Part III - Wadi Sura, Cave of Swimmers
and adjacent discoveries
Tuesday 29th October 2002
We broke camp early and drove the length of Karkur Talh. At
the mouth was a steep rise of soft blown sand, and we sank heavily
into a bottomless pit of clawing particles; both Toyotas shuddered
to a halt.
We dismounted, dug out the sand now embedding
all four wheels and inserted sand ladders. With one great push
and lots of engine revs, we released one and gained 20 yards
before sinking again. We repeated the exercise with both cars.
With much expenditure of effort, and baked by the hot sun, we
got the cars to the top of the rise, and waved farewell to that
wild and beautiful valley.
We headed off across the Sand Sheet, Salama's
experienced eye searching for his route between soft patches
of sand, rocky outcrops, dry rivulets and small sand spits,
which become almost invisible in the overhead sun. On good going
we can cruise at 50mph but even a small obstacle could break
an axle if taken at speed.
Once we had to reverse out of a sandy obstruction and re-route
in a different direction. Finally we made it through to the
enticingly styled 'Unnamed Plateau'. We stopped for a
late lunch of tuna, cucumber and sweet corn, cheese, RyeVita
and a whole tube of mustard. Then we set off to explore.
The plateau led to a flat valley, bordered by
soaring boulders stacked steeply up the sides.It was a dry and
sterile place with rocks much eroded and very abrasive. They
tore and the shoes and hands, gave little shade and were not
easy to climb. Hannah slipped and fell, spraining her ankle,
and had to hobble for a while until time repaired the damage.
We made our camp, pitching our tents at random
of the valley floor. It was very hot.
In the evening I walked up a wadi to a small escarpment
to photograph the spectacular desert sunset. The setting sun
cast ever-changing light on the sand sea beyond, and day turned
to a silky dusk. The return journey was unrecognisable - every
turn looked identical and none looked familiar in the changing
light; only my GPS guided me safely back to camp.
Wednesday 30th October - Wadi Sura
We found nothing of note at the Unnamed Plateau, not
even a flint tool or a fossil, and we were ready to leave next
day. We made good progress until we came off the escarpment
and reached the sand sea, a great swath of impenetrable dunes
stretching for 500 miles down into Sudan.We stopped both cars
András and Salama reconnoitred on
foot and chose a route, around one dune, across another and
between two more. We advanced into this dune corridor and picked
our way across the undulating terrain.
We got stuck several times and went into our well-practiced
routine - four would dig , one under each wheel, by crouching
on the sand and hauling out great armfuls of sand. Others would
insert sand ladders in place, and then the big push, lots of
engine revs and the heavy car would rise from it's sand trough
and plough through the clawing sand for another 25 yards.
We skirted the forbidding cliffs of Gilf Kebir's
500 ft wall which is broken only by the steep 'Camel Pass'
and sand-filled 'Aquaba Pass', which we would climb later.
We arrived at Wadi Sura, a small inlet marked by spectacular
rock islands projecting far out into the desert.. We pitched
our tents in the shade of a massive rock the size of an office
block, and set off to view the fabled 'Cave of Swimmers'.
There in a great wide arch, encircled by a dry,
natural moat, we examined this unique site showing, apparently,
swimmers, a mode unique in the Sahara.
Detail from the "Cave
of Swimmers", Wadi Sura, Gilf Kebir
The figures were small but expressively drawn
in ochre, and the three-figure theme repeated several times.There
are at least 16 swimmers, described by archaeologists as being
in 'ritual mode' in this one and only cave.
I looked out of the cave and into the dry moat
and imagined playful scenes in the flood water which collected
here, being recorded 5,000 years ago by the tribal artist, grinding
up ochre dye for his portrayal.
Then I climbed up a steep dry water chute cut
through the sheer cliff, and after some scrambling emerged on
a high wadi besprinkled with cliffs, caves and wind-rippled
sand. At the mouth, rock islands emerged unexpectedly, with
sheer sides and rounded tops 150 ft high, some sporting rock
art. Beyond lay the great sandy waste of the Sand Sea.
In the morning we drove North up the Gilf exploring
inlets, wadis and rocky overhangs. We visited known archaeological
site recorded by Bagnold, Clayton, Almasy and others in the
Amazingly, we stumbled upon a major new site,
un-catalogued and probably unseen for 5,000 years. Under a shallow
ledge we found drawings and engravings of wild animals, people
and cattle all exquisitely drawn and engraved, and all in pristine
condition, unlike many sites we visited. This was an exciting
find which will atract interest and comment in the archeaoligical
Thursday 31st October
More explorations in the morning, back for lunch and then Raymond
and I set out to search for Bernhard's cannibalistic snake.
This was a snake apparently eating another, both dead, which
Bernhard had photographed earlier. We had a long and enjoyable
walk but returned at dusk empty handed.
Friday 1st November
We drove further North up the Gilf and passed some splendid
scenery. We stopped by a great white mushroom rock and took
photographs. In the afternoon the car dropped Raymond, Andy
and I at the WWII campsite nearby, and we spent a happy hour
collecting memorabilia of Italian, German and English occupation,
newspaper scraps and a wooden box with Shell fuel cans in it.
Then we walked up the wadi, dwarfed in this wild landscape by
soaring rocks and organ pipe formations.
At the end we scaled a steep sand bank before
sliding down various smooth water chutes, broken by drops of
soft sand. At one 6ft drop I had to catch Raymond as he launched
himself off the rock shelf above.
Soon we completed the circuit and slithered down,
unexpectedly, into Wadi Sura to the others' surprise, just in
time for the regular evening 'Sundowner'.
Dinner heralded a mighty windstorm. I woke up
later with the tent blown almost horizontal and the sides pressed
against my face. Insomnia followed but was caused, I suspect,
not by the wind but by the late Turkish coffee I had shared
with Khalid and Saďd at the camp fire.I arose early to a sand-filled
tent and a punctured sleeping mat.
Saturday 2nd November
Packed up, breakfasted on coffee, RyeVita and jam. Then I walked
˝ mile to the Cave of Swimmers, alas with the wrong camera!.
So I returned again to take the one photograph I wanted, showing
the cave, the wadi and the view together in the morning sun.
We left Wadi Sura at 09.30 and stopped to examine
the WWII airstrip marked out with petrol
cans. Later Salama caught a 2ft snake which we photographed.
We followed the near vertical walls of the Gilf for miles as
we drove southwards. Here and there we skirted rock island and
outlying formations, but for the most part it was just one long,
steep and forbidding cliff.
We arrived at the Aquaba Pass, the only
entry into the formidable defences of the Gilf. The pass was
marked by a long sandy wadi which flowed out onto the plain.
We followed this and entered an increasingly steep valley between
the two separate boundaries of the Gilf.
We deflated tyres to 15psi, very low, to make
for maximum traction on the steep and sandy ascent, and set
off up the valley. It was very soft, very sandy and now very
steep. The wheels ploughed and slipped, gripped and held and
we wrestled up with full engine revs, gained around 500ft and
made it to the top. An outstanding bit of driving by Salama,
and we all clapped. Salama responded with a shy smile.
On the top, a high valley ran flat and firm and
we made good speed. It is about 2 miles wide here, bordered
by black sandstone hills on either side. It was a little cooler,
but not much. We found a picturesque rock to shade our lunch
site and quickly demolished a giant tin of Tuna, three packs
of RyeVita and a big jar of gherkins.
András found some granite pieces, brought here
to this sandstone plateau by some tribesman long ago, and we
found a few stone tools, shaped, worked and sharpened.
We hit more dunes, parallel barriers of undriveable
sand, separated by corridors of firm going. We crossed one range,
with a push, and camped for the night on a soft sandy site below
a sandstone hill. Wonderful sunset viewed from the hill, with
the dunes reaching off into the distance. The lowering sun cast
long shadows on each sweeping curve of the dunes.
At nightfall we assembled for the customary 'Sundowner',
and then András cooked a splendid turkey chop-suey.
Sunday 3rd November
My tent faced East, as usual, and I awoke to the splendour of
a desert dawn - rich hues of red and yellow stretching across
this wild and uninhabited landscape, filling the space with
changing light, defining new shadows and spreading warmth after
the cold night.
We set off at 08.30, crossed some more dunes and
reached harder ground where we re-inflate the tyres. András
found some fossilised wood, rare in this area, and a good flint
In the car, I was teaching Magdi new nursery rhymes for her
young children. She was reciting:
man, poor man, bugger man, t'ief…"
the word is 'beggar' man"
what I said, 'bugger' man…"
Now re-inflated we were able to cruise a little faster, and
by lunch time we made it to the lake of 'Mud Lions'.
deposits in the wilderness, Gilf Kebir
These great leonine deposits were left behind by the receding
water aeons ago. Time and erosion has shaped them into lumpy
figures, all facing the same way. A sweeping dune forms the
backdrop to curious and unexpected scene in this remote landscape.
We took photographs and scoured the landscape for Neolithic
tools. I found the remains of a hapless heron, blown off course
on his spring migration and now mummified by the dry and sterile
We had another full afternoon of driving through varying landscapes,
rocky outcrops, occasional hills and soft sand. We had encountered
no vehicle, tracks or signs of humanity for over a week now.
We had a very long way to travel, and the desert unfolds to
We are packed like sardines in the back of the lead Toyota
- we arrange leg space and change around regularly. Hannah calls
it 'hamstering', where we interlock unwanted limbs, share
space and fidget around for the best position. We were all busy
hamstering when the car suddenly slewed to a sudden and abrupt
halt, as if emergency braking - we all slid forward in a hamstering
heap. We had driven unwittingly into a bottomless drift of sand
undistinguishable from the surrounding area. A few yards on
either side of us the sand was firm.
We regained our composure in time to watch, helplessly, the
other car plough a great gouge in the sand, throwing up a sandy
bow wave that reached the bumper. It, too, shuddered to an abrupt
halt, sunk to the axles like us. We were both severely stuck.
We jumped out, dug away and inserted sand ladders - and pushed.
But nothing happened, this sand was like glue. We uncoupled
the shovels and got down to some serious excavation, dug under
each wheel and a groove for the axle, then one more big push
- and still nothing.
We reset the sand ladders and a shallower angle, one under
each wheel, and combined our push with rock, the rocking action
transferring weight from one side to the other until one wheel
found the ladder, then the other, and the revving engine jettisoned
the vehicle back a full 10 yards.
Stuck again we repeated the action and finally freed the car
from it's sandy grave. Now hot and tired, we set about the other
car in much the same way, released it at last and drove on.
The extraction had taken almost an hour.
At teatime we reached Abu Ballas, an extraordinary, historic
water depot discovered in 1917. Here in this unmarked place
stood row upon row of giant earthenware water pots - believed
stockpiled by Tebu raiders in recent centuries, in a major logistical
achievement. The water came from far away Khufra, 60 days camel
march across the desert, crossing the precipitous and waterless
Gilf Kebir en-route. The target was probably a Tebu tribal raid
on the rich oasis of Dakhla, which would have yielded fat camels,
young wives and slaves.
The mystery grows with recent research. 'Thermoluminescence
dating' tells an even more exciting tale, by recording
a date of 1,500 BC for the older pots.
This dates the depot in Pharaonic times, where it may have been
part of a network of desert trade routes. Many pots have found
their way into museums and collections but a large number, mainly
damaged, remain on this strange site.
We arrived suddenly back at the tarmac road, with an audibly
groan of disappointment for the lost wilderness we had just
spent 3 week crossing. We drove into Dakhla, refuelled the cars
and stopped at the Hotel Mebarez for a very welcome shower.
Back on the road again we turned off into the desert at 4pm
and drove into a picture- book desert of virgin sand supplanted
by sweeping dunes, their sharp crests defining their graceful
wind-sculpted lines. We climbed the dunes and took photographs
in the lowering sun as I watched our shadows lengthen on the
This is the great sand sea which runs unbroken for 500 miles
from NE to SW. They are a formidable barrier to car and camel,
but each continuous dune range is separated from the rest by
a dune corridor. We drove up one dune corridor for some way
before choosing a camp site hugging the soft sand.
We all assembled at sundown, lined up on the crest of a dune,
like 3 wise monkeys except there were 7 of us. András excelled
himself by producing, after this 1,800 km desert journey, a
magnum of vintage champagne. We toasted each other, toasted
the Western Desert and toasted the great success of our challenging
trip to one of the loneliest and most exciting parts of the
©Kit Constable Maxwell