Wadi Sura, Western Desert Autumn 2002

Part III - Gilf Kebir and Wadi Sura
Cave of Swimmers - exploration in a forgotten world

Part I - Dakhla Oasis to Karkur Talh
Wadi Karkur Talh and it's secrets - new cave paintings discovered.

Part II - Ascent of Mount Uweinat
Mt Uweinat, desert sentinel, our great two-day climb


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.

Un-Named Plateau
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 and dismounted.

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 1930's.

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 world.

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 axe head.

In the car, I was teaching Magdi new nursery rhymes for her young children. She was reciting:
         "…rich man, poor man, bugger man, t'ief…"
         "No, Magdie, the word is 'beggar' man"
         "That's 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'.

"Mud Lions",mineral 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 environment.

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 eternity…

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.

Abu Ballas
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 sand.

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 world.

©Kit Constable Maxwell


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