This expedition has now been satisfactorily
Click on links above for full report of each section.
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
Other Sahara Travels...
A HOLY CITY IN THE SANDS
Desert Expedition to Chinguetti,
January to March 1996
© Kit Constable Maxwell
PLACE OF THE WINDS
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
----- 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
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
----- 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
----- 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
© Kit Constable Maxwell
Driving tips and Equipment
DESERT AND ROUGH COUNTRY DRIVING
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
Section 2 ROUTE PLANNING
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
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,
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.
Section 3 SELF RECOVERY
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
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
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
Sand, fech-fech - deflate when required, approx 20% below
Section 5 EQUIPMENT
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
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
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
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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