Great lakes of the Sahara.

Great lakes of the Sahara. More adventure in the Sahara. Reproduced by kind permission of Overland Journal. (text included separately at the bottom of the page)




Above is the whole article as reproduced in Overland Journal - Winter 2008

Here is the text, repeated, as it's a little tricky to read off the jpeg. Plus a few extra pictures.

My academic colleagues in the major Universities of England spend hours analysing high definition satellite images of the Sahara Desert, they confer, scratch their collective heads and, in about November, declare “We need to go to these locations, fancy coming?” They will not mind me saying that, being academics, they are not gifted with great practical skills, relying on the assumption that a 4WD can ‘go anywhere’.

Puddles became flood water as our two vehicle convoy splashed into the Libyan Capital of Tripoli. A total lack of drainage meant the unusually heavy rain had nowhere to go and the main coast road was reduced to a single lane, as locals tried to find a dry line. To my right a Hyundai Taxi was being manhandled out of a pothole. The driver had been fooled by the level surface of the water and as a result, a front wheel was spinning, chucking up a rooster tail of filthy water. This was not the weather we had come to expect on our annual visit to North Africa. Usually it is a welcome respite from the damp and chill of a North European winter.

Since 1998 a handful of us have driven from England to Libya in two, or sometimes three vehicles, whilst the rest of the team, comprising about 25 Geographers and Archaeologists fly over, to spend a month in the Libyan Sahara. This mixed group of academics is undertaking research into how mankind adapted to the ever changing Saharan conditions over the last million years or so. Recently the scope of the project has broadened and as the core group of Archaeologists head 1000 km's south on tarmac to Germa, where their excavations are based, a splinter group of Geographers and specialist Archaeologists head southwest from Tripoli to Ghadames, on the Algerian border. This group is totally reliant on 4WD’s, so I have drifted over to their side of the fence for the last two seasons. As an enthusiastic Land Rover owner/driver, there is no greater thrill than the chance of a big Saharan trip and an opportunity to learn a few things about where we all came from, and how.


Our host in Libya is Dr. Mustafa Selim, a charming Berber, and retired senior Geographer from Tripoli University. Mustafa is a fellow Landy nut who runs an immaculate white V8 110 Station Wagon. After seemingly endless last minute arrangements, we eventually pulled out of Tripoli for the long, and rather dull, haul down the Ghadames. Day became night and eyelids started to falter as we drove the featureless road to Derj, where we met our team of Libyan drivers and 4WD's for the desert trip. It was gone midnight by the time we arrived to be greeted by the inconvenient news that the towns fuel station had run dry, which would jeopardise our planned early start. To anyone from our western world, the idea that a fuel station can regularly run dry in a country where they make the stuff seems incomprehensible, but it is quite common in Libya, where 90 percent of the population live on the coast and supplies to the desert towns rely on lorries bothering to make the delivery journey. Mustafa and I had filled up on the way down, taking on 200 litres each in tanks and jerry cans, but the Libyan drivers need petrol, and lots of it, for their six Toyota Land Cruisers. Three pickups and three Station Wagons. There was talk of a delivery in the morning, but for that night, the situation was out of our hands.

We were offered accommodation in a house reserved for Government officials and most of the team eagerly hit the sack after a bite to eat. I had been on the road, more or less non stop, since leaving the U.K., eight days beforehand, and seized the opportunity of a shower, thinking this could be my last chance for a week or two. The bathroom was spacious and had a large bath and shower, all wet from the previous ablutionist, who had left his plastic sandals by the door. I peeled off my sweat stained clothes and reached for the shower tap. BANG!! An electric shock went straight through my arm and threw me back. Typical north African electric's! Now I knew why the sandals were by the door. It was to prevent electrocution. I skipped the shower and went to bed dirty. It was less dramatic.

The morning dawned fine, if cold, but there was still no sign of the elusive fuel delivery. Mustafa had a letter from the Libyan Dept. of Antiquities endorsing our trip and went, with the drivers, to the local Police station. Through careful negotiation he persuaded them that our mission was of the utmost importance to the State and got them to agree to giving us a large chunk of their fuel allocation. By midday we were ready to roll with supplies for two weeks and fuel for 1000 km's. Last things to be loaded onto the already heavy pickups, was a freshly slaughtered sheep, in a cool box, and a live one, lashed to the top of the cargo, allowing it enough movement to enjoy the view, but not enough to jump off!

Our heavy convoy pulled out of town, like a group of settlers off to find the new world. It is always a novelty to drive on tarmac, then just pick a featureless spot and turn off onto the gravel surface of the desert. No sign, no tyre marks of others, just virgin desert. From now onwards we would be relying on G.P.S. waypoint's and big printouts of satellite imagery provided by the Geographers. They had spent the previous eleven months analysing these images for features that may once have been the shore line of a 135,000 square kilometre lake that spread across much of the Fezzan region of Libya. “We need to go and take a look at this area first” is the request, oblivious to where it is, and how difficult it will be to reach.

The recent rains kept the dust down and we made swift progress across flat desert, the occasional tufts of tamarisk grass marking long dried up river beds. There was a hint of a track to follow and sticking to it’s line, we avoided the threat of punctures on the sharp stones that surrounded us as far as the eye could see. We soon settled into a rhythm with the lead Tojo following a combination of track and waypoint's, and the rest of us behind, spread over half a kilometre, with a ‘tail end charley’ ensuring none of us strayed off the route into oblivion. Two way radios were adequate for car to car communication, with a back up of Satellite ‘phones between us Europeans, for any emergencies. My Land Rover was running well and the paranoia of listening for every new sound eased off as I began to enjoy the solitude of the desert.

As a result of the late start, we were unable to achieve our first area of interest in a day and, as the sun set, had to fly camp on the flat Hamada with no shelter from a biting cold wind. Whilst the crew set about preparing a meal we wasted no time sorting out our sleeping arrangements as, when the sun sets, darkness is all consuming and total. It is at this point that I feel rather smug in my Land Rover. It is a 1970 Carawagon conversion, updated with modern running gear. The Carawagon was sold throughout the 70’s as a gentleman’s camper for the hunting fraternity and overlander's. It has a very comfortable bed and, with the roof up, adequate standing room for my 6’ 2” frame. For me, it is a home from home and I can happily live in it for weeks on these trips with no discomfort, and in any weather. The team, on the other hand, were floundering around with a selection of tents provided by our hosts, that would have been fine on a warm evening, but struggled with the wind this January evening.

The following morning we did manage an early start and by lunch had found the area which  the Geo’s were interested in. This was to be our camp for three nights and a degree of permanence was incorporated into the camp layout. We were down wind of a small dune providing good shelter from the ever present north wind. While the Geo’s went off to collect some samples and dig a few sections, I took my first time off for two weeks, rigged up my camp shower, a rinsed the grime of the desert off, then washed a few clothes and fell asleep in the afternoon sun, enjoying what would be my only rest on this trip.

Over the next two days groups of three vehicles would set off to search for the features identified on the satellite images. The hope was that these would be an eroded shore line and there would be evidence of  early mankind littered around the edge. The big advantage of this region for research is that nobody ever visits, so if ancient man dropped a stone tool, the chances are, it’s still there. Dense clusters of tools and the flakes discarded in manufacture would indicate some form of settlement, and gazing out from these areas it is easy to imagine a lush vegetated landscape, inhabited by the full spectrum of animals associated with sub Saharan Africa. Here, Elephant, Hippo and Giraffe would once have roamed, hunted by a relatively sophisticated upright man, kind enough to leave us a few of his tools and exquisite rock art of what he saw. The Geographers dug several trenches through sections of this shoreline that, when analysed, help illustrate that the Sahara was wet, then dry, a total of five times over the last 420,000 years. This helps support the theory that mankind evolved in East Africa and migrated northwest across the Sahara, at a time when it was fertile.


With all the finds and samples clearly bagged, labelled and catalogued we moved on south and into our first tricky bit of driving. Our route took us up onto the Hamada Tingarat, a challenging climb for our heavy vehicles. I used low ratio for the first time on the trip and had to pick the line of least resistance as we scrabbled up, and then down, the rock strewn surface. The scenery changed from flat to rocky, and in the far distance were the awesome dunes of the Awbari Sand Sea, so big they did not appear to get any closer as we progressed. The terrain was the least of our problems though. On the horizon were black clouds and the wind was starting to whip up the sand to a point where, if you stood in it, your hands were blasted by fierce needles of sand. The finer sand was penetrating the cab of my Land Rover and leaving a fine coating of dust on everything left uncovered.

We stopped to look at some tombs, whilst the support crew pressed on, eager to erect our camp in daylight. The area had about 20 tombs and whilst we were keen to photograph and document them, the weather was deteriorating to such an extent that we abandoned the research and headed for the camp. Just as we pulled up, the heavens opened and torrential rain fell for an hour rendering the clean sand a heavy mire, that stuck to boots and got everywhere. The tents looked miserable and although my Carawagon is perfect for arid climates, wind driven rain tends to find all the leaks. We were in for a wet night. Sanctuary came in the form of an ex-military bell tent, big enough for us all to shelter, eat and work in, constructed of heavy canvas, with a rather pretty floral cotton lining that seemed rather out of context with the surroundings. It presented us with a marvellous advert for old school camping and proved weather tight in all conditions.


In the morning the weather had cleared to the more familiar clear blue sky. The damp sand gave better driving conditions, but excessive use of the throttle caused the wheels to penetrate this thin crust and sink into the soft sand below. It was a great exercise in sand driving technique, a craft the locals make look easy, but which requires great concentration from us part timers, and we were only in the small dunes. Ahead of us lay the Awbari Sand Sea with huge dunes running from northwest to southeast and our preferred direction was due south. Between the great lines of whaleback dunes are inter dune corridors. Ten or twenty kilometres wide, these are the motorways of the desert. Blasting along them at 50 mph. is both exhilarating and relatively easy. Now considerably lighter, having eaten half the food and burned half the fuel our trucks were flying and a certain amount of competition developed between the our Land Rovers and the more powerful, but heavier Toyota’s. Of course, the Tojo’s were playing a game of cat and mouse, their 4.2 petrol engine easily having the legs over our 2.5 Tdi and 3.5 V8 respectively, but it was great fun.

Dune driving requires a great deal of nerve and a fair bit of practised skill. Crack it and you feel elated, get it wrong and you risk rolling over. Separating us from the Archaeologists in Germa lay 150 km's of pure dune driving and it was with some trepidation that we entered the first inter dune corridor, mountains of sand to the left and right, firm, flat sand under our wheels. We drove fast following the easy piste, until a time when the dunes petered out and it looked likely we could cross to the next corridor. With no existing track to follow, success would only ever be an inspired guess by the lead driver. Leaving a generous gap between each truck we went into the unknown. With the Tojo ahead safely up to the top, it’s driver gave me the ‘thumbs up’. I selected fourth, low, and booted it. There is a lot of wheel twirling, gear changing and bouncing around as the Land Rover is at one alarming angle, then the other. One minute all you can see is sky, the next, sand. The front bumper hits the sand first on a descent, then you have to steer sharp left, or right, to avoid a soft patch, whilst lining the car up for the next ascent. Beyond that there is more and no time to hesitate, as to get stuck is inconvenient as it can take half an hour to recover. We kept up this frantic pace for about 15 minutes, taking a hand off the steering wheel momentarily, to wipe the sweat onto already encrusted jeans, then with one final descent we were in the next corridor. A quick chat to ensure everyone was okay and we continued.

It took us all day to complete the sand sea crossing, with my Land Rover being defeated by just two dunes, too high and too soft. I got as far up as I could then un-spooled the winch cable to pull myself over, hitched to one of the Land Cruisers on the other side. To put things in perspective though, one of the Toyota’s became stuck in a deep hole and I had the satisfaction of winching him out! Pure joy for any Land Rover owner. We rolled into Germa at sunset, looking like a bunch of desperado’s from the Wild West, to be greeted by the Archaeologists, all with big smiles on their faces. They had made an important discovery.

Professor David Mattingly has been studying the Garamantian Civilisation for most of his career and his most recent excavations are based around the ancient Garamantian capital, Germa, in the heart of the Fezzan. This season’s work centred on about 100 tombs spread out over an area of escarpment just outside the existing town. Last season’s work found plenty of skeletal remains and some remarkable dyed fabrics, pottery and artefacts, all dating back about 2000 years. The day of our arrival they had made the most important discovery of David’s career. A naturally mummified body, male and about six feet tall. This was the closest anyone was ever going to get to meeting a Garamantian and only the third mummy to be discovered in Libya, and the best. Over dinner that evening he cautioned us to keep the news to ourselves until the mummy had been carefully removed from it’s resting place and stored in the museum. It was both fragile and vulnerable as there was little that could be done to protect it from the elements, or inquisitive locals.


That evening I took a stroll to the nearby shops to stock up on personal items and the shopkeeper leant over his dusty counter and said in broken English ‘You find Mummy. Good’. News travels fast in a small town! This meant that one of the team had to camp up there for two nights to guard the find. There was a real danger that someone would try to steal it and sell it on the black market. Over the next two days, working in cold and dusty conditions the team’s preservation expert, Franca Cole, carefully wrapped the Mummy in foil, bandage, and bits of cardboard to facilitate lifting it clear of the tomb. This task completed it was transported to it’s final resting place in the Germa museum. While Fran had been supervising the lift a local metalworker had fabricated a steel box to store the precious find. Once safely in this, it was taken to a cool darkened room, reminiscent of the last scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where it will remain, ‘In Sh Allah’, until next season.


To end the season on such a high note was a great boost and should ensure funding for a return next year. The Archaeologists had recorded a varied collection of important finds and our desert group had made some interesting discoveries and taken enough samples to keep the Geography labs. of various Universities busy for a few months. For me it was a relief that my Land Rover had performed perfectly over the 5000 km's from England to Germa, which included 1000 km’s of extreme desert driving. We loaded up all the equipment, samples and tools for the long haul back home, allowing ourselves a spot of rest and relaxation in Tripoli before heading north to Tunisia and the ferry to France, and on to England a week later.

Trip details.

Any traveller wishing to recreate the trip virtually on Google Earth, could key in the following Longitude and Latitude waypoints. Those interested in visiting Libya personally will need a visa that can only be secured via an invitation from a Libyan Tour Company. There are plenty advertised on the Internet and most of them will arrange transport for any length of desert trip, either by 4WD, or Camel. Libya is rich in Archaeological sites including; Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Appolonia, along the coast, and Germa, 1000 km’s. south of Tripoli in the Fezzan.

Ghadames:     30º07’54.55”N, 09º29’52.77”E
Derj:                30º09’45.01”N, 10º27’24.67”E
Camp 1:          30º09’53.82”N, 10º30’04.68”E
Camp 2:          28º38’21.28”N, 10º20’20.04”E
Camp 3:          27º59’17.98”N, 10º32’39.36”E
Camp 4:          27º34’43.23”N, 10º51’17.16”E
Camp 5:          27º22’06.13”N, 10º56’18.02”E
Germa:           26º31’49.33”N, 13º03’40.69”E

My route from the U.K. involved a 1,000 km. drive across France to Marseilles, a 24 hr. ferry to Tunis, then a further 1,000 km’s. to Tripoli. From Tripoli to Derj was 600 km’s. of tarmac, then the desert section was 1,000 km’s. of wilderness. The round trip from the U.K. was in the region of 7,000 km’s. and was achieved with a total reliability from my Land Rover Carawagon.

The Land Rover was originally built in 1970 as a Carawagon conversion with; an elevating roof, double bed, cooker, fridge, and ample cupboards for storage. In the ten years I have owned it, several modifications have been made to improve the Land Rover. It now has; a 200 Tdi engine, with bigger AlliSport intercooler, a Discovery transfer box, a galvanised chassis, and coil springs all round. With nine Sahara trips over the last ten years there has been considerable wear and tear, but as bits fall apart they are replaced, and I expect the Land Rover to complete many more trips in the future.

Many thanks to:

Professor David Mattingly, project director.
Dr. Kevin White, for guidance on the Geography of the Sahara.
Matt Savage, for preparing the Land Rover for this, and many other expeditions.