Staff of Life.
A trip to the remote Gilf Kebir for Christmas.
It’s that time of year again! We send greeting cards to people we don’t like, receive them from people we’ve forgotten. Try and remember just what went wrong with last years cremated turkey and who spilt the red wine gravy all over the carpet. All this set against a backdrop, on the big day, of disintegrating toys, a lack of AA batteries, a hangover and the imminent arrival of a Mother in Law.
Little wonder that a couple of Christmas’s ago three mates and myself joined a small, but select, group of Egyptian chaps and headed off for that last great wilderness in the Sahara, The Gilf Kebir. A plateau, the size of Switzerland, at the southern most point of Egypt that few people have ever heard of, and even fewer visited. It’s a million miles from Slade’s, ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas, every body’s having fun!’
Concerned that we would need to celebrate the great day with some good grub, I called Mahmoud, who was running the show, who assured me, with typical Egyptian enthusiasm, we would “eat like Kings” and quantified this with, “meat and two veg every day and fresh bread every morning.” Optimistic, I thought, considering we would be in the desert for 16 days with no other human contact. He then added the name that would ensure all this was possible. “We’re taking Issa”. I had met Issa a few years before. A quiet sub Saharan African, who had trekked around the desert with just a mule and some basic provisions, learning desert survival as he went. At the time he was carrying a small goat that was about to be cooked an old oil drum, buried in a pit full of glowing embers. It was delicious. Issa likes good grub too.
For the Gilf trip we were ten in number in two Land Rovers, a 110 and a 109, supported by a Toyota pick up carrying 2000 litres of diesel and a few rusty old spanners. All the food and cooking equipment was on, and in, the two heavily laden Land Rovers. The large chunks of beef were buried deep in a cool box, but by day three had reached their sell by date. To overcome this Issa part cooked the meat and preserved it in Ghee, a clarified butter, sealed in a plastic container. A simple method of preservation used in hot countries before the invention of the fridge.
But it was the baking of bread that entertained us most. As we rumbled across endless empty wastes of flat sand, eyes searching for anything, even if just to focus on, we stopped if we saw anything. Usually this turned out to be rubbish, but to the true nomad, rubbish represents opportunity. Issa picked up a large cardboard box slowly blowing from The Atlantic to the Red Sea, then stopped to chisel the top off a 40 gallon oil drum abandoned, half full of sand and possibly a marker for other travellers. It took some time, but was clearly a prized discovery. That evening we found out why. As we were relaxing after a good meal, gazing up at the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, Issa started baking bread for the next day. Squatting on the warm sand Issa mixed flour, yeast, vegetable oil and water in a pan, covered it with a lid and rested it all on a stone next to the fire. An hour later the dough had risen and he rolled out individual nan breads using a Land Rover half shaft as a rolling pin and the cardboard box as a flat work surface.
The fire was coaxed back into life and the top of the oil drum placed on the red hot embers, first to burn off any old paint and oil, then to act as a griddle to cook on. One by one the nan's were dropped on to the hot steel, left for a few minutes then turned over, before being lifted off to cool on the upturned lid of the pan. The smell of the fresh baked bread was mouth watering, but as this was to get us through the next day we were forbidden from trying it until breakfast.
This evening ritual continued throughout the trip ensuring we did, indeed, have fresh bread each morning in the desert. The meat was fine and the vegetables, greens at the beginning of the trip and the more durable carrots and onions at the end, supplemented by dates and oranges gave us a very healthy diet. What was noticeable was the difference in attitude between the Egyptians lads and ourselves. Our western instincts, when planning sustenance for such a trip, would be cautious. Packets of dried food, tins and those pre packed camping meals rammed with preservatives. The Egyptian approach was reinforced by their inbred desert skills and was just another day of having to make the most of what was available and produce something far greater than mere sustenance. A meal fit for Kings.
A very long way from the nearest shop. Sunset from the Gilf Kebir.
Issa in his bakery. A motley collection of junk, but great skill.