Tag Archives: Libyan Sands ~ Ralph Bagnold

B is for Bagnold: Rare 1930s film in the Libyan Desert

Part of the Sahara A to Z series


A few months ago the British Film Institute released an archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deep into the Libyan Desert. (Click BFI if youtube below gets deleted). The map top right shows all his expedition in the 1930s, and there are more, original maps below.

The 49-minute-long film describes the original recce in 1929 into the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert via Ain Dalla spring. It was here that Bagnold’s group found lowering tyre pressures, as well as using sand plates and rope ladders, enabled heavy vehicles to traverse soft dunes.


A year later they set off towards Jebel Uweinat, a massif located by Ahmed Hassanein less than a decade earlier during a camel trek along Libya’s eastern borders. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued to Jebel Kissu in today’s Sudan and south of Uweinat, then east for the Nile via Selima oasis.

In 1932 they based themselves again at Jebel Kissu where they refuelled from Selima, then explored the Sarra Triangle (now in Libya) as well as northeastern Chad.

Heading south to El Fasher, they passed herds of ostrich and oryx, since shot out by rifle hunters, before heading north for Merga, back to Selima and home via Wadi Halfa for a tot of rum.

The maps on the left and below show the routes of all these trips and Bagnold’s book, Libyan Sands (right) covering all these expeditions and more and is well worth reading. Reviewed here.
Short bio of Ralph Bagnold.

Book review: Libyan Sands ~ Ralph Bagnold


Ralph Bagnold (Eland, 2010)

See also this archive film


Ralph Bagnold really was quite 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.


What is striking is that his passionate 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 enacting 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.