Be your own donkey

On an innocent walk into the Libyan Desert, our correspondent discovers just how easily fancied adventures can turn into real ones.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

By the afternoon of my second day in the Libyan Desert, I finally found the sense of isolation I'd been looking for. The faint white ridge-line that marked the far edge of Dakhla Oasis 37.5 miles to the north had just dropped beneath the horizon, and I found myself adrift in a sterile sea of yellow dunes. Inspired by the gorgeous absence of everything but curves and light, I unslung my pack, tossed it into the sand and sat down for a much-needed breather.

Though it seemed innocuous at the time, this was probably the act that turned the next 10 hours of my life into a wearying mix of self-loathing and dull paranoia.

Up until that moment, my hike into the sandy fringe of the world's largest desert had been full of simple discovery and fascination. In the utter emptiness of the landscape, I found myself vividly aware of slight details: telltale irregularities in the texture of the sand; the metallic ping of the odd rocks beneath my boots; a lone ant marching up a dune, its abdomen tilted skyward. I noted a complete lack of odor in the air; I watched the rippled shadows of the landscape dissolve at midday, then deepen again in the afternoon.

This all changed just before sunset, when I opened my pack to find my gear slathered in a sodden brine of damp grit and filmy garbage. Beneath this water-slicked gear, I found my last bottle of Bakara mineral water -- its thin, plastic shell burst open in the middle, its contents mostly gone. Unthinking, I sloshed the excess water out from the bottom of my pack and started spreading things out to dry in the sand.

It wasn't until I'd begun to tally my gear that I realized the problem: Two days into the desert, I had only one bottle of drinking water remaining, and that bottle was half-empty.

There are some moments in life when unexpected situations call for momentous, life-changing acts of resourcefulness and endurance. This was not one of them. Granted, I was hiking into one of the emptiest areas in the world: To my south and west, nothing but sand and rocks lay between me and the distant, barren borders of Sudan and Libya. To my north, however, a village called Mut -- the southernmost outpost of Egypt's Dakhla Oasis -- was no more than a 12-hour trudge away. Outright stupidity on my part excluded, I'd not likely be forced to jettison my gear, drink my own urine or flag down passing airplanes in the effort to survive.

Rather, my situation was far more representative of prosaic day-to-day life: It didn't require outright heroism so much as it required thankless, forgettable drudge work. A 12-hour forced march to Mut on a half-liter of water was certainly doable; it just wasn't desirable.

Sitting in the sand, the day going dark, I pondered other options. The only unknown factor at the time was what lay to my east. The map in my guidebook (which, I'll confess, was not designed to aid desert trekking) showed a dotted line dropping south out of Mut -- evidence of the old caravan route that once arced down to the distant sands of Sudan. By my own estimation, I could cut due east in the cool of the night and arrive at the caravan road in less than five hours. If this road were still in use, I could wait there the next morning and hitch a ride on a truck (or, I'd secretly hoped, on a camel), thus neatly avoiding the tedious slog to Mut. On the other hand, if this road were disused I would double both my hiking distance and my odds of being forced to swill my own urine.

Gathering up my gear, I took an eastward bearing off my compass and rolled the dice.

Except for certain situations involving science, warfare or divine prophecy, there is never really any practical reason to go wandering off into the desert -- and this is probably the very reason why so many people are inclined to do it.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that, among the Masamon tribe of western Egypt, there lived some "wild young fellows, who planned amongst themselves all sorts of extravagant adventures, one of which was to explore the Libyan Desert and try to penetrate further than they ever had before." These youths, Herodotus noted, eventually came upon an isolated oasis, where they were attacked and imprisoned by a marauding band of dwarves.

Twenty-five centuries later, the idea of exploring lifeless stretches of sand for no good reason still carries a visceral appeal -- dull dangers of dehydration and attack-dwarves notwithstanding.

In the deserts of the Arabic world, much of this mythic appeal has been perpetuated by the tales of classic explorers such as T.E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger and Sir Richard Burton. When I traveled into the western sands of Egypt, however, I had yet to study the exploits of these steely, turban-wearing Brits. Rather my desert canon consisted primarily of eclectic American fare: Edward Abbey's Utah solitaire; the cinematic fantasies of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; wisecracking vultures in Far Side cartoons; NASA photos of Mars. Perhaps as a result of this, my inclination toward epic exploration in the Libyan Desert was offset by equal inclinations toward fantasy and irreverence.

Thus, my first impulse upon arriving in the desert town of Farafra was to buy a donkey and ride it into the sandy unknown.

On paper, riding a donkey into the desert is a perfectly legitimate low-tech adventure. Not only are donkeys less expensive than camels and more authentic than Jeeps, I figured I could sell my beast at the end of the trip and break even for the experience.

As any layman who's tried it will know, however, shopping for donkeys in Egypt is a resoundingly humiliating experience. Not only does the American higher education system leave its graduates with very few practical skills in assessing the market value of pack animals, it would seem that the inhabitants of Egypt's oases aren't used to selling their livestock to foreigners. During my first morning of wandering through the dusty outskirts of Farafra, I spent two hours startling and bewildering farmers before I finally found someone who was interested in my proposition.

After a lot of sign language, a smiling old farmer hauled a load of green reeds from the back of his donkey and motioned for me to get on. Once I'd swung my legs onto the beast, the farmer smacked it on the rear and I went bouncing idiotically down the dirt road.

The donkey stopped soon after, so I climbed off and flashed the farmer a thumbs-up. I wasn't really sure what to do next (slam the doors? kick the tires?), so I decided to cut straight to the bargain. "OK," I said to the farmer. "Bikam? How much do you want for it?" I wasn't ready to buy it, necessarily, but I wanted to get a feel for price.

"Pen," he said.

Not sure what he meant, I took out a pen and some paper so he could write down the price. Smiling, he handed the paper back and pocketed the pen. As the farmer merrily returned to his work, it dawned on me that I had just purchased one 20-second donkey ride.

Since this flavor of commerce wasn't likely to get me very far, I tried to indicate that I actually wanted to purchase the entire animal with cash. Every time I waved some money around in an effort to pantomime my desire, however, the farmer just shook his head and gestured to the donkey. "Pen!" he repeated cheerfully.

Motioning my intention to come back, I jogged over to my hotel to find a translator. Mohammed, a temperamental middle-aged fellow who worked the front desk, was my only option at the time. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I got down to business.

"I need you to help me buy a donkey," I told him.

Mohammed scowled. "Why you want to buy a donkey?"

"I want to ride it into the desert."

"A Jeep or camel is better. I'll arrange you a trip."

"I'm not really interested in that; I want to try to do it on my own."

Mohammed raised an eyebrow in irritation. "You know how to keep a donkey?"

"What do you mean?"

"Food! Water! So it does not die!"

I realized I hadn't considered this. "No," I said. "Is it difficult?"

The grumpy clerk grinned at me sarcastically. "You want a desert trip by yourself?" he said, walking his fingers across the countertop. "You be your own donkey!"

Though I never did any more donkey shopping in the Egyptian oases, it took me two days before I had rationalized the disappointment and moved on to other options.

By that time, I'd continued on to Dakhla -- the southwestern-most of Egypt's big oases -- and I was sharing a dorm room at the Al Qasr Hotel with a German political science student named Tomas. Tomas enjoyed the tale of my Farafra donkey encounter, but he couldn't seem to understand my initial motive.

"Why did you want to buy a donkey?" he asked me.

"So I could travel into the desert," I said.

"Why did you want to travel into the desert?"

"So I could be away from things. I wanted to go to a place where nothing has ever lived. I wanted to be isolated."

"Isolated? What about the donkey?"

"Well, the donkey would just be a funny detail. You know, part of the challenge."

"So the isolation part wasn't really that important."

"No, I wanted to be isolated," I said to Tomas, still reluctant to admit that my donkey quest was based more on impulse than design. "I guess the donkey would have been part of that isolation, considering I really don't know much about donkeys."

"So did you want to be isolated or did you just want to feel isolated?"

"I wanted to be isolated," I said stubbornly.

"Yes, but really. How is being isolated all that different from feeling isolated?"

After 15 minutes of simple logic, Tomas had talked me into dreaming up a new journey -- a walking trek into the Great Sand Sea.

Unlike the rest of the Libyan Desert, where blowing sands mix with dry buttes and rocky moonscape, the Great Sand Sea is nothing but dunes. Covering an enormous sprawl of territory along the Egypt-Libya border, this area went unexplored and uncharted for centuries because of its complete isolation and lack of water. In 1874, the first man to cross these dunes -- a German geographer named Gerhard Rohlfs -- nearly died in his attempt to lead 17 camels over 420 continuous miles of waterless desert. "It was as if we were on a wholly lifeless planet," wrote Rohlfs of the experience. "If one stayed behind a moment and let the caravan out of one's sight, a loneliness could be felt in the boundless expanse such as brought fear, even in the stoutest heart ... Here, in the sand ocean, there is nothing to remind one of the great common life of the earth but the stiffened ripples of the last simoon; all else is dead."

Conveniently for my own purposes, a thin tongue of the Great Sand Sea stretches out into the western fringe of Dakhla Oasis. Here, I'd hoped, I could enjoy this feeling of boundless isolation without the danger of being isolated. Here, in relative safety, I could be my own donkey.

Using my guidebook map, I plotted a course that would start in Al Qasr village on the northern fringe of Dakhla, curve west and south through the desert, then boomerang back into the southern oasis village of Mut three days later.

Packing enough food and water to last the duration of the journey, I struck out for the dunes the following morning.

Tomas joined me for the first leg of the hike, since he was interested in exploring the Al-Muzawaka tombs two hours west of Al Qasr. There, we found a small network of caves that had been hollowed out by some long-ago inhabitants of the oasis. Unlike the famous tombs of Egypt's Nile valley, there were no admission booths, souvenir stands or rifle-toting guards at the site. The only soul we saw there was an old man who walked out from a lone stone house to take us by the arm and shine a flashlight into the caves. When we tipped him 50 piasters each, he smiled and took us to an open-faced cave that contained five dusty, brittle adult mummies.

Beyond Al-Muzawaka, Tomas followed me into the first cluster of yellow dunes before turning back for Al Qasr. For the rest of the afternoon, I maintained a sloppy southwestern bead, zagging my way up and over the grand piles of sand. Still within sight of the oasis, the desert sand was abuzz with activity: shiny blue beetles, fat black flies, faded pink garbage bags. Every so often, the sand would yield broken pieces of pottery or heavy brown stones.

As recently as 50 years ago, explorers in this part of the Egyptian desert were likely to find all sorts of artifacts preserved in the sand, from flint knives to broken ostrich shells to rock paintings. Mixed in with the pre-historic relics were evidence of more recent visitors: camel bones, bits of clothing, human skeletons. Just last year, a group of American tourists crossing the desert near Bahariyya found the remains of three German soldiers -- all members of a flight crew that had disappeared on an exploratory mission during World War II.

Though I'd secretly hoped to find something ancient, desiccated or macabre in the desert, I never was that lucky. At one point, I found a copper bullet slug in the sand and put it in my pocket, thinking perhaps I'd drill a hole in it and hang it on a necklace. Five minutes later I found two more bullet slugs, then another. By the time I'd collected seven bullet slugs, they didn't seem so special any more, so I threw them all away.

The sun went down after 6, and -- since I had no stove and there was obviously no firewood -- I set in for the night in the lee of a huge dune. After spooning up a can of tuna for dinner, I pulled out my sleeping bag and stared at stars until I fell asleep. I woke up at first light and resumed my journey.

For the most part, the curved sameness of the Great Sand Sea precludes narrative. My second day in the dunes proceeded much like the first -- the only difference being that the insects became fewer and the view of Dakhla's ridge-line became fainter as the day went on. I filled the emptiness of the landscape with my wandering mind, stopping occasionally to take compass bearings or photograph my footprints.

In a weird way, though, I don't really recall making much progress until I opened up my water-soaked backpack at dusk and found myself with a tough decision on my hands.

Though I didn't know it at the time, the area beyond my little tongue of the Great Sand Sea was once thought to be a possible location for an elusive oasis town called Zerzura. Reputedly a place of palms, fresh-water springs and white birds, Zerzura's location never could be pinned down once explorers started systematically mapping the desert 100 years ago. Early Arab historians placed it south of Siwa Oasis near the Libyan border; early British adventurers placed it west of Dakhla. Murray's 1899 "Guide to Egypt" placed it in four different locations in the hinterland of the Egyptian southwest. Over the years, various wanderers, bandits and pilots claimed to have seen Zerzura while headed elsewhere, but none could ever find his way back.

In his classic 1935 book "Libyan Sands," British explorer Ralph Bagnold (who was a member of the British Long Range Desert Group loosely portrayed in "The English Patient") conceded that Zerzura would probably always be a lost oasis, having long ago been mapped under a different name and absorbed into the Egyptian geography. Still, he held on to the idea that it was out there waiting to be rediscovered in one form or another.

"I like to think of Zerzura as an idea for which we have no apt word in English," he wrote in the conclusion to his book, "meaning something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place, difficult of access, if one is enterprising enough to go out and look; an indefinite thing, taking different shapes in the minds of different individuals according to their interests and wishes."

This in mind, I suppose I discovered my Zerzura when I lost my water bottle in the depths of my pack. What had before been an adventure of fancy had now turned into a matter of real consequence. My Lucas-Spielberg reveries gave way to reality, and I discovered the desert all over again.

Of course, this is an assessment of hindsight. Under the pressure of the decision itself, I wasn't so philosophical as I trudged my way east. Having been raised to make the more conservative choice in this type of situation (i.e., enduring the direct slog to Mut), I found myself unconsciously veering to the north. Every so often I would catch myself and resume my eastbound progress.

Hiking through the desert under the light of the moon was quite similar to hiking the dunes in daylight. The only difference was that the air was cool, the sand was gray and the mood was spooky. After a while my footfalls didn't sound like they were coming from my own feet any more; I kept turning around to see if I was being followed. Even sudden patches of soft sand would give me an occasional start in the dim silence.

Eventually, my paranoid habit of veering north caught up with me, when -- just short of midnight -- I found a Jeep track in the sand. Since I'd been hiking what I thought was east for nearly six hours, I assumed that I'd reached the caravan road. In retrospect, this was a silly assumption: Given that Mut is the last sizable human outpost in that corner of Egypt, it would make sense that a southbound road toward Sudan would be large and well-maintained. At the time, however, I wasn't so confident. Not sure what to do, I snuggled into the slope of a nearby dune and waited for someone to show up.

After a 10-minute doze, I heard what sounded like footsteps coming my way. Suddenly nervous, I dug my head-lamp out of my pack. The sound got louder, then stopped. It started again, stopped again, then started once more, even louder than before. It sounded like someone was stumbling through the sand in a ragged pair of scuba-flippers. Too spooked to say anything, I turned on the head-lamp and stood there with my fists clenched -- looking, no doubt, like some kind of spelunker-ninja madman. Finally, I spotted the culprit: a heavy paper-and-plastic cement bag, drifting its way down the Jeep track on a hiccuping migration to Sudan. I turned off my head-lamp and sat back down.

As I listened to the cement bag flop off into the night, I caught the hint of another sound: a truck downshifting somewhere in the distance. Shouldering my pack, I crossed the Jeep track and continued east. Within 30 minutes, I could see a set of headlights; an hour later I was standing on the blacktop caravan road to Mut. My eastbound gamble had paid off: I'd found my lost oasis in the form of an asphalt road. In an indulgent show of celebration, I took a long pull from my water bottle.

Finding a flat spot far enough from the road so the nighttime trucks wouldn't disturb me, I spread out my sleeping bag and dozed for a few hours.

Just past dawn, I packed up my gear and hitched a ride to the only place there was to go in that humble fringe of the Libyan Desert.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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