A trip through the Egyptian Sahara

Egypt is obviously well known for its ancient remains and monuments. What is less well known is that it is the best site for fossils in Africa. What’s more, the Egyptian desert is full of huge fossils, Pharoanic ruins and other ancient remains, and all open to exploration, provided you have a decent 4×4.

            With this in mind, during the ten years I lived in Cairo, friends and I were always coming up with new locations to explore from our homes in Maadi. Recently I bought an old 1902 report describing an expedition to the  desert where the explorers excavated fossils from an early mammal called Arsinoitherium. This huge creature lived in the desert when it was still grassland. The expedition went out and found it’s objective. The site was forgotten, and is still there, out in the open wilderness, giant fossils and all. A fossil of one of the first large mammals is quite something to have on your bookcase, so we gang of expat Defender owners decided to head out and find some.

Darrell’s 110 picking a way through broken country

            With that in mind we gathered together four desert-equipped Defenders for a four day journey deep into the Egyptian Sahara. Two Tdi 110s sat alongside a third 110 with a 2.8 Powerstroke engine, and rounding out the quartet was a v8 90. We all lived in the same surburb of  Cairo, so we met one morning at our workshop for final packing and then headed out on the tarmac road that winds past the Pyramids to a point about fifty miles out from town, where we dropped off tarmac and into the huge mass of sand that forms the biggest desert on Earth. No roads for four days. Bliss!

            Standard procedure here is to air down the tyres. Three of the wagons were running big Cooper Discoverer 285s, for flotation in the sand that is often too soft to walk upon, all at about 38psi. However for desert use we aired down to about 18psi, generally using Staun deflaters for the job. However I was trying out a set of Trailhead deflaters on this trip and they too seemed very good. I’ve found that after a while the brass of the Stauns gets worn and a bit loose so it’s good to explore alternatives.

Airing down with a Trailhead deflater

            Having aired down to enable the tyres to sag outwards and pretty much double the area in contact with the sand (and so halve the ground pressure of the Land Rovers) we saddled up and rolled on. First obstacle was the flank of Gebel Qatrani, a large whaleback of a mountain whose thousand-foot southern slope is split into three large steps. Riddled with fossil remains itself, this had been a campground and site for many a desert trip ever since I first came to Egypt to live in 2001. We had our preferred route down (a result of many, many exploratory trips!), and so the four Defenders rumbled down the thousand-foot mixed sand and rock descent uneventfully before heading into the Fayoum Oasis region. This is a large area of mixed greenery and desert around a huge central lake which we avoided as it is ringed by patches of quicksand that have snared several desert travellers in the past.

            Our goal is a point 200 miles south of Fayoum in Egypt’s central desert plateau, which I traced from the old 1900s Royal Geographical Society maps in their expedition journal. The trouble was that the position data in the RGS maps wasn’t the same format as any of the different versions of position data used by my Garmin GPS, so this meant a few nights’ work before the expedition left, overlaying the old map on a new map and trying to locate the site the “old school way” – with, I hope, success. At any rate we would find out……

            The run south through the Fayoum cultivation went smoothly and we made the first evening’s camp in the region of rock outcrops to the south. A day without tarmac is always good! Camp was a simple affair – some of the gang preferred the instant quick-pitch tents but others of us just slept on the desert floor. I prefer the latter as I can’t get enough of the stars at night in deserts, and on that occasion we were so far out from vegetation there were seldom scorpions or snakes.

Sunset from camp

            Day Two dawned with mugs of coffee or tea and toasted sandwiches made in the embers of last night’s campfire. Then onwards. Generally the desert here is made up of patches of hamada – high rocky plateau – interspersed with gravelly stretches, with regions of dips or hollows that are filled with soft sand. At times however we met patches of feche-feche – very fine sand like talcum powder, and the wagons had to fight to maintain forward speed whilst leaving great rooster-tails of blown dust behind them. Normally we travelled in loose line astern with about a hundred yards between each Land Rover, but in feche-feche we spread out so we weren’t blinded by flying dust. At times there were some dunes and ridges of sand to cross, some up to a hundred feet high, and here it was a case of drop into low second or third, diff lock, and give her lots of right foot. Driving a laden Defender on soft dune sand is a strange feeling, and the vehicle seems to dance weightlessly as it drifts and skates from crest to hollow.

            After a time the terrain hardened up and there was a low table-shaped hill ahead that appeared on my 1920s maps as close to the excavation site so, leading in Stella my 110, I slowed the column down as we approached. The first obvious thing was a vast line of fossilised trees, actually cycads – huge trunks, perhaps twenty feet long, fallen and fossilised intact. Out here in the desert it looked very out of place. but this whole area was once a mixture of shallow sea and coastal plain, and the fossils here reflect that. A hundred miles from there is Whale Valley, with fossilised whales, barnacles, crabs and mangrove swamp, so the “trees” here were no surprise.

Fossil crocodile

            We circled round the site and then parked up away from the fossils themselves. It was then that Canadian friend Darrell noticed strange ring-shapes in the sand not far off to the left. Looking more closely we spied lines of rocks, some with ropes round them, and fragments of old canvas. Amazing – the site of the original expedition in their bell tents? Maybe. On to the fossils. The dessicating sun and wind have destroyed many of them at ground level but with care it’s still possible to see the fossilised bones of these, some of the ancestors of humanity. They were vast – huge shoulder blades and spinal columns jutting from the sand over a large area. Having done our research before the trip we knew what these were – Arsinoitherium – a giant mammal that lived here 36 million years ago. Twin-horned, 6 feet at the shoulder, these were big animals. Mike, another of the gang, found a partial skull, but when we tried to unearth it, it crumbled away. We paused to look around. There were a lot of the fossilised beasts concentrated in this small area, flanked and surrounded by the fossil trees. Was this a swamp where they all got stuck and drowned, amidst the trees? Who can tell. We carefully excavated some of the larger bones and wrapped them in bubblewrap to take back to Cairo. 

Fossil whale spine

            The air was dusty that day and there was a haze about. It was too early in the year for a proper sandstorm – these come in the season of the khamseen in March and April, and are so fierce they can strip paint from a car body, but the haze made life without sunglasses painful as wind-driven dust gets into eyes easily.

            We made that night’s camp close to where the British expedition of 1902, led by Hugh Beadnell, pitched their tents, and raised a glass to those early explorers of the Sahara, intrepid travellers from a time before motor vehicles made desert expeditions happen further and faster. It was Beadnell’s carefully-drawn maps that led us here after all. Sleep came fast.

            The next morning the wind and the haze had gone, and the desert seemed huge and silent – which, of course, it is. We fuelled the wagons with jerry cans of diesel and, for the v8, petrol. Each one was filtered carefully first – we had had all sorts of trouble with particulates, rust and water contamination with Egyptian fuels so a Mr Funnel fuel filter and water trap was essential kit.

Dune crossing

            Then it was packing away and turning the trucks north – back to Cairo. The GPS kept its head and the four Land Rovers rumbled happily back through the Sahara to Africa’s biggest city, though at one point we had an ‘incident’ – at a hill called Widan El Faras (“Ears of the Horse”) where we dropped onto a track alongside the oldest road in the world – slabs of basalt laid by the Pharoahs to get stone from desert quarries with which to build the Pyramids – and our route took us past another excavation – a modern quarry and mine out in the sands. As we drew near and used a miners’ track to travel more quickly, we noticed that there was a roadblock on the track itself. It was made of humped-up dirt and rocks and topped with bricks and wood. Odd. The four Land Rovers slowed down and prepare to swing off the track to bypass the obstacle – just as two figures appeared. More ominously, they had pistols, which they aimed at us.

            Perhaps our response was not as they would have liked. Three of the Defenders bomb-bursted around the obstacle, whilst one charged straight at it, battering over and through it with three tons of angry Land Rover. We heard shots, which flew wild, and the four trucks roared away into the desert unscathed. Accurate range of a 9mm pistol is around 20m so we were very quickly out of danger, and we pauseed a mile or so further on to take stock. Nobody hit, and no Land Rovers with bullet holes. Who were they? No idea. Miners who haven’t been paid for months? ISIS fundamentalists? Common bandits? Who knows. The conversation carried on by radio as we drove back to Cairo. Just another piece of the rich tapestry that is modern-day deep desert travel in the Sahara…..

My Defender in soft sand (feche feche)

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