There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 24 June 2013

Three Desert Journeys

1)  Bandar-é-Deylam to Gachsaran, Iran  30th of July 2000

We broke down driving round the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Keywan, for all his many talents, was no mechanic – and I was little help.

Keywan attempts to solve the problem
between Bander-é-Mahsharh and Bandar-é-Deylam

The fuel filter, he decided, was blocked by sand, but he managed to get the car going again and we limped into the port of Bandar-é-Deylam and found a garage.
At the garage, Bandar-é-Deylam
The car restored to health, we headed north through the desert towards Gachsaran in the greener valley beyond. Keywan did not have total confidence in the repair and listened intently to the engine every time we climbed a gradient or accelerated away from a bend. This would not be a good place to break down.

In the spectacular desert scenery the only signs of human activity were the ribbon of tarmac and the oil pipelines which criss-cross the desert, sometimes running beside the road, sometimes veering off through narrow valleys or dropping down stony cliffs.
Road and pipeline between Bandar-é-Deylam and Gachsaran

My father lived and worked in Iran from 1946 to 1951. I was born in 1950 in the refinery town of Abadan on the tip of the gulf, and Lynne and I were taking advantage of a brief period of détente to visit the land of my birth for the first time since I left as a babe in arms.

For most of those six years my father worked in this desert, constructing pipelines, perhaps the very pipelines we were driving beside.

Pipeline between Bandar-é-Deylam and Gachsaran

After 25Km we crossed the Zorah River which runs through the heart of the desert, scrubby patches of green clinging to its banks. Beside the bridge there is a village, I cannot imagine what its inhabitants do to earn their living.

Crossing the Zorah River

Gachsaran was still 50Km away, but the car kept going and Keywan gradually relaxed.  An hour later we descended into a valley which seemed lush and green, though only in comparison to the desert we had just crossed.

2) Into the sunset, Ghadames, Libya  19th of April 2006

Massoud took us to Kabaw, to the home of his sister, Seham,and brother-in-law, Omar, for lunch. Then he drove us south into the desert to the oasis and former slave trading town of Ghadames, and Omar came along for the ride.

On our second evening we ventured out into the desert to watch the sunset. Hoping to attract tourists, a small encampment had been set up and bread, baked in the sand,….
Baking bread in the sand
near Ghadames, Libya
… and tea were available for all. Twenty or so foreigners turned up; tourism was not big in Libya in 2006 and it is even smaller now, if it exists at all.

Bread and tea...
...and does this Islamic country want to see my imitation of the Buddha?
near Ghadames, Libya

A Taureg rode into camp with the effortless elegance that is every Taureg’s birth right.

A Tuareg rode into camp
near Ghadames, Libya
He halted his camel by one of the huts and it lowered itself to the ground. Swinging his leg forward to dismount he strode towards the hut, his robes flapping in the gentle breeze. Then there was a strange electronic sound. Patting himself, he found what he was looking for and his hand dived deep into his robes. It emerged grasping a mobile phone and the magic evaporated into the desert air.

As the sun sank we climbed a sand dune…..

Climbing a sand dune
near Ghadames, Libya

… and took up our position on the top.

Waiting for the sunset
near Ghadames, Libya
For reasons known only to himself, Omar walked off into the dunes for his own private view of the sunset. He can be seen in the photograph, a tiny figure at the end of a trail of footprints.

Omar of the sands
near Ghadames, Libya
We were very near the point where Libya, Tunisia and Algeria meet, and somewhere in the west, over Algeria, was a single band of cloud. We saw no sunset that day, the cloud swallowing the fiery orb long before it reached the horizon.

The sunset that no one ever saw
near Ghadames, Libya
We were disappointed, but it does no harm to be reminded that such things do not happen to order; sunsets cannot be bought and sold. Anyway, there would be other opportunities.

3) Bahariya to Siwa, Egypt  10th of November 2009

The Bahariya Oasis is the northernmost of the string of oases stretching across Egypt’s western desert. Since 1970 tarmac roads have connected it with Cairo, 360 km to the northeast, and the oases of the New Valley to the south, but to the west there is only sand.

We set out with Mohammed, our ever-affable driver and Araby, our cultured and knowledgeable guide, to cross the 300 km of desert between Bahariya and the Siwa oasis near the Libyan border.

But first we presented ourselves to the police station to prove we had a satellite phone for emergencies and to register for the desert crossing. The Egyptian authorities do not want foreigners lost in the wilderness so they counted us all out, counted us all in and also checked us half way at an isolated army post, possibly the most boring posting in Egypt.

Outside the police station, Bahariya
The six vehicles making the crossing set off in convoy, but soon became separated. A road to Siwa was built by the British army in the 1930s and although little tarmac now remains the route is easy to follow.

Leaving Bahariya

After a couple of hours we stopped to stretch our legs, though finding a bush to pee behind presented a problem.

Stopping to stretch our legs

Half an hour later we encountered a small lake surrounded by reeds. It looked curiously out of place.
A small lake surrounded by reeds
Beyond the lake we dropped down into the Qattara Depression. The depression is the size of Wales, though a lot less rainy (where isn't?) and at its lowest point is 133m below sea level, but we only crossed a small corner and climbed out again.

Coming out of the Qattara Depression

At lunchtime we left the road and headed down to the Areg Oasis, now dry and deserted but once a centre of population. We walked down, leaving Mohammed to pick his way carefully, avoiding rocky outcrops and sticking to the firm sand.

Down to the Areg Oasis

He found a shady spot for the picnic…

A shady spot for a picnic, Areg Oasis

….and laid it on the bonnet of the car. As well as being a skilful desert driver, Mohammed was also a top class picnic maker, in fact a good man to have around.

Mohammed's picnic, with added butterfly

The base of the cliff had been used as a necropolis in antiquity, but time had long ago opened up the graves and desert foxes ensured the area was littered with the bleached bones of the oasis’ former inhabitants.

Necropolis, Areg Oasis

Leaving our macabre picnic site, Mohammed navigated back to the track and an hour later picked up the new road under construction from Siwa. The last 20km or so were on tarmac, but we arrived with a sense of having journeyed across a desert and reached a destination of utter remoteness. This feeling lasted until we checked into our hotel and found it full of elderly Italians, bussed down from the Mediterranean coastal resorts.