Andras Zboray is one of those rare kindred spirits you sometimes bump into on the road.
Someone with a shared love of the desert, a taste for remote places, and a drive to see what’s up around the next bend.
Andras has probably found more prehistoric rock art sites than any other living explorer. And he certainly knows Jebel Uweinat — an isolated granite and sandstone mountain on the remote, empty border of Egypt, Sudan and Libya — better than anyone else.
I joined him on an expedition to Uweinat from the Sudan side this past March, and we had an opportunity to sit down and talk about his story, the desert and expedition prep.
I hope you enjoy it.
How did you first get involved in desert travel?
It’s a rather long story…
I spent my adolescence in Egypt in the late 1970’s. Unlike most expats lounging by the pool at the Gezira Club, we used the winter weekends to visit the innumerable ancient monuments and sites that dot the desert edges along the Nile valley. Some of these sites lie at some distance into the desert, and it was a thrill to drive with our good old Peugeot across the sands and gravel, off any roads.
Naturally this was considered a rather eccentric and somewhat reckless behaviour by the Gezira crowds…
When I was 16, with two classmates from the American University in Cairo, we went on what at that time was a major expedition, visiting Kharga and Dakhla oases. It was at a time before the road was sealed between Dakhla and Farafra, and Dakhla was really the end of the known world. We could only find a single running vehicle to take us about, a rather dilapidated 1951 Ford pickup, which had to be push started because the starter gave up decades earlier.
The next summer I confronted my parents with the idea that I would like to visit Meroe in Sudan just by myself. My mother said, “No way!”, but my dad stuffed an airplane ticket and a couple green notes into my pocket with an encouraging “Off you go!”
That ride out to the temples of Naqa in an old Land Rover was my first true off road desert experience, and from there it was no turning back…
Ten years later, after finding my other half, our honeymoon was to the Tassili N’Ajjer in south Algeria, a journey I had always wanted to make since reading Lhote’s book in my teens.
But all this was just the prelude. It was in 1997, after the big hype about “The English Patient”, that through some contact I was approached by a television producer who wanted to do a documentary on László Almasy’s real life voyages and discoveries.
They were told that I had lived in Egypt and had been to the central Sahara, so they thought I would obviously be the right person to organize such an expedition. Having never ever done anything remotely like that, I immediately said yes!
Despite a number of blunders and misjudgments, I did manage to pull it off. We reached Jebel Uweinat and the “Cave of Swimmers” at Wadi Sora along the Gilf Kebir plateau (Almasy’s finest discovery), marking the start of my serious desert travels.
It was a wonderful experience, and of course immediately on returning I wanted to do it again. However, I did not have the means to go my own. The solution was to set up a website — this was still the early days of the internet — and I was soon in correspondence with a number of serious Sahara travelers to make another trip to Uweinat.
Since 2000 I have made 2 to 3 deep desert expeditions per year, both to the Sahara and to other remote desert regions.
What is it that attracts you to the desert?
This is very difficult to explain, especially to someone who has never been there.
There is an oft quoted closing line from the book of Ahmed Hassanein Bey, the first explorer to reach Uweinat: “The Desert is terrible and it is merciless, but to the Desert all those who have once known it must return.”
This is so true.
It is a combination of many factors. Despite the lack of plant or animal life, the true desert is the manifestation of Nature at its purest, without any human disturbance. It also gives one the feeling of limitless freedom, despite the very real limitations of one’s water and fuel reserves.
This is coupled with the excitement of real exploration in the classic 19th century sense: the ability to go to places where no other human has set foot in modern history, but which are full of the traces of prehistoric inhabitants.
It does take a particular character to enjoy the desert, and thanks to the internet I was fortunate to have traveled mostly with such persons as company.
What are the biggest challenges to organizing a desert expedition?
That’s easy. Officialdom.
In practically all countries with large deserts, the local authorities are deeply suspicious of why anyone would ever want to go there. There is nothing, and no sane person would ever want to leave the comforts of the towns and villages to go out into the harsh and dangerous void. To the local officials, our way of thinking is totally incomprehensible. So if someone wants to go there, he must have an ulterior motive.
Visas, desert permits and official ‘escorts’ are definitely the biggest challenges. Compared to that, organizing the actual expedition logistics is easy.
Do you have a formula for calculating the amount of food, water, fuel, etc to take along?
There is no set formula, they all depend on the circumstances, and every trip must be planned separately.
Available water limits the time one may spend in the desert, and one’s consumption is a function of average temperature and amount of exerted effort. As a rule of thumb, 3 liters of water is sufficient for one day if the temperatures are in the 25 to 30C range and one does not do any serious walking or climbing. Take off 10C and this requirement drops to 2 liters. Add a day of serious uphill climbing and the amount doubles.
Fuel consumption is also dependent on terrain. Grinding along in low gear in 4WD with a heavily laden vehicle in soft sand can consume twice as much fuel per distance as the same vehicle on firm gravel. The amount of fuel available will give the available range for a trip.
In both cases I plan with a 20% reserve over the calculated requirements to give a comfortable margin.
These are some extremely remote regions, and travel there involves very real risks. Have you lost anyone yet? What’s the closest you’ve come to disaster?
To quote another desert classic, Ralph Bagnold’s, the mark of a well planned desert journey is the lack of any adventures.
One must prepare for all contingencies and have sufficient supplies, equipment and their backups to overcome all difficulties.
I do pride myself in always returning from the desert with the same number of people and vehicles as we started out with. So far the only interruption of plans was caused by the interference of officialdom, never by any mishap or bad planning.
The risks and dangers — while real — are threats to the ill prepared.
You’ve spent over a decade documenting prehistoric rock art across the Sahara. Why?
Because they are there…
Seriously, I have always been interested in archaeology. And I read Egyptology for a couple years at University. Despite pursuing a career in business, I always remained connected to that world, and during my student years I spent several seasons helping out with photography and odd tasks on the Hungarian excavations on the West Bank in Luxor (Egypt).
Initially my ambitions were modest: to see the finds reported by earlier travelers. But I quickly realized that large tracts of country at Uweinat and elsewhere remained unexplored.
Soon we started finding new prehistoric rock art sites, and what began as pure enjoyment turned into a serious scientific survey.
My main motivation naturally is the simple thrill of discovery (as for all archaeologists, despite whatever they express in public). But after discovering hundreds of new sites, one’s mind inevitably turns to structuring and publishing this enormous new material, especially if one has some scientific foundations.
Most of us who are attracted to travel in remote regions are also well read in the area of classic travel journals. Do you have any favourites you could recommend to my readers?
Jebel Uweinat being the focus of my interest, I would mention two.
Libyan Sands by Ralph Bagnold is probably the best desert travelogue ever written, describing the trials, errors and triumphs of early desert exploration by motorcar.
Being Hungarian, I could not leave out another classic, also very well written though perhaps in a less modest style than Bagnold. Unknown Sahara by the Hungarian desert explorer László Almasy, now available in English translation.
There is another book which is perhaps the best verbal expression of the feelings one encounters in the desert, Le Plus Beaux Desert du Monde by Philippe Diolé, who happened to be Jacques Cousteau’s close associate and friend. This book is also available in English translation, under the title The Most Beautiful Desert Of All. It describes a camel voyage through the Tassili N’Ajjer and the Fezzan.
You recently coauthored a book on Laszlo Almasy called Operation Salam: Laszlo Almasy’s Most Daring Mission in the Desert War. What is it that attracts you to Almasy’s story? Did the man himself inspire your desert travels?
On the first degree, certainly yes. After all, our own first voyages were planned using Almasy’s travelogues, and our discoveries continued just beyond where he left off.
Almasy had the same compelling desires to seek out what is in the next valley, or to see what’s over that far rise on the horizon. I consider myself extremely privileged to have been able to follow such footsteps, and even more so for having been able to expand the horizons beyond what he and other early explorers like Bagnold had traced on the map.
But writing the book was really prompted by my own experiences rather than Almasy’s.
Traveling in the desert, one invariably encounters the traces of past travelers, as everything left on the surface stays there for tens of thousands of years. While my main interest is in the artifacts and art of the Sahara’s prehistoric inhabitants, there are also many traces of recent history, most importantly those of the various units on all sides who moved across the Libyan Desert during the North African Campaign of the Second World War.
Like with the rock art, I was first just attracted to the stories surrounding these events. But as I read these accounts, my own experiences — combined with unpublished material found in British archives — started to give a fuller and perhaps slightly different story than what had been written before.
It was only a matter of time before my interests and those of my two coauthors converged. The product is this book, which giving a complete and hopefully accurate account of one small episode among the greater events of the desert war.
What’s next on your agenda?
I have recently turned my attention to another very remote area of Africa which is also full of rock paintings made by the prehistoric inhabitants.
It is the granite massif of the Brandberg in Namibia, which bears an amazing resemblance to the western part of Uweinat. They are both granite ring complexes lying in the 22nd latitude (the driest part of the desert belts), one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern.
The upper part of the Brandberg is an amazing “lost world” very seldom visited by anyone, and with the only high altitude savanna on the African continent. It also has an amazing variety of rock paintings.
Though there is more vegetation on the Brandberg, it still gives the same eerie feeling of being on a different planet as Jebel Uweinat does.
His website is the internet’s most comprehensive resource on Saharan rock art. He also has an excellent list of books, maps and journals on Saharan exploration, geology, rock art and the WWII desert campaigns.
You can find out how to join one of Andras’s desert expeditions, and read detailed accounts of past trips (one of which features photos of yours truly).