A Drive on the Wild Side.
Our Anglo Egyptian party retrace the tyre tracks of pre war explorers in the Sahara. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.
To the small but dedicated band of UK Desert enthusiasts there is one name from the past we all respect. Major Ralph Bagnold. He and his chums were key figures in the mapping and exploration of the Sahara Desert in the 1920s and 30s. Their efforts led to the formation of The Long Range Desert Group which was instrumental in the Allies’ desert victory in WW2. The L.R.D.G. evolved, after the war, to become the SAS. ‘On on Baggers’ as he was affectionately known, went on to write his biography ‘Libyan Sands... Travel in a Dead World’. This charming book chronicles the adventures of ‘Baggers’ and his mates between the wars dressed in those heavily starched army shorts that no self respecting explorer would leave home without.
Others sniffing around at the time included the Hungarian Count, Laszlo Almasy, on whose character the English Patient is based in the film of the same name, Major Pat Clayton, also of the British Army, and the Egyptian Explorer, Prince Kamal El Din. This group of adventurers were the first to traverse one of the driest regions of the Sahara by car. It was the Prince who discovered the Gilf Kebir, a plateau almost the size of Switzerland, in 1926. Further south there is Jebel Uwainat, a 5000 foot mountain that now straddles the Egypt/Libya/Sudan border and has, to this day, only been climbed by 50 or so people thanks to it’s inaccessibility.
Our merry little group met up one summer’s evening in Oxford, and in the style of our heroes, enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some fine food whilst we planned an expedition that would echo those made 70 years ago. Mahmoud Marai was over from Egypt to visit the summer Land Rover shows and had recently returned from an expedition to the Gilf himself. His wild enthusiasm fuelled our own to have a similar adventure in the tyre tracks of ‘Baggers’ et al. So it was that just before Christmas, Chris Scott, Kevin White, Richard Washington and I forsook the tinsel and turkey and flew to Cairo to meet Mahmoud. Feeling rather vulnerable without our own desert steeds, we paused in Cairo to grab a quick meal overlooking the Nile, before driving south to Baharia Oasis by minibus for our last night of comfort in the El Besmo Lodge Hotel. Early the next morning we were driven by Land Cruiser to meet the rest of the group and the vehicles that were to be our home for the next three weeks.
Our route took us south through the beautiful White Desert before we headed across flat sand plate towards Abu Mungar and some distant specks on the horizon. As we closed in we saw the familiar outlines of two Land Rovers and a Toyota. Mahmoud had assembled a team of trusted and skilled drivers, a mechanic, a cook and an obligatory soldier to ensure we had a successful expedition. The vehicles are described fully in the accompanying box, but what confronted us was three well prepared desert veterans. Few of our western ‘show and go’ accessories were in evidence. Most things had been salvaged or made. I had travelled in both Land Rovers on previous visits and gazing under the bonnet of the 110 was not surprised to see the same mess of wire, tape, cable ties and solder holding the thing together. Mahmoud’s 109 was better in that it boasted some new parts and sat up high on TIC parabolic springs. If ever a Toyota was worthy of mention in a Land Rover magazine this 30 year old HJ47 with it’s utilitarian styling has to be the one. The one concession to technology was three Satellite phones between us and a bin full of GPS units. If it all went horribly wrong we would at least be able to tell someone where we were. We spent our first night there, most sleeping in sleeping bags on mats, but I preferred the privacy and warmth of a one man tent. The temperature dips to about zero in December and I had no desire to have direct contact with it!
Nothing can prepare you for the size of the Sahara. As big as the USA, with the population of Norwich is how Chris describes it in his book, Sahara Overland, and we would be unlikely to see anyone where we were going. Nor would we have the opportunity to refuel or stock up on provisions. Everything would have to be carried, and as a result all three vehicles were overloaded. That is just the way it is with desert travel. There are no other options. The first few kilometres identified that this massive weight was having an adverse effect on the 109 with it’s parabolics. I have never been in a Land Rover that felt so ready to topple over. 12 full jerry cans and all the cooking equipment up on the roof did not help, but the softness of the suspension was clearly going to be a problem. A dream to drive empty, this Land Rover felt like an accident waiting to happen. The 110 felt worn out, in that every rivet rattled in the 25 year old body, but at least it rode well and felt in contact with the ground. The Toyota, being fairly standard was fine, if slow due to it’s weight. 1000 litres of diesel is heavy and tends to slow anything down a bit!
Big cairn. A famous LRDG site.
Dunes and roly poly Land Rovers do not make good companions so Mahmoud took a route south following the eastern edge of The Great Sand Sea until the height of the dunes dropped and we were able to head South West towards our destination, The Gilf Kebir. The Toyota slowed us down a bit until a sticking front brake was slackened off which got rid of the smell off burning fibres and allowed it to keep up. Brakes are never a high priority in desert travel as there is so little to hit. Mahmoud’s 109 was having it’s own share of problems, however, with a reluctance to engage low ratio. All this on day one! Farag, the mechanic, rolled his sleeves up for the second time and had a fiddle. A linkage pin had dropped out and he adapted a bolt to fit. Despite the problems we were able to maintain a high speed across the flat sand and made good progress covering 200 km the first day. Our first true Desert camp was a cairn at Reganfield, the Field of Rain....once! The German explorer, Rohlfs, had got this far by camel in 1874 and his life was saved by the brief rainfall before he headed north to Siwa and safety. The cairn has a biscuit tin in it containing notes from visitors spanning the last 50 years. There are not many, but our own now join them.
Abbu Ballas, (Pottery Hill)
As the sun set so the temperature plummeted and the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon above us. Issa, the cook, soon had two fires lit. One to keep us warm as we huddled in blankets, the other to cook on. First, hot homemade soup, followed by beef and vegetables on rice. A remarkable meal considering no one had brought a decent torch and he had to cook by feel. Using the vehicle lights was not a viable option as the batteries were only just up to starting the engines. Sure enough the next morning after sub zero temperatures the tranquillity was broken by the sound of flat batteries trying to turn dead engines. Gas burners were lit under the sumps to warm them and, fortunately, the Toyota started, followed by the 110, but with the 109 needing a tow. This formula worked for the rest of the expedition.
While they were performing the starting ritual we set off on foot to stretch our legs before spending a day in the back of a Land Rover. Following a compass bearing and leaving very clear footprints to follow, we walked at a brisk pace across virgin sand. It is an eerie feeling to walk where no man has walked before, and we were soon out of site of the camp and felt totally isolated in the vastness of the landscape. It was easy to imagine how one could perish in the desert. To climb a dune and see absolutely nothing but sand in every direction is awesome and makes you feel totally insignificant. To our eternal relief the vehicles all appeared after about an hour and we headed further south. By staying on the flat sand plate we were able to maintain the same high speeds as before which got us to Abu Ballas, an area of historical interest. Here lie the remains of water storage jars used by 18th Century Tubu raiders from Kufra, in Libya, to Dakhla in Egypt. After one raid the people of Dakhla followed them back and discovered the water pots that had enabled them to complete the 600 km journey. Destroying the pots put an end to the raids and because very few people have ventured this deep into the Sahara since, many are still there.
Camp at the foot of the Gilf Kebir.
With a few hours of daylight left we continued, but a strong wind was getting up from the southwest so we camped before sunset and formed the vehicles into a ‘U’ shape as a wind break. The chaps then erected a reinforced cotton sheet that came down to the ground and put out a tarpaulin that overlapped the sheet. The combination of these simple pieces of material formed an efficient barrier against the strong wind. That night my tent flapped like a dying albatross and I slept badly. The others huddled in the shelter, but had to suffer the persistent snoring of Lootfi, the Toyota driver whose volume would have caused a murmur on the Richter scale. The wind persisted through to the next morning making it difficult to load the roof racks. There was also a problem with the power steering box on the 110 and a decision was taken to scrape the epoxy off the top of it and see if the leak was coming from there. After an hour of fiddling about Farag spotted that one of the hydraulic pipes had fractured and was beyond repair. He admitted defeat and poor Ibrahim faced the rest of the journey without P.A.S. He was uncomplaining about it and merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled. His reaction to all adversity.
After three days travelling, the ground beneath our tyres was starting to become more stoney and a darker shape appeared on the horizon. The Gilf rises up out of the surrounding desert as a sheer faced dark cliff, some 500 metres high. A natural barrier that has few access points, one being Wadi Bahkt, where we headed. Driving into the Wadi was like entering a lost world. Towering cliffs above us, no sound or smell, no footprints or signs of human life. Weird! We reached a point where we could go no further and walked 5 km into the Wadi just to experience the isolation and solitude and certain knowledge that we were some 500 km from any other person. The wind had dropped and the temperature was a comfortable 25 C as we searched the ground for evidence of previous occupation and Kev’s vigilance was rewarded with a Neolithic arrow head lying in the scatters of stones.
Emerging from this bizarre place we drove further south until the sun set and we were at the southern most tip of the Gilf, almost on the border with Sudan. We had followed the edge of the Gilf, keeping it’s dark, foreboding, cliffs on our right and driving slowly in the half light of dusk. Mahmoud suddenly stopped and the other two vehicles pulled up behind him with a fierce pumping of obsolete brake pedals. ‘There is another car’ were his simple, yet chilling, words as he pointed in the direction of the cliff. A look through the binoculars revealed three ‘other cars’, heading slowly our way. Though still officially in Egypt, the reality was that we were in a lawless no mans land and had not expected to see anyone. Our soldier, who was unarmed kept his head down in the back as the cars, three Toyota Pick-ups came slowly closer. Through the binoculars we could just make out about six people in the back of one, wrapped up well in blankets and head scarves. They could have been smugglers, maybe bandits or at worst terrorists. There were no other options. As they closed in, Rich hastily fired up his Satellite phone and sent his wife the message no wife ever wants to receive ‘If you don’t hear from me within an hour, this is the waypoint of where we went missing. xx’. The first Pick-up stopped some 50 metres from us whilst the other two held back, just within sight. Our hearts were pounding, as Mahmoud said ‘This is odd. I am going to see who they are’, and, taking a deep breath, opened his door.
Our meeting with three unidentifiable Pick-ups deep into the Sahara had thrown us a bit, until our host, Mahmoud Marei returned from a brief meeting with the occupants of the first Pick-up saying they were ‘just smugglers, on the way back from Libya to Sudan’. This was a relief as bandits or terrorists were the only other two options. The first Pick-up drove off as the second two approached. They had the look of stolen Oil Company trucks. Given that the first group had not slit our throats, we ventured out to meet these real smugglers. They sat, three abreast across the bench seat, each clutching a Satellite phone similar to our own. After much hand shaking, Arabic greetings, and nervous smiles, it transpired they were as worried by our presence as we were by theirs. They too had not expected to see anyone. They were all in their twenties, dressed in rags, with furtive eyes weighing us up with rapid, piercing glances. Whatever they were smuggling was well hidden. All we could see were big oil drums similar to our own, full of petrol to get them across the 1000 km of desert that separated them from Khartoum. My automatic instinct to take a photograph was politely, but firmly denied and after a brief exchange of greetings we all went our separate ways and Rich sent the follow up text message by satelite phone to his relieved wife saying everything was alright.
Camping out near the summit of Jebel Uwainat.
As it was dark after all this excitement we camped fairly close and could see the Sudanese smugglers’ fire about 3 kms away and they would certainly be able to see ours and probably hear Lootfi’s snoring! It was a worrying night as they would know that we, as Europeans, would have all the toys that are so desirable on the markets of Khartoum, and we, despite having an army officer with us, were defenceless. As dawn broke we crawled from our sleeping bags relieved to still be alive. Our Egyptian mates were amazed at our concern, laughing at us in a joke that continued throughout the day.
Near the summit of the Jebel Uwainat.
Our next destination was Jebel Uwainat, the 5000 foot mountain that lies on the Egypt, Sudan, Libya border. This remote mountain has probably only been climbed about 50 times, the first time being our hero, Major Ralph Bagnold, back in the 1930s and the most recent being the Hungarian, András Zbora, a contemporary Saharan explorer, last year. We had some notes supplied by András to try and link in with our Satellite images and help us reach the summit. Before we could even think of that though, there was the small matter of having to get three overloaded vehicles over some pretty big piles of sand. With no option but to tackle these dunes all three vehicles took a good run and, predictably got stuck. Time to push, back off, lower the tyre pressures and have another go. Lootfi’s Toyota, with it’s 4.2 turbo diesel engine was not going to take no for an answer, and in a storming run leaving a trail of black smoke in its wake, it made the top, stopped, and waited for the other two. Next was Mahmoud’s 109. With less power available, he tried a slightly different route at a slight angle to the vertical and suffered the consequences. As the soft parabolics flexed so the lower side of the Land Rover dipped alarmingly. When the top side front wheel waved majestically in the air, it was time to stop and abandon ship before it went over. There followed a tow, dig and push recovery using the 110 as an anchor point and the Toyota as tow truck. The procedure was well orchestrated and within half an hour we were away again.
A few more dune crossings and the Jebel was within sight, rising like some enormous monolith out of the surrounding sand. Like the Gilf Kebir, it is a plateau, but far smaller in area. Access is gained by driving up Karkur Tahl, a wide valley whose steep sides boast an impressive display of rock art. We drove as far as was possible until the boulders and the incline prevented further driving. Every km driven would be one less to walk in the morning. That evening we plotted our route and prepared food and drink to last for the two days we would be on the mountain. Issa was up until 3.00 am making bread for us. This he did by mixing flour, water, yeast and salt. Leaving it in a saucepan by the fire to proof for an hour, then rolling it out on an old cardboard box with a halfshaft. Satisfied that it resembled something edible (they looked like Indian Nan breads) he individually put each piece on the lid of an old oil drum on the fire, used as a hot plate. Straight off the fire they were delicious.
Issa making bread.
Rucksacks packed with sleeping gear, food and water we set off at 6.00 am wrapped against the cold, but as soon as the sun came up at 7.00 the layers were soon shed leaving us walking in light weight trousers and tee-shirts, grumbling about the increased weight of our packs. It was tough walking as the boulders became more difficult to cross, many being the size of a car. As we got higher we were rewarded with stunning views across the desert. Sudan to our South, Libya to our west and Egypt to our North. The GPS confirmed we were actually crossing the borders of all three countries throughout the day. By mid afternoon we were at about 4000 feet and Mahmoud cried out that he had found something. It was a rock overhang with paintings of cattle and hunters on its underside. This was indeed a find, as at this altitude rock art is rare, and as we had wandered off the András route it was certainly a new discovery and quite probably had not been seen in the last 4000 years. Moving stuff.
Gilf rock art.
By 6.00 pm the light was failing and it looked as though the summit would elude us so we found a suitable clearing blessed with a plentiful supply of wood, lit a fire, and prepared camp. There was a plan to continue starting at 5.00 am, but we calculated we only had provisions for one easy day, not a difficult one, so it was abandoned and in the morning we returned to the valley and the vehicles having covered 40 km in total over some very rough terrain.
The following day we headed north west with the aim of driving up the western edge of the Gilf Kebir and taking a look at Wadi Sura the site of the famous rock art depicting swimmers. These feature in the opening scene of The English Patient and are a popular stop off for the few visitors the area attracts. We made it there for Christmas Eve and camped near the famous cave giving us the chance to have a good look in the morning. Travelling with Kev, who is a Geographer from the University of Reading, all things have to have a scientific explanation and his theory on the ‘swimmers’, (tiny red ochre figures painted on the back wall of the cave), was that they were not swimmers at all but had been sacrificed by being thrown off the adjacent 500 foot cliff that we were camped under. To reinforce this theory he pointed out the bigger figures dressed in ceremonial garments and the ‘time lapse’ style of illustration showing figures rising from their own bodies. Just to add the final unromantic twist he also pointed out that there would not have been a lake to swim in at the time of human occupation.
After twelve days of washing with Baby Wipes we were all getting keen to head north and have a bath so the plan was to head into the Great Sand Sea for a day or two, then exit stage left into Libya for a fast run across flat sand plate, hoping not to bump into any Libyan Army patrols as we had no documentation. With luck, we would be in a hot spring in Siwa in three days time. The Great Sand Sea is almost as big as England and we were about to enter its southern most tip, with a view to popping out 400 kms later and nothing between the two but dunes. Entering the first inter dune corridor is like getting on a 10 kms wide motorway with high dunes left and right. We drove north west for a couple of hours until the height of the dunes made a crossing to the east viable. It was a gentle slope up, but a big, steep one down on the other side. Mahmoud went up first but stopped abruptly at the top and had sheared all the splines from inside the drive flange on his back axle. At a stroke he had no four wheel drive. Farag was out with the spanners and a replacement was found buried deep in the back of the Land Rover. Within 20 minutes it was repaired, despite being perched, precariously, on top of a dune.
Worse was to follow though as first, Lootfi in the Toyota went down the slope, then Mahmoud tried, but was caught out by a slight bump on the left. With his soft parabolic springs and so much weight we all watched on helplessly as the 109 gently toppled over ending up a third of the way down on it’s side. One by one the occupants got out unharmed and we weighed up the problem. As Mahmoud watched on, annoyed with himself for rolling, the other swung into action. The dead Land Rover was dragged on its side down the slope, then towed back onto its wheels. Once safely off the dune and back on all four wheels, duties were prioritised. Issa, hardly flustered by being in the roll, got the lunch on the go, whilst Farag, who had also been inverted, got the spanners out again and removed all the injector nozzles to blow out any oil. The others brushed all the sand out of the cab, taped up the windows, fabricated a replacement air cleaner and after lunch it was started up and was ready to go again with hardly a mark on it. Remarkable!
After that drama it was decided that we should take the safer route up through the eastern edge of Libya for as far as possible. This would also be faster and it is largely flat sand plate. We had one scary moment when we thought we spotted another vehicle, but this turned out to be no more than dust blowing in the wind and not the feared Libyan Army Patrol. Rich was particularly nervous about being caught without the correct papers having spent a week locked up in Niger the previous year. We stopped briefly at ‘Big Cairn’, the site of fuel dumps left by The Long Range Desert Group in the war, then cut east across some low dunes to the site of a dried up lake bed where we camped on the chalky white surface, the lights of Siwa just visible about 30 km away.
Approaching Siwa the next day mobile phones began to work and we stopped on the top of a dune with the big Oasis of Siwa clearly visible. Our Desert adventure was almost finished, but there was still time to soak in a natural hot spring situated some 10 kms out of town. Turning up in clothes we had worn for two weeks with our hair full of matted sand we were not a pretty sight, but all was forgotten as we slipped into the wonderful warm waters of the spring, and soaked away all the aches and pains of the journey. That night we had the novelty of sitting at a table and ate Chicken and Chips at 70p a portion and talked of our adventure and how, although tough, it was nowhere near as tough as it would have been for our 1930s hero, Ralph ‘On on Baggers’ Bagnold.
Mahmoud has owned his 109 for four years and it now has a Toyota 14B 3.7 litre, 4 cylinder engine, mated to a Toyota 4 speed gearbox. It is equipped with TIC Parabolic springs, a split charge system, aluminium steering guard, a large on board 12 volt compressor and a Garmin 128 GPS system.
Ibrahim’s 110, in fact actually belongs to Mahmoud’s cousin, Mohammed Fayez and has a 3.3 litre, 4 cylinder Toyota engine mated to a Santana gearbox with Range Rover diffs. (Secondhand Toyota engines are far easier to find than Land Rover engines in Egypt.) The 110 has an engine driven compressor for inflating the tyres after running them soft in the sand.
Lootfi’s Toyota has been given the huge additional power of a much later 4.2 litre turbo, 6 cylinder Toyota engine and heavy duty rear springs to help it carry most of the fuel and water.
Split equally between all three vehicles was the payload of ten people, 1700 litre of diesel, 1100 litres of water, food sufficient to make 400 meals, camping equipment, tools and spare parts. All three were overloaded. Once back in civilisation there was enough food, fuel and water to travel for another 400 kms over a further 3 days. This is considered a minimum contingency.
Roll over analysis.
A roll over deep in the Sahara could have proved very dangerous had it not been for the presence of two other vehicles and happened at very low speed. Although merely a laying down of the venerable 109 it still demanded expert bar room analysis after the event. In later discussions between us passengers, Mahmoud and Paul Hiejstee, of TIC Parabolic Suspensions Systems in The Netherlands a reason for the roll was found. Paul had a copy of the picture reproduced here and his comments sum it up well:
“It's good that I see this picture in morning and not late at night just before I turn in, I assure you it would cause a sleepless night or a nightmare if I do fall asleep.
This is an example how it should NOT be done. By the look of it Mahmoud probably had a load of 2 tons while driving / rolling on that dune.
The most worrying thing is the two different shackle lengths. It should never be attempted in any circumstance. I suspect that the chassis is also twisted, because the front looks level and the rear is in an angle with the axle.
The helper "airbags" are a good idea but with that load you will never get a stable ride. The way that helper airbag is twisted is also a proof of extreme loading.
This vehicle should have had a 5 leaf rear and perhaps an additional helper just to make sure it would be safe".
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Copyright Toby Savage. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.