Expedition to Western Desert, Autumn 2002


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Part I - Dakhla Oasis to Karkur Talh
Travels and discoveries in the Western Desert - click here

Part II    -    Ascent of Mount Uweinat
A mountain climb of discovery and challenge - click here

Part III   -   Gilf Kebir and Wadi Sura
Desert travels and Cave of Swimmers - click here

For outline details, scroll down to text section below...

Route: Cairo - Uweinat - Gilf Kebir - Bahariya - Siwa - Cairo


This expedition has now been satisfactorily completed -
Click on links above for full report of each section.

Western Desert Expedition
Egypt: Uweinat and Gilf Kebir

Expedition to Uweinat and The Gilf Kebir - Western Desert, Egypt 2002

The call of wild places is never heard so loud as in the Sahara Desert. And one of the wildest of these is Egypt's Western Desert.

The Western Desert lies to the West-of-the-Nile and is part of the great expanse called the Libyan Desert (from where Libya gets it's name). A boundless tract of barren rocks and shifting sand, the Libyan Desert spans three countries and is about the size and shape of India.

Author in Desert mode

In the far southwest of Egypt's desert boundary lies an isolated granite massif known as Uweinat. It is one of the Sahara's few mountains, (6,200 ft) and is approached by way of the archaeologically younger sandstone plateau, the 'Gilf Kebir'.

The Uweinat land-mass is one of the oldest rock formations in Africa and lies on the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. It hosts a spectacular solitude encircled by shimmering horizons.

'Gilf Kebir' means 'Wall-of-Kebir'. It is bound by a long unscalable cliff broken only by intermittent river beds and ravines eroded by centuries of floodwater coursing through the soft sandstone. The area is roughly the size of Switzerland.

In it's green and fertile past, between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago, the Gilf Kebir was home to many Neolithic Tribes who left us their stone age rock-art, cave paintings and flint tools to cherish.

Now the Gilf is waterless, barren and remote. It supports no life, there are no animals and no nomads. It is rarely visited and a journey here is a serious undertaking. This inaccessible wilderness is one of the least explored places on the planet and is an area less visited than the South Pole. With irregular rainfall, it is also one of the driest.

András Zboray, a seasoned traveller and Gilf authority, is mounting a small expedition to this remote corner of the planet which I shall join as Photographer. Our team includes two Bedouin guides and six experienced travellers, all wedged into two well laden Toyotas. We shall leave Cairo in mid-October 2002.

On the way we shall pass the curious lake of 'Mud Lions', lumpy mineral deposits formed aeons ago as the water evaporated in the changing climate. And then the 'White Desert' where erosion has carved fanciful shapes in the soft rocks.

Our main objective is to examine uncharted river courses, caves, cliffs and overhangs, searching for new, uncatalogued sites of Neolithic occupation.

The first stop after Cairo is the oasis of Dakhla where we shall restock with supplies before setting off across the desert; there will be no food, fuel or water available for the next 2½ weeks of desert travel.

We shall skirt the Eastern side of the Gilf Kebir and continue to our first destination, Uweinat. Here we shall explore, on foot, some of the many tortuous watercourses and ravines, abandoning the Toyotas for up to 2 days at a time.

Sand-spring, Siwa, Western Sahara.                         © Kit Constable Maxwell

Uweinat was one of the locations used by the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) during the Desert Campaign of 1942-43. It was here they mounted a reconnaissance party to scout the oasis of Kufra (just over the border in Libya). Almost no one has been here since…

After Uweinat we shall travel north up the Gilf and through the sand-blown Aquaba Pass up onto the plateau. Then we shall cross back onto the Egyptian side of the Gilf, stopping to view several known Neolithic sites en-route, including the 'Cave of Swimmers', immortalised in the film 'The English Patient'.

We shall then travel across to the ancient oasis of Siwa, perched as it is above the infamous Quattara Depression with it's treacherous quicksands. Whole trucks have been known to disappear in the sands without trace, along with itinerant camels and unwary people.

We shall visit Siwa's Temple of Amun where Alexander travelled as a pilgrim in 331BC, and then strike North on easier terrain to the coast road for Alexandria.

The whole trip will last several weeks and cover some 1800 desert miles, (3000 km). A full report with photographs is being prepared now - tuned-in to this website at http://www.kitmax.com

©Kit Constable Maxwell

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Other Sahara Travels...


Desert Expedition to Chinguetti, Mauritania
January to March 1996
© Kit Constable Maxwell

Nouakchott is a long way from anywhere. I had arrived here after an arduous 4,000 mile drive from Europe. This was to be my starting point for a trip to the Moorish city of Chinguetti, an isolated, dune-encircled town of great cultural interest and the Seventh Holy City of Islam.
----- Nouakchott, the Place of the Winds, was built in recent years following Mauritania's independence from France. It is a well planned but shabby town surrounded by the shanty dwellings of displaced desert nomads. The country's 10-year drought has cost the lives of an estimated 40,000 camels and the livelihood of countless nomadic herdsmen and their families.
----- Travelling Northward in my modified Land Rover the terrain is flat and sandy, and served by a badly deteriorated tarmac road. By Akjoujt, 100 miles on, I abandoned the road and drove alongside, dodging rocks, sand ruts and wadis as quickly as I could see them. The ondulée ripples on the surface of the piste shake the car severely for mile after bone- shaking mile. The piste gets worse, the ripples steeper and the pot holes deeper.
----- I am carrying a full load of fuel and water - over 70 gallons, and am fearful of the effect on the Land Rover's suspension. I make a daily inspection of springs, shock absorbers, engine and body mountings, U bolts and shackles to allay my fears. I am carrying a number of spare parts and can rectify most suspension problems, at least on a get-me-home basis.

The terrain changes - a gently undulating plain hosts a sparse covering of thin green grass and scrub. The piste begins to climb as I near the Atar highlands which water this part. Goats, some sheep, and camels stalk elegantly through the rich grazing. Fluffy camel calves gambol gauchely on their long ungainly legs, taking uncertain steps after their mothers.

Author shares tea with Moorish herder - Atar plateau

----- I stopped for the night at a well near some herders' huts. A thorn corral held some young camels and goats whilst elsewhere semi-wild donkeys roam wild and bray their vociferous challenge. The corral is made of woven thorn and is an impenetrable barrier to both the domestic animals within and to the wild animals without. I washed off in half a bowl of lukewarm water, starting at the top, soaping and rinsing my way downwards. By the time I got to my feet, the water was thick, soapy and fairly unpalatable. I put it aside for the first rinse of the evening meal and got into the Land Rover, now in the cool of the evening, to prepare a meal. But the goats found the bowl… and drained every last drop before I'd had a chance to stop them!

Next morning the track climbed up into a rocky landscape and I arrived at Atar, a charming Moorish town renowned for it's leatherwork. I bought some comfortable sandals and went to the market to buy fresh vegetables for the journey into the desert. I moved among eager vendors, curious children and shrouded village elders discussing matters of mutual interest in the traditional marketplace gathering. The lettuces were fresh but limp, nature's way of reducing evaporation in the heat. The carrots were crisp, the potatoes small and firm. I bought five of each to last for the next five days. And some bread which I placed in sealed bags to keep it fresh for as long as possible. I filled up with fuel at the one pump and set off across the desert for Chinguetti.
----- It was very hot, over 40'C, (110'F) and I was drinking a lot of lukewarm water as I drove along. The piste straggled off across the rocks and wadis in no particular direction, unmarked save for the occasional rut and intermittent wheel marks through patches of soft sand. Big gila lizards stopped to observe the advancing Land Rover before lumbering off on their chubby legs to the safety of their burrows. Gila's are aggressive, very poisonous and best avoided. Buzzards circled overhead hunting for small rodents or some luckless vole feeding off the barren landscape.

The broadly spread tracks of the piste converged suddenly and I found myself at the foot of a great cliff. This escarpment extended in both directions and only a narrow ravine indicated the direction to take. I checked out the position on my GPS navigator which confirmed I was on target for the precipitous climb to the Atar plateau. I selected low ratio on the gearbox and set off up the track. The long climb had begun.
----- The track became steeper with sharp bends, dangerous overhangs and steep drops into the ravine. Down now to 1st gear in low ratio, the Land Rover scrambled awkwardly over loose rocks and ruts deeply scarred by flash floods. The view was breathtaking and every turn revealed another rocky vista. Tall conical pinnacles arose across the valley, their shale strewn haunches plunging down into the depths of the ravine.
----- I came to a section which was the steepest and most tortuous yet. I planned my route and thundered on, unable to stop for fear of losing momentum. Now the gradient was so steep I could only see the sky as I drove up and had to navigate on memory. Lots of loose shale ricocheted off the cliff wall and I passed uncomfortably close to a giant boulder marking the apex of the corner. This was the most hazardous and spectacular gorge I'd ever driven up; later I met two drivers who had abandoned it as too difficult, and turned back; clearly they weren't equipped with Land Rovers…
----- Arriving finally at the top, the landscape changed to a softer, fertile prairie with small shrubs, thin grass and sparse bushes. Camels grazed, nomads herded their flocks and donkeys roamed free. I stopped and walked for a while, enjoying the great silence and natural beauty of this rugged place. A scorpion scuttled off under a stone, and several beetles shared the remains of a coyote's meal.
----- Far across the high plateau were some tall rocky outcrops standing like sentinels, defying the heat, the searing wind and the passage of time. I climbed up to one and was able to view a great broad vista in all directions, a wonderful natural shelter for a nomadic family. Beneath the overhang of this curious rock I discovered the faint remains of a Neolithic rock painting. Looking further I found well preserved drawings of tribal people, cattle and giraffe, the latter extinct in this part of the Sahara for a thousand years.

Land Rover crossing rocky terrain near Chinguetti

----- The drawings were a fascinating glimpse into the lives of early tribesmen who dwelled in these parts at the end of the stone age, and left their indelible mark in these now isolated rocks. These prehistoric testimonials are found in many parts of the Sahara and reveal a wealth of social information telling of a well developed social order among the last of the stone age tribes, some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.

After more heart-stopping scrambles all day through sandy wadis, sharp rocks and camel thorn scrub, I could now see the great landscape of encircling sand, the dune sea which marked my destiny and my goal. Coming down a little off the plateau I came at last to the old city of Chinguetti, the centre of Moorish culture and the Seventh Holy City of Islam. Now a small and sparsely inhabited village, it is divided by a great sandy wadi negotiable only by camel or the sturdiest of 4wd vehicles.
----- The town is surrounded by a shifting sea of sand which is encroaching on all sides. The narrow streets are filled with sand and are impassable except on foot. Gone are the shuffling herds of camel, victims of time, drought and desertification. Gone too are the great Islamic pilgrimages, assembling together with such spiritual hope for their epic journey across the breadth of the Sahara, to far off Mecca on the Arabian peninsular. Gone is the market, the people, the bustle of life that characterised this important city for so many centuries. This great trek would take several hazardous years, and many pilgrims never returned; their family documents and treasures deposited at the Chinguetti mosque for safe-keeping were never to be reclaimed...
-----The mosque is small and very old and built, like the rest of the old town, of layered stones. The tower is decoratively surmounted by four ostrich eggs which can be seen from far away, to guide travellers across the sands. As an infidel I was not allowed to enter the holy confines of the mosque, but a guide led me, instead, to the adjacent library where countless books and manuscripts record the cultural accumulations of the ages. Here I saw nomadic artefacts of the 16thC, saddle bags, woven camel blankets and assorted camel tack, 15thC family chests of wood and tooled leather, early ceremonial tea sets with teapot and drinking cups.
----- On the floors were stacked piles of manuscripts, apparently well preserved by the desert's arid environment. In the alcoves and built-in shelves were more books. I was handed one, an illustrated treatise on mathematical formulae dating to the 14thC, with beautifully preserved drawings and geometric diagrams. Other documents bore the verse of poets long dead, letters, agreements, commercial slips and messages. Short bamboo tubes with fitted caps contained letters and documents which were passed around the community from one traveller to another until they reached their destiny, many months later. I examined several of these bamboo letters which date from the middle ages, all still in perfect condition.

Further into this wonderful repository I saw rows of documents parcelled up on the floor, a librarian's treasure trove. My guide handed me a fine and weighty volume, hand written and exquisitely illuminated in azure and gold leaf. The pages were made from the finest gazelle skin, the spine and covers of worked camel leather, all stitched with fine thongs. I was holding one of the world's literary treasures, a hand written Koran over 900 years old. Every page was a work of art, every capital letter adorned with the complex abstract designs that so characterise Islamic art.
----- I walked through the old town at dusk watching the light changing on the encroaching dunes. The branching top of a single date palm was all that was left of the old palmerie, now devoured by a fifty foot tidal wave of migrant sand. I was invited into a pilgrims rest house which consisted of a walled garden, partially tented over with a thick camel-hair covering. The roof sloped down to the floor and a gap allowed for the movement of air. The floor was covered by a richly worked Islamic carpet, and cushions were provided for seating around the edges of the reception area. Tea was ordered in the traditional Arabic custom, three small glasses, all sweet, delicious and refreshing.
----- Chinguetti is sited at the beginning of a long rocky escarpment which runs for 1000 miles across the desert towards Timbuktu. I had planned to drive this old pilgrims trail but the desert wind and shifting dunes had obliterated the piste, and the trail hadn't been used for years. No guide was prepared to take me so I re-routed back across the plain to Atar.
----- Leaving Chinguetti was a sombre experience. It had been my privilege to visit this place of so many past glories. The historic town holds powerful memories; the noise and excitement of the camel trains, the herders, the traders, the urchins. The bustle of the pilgrims, the learning, the teaching, the art. All its rich history is slowly slipping into a sand filled oblivion. Like so many desert towns through history, it is a casualty of time and the changing face of mankind's cultural evolution.
----- In a few more generations, Chinguetti will be buried without trace, like so many desert realms before it, and it's memory will be lost in time…And only the old traveller's tales will be able to recount it's glorious past.

© Kit Constable Maxwell

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Driving tips and Equipment


From letter to James and friends travelling to Iran, Syria etc...

Section 1 VEHICLE

Payload - keep weight to a minimum.
Fit heavy duty shock absorbers, if available.
Balance payload front-to back.
Wire contents roof rack and padlock.
Spares - carry basic spares, eg 2 spark plugs (or 2 injectors), distributor cap, condenser, spare oil, brake fluid, fuses, electric wire, spanner set mole grips, pliers, screwdrivers, (straight and cross-head), spark tester, sandpaper, (to clean contacts).
Also jump leads, plastic bags, masking tape, marker pen, insulation tape, tie wire (for tying up the things that fall off).
Radweld, several spare Jubilee clips. Spare front brake hose. Tyre pump. Candle and matches. Torch. Sterotabs.
Chafing - Check over car for anything that rubs against anything else - they chafe through and let you down. Tie up, secure or buffer as required; especially fuel pipes, brake hoses, water hoses etc.


Supplies - Check out next fuel and water supplies; allow extra 200 miles fuel + 10 days water at subsistence rate of 2 litres each day.
Nights - Camp at check points, or village centres.
If off road, stay out of sight, and use no lights after dark.
Eat no meat, fish or milk unless assured of proper standards.
Bottled water must be sealed; take no ice in drinks.
Poultry and boiled veg and pulses etc is usually OK.
Stop for NO ONE on the road. Including staged accidents etc. Only stop for uniformed officers or at check points. Trust NO ONE…
Buy all maps in UK (Stanfords, Long Acre, WC2) before leaving.
If you get STUCK - Stop, enjoy it, take your time, consider options and actions required, i.e jacking, digging, pushing, pulling…….then act.
If you get LOST - Stop, have a brew up. Try to calculate where you are, then try to calculate where you should be. Head for an easily identifiable landmark like a highway, or a river or moutain range. Retrace steps if practical, but avoid driving around in circles looking for your own tracks and using up precious fuel. Use a sun compass (eg shadow of aerial on masking tape) or head for a distant landmark.


Sand - reduce tyre pressures to about a third, but not below about 12 psi
(or rims may slip around inside tyres).
Carry a jacking board (300mm x 200mm x 40mm)
If weight allowance permits, sand ladders (600mm x 300mm x 40mm).
Fit rope pulls to recover after use.
Hi-lift jack - invaluable if tackling treacherous terrain.
Check jacking points at front and rear of vehicle, ie bracket under bumper.
Sand shovel - small one invaluable for digging or burying etc.
Snatch rope - but ensure plus stout shackles and firm fixing points on car.

Section 4 DRIVING

Ruts and pot-holes - avoid if possible; know the lowest point of your axle or exhaust.
Avoid wet ruts and lying water unless in 4wd.
Washboard corrugations - if slight, drive at speed, eg 30 - 50 mph. If severe, drop to 5 mph; there is no in between speed, you can either run over the tops of corrugations or you must drop to crawling speed.
The right speed 'feels' right. The wrong speed will knock, shake and rattle and quickly wreck shock absorbers and then springs - especially if the vehicle is fully loaded, which it will be.
Fech-fech - soft powdery sand which can be deep and almost undiggable. Usually occurs on worn pistes. If there is no way around, take at speed and hope for the best. It usually has a firm base.
Sand crust - drive at moderate speeds, 30 - 50 mph; as soon as a crust gives way, decide instantly whether to proceed or abort. As the wheels sink through into softer sand, change gear smoothly and immediately to avoid loss of momentum or sudden wheelspin.
As soon as traction is lost, abort. Stop, deflate tyres to minimum and try again.
Then dig, or use highlift-jack and sand ladders, or tow rope, deciding whether to come out forwards or backwards.
Rocks, gravel, thorns - keep tyres well inflated, 20% above normal.
Sand, fech-fech - deflate when required, approx 20% below normal.


High lift jack - Lifts up either front or rear of car which can then be pushed off sideways or lowered onto sand ladders etc. Can also be used to right an overturned car, or as a winch. (Winch cable and extra shackle required, 1 ton capacity; useful but optional extra). Ensure car has jacking points front and rear, (ie under bumpers). If not, bolt a stout angle piece to the bumper bolts. Do not forget jack-pad eg wood plank 12" x 9" x 1.5, with rope pull for recovery after use. Sand ladders - 24" x 12" or two short scaffold planks 24" x 9" x 1.5. Tie on a rope pull, about 1m, as they can get buried and lost in sand. Snatch rope - a multi strand woven nylon rope for vehicle recovery. Attach firmly to each vehicle, then drive off a about 5 mph. The rope will taughten, stretch and then catapult the disabled vehicle out without bogging in the rescue vehicle. Invaluable in all mud or sand situations, but observe strict safety precautions.

1) Ensure the fixings on both vehicles are capable of withstanding the huge and sudden load when the rope tightens.
2) Keep all passengers a safe distance away.

More Overland travels

      Just a few points more come to mind at this rather hectic time (I'm just moving studio).
Vehicle - change all water hoses, heater hoses etc. and take old ones as spares. Check brake pipe flexibles, and change if showing cracks. Take a spare.
Remove road wheels and examine brakes for linings, wheels cylinder leaks and especially leaks from the differential units. Easy to see, easy to stop, and serious if ignored a s diff unit will break up if starved of oil.
Gearbox - check visually for leaks.
Tools - make sure you have a good jack with a high enough lift. Practice a wheel change before leaving.
Carry a jacking block or two (wood, 100mm x 50mm x 300mm (called 4"x2").
Tow rope - check you have a strong towing eye at front and back of the vehicle.
And a stout shackle at each end.
Get visas as soon as possible, and don't go to Iran or Syria without one, or you may be turned away at the border. When I went to Iran in the '70's I travelled via Bulgaria (Sofia is well worth a stop), Istanbul, then North to Samsun on the Black Sea, Trabzon, Erzurum and crossed the border into Iran at Dogubayazit. The last part, Eastern Turkey, was fairly lawless - camp in villages, not in the wild.
I always take all my own food supply - dehydrated beef curries, prawn curries, soups, stews etc. available from any supermarket. It saves money and time and health. No weight, just add water and boil.
I always add local veg which can be obtained at most places, eg carrots, potatoes, onions, all of which last for several days. For lunches I can usually find a lettuce, tomatoes (buy them under-ripe, or green, as they keep better) and either add an egg, well boiled, or sardines which are available in most places (take some with you as well) and local bread. Try chopping up a raw onion and adding to the salad - delicious.
Wash the lettuce in a bowl of Milton (1 tablet dissolved in water) and keep the water for washing up with. I don't usually bother with butter, it gets in such a mess, but a light smear of olive oil on bread is just as good. Keep the bread in a sealed plastic bag and it will still be edible after 3 days. The working life of a desert loaf is about 3 hours!
Take two ready made Sainsbury French dressing for the salad; they come in squeeze bottles and really cheer up a meal.
Be careful of dairy produce when travelling - no cakes, no ice cream, no yoghurt, no cream buns. Milk only when added to a hot drink. Cheese usually OK.
Avoid ice cubes in drinks, and always insist the water ordered comes with a sealed cap on.
Breakfasts: muesli and powdered milk, or bread and local jam. I cook on a camping gaz portable stove.
The little 190g cylinders cost about £1 each and last about 5-6 days, which includes coffees all day, veg boiling, hot dinners etc. As there will be four of you, you may prefer the small camping gaz rechargeable cylinder, about 10" high, 2.75kg, which will last the whole trip.
Buying petrol. Most pumps display arabic numerals, and most have been jammed so they don't total up the cost. Learn the arabic numbers from the enclosed crib sheet.
At the pump, first agree the price per litre and write in the dust on the side of your car. Then multiply by your total litres; the pumpman will see, and won't try it on…….
When stopping at a fuel station get out, lock the door, stand next to the pump attendant and watch every drop go into the car - otherwise he'll be filling jerry cans for himself and charging you for them!
Also watch for kids unscrewing light lenses, wipers, aerials and wing mirrors.
Don't stop for anyone on the road, (except uniformed officials) and don't give lifts - if you see an accident, report it in the next village - if you stay to help, you'll be stoned by the locals.
Carry no parcels over the border for anyone else; drug smugglers are active everywhere.
Watch for 'plants' by police at borders. Use the same drill, lock each door and accompany the official as he examines the car.
Don't bribe anyone.
Be subtle about photography - keep cameras out of sight at borders.
Don't photograph anything that might reflect badly on the country. A lot of these countries ban video cameras, but if you've got one, take it and don't use it in public areas.
I have found the Syrians a friendly lot, with a colourful country and traditional costume and housing.
Iranians are business-like to the point of aggression but their tourist sites and well presented, roads are generally good and fuel stops adequate.

CLOTHES - Observe the Islamic dress code when out and about - veils for girls, long sleeves and trousers for blokes. Infidels are not allowed in mosques, but this is relaxed sometimes if it suits the guardians.

© Kit Constable Maxwell

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