The Lost Oasis, part 4

Cave of the Swimmers

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Days beyond the last oasis we skirt the western edge of the Gilf Kebir, a desert plateau surrounded by sand and distance.  Nothing else.  At dusk we turn into the Wadi Sora, a place we were determined to reach as far back as Luxor.  A cut in the face of the escarpment forms an amphitheater of soaring cliffs.  The drivers sweep around the last dune with a flourish and let the trucks roll to a stop. 

After unloading gear, we follow András toward the Cave of the Swimmers, familiar to us from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and the reports of Lázló Almásy.  The Hungarian explorer journeyed into the great expanses, recording rock art panels filled with scenes of hunters carrying bows and herders following their cattle.  And here, in the midst of one of the most extreme deserts on earth, he found a painted mural of swimmers. 

Night has come, and we find our way by the faint light of a Ramadan moon.  Anticipation builds as we near the cave, and the conversation drops off.  At the foot of the cliff, the entrance arches overhead to frame a rock shelter about thirty-feet deep and thirty wide.  The exposed rock is different, more solid than the Nubian sandstone we passed along our route.  Beams of light sweep the backwall and ceiling as we climb inside. 
Dozens of pictographs cover the rock face, and I begin searching the chamber for the swimmers.  My headlamp quickly picks up a negative handprint and a pair of what appear to be dancers with one whirling in midair above the other.  And then I spot them.  Painted red, the swimmers float overhead with childlike potbellies and round heads.  Seven or eight figures, each less than a finger long, line up head to toe.  Stick legs curve back and arms bend upward in front of their heads like bodies free-falling through space.  More swimmers appear nearby, but the rock has spalled making an exact count difficult.  My first reaction is surprise at how close Hollywood came to getting it right in the film based on Ondaatje’s book.  The set designers must have copied their pictographs from Almásy’s published drawings.

The Hungarian explorer titled his book, Swimmers in the Desert, but I came to the cave a skeptic.  His drawings weren’t convincing – a diver doing a belly flop maybe, but the position of the arms and legs didn’t suggest the kinetics of swimming.  Now, standing before the actual images, I’m beginning to think he was on the right track.  They convey a sense of floating, whether through air or water is hard to say.  A ritual act or trance state are possibilities but these require their own explanations.  The idea of swimming has an Occam simplicity to it, and the thought of swimmers far out in the Sahara is such a compelling image it’s hard to shake. 

The pictographs probably date back to a period ending about 6000 years ago when savanna conditions prevailed and seasonal rains filled the playas.  But no other images on the panel suggest water, so something else might be going on here.  The figures may recall some faraway place, not swimming but a dream of swimming.

The Pass

            Seven days out from Dakhla.  Our chances of getting this far appeared so slim at times, I take nothing for granted.  And if we can cross the Gilf Kebir today, we'll have a shot at reaching the Great Sand Sea, the still heart of this absolute desert.  For me the ground we've covered is only a prelude to what lies ahead. 

            Turning east we begin the approach to El Aqba, the pass discovered by Almásy in 1933.  It divides the plateau, an area the size of Switzerland, into north and south halves.  Before us climbs the sand-choked narrows, funneling through a steep break in the cliffs.  A member of the British Long Range Desert Group reported having mined the pass during World War II to keep Almásy from infiltrating spies behind the British lines.  Egyptians said they mined it during hostilities with Libya, but András dismisses both claims.  Having crossed El Aqba a number of times without incident, he suspects the Englishman suffered a lapse of memory and the Egyptians mistakenly placed their mines farther north. 

            When András made his first ascent only a few tracks led up the pass.  Now the increased traffic of several expeditions a year has churned the surface, making each attempt more difficult.  Once wheels have cut through the hard surface, sand loses its strength.  A driver avoids the tracks of the leading truck when he has room to spread out.  But if obstacles confine the vehicles to a tight passage, the chance of getting stuck increases.  If we don’t succeed here, the only realistic alternative is to backtrack around the southern tip of the Gilf, forcing us to abandon the idea of reaching the sand sea.

            The drivers stop to discuss the route and let air out of the tires for more traction.  No one wants to spend a couple of hours extracting a truck on a ramp of steep sand.  Said is more subdued than usual when he returns to the truck.  Not having faced El Aqba before he will make the first run.  We climb in, and he grips the wheel.  Said guns it straight up the slope, and unexpectedly he swerves hard left and then back to the right as the sand flies. The truck churns higher but our momentum continues to slow.  He downshifts at the last moment and barrels up the final pitch to reach the top, 1000 feet above the desert floor.  “Alright Said!” shouts Rick Wilson. 

But the next vehicle has trouble.  A flat tire causes a delay as we watch from above, too far away to help.  They fix the tire and push the truck back to a level siding.  Khaled Makrem takes the wheel, manages to break free of the sand trap, and powers up to the rim in a skillful run.  Spirits are high when all three trucks rendezvous on top.  András is surprised Said made it without a hitch on his first attempt, and says he’ll make a good driver once he learns to control his impulsiveness.

            Sand fills the pass as it gradually slopes down to the east, covering the basin the way a glacier blankets a mountain.  We make good time on a surface scored by only a few tracks.  A couple of hours later the going gets rougher and we veer north to a high point.  Said, his head wrapped in a checkered Bedouin scarf, stops the Land Cruiser and sits there staring at the vast belt of dunes spilling away below us. 

            “Ahhhh,” he says, shaking his finger at what appears to be an impassable expanse of sand.  “Ahhhh,” he says again, and begins to laugh at what we’re facing.  Climbing out of the vehicle, each of us stands alone and gazes at the sand-buried landscape.  A chain of dunes has flowed south from the sand sea and piled up in immense drifts at the foot of the plateau.  Winds have whipped it into meringue-like crests too steep to breach, but somehow we’ll have to find a way across them to reach Wadi Hamra.  Knowing how easy it is to get stuck, the sight is intimidating.  But there is a way András assures us.  On his last trip, he found a new route which saved several hours.

            Saharan expeditions avoid dunes as much as possible simply to keep from getting caught in the sands.  It’s hard work and can be dangerous.  Having three vehicles gives us a margin of safety, but the unlikely chance of becoming stranded in the deep desert hangs there, an unspoken threat.  Despite the risks, dunefields hold a fascination for me, being so unlike anything I’ve experienced before.  I'm tempted to keep heading north across the vast sands and not stop until reaching the sea 500 miles away.

            Descending, we follow a linear dune while detouring around a number of rocky outcrops.  András keeps track of our progress with a GPS since the maps lack enough detail to be useful and satellite photos only help identify larger features.  Reaching a whaleback dune, he directs the first vehicle up its flank and into the sands above.  We follow at a run, and an hour into the dunes the trucks stop at the jump-off point for tomorrow’s crossing.  Our group is not the first to camp here.  Stone tools, old enough for the wind to have given them a jeweler’s polish, lie exposed on the flats.  But whether these artifacts are 5000 years old or 50,000, I have no way of knowing.  Not only do the days run together in the Sahara but so do the epochs. 

Climbing the dune above camp that evening, I look across the barrier we have to cross tomorrow.  A low wind has set the sand grains in motion, hugging the surface.  Ralph Bagnold, veteran desert explorer, saw these dunes as something almost animate, transformed by the winds into monstrous, self-replicating organisms.  His fascination with them led to a classic study on the physics of sand in motion.  Soon Irina Kostareva walks over, following the sinuous crest.  “I would like my life to be like these dunes,” she says, “soft, peaceful, and endless.” 

            Next day begins with the lead truck punching up the first dune.  The others follow as we take a circuitous route, probing for the firmest sands.  Route finding becomes a matter of watching for subtle shifts in color and texture to avoid the softer traps.  Suddenly the truck in front of us drops into a pocket of liquid sand, and Said dodges left.  We only get another hundred feet before the bottom drops out, bringing us to a sudden standstill.  As we climb out to push, waves of sand curve on all sides in shades of white and faded orange.  “It looks,” Rick says, “like we’re duned.”

            András takes his binoculars and walks far ahead, scouting a way through the maze.  Concern for our safety weighs heavily on him.  As leader he feels responsible for getting us out and back without serious consequences.  He made it clear from the start we share the expenses and the risks, but some things can’t be shared.  Untying the sand channels, we get to work, digging with our hands and setting the sheets of heavy-gauge metal in front of the wheels.  And then comes the pushing, followed by more pushing.  “Yala!” shouts Said, “poosh-poosh!”

            Our truck breaks free, and András signals from the next ridge for us to join him.  One-by-one the vehicles follow his footprints across the rolling expanse.  Sometimes we walk, and sometimes we ride, but we never get far without having to push.  In two hours we have covered only five kilometers.  The farther we go, the more difficult the dunes become until we face the final barrier, a double wall of sand with a soft trough between crests.  András takes his time weighing the options and finally chooses the point of attack.  With the chance of a roll-over high, the passengers watch the drivers make their runs.  Said charges up the first ridge at an angle, drops into the basin, and then shoots up the next face with the engine torqued at a high pitch.  Flying over the spine and diving down the final slope, he reaches the flats below in one piece.  The Egyptian steps out of his truck and looks back at what he just negotiated, surprised at having made it.  All he can say is, “Woooow!”

            Now beyond the barrier dunes, we enter a sand sheet extending so far north it disappears in a mirage.  The Gilf escarpment borders it on one side and a line of dunes on the other.  Our way lies open. 



Flat tires continue to plague us, and it's late in the day when we reach camp in Wadi Hamra, a long canyon cutting into the flank of the Gilf.  Several acacias indicate occasional moisture, and a driver spots a waddan, the elusive Barbary sheep.  Finding life of any kind in this desert becomes an event, so we all turn out to locate the wild animal below camp.

That night Irina talks about growing up in Russia.  As a young girl, she spent summers with her grandmother in the country outside of St. Petersburg.  They often had to go without staples such as wheat, so Irina was never able to have pancakes.  Naturally she dreamed of eating pancakes.  One day her grandmother went to the bazaar with two buckets of jam to sell.  She returned with a little wheat and began making pancakes for a surprise. 

            “I was eating porridge,” Irena remembers, “and began crying.  Tears were falling in my porridge.

            “’Why are you crying?’ she asked.

            “’Because I already ate the porridge and won’t be able to eat as many pancakes.’” 

Tomorrow we’ll attempt to hike into a remote wadi thought by Almásy to be the legendary oasis of Zerzura.  Arabic references to it trace back to A.D. 1246.  In the years following the First World War, the goal of finding the oasis became a consuming passion for a group known as the Zerzura Club.  English barons, Hungarian counts, and Egyptian pashas all got into the act.  At first they used camels but soon switched to desert-rigged Model Ts.  These explorers faced the classic hazards of dust storms, thirst, and the real possibility of becoming lost in the sands.  Tough and resourceful, they traveled thousands of miles into the unknown and made the first crossings of the Great Sand Sea.     

In 1932 Almásy joined Sir Robert Clayton East Clayton on an expedition using a biplane to extend their range.  They were lost for several days, suffered greatly, but then caught a glimpse from the air of a wadi with living trees.  This canyon, which they later learned was called Wadi Abd el Melik, had to be Zerzura.  A few weeks after returning to Cairo, Sir Robert died of a disease never diagnosed, and his wife, Lady Clayton, carried on his search.  Rival expeditions began a race to reach the remote wadi by land and claim the discovery.  Her account of these adventures arrived at The Times on the day she died in an airplane accident.  “The lost oasis,” she wrote, “is still there to be found.”

Next morning I wake up to the scent of rain.  I crawl out of the tent and find the dew so heavy it has dampened the sand.  This must be how the scant vegetation can survive for so many years between rains.  After breakfast we climb an old camel track and follow it for several miles across the plateau.  The trail finally leads us into the east branch of Almásy's wadi, a place no truck can reach.  The floor is untracked.  Almásy drove as far up it as he could and then explored the upper reaches on foot.  No hard evidence turned up, but he was certain he had found the lost oasis of Zerzura.  As we explore the canyon I find an archeological site with dozens of grinding stones and stone tools lying undisturbed on a bench above the dry wash.  At some point in the past the wadi supported enough vegetation to sustain life.  Nomadic herdsman no doubt converged here after each rare rain and then moved on.  But was this the basis for the legend?

After years of searching for it, Ralph Bagnold came to a realization about the lost oasis.  “I like to think of Zerzura,” the British explorer wrote, “as an idea for which we have no apt word in English, meaning something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place.”


Next:  The Great Sand Sea 


Click for past explorations

New World part 1 of 3

New World part 2 of 3

The Lost Oasis part 1

The Lost Oasis part 2
The Lost Oasis part 3