A Brush with Danger.
An encounter with some undesirables in the desert.
Personal safety is always a key consideration for any overland traveller. The first question usually asked by those who have not ventured beyond the comfort of Europe is ‘Is it safe there?’, their prejudices established by our sensationalist media. Well, yes and no are both accurate answers. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time the consequences can be disastrous and there is no chance of a friendly Bobby passing by to arrest the culprit. On the other hand, when you are way out in a wilderness the chances of seeing anyone else are pretty slim, which makes it all the more alarming when you do see evidence of other people when you are not expecting them.
Back in 2004 a small group of us were travelling with some Egyptian friends down to the Gilf Kebir. This little known plateau is about 300 feet high, the size of Switzerland and is on the southern border of Egypt adjoining Libya and Sudan. With the nearest tarmac about 400 miles away it is not exactly busy! We had already been in the desert for six days and had not seen a soul, but when heading south down the eastern edge of the Gilf, just as a hot afternoon was turning into a clear cool evening, our friend Mahmoud slowed his Land Rover and said, in a slightly worried tone, ‘there’s a car at the foot of the escarpment, coming this way’. Now this was worrying as the options as to who it was were somewhat limited. If we were lucky it could be some other European tourists, if we were very unlucky it could have been al qaeda terrorists. This was a realistic option as four years later over 11 European tourists were taken hostage for 10 days at this very spot.
As the rogue car drew closer it was clearly a Toyota pick up, quite ratty in appearance and with several people standing in the back. It pulled up about 50 metres away and it was clear they were not tourists. We then saw there were three other, similar cars following it, two Land Cruisers and another pick up. Our group comprised us four Brits, four Egyptians and an obligatory Egyptian soldier who was as much use as box of wet tissues. Unarmed and wearing a maroon shell suit he was already hiding under the dashboard! Mahmoud did not seem unduly worried and drove closer with three of us in his Land Rover, pulling up parallel with their lead car, he got out and walked over. Soon all involved were shaking hands and chatting excitedly in Arabic. We got out and joined the swelling group. It transpired they were smugglers en route from Tripoli in Libya, down to Khartoum in Sudan and were taking the ‘pretty’ way to avoid all border checkpoints. They had been as worried about our presence as we had been about theirs.
I felt it was not the best moment to get a camera out, but I did have a look at their set up. The pick up had three men across the front seat, all dressed in rags, but all with Satellite phones. In the back were four women and teenage children, similarly dressed but sharing the space with two 40 gallon petrol drums and a spare wheel. The drums were tied down with rope, but the passengers had nothing more than a few bags of belongings to sit on. The other three vehicles were similar and it was a mystery what exactly they were smuggling. Human traffic heads blindly north with a view to reaching Europe, In-sh Allah! Our theory was that the smuggled human traffic had been dropped off somewhere up north and they were returning to Sudan with small electrical goods, like the satellite phones, avoiding import taxes by sneaking in across the desert. This in itself is no mean feat. From where we met them at the southern tip of Gilf Kebir, they would have to cross the Salima Sand Plate, the Worlds biggest expanse of flat sand, at 100,000 square kilometres, before reaching Khartoum in a few days time.
As it was getting dark we left them and set about finding somewhere to camp for the night. They clearly had the same idea and started assembling their collection of bedding on the ground. Mahmoud found a low group of hills nearby, but us Brits were a little uncomfortable that both groups could see each other over about half a mile of desert. Quite why we did not travel a few miles to be well away from these desperado’s, I’m not sure, but it was not the best nights sleep I’ve ever had. Happily, when we woke the next morning they had gone and we all agreed we had experienced some real danger and excitement!
Toby 1.jpg: Having travelled for six days the small Anglo Egyptian team reached the Gilf Kebir deep in southern Egypt. They were alarmed to see an approaching car!
Toby 2.jpg: Just visible through a telephoto lens is the Smugglers camp about half a mile away at the foot of the escarpment.