Exploring the desert with camels

When is a traveller not a traveller? When he, or she, is an explorer. We all love to explore, even on a micro scale like picking over the beach after the tide has come in. 

The desert is like one great beach, and in the case of the Sahara it’s the biggest beach on earth, and despite what we may believe, it is not all explored. 
We aimed to set up the explorer school to put people who want to explore in touch with the skills they need. As I had just spent the last couple of years exploring the Egyptian Sahara it made sense to start there.


Typically we spend an entire day preparing to leave for a ten day desert journey. It is always very hectic - Bedouin are, on the surface, disorganised. But we have learnt that each trip breeds its own organisation. We start off with all the bags thrown on the camels higgledy piggledy and then over the next hours and throughout the first two days we perfect a system for that journey.


Every trip is different and it makes sense to not be too rigid- take weather for example: the packing will be different if we expect sand storms and high temperatures or whether we are stomping through the chill of a January morning.


Despite cold starts, the Sahara in winter is the best time to visit. Sunny and clear by day but rarely more than 25/26 degrees. By night it can be freezing and if you sleep out without a tent, which is the best way to see the stars move through the night sky, you may wake to find frost on your sleeping bag. The Bedouin teachers/guides get the fire going before dawn. It is built with any sticks and brushwood we find during the day together with slow burning acacia wood carried in camel bags as a reserve. The trick is to stand the pot downwind actually in the fire so the wind blows the flames around it. No petrol or gas stoves allowed!


Bread for breakfast is another skill we learn: scrape away the embers and lay out unleavened dough on the hot sand. Cover with more sand and embers and cook for fifteen minutes. Uncover again and dust it off with a clean paintbrush (or your hand) and you have delicious bread. Surprisingly the sand doesn’t stick to it at all. 

Then it’s time to load the camels. This is the main skill we learn from the Bedouin who have practised the art since camels were first brought to Egypt about 500BC. The key is balance. Each load is done with a balancing load on the opposite side of the saddle. A female can take 150Kg, a male over 250kg. Mostly we take females as they are less unpredictable and more friendly. The key knot is very simple - just a stop knot threaded through the weave of the rope held in place by tension. This basic fastening is used in place of complicated straps everywhere on the camel’s saddles. It has the great advantage that if a rope breaks you can repair it easily. 


Our journeys take us into the Western Desert around Dakhla oasis, the longest continually inhabited area in the Sahara - there are house remains in Dahkla over 13,000 years old. It has been a trade route centre for as long as there have been trade routes, and it is these old routes that we set out to explore.


Curiously it is our exploring, not Bedouin knowledge, that has revealed new information about this remote area. The local Bedouin previously only visited the land to the East, not the West and South West. This was because of banditry in previous centuries closing the old West-East Sahara routes which caused a decay in local knowledge. Those old routes are still marked by ‘alem’ or stone men, literally several flat stones piled on a prominent rock and indicating a route. Often we find the tell tale furrows left behind by very ancient camel routes and always we find stone age tools, pottery, bones and closer to Dakhla even human bones and winding cloths from disturbed graves that date at least from Roman times.


The terrain of the Western Desert is sandy, real desert, with dunes and sand sheets, mirages and dried lakes crusted with salt. But Egypt has the most varied desert terrain of the whole Sahara. In a typical day we will cross a dune barrier, wind our way through buttes and mesas as in Monument Valley, made famous by cowboy films, dip into canyons and file through rocky outcrops. The sheer variety hides old water depots full of broken pots, burial sites and the hidden nesting sites of Saker falcons.


The main part of the day is spent walking and learning new skills such as navigation and desert survival. Bedouin only ride their camels when they are in a hurry, either on a raid or taking them to market, or making a short journey. Walking is the best way to appreciate the desert and to find treasure beneath your feet. But, if you disdain boots, make sure your sandals don’t rub your Achilles tendons as mine did at first- it’s a real killer.


One of the exercises we devised was locating the buried water drop. Camels can go for many days without water in winter (months if there is vegetation to eat) though they do need time to recover. To save the camels we give them a drink after five days. A camel can guzzle fifty litres in five minutes so the water is hidden before we set out. As a test of compass skills (no GPS allowed) we give only the bearing and distance in paces (each person having already measured their pace) and then, like the search for buried treasure, which it is, in a way, the race is on. We haven’t failed to find one yet so increasingly we do this exercise using only the sun as a compass having first learnt how from the Bedouin.


The Bedouin who accompany us are the true teachers of desert exploration. Any time of the day I would ask Ali which way was north. Even without the sun he could tell me within five degrees. At night it is the camels who show the right direction. By some homing instinct they always go to sleep with the bodies pointing towards the starting point of the journey, however many twists and turns we may have made on the way. 

One of the great lessons of desert exploration is travelling by night. This is highly dangerous by car but safe by camel, if there is a moon. By lining up the two side stars of the Great Bear and moving a short distance up the sky one always finds the Pole star and so true north. By watching the way stars revolve around the Pole star it is possible to tell the time at night with considerable accuracy.


Our exploration goals are simple: make a map of the journey, record what you find, and be the first at a confluence point. Confluence Points are whole integer intersections of lines of Latitude and Longitude. The first person to record their presence at one wins a place on the extensive Degree Confluence Project website, a kind of Royal Geographical Society for amateur explorers.

 Map making is possible because the only accurate maps of this desert are 1:500,000 made in the 1940s. Sat photos, though useful after you’ve been somewhere, are too confusing in place of real maps.


We made our first expedition without any map at all, just using a compass and GPS to record bearings and positions on a sheet of graph paper. Over time we have added information to make a detailed record of the area we aim to explore. Each trip, though, we go a new route, very often one which rarely crosses camel or vehicle tracks for days at a time. One set of tracks we were happy to find: the tiny narrow tracks of a baby Ford left by Laszlo Almasy in 1932 - he was the real life Hungarian explorer on whom the English Patient was based. His car tracks were preserved in the surface of black gravel lying on sand that he had disturbed but the wind could not erode.


Coming into the oasis after ten days or more in the desert, the sudden green is like a dream. There are springs where you can dive into clear water and feel your body suck up moisture again. But all too soon the pleasures of the Oasis wear off. As the Egyptian explorer Hassanein Bey wrote: “When the desert smiles there is no place to be but the desert.”