Category Archives: sahara book reviews

Book review: Great Warm Deserts of the World ~ Andrew Goudie


A. Goudie, 2002

This is one of the author’s many books on the subject in a ‘Landscapes and Evolution’ series from OUP. All the world’s deserts are covered, though only Sahara one is reviewed here.


Thirty percent of the planet’s continents are defined as desert and of the 444 pages in this book, Sahara gets 64. It’s divided into ‘Sahara’ and ‘Libyan Desert’ chapters, a designation that originates with Bagnold (see Libyan Sands, p.181).
Geographically I must say I find this reasoning a bit abstruse (with political overtones of ‘French Sahara’ v ‘Our Desert’), but of course many contiguous desert areas, Australia being a good example, are labelled as separate ‘deserts’ whose boundaries are even more vague. And interestingly, the map right from 1926 identifies the Libyan Desert as separate from, if adjacent to the Sahara.

As a way of learning more about the Sahara’s landforms, I found the Sahara chapter (where some maps depict the ‘full’ Sahara) a bit unsatisfying, with focus on certain areas like the Chotts, the Chad Basin and even the Inland Niger Delta. I could well be missing some arcane academic point about desert landforms, but it seemed the same case in the Australia chapter which I know well too. The Libyan Desert chapter is actually limited to Egypt from where one presumes most material is easily available and is a bit more meaty, with the paleo-rivers beneath the Great Sand Sea, the Gilf and the many depressions discussed in more detail and in both chapters the fluctuating climate – particularly the Holocene Wet Phase which coincides with much of the Sahara’s rock art – is described.

For anyone wanting to go further, there are countless references, good maps and tables but at £90 this book is for specialists only. A similar book written 30 years earlier is Geomorphology in Deserts by R Cooke and A Warren. You can find it used on the web for around £15 and it’s as informative, even if the science has moved on a bit.

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.

Book review: Impossible Journey ~ Michael Asher


Michael Asher (Penguin)

Asher is a modern-day Thesiger (Asher wrote Thesiger’s biography), with a similar distrust of cars and a love for the desert and its people. In 1986, accompanied by newly wed wife, Mariantonietta (who photographed their journey), they succeeded in completing Geoffrey Moorhouse’s failed attempt to cross the Sahara from Mauritania to the Nile. Unlike Moorhouse (The Fearful Void), the Ashers had worked in the desert for some years and the author was familiar with nomadic customs, selection of guides and the all-important purchase and care of camels.

Once underway they set a gruelling pace that even some of the guides found tough. The mentally disorienting ego loss and intolerable stress they experienced towards the end of their trek comes close to some of ‘The Sheltering Sky’s themes. It’s as well to remember that countless Moors and other pilgrims may have completed the same crossing over the last thousand years. As one perplexed Nigeran border official ruefully observed: “What will you westerners think of next?” That may be so but it’s still one of the best accounts of a long, long camel journey across the Sahara that wasn’t just quickie to justify a book.

Book review: Incident at Jebel Sherif ~ Kuno Gross

ijsIncident at Jebel Sherif
In search of the First Clash of the Special Forces, 1941
Kuno Gross (2009)

History gets written by the winners, they say and so there are many books and online sources extolling the legendary exploits of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), especially their daring raid on Murzuk and the subsequent clash at Jebel Sherif, 150km southwest of Kufra. This new book describes the events from the Axis point of view.

It includes a detailed description of the development of the special forces on the Italian side (very interesting with rare information given) as well as the Allied/Commonwealth side (lots of background information on the LRDG) as well as the Free French forces who came up from Chad for the Murzuk raid. There is a full description of the raid and a reconstruction of the clash at Jebel Sherif with many photos and eyewitness reports.
The detailed trip description of the author to Jebel Sherif completes the full story. While associated information about the German exploration “DORA” (1942) is also included. The author lives in Libya and therefore could evaluate different details perfectly on two visits to Jebel Sherif.

This book is a comprehensive collection of all associated information to one of the most important historical incidents of the Special Forces in WWII and so is recommended to enthusiasts of the Libyan Desert and the North African campaign. Check out the website for more details and images from the book

Werner Lenz

Book review: Libyan Sands ~ Ralph Bagnold

Ralph Bagnold (Eland, 2010)

See also this archive film

Ralph Bagnold really was bagcarrquite an exceptional guy and Libyan Sands must be the best Saharan yarn written by a Brit (although he did not consider it the Sahara – see Warm Deserts, below). It describes his motor-car adventures and explorations in the Libyan Desert while stationed in Egypt in the 1920s and early 30s. Using Model T Fords loaded down at times with 150 gallons of fuel, Ralph and his chums spent every spare moment of leave exploring the Libyan Desert of Egypt and northern Sudan. His enthusiasm for (often literally) pushing the spindly, steaming Fords across uncharted ergs helped develop today’s desert driving techniques such as sand ladders and low tyre pressures.

bagcrew What is striking is that his baggpushpassionate attraction for the desert is most contemporary, while his energy and curiosity led, among other things, to The Physics of Blown Sand, the definitive account of sand formations and features – for geology graduates only. Bagnold comes across in the much-admired mould of the self-effacing Brit hero, never complaining or boasting while esandwindnacting extraordinary feats of exploration. The book includes his potted history of the exploration of the Libyan Desert up to that time, as well as a prescient spin on the enduring Zerzura legend. An underrated classic.

In the late 80s Sand, Wind, And War: Memoirs Of A Desert Explorer was published in the US just as the author died. It’s hard to find online at a normal price though libraries will have it. You get the feeling it would be as great a read as Libyan Sands.


Book review: Lost Oasis ~ Robert Twigger


LOST OASIS; In Search of Paradise
Robert Twigger (2007)

Robert Twigger packs it all into a container and moves the family to his wife’s native Cairo where the money will go further. With previous adventures and books to his credit (his Voyageur book was great), he soon acquaints himself with the historical and geographical treasures to be found in the Libyan Desert and sets about cooking up a new project; to track down the lost oasis of Zerzura. As a motive, it may have helped hook his publishers and accounts for the corny title, but it’s really about the author’s more tangible discovery of the Sahara, and as such is much more interesting.

Our man is a candid correspondent which makes it easy to criticise him as being sometimes naive in Cairo’s shark infested streets, but this quality also draws you into the book. He tries to drum up like-minded explorers, but mostly ends up with shysters who shaft him with a smile. Averse to noisy, polluting cars and the complexities of camel handling, he builds the trolley pictured on the front cover to explore the desert independently and at a natural pace. Unsure how far that will get him, he also joins a tour led by the notorious Colonel Mestekawi (pseudonymed in the book) to the New Cave in the Gilf, a discovery Twigger seems oddly unimpressed by. During the trip he vividly describes the illicit satisfaction in finding Stone Age artefacts (their collection is outlawed on Mestekawi tours, along with other, less controversial activities). A later tour neatly segues the finding of a long sought after fossilised shark’s tooth with ‘power objects’ and a failed attempt at networking at a literary launch in London.

Following the tour, he recognises the advantage for a decent 4WD while acknowledging they can ‘get between you and the desert’. A clapped-out Toyota takes him on a weekend’s dune-bashing with some ex-pats, and later to the Djara Cave where he quickly learns the realities of desert driving.

As illuminating as his desert travels are, the mind-boggling frustrations of simply dealing with life in Cairo are more compelling. They include independently buying a flat (expect the place to be stripped down to the door frames), getting a car or even just driving solo around town when you’re not part of the pampered ex-pat elite. A couple of days there must make the peace of the Western Desert all the more rewarding.

He may not have travelled far and long into the desert with his silly trolley, but he certainly gets to the nub of the desert’s appeal. The whole thing comes across with an authenticity you can’t ascribe to all contrived travelogues. The book winds up with a checkpoint-dodging test run of the water-portaging trolley out of Dakhla. After all the frustrations and false starts, he answers his companion’s idle query about finding the elusive ‘Zerzura’: “We already have.”

Book review: The Lost Trail of the Sahara ~ R. Frison Roche


R Frison Roche, 1956 (o/p)

Translated by none other than Paul Bowles (see Sheltering Sky), Lost Trail is a fictional Saharan adventure by an explorer and mountaineer who travelled extensively in the desert before the war. In the 1930s he led an expedition to make the first ascent of Garet El Djenoun in the Tefedest.

It tells the tale of Beaufort, a rookie soldier sent out into the Saharan summer on a long and dangerous mission to track down a renegade Tuareg, Akou, accused of murder. Beaufort is accompanied by a scientist Lignac to provide a cover story for the mission, and the band of conscripts and local guides, both Tuareg and Chaamba, who make up the caravan which reaches out from the Hoggar into the then unknown northern Tenere.

Misfortunes, both random and sinister befall the caravan, as suspicions grow that the wily Tuareg know more than they admit about the location of Akou. Predations weigh down the convoy which eventually is singlehandedly ambushed by Akou and his wicked accessory, Tmara. But, providence wins the day, the baddies are vanquished, some of the goodies are sacrificed, though the book ends rather ambiguously with the remainder of the caravan trudging ever deeper into the Tenere to see what they might find. A rather lame subplot about Lignac, slowly uncovering a lost Phoenician trade route across the Tenere (akin to the real Garamantean chariot route) gives the book its title.

Frison’s yarn has an authenticity, written by a Saharan of the desert born, a fact which, like Asher’s Sandstorm, always makes such books especially satisfying to those few who know the region. What is particularly interesting, especially for a Frenchman, is the light he casts on the Tuaregs and their long-time enemies, the Chaambi Arabs of the north. The former come across as sly and untrustworthy while the Arabs are painted in more rosey hues, possessing the traditional virtues one associates with nomads. One does wonder if Frison’s fiction was coloured by real life experiences.

Book review: Mauritanie au GPS ~ Cyril Ribas & Sylvie Beallet


Cyril Ribas & Sylvie Beallet, Editions Takla Makane – 2001

Now hard to find this, fully illustrated paperback edition of Sylvie’s GPS route guide to Mauritanian pistes covers 10,000km of pistes, right across the country up to and beyond the Mali border to places you have never heard of as well as the Beach piste, the rail route to Choum and some interesting excursions in the Adrar south of Atar. The layout of each route is similar to Sahara Overland which in my opinion is an optimal way of presenting GPS routes in a book – minescomprehensible even if you’re not fully conversant with French. Route maps are laid over old Soviet 1 millions which is a smart idea and there are plenty of boxed asides in the text on Mauritanian culture and history plus some tasty colour photos. It’s pricey but nothing like it exists in any language, even now. A route guide for the truly adventurous – and all researched in fat-tyred 2CV… stick that in your 4×4 pipe and smoke it!

Book review: Men of Salt ~ Michael Benanav


MEN OF SALT – Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold
Michael Benanav ~ The Lyons Press, 2006

There are few camel trading routes in the world. One of them is in Mali, and it stretches about 750km north from Timbuktu as far as salt mines of Taoudenni. A few western travellers have made the journey in the company of the salt caravans. Michael Benanav’s book is a wonderful account of such a journey made in late 2003.

While there seems to be little shortage of slightly crazed travellers making their way to some extraordinary places, on this earth, it does not necessarily mean that the book produced is worth reading. Michael Benanav is a journalist with a flair for the descriptive, and for ensuring that his book holds the reader’s interest from beginning to end. He successfully blends some of the history of the route and the salt trade, some of his thoughts on the philosophy of travel, and provides an account of the trials, frustrations, enjoyment and the wonder of taking such a journey. He meets and travels with many people on the way – his guide, another traveller, the men who operate the caravan, the people of Arouane, the miners of Taoudenni itself and the nomadic people of the desert.

Michael Benanav makes a conscious effort to travel with the camelliers and his guide, without any concessions to his western background, in the form of GPS, satellite telephone or special food. He takes the risks to get as close as possible to the genuine experience of travelling in the same way people have for hundreds of years. The difficulties of such travel, and the rewards of doing so are reflected in his account.

The author writes -“Despite all I had seen thus far, and all I had imagined, I was unprepared for the untempered desolation of Taoudenni. It is situated on utterly lifeless desert flats; not a single leaf, or even thorn, grows from the parched, crusty dirt, which was so sharp it bit into the soles of my bare feet.”

Having travelled that way myself by camel, I can attest to the accuracy of the descriptions provided in his book of the scenery and people, which are true and evocative, without any hint of exaggeration. Whilst the description of the scenery is wonderful, it is really the interest Michael Benanav expresses in the people of this landscape that make the book such a strong account of his journey.

Benanav observes “I’d been deeply affected by my contact with the miners, not only because of their kindness, but because they’d taken this potentially hellish place and made it, if not heaven, at least human …”

The reader is introduced to people whose way of life is so different from ours. People who rely exclusively on word-of-mouth for communication. People who dance and sing after a day’s hard work in a salt mine at the end of the earth. People for whom an arranged marriage is normal. People who can navigate unaided across what appears to be featureless harsh landscape for days, and arrive at their destination as planned. All are beautifully described in this book.

Sensibly the book includes a two maps to illustrate the route and while the photographs in the book are interesting (both the colour plates, and monochrome chapter heading images), and add value to the book, the strength of the book lies in the writing.

The book is an excellent account of the author’s journey, as well as being very enjoyable to read from beginning to end.

Alistair Bestow

Book review: The Most Beautiful Desert of All ~ Philippe Diole

Philippe Diole, 1959 (o/p)

diolePhilippe Diolé (left), a close friend and associate of Cousteau, made a solo camel and lorry journey to the Tassili N’Ajjer and the Fezzan in the early fifties. This was not a journey of science or exploration, it was made for sheer personal enjoyment. The book conveys this beautifully, recalling the impressions, exciting moments and deep moving personal thoughts encountered during the month-long camel trek through the Tassili (including Wadi Djerat), accompanied by a single Tourareg guide. In the second part of the book, Diolé recounts one of the earliest visits to the amazing engravings of Wadi Mathendous.

The book’s main appeal will be to those already having been to the deep desert. It is a beautiful clear distillation of the emotions experienced by true desert addicts, that many of us are aware of, but so few of us have the ability to express in words. It remains one of my all time favourite desert classics. See also this.

Andras Zboray