Egypt’s remotest corner is dominated by the Gilf Kebir (Great Barrier), a 7,770-square-kilometre plateau that forms an even more formidable obstacle than the Great Sand Sea. Before its discovery by Prince Kemal el-Din in 1926, the Gilf was only known to desert nomads who saw no reason to share their knowledge with outsiders.
What subsequent European explorers found there illuminated Saharan prehistory, later inspiring the book and film The English Patient, relating the exploits of explorer László Almássy and his discovery of the Cave of the Swimmers. This superb example of prehistoric rock art is only one of thousands of paintings and petroglyphs in the wadis of the Gilf and Jebel Uwaynat, depicting giraffes, ostriches, lions and cattle, and people hunting and swimming – before the decisive shift from savanna to desert occurred at the end of the Holocene wet period, around 5000 BC.
Since then the Gilf Kebir has become one of the driest places on earth. Rainfall is less than a millimetre a year, and may fall only every five years, while temperatures range from 0°C to 42°C, with as much as 30°C difference between night and day. With colossal dunes leapfrogging each other to climb the 300-metre-high escarpment, it is (like Chile’s Atacama Desert and the dry valleys of Antarctica) one of the places in the world where the environment comes closest to the surface of Mars, and has been intensively studied by NASA.
Yet aeons ago in the late Tertiary age, the Gilf was a watershed draining in all directions; its wadis eroded by water and then by wind and sand over one hundred thousand years. The sheer cliffs on the south and southwest sides are the highest, while the northeasterly ones have been worn down by the Sand Sea. Dunes have filled up the valleys and are climbing one on top of the other; white by the Sand Sea, or red around the middle of the Gilf and its southern massif. Despite being so arid, the top of the plateau gets enough rainfall for hardy flora and fauna to survive: Barbary sheep, gazelles, foxes, lizards, snakes, birds and butterflies, Roses of Jericho and acacia trees. Visitors may find other surprises, too, like the wreck of a Blenheim bomber discovered on the plateau in 2001 – one of many relics from World War II.
Besides all this, visitors are drawn by the romance of the explorers who “discovered” the Gilf – not only Almássy, but Englishmen Ralph Bagnold, Douglas Newbold and Kennedy-Shaw, and Irishman Patrick Clayton. During World War II, they set up the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) that wreaked havoc behind Italian and German lines, while their former comrade Almássy served on the other side with the Afrika Korps.
In 2007, the Egyptian government established the Gilf Kebir National Park, whose 48,533 square kilometres encompass the Gilf, Uwaynat, and the Silica Glass area of the Sand Sea. Protecting this vast area is another matter, especially since the revolutions in Egypt and Libya have weakened authority at every level. Please abide by park regulations (don’t disturb or remove anything), and report safari outfits engaged in trafficking artefacts to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (w eeaa.gov.eg).Read More
The Search for Zerzura
The Search for Zerzura
First mentioned in 1246 as an abandoned village in the desert beyond the Fayoum, the “Lost Oasis” of Zerzura reappeared as a fabulous city in the fifteenth-century Arabic treasure-hunters’ Book of Hidden Pearls. Its setting was described as three valleys endowed with springs, palm trees, birds and animals, where robbers would find a city “white like a pigeon”, with a bird carved on its gate. Inside were riches, and a king and queen asleep in their castle. “Do not approach them, but take the treasure”, the book advised.
After the nineteenth-century Egyptologist John Wilkinson learnt of the story, the search for Zerzura obsessed European explorers. As successive desert surveys dashed hopes of finding it anywhere within reach of the known oases, attention turned to the far south, where Jebel Uwaynat and the Gilf Kebir had recently been discovered by Hassanein Bey and Prince Kemal el-Din.
In February 1932 Almássy and Lord Robert Clayton launched the Zerzura Expedition (the first to combine cars with light aircraft). Almássy was away visiting Kufra Oasis when Clayton and his observer Penderel flew in their Gypsy Moth biplane over the northern Gilf, sighting “an acacia-dotted wadi”. After Almássy’s return they made further flights and spotted two such wadis, which they planned to explore by car the following spring. But fate intervened in their plans, for Clayton died of polio on a visit to England, swiftly followed by the expedition’s sponsor, Prince Kemal el-Din, leaving Almássy to seek new sponsors and Clayton’s widow to continue her husband’s quest independently.
It was a Tebu caravan guide who told Almássy of the existence of a third valley. When asked if he knew of Zerzura, he replied: “Oh, those silly Arab people, they do not know anything, they call these three wadis in the Gilf, Zerzura, but we local people know their real names.” Almássy was certain that he had identified the lost oasis at last.
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG)
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG)
Founded by Ralph Bagnold in June 1940 to reconnoitre Axis forces and engage in “piracy on the high desert”, the Long Range Desert Group’s motto was “Not by Strength, but Guile.” Led by Bagnold and other prewar explorers such as Patrick Clayton, William Kennedy-Shaw and Douglas Newbold, it consisted mainly of New Zealanders, who soon learnt the arts of desert warfare. As with Special Forces ever since, the emphasis was on self-reliance and mobility. Each patrol took all it needed for a cross-desert journey of 1500 miles (which could be doubled by establishing a forward supply dump), in stripped-down Chevy trucks fitted with sand mats and tyre-tracks (doubling as air markers for supply drops) and a sun compass invented by Bagnold. Patrols operated for up to eleven weeks as they spied on convoys or delivered SAS commandos to attack airfields – in ten months, over four hundred planes were destroyed in this way (more than the RAF managed). You can read about the LRDG’s exploits in Bagnold’s Sand, Wind and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer, Saul Kelly’s The Hunt for Zerzura, Peter Clayton’s Desert Explorer (about his father, Patrick), or on the LRDG Preservation Society’s website w lrdg.org.
On a map of North Africa, the ruler-straight borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan intersect at Jebel Uwaynat, the highest, most isolated point in the Libyan Desert. Surrounded by sand-sheets, it rises sheerly to 1898m above the desert floor, just high enough (600m above sea level) to attract a little rainfall, which percolates down to small pools or “springs” at its base, after which Uwaynat is named.
The valleys here (called karkurs) are fertile if watered, and sustained communities from prehistoric times until the early 1930s, with rock art spanning thousands of years.
In Karkur Talh (Acacia Valley), Hassanein Bey found engravings of lions, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles and cows, and Shaw discovered ninety human figures drawn on the roof of a cave. These figures were lither than the hunters in the Cave of the Archers at Wadi Sura but otherwise similar, leading Winkler to conclude that both were the work of the ancient Tebu, who ranged across the Sahara from their mountainous homeland of Tibesti, in Chad (as they still do today).
After the Italians occupied Kufra and placed an outpost at Uwaynat, the possibility that it could be an unguarded back door into Egypt during wartime occurred to both Bagnold and the Italian commander Lorenzini – but not to the HQ staff-wallahs who turned down Bagnold’s proposal for car patrols along the frontier. It wasn’t until Italy declared war in 1940 that Bagnold was authorized to set up long-range patrols to monitor any activity. In the event, the Italians never tried anything so bold, but Almássy later slipped through from Kufra via Uwaynat and the Gilf, to guide two German spies as far as Kharga Oasis, before returning to Libya.
Since the kidnapping of a safari group at Karkur Talh in 2008, Egyptian Border Guards have been stationed there and an armed resort of eight Tourist Safari policemen has been mandatory for all expeditions to Uwaynat.
The Forty Days Road
The Forty Days Road
Of all the trade routes between North Africa and the tropical south, the Forty Days Road (Darb al-Arba’in) was the one most involved in slavery – the only business profitable enough to justify the risks and rigours of the thousand-mile journey. The slaves, purchased at the Dongola slave market or kidnapped by the fierce desert tribes, were assembled at Kobbé, a town (no longer existing) 60km northwest of El-Fasher, the capital of Sudan’s Darfur Province, once an independent kingdom.
After a few days’ march from Kobbé, the slaves were unchained from their yokes, for there was no way to escape. With no permanent water source until Bir Natrun, 530km away, they could only survive on the ox skins of water that burdened the camels. While human losses were erased by the sands, the road gained definition from its Bactrian casualties; a 1946 survey of northwestern Sudan noted “a track about one mile wide marked with white camel bones”.
Egyptian customs posts taxed caravans arriving in Kharga Oasis, the last stage before their ultimate destination, Assyut. As the caravans approached, small boys were hidden in empty water skins to evade tax, but officials would beat them to thwart this ploy. Traffic along the Forty Days Road ended in 1884, after the rise of the Dervish Empire in Sudan closed the border; by the time it reopened, slavery had been prohibited in Egypt. Today, a new form of human trafficking is flourishing in the far southern Darb al-Arba’in Desert: smuggling refugees from Darfur, Somalia and Eritrea into Libya, via the remotest region of Egypt.
Jeep-safaris to the Gilf are a major logistical effort involving multiple 4WD vehicles equipped with GPS and satellite phones, authorized by a permit and accompanied by an armed escort of Tourist Safari Police – all of which add to the basic cost of fuel, drivers, food and water. Reckon on paying €120–150 per person per day, once everything has been factored in.
Aside from the cost there’s the bureaucracy: you must book at least a month if not six months’ ahead of the only times when the temperature is tolerable (Feb–March & Sept–Nov). Even so, discomfort is inevitable: sand gets into every crevice of your body, there’s no water to spare for washing and you start to stink – like everybody else. Unless you’re willing to rough it and muck in when needed, there’s no point in coming at all. But if you do, you’re sure to remember it for the rest of your life.
Since the kidnapping of a safari group at Uwaynat in 2008 (a wake-up call for the Egyptian authorities who had previously turned a blind eye to people being trafficked into Libya and failed to anticipate that banditry in Darfur might spill over the border), security is now a consideration for anyone travelling this way. Check your own government’s travel advice (Germany warns its citizens not to expect to be rescued at the state’s expense), and that your insurance covers deep-desert journeys and what (if any) back-up exists in case of emergencies.
Though the safari operator will supply meals, tents and bedding, you need to bring personal essentials such as sun block and skin cream and any luxuries like alcohol or cigarettes (the nearest supply is in Kharga or Dakhla oases). Binoculars are a must, too.
Most safari outfits will take people in their own 4WDs providing they’re able to handle the driving, which requires experience, skill and nerve. If you have doubts on any of these scores then you should come as a passenger and let the safari team handle all the work.