Category Archives: Sahara Reviews

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

Book review: My Mercedes is not for Sale ~ Jeroen van Bergeijk


Jeroen van Bergeijk (2008)

On starting this slim book my expectations were that, along with a title that may well work better in Dutch, surely there’s not much to be written about driving a Mercedes to West Africa and selling it? But journalist Jeroen van Bergeijk has a pretty good go and, much like Mercedes’ renowned emblem, succeeds in doing so by diverging in various directions: taking a tour of the Mercedes factory with the three-pointed Mercederatti, discussing topics such as the cult of this still much-admired brand, the ethics in selling an old banger to ‘poor’ Africans for a profit, and even the very ethos of the travel experience by way of the 1970s cult book Zen and the Art of… There are many other interesting topics which, I’m sorry to say, months after reading the book have slipped my mind. All this helps pad out the usual overlanding misadventures along the way.

You get the feeling My Merc.. is aimed at a more credulous North American audience who may not know such a zany adventure is even possible, let alone commonly undertaken by Europeans where it appears the book has had less of an impact.

You can find more on youtube. Cover your ears at the start if you find Janis Joplin’s obligatory track a bit like running your nails down a blackboard. Hang in there, some nice West Africa music follows.

Book review: Mysterious Sahara ~ Byron Khun de Prorok

Byron Khun de Prorok, 2001

Byron Khun the What? I’d never heard of this guy in the annals of Saharan exploration, and a suspicion with some exaggerated and surely fabricated descriptions got me to search through my library and on the web.
Turns out he was an American with a Polish title who dedicated his early life to the exploration of ‘mysteries of the ancient world’, following an life-changing encounter with Shackleton as a youth. Prorok’s African expeditions in the 1920s and early 30s (notably ancient Carthage) became the subject of several books which Narrative Press also publish, as well as a series of popular lecture tours, films and articles back home.

Mysterious is clearly written for a market hungry for more ancient treasures following Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb in 1922. It starts off by reminding us how deadly the Sahara is in any number of ways, followed by an over-the-top description of the cave-dwellers of Matmata where the hyperbole starts to froth.

He then sets off south for the Hoggar, no mean feat in 1925 but nevertheless embellishing the landscape and events to Victorian literary levels. By chance he learns of the location of Queen Tin Hinan’s tomb – the legendary ancestral mother figure of the Tuareg (that’s Tuareg, not Taureg, as is irritatingly repeated in the no less lurid back cover blurb).
What follows can only be described as the looting of an ancient and deeply significant burial site, rather than an archaeological excavation, for Prorok’s motivation errs distinctly towards gold, emeralds and glory in the Carteresque mold. (Interestingly Narrative have published a parallel account of the excavation by one Alonzo Pond, which the blurb says differs greatly from Prorok).

With Tin Hinan crated up, we’re then treated to more impressions of the gruelling desert and a fruitless rummage around Siwa whose natives appear even more degraded than Matmatan troglodytes. Several near disasters, ambushes and discoveries occur in between. Note they are always ‘near disasters…’. A deadly and very rare lizard that attacks him one night but luckily is blasted to mincemeat by a shotgun: sadly no remains for the esteemed taxidermy dept. They go off to find a legendary ‘Temple of Doom’ out in the sands, can’t find it but “we know it’s there”. But what you can’t take away is that Prorok was out there and doing it and in 1926 was indeed the first to ransack Tin Hinan’s tomb at Abalessa, even if his partner Maurice Reygasse may have been the more archaeological of the two (Reygasse went on to work with EF Gautier in the 1930s).

Strange then that Prorok (unlike his contemporary, Richard Halliburton) seems so little known despite his abundant energy for exploration, publicity and self-promotion. According to Lonely Planet: Algeria our man was no less than “…one of the most intrepid Saharan travellers of the 20th century”. He may have been more toff (in name at least) with a romantic imagination than a trained archaeologist, but his knowledge of the great European Saharan explorers’ is more than skin deep. The odd mistake is acceptable and some lurid theories are of their time, while the embellishment of adventurous exploits is nothing new of course. The mystery here is as much Prorok as the enigmatic Sahara.

Book review: People of the Veil ~ Francis Lord Rennel of Rodd

roddPeople of the Veil ~ Being an Account of the Habits, Organisation and History of the Wandering Tuareg Tribes which inhabit the Mountains of Air or Asben in the Central Sahara
Francis Lord Rennel of Rodd, 1926, o/p

rodd001The titled Rodd was the son of a diplomat who appeared to take a gap year in 1922 to study the Tuareg of the Aïr and the Damergu region around Tanout. He came up from then British Nigeria with Angus Buchanan and another guy and travelled in the region (with a visit to Termit) for nine months, possibly motivated by an ancestor who’d travelled in the region in the nineteenth century. Like so many people, he became enamoured with the Aïr Tuareg, but what we get here is a thorough anthropological treatise in the Kel Tagelmoust, as the Tuareg call themselves (‘Tuareg’ is a derogatory Arabic description for ‘Godless’). Their customs, architecture, origins as well as the landscape around them are all detailed intimately with only occasional descriptions and insights into Rodd’s travels. The many accompanying plates ar rather drab and a small map is included.

This book would only appeal to those looking for rare English-language anthropological detail on the Tuareg (Jeremy Keenan’s republished book on the Ahaggar Tuareg is another source) or those with a close interest in exploring the Aïr mountains.

Book review: Quiet for a Tuesday ~ Tom Sheppard

Tom Sheppard (Desert Winds, 2008)

Tom Sheppard is much admired, especially among a certain kind of Landrover owner, for his technical manuals on overlanding. This book is what his many fans have been waiting for, the background to acquiring that know-how over a series of desert trips spanning more than 40 years, mostly in Algeria, mostly in 4WDs and almost all alone.

‘QFAT’ is based around a 2006 trip to Algeria, a place which many widely travelled Saharans agree is ‘the fillet mignon of the Sahara’. Here the author managed – though probably for the last time as he admits later – to dodge the mandatory escort requirement which was imposed in the south following a mass kidnapping of several self-drive tourists in 2003. Inevitably he gets pulled over at one of the many checkpoints on the Trans-Sahara Highway (TSH) and the absent escort leads to questions in nearby In Salah. Here his previous visits are regarded with suspicion and his large-scale maps, carefully annotated over many years, are confiscated. No longer considered a threat, he is released.

qf2Shocked by this setback but undeterred and still without an escort, he heads west out of town and slips into the desert unnoticed with just a country map, waypoints from earlier visits and a lifetime’s navigational skills learned the hard way. Determined, daring and above all cautious (as his Air Force background suggests), he clearly revels in the mathematical, technical and even geometric challenges while engaging in and recording this sort of travel. As described, the nightly camp regimen verges on OCD but, like solo rock climbing, driving or riding alone in the Sahara is not something you can afford to do badly if you want to do it again.

Curling out and back southeast towards the TSH, he revisits old haunts such as the diminutive Adrar Kra dune field which, one suspects from the title page, means a lot to him and may even be the basis for his Desert Winds Publishing logo. As tension builds about the trouble he may be landing himself in, he reminisces over his many previous trips in the Sahara by Land Rover and motorcycle, as well as his now prized but still fallible Mercedes G-Wagen. Although it’s sometimes hard to keep track – it’s often the same place but different time – these asides are used skillfully to string out the denouement of the main 2006 trip. An ill-timed test of a rescue beacon in Libya a few years earlier saw him banned from that country; now in Algeria in 2006 it looks like it may happen again…

qf3At one point, recognising this could be his swansong, he acknowledges with raw candour, “… these [solo desert] trips are my life …”. You can believe it. From page to page his boyish wonder for, and deep love of the desert’s grandeur and awe – from the tiniest plant to a lens-filling vista – are evoked with unshakeable passion, dry humour and some original turns of phrase. “Can the eyes gasp?” he asks. They can out here.

On several other occasions he seems to be oddly out of touch. He belittles the motives (the 2003 kidnappings) which begat the escort rule and which, as has happened elsewhere in the Sahara, sadly ended the party for independent tourists. He posits that being in his sixties and in a G-Wagen makes him a low priority target for abduction. It may just be ‘Black Flag Café’ bravado, but after six months in captivity those survivors of 2003’s kidnapping who matched or exceeded his age may not have seen it the same way. And those kidnappings were just the tip of the iceberg on the recent suffering the country has endured, where the ‘pouvoir’ continues to enrich itself from gas revenues before its own party ends.

Along with a plea to the right-wing broadsheets, he asks for the British embassy’s help in recovering his confiscated ‘property’, even though such detailed, colonial-era mapping is commonly restricted in many similar countries. Instead the embassy passes on a communiqué from an Algerian ministry: he ‘must be removed from the country’. He continues to insist to the reader that it’s all due to the ‘misunderstanding’ over his maps, rather than admitting it’s more likely his continued, arrogant flouting of the ‘escort’ regs. After all, the previous year he’d been led back north out of the Algerian desert by the authorities. While it’s true that the roadside implementation of the ‘escort’ rule was until recently inconsistent, as in similarly controlled places like China, down south in Algeria eventually they’ll catch you.

qf1Elsewhere, the confidently asserted knowledge leads to some embarrassing schoolboy gaffes. A picture of an unusual, weathered lip of granite is mistakenly explained as being a double extrusion of lava. Earlier, after rebuffing a tour guide’s attempt to commandeer the unescorted Sheppard into his party, the author mocks him for not knowing the location or origin of a nearby arrangement of stones as being “…a huge French military insignia… So much for being guides…” he scoffs. Such insignia do exist in northern Sudan and Morocco, and clearly resemble what they are. But the adjacent photo  he offers is actually a pre-Islamic ‘keyhole’ tomb (example, left), possibly several thousand years old and pizkeykeycommon all over the region. Knowing this, his following priapic quip given in the book is all the more mortifying. The idea that he actually assumes these ancient tombs to be the work of bored colonial conscripts is baffling, because elsewhere he proves to be rightly awe-struck by the vivid evidence of Saharan pre-history.

Towards the end of this book, his testament, he slams his cards on the table. Part of the motivation behind his dogged insistence in continuing to travel alone in the Algerian Sahara is blurted out with uncharacteristic coarseness: “…too many fucking people… [in this dumbed-down, ‘technophobic’ world]”. The book then winds up with a kind of manifesto – translated and presented as a formal report to the Algerian Tourist Board no less – as to how desert tourism should proceed in their country. (Short version: not as it’s done in neighbouring Morocco or Tunisia.) He presents a pertinent analysis of how tourism can wreck a place (it is the abiding paradox of tourism, after all…) but, if I understood it correctly, you can’t help thinking his proposal: no escorts, just a hefty bond deposited at the border and returned on good behaviour – comes across as blatantly self-serving and unpoliceable. It may suit responsible (and affluent) European self-drive tourists; less the few escorts, drivers, cooks and yes, even genuine guides (from whom we all learn a thing or two) who serve what little desert tourism survives in Algeria.

Self-publishing can often mean low production standards but, like Tom Sheppard’s other Desert Winds titles, ‘QFAT’ compares well with any ‘coffee table’ travelogue. Be in no doubt you’re getting £20 of lush paper and thoughtful design, with plentiful photos alongside the relevant body text. Some of these brilliant images (bigger would have been nice) are what readers unfamiliar with the region will most readily relate to. The apparent lack of an editor (acknowledgements list only software, technicians and machines) sometimes makes for convoluted descriptions; sentences of nearly 80 words require breathing apparatus. I’m familiar with many of the locations and journeys being described, but other reviewers and readers may also find difficulty keeping track of time and place. “Life is in the details” is the author’s frequently repeated mantra, but at times you can’t see the sand for the grains.

A desert blogger once wrote: “… the desert is a place that can only be appreciated alone. Only then do you see it for what it really is.” Alone, the wilderness experience is intensified. The frequent peaks and troughs of genuine adventure travel become moments of dizzy elation or gnawing despair. Having the strength, steady nerves and hard-won experience to deal with this acute range of clawing emotions is what sets desert travellers like Tom Sheppard apart.

‘QFAT’ is a poignant if flawed eulogy to a lifetime’s desert travel, a homage to the breathtaking Algerian Sahara. It’s not for everyone, but you get the feeling the author quite likes it that way (locations and place names are often disguised). As the man himself says: “being a perfectionist is not an instant recipe for popularity, but you’ve got to be who you are”.