Category Archives: Sahara Reviews

Book review; Egypt, Civilisation in the Sands – Pauline and Phillipe de Flers

egypt

EGYPT, CIVILISATION IN THE SANDS
Pauline and Phillipe de Flers (Konemann, 2000, (o/p)

Thankfully not another ‘pharaohs and fellucas’ job. The first half covers the Western Oases (Siwa, Farafra, Dakhla, etc), the second the Sand Sea, Gilf and Uweinat: the history, rock art, inter-war explorers, geology, etc, all with great photos and interesting boxed asides. This sort of book would normally be 30-40 quid, but at Stanfords was remaindered at £9.99. I should have bought them all. Scarce on the web.

Book review: Flyaway ~ Desmond Bagley

flyawayFLYAWAY
Desmond Bagley (House of Stratus)

Geographically authentic, fast-paced thriller set in the Hoggar, Tenere and Tassili of the central Sahara. This is Tintin for grown-ups, where laconic heroes like Burne say “what the hell…” a lot and casually swap diffs’ during sandstorms while chased by mysterious assassins. Women are usually somewhere else and “strangely attractive”. Compulsively entertaining departure lounge stuff and ten times better than Cussler’s terrible Sahara (see review). I loved it!

DVD review: Clive Cussler’s Sahara

cussSorry to say, Clive Cussler’s 1992 book, Sahara was a load of implausible crap with a feeble eco-message. I found it easily unfinishable and a waste of a good title.

Tcusslersahrahe film from 2005 (now on dvd) gives a jokey ‘Indiana Jones’ take on the absurd caper because, one assumes, no other style was possible. Treasure hunter Dirt Pitt – unwittingly bringing to mind the Steve Zissou character in The Life Aquatic – jets up the Niger River in a speedboat with sidekicks Steve Zahn and another bloke to locate a long-lost ironclad battleship from the American Civil War which managed to end up the Malian Sahara.
 Meanwhile dedicated WHO doctor Penelope Cruz (who can’t quite summon the unself-conscious gusto of the US cast) also wants to get into war-torn Mali to investigate the source of a plague which could contaminate the whole planet and bring about the end of life as we know it.
 I won’t spoil your film by telling you that, with the guys’ help she saves the planet, they find the treasure, the put-upon ‘Tuaregs’ (horse-mounted no less) overcome the tank corps, the baddies get shafted and Dirk ends up frolicking with Penny in the Californian surf.

Shot in Spain and Morocco, it has to be said the locations look good. Morocco really is not bad at all and the action sequences are as good as they get. Matthew McWhatever lacks Cruz’s embarrassment at the production and his sidekick Steve Zahn is funny. What always gets me is the huge amount of work it must take to produce such a mass of quivering tripe, with split-second cuts piled on top of each other like an espresso pop video, and lashings of SFX, DFX and FX-knows what, but all for such a truly lame script. Maybe it’s for kids but it seems to parody itself, not least when, after trekking across the dunes handcuffed to a pick-up tray, the duo come across a crashed plane and deftly convert it into a sand yacht. Just like the book then, a waste of a good title and as deserty films go.

Book review: The Forgotten Path ~ David Newman

2019: this route appears to have reopened.
The_Forgotten_Path

THE FORGOTTEN PATH
David Newman, 1965 (o/p)

This book is a cracker. In 1959, with the French Sahara convulsed by wars of independence, Newman, an engineer who’d failed to launch “a product two years ahead of its time”  jacks it all in to visit a friend in Nigeria. But unlike his friend, Newman decides to drive all the way across the desert – “the sort of adventure that had my nerve endings tingling”. And to make matters harder he chooses to do it in his new Ford Zephyr.
In a saloon car it’s impossible” his Nigerian friend urges him, having struggled to reach Nigeria from Dakar in a Landrover. “I’ll see you in six weeks” was Newman’s firm reply. Trouble was, he’d spent £3000 preparing the car, was running out on the HP, and was skint.

ford_zephyr

The romance sours and he’s turned back at the border near Foum el Hassan by the Moroccans where the FLN (sheltering in newly independent Morocco) and the French (clinging on to Algeria) were still battling it out. Infuriated by this reversal and convinced that his sheer determination and self-importance will win the day, he tries to bully people into overruling the decision but eventually has to storm off to Oujda on the opposite side of the country. Here again he’s repelled and so decides to charge illegally into Algeria.

“To hell with them. It was impossible was it? I’d show them whether it was!”

newmanmap

And so he and his Swiss hitcher muddle overnight through machine-gun fire into French/Algerian territory. He gets interrogated in Bechar, loses his suspicious companion and eventually gets permission to go west to Tindouf, alone. But it’s August so he has a hard time of it; gets repeatedly stuck, gets lost, gets desperate and at times flips out. He shoots his soup can with his ’45 and chases gazelles to exhaustion through the night – but then fondles them lovingly.
Arriving at Tindouf (then a military base) he’s treated as a hero, given much free hospitality, admiration and a guide to Bir Mogrein (“my big worry – that he would smell – was completely unfounded“). Then the poor old Zephyr begins to break up: first the drive shaft, then the clutch, he gets one shipped up from Dakar but the rally-spec engine blows up too. He flies to Dakar expecting the embassy or the Ford agents to bail him out, but merely gets repatriated ‘on bail’. Back home, he borrows some money from his mother, flies back out with a new companion and engine bits to then stagger down to Dakar, on the way exhausting his welcome with the French who now see him as an irresponsible scrounger.

The-Forgotten-Path

His bad reputation rolls ahead of him like a bow wave and in the Gambia he’s been forced to stay in natives’ lodgings. The climate turns on them and at one point he threatens to shoot a ferryman who – of all things – requests payment to barge him across the Faleme river into Mali. Penniless and with his companion now struck down with fever, they lurch from village to lorry, scrounging fuel, tow starts and food. After Bamako it’s relatively plain sailing to Nigeria (another engine in Ghana), but his friend has long since left. With his car a wreck, the book ends with Newman boasting that he’ll return north via the Hoggar route in summer. It’s impossible, after all! If he did, there is no record of a book about it, The Forgotten Path was published five years later when he was 35.
Even allowing for the era, Newman puts himself across like some arrogant rich-boy/student thinking the world owed him and his ‘impossible’ undertaking, making even Geoffrey ‘Fearful Void’ Moorhouse look reasonable. Time and again he boils over when friends, strangers, hotel staff or – for pity’s sake! – when embassy refuse to bail him out, and yet he obviously started the trip nearly broke with plans of ‘selling film rights’ while bouncing cheques like a Haarlem Globetrotter.
It’s this breathtaking arrogance and the lively ‘what-on-earth-could-happen-next’ pace that drives you through this short book. One admires adventurousness of course, but in his own words Newman comes across as deeply obnoxious and who deserved everything he got. Available online for a couple of quid.

Book review: From Libyan Sands to Chad ~ Nigel Heseltine

chad

FROM LIBYAN SANDS TO CHAD
Nigel Heseltine, 1960 (o/p)

Of the same era but less petulant than Newman, the author sets off on what turns out to be a vexatious journey across the Sahara through Libya to Lake Chad via the Tubu lands of the Tibesti and Ennedi. What makes this book so unusual in the era of unreviewably lame Travel Book Club adventures, is that the author is no fluffy travel writer, but a well-read if rather stroppy Theroux-esque character who does not spare those who irritate him.

His Jeep blows its gearbox south of El Gatrun and he is forced to travel on in a lorry and the chirppy M. Gautier in his Landrover. Having studied his Nachitgal and other material, the author explores the rarely seen Tibesti, Ounianga and the Ennedi and the customs of the wily Tubu. It’s a credit to the author’s detailed research that it was used to fill the huge gaps in that Saharan turkey, Sahara, The Life of a Great Desert (see other reviews). From Libyan Sands… is about the best book available in English on the little known Sahara of Chad.

More on Chad here.

Book review: Grains of Sand ~ Michael Buckley

grainsGRAINS OF SAND
Michael Buckley, 2001

Starting in Chad, a former BBC journalist alluding to a mid-life crisis, travels on and off for two years, tracing the bands of desert which ring the globe around each hemisphere. Leaving N’Djamena at the height of summer, he struggles up to Bardai in the company of war-grizzled Tubu, and then through the Air to Iferouane with similarly combat-fatigued Tuaregs, returning to Agadez to stagger around with a camel for a few days. Timbuktu is reached aboard a pinasse from Mopti, and in Mauritania he claims to climb Guelb er Richat with his newly wed wife, though it reads like they never got out of St Louis. The Guelb account is either invented or exaggerated for literary effect (the reality as some of us may know, is rather disappointing). Other deserts in southern Africa, Chile, Mexico and southwest America. Australia, China, India and the Middle East see the book finish up in Israel. What must have sounded like a cracking proposal to a publisher largely fails to satisfy desert lovers. Over a third of the book covers Chad and Niger, and in the Air one learns much about the disastrous failure of the Tuareg rebellion. However Timbuktu is reached but not described by a single word, while an extraordinary country like Mauritania spans just three paragraphs! (OK, it was his honeymoon but it would have been better deleted). Confessing to disapproval with materialist Western ways, the sanitised New World deserts are briefly, dutifully and at times scornfully described, and yet there is no doubt these places are as beautiful and alluring as the “quintessential” Sahara.

One gets the impression that, after burning himself out in Chad and Niger, the author loses enthusiasm and energy for the whole idea and, with a brief recovery in China and the Indian subcontinent, just does what it takes to complete his ambitious assignment. The result is another white middle-class romantic’s travelogue, cataloguing the familiar range of encounters with locals, sun-fried ex-pats and fellow travellers we know so well. Roll on the ‘Glasgow School’ of British travel writing!

Most of his visits are at the height of summer. The reasons for this timing are not fully explained, but one suspects a “narcissistic masochism” was at play, along with a belief that the full power (if not appreciation) of a desert must be experienced at its most extreme. What bollocks. I look forward to Ranulph Fiennes’ next book about walking to the South Pole in winter! We also get the familiar plea for the futures of beleaguered nomadic tribal peoples – but as Michael Asher puts it in conversation with the author, this is “a rich man telling poor people they are better off poor”.

But one thing Michael Buckley has a good crack at (improving greatly on Geoff Nicholson’s limp ‘Day Trips in the Desert’ which came before) is unravelling the desert’s paradoxical fascination on our skewed western imaginations, the “instinctive discomfort and fear alongside exhilaration, aesthetic ecstasy and awe.” Here, over a couple of pages, he succeeds in getting to the heart of the matter.

In the end any travelogue relies greatly on the reader’s empathy with the narrator, but also on their diligence, at best offering an expansion of the reader’s understanding of an exotic or familiar environment. After a promising start the ambitious concept of ‘Grains of Sand’ quickly slips through the fingers.

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

warm

GREAT WARM DESERTS OF THE WORLD
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.

saharalibdz

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

TZZHE HUNT FOR ZERZURA; THE LOST OASIS AND THE DESERT WAR
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

asher

IMPOSSIBLE JOURNEY
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