Friday, November 30, 2007

Calming the fears

A bit of a distraction while I introduce a 'fringe' character.

The Captain, Mohamed is becoming a good friend. I had talked to him on the first morning at Dakhla as were leaving. I introduced myself and chatted for a few minutes. I talked to him occasionally at the stops and lunch breaks. When told about his fears by Mahmoud I laughed with the others - for those who love the desert worries about scorpions, snakes, lions and djinns seem very funny. He says no-one want him to be there. In a way it is true - no-one really wants a military escort. They are there to keep you to the rules in a place where we do not really want rules. They can be terrible - we had one on another trip who did nothing but arrange his hair in the wing mirrors and watch us all work.

Jean Daniel has been a bit surprised at the Captain's lack of interest in the things we have seen. When we stop he sits with the men and talks but does not come and look. For an erudite and ever-curious mind like Jean Daniel's this is impossible to understand. However I often feel that in Egypt kids are taught not to be curious. School is a room of sixty kids and one teacher - a curious child is just not welcome. Learning is all by rote, not by understanding. The Captain helps with the packing and moving of items from the cars - he is much better than any other officer we have taken to the desert.

I have found that he has been on one other desert trip - a short one to the Great Sand Sea. He is a lawyer by training and has finished his first bar exams with one step - a residency - to go before he is fully qualified. His father died leaving him to support the family so he worked in an Italian restaurant through his university years. He has younger brothers and sisters who he adores, and a very dependent mother. He is engaged and showed me the photo of his loved fiancee (who he has never had even ten minutes alone with). He is just a boy from Giza with an utterly typical life story, and he is Mr Cool in the city. He has D &G jeans, large sunglasses that wrap half his face, dimples, and a beautiful smile.


I could reassure him and laugh away the fears of snakes and scorpions, but I was worried about the fear of djinns. Djinns are not like ghosts which were once people, they are malevolent and evil.

I called him aside after my finds on the crater floor and gave him a lovely piece in shiny yellow stone, polished by melt and by wind and sand. It was obviously part of a worked blade. I told him its history, and how old it possibly was. I said it had been in the desert a long time and it had power as an object as it was worked by men. I told him it would protect him from djinns if he kept it close through the day. He said he woudl keep it in his bag at night.

He has slept well ever since, and is quietly helpful and grateful. I saw him transfer it from his bag to his pocket one morning so I know he is trusting it. He helps me now with everything - hovers nearby, helps if I am putting up my tent and generally looks after me.

No - it is not a belief that I have - but I knew that it might calm him down.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Day 5

Wadi Wassa, Shaw's Cave, Wadi Firag, Peter and Paul, Clayton's Crater and Karkur Tal

We rose early with a long day of travel and things to see ahead of us.

First stop was an old airport - marked out in empty drums of aviation fuel and even the name of the airport - Eight Bells - and the arrow to show the way to land had been done in old square drums. There were also food cans around - old enough as they were cans punctured on both sides of the top, not by one of those openers that makes a neat triangle, but by a jagged point. all markings were gone except those embossed into the tin, but I souvenired a can that could have been a small Campbell's soup can and it took me about an hour to shake out all the sand.



IMG_9698.JPGArabic signatures and dates on the Aviation Benzene cans

From the airfield we drove to Mogharet el-Qantara, also known as Shaw's Cave.

It was a steep scramble, both up the dunes for the car, and up the dune and rubble for me. I struggle with climbs - especially in soft sand. I seem to step up one step and slide back for most of it. Friendly and helpful-looking rocks on the slope were deceitful as they sat quietly waiting till I put a foot on them, then slid down the slope like sleds. One venture on a rock had me doing sideways splits while desperately clutching my precious SLR camera. Yes, I do know that I already have dust on the sensor, but I did not want any more. This meant I could not give in and crawl, but had to stay more or less vertical.

Inside, above your head and high, are marvelous paintings. I knew we would see a lot, but these were the first. I was surprised by their elegance. Black, red ochre and white they look so new and fresh that I was amazed. There was nothing tentative about these, they were strong deliberate curves and shapes, and really beautiful.



The view from inside the cave, looking down. I could imagine someone watching for game from this vantage point.


From there we crossed Wadi Firag. This is huge - a wide and long Wadi that means 'spread' and where an early explorer (was it the Hungarian Almasy? I must check) lost his guide. I photographed it from the centre looking both ways. Unusually here there are deep and well worn tracks, and we did not veer so much a a foot out of them. It was hard to understand the logic of 's' bends slavishly followed when clear short cuts over firm sand were visible - but I guess if one person had survived that way another has reason to follow. However - there is a good reason for those deep tracks. There are land mines and not many willing to risk them with a change of route.

According to local folk lore several Germans were lost a few years back and no-one has tried another way since. It reminds me of the old joke - "If at first you don't succeed, sky diving is not for you!"

I almost cried though at the tools we were passing - big heavy tools more likely to be paleolithic than neolithic. I felt as if I was just sitting there quietly whimpering.

After the wadi we headed for Peter and Paul. These were pointed out as mountains, though I note that on the map it looks like the Peter and Paul Craters.

The area is marvelous. It looks as if a giant and demented bird has strewn the area with large dark and mis-shapen eggs. They are great granite tors and have the classic granite feature of an onion-skin layering that peels away. OK - I didn't know that - but Jean Daniel told me.


I used the site to photograph our guides and drivers - and the nice young captain, Mohamed.
Mahmoud, our guide and leader and extraordinary cook and organiser

IMG_9731.JPGHani, our driver and a lovely guy, with a wicked sense of humour

IMG_9747.JPGMohamed, who drove the kitchen car and helped with everything

IMG_9733.JPGCaptain Mohamed, being a boy!

IMG_9726.JPGand more tors.

From here we swung briefly north again to a black rimmed Crater called the Clayton Craters. This was everything a crater should be - several crater systems inside a large double black rim. Unlike others we had seen this was volcanic, and the high basalt rims made with solid huge blocks of stone, rough and jagged. No obsidian - I looked - but there was quite a lot of flint and tools. Inside there were three obvious vents, each with some variations and differences in depth. It was surprisingly hot - about 37 degrees perhaps, but we walked right around the crater and climbed down the high ridge at the end.


A vent and an interesting rock surface


We ate lunch at the entrance of the crater. The puzzle of last night's far-too-much rice was answered - a great tuna and rice salad with chopped raw red onion, grated carrot, tomatoes, cucumbers, mayo and lots of spices. It had a real bite but tasted fantastic. We have been eating really well. The odour of overripe and rotting guava has gone now as we ate the last of it yesterday with the blackening bananas. the car was getting really pungent. It is surprising how good both were when chopped into a fruit salad with the dark jeweled seeds of four big pomegranates - just stunning. I do not think you could do it with the usual sort of banana, but oasis bananas seem to get black skins without going too soft inside - they can be utterly black and still firm and nice.

IMG_9763.JPGDrive-by volcanic dykes - sorry about the focus.

Volcanic dykes rimming the sand and the plateau of Jebel Uweinat

Briefly we lost our lead cars. We had a problem for a few minutes with the kitchen car and Hani turned back to find him. By the time we had him free of the sand the others had disappeared. there is no wind here, and we started to follow their tracks only to find that there were too many cars - clearly three in front of us - so somewhere we had picked up the wrong tracks. It is warmer this far south, and less humid too. Eventually they came back and found us but there was an annoying few minutes, and we all probably lost about half an hour.

We drove into Karkur Tal in the evening light. Mahmoud had planned one camp site, but Alberto could not get into it without four wheel drive, so we settled for an alternative. It is beautiful here, and very very different. There are trees, and insects, even flies. I had not realise d how little life we have seen. since we left the Water Mountain there has hardly been a bird. A few foxes and signs of gerbils, but that is all. Karkur Tal has fox tracks everywhere.

Driving into Karkur Tal

Acacia trees (how appropriate on Acacia and Kim's birthday!)

and the camp - with the kettle on and dinner cooking and the gentle spice of lentil soup scenting the air - warm and welcoming!

Day 4 Wind and Eight Bells

Last night the wind scoured the camp. The tents flapped and whipped and it made sleeping difficult. I thought of just climbing out but it was cold and I would have had to sleep with the men in the three sided shelter, and hesitated in case it looked like an invitation. At my age and size and with four young men? Who am I kidding?

The site was spectacular. We had climbed a high dune and swung around so we were facing across peak after dark peak marching off across the desert and fading into velvety moonlight. The moon was only about a quarter, but cast good blue light. There were silvery scudding clouds and the mackerel sky was shimmering in one section of the sky. Those who had looked at my location as too exposed were right. I was too exposed. I had looked at theirs and thought "not level' and I was right too - it was really just a matter of choice. Only one tent managed the whole night - Jean Daniel and Marita had edged into a separate section at the top which was both level and moderately sheltered.

I crept out at about 1.00 am cursing the last hot khakadeh. It was enticing and delicious, but added to a hot anise tea, a half bottle of water and one of Alberto's beers earlier on it was perhaps not wise while camping in cold weather. I tied off the door ties which were frantically whacking against anything in reach, and tied one to the little front 'hood' which was acting like a noisy wind tunnel. I crawled back into a quieter tent, positioned myself in the bag and went to sleep. For about one hour.

Then the tent fell down. It was a simple tent - two vertical poles, centre front and centre back, and a 'roofline' pole horizontal pole on top of both. It was pinned in at the corners with spikes well pushed into unresisting soft sand with large rocks on each and guyed down well.

My head-end fell down. It cracked me on the head as it all slithered sideways, the spikes obviously lifted out and all of it wrapped around my head. With a bit of muttered cursing I managed to work out that only the head end had collapsed, so I reversed my position, clamped my feet over the lifting 'vertical' bar that was now horizontal and trying to flap in the wind, and went back to sleep, head downhill. It was a slightly propped burrow at this point. Through my weary fog I heard voices, and found in the morning that everyone's tent except Jean Daniel's and Marita's had also collapsed. Irene had chosen to stay sleeping in the chaos and a concerned Heide trying to find her in pitch dark had managed to find only her nose projecting from the flat but flapping debris.

Next morning was a bit slow moving with everyone weary. We drove for what is generally acknowledged to be the largest meteorite strike crater fields on earth - or at least the largest multi-crater field. On the Western desert map it is simply the Gilf Kebir Crater Field.

We had been told we would be there about midday and at ten Jean Daniel and I were speculating about the old lake beds - lots of little ones - that we seemed to be going through. The sand was getting redder so the areas were spectacular but we saw none of the high and half melted rims I might have expected for a crater field. We were wrong - we were in the crater fields.

The first one we stepped out into almost took my breathe away. I didn't actually take many photos as the first thing I saw on the ground was a lot of worked flint. I am a tool freak from Syria and Jordan days. The site itself was a greyish scatter of a lot of rock on sand, and a lot of the rock was obviously melted or fused - like conglomerate but obviously melted together.

Not only was there worked flint, but a few minutes later I picked up a lovely arrow head in worked glass. Dark and smoky with perfect edges, it glistened in my palm as it it were made yesterday. A group of the others were clustered around Yvonne, our geological and archaeological expert - some metres away. I called out "I have obsidian". "No, it's glass," said Yvonne. I had that vaguely 'back in your corner' feeling! In fact she was completely right - it was the result of a melting of sand or rock which turned to to glass - obsidian is a volcanic reaction that results in glass.

Within minutes I had about six good blades in glass, a few more obscure pieces, and a really nice piece of quartzite made into what I thought was just a first flake, till I realised it has been retouched all along a wide edge to make a semicircular scraper.

I was settling in for an hour or so - I could see more ahead but others had gone in a different direction, I was obviously in a napping area, and I was happy just working my way steadily along a line. Then the horn went as the 'back in the car' signal. I could have cried. I carefully took two good blades and the scraper and put the rest back - as we had all agreed we would do - but it hurt!
Notebook of flint and tools.jpg

I got back in the car. Later it turned out that others had not seen tools and did not realise they were there. Many wished I had told them - and I had thought that they knew as Heide has done the trip before, as had Yvonne.
Vistas into the red desert

One end of the red crater

and the other end

IMG_9664.JPGMohamed in a great t-shirt

Lunch was in another crater - wonderful, and red, and a much more classic shape with a black double rim and rich orange sand.

I took a few minutes out of the walking tour to paint it but I am matting with masking tape to keep the paintings small so they can be finished. I tried to paint in the Sugarloaf area and had not hope of finishing and it was just frustrating.
Jebel Uweinat crater 2.jpg

We ate a spectacular main dish of eggplant fast becoming my favourite lunch - fried in about a bucket of oil and smooshed a bit with pounded peppers and chilies and loads of garlic and tomato - a wonderful mix that was a good mopped with bread as eaten with the eggplant.

We crossed an area of sand dunes. We were now the lead car as Mahmoud had decided to drive us for a while. IMG_9682.JPG

Hani took taciturn to unexpected heights and had driven in seamless silence, Mahmoud filled us in with all sorts of interesting bits of information. Heide and Helena and Irene were with Hani and had taken third place. At one point we were bogged eight times in an area the size of a playing field. We had sand slides and digging equipment - and I did not see one man groan or look exasperated - though I was starting to feel it. We finally got out, then it was Alberto's turn.



We passed a truck abandoned during the war and now stripped to metal by sand. I knew just how it felt after last night.

In many ways is was a slow day. We camped just before Eight Bells, a site named by the British in the war for the eight hillocks that sat low, domed and squat on the desert floor like bells. It sat above the entrance of Wadi Wassa, the largest of the wadis. We ate a meat based dinner - it was very cold and for the first time I started to wonder about the wisdom of obeying my dear friend Peter and his 'only one small bag'. Everyone else had bags that would fit a small body and my warmest garment was a pair of dark charcoal First Class pyjamas my husband had scored once as the result of an upgrade! They were admittedly Givenchy and that rated an extra degree or two - but I was cold.

We were poised near the 700 metre mark and bed felt very good that night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day Three

I was first up and packed with my tent rolled and stashed beside the car. I do not know why I am quicker - I am the only one not sharing at the moment but all my female traveling companions put on a full make up - foundation, eyeshadow, lipstick, mascara - the works - and to my Aussie thinking it seems crazy with no-one to admire it but our Bedouin companions and the desert wind. I will not complain though as it gains me precious time. I can wander and look at the rocks on the ground. I can take photographs.

Look at this morning's stunning sky.

I also made a couple of small paintings.

First camp.jpgFirst camp 2.jpg

Driving in flat sandy desert is like driving on the edge of a pale plate into a pale sky. The whole world seems without features, pale cool beige with long honeyed dunes on the horizon and two thirds sky above. The driving is stunning and fast, but it becomes hard to focus on the sand, and our driver has a couple of cucumbers rolling around the dash board to refresh his eyes from time to time. Yesterday we only averaged 17k an hour. Today has to be better as we are already a day behind time and have barely started.


We come to a cairn on a hill. It is more elaborate and much bigger than most Bedouin built cairns and is from the fourth Pharaonic Dynasty - Um El Alam (which to my mind means mother of the ridge, or mother of the flag and neither makes much sense). There is another name which is simply landmark in Arabic, and this is what the cairn was built to be - a marker for a journey.


Apparently our lovely captain was so afraid of the desert last night - djinns and wind and things that went bump - that he woke Mahmoud five times to talk to him. At one stage Mahmoud realised that the Captain sat and talked with his eyes tightly shut. "Why are you talking to me with your eyes closed?" asked Mahmoud.

"So I cannot see the dark," said the captain. Mahmoud announced that his name was no longer Mahmoud and the captain was to forget that name and rolled over to sleep.

From here we keep traveling almost south to Sugar Loaf. It is beautiful. It was warm but not hot, and the wind lifted the sand and sighed softly through the crevices in the rock. It is an outcrop of softly coloured and contoured, wind-sculptured rocks in the desert. With such fantastic shelter it seems odd that there is no flint or tools - but I found nothing, not even a flake.

Let's just do this bit a string of photographs, and try to add the sound of music sighing through the caves.









We had lunch at Sugarloaf and drove almost directly west towards Gilf Kebir. I was starting to get a feeling for the immensity of the distance. We have been sitting on 120k most of the day and had barely crawled across the map.

First signs of Gilf Kebir

Next came the Red Lion Yardangs. apparently the name comes from Chinese as the first documented forms are in China. These are the vestiges of the floor of a large lake, mud that has packed down, then the water dried up, and the mud is wind-formed into lion-like shapes. All face the same way, on guard and couchant. Fine sand trails behind each lion, rippling like a golden wake. I miss my chow suddenly and intensely.

Their 'faces' vary, but all are simple. the light is now perfect with long interesting shadows from one angle at least, and we all bolt in different directions to try to find patches of rippled sand and yardangs without footprints. Sometimes it is a bit hard to be in the third car - especially when the fourth car is the Kitchen car, and the only passenger is the Captain.






As we belt further south, trying to make use of the last half hour of light the sun sinks below the mackerel sky. We set up camp near a smaller yardang field, fighting a desperate wind which wants to take our tents and hurl them across the Gilf. The nice young captain, and we are friends now, helps with my tent carefully asking me about the snakes and scorpions and I realise that the men have been teasing him. I assure him that I have never seen any in this area. I did not manage to mention that I have never been in this area, and profoundly hope that we see no snakes or scorpions in the next few days. I try to paint and fail utterly as the sky colours change faster than I can keep up with - and I end up with something far too brightly coloured. It is a good day, but we are all weary and glad to sleep early.

More later.
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