Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, by Ralph A. Bagnold,
Eland Publishing, 2010. 228 pp., four b/w illustrations and 5 maps. ISBN 978-1-906011-33-8. £12.99
Eland’s reprint of the 1935 classic of Sahara exploration is very attractively produced, with Ralph Bagnold’s 1987 epilogue and a new additional biographical note by his son.
As Stephen, Ralph Bagnold’s son, reminds us, the author is remarkably modest about the series of detailed and learned papers he eventually wrote on types and properties of sand. The few black and white illustrations are probably sufficient: they give enough atmosphere and sense of period to complement the narrative. The narrative itself, compelling and well told, will be known to many ASTENE readers already.
As is so often the case, the desert expeditions with adapted Model T Fords started by accident: a few people with time and a couple of these relatively new vehicles wondering how they would fare in the desert. Experience and experiment resulted in the long-range expeditions that form the climax of the book.
From a few tentative journeys beyond Cairo, the first major journeys were in the wellknown regions to the east: a circular route across Sinai to Petra, around the Dead Sea, and back via Jerusalem. There were numerous practical and technical problems to overcome, but the utility of automobiles for desert travel was immediately recognised.
The narrative continues with the forays into the Libyan Desert and the first encounters with the dunes of the Great Sand Sea. The culmination is the extended journey to the Gilf Kebir and Uweinat at the border of Libya, Sudan and Egypt. There is much of interest on the developing political situation with the Italian occupation of Libya and forays by Italian soldiers into the same southerly regions of the desert (partly in pursuit of the Sanussi). There are notes on wildlife, archaeology and landscape; and, of course, people. One notable feature is the way in which various groups were living in, and travelling through, the most remote and inhospitable parts of the desert. They were not always seen, but signs of their relatively recent passing were. We are constantly reminded that there have always been ravellers across the desert, their routes dictated by the stunted palm trees, the oases and the brackish wells: these routes aremarked by bones of cattle, camels and people.
The final chapter is about the ‘lost’—perhaps mythical—oasis of Zerzura. Here Bagnold speculates on a time when all the earth has been surveyed and examined: and now we are almost at that time. Remarkably soon after Bagnold’s death (1990) we can sit at our computers and view the entire Libyan Desert using Google Earth. We can peer down onto the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat. A major road now connects all of the oases from Cairo through Bahriya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga back to the Nile at Asyut: that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. But despite this, even now it is possible to go out into this vast desert and feel that isolation that Bagnold and his companions felt. One of the most striking details of the book is the map (p.15) that has the outline of the Indian subcontinent superimposed over the Libyan Desert from Tripoli in the west to Sinai, and south to Khartoum. As the caption tells us: ‘In shape the Libyan Desert resembles the Indian peninsula, and, a fact which may be surprising but at the same time helpful, it compares with India in size.’ Yes, it surprised me—but I shall remember it: the same size, the same shape—but not quite so many people!
I do not drive, and have no interest in cars and the contents of their bonnets; I am also slightly ambivalent about the desert—and certainly not one of those whose heart thrills at the thought of desert travel; but Bagnold draws the reader in, and Libyan Sands is certainly a thoroughly enjoyable and informative book for bedtime.