Click on image for list of participants
15th - 23rd November, 1997
In the summer of 1997, with all the publicity surrounding the movie 'The English Patient', and the resulting interest in Almásy's activities, Vince Siska of the Hungarian television approached me through some acquaintances on the possibility of organising an expedition to Jebel Uweinat and the Gilf Kebir, to shoot scenes on location for a documentary on the life of Almásy. After much arrangement, and sponsorship from a number of Hungarian companies, we were ready to set out in the middle of November.
Day 1. - Cairo - Dakhla
We met the cars, and our lead driver, Khaled Makram (who remained a friend and companion for all subsequent trips) at Cairo airport, and set out immediately at dawn. As we turned on to the desert road to Baharya, we encountered a rare phenomenon: thick fog in the desert. Visibility was less than 100 metres, and we could only move at a snail pace for more than an hour, until finally the sun started to break up the fog. From there, it was the long boring drive south, reaching Dakhla by the evening.
Day 2.-3. - Dakhla (& Kharga)
Our high spirits were somewhat dashed at the checkpoint at Dakhla, where we were told that the officer who can endorse our permits to continue is on leave, and we must go to Kharga to see the commanding officer there. While the group remained on the terrace of the Hotel in Dakhla, with Khaled we drove to Kharga to meet the high authorities. The required officer was present, but he flatly refused to do anything without permission from Cairo (appatently the permits in our hand were not enough). After some discussion it was decided that Cairo should phone the checkpoint at Dakhla to validate our permits and let us proceed. After Calling our Cairo contacts, we returned to Dakhla fully expecting the issue to be sorted out in a day. To raise spirits, we decided to camp out in the Desert, and return to Dakhla next afternoon.
We've spent the morning filming around Dakhla, and calling Cairo every now-and-then to check for news. It was one of our drivers listening to the car radio who first heared the shocking news of the Luxor attack. At first the reports were sketchy, but soon the full magnitude of the events became clear - over 50 tourists killed!
Day 4. - Dakhla - edge of Great Sand Sea
After a night in the hotel at Dakhla, and some frantic telephone calls, it was soon evident that nobody is likely to deal with the trivial issue of our permits for the time being. It was suggested to wait a couple of days to see how the situation evolves. After a lengthy look at the map, all of a sudden a thought emerged: the little dot, marked "Regenfeld" is only 85 kilometres from the bend of the Dakhla - Farafra tarmac road. With a maximum of 4 days allowed before having to report to the next checkpoint, we could barely make it there and back accross the dunes... Regenfeld was on our planned itinerary, but on the way back, retracing Almásy's route from Abu Ballas. The soldiers at the Dakhla checkpoint had no objections to us spending a few days in the desert before going back towards Cairo, so after fuelling we set out, first along the road, towards the edge of the dunes. The next checkpoint, at Abu Mungar, was informed not to expect untill the fourth day. We turned off the road at a point about half way between Dakhla and Abu Munhgar, and set course for the edge of the dunes, at the time only a marking on the map for us. It was a magnificens sight as first the crests, then the whole body of the giant dunes emerged from the horizon after an hours drive, silhouetted against the setting sun. Our first camp was at the foot of the first range, towering 30 metres above us. In the true desert at last.
Day 5. - Camp - Regenfeld
The dunes by our camp looked unsurmuontable. 30 metres high, with crested tops, at this point clearly impassable for the cars. We started south along the dune, looking for a suitable pass. After about 10 kilometres we came accross a lower saddle with firm sand all along the slope and the crest. We gave it a try, and much to our surprise all thre cars were accross in less than five minutes. With renewed confidence we crossed the 4 kilometre gap till the next dune, and made it accross without any mishap.
The third one proved more difficult. Here the lane between the dunes was not rocky, but filled with soft sand and it was impossible to gain enough speed to make it up the dune, which was a formidable 50 metre high range. After some digging and pushing to free a badly stuck car, we decided to try a different spot, and to our luck and surprise after 5 kilometres the dune lowered and tapered off, enabling us to easily round it's end and drive up the huge whaleback dune just behind it. After two more ranges a vast open plain opened before us. If the map was correct, there were supposed to be no more dunes for about 40 kilometres, and on the far side the first dune range should be the one beside Regenfeld. The map was correct. It was an easy drive accross the hard flat plain, and after 20 kilometres dunes started appearing on the horizon. As we reached their flanks we turned south - according to the GPS we were no more than 5 kilometres to the north of Regenfeld.
Day 6. - Regenfeld - edge of Great Sand Sea
The next morning we set out to explore the cairn and the vicinity. In the cairn, we found a large biscuit tin with numerous documents left by previous visitors in the past decade. Of course the original Almásy document left here in March 1933 was long gone, but someone did leave a copy of all three original documents, taken from Almásy's book. Near the cairn there were the traces of an old campsite with Shell petrol tins, possibly those of Almásy and his party.
Not far from our own camp a little to the south, during my morning walk I have come accross a strange phenomenon: a perfectly round small crater in the sand, about 50 cm in diameter. It looked very fresh, but there was no ejected sand around it's rim. Obvously a meteorite impact came to mind, we dug down the centre to a depth of 1 metres, but found nothing. Anyone any clue on what could have caused this crater ?
At midday we started moving back east, and immediately at the first dune we met a nasty surprise. The western slopes are much longer and softer, making crossing look easier on appearance, but much more difficult in practice. In the treacherous midday light we managed to get one of the cars into a little hollow near the dune crest. The result: two hours of digging and pushing.
Despite the mishap, we reached the edge of the Sand Sea by the evening, and camped beyond the last dune.
Day 7. - Camp - Abu Mugar - Farafra - White Desert
In the morning we drove back to the road, passed through Abu Mugar to Farafra where we managed to phone Cairo. The news were not good. Everything was in disarray, the authorities this time understandably caring little about our problems. We had to concede that the trip is cancelled, and we have to return to Cairo at once to save as much as possible of the available funds for a next try. We made camp in the white desert, and sent one car together with most of our supplies back to Cairo.
Day 8. - White Desert - Ramak Dunes
The next day, with the remaining two cars we set out to at least accomplish one item on our itinerary - visit the El Alamen museum, taking the road supporting oil rigs joining El Alamein with the Cairo - Baharya road 200 kms to the south of Cairo. The road proved to be quite dismal, it was easier to drive on the flat gravel beside it, than on the "road" broken and potholed by the huge service trucks. We reached the end of the Ramak Dunes by late afternoon, and had our last camp in the lee of a long seif dune.
Day 9. - Ramak Dunes - El Alamein - Cairo
We continued north, passing through a large oil processing complex, then accross the bottom of the eastern edge of the Qattara depression, reaching Alamein by midday. After shooting a few scenes on the Almásy exhibit and in the gardens, we started on our final leg back to Cairo.