Aswan to Wadi Halfa: The Second Half-a

Wadi Halfa is a Nubian town on the Sudanese shores of Lake Nasser. This huge man-made lake has divided the Nubian people and displaced them into southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. The deliberate inundation of the old city of Wadi Halfa is still a source of resentment and a favourite topic of nostalgic lamentation amongst the older tea drinkers of New Wadi Halfa. We awaited the arrival of our car by passing five days received into the rich culture of hot drink socialising in Sudan. As we walked the town every corner found the warm smiles of a tea lady and an eager patron ushering us to sit down on cracked plastic stools in the dust for a chat and a chai. With nothing to do but wait we usually accepted these offers.

 

We learned a lot about Sudan and its people during these kerbside conversations. The Sudanese are the most genuinely friendly and welcoming people we have met so far on our travels and indeed we all felt more at home in Sudan than anywhere we had visited. The Sudanese seem to actually want to talk about their country and the outside world and anything else that comes up, with no agenda whatsoever.

 

In Wadi Halfa and Khartoum alike, chai women line the streets and each has her own faithful clientele. Despite their ubiquity these skilled, quiet matriarchs never appear prosaic. They always make an impression on visitors. Our chosen chai lady carries the air of an alchemist as she sits low before a coal stove that skips and fizzes. Her fingers move slowly over old jars, picking black and purple pinches then placing them in the pot with a dexterity born of quotidian love. Her thick body is wrapped in a richly dyed sari and her round brown face smiles from inside a headscarf lined with dancing coins. Her eyes skip and fizz.

 

In all the time we spent drinking tea in Halfa the locals did not permit us to pay for our own tea. If they invited us to sit down then the tea was, categorically, on them. This inexhaustible generosity was discussed at length on cool nights camping in the desert between Halfa and Khartoum. It raised the question of the ethics of accepting gifts from people that one perceives to be impoverished. Some of us would contend that a westerner ought not to let an African pay for tea, or food or indeed offer gifts. Others have argued that it could be patronising, indeed insulting to overrule a Nubian when he is trying to be hospitable, as it is their culture. If one is comfortable accepting food from an African, then to what extent? Would you accept food even if you felt it might be at the expense of your host’s own meal? Perhaps for a Nubian the shame of not being able to offer hospitality to a guest in his country is even more acute than the discomfort of missing a meal. I know I have endured a few foul meals and a few empty bellies during the course of my life on grounds of trying to be polite to a guest or host. There is, I suppose, no right answer but the debate has supported many an interesting campfire conversation.

 

On our last night in Wadi Halfa we were invited to a Nubian wedding. The Nubian people are Muslim, as are the majority of the Sudanese. They also uphold strongly the traditions of their Nubian heritage. These two value systems are divergent on a few issues and we were interested to see how a wedding, which is at once a religious ceremony and a traditional family celebration, would unfold. Before attending we grabbed a couple of falafels from our favourite vendor. Unfortunately, this prevented the chap from consuming his entire stock himself and forced him to glean at least a little profit from all the hard work his wife had put into preparing the food. We drove to the wedding.

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We arrived at a large outdoor area, hung on all sides with colourful fabric. We were alone apart from children running in all directions, all arms windmilling. Needless to say there was no bar so we sat quietly and waited as the dry mud floor slowly filled with shuffling feet. Soon the wedding party arrived to cheers and ripples of congratulatory snapping of fingers. The groom was late in his forties, this was not his first or even his second wife but that did not detract from his delight at being paraded through the crowd. He beamed, the young bride smiled forcedly at his side keeping her gaze respectfully downturned. The couple was filmed while they bobbed through the crowd and televised live on a large mounted set by the band stage for those who could not get close enough to see. After several tours the master of ceremonies stood on the stage and spoke to the guests. His microphone, already set up for the Nubian band, broadcast his short speech distorted by a thick smog of reverb and then the band were welcomed by more snapping fingers.

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A gloomy adolescent stepped onto the stage in a white traditional robe and sat at the keyboard. He set the antiquated Casio to electric mandolin and rested his long fingers on the keys. Suddenly the air was spangled with a patchwork of syncopated melodies. A simpering vocalist with a pencil moustache joined with a stream of unbroken syllables while the arrangement was driven by a rich, thumping drum machine set to bass bongo.

 

The segregated crowd formed into two opposing banks. Lines formed and the guests joined hands, fingers intertwined. The dance began; the steps were simple, reserved and remarkably similar to those of the Hokey Cokey. A portly businessman was talking me through the moves when some unseen person grabbed my hand a little too firmly and dragged me to join the dance. My guide’s judgement had, it seems, been impaired by an imprudent measure of Nubian moonshine. He hauled me into the no man’s land that lay between the male and female dancers. This, it transpires, is frowned upon. As I stood in front of the whole wedding party all I could do was grin like a fool. Then, Allah knows why, I began to dance. Painful moments expired as my smile weakened and my eyes darted about for an escape. The pain was partly the wash of embarrassment but mostly pulsed from the merciless knot into which the two smallest fingers of my right hand had been twisted in the fist of my boozy acquaintance. Fortunately for my, as yet unrealized, career as a concert pianist there is a system in place at Muslim weddings for handling such an encroachment upon the delicate disposition of the ladies. Several stout men in robes advanced on me from the crowd. They sprayed me in the face with some sort of citrus water (presumably to douse my sexual ardour) and courteously but firmly frog-marched me back to the appropriate side of the wedding. Here my dancing partner was grudgingly wrested from me and bundled off somewhere. I spent what remained of my first Muslim wedding attempting to keep a low profile.

 

The next day we drove to Khartoum.

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Aswan to Wadi Halfa: Half-a Tale of Two Cities

It transpires that Aswan is a tourist hotspot. We discovered this when we tried to buy a kofta roll and paid five times the going rate for it. People visit in order to cruise the Nile and visit the colossal tombs at Abu Simbel. We arrived however to catch the ferry to Sudan. For this reason Aswan is also a focus for African overlanders. We arrived in Adam’s home, an overlander’s campsite, hungry and exhausted as had become the norm. We unloaded our belongings into a mud brick hut and were then given the tour by Mohamed, a Nubian who had spent several years working in Cornwall of all places. In honesty we were reluctant to participate in said tour. It had been a long time since we had eaten and we were anxious to start cooking our late supper. Nonetheless we trailed courteously behind Mohamed as he cheerfully explored various huts and facilities. He led us through the kitchen, which was alive with activity. Six Nubian men were performing a complex food preparation waltz. Some rolled rice parcels; others stirred bubbling pots and shook sizzling pans. We surveyed enviously. We would not be eating for an hour at the soonest, even if we could manage to cook without getting tangled in the gears and limbs of this admirable grub machine.

 

Mohamed herded us into the communal area where a low table was laid for an enormous feast, he explained that they were celebrating the birth a of a baby boy to one of the men. The smiling father earnestly encouraged us to sit with them on the wicker mats and eat, in so doing he proffered a bowl of cabbage leaf domadas. Despite our grumbling stomachs Rich and I tried to politely decline. Our limp refusal was halfhearted however as we were starving and furthermore Bas already had a domada in his hand and two in his mouth. We sat.

 

The table was overflowing with dishes. Bowls of tahina, bean fuul and chili sauce, roasted chickens stuffed with risotto rice, curried sausage casserole and pitta breads. We ate until we could not move and then crumbled back onto plump cushions. We lounged there completely immobilized and reminisced about old England with Mohamed until, conquered by the warm cannonball of food in our bellies, we retired.

 

The next day was all business. We had been procrastinating and the time had come for some serious admin. We drained the rear differential and replaced the leaking gasket, changed the engine oil and filter, changed the fuel filter, washed the air filter, wired in the inverter, split charge relay and second battery. Not bad for a mornings work, we were getting better. In the afternoon we went on individual missions for supplies and food for the ferry. My job was a replacement camping gas canister as I had had trouble with this task in the past and was not willing to hand over the baton to anyone else.

 

I walked out onto the streets of Aswan and could not believe my luck; the first person I asked knew exactly where to find gas, as did the following six people. Strangely all of them brought me to the same tourist market selling the same Chinese-made sunglasses and plastic jewelry. In an effort to escape I crossed a railway bridge to the other side of Aswan. This was like walking into another town all together. All of a sudden tourism was a myth and I was in Egypt proper. I stepped off the overpass and was promptly mobbed, not by churlish tat retailers with a sense of entitlement but by boisterous livestock. Chickens, goats and turkeys waddled and skipped among my feet, grocers shouted their wares and prices. Butchers hacked cuts of meat from hanging hooks and fishmongers lustily slapped their slimy produce on slick steel trays.

 

I continued asking my question, and received an assortment of more honest, but still ultimately useless, answers. I wandered behind the stalls and came across a handful of aged souk vendors sitting on low plastic stools. They were talking and laughing volubly so they did not notice my presence for some time. At length, with the help of a small biro diagram on the back of a cabbage, I was able to make my request understood. I waited while the wise old merchants conferred. Minutes passed and I became restless to continue my search. Presently the man seated opposite me wearing a black turban and eyes shot with pink stood up in a hurry as if he had suddenly cracked the riddle. He began rifling through his many layers of smock and with a broad grin produced a gigantic spliff. The men lit up and continued their cheerful dialogue. This was getting me nowhere so I mumbled excuses and ambled shyly away. As I retreated, black turban yelled something to me in Arabic and pointed to the other side of road at a man on a motorbike. I approached the man who said to me in English, “you look for gas can, yes?” Dumbstruck, I glanced back at the merchants and then nodded agreement. He jerked his head at the pillion seat of his motorbike and I climbed on.

 

We bounced over speed bumps and zipped amongst market stalls, skillfully circumnavigating tuk tuks and articulated lorries. After a few minutes of winding lanes I was completely lost and I suddenly had a thought that brought me sharply back to previous memories of traveling. I dwelt on the fact that at that time I was completely at the mercy of this Egyptian stranger. He had only to take me to a group of his mates, somewhere out of town to rob me, or worse. This feeling of vulnerability is a daily concern when traveling alone but I had forgotten about it while traveling as a group. Thankfully, as is often the case, my concerns were not realized. My guide brought me to a small shop far out of town. We crept through a dark tortuous entrance to find a grisled man hunched, smoking a water pipe. My guide spoke to him and the old man pointed to a high shelf where I could see a gas bottle, bright and blue. My heart leapt. I asked to get it down but the old man shook his head. My translator explained that this was because the bottle was empty. Excellent thought I. Well that was a fun waste of time. Deflated I explained that this was not useful to me. My guide seemed more disappointed than me that he could not help, he brought me back to the souk.  I was so close but ultimately foiled again. Perhaps in Wadi Halfa we would get gas. *

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The ferry was a scrum. It was Christmas day and we were lead up the gangway by our perpetually soused fixer Mahmet. We followed as his momentous bulk swung neatly through the crowd tearing a path. We hurried so as not to be caught and lost in the sweating wall of bodies. On the bridge, a few notes in the Captain’s hand secured us a few square feet of deck to rest on. We lay in the sun, lazily burning and watching while the boat slowly filled. Multitudes passed into the hull during the course of the day, each dragging several times his body weight in luggage. The majority were Sudanese traders and their families. Their luggage was produce and electrical products bought in Egypt to sell in Sudan. Countless items were roughly tied or bagged, then hauled up to the deck. Perhaps the significant proportion of goods that are lost to the depths, as a result of absent-minded handling, is written off by the traders as acceptable losses. Indeed no one batted an eyelid when a man next to me turned to speak to a friend and let loose a rope carrying eight magimix blenders allowing them to fall 20 ft, smash apart on the concrete pier and then bob gently away on Lake Nasser.

 

The ferry was a sociable experience. The route from Egypt to Sudan runs weekly and was cancelled the week prior to our arrival. As a result it formed a bottleneck for all the travelers heading south. These consisted of two Swiss overlanders, two Croatian journalists, a Canadian family, an English cyclist and a couple of Germans. The last westerner we had seen was in Turkey so this glut was quite a novelty. Furthermore we had to drink any alcohol we had about us before arrival in Sudan where one receives 40 lashes for possession. A penalty we were, needless to say, keen to avoid.

 

We popped open dusty bottles of beer that had watched our progress from the roof of the Landie since Perranporth. The first drop of Betty Stoggs dragged us back to a Cornish beach and shanty singing on warm September nights. As the ferry pulled us through the still water to Sudan we sang old pirate songs and swigged our ales. The Captain only rarely interrupted our merriment by stepping from the bridge to make his prayers. At these points we would carefully conceal our beer and impose a brief intermission on our raucous shantying. Spirits were high among the traders as well, they were happy to be on their way home. All on the poop deck had a jolly time.

 

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We sang and swapped stories long after the sun had set. We did not understand the naiveté of this behavior until it was time to bed down for the night. More judicious passengers had realised much earlier that a boatload of people occupies a lot more space lying down than they do standing up. As such, on scanning around for a few square feet to lay down our sleeping bags we found none. Rob, our English cyclist from Preston, had flash of an idea. Bag in hand; he darted off for the lifeboats. He strode surely through the marsh of shrouded bodies. In the gloom he aroused frequent sleepy protests when his waivering bare sole found purchase on an unsuspicious face or groin. Sadly Rob’s search was fruitless. Each lifeboat was a snoring can of Sudanese sardines. Rob shambled back disheartened, his feet carefully sparing his earlier victims in favour of a new path of faces and groins. Eventually, we each found a small corner of deck to curl up in and the snug sleeping conditions kept us warm for the few remaining hours before the sun.

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 8/1/13 – We still have not found gas.

Been through the desert in a car with no name…

We decided to drive the Oasis road, looping for 800 miles west, away from the Nile, rejoining it at ancient Luxor. Diesel was a big problem. The country was virtually dry due to the conflict inhibiting trade. To avoid the day-long queues of lorries, one had to turn to the black market. Fortunately, Sam had a contact, Badri, a local Bedouin, in the oasis of Baharia, who would arrange for onward fuel. The fact that diesel was three times the price on the black market vexed us little as this brought it up to 33p a litre.

Before we left Cairo we were able to have lunch with Enrique, a Spanish journalist fresh from the pre-referendum interviews. The country was poised to vote on a new constitution. Essentially it would decide if the country’s laws would be based on the Holy Qur’an and whether the judiciary would be able to overrule the president. Divisions were running deep in a country fresh to democracy and there seemed no question of compromise. More organised and with the mosques as a platform, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood looked poised for a successful ‘yes’ vote.

Thus began our days driving the dot-to-dot of oases. We crossed the sharp border away from the dense, living Nile. We crossed over to where the only sign that anything lives, or has ever lived, is the shimmering asphalt. That evening we killed the engine to make camp. Our ears rang with silence.

The Western (Libyan) desert is impossibly dry but deep beneath lies a fossil sea, ‘the aquifer’. Water can be tapped where the land recedes below sea level. Today diesel-powered pumps provide ‘unlimited’ water for the networks of villages and farms in each basin. Nobody knows the origin or limits of this mysterious underground sea and the oasis people are not the only ones pumping. A thousand miles west in Libya, ‘Gadaffi’s Underground River’ pipes untold gallons away to the coastal settlements, on a much larger scale. It is no surprise that many believe the future wars of Africa, will be fought over water.

A night’s camp and a day’s drive on a good road brought us down into the flat basin of Baharia. Here we met Badri, friendly and serene, for a late lunch. Sure enough he had arranged for 100 litres of diesel. We filtered it into our car and jerry cans to remove the water, which is often added by Egypt’s ‘businessmen’, to bulk out the sale. This time, we found it to be of excellent quality. Pressing on, we made it out, over the lip of the depression and were once more alone to watch the sun set. That night’s camp was a particularly jovial one as we sat around a roaring fire under an appropriate crescent moon drinking Saqara lager and singing.

The next day we reached the White Desert, miles of wind-cut, blinding chalk. Stacks of rock had been preened by a titanic topagiarist into mushrooms, rabbits and other shapes that, were we all not so pure of thought, could be interpreted in a suggestive manner. We left the car and wandered like liliputians in a madman’s garden until the heat drove us back.

The White Desert

The White Desert

The Oasis of Farafra, where we headed next, is the remotest bead on the bracelet, perched on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Here another friendly face awaited our arrival. Juan, a friend of my uncle, had moved from Spain a few years ago to set up a hotel on the peaceful frontier. The mud-brick hotel was not yet ready and the situation back in Cairo meant few people were passing through. We pulled up at the gateway and were warmly received.

The hotel was the last building before the great sea. We had lunch in a shady, blooming garden. Supply lines were unpredictable and Juan received most of his food freshly grown and local from the Bedouin. We talked about the easy, interdependent community he had been welcomed into, of water pumps and of the summer when everyone lives and works at night to avoid the deadly heat. Our voices were pure in the silence, the void behind us absorbing all sound. Beyond the tended garden we walked out, barefoot in the late afternoon sun. The Oasis seemed like a raft, temporarily granted life on a calm ocean, serenely bobbing near an unfathomable shelf.

The Great Sand Sea

The Great Sand Sea

We spent a further two days in the desert, driving, climbing to vantage points and charging down the dunes. Other cars or people were rare enough to warrant comment whenever they occurred. We finished each other’s sentences, chuckled over long-running jokes and argued bitterly over which way north was or how best to divide the remaining jam. I feel sorry for the next people to travel with us.

Our struggle with the Egyptian institutions continued as we drove through overstaffed, isolated checkpoints. As early as the Old Kingdom, Egypt had developed a centrally organised system that could accurately forecast crop yields, co-ordinate labour and calculate taxation. In short, the Egyptians invented bureaucracy. The hundreds of lavish tombs of scribes with titles such as ‘overseer of the harvest’ or ‘commissioner of art’ implied that taking advantage of an official position was not a new concept. Even now an entire section of society still depends on checking, stamping and low-level backsheesh. This, coupled with the ‘Inshalla’ mentality (literally “if Allah wills it” but actually meaning anything from “possibly” to “yeah right”) means that everything in Egypt tends to take a long time.

Another two jerry cans of backstreet diesel brought us late one night into Luxor. We blinked, wide-eyed and dusty at the lights. Accustomed to the peace of the desert, we were overwhelmed by the milling street crowds in long robes and the stampeding traffic. We escaped into a hotel for a much needed shower.

Running away with it!

Running away with it!

Luxor is a whirling rush of living streets, merging under the great temples of the New Kingdom (relatively new, this cluster of dynasties is still over three thousand years old). A parade of markets and vendors vied for our custom as we walked to the centre. Here we were granted a glimpse of Ancient Egypt at its height. Again, there were almost no tourists. Before we left for Aswan, we crossed over the river to spend the day in the Valley of the Kings, once hidden, high in the escarpment. The tumbling necropolis and network of deep, painted tombs was preserved to the point of defying time completely.

The weekly ferry for Sudan was pressing us on. We left Luxor and headed on up the Nile for Aswan and the old Kingdom of Nubia.

Lower Egypt

In 1952, over the oasis town of Siwa, it rained for three hours. In this unprecedented deluge, the entire mud-brick town dissolved back into the desert. Surprised but unperturbed, the inhabitants, using the technique of their grandfathers, re-built the town as it stands today.

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Our stay in the super-city of Cairo was drawing to a close. This conurbation of old and current capitals from passing empires, sprawling across the populous delta, holds 20 million people. It is growing at around one million a year, consuming the fertile topsoil for bricks and covering over the farmland. The Nile, which has always defined Egypt’s fate is being driven harder, like an uncomplaining pack-mule.

The big, bleak picture aside, the inhabitants make Cairo as pleasant as it could be. Between the great flyovers and bridges, an easy-going attitude prevails over day-to-day life. This was quite surprising considering the great turmoil that was unfolding on the news. We were welcomed and included into the slow traipse of hawking, haggling, tea-drinking and sitting around. The continuous stock ‘civil disorder’ snapshots had been very effective and we were alone as travellers in a country that depends heavily on tourism. Dejected Nile cruise-boats moored up along the banks, Hotel staff sat, hopeful in bowties and waistcoats and the empty halls of Egyptian museum echoed with the sounds of protest outside.

For me Egypt proved bigger, poorer and heartier than the troubled new Arab-republic I had imagined. Of course, in areas such as the pyramids, we were seen only as a source of cash. We hit these gauntlets headlong, within a defensive bubble, closed to the touts’ cunning gambits. Away from these magnificent tourist traps however, we found the Egyptians had an incorrigible welcoming streak which the troubled times and the abandonment of outsiders had amplified. The lines between business and friendship were completely blurred and the uncertain mixture of hospitality and sales-ploy took a great deal of getting used to. However to remain closed and untrusting is to remain an outsider. Although our friends occasionally lead us into a perfume shop or offered us desert trips, local crafts or hash in convoluted adventures, the majority were happy to sit and share ideas. The one golden rule is not to trust any directions. The people we met were so genuinely keen to help that to admit they didn’t know the way was out of the question. Whilst looking for a hostel, we were confidently pointed in every direction around Cairo for two hours before returning to where we had parked to find the hotel by chance, next to the car.

One night, we found ourselves hopelessly lost amongst dust roads and block houses, searching for the pyramids of Saqara, where we naively hoped to camp. Whilst dithering around a locked gate we were picked up by Mohammed, on holiday to visit his family. He worked as a horse-boy in Sharm-el-Sheik, taking wealthy Russians riding around the dunes. We were tired and suspicious of his enthusiastic offer to take us in, but he persevered. It was the right decision to follow him. That night, after a meal with his family, we sat around a fire on top of a rocky mound of tombs. In the dark, the shadows of the Saqaran pyramids hunched to our South with the otherworldly suggestion of the great pyramids of Giza far to our North.  Six men in heavy robes and casually slung guns, guardians of the ancient site, approached us with foreboding. The leader, distinguished as such by the richest and curliest moustache, stepped forward to investigate. He was at ease by the local boy and after a discussion with the second most magnificent moustache, allowed his troop to join the camp. Our unlikely group sat in a circle far above the encroaching houses drinking tea, swapping cigarettes and comparing facial hair into the small hours.

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The legacy of millennia, casually evident among the muddle, is all the more impressive considering how Egypt consumes the past. What the all-swallowing desert spared of the overlapping palaces, pillars and towering deities, was exposed to the population, creeping, and tearing like vines; inhabiting and borrowing from the mysterious rubble. Then came the iconoclasts, the chisels of jealous pharaohs and the purge of the new religions. Eventually however, the Christian plaster and Arabic paint peel and crack to reveal the sharp hieroglyphs. Fearful armies and even Napoleon’s cannon have yet failed to tear down the pyramids. Each new captor forces their fleeting mark and is assimilated into the great organic permanency of the Nile people.

In the pleasant suburb of Ma’adi we met a man who would open up the desert for us: Sam, a British ex-pat who among other things, drove a defender and wrote for Land Rover Owner International. As luck would have it, he was planning a weekend expedition into the Western Desert and needed a second vehicle. Among the proposed objectives, Sam proposed descending an escarpment, crossing the Gebel Guhannim dunes toward the al Faiyum Oasis. En route and driving out to the Whale Bone Valley, Sam had offered the Regimental Society of Great Britain to build a memorial cairn for the 1st demolition brigade (known as Popski’s private army after their Belgian commander), who had trained on the challenging terrain with the SAS before engaging Rommel. This plan was explained to us in front of a wall size aviator’s map over several beers. We tried to remain collected and disguise our excitement.

There are two borders that define the nation of Egypt: The political; unbending concepts far out beyond the horizon; and the actual; the distinct point where the narrow, Nile-fed band of living jade suddenly stops. From here you walk out a hundred paces onto a landscape where civilisation is impossible and sustained life a masterpiece of centuries. From here you could be in Libya, the Sudan or 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. You have already crossed the border to where the only distance that really matters is determined by your water and fuel supply.

Having departed Cairo at crack of dawn our convoy joined the clear desert road. Hours of flat gravel were interspersed with the occasional flame of an oil refinery. At a point where the map seemed blank of features, we turned off the road. This experience in itself was liberating; the sudden realisation that one is not confined to the road but can drive freely across the infinite landscape. We followed our lead vehicle for the morning, navigating over soft sand drifts and an increasingly rocky terrain. Our car buried itself in a sand drift to the axel and span hopelessly. Sam advised us to drop the tire pressures and we were amazed to watch our car float off over the sand. Eventually we reached the escarpment.

The patchy, clouds cast a net of silver shafts, scanning over the near and distant layers of rock. The land sunk down to the oasis depression twenty miles away and then chased off into the vanishing Sahara. We found a spot that surveyed this great vista to build the cairn. The two dusty Landrovers, perched on the edge and tiny under the sky, easily evoked the great era of desert exploration. We spared a moment to remember the men who had fought across this landscape, hostile and huge.  By midday our efforts were completed and it was time to descend.

The escarpment was formed of five flat strata with sheer slopes of sand and scree. To drop to the next level, we had to scout out a suitable slope before lining up and plunging down. The edge would disappear under the bonnet and for a lengthy second only the sky and the far horizon would fill the windscreen before the car would tilt and lurch forward. As long as the line was straight, the drifts of sand would slow the momentum. Then we would strafe along the face searching for another drop point.

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After descending the final level, we drove for hours across the dudes to a flat expanse covered in fossilised disks, smooth and glaring in the afternoon sun. Throughout the Cretaceous and Eocene eras, the Sahara was a great shallow sea, rich in life. We were headed for a valley where the soft chalk was gradually revealing its secrets. Hundreds of skeletons of ancient sharks, sea cows and pre-historic whales are meticulously brushed free by the winds. We walked the course of petrified mangroves, ladders of vertebra contorted into spirals, serrated jaws and hind legs on their ancestral road to becoming fins. The bones lay in piles on the sand or gradually emerged from the rock face. The sun set as we left the valley silent and still.

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