updated January 2014
I recently got another one of my periodic enquiries about the possibility of crossing the Sahara laterally from west to east.
By camel or car, west-east seems to capture the imagination of adventure seekers and although such a transit is niot what it’s about to me, I wrote a box for Sahara Overland (extracted bottom of the page) about the best-known vehicular expeditions who broadly speaking, set out with this goal. Michael Asher and Mariantonetta Peru succeeded with camels in the 1980s of course (see Impossible Journey, reviewed here), but I suggested in Sahara Overland that a true, unbroken, all-desert lateral crossing of the Sahara with vehicles had yet to be achieved (and probably never will be in our time).
Camel or car, if you follow Sahara news you’ll know that the chances of achieving a true Saharan traverse are currently about as slim as they’ve ever been since cars started driving across the desert. Even peripheral Mediterranean or Sahelian crossings between Atlantic and Nile would in places be tense as things stand. The Saharan regions of Mali, Libya and Niger are unsafe or off limits. Eastern Mauritania is said to be the same, although southern Algeria from Bordj to Djanet and up to the Libyan border (as we did in 2006 – image above right) might be possible were it not for what’s going on in Mali these days. Northern Chad as always presents difficulties from the mountainous terrain, let alone permissions as well as possibly security issues now the the brakes are off in southern Libya. It’s said the smuggling convoys which may still roll out of Libya into northern Sudan above Darfur are preyed on by Zaghawa bandits. And in southern Egypt you’d need to secure all the escorts and other requirements. This all assumes you can simply fly across desert borders like an egret bound for Mecca – which you can’t.
A few years ago when ‘snow‘ was falling over the southern Sahara (left), it was reported that cocaine was landing in nascent narco-state Guinea Bissau to be transported up to Mauritania from where smugglers lit off east in their V8, twin-turbo Land Cruisers right across the Sahara to Egypt (left). Bribing or intimidating there way across in just a few days, on their way they doubtless passed close to the 1977 Saviem Balise #22 east of the Gilf (right). At the Suez ports the coke was said to get stashed aboard a container bound for southern Europe. So these days the ultimate Sahara expedition is (or was) being knocked out, but not by the sort of people too bothered about getting into the Guinness Book of Records or blogging about it with live Spot tracking.
A couple of years ago (before things really got bad in the Sahara) it occurred to me that if I could be bothered I could link up my own lateral crossing of the Sahara between the Nile and Atlantic. Of course it would have taken me several years, but across three trips – Libya 1998, Egypt 2003 and SEQ 2006 (the blue lines added over the book’s map, top of the page) – it looks like I’ve covered about 90% of the distance.
All that remained was a short stage in the eastern Algerian oilfields to the ‘Algerian Tree‘ (above left, in 1999) on the Libyan Ghadames-Serdeles Route L2 from Sahara Overland (left). Some of you may recall that Micheal Palin visited this tree for his Sahara TV show and proclaimed ‘this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.
Up until the gas plant attack at Tigantourine in January 2013, I could probably have knocked this out any time. Either driving down to Edjeleh oil camp right on the Libyan border (map right), then scooting over the dunes as shown on Google Earth (Sahara Overland Route L2’s Algerian stage?). A few years ago I recall making contact with an American oil worker based in Edjejeh, asking him about civilian access in the area. Alternatively, one could just nail it 100km east from the N3 highway south of Erg Bouharet. The stony reg thereabouts is criss-crossed with oil exploration tracks, but as I say, post-Tigantourine I imagine that area will be rather closely watched.
Then there’s the more substantial missing section in eastern Libya: from Waw Namus crater we visited in 1998 while researching the original edition of Sahara Overland – to a place east of Kufra where we spent Christmas in 2003 on our Gilf trip based out of Egypt.
I remember that day well; we had more trouble than normal getting Mahmoud’s Toyota-engined Series III running, dragging it to life with the Land Cruiser (right) after setting a fire under the chilled engine. With us that time was Toby Savage (my Desert Driving dvd co-presenter) who in 2012 travelled through the Gilf with WWII-era Jeeps, while possibly outnumbered by escorts and soldiers.
No tourist has driven in southern Libya since the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011. The south has now slipped from the current government’s grass and AQIM (or MBM since allied with MUJAO) have moved in. There were frequent reports of unrest from Kufra and Sebha as indigenous Tubu tried to stake their claims or settle scores. Even then, as things stand now in Libya, ticking off that final 1000-km stage from Waw to Xmas Camp may take a while, but it’s something to save for a rainy day in the Sahara.