If you been on one of my Morocco Fly & Ride tours you’ll doubtless remember our overnight stop in Assaragh after our steep ride from Aguinane up along the cliffside overlooking the dry cascade – and perhaps a walk we took to the cliff edge later that afternoon. Here is a clip found by one of the riders recently, shot by a local in late 2018 of the usually dry waterfall in full spate. Aguinane
MZ1 (formerly MH23) Nekob > Skoura • 104km Last ridden: November 2022 – KTM 890 Adventure R; BMW 310GS
Description Now that the once classic MH4 from Nekob to Tinerhir (or Dades) is fully sealed, the southern sections of MH14 and MH15 still offer challenging off road crossings of the western Saghro mountains. A little too challenging for some on MH14. This ‘new’ route offers an easy way to access the range, initially following a well-maintained haul route west into the hills and down the other side on a regular but still good mountain track. You get all the distinctive drama which make the volcanic ranges of Jebel Saghro so unique, but can manage MH15.2 in any vehicle, including a pushbike over two days. As with the other two routes, the drama subsides once west of the ranges around KM70 and heading towards Skoura, but in that time, above 1600m you’ll have passed several epic vistas that make it all worthwhile. Thanks to local geologist Saad B for pointing out this route. In 2017 I came up MH15 to the new haul road at KM34 and wondered where it went to the east. I assumed to some mine; now I know it’s all the way down to Nekob.
Away from either end, the only ‘village’ of substance is Tagmout (KM43), a few smallholdings strung out in the basin and overshadowed by the gold/copper excavation just to the north. This mine must be why the eastbound part of the track got carved out of the hills; it’s not like there are a string of others lonesome hamlets up here needing a link to the outside world. West of Tagmout – geologically quite different in character – a few Berber shepherds live out in the wilds.
Mapping There’s nothing on paper of course, unless you print it yourself, but you can track it clearly on Google satellite and Apple Maps, as well as free digital maps like the particularly good GarminOpenTopo. There were only a few scraps of trail showing on my v3 Garmin Topo (v4 is current).
Off-Road Because the east section is used by mining dump trucks (I saw three just as I left Nekob in 2021; one in 2022), east of Tagmout this track is wide and in great shape and so remains doable with any car or bike. On an Africa Twin in 2021 I did find the countless western switchbacks – ground down to powder by the trucks’ scrubbing tyres – needed to be inched around. A more stable KTM 890 (with a group) made easier work of these in 2022, and a week later 310GSs were easier still to manage. A 4×4 will barely break into a sweat or low range.
Route finding After studying Google satellite I traced a putative kml along what looked like the clearest route, and it all panned out fine with no wrong turns. Westbound, you can’t go wrong up to the blue sign in the Tagmout basin (KM42; Berber women selling trinkets) and beyond here most forks of substance are to the right on the downward section, passing north of Bou Skour village and mine site (which you don’t see) to the big village of Sidi Flah. I saw no other traffic bar the three dump trucks rolling into Nekob in 2021 and in 2022 we saw a couple of Berber shepherd 125s and a lorry.
Suggested duration Allow half a day in a car or 4 hours on a bike with scenic stops.
Route Description 0km(104) Nekob west Afriquia fuel. On the other side of the main road, 200m to the west, a tarmac side road leads north to villages.
5.5 (98) A track splits left off the tarmac. There was some roadworks here in late 2022; work your wat round towards the pass to the northwest. Soon you cross a oued and enter a small palm gorge at which point the climb begins.
19 (85) Col at 1420m.
25 (79) Approach the impressive buttes of Jebel Agoulzi to the southwest (below). More noteworthy vistas follow.
33 (71) Reach a junction with tyres on cairns which is a 3-km link SW to MH14. MH15 comes in about 3km later (KM36) up from the south. You now head north for 9km, on the way passing the 2004-m high point with great views of the snowy High Atlas (below), if the season and conditions are right. You then work your way down sweeping bends into the Tagmout basin with a mine on its northern flank and where tracks diverge.
42 (62)Blue sign junction just east of Tagmout ‘village’, such as it is. Turn left for both Kelaa (as signed; MH14/15) and almost immediately left again (no sign) up to the Tachbouft Pass (KM45; 1805m) visible to the southwest for the run west to Bou Skour. Over the next 20km the track rises and drops over the ranges with several impressive viewpoints (below).
65 (39) Fork right. (Left leads down to Bou Skour village south of the mine). The most dramatic part of the crossing is over as the terrain loses elevation.
69 (35) Fork right again north of Bou Skour mine. In a kilometre keep right again just before some trackside machinery, and soon (around KM70) the main track from the mine (P1514 on Google) joins up from the left (south). You now follow the P1514 heading north then west.
79 (25) Fork. Keep left on the main track.
86 (18) Converge with a minor track coming from your left and where a red sign says ‘Bouskour 18,4km’ (pointing the way you’ve come from).
88 (16) Track joins from your right. All these three side tracks over the last 10km are minor: the main track is clear.
91 (13) Just after a passage alongside a farm wall, you cross a tributary of the nearby Oued Dades and swing north. Soon you pass through the small town of Sidi Flah. In 3km cross a bridge over the Oued Dades.
103(1) Near a power station, at a lone, unconnected orange pylon keep right to reach the N10 visible up ahead. Once there, turn right for the Inov roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Skoura. Left is for Skoura and the N10 to Ouarzazate. Straight across leads up to the actual town centre and Amzeria (Amerzi; see update Update 3.0.14 – May 2019)
104 Inov roadhouse. (100km from Nekob on a 310GS odo).
Book Chapters: 16 Arak 17 Bad Day at Laouni 18 The Far Side 19 A Blue Man 20 The Hills are Alive
After my batty Benele excursion of 1984 I brushed my hair, straightened my tie and bought a sensible XT600Z, just like I always knew I would. This was the slightly better 55W version of the original kick-only Tenere, distinguishable by sloping speedblocks on the tank (more here). All I did was add thicker seat foam and fit some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, as I was to learn. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike. My learning curve was still as steep and loose as a dune slip face. In fact, there was so little to do to the Yahama that I moved the oil cooler from down by the carbs up into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase.
With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December 1985 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali. As I mention in the book, I was going to try a new ‘go with the flow’ strategy’. Instead of being ground down and resentful by the setbacks of my previous adventures, I’d just take the reversals on the chin, bounce back, and move on. On this trip that stoic philosophy was to get a thorough road test!
This is part one of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. Across it lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.) There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age.
Knowing I was into dirt bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed bike design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982.
Later on, the job was finished off with gearing more suited to horizontal applications, and an RD250 tank with a sexy ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was. I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The answer was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buildings.
I dubbed the bike a ‘Bénélé‘ in envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later.
So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and you schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no fear of enduring the mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982 and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar. The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front of me. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early Dover ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
You can see I had an all-new soft luggage set up. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. This time I had a small canvas pannier hanging on one side where a 10-litre jerrican slipped in; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangling off the other with 10 litres of water, and an over-huge tank bag which sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock. I filled up in in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, all visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way it was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the tornado’s far wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed I’d ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I rode into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on into the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor.
That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off.
I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was heading past In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.
With the help of the internet I can affirm that the Chocolaterie Aiguebelle was founded by a medieval order of French Trappist monks in the mid 19th century to make a bit of money on the side. As explained here, they also got into producing advertising cards to entertain, educate and inform. It’s unclear whether these cards came with your chocolates or were distributed from hot air balloons. Probably the former, as that’s what drove me to collect inducements in the 60s and 70. You”l find loads of Chocolaterie Aiguebelle cards on ebay.
The operation shipped out to North Africa at some point where it’s still around today and which may explain the card below. Yes it’s another interesting map of the Sahara. No date is given but it looks like the state of colonial expansion in the late 19th century.
As always it’s interesting to see what is shown and what is not. Ancient Timbuktu seems an odd omission (though it’s mentioned on the back as a worthwhile destination for the trans-Sahara railroad). Tamanrasset was just a village at this time so gets skipped and Timassin is Timassinin, later Fort Flatters under the French and today Bordj Omar Driss (BoD). Not far to the west, Messagem and El Biodh were nothing but wells on the caravan route from In Salah to Ghadames, but it seems if early European explorers were led through these places by their guides, then they acquired a cartographic life of their own. They’re all on the map below from 1898. In the late 1980s we travelled this ‘forbidden’ piste from Fort Mirabel to below the westernmost ribbons of the Grand Erg, coming out at the checkpoint of Hassi bel Guebbour, just north of BoD. By the post war era these obscure wells had slipped off the maps and back into obscurity.
Interesting that remote In Zizawaterhole features, even though it’s not on any trade route, while Taoudenis was then still an important point on the 52 Days Road between Morocco and Timbuktu. East of there, it’s hard to think of today’s lonely well of Mabrouk being any sort of piste junction. Although the wiki waypoint matches the map below, today there aren’t any tell tale vehicle tracks, even though it’s not far from Timetrine where western hostages got shuffled around during their long captivities with AQIM.
On the Atlantic coast Tarfaia is there with more about it here. Never heard of Groha near or maybe Smara, not Djorf el Asfar near present day Bir Lehlou in the PF Zone. Further east in present day Niger, the Oasis of Djebado is the old name for Djado looks as important as Bilma and the other Kaour oases, but not enough get a marker point. It’s hard to know what Yat might be other than Seguedine or a misplaced and misspelt Ghat, or Tao which appears on other old maps (maps often repeat their predecessors mistakes).Maybe it’s Dao Timni, today a military base in the middle of nowhere.
I recently watched Michael Palin looking back on his Sahara TV series of 2002. I think it was the last of his big travel shows for the BBC.
I remember thinking there was more ‘Sahara’ in the show’s title than the actual programmes, and watching what they chose to use in the recap, it looks again like he – like most people – was more at home in cities like Fez, St Louis and Algiers, or places like Gibraltar than in the desert.
I must admit I never fell for the Palin ‘nicest-man-on-TV’ schtick, though I haven’t watched his other travel series. Palin was born in 1943 so it could be a generation thing: many encounters felt set-up and shallow. Perfect Sunday Night telly, then and now. I remember him bristling a bit when this necessary fakery came up as an audience question at a talk he gave in London to promote the Sahara show. Similar TV travel presenters like Bruce Parry (what happened to him?) and even Simon Reeves were among some fawning luvvies wheeled on to shower accolades. Both of them come across as equally genial and far more intrepid, immersive and engaged in their similar TV travels But all this is a bit like complaining about the Long Way… Ewan & Charlie motorbiking shows relying heavily on back-up vehicles. It’s a mainstream TV show, not Storyville.
As for Sahara, I can’t help thinking he didn’t like the actual desert. Fair enough; not everyone does. During the Niger episode (as deep into the Sahara as he got, afaik: a night or two in the Tenere and just after 9/11) he sits on a stool and sleeps in a tent rather than. getting down with the Tuareg. Disingenuously or not, over a snack he assumes they’re mocking him while teaching him local words. I’ve commonly experienced this ribbing and take it as no more than that. He gets his own back later by getting them to repeat ‘bottom’ – as in ‘Bottoms Up’ which all Brits say several times a day when having a cuppa.
‘Such a lovely scene…’ chirps Parry. ‘That’s what you get when you put the time in.’
He observes that the locals in Agadez seemed barely moved by 9/11 (or were less exposed to saturation news coverage) and resented this insensitivity. You get the feeling that like so many with a list to tick off, he was attracted by the romance of the desert: its mysterious veiled nomads and shimmering front-of-a-date-packet oases. Then he got there and found it hot and dusty, poor and dirty, with tiresomely chauvinistic guides, begging children, toilets from hell and all gradually exhausting. To his credit, the online diary certainly doesn’t hold back as the book (as I recall it) and especially the TV show had to do.
Oddly skipped in the show and the book is the fact that he travelled with Polisario escorts 1000-km overland from Tindouf down to Zouerat, partly along a route which has only recently re-opened. It was perhaps played down to appease the Moroccans, but also our man had a bad se of the runs which, as we all know, can make life miserable. Then he took the train to Choum and carried on to West Africa. Even with regular breaks back in the UK, by the time he got to Niger (‘in temperatures of up to 55°C…’), he must have had enough.
‘It’s a bare, dispiriting place.‘
So it can be if you’re there in the wrong season with a busy agenda of encounters to record. As mentioned elsewhere, I was struck that the Algerian Tree on Route L2 from my old book (visible on Google sat and pictured above in 1998) epitomised the essence of the desert for Michael Palin. He proclaimed:
‘… this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.
The original 1996 paperback edition of Desert Travels (and an earlier version of the ebook, left) featured us camped below a striking cathedral-like formation. I’d always wondered where that place was. The relevant chapter in the book is called The Cathedral, referring to the spires and church-like ‘portal’ of the pinnacle-capped outcrop. It was shot by Mike Spencer who had a proper camera and slide film.
This was before GPS and at the time I was too preoccupied keeping track of the bikes and my Landrover’s numerous issues to attempt to follow our progress on a map with dead reckoning. Our guide, Chadli, knew his stuff but was rather reticent – they teach them that in guide school. I knew the vague location within 50 square miles – the photo credit in the book says ‘near Tin Tarabine’ which is true enough, but that area, if not the whole Tassili-Hoggar southeast of Tam, is famed for unusual rock formations.
I had a rough idea the cathedral (above, with my crumby camera) was somewhere after Tadant canyon well and before Tin Tarabine oued. Then in 2006, coming towards the end of our epic traverse from Mauritania across Mali and Algeria towards the Libyan border (see: Sahara: The Empty Quarter) we passed through that area. I’d not been there since 1988, but coming at it from a different direction, it was all new to me.
As we’d crawled steeply out of Tin Tarabine oued and away from the famous Youf Ehakit – an amazing area of eroded rocks and bizarre, neo-Celtic engravings (left) – our escort’s car needed the clutch repaired yet again.
They pulled up onto a flat rock shelf to to a proper job this time, while I and the others dispersed for a wander. Climbing the outcrop up above the cars, I spotted some intriguing spire-like formations across a plateau a few kilometres to the north. Could I have stumbled on the location of the original DT cathedral cover after all these years?
I grabbed a water and the GPS and set off cross-country, passing pre-Islamic tombs (left), then dodging down into little canyons and over outcrops as the terrain became rougher. I didn’t have a copy of DT with me, but the huge, hand-like pinnacles in the far distance looked very familiar.
After about an hour and a half I was running out of daylight to get back, but got close enough to the weathered spires. I took a few hurried shots (above) and the following waypoint which I see now is actually just a kilometre from the formations. But when I got home and looked at the book’s cover closely, I realised they were similar but were not the Cathedral, even if I was looking at them from behind.
I forgot all about it for a few years then began to wonder again if the Cathedral could be tracked down now that we have masses of imagery of everything everywhere and any time. I scanned people’s Panoramio and Flicker albums as well as the embedded photos on Google Earth (often irritatingly misplaced, as we all know…). There were plenty of amazing rock formations in the Tassili-Hoggar vicinity, but no distinctive Cathedral.
In the end I knew the best people to ask were the Germans – der uber-Saharans. I may know the Sahara well, but in Germany there are hundreds more experienced and better travelled Saharans than me. In the good years they explored every corner of the desert, but most didn’t feel the need to write guidebooks about it afterwards.
I posted my question with a picture on Wuestenschiff, one of the main German Sahara forums. Within a couple of days I had a name for my location: the Cathedrals of Tin Eggoleh and the waypoint: N22°21’6.75″ E007°5’12.20″. About 50km to the northeast of the ‘false-sprires’ of 2006.
Mystery solved and somewhere good to aim for next time…
In 2000 I joined a two-week tour visiting the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert, or the ‘Western Desert’. The trip was organised by Andras Zboray and his new FJ Expeditions. He’s since become an expert on this fascinating region and back then contributed the ‘Egypt’ section to my Sahara Overland book. Even though I’d only just come back from Libya researching the book, part of the appeal of Egypt was that this was then a very rarely visited corner of the Sahara. FJ had problems with permits to visit this ‘military’ or more correctly border area, but once there, we saw no one, let alone a well or a regular piste for the entire two weeks.
Our three locally hired Toyota Troop Carriers left Cairo sharing a ton of water and half a ton of food, along with fourteen (mostly German) passengers and three Egyptian drivers. Two days later we left Dakhla with another half-ton of fuel on each car’s roof. Amazingly the Toyota 75s handled this mind-bending payload without a whimper.
On reaching Bir Terfawi we left the tarmac and set off west across the Selima Sand Sheet, arriving at the isolated landmark of Jebel Kamil after a day and a half. This cone-shaped hill was a wartime fuel dump from the Sudan Defence Force convoys supplying Kufra from the Nile, and is still littered with Shell petrol tins. I was invited to drive one of the 75s, Andras having had not such good experiences with local drivers off road. I was told under no circumstances to use the air-con; there being some urban myth about revs rising dramatically as the pump kicks in. But the risk of an overburdened, 130-hp 70-series lurching uncontrollably off a dune lip seemed far fetched.
From Jebel Kamil we headed northwest on a GPS bearing to Eight Bells on the eastern edge of the Gilf Kebir from where Andras had a written description to a cave of paintings discovered by Shaw in the 1930s. We drove over a pass into the stunning Wadi Wassa and followed it west, crested another pass with little difficulty.
After locating the cave, we continued cross-country into a hot south wind over broken country to Karkur Talh, a clearly mined wadi which cuts into the 1934-metre-high massif of Jebel Uweinat. That evening, on a tip from Bagnold, Andras located some beautifully preserved Cattle Period paintings on the west side of the well-known cove. The quality was the best I’ve encountered (which isn’t much!) and showed similarities to the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ or Wadi Sora style, we were to see a few days later.
The next day we continued further down Karkur Talh on foot, over the Sudanese border (passing a spoof CCTV camera, left) and, with the aid of Rhotert’s ‘The Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat’ (Graz, 1978), soon found an rich trove of engravings and paintings spread along the walls of the wadis first discovered by Ahmed Hassanein in the 1920s and fully recorded by a Belgian expedition in the 1960s. It’s unlikely many other tourists have got this far since that time, and for all of us this wonderful day of discovery was the highlight of the trip.
We enjoyed it so much we came back into Sudan next day to find more rock art, including an amazing tableaux dubbed ‘Red Cow Cave’. We also spotted an amusing engraving possibly showing man’s failed attempt in giraffe domestication as mentioned in the Lutz’s book on the Libyan Messaks, as well as the foundations of Tubu dwellings who lived here up until the 1930s. A few very old waddan (mouflon, or Barbary sheep) horns were spotted, as well as a perfectly preserved cadaver tucked under an overhang. Tools were very rare, but right on top of our campsite back in Egypt, I found a milling stone, grinder and pottery.
From Karkur Talh we headed back north, overnighting at Clayton’s Craters where an afternoon was spent climbing or circumnavigating the barren craters. Out of the big wadis the Libyan Desert really is utterly bereft of vegetation to an extent you rarely see in the Sahara further west. I spotted more Stone Age tools, another milling stone and just as I’d hoped, a very worn biface or hand axe, the original multi-tool which may be tens of thousands of years old.
We moved north again, making the obligatory pilgrimage to the Kamal El Din monument (left) built by Almasy on the southern tip of the Gilf. Messages are still left in a bottle by passing travellers; a custom started by Rohlfs at the cairn of Regenfeld, further north. We now followed the southern edge of the Gilf to the northwest, past an old American SDF truck from the war and more Shell tins. We stopped at the Three Castles landmark where one of the group found one of Almasy’s water tins as accurately described in his ‘Unknown Sahara’ book. In case you don’t know Laszlo Almasy was the basis of the ‘English Patient’ character in that very fictional book and movie, and a contemporary of Bagnold, Shaw and Clayton. For me the famous Wadi Sora discovered by Almasy and romanticised in the movie was nothing special; the ‘cave’ has flaked badly but the swimming figures are still very distinctive.
We headed back east to the dreaded Aqaba Pass, an unmined five kilometre sand ramp providing access into the central rift of the Gilf. Foot on the floor in Low 2nd and rocking hard on the steering wheel, I just scraped through to the summit, much to my surprise. Werner, driving the other heavy car got himself mired near the top and we all made a meal of getting the ‘fuel mule’ to the summit. Along with the other-worldly panoramas surrounding Clayton’s Craters, the central Gilf north of the Pass was one of the most beautiful landscapes we encountered – we’d obviously hit it at the right time of day.
We camped in a valley bizarrely dammed by a perfectly dune of sand 200 feet high and now clearly visible online. We rose early next day to attempt to cross the cordon of dunes blocking access to the northwestern Gilf valleys, dryly annotated as ‘Difficult Crossing’ on the 1942 British Survey map, still one of the best for the area. They were first crossed in 1935 by WB Kennedy Shaw and his group using Model A Ford.
Using from NASA satellite imagery [this was all pre-Google Earth] and the British Survey map, Andras led us through the erg’s seven-kilometre width in six hours, notwithstanding a freak out by one of the Egyptians who, along with a wheel brace, grabbed the keys from two cars and yelled “We’re all going to die if we go there”. Discussing this with Reinhart Mazur on my return, he observed that most Egyptians are river dwellers very much not ‘of the desert born’, unlike the Tubu, Tuareg or Moors further west. Ahmed was eventually calmed but later, navigating the Sand Sea, this was to be a recurring problem. Exhausted after the digging and pushing of the crossing, we headed south deep into Wadi Hamra, then spent another very enjoyable day walking over the tool-scattered plateau to the adjacent Wadi Abdel Malik, spotted by Almasy and others from a biplane in the early 1930s and named after the last Tubu grazer who lived there. Almazy also believed this to be a most likely location of the ‘lost oasis’ of Zerzura, used by Tubu raiders who set off to attack Dakhla oasis.
Our next destination was the Silica Glass Field located in a 100km circle around N25° 18′ E25° 32′, among the parallel dune lines of the Great Sand Sea. We all spent a satisfying few hours picking out pieces of this clear green glass, ranging from the size of a penny to a grapefruit. I also found some Palaeolithic nick-nacks and on a dune crest one of the others found several pencil-thin tubes of fulgarite: sand grains vitrified by lightening.
For me, our fossiking was overshadowed by the long dune lines running north-south alongside the pebbly flats. An inspection on foot confirmed that these were not simple ‘up and down’ barchans but a complex, weaving band of crests and troughs a few hundred metres wide and clearly beyond the ability of the still heavy Land Cruisers. The original plan to drive up to Siwa had been abandoned, but a no less ambitious decision was taken to try and cross the dunes to the northeast up to Ammonite Hill and on to the well at Ain Dalla, near Farafra, just as Bagnold, Shaw and there chums used to do in the 1930s with stripped-down 2WD Fords.
In Werner’s and my opinion, such a task is best left to lighter vehicles and, lacking a decent compressor, proper tyre deflation was not allowed, leading to inevitable boggings. I‘d let mine down at Shaw’s Difficult Crossing a few days earlier, but even then, every eastbound cordon was hard won, with the aid of hand held radios, foot recces and passengers strung out as markers to guide the white-knuckle driving around the soft spots. After an exhausting day, more arguments and attempted sabotage of the tyre valves by the nervous Egyptians, the idea was dropped and we headed back south towards the northern banks of the Gilf to pick up the track to Abu Ballas. All of us were very relived to be out of the dunes.
Apart from the food, for me the trip was a great experience. It was the first time I’d driven entirely off piste which I found surprising easy. I was merely following a lead car of course, but the almost complete lack of wadis in the hyper arid Libyan Desert makes cross country travel using GPS and maps or satellite imagery straightforward. Day walks away from the car where also a novelty to me. Near pistes I’d always been nervous about leaving the ‘mother ship’, be it car or bike. But here there was no one for hundreds of kilometres in any direction and there’s no doubt that the desert is best appreciated at walking pace. Interestingly Werner and I both recognised that even though we were as a far out as we’d ever been in the Sahara (certainly for me), we didn’t feel the remoteness. The fact that the organisation was Andras’ responsibility reduced the impression of deep wilderness experienced when you do it independently, at of course, some cost to your nerves. In this instance we were both happy that someone else – and better still, someone else’s car – where carrying that heavy loads.