Pirates of the Desert

Pirates of the Desert From UK to Egypt on a trip that would take them from Cairo to the borders of Sudan and Libya.

In the July issue of 4x4 Magazine, we read about the trials and tribulations of organising what must be one to the most ambitious expeditions ever mounted in a pair of 1943 Jeeps.  Seven intrepid souls had clubbed together to ship the Jeeps from UK to Egypt and embark on a trip that would take them from Cairo to the borders of Sudan and Libya following routes used by the legendary Long Range Desert Group in World War 2.  

The vague punctuality of international shipping was starting to bite as I sat in Cairo tracking our container ship, Cap Harvey, as it dithered about mid Mediterranean.  The E.T.A. of 2nd April eventually became a real date of 5th April, just a day before our planned drive south into the Desert.  Our full team had assembled at the Mena House Hotel, a favourite haunt of the LRDG officers when returning from a mission and all was set for our adventure except for a noticeable lack of two Jeeps.  To make matters worse, the following day was Friday, the Arab worlds' equivalent of our Sunday.  In a great ‘Plan B’ move Sam Watson, our Cairo based LRDG expert came up with a tour of relevant sites around Cairo enlisting his pal, Darrell Hardman and his three Land Rovers.

With toys to play with and interesting sites to visit we were happy.  Battles with bureaucracy resumed the next day and by late afternoon we were ready to hit the road.  The splinter group of us who had endured the lengthy process of importation at Alexandria Docks agreed it would be best to make up the lost time with an overnight drive south.  With seven eager drivers we should be able to do it.  We met the Cairo based contingent at a petrol station just south of the city and hit the road in an orderly convoy behind one of the Toyota ‘Troupies’ supplied by our logistics company, Siag Travel.  A second Toyota brought up the rear.  And so it was that over the space of the next 12 hours we drove 775 kms to Baharia Oasis on the thin ribbon of tarmac marked on maps as a main road.  It was a big ask of the Jeeps to be exhumed from a container and driven virtually unchecked over such a distance, pausing only for fuel top ups from jerry cans and driver changes, but they rose to the occasion, cruising at a steady 50 mph.


We pulled up at an hotel in Baharia at 5.15 am and hit the sack for a few hours - exhausted!  After a leisurely breakfast we surfaced to find the Siag truck had joined us - a 7 ton Iveco 4x4 carrying all of our supplies.   Refreshed we continued on ‘black top’ to the small town of Mut for a final night in civilisation and a chance to give both Jeeps a check over.  It was at the Mut petrol station that we topped up both petrol tanks and jerry cans, but it was not until we fired up the engines that we realised it was 80 octane fuel and dirty.   Fortunately one of our group was Rick Péwé, a life long Jeep fanatic and expert with all things mechanical.  He took the lead with the rest of us passing spanners and dismantled the carburettor, fitted extra inline fuel filters and even adjusted the valve clearances on the engine.  Fortunately, we had time to kill in Mut anyway as the Tourist Policeman we were obliged to take with us did not arrive until lunchtime, as did the Military escort required to travel so far south in what is regarded as ‘Bandit Territory’.  They comprised three soldiers and a very eloquent Major who spoke good English and were self-contained with all their supplies squeezed into an 80 Series Land Cruiser that was somewhat past its sell by date.

It was late afternoon by the time we finally made the all important swing off the tarmac and onto the flat plain of gravel that would be our track for the next few days.  After all the anguish of the last few days - the mind numbing bureaucracy at the port, the long hours of night driving and the misfiring of the engines, at last we were experiencing exactly what the LRDG would have felt.  We were setting out on a mission across a wasteland of sand and rock with little chance of seeing another living soul for ten days and nothing but desert before us.  Big smiles returned to all of our faces as we made rapid progress across the sand sheet kicking up little plumes of sand in our wake.  Both Jeeps looked good and were keeping up a steady 40 mph.  We opted to run three up with one person ‘resting’ in the comfort of a Toyota, but in all honesty the Jeeps were not uncomfortable.


We made our first camp in the lee of some rocks sheltered from the wind and for those new to desert camping the awe of the starlit sky provided a talking point until bedtime.  Some of us slept in tents, whilst others preferred to sleep outside, shooting star spotting lulling them into a deep sleep.  Throughout the War The LRDG were kept mobile by fuel dumps way out in the desert.  Back then big trucks would have transported thousands of four gallon petrol cans called Flimsies to a pre arranged hiding place and many of these are still there.  To say the desert is littered with them would be an overstatement, but there are still thousands out there.  Our first site was a pile of these marked ‘Shell Benzine - WD’.  These would have been a most welcome sight to a patrol running low on fuel and to us formed a direct link spanning 70 years between us and the LRDG.  

Our next stop was a discarded Chevrolet six cylinder engine, any useful parts having long since been removed for spares.  It was easy to imagine engineers sweating buckets removing this knackered engine and replacing it with a good one in the glare of the North African sun, ever watchful for enemy aircraft.   A scattering of Flimsies littered the way and we turned directly west having been told by both the Major and the Tourist Police that further travel south was forbidden.  The Egyptian Army had ‘lost contact’ with 12 personnel stationed at a remote checkpoint down there the month before (it made the BBC News the day before I flew out to Cairo).  Both were clearly twitching and persuaded us to head west above Parallel 23.  Not wishing to bump into Bandits we agreed, but this became a bonus.  After a couple of hours driving we spotted  an overturned Ford 4x4 truck and most certainly ex LRDG.  What was really exciting was that none of us had ever seen a photograph of this before on any web site.  We swarmed all over it photographing every angle whilst the army guys became ever more nervous scouring the horizon for any movement.

Pressing on we moved to a landscape offering more cover and the military relaxed a little.  For the first time the terrain actually needed a little skill as there was a mixture of soft sand and rock.  The heavy Toyotas were struggling a bit in the soft stuff, but both Jeeps sailed across, helped by being about a third of the weight.  We camped the second night well out of sight from anybody and a camp routine was starting to establish itself mirroring that of the LRDG back in WW2.  As we pulled up at a suitable camping spot one group would assemble the camp, others would get a brew on and the remainder would attend to Jeep servicing.  Oil and water were checked as well as various bits that worked loose with the constant shaking and bouncing associated with hundreds of miles of off-road driving.  They were bearing up very well and only a silencer bracket had broken, being simply repaired with some bent wire - true LRDG improvisation!  With the chores complete it was time for us to gather round a Jeep and take a tot of Rum.  No ordinary rum, but Pussers - the very same rum enjoyed during the War to take the edge off, be it for sailors, or desert soldiers.  At 55% alcohol it packed a punch!

Jason Paterniti and Karl-Gunnar Noren.

Our time driving west was coming to an end as we approached the Gilf el Kebir, a vast plateau rising up out of the sand.  With its towering cliffs and many Wadis that lead nowhere in particular, the Gilf is an impressive sight.  Driving up and over it is not an option so we had to pick our way through using Wadi Wassa, a fairly easy route that kept us north of Parallel 23 and pacified the Military.  Our destination was Wadi Sura on the south western edge of the Gilf, the site of the mythical cave featured in The English Patient and location of the famous ‘swimmers’ rock art, though looking at the surrounding high cliffs it looks like the figures may have been thrown off as some kind of sacrifice, rather than enjoying a spot of breast stroke in a natural spring.

We suggested it would be a good place to camp, but our military escorts thought not.  Wadi Sura lies on the people trafficking route between Sudan and Libya.  Desperate sub Saharan Africans seeking a new life in Europe are driven up through here by totally unscrupulous bandits who are known to drop them off in this area with the instruction ‘Libya is just over there’.  Whilst the border is quite close, the first sign of civilisation is Kufra, some 200 long miles further west.  These unfortunate people often perish out here.  The International word is that even these poor folk don’t want to travel through Libya right now and the route is quiet, but Major Sherif was quite insistent so we sought refuge up a different Wadi well out of sight.  Even having done this he mounted an armed watch patrolling the extended perimeter of our camp.  Whilst we aimed to reproduce most of the experiences borne by the LRDG, keeping a constant look out for an enemy was not one we relished, so as we took our tot of rum that night we were a little edgy ourselves and weighed up the risks with LRDG style logic.  If there were bandits out there it was highly unlikely they would find us hidden away in our little Wadi, (we are talking an area the size of The Peak District here!). If they did find us, our comparatively affluent group of western tourists could provide valuable currency in the form of hijack ransoms.  Our military escort, under such circumstance would throw down their weapons and run a mile!  The other, more likely option would be that some poor soul, or family, abandoned by traffickers might have seen us arrive as they sheltered in a cave and try and join us for a drink of water and some food.  They would merely be an inconvenience and no threat.  With these possibilities discussed we issued an extra tot of rum and went to bed - as did our armed guards!

Box out

The LRDG was formed in Cairo in 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold.  Bagnold’s idea was that a small mobile unit could wreak havoc amongst the enemy by approaching from from the desert, rather than along the Mediterranean coast.  The success of the plan relied on the pre-war adventures of Bagnold and his chums, Patrick Clayton, Rupert Harding-Newman, Bill Kennedy-Shaw and Guy Prendergast.  Their amateur expeditions into the Sahara to relieve the boredom of being stationed in Cairo had given them an unprecedented knowledge of both the cartography and the means of traversing it.  The LRDG used 2WD Chevy and Ford 4WD, 30 cwt trucks, but when the Jeep came along in 1942 it was used in parallel, acting as a taxi to transport the newly formed SAS behind enemy lines.  The distances they travelled with such rudimentary equipment are truly impressive often exceeding 2000 miles and being away for a month.


A Ford 30cwt similar to those found on this adventure.  This one was taking Eddie Shieliach, a Syrian Agent, behind enemy lines.  Driving is ‘Jigger’ Lee and leaning on the front is Arthur Arger. photo courtesy Vaughan Southall.

The Chevrolet was much preferred by the LRDG even though it was only 2WD.  It was faster and better on fuel.  This one belonging to Y12 Unit had just been delivered and was to be known as ‘Cock of the North’. photo courtesy Vaughan Southall.

The long drive south overnight was a severe test of both Jeeps.  Straight out of the container they covered 775 kms. arriving in Baharia Oasis at 05.15 hrs.

Comparing old maps and modern satellite images the team worked out the best way to experience as many LRDG trails as time allowed.

American Jeep expert, Rick Péwé, was always keen to roll his sleeves up and do some maintenance.  Extra fuel filters sorted out dirty petrol and inlet and exhaust valves were adjusted for peak performance.

Following several days of logistics in Alexandria Port and a long drive South it was great to finally be out in the Desert camping in the lee of some rocks to shelter from the Ghibli wind.Just a rusty old engine to many, but actually Chevy engine number XR3758456 from an LRDG truck used in about 1942!

There is something so right about seeing two WW2 Jeeps in their natural habitat.  The team kept the canvas tops on to start with fearing sun stroke in the 34º heat.

The sun stroke did not happen as long as everyone was covered up.  This was a typical drive every day for 10 days and was as fun as it looks.

Four gallon Flimsies at a fuel dump.  Originally these were packed in a wooden crate each (good firewood). Stealing the ‘jerry can’ design from the Germans a couple of years later was one of the best things the Allies ever did!

Even the ever resourceful Rick Péwé admitted the Chevy engine was beyond repair.

Driving fast into a setting sun on flat sand sheet, distant hills building up as the team approach Gilf el Kebir.

Jason Paterniti of the American Explores Club shares a joke with Karl-Gunnar Norén  who has just finished writing a book on the LRDG in Swedish.

Siag Travel made an excellent job of setting up the dining area (on right)  The truck formed the main windbreak with the two Toyotas providing extra shelter.  To the left is the Military escort and their 80 Series Land Cruiser and the Jeeps are just arriving at camp.

Sunset over the dunes is always a wonderful sight.

Not the result of some careless accident, but the remains of a Ford 30 cwt 4x4 truck, probably overturned to aid removal of the axles, either during the War, or at anytime afterwards.  Tis find is previously unpublished.

The team’s first sighting of this ‘new’ find, though subsequent research has revealed it had been discovered back in 2003 by the Hungarian Desert Traveller, András Zboray.

The moments the team had lived for. making swift progress across flat sand in two authentic WW2 Jeeps.  Great fun!!

Rick Péwé  at the wheel with Jason Paterniti hanging on in the passenger seat whilst Karl-Gunnar Norén hangs on in the back.  Just another 1000 miles to go.

The going was not all flat sand plate, this bit was rocks and soft sand.

This ‘Waterfall Grille’ Ford would have been a supply truck carrying fuel supplies out deep into the Desert.

70 year old Flimsies are quite common all across this part of The Sahara, but visitors should resist taking souvenirs as they are not limitless.

There is nothing to beat sleeping out under the stars and watching the whole of the Milky Way stretch from horizon to horizon.

This American White truck would have been another load carrier, now a reminder of the hardships endured during WW2.

A typical scene as the team pitched camp.  There was always routine maintenance to carry out on both Jeeps, but fortunately, nothing major.

*Pirates of the Desert was a term used to describe the LRDG following a comment by Ralph Bagnold: "How about some piracy on the high desert?"

Copyright Toby Savage

May 2012

Reproduced with thanks to 4x4 Magazine.