Because it was there.
A romp up the remote Jebel Uwainat.
If you travel as far southwest as you can in Egypt and as far northwest as is possible, in Sudan, to the eastern border of Libya, there is a mountain that marks the point where these three giant Saharan Countries meet. Jebel Uwainat rises out of the surrounding flatness of the desert to a height of nearly 2000 metres. That’s 600 metres higher than Ben Nevis! Despite being in the middle of one of the most arid places on the planet, this mountain does actually have a small amount of rainfall. The last shower was in September 1998, but that is enough to support a few plants and Acacia trees, helped by some underground springs bringing water up from deep bellow the desert.
Our approach in two Land Rover’s took us over vast tracts of flat desert, a fair number of small dune crossings and some boulder strewn rock pistes, before the Jebel loomed into view. As we closed in, it was less like a vertical cliff rising out of the desert, more a series of Wadi’s (valleys) that had been formed millions of years ago. These stretched out like fingers from the main granite rock outcrop and it was in one of these, Karkur Tahl, that we made our base camp. There is a mass of evidence that once this area supported a big population but now it is one of the quietest places on Earth. A few desert tours take adventurers here, but how many actually climb to the top? Four of us were going to attempt it.
Chris Scott, Rich Washington and myself along with our Egyptian friend Mahmoud Sayed-Marai had every intention of putting our names with the select few who have scaled the plateau up at 2000 metres. Desert Explorer, Ralph Bagnold and his chums had climbed it before the War and a handful of European Adventure Tourists had done it more recently. It was a sketchy note from one of these that we carried as a ‘map’. For what it was worth, it might as well have been a child's drawing, but it boiled down to: you go up as far as you can and you are at the top, then you come down again.
It was 6.00 am, dark and freezing when we donned our rucksacks and set off up Karkur Tahl beyond the limits of a Land Rover. Car sized boulders, that had spilled down the valley long ago made the first few miles hard work, plus it was so cold we were hampered by bulky clothing. As the sun started to pick out the top of the mountain, so our layers came off and were strapped to our bags. Soon we cleared the boulders and were on an easy gravel surface stripped to tee-shirts. We were hoping to make a circular tour to avoid the steepest bits of the climb, and stay roughly in line with our ‘map’, but with no path to follow, every mile was guess work.
By late afternoon we were certainly high, but it became apparent that the exact location of the summit was anybody's guess. There were a few steep rock outcrops clearly higher than the surrounding area, but which was the highest? Our hand held GPS units showed an altitude of 1900 metres, so we opted to call it a day and camp there, satisfied that it would be no good searching for any human evidence of a summit, as there would be none. We were, to all intents and purposed, at the top!
Fortunately there were the remains of a few tamarisk trees about and as the sun dropped down behind the edge of the ridge we soon had a fire going and got a meal on the go. Our water was in short supply so washing had to be skipped, but with some hot food inside us we were pleased with our days efforts. We turned in for the night secure in the knowledge that we were the only people on the mountain, and could easily be for some years to come.
We arose early, as with so little water left we had to make swift progress back down the mountain. Naturally it all seemed easier heading back downhill and we took some time to admire the views across hundreds of miles of totally empty desert. The Gilf Kebir to our north was just visible, as were the smaller rock outcrops that link Uwainat to the Gilf, poking up out of the sand. Libya was to our left and Egypt to our right as we picked our way down to the head of Karkur Tahl and the last leg to the waiting Land Rovers, where those that had stayed behind had a cup of tea ready and waiting. A perfect end to a great couple of days.
Toby Uwainat 1.jpeg. The eerie landscape at the top of Uwainat was the point at which the climbers called it a day and camped for the night, certain they were alone!
Toby Uwainat 2.jpeg. These cave paintings are between 4000- 5000 years old and illustrate there must have once been a big population in this now arid area.
Toby Uwainat 3.jpeg. For the heavily laden 110 and 109 it had been a five day haul south from Cairo to the remote Jebel Uwainat across a variety of desert surfaces.
Toby Uwainat 4.jpeg. Mahmoud catches some sun, while Chris stays in the shade on the descent from Jebel Uwainat. The views were awesome all the way.