 1920. Note too the zig-zaging return of Flatters’ disastrous second mission of 1881, (as described in Desert Travels) when the handful of harried survivors sought to out-run the Tuareg who’d trailed and picked them off one by one.
Back-tracking a bit, the 1881 Flatters Mission – partly intent on reconnoitring a railway route between the Maghreb and France’s territories in West Africa – wouldn’t have got half as far as it did without Henri Duveyrier’s amazingly detailed map of 1864. It was based on his journeys there a few years earlier, described in Les Touaregs du Nord.
Tamanrasset was merely a oued; Silet, In Amguel and Ideles on the other side of the Hoggar were established settlements. The tomb of Tin Hinan (right) even gets a mention, though it’s a bit misplaced from actual Abalessa.
Further out on the Tanezrouft the strategic well of Tim Missao (the chariots, above) and the waterhole at In Ziza (right) are labelled, but in Libya the Murzuk sand sea is just an ‘unnamed hammada’ separating the Tuareg from Tubu. There’s plenty more mouth-watering detail if this area means anything to you, and Duveyrier’s inset helpfully lays the ancient geographical names alongside their modern counterparts.
How time flies. It’s now 1933 and France’s African colony encompasses half the Sahara and most of West Africa. Tamanrasset and Djanet, which even then must have been the biggest towns in southern Algeria, are still missed out, but then this isn’t a French map. In Mauritania Tidjikja makes an appearance, so does Iferouane in the Aïr and Tindouf up in Algeria. ‘Marakesh’ looks like it’s still ‘aka Morocco’ where the Spanish cling on to protectorates in western Sahara (Rio de Oro), Sidi Ifni and on the north coast, but not for long. Within 25 years the Sahara would take on the borders and principal towns with which we’re familiar today.
Who can resist the superb ‘Uweinat’ map originally published by the Survey of Egypt in 1945. One of the most fascinating corners of the Sahara, much of its detail was based on the intrepid explorations of Ralph Bagnold in the 1920s, as well as later Brits, some of who were fictionalised in The English Patient movie.
The last time we travelled there, it was still the best paper map available for that area (right), notwithstanding the newer aeronautical TPCs.
Old Saharan mapoholics will be familiar with the Austin TX university’s comprehensive online database of full-sized Saharan maps dating more or less from the early 1940s. Click this to get to the index pictured below and thank you Austin.
And finally, a forerunner to the famous 4-million scale Michelin 153 map (now the 741) that covered the French Sahara: an ageing Michelin 152 from 1948. It was the best photo I could manage – scanning will have to wait for a very rainy day.
You get the feeling that this may have been a commemorative special edition to celebrate General Leclrec’s heroic achievements in the Sahara during WWII, when a small column managed to take Kufra and then Murzuk from the Italians, and then push north to help expel the Axis forces from North Africa along with the 8th Army.
Like the LRDG map, the 152 has helpful detail like ‘piste tres difficile‘ as well as the famous info on water resources ‘tres mauvais a 50m‘, that we recognise from the later editions which covered the Sahara all the way to the Atlantic.
Too much information? Then this may interest you.
Want modern maps? Go here.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Taken from the book All’oasi Di Giove Ammone
(At the Oases of Jupiter Ammon)
by Luigi Robecchi-Bricchetti (right)
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
L’Universo is a journal of the Italian Istituto Geografico Militare in Florence and the current 160-page special edition features the 1933 expedition to Libya led by Captain Oreste Marchesi.
Sahara specialist Michele Soffiantini organised a special visit to the Uweinat area from the Libyan side in 2010 while researching the Marchesi expedition in detail. The journal includes an in-depth analysis of the mission’s objectives in reaching to the southernmost corner of Libya, most probably to gain a foothold at the strategic landmark of Jebel Uweinat mountain, beyond the oases of Kufra which itself had only been occupied by the
It’s all in Italian of course, so I’m not much the wiser but it’s interesting to parallel it with the better known explorations of around the same time by Ralph Bagnold from the Egyptian side, as well as Laszlo Almasy. The glossy journal reproduces some great archive photos by Giuseppe Tschon from the ground and the air, as well as some fine maps produced as a result of the expedition.
Uweinat expert Andras Zboray of FJ Expeditions was part of 2010 trip with Michele and describes their finds here, along with scores of great photos – some of which also appear in the journal. On that occasion Michele and a pal climbed the 1251-metre Cima Marchesi, a peak on the very western edge of the Jebel Uweinat massif (1934m) and therefore well inside Libya, then and now.
Further information from: Istituto Geografico Militare
casezcomm AT geomil.esercito.difesa.it
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
A short photo and video commentary of this trip appears on the Desert Driving dvd. Additional maps at the bottom of the post
To most people one part of the Sahara must be very much like any other, but some corners are more ‘Sahara’ than others. One such place is the Libyan Desert, the eastern third of the Sahara, covering not only Libya, but western Egypt and northern Sudan too.
What sets the Libyan Desert apart is that it is ten times more arid than the rest of the Sahara: the Libyan Desert is the über Sahara. In an area the size of the UK through which we’d be travelling there is just one usable well and that single well outnumbers the permanent population. Looking out my window I can see more trees than we saw in two weeks and 2500km of travel. Even by Saharan standards, the Libyan Desert is extreme.
Abbreviated to ‘the Gilf’, the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert is a mini Sahara in itself, encapsulating all the archetypal desert landforms. The Great Sand Sea lived up to its name, a dune field 200 kilometres wide and 600 long with dunes 200-feet high. It was here where the earliest experiments in driving cars on sand were made in the 1920s by the likes of Clayton and Bagnold (left). Its southern edge spilled over the massive Gilf Kebir plateau only discovered by Egyptian explorer Kemal el Din in 1922 using Citroen half-tracks. South of the Gilf a sand sheet led to the isolated mountain of Jebel Uweinat which sits right across the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Our 2003-4 expedition was to last a fortnight and cover some 2500 kilometres. The plan was to pass down the east side of the Sand Sea to the Gilf, explore its eastern valleys and push on south to Uweinat mountain which we hoped to climb. From there we’d head back up to the southern cliffs of the Gilf, visiting the real Cave of the Swimmers made famous in the English Patient movie, and then skirt up the western edge of the plateau and plough through the heart of the Sand Sea for a couple of days to the oasis of Siwa, famed since the visit of Alexander the Great.
Our crack team of Saharaholics included photographer Toby Savage who co-presents my Desert Driving dvd, Dr Kevin White who’d worked with Toby on the Fezzan Project in Libya over several seasons searching for prehistoric lake beds, and Oxford climatologist Richard Washington whose bedtime reading included Applied Principles of Arid Zone Aeoleonics, or ‘dust storms’ to you and me.
We’d all travelled in the Sahara with our own four-wheelers, but shipping them to Egypt was never an option: too far, too expensive and, for the three weeks we’d given ourselves, bureaucratically maddening. Better by far to get Toby’s Egyptian mate Mahmoud to lay on three vehicles for the 2500km trip. Mahmoud already had plenty of experience exploring the area himself in his old Series III. For all of us used to looking after ourselves on our own desert trips, being pampered in this way was a bit luxury. Normally navigation, the vehicle, cooking and everything else would be down to us; on this trip we could sit back, enjoy the desert scenery and let someone else carry the load for a change.
A week before Christmas, Mahmoud met us at Cairo airport in a suped-up minibus and whisked us off for lunch on the Nile before we set off for the 400-km slog south to Bahariya oasis where the vehicles awaited us. On the way we speculated as to what those machines might be because, as I knew myself from a recce tour three years earlier, the ‘Gilf’ was tough on cars. Six hundred litres of fuel – 130 gallons per vehicle – was a typical payload, let alone food and water for a fortnight. We’d expect to see no one during out travels, with only the wadis around Jebel Uweinat offering the chance to replenish the single resource: firewood.
Driving desert highways at night is always a spooky experience. Small dunes shone in the moonlight and up ahead a cluster of lights signalled a lonely roadhouse, surrounded by trucks and vans serving the towns of the Western Oases. We pulled over for a brew to find everyone on both sides of the counter huddled around a dusty TV screen, On it a hirsute and spaced-out Sadaam Hussein was getting his gums probed by Special Forces, having just been dragged out of his lair.
Next morning in Bahariya we met up with Mahmoud’s pumpkin-bellied mate Loutfi who ran a local hotel and tourist excursions into the desert and nearby hot springs. Mahmoud and the vehicles were down the road a way: he had left before dawn for Dakhla to pick up the military escort which every tour in the Gilf requires. So we bundled into Loutfi’s 60-series Land Cruiser for the drive south to Abu Mungar and a rendezvous with Mahmoud in the desert.
All around us lay barren desert sands rimmed by the arching 600km escarpment that defines the Western Oases of Bahariya, Farafra Dakhla and Kharga.
In Pharaonic times what lay beyond was known as the Land of the Dead and even today, 5000 years later, the wilderness of dunes, sand sheet and rocky plateaux is still unpopulated, with just half a dozen towns of any size lay between ourselves and the Atlantic, 2000 miles to the west.
Loutfi’s 60 had just had an engine transplant, a grunty 12HT 4-litre turbo diesel, but by lunchtime it was getting distinctly hot. The needle was sitting in the red, there were burning rubber smells coming through the vents and the turbo was making an audible whine. Maybe this wasn’t the machine we’d be wanting in the Gilf after all. Our quartet of backseat drivers watched the needle and muttered, waiting for the turbo or head gasket to blow. Loutfi pulled over to let the machine cool down and, once satisfied the needle had backed off, headed on south. Again the Tojo was cooking itself but Loutfi then confounded us by pulling off the road into the desert. None of us knew quite what was going on but heading solo off-road with overheating problems seemed unorthodox. We churned over a few sandy passes, stopped off at the famous White Desert chalk outcrops and then bundled on to who knows where.
Presently we got back to the highway where Loutfi seemed unsure whether to turn left or right. He drove down the road a bit, looking out west, then turned back north. He spoke no English so we had no idea what was going on; had he lost something? Then he turned round once more, looking hard out to the west. He slammed on the brakes and did a U-ey. Ah ha, there it was: a hooned-out sand circle, a small cairn and three sets of tracks leading out into the void. Following these, within a few clicks we came upon a desert camp, the cars locked in the customary Gilf ‘U’ formation against the northerly wind. Mahmoud was there to greet us with smiley Ibrahim in his Bedouin head-dress, our ‘guard’ Hamed in a snazzy maroon shellsuit, Faraq the mechanic and Aisa, a cool dude in a pair of knackered cowboy boots and matching hat who was to be our cook for the next fortnight.
The identity of our three desert machines was revealed: Mahmoud’s Series III-bodied Toyota, a 110 Land Rover, which also had a 3.5 litre Tojo bus engine and gearbox, and Loutfi’s other car, a red HJ45, the old squared-off Land Cruisers from the late Seventies, but also with a newer six-cylinder 12HT turbo engine crammed under the lid. With potentially the best engine, the 45 was the load carrier; inside it, three 200-litre drums of diesel were lashed down with rope while on the roofs of all cars were additional jerries of fuel which, with the full tanks, added up to 2000 litres, more than enough for as many kilometres over the next fortnight. But with no car running an original engine or less than two decades old, we could see that spannerman Faraq wasn’t going to have a holiday.
That evening, in the cozy shelter of the U-camp, Richard and I keyed in our sat phones with Mahmoud’s so we’d have some sort of comms if we got separated and things turned pear-shaped. Mahmoud outlined tomorrow’s route: we were in the very edge of a series of parallel dunes running north-south; crossing the dunes would be impossible with the cars in their current overloaded state, but we could hopefully run down the 500m-wide corridors between the dunes as far as possible and ease over any low passes to gain ground to the west.
Next morning, knowing that things would get off to a slow start, Toby, Wash and I set off for a wander into the dunes to let the cars catch us up. After an hour there was still so sign of them, so we sat down on a high dune and scanned to the east, ears primed. Finally about 10am they turned up, having had problems getting one of the engines to fire up. We all hopped in and set off down the nearest corridor to see how far we could get. I was in the white 110 which inside looked like it had been a prop in The Birds, with every surface pecked to bits and wires hanging off the dash like splashed spaghetti. Still, the engine sounded good and it carried its weight well.
It didn’t take long before one of the vehicles struck trouble: the 45 had brake problems, but whatever it was Faraq fixed it in a jiffy and we moved on until the next: Mahmoud’s ‘Lanyota’ could not shift into low range. Faraq crawled in and tightened up the linkage with a bit of wire. The rack was also sinking in the gutters which on Defenders and the like means you can’t open the doors. (You couldn’t anyway as the door handles were buggered.) And the air bags which were backing up the rear parabolics were squeezing out like bars of wet soap.
These were fixed as best they could be and we moved on. Even in dune corridors the sand can change imperceptibly; one minute you’re clawing along at a decent pace, next thing the car sinks like a stone – but if you’re fast with the shifting and accelerator you’ll get through it. Momentum is the key to dune driving; once you’ve lost it you may as well pull up and put the kettle on. All of the vehicles got mired in soft patches several times and we all got stuck into pushing the cars back out, the quickest way of getting going if the driver has stopped early enough.
Part of the problem was that the Totoya gearboxes in the two Land Rovers were not optimised to the Land Rover axles, creating gaps in the gear ratios big enough to frighten Evel Kineval. Mahmoud’s Land Rover had an even more alarming habit of getting on two wheels while cornering hard, something which Mahmoud tended to do with gusto; I sure was glad I wasn’t in his car. By comparison, Ibrahim in the white 110 was a steady and smooth driver, never taking risks while struggling with the same mixed-up gearing and, it turned out later, no power steering.
By late afternoon we needed to get west, but high dunes were blocking the way. Mahmoud was nosing about for a way through but the heavy vehicles were struggling in the corridors, let alone trying to get up the sand banks. At one point Mahmoud took an oblique blast at a low dune but his angle was all wrong: halfway up, the wheels on the low side hit a soft patch and the vehicle keeled over to within a couple of degrees of tipping (it’s the front cover of Desert Driving). I knew from personal experience that these sort of recoveries where very tricky. Loufti’s 45 blasted up the dune to help and got mired too, but Ibrahim managed to get the 110 into position to fix a rope on the high side of the Leaning Rover. By backing up, the Series III was heaved up to a less jaunty angle and then, after a bit of digging and with Ibrahim holding it in tension, Loufti pulled it back down onto level ground. Back on the flat, Mahmoud spun round for a good run up, this time getting the wheels a foot in the air, and made it over. Me, I was happy to be in the car with Ibrahim behind the wheel.
That evening we camped at the cairn of Regenfeld, built by the German explorer Gerhard Rholfs in 1872, the first European to venture west into the Libyan Desert. It was here that his party gave up and turned north with their camels, weeks later reaching Siwa by the skin of their teeth. Rholfs left a message in a bottle in the cairn, and since then it’s been the custom for the few passing travellers to do likewise. We left our regards to whoever came next and then spent the night by the dunes as Rholfs and his crew had done 140 years earlier.
Next morning we carried on south and emerged from the dune corridors into a sandy plain dotted with cone hills; outliers of a long-since eroded plateau. One of these cone hills was Abu Ballas, or Pottery Hill. In 1912 the British explorer Ball discovered a cache of smashed clay urns at the foot or the hill and the truth behind an ancient local myth was revealed. Legends had it that for centuries the people of Dakhla suffered raids from “the black raiders from the west” even though everyone knew that ‘west of Dakhla’ was a waterless sea of sand, well beyond the range of a camel caravan. One day the Dakhlans decided to follow their tormentors into the feared desert. They never caught them but their tracks led to Abu Ballas hill and the stash of water urns. They smashed all the urns, destroying the vital water cache, and the raiders never returned, probably dying of thirst on their next raid. Today the remains of urns still litter the base of the outcrop while on its flanks delicate engravings of Ancient Egyptian deities survive.
Well out of the dunes by now, from Abu Ballas we turned west, following what might be called the only track in the Gilf, a braided network of ruts use by the occasional military patrols and exploratory tours like ours.
At one point we passed a perfectly straight line of 5-gallon Shell petrol tins, half a kilometre long. Marking a temporary WWII landing strip, these flimsy fuel containers date from the 1930s before the superior ‘jerrican’ was pinched from the Germans (hence “gerry can”) and adopted by the Eighth Army, LRDG and Halfords. Like the AK-47 or Douglas Dakota, the original jerrican is a functional design classic, unchanged and unimprovable sixty years on.
Negotiating our way around low outcrops, isolated hills and small dunes ranges, our next destination was the Gilf Kebir plateau. By that evening we were close and camped in the lee of a dune close to Saviem Balise 22. Balise is French for marker post and in 1975 Saviem (later Renault) sponsored an expedition that tried to establish a new trans-Saharan route from the Atlantic to the Nile (see Sahara: West to East). About as useful as a fridge to an Eskimo, the Piste Saviem ‘from nowhere to nowhere’ was never used. All that remains today are the blue and white beacons they left to posterity along the way.
Leaving the lone marker post, we continued west and slowly, from the horizon’s haze, the low ramparts of the eastern Gilf began to rise. By mid-afternoon we were driving up Wadi Bakht, one of the three major valleys that drain their sands onto the plain. Six thousand years ago, during the brief humid phase before the Sahara reached its current state of desiccation, this valley was occupied by Neolithic hunter-gatherers, much like the Bushmen of the Kalahari. We camped that night at the site of a major Neolithic occupation, where we kicked up stone tools (right) and grinding stones (left) left by the ancestors of the pharaohs. It was a cold, windy night so Ibrahim grabbed an empty jerry and got a Bedouin singalong underway while we wrapped ourselves in everything we had and eyed-up Aisa’s bubbling stew longingly.
Having spent the previous night in one of the valleys winding into the Gilf Kebir plateau, we rounded a spur and powered up the sand banks to the dissected summit of the plateau. Some of the cars had trouble getting a good clear run and so to lighten the load we walked while they took a few runs. Approaching the plateau top required some hairy driving over nasty wavelets of sand and Mahmoud’s Land Rover was again getting on two wheels. We discussed what the cause might be and decided the vehicle was way over-sprung at the front. Throw in the more flexible parabolics plus a heavy roof load and it didn’t take much cornering force to get some air under the tyres.
We parked up near the summit where a cave looked out to the south like a gun emplacement. Inside, the ceiling was adorned with finely drawn beasts which would have grazed here 6000 years ago, something that was hard to imagine as we gazed out across the arid landscape of isolated hills and the distant sand sheet.
From the cave we descended the west side of the plateau and made our way south towards the Prince Kemal el Din Monument, a cairn built in 1932 by the real English Patient, the Hungarian explorer Laszlo Almasy, to honour this Egyptian royal who gave up the Egyptian throne for a life of freedom and desert exploration.
The monument is tricky to find, hidden among low hills, and as darkness encroached we blundered around looking for a way through. Suddenly our cars stopped; up ahead the drivers had spotted some lights below the cliffs that had gone out as soon as they saw our group.
The Sahara is still a wild enough place to be unnerved when you see other vehicles and in places banditry prevails as it always did, but such encounters are unknown in the hyper remote Gilf. This lot appeared more nervous of us than we were of them; they were almost certainly smugglers. A lot of trafficking goes on between Libya and Sudan, avoiding the Libyan border posts around Uweinat by slipping through far to the south via Chad or around the Egyptian Gilf.
Mahmoud flashed his lights to draw them out and eventually a Toyota pick-up drew up out of the dark with a bunch of people perched on stack of drums in the back, wrapped up in blankets. Mahmoud had to coax them into talking as they were clearly edgy and wanted to press on, but once they realised we were just tourists and our military escort was packing nothing more than a notebook and a woolly hat, they relaxed a bit. The other two or three vehicles stayed out of sight and it transpired they were Sudanese guest workers taking a short cut home from Libya with more duty-free items than the transit lounge at Dubai airport. As soon as they could, they sped off into the dark to regroup with the other vehicles and moved on out of sight.
Next morning Richard and I walked the few kilometres to the monument on a GPS bearing and got there just as the cars arrived. Inside, just as at Regenfeld, an old tin contains notes from passers-by, including one of the old promotional stickers for my Sahara guidebook. We turned southwest now for Jebel Uweinat, 150-km away, passing isolated volcanic craters poking out of the sand sheet like blisters. As we neared the mountain Mahmoud decided to skirt round the east side into Sudan to pay a visit to the Ain Murr well as our guard seemed OK about it. We spotted a long-abandoned border post right on 22°N, some old portacabins and other junk, and crawled through the rubble foothills until we were back on the sand sheet, with the fin-like outcrop of Jebel Kissu a few miles away. We turned west again and soon located the entrance to the shallow valley below the southern cliffs of Uweinat. As the valley narrowed and got stonier we passed some stone ruins and a stripped-out aeroplane fuselage. Once the cars could not continue, we walked on to discover the distinctly manky, algae-rimmed soak that was Ain Murr well – not a water source to rely on out here.
The bones of a dead Barbary sheep lay by the track and Ain Murr was the
only place we heard the buzz of flies on the whole trip. Rubbish left by previous visitors underlined how much better it always is to camp out in the wild desert. That night Aisa took even longer than usual to serve the meal, by which time some of us had turned in. But then again, he was up till 1am making his delicious flat breads, rolled out with a jack handle and fried on the lid of an old oil drum. Slow though he was some nights, Aisa managed to serve fresh food for the entire two-week trip, pulling it out from his various roof rack crates. I had endured miserable food on my previous visit to the Gilf with FJ and Aisa’s far superior offerings reminded me that, just like an army, an expedition also travels on its stomach.
Near the camp we found a jerrican stamped ‘WD 1945’ and a pair of engine cowlings, probably part of the fuselage that later research revealed to be an Italian Savoia bomber sabotaged in 1942 during an LRDG raid when the place had been an Italian base.
We drove back round to the Egyptian side next day and into the much bigger valley of Karkur Talh. The valley is half blocked by a minefield, though why mine a dead-end valley with no water was anybody’s guess. Keeping a wide berth between us and the skull and crossbones signs, we powered over the sandy banks as Toby clung on in the back of the red Cruiser, doors flapping, to get some full-frontal action shots of the Rover-bodied cars.
Around here it rains about once a decade and the valley of Karkur Talh drains the entire eastern side of Uweinat mountain, the only haven of vegetation and talh or acacia trees in the entire arid expanse of the Libyan Desert. It wasn’t only us that appreciated it. Several thousand years ago Neolithic people grazed his animals here and, as at similar sites elsewhere in the Sahara, evidence of his life survives in the painted and engraved rock art on the cave walls and the odd stone tool.
A couple of us were hoping to have a crack at climbing to the 1900m-summit of Jebel Uweinat, a demanding two-day trek along whatever route the mountain offered. In a bit of a strop with his car, Mahmoud needed some persuading to continue up the valley far enough so we could have a shot at it, but as the sky lightened next morning, Richard and I strode up the dry creek bed with three bottles of water and a sleeping bag, soon followed by Toby and even Mahmoud who decided to come along too.
One of the big frustrations on this trip had been the slowness of the crew to pack up and get going in the morning. In the desert it’s customary to get up just after dawn and move off an hour or so later, parking up to enjoy some daylight before sunset. On this trip the drivers were still snoring away at 9am and, with regular problems getting one vehicle or another to fire up, it was always mid-morning before they set off. On Uweinat we were determined to seize the day!
This was all before the miracle of Google Earth so I carried a pixelated print of a sat photo showing a route taken a year or so earlier by another group which followed a likely looking valley up to the summit plateaux. Unfortunately I’d failed to lay an accurate long-lat grid onto this image and so, even with GPS, our position was just an estimate. In the end we started the day in Sudan, wandered north in to Egypt and, after an agonising late-afternoon up a boulder-filled valley, camped in Libya, about 500m below but still three kms from the summit – quite possibly the first people to camp there since the late Holocene! On the way up Mahmoud had discovered a new art site and our clearing even came with a bit of firewood. We were all knackered from staggering around all day on the rubble slopes and as the route onward was no less clear and would get much steeper, we returned to base next morning, getting back to the cars on the last dregs in our water bottles. The mountain would be there next time.
Uweinat was our southernmost point and from here it was north all the way, around the Gilf Kebir plateau to Siwa, still about 1000 miles away. We headed for the Gilf and the Wadi Sora cave, made famous as the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ in the English Patient movie. As we neared the cave later that day we passed some clothes scattered in the sands, the remains of Somalian refugees who’d been dumped here by unscrupulous people traffickers while on their way to Benghazi and a new life in Europe. Loutfi had come across their bodies some months before. Besides the old favourites of guns and drugs, right across the Sahara it is now illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who made money for the smuggling mafias. I’d passed a similar group in Algeria a year earlier, dumped the night before on a plateau, 100km from the nearest town.
The famous ‘swimming’ figures in the cave at Wadi Sora are nothing special compared to the wonders in Karkur Talh, but the cove scooped into the south-facing escarpment of the Gilf made a great place to camp. It was Christmas Eve and from my suitcase I pulled out a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to pass among the ambassadors settled around the fire.
Before I’d left the UK I’d been given a mysterious waypoint, said to be for an intriguing and at that time secret new rock art site discovered nearby, just a year earlier. Not knowing quite what to expect, we were amazed at what we found when we located the point: an overhanging shelter 30 feet wide covered in layers of rock paintings and engravings, both mundane and obscure and all like nothing I’d seen before. We sat back in amazement, snapping away, again and again finding new detail and connections. Mysterious headless creatures shared the wall with handprints, rows of dancing figures and long-vanished beasts. Said to be the most significant rock art discovery in the Sahara in 40 years, it shows that the Sahara has many secrets to give up yet.
We were now heading around the west side of the Gilf, at times creeping over the Libyan border on to easier terrain, not that there was anyone there to stop us. Without the plateau’s protection, the north winds blew down on us and chilled the day and next morning Mahmoud’s Land Rover was so poorly it needed a good session with the gas stove under the sump before being towed reluctantly into life.
We curved back east towards the edge of the Gilf and found ourselves on a trail of camel bones: the old raiding route from Kufra in Libya to Dakhla (via Abu Ballas, see above). By mid-afternoon the plateau receded and before us the pale dunes emerged: the final run through the Great Sand Sea to Siwa which, even with the now lightened cars, would be the most difficult part of the route.
We came upon a group of cairns marking an entry point to a northbound corridor which led to the so-called Silica Glass Field, discovered in the 1930s by one of Bagnold’s chums. The origin of the pale green silica glass (left) is still a mystery: was it the result of melted sand following an extra-terrestrial impact, or a more prosaic flint-like concretion of sediments? Kevin had his ideas as we strolled around the gravel corridor like beachcombers, unearthing fragments of glass. Some bits had even been carved into Neolithic tools, and a few years ago it transpired that an emerald-like gem in a piece of Tutankamun’s jewellery (right) was in fact silica glass, suggesting the pharaohs (or people they traded with) roamed further west of the Nile than was originally thought.
We left the glass field, with 500km of dune driving ahead of us. The Great Sand Sea is composed of dunes that run in parallel lines for hundreds of kilometres from the Siwa Depression to the Gilf Kebir in the south. But the further north you go the more confused the dunes become; the easy corridors close up so that by the time you near Siwa the dunes are in a complex, non-linear jumble that makes progress very slow and dangerous, even with our greatly reduced payloads. I’ve never been a fan of dune driving and was not looking forward to this section; besides the dangers, dune driving is hard on the cars and your nerves, and is not even that interesting. Although it’s exhilarating when you get it right, because of the need to maintain speeds or sink, it’s only a matter of time before you blow it.
It was my turn to be in Mahmoud’s car that morning and I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. Over the previous few days either the flexing body or the need to really slam the doors shut had cracked the window glass which was now held together with stick-on shading. Then, when the back door I was leaning on flew open as Mahmoud executed one of his signature swerving manoeuvres, I decided enough was enough – I would rather take my chances being brained by the oil drums in Loutfi’s Toyota than put up with Mahmoud’s erratic driving.
By the end of the day the gravel corridors closed up and filled with sand and we began to take to the dune banks to reach the adjacent corridor leading north. We were all secretly pleased when Mahmoud decided against pushing on for the direct route to Siwa and instead chose to skirt around the less severe formations to the west, along the Libyan border. Even then the cars regularly sank into unseen soft patches. We ended the day close to the Libyan border, knowing that tomorrow there was no choice and we’d have to head northeast, back into the Sand Sea, to reach Siwa.
A heavy dew covered us all the following morning, a sign that we were in the more humid Mediterranean climatic zone. The dune lines kept pushing us northward as the drivers scanned for a low pass to make a hop to the east. At one point Mahmoud was on the very crest of a drop when a harsh gear change popped a half shaft – not surprising with a 3.5-litre bus engine turning the original Rover axle. In fact it turned out to be only a stripped hub drive flange and was easily changed while we warmed ourselves in the sands over a quick brew.
With drive restored Tobe got into position to film the cars coming down the slope. Loutfi rolled down in the red Tojo then Mahmoud eased over the crest, but for some daft reason eased to the left where a slight hump pushed up the wheels and slowly tipped the top-heavy Land Rover on its side with a thump and a clatter.
For a few seconds the upside down engine turned over, sucking sand through the snorkel and oil into the cylinders. A few moments later it stalled and Mahmoud emerged from the capsized wagon unhurt and flopped down in the sand in shock, followed by Aisa and Faraq the mechanic. Luckily Mahmoud had had a cargo barrier fitted which had stopped gas bottles and the like bouncing off their heads, but the roof rack’s contents spilled down the side of the dune.
While these were collected, Ibrahim brought the white Rover down the dune with no drama and a rope was run from the fallen car to the powerful Tojo. The conspicuous silence from the crew made it clear that they too thought that Mahmoud had been an accident waiting to happen, though as it turned out it was his pride which received the biggest dent. Excuses that the parabolics sprang back and pushed him over were diplomatically dealt with as the car was dragged down the slope and pulled back onto its wheels (see video below). Faraq set about ejecting the oil from the cylinders and removed the sand-caked air filter which could be cleaned later. Just an hour after the tumble the Mahmoudmobile started with a puff of black smoke and settled down to a steady tickover.
Chastened by his experience, we continued cautiously northeast, now recce-ing possible passes on foot and easing gently down the slip faces, knowing that it wasn’t over until it was over. Limestone pavements protruded from the dunes and bits of vegetation popped up here and there. At one point we discovered some fulgarites (sand petrified by lightning into a glassy helix tube) as big as an arm. Our homesick crew could smell Siwa and were keen to press on, not least Ibrahim whose wife was expecting their seventh child any day. But by dusk we did the right thing and stopped a couple of hours out of Siwa on a chalky outcrop studded with fossilised sea-shells.
By mid-morning next day we’d worked our way through the dune maze and were looking down on the ink blue lake which led to Siwa, feeling like we’d finally come ashore from a long sea voyage. On his home turf now, Ibrahim led the way through the dunes to the hot spring of Bir Wahed (below) where were scrubbed off a fortnight of Saharan grime and ordered a string of Oranginas and crisps as if they were the very fruits of Eden.