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).