In the 1920s and 30s, a band of British officers stationed in Egypt began to explore the Western Desert which straddles the borders with Libya and the Sudan. Adapting a series of Model T Fords, Bagnold and his colleagues set out across territory hitherto traversed only by camel caravans. They mapped new routes across ‘impassable’ sand seas, in ‘regions untrodden by man since the Stone Age’. They also uncovered inner strengths, an awed respect for the stern and beautiful environment and a tender relationship with the machines upon which their lives depended. Their knowledge went on to play a crucial part in the North African campaign during the Second World War. For these men formed the nucleus of the celebrated LRDG, the Long Range Desert Group. It is the quiet heroism of such men that is celebrated in Michael Ondaatje’s triumphant novel, The English Patient.
‘Libyan Sands is, without question, the classic work of 20th-century Saharan exploration.’ - Eamonn Gearon, Geographical
‘Ralph Bagnold: the pioneer who made a romance of navigating the deep Sahara by car.’ - John Wright
Format: 228pp demi pb
Place: Western Desert of Egypt, Libya/Eastern Sahara
Ralph Alger Bagnold, OBE was the founder and first commander of then British Army's Long Range Desert Group during World War II. He was a pioneer of desert exploration and earned acclaim for his activities during the 1930s. These included the first recorded east-west crossing of the Libyan Desert in 1932. He was also a veteran of World War I and an engineer who laid the foundations for research on sand transport by wind in his influential book The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (1941) - used by NASA in studying sand dunes on Mars. He was fellow of the Royal Society from 1944.
Extract from Chapter One
I feel that on three accounts I am at a disadvantage in the writing of this story. In the first place, the old question of truth crops up: nearly thirty others besides myself took part in our travels at various times, and were eyewitnesses of what I shall try to describe; most of them kept diaries, they all will read this book critically; some, I know, will go as far as checking dates and times. I can see one or two of the more meticulous of them throwing down the book in disgust were they to find even some innocent change of sequence, some elision of little happenings to make the account run better. How easy, in contrast, must be the literary task of the single traveller, with his unreading Arab retinue and his string of discreet camels. Not that I would for one moment hint that any of those illustrious solitaries has departed from the strict ungarnished truth by one sentence, say, of a native dialogue or by one phrase of the moon’s light in the description of that indescribable thing, a desert night. But what a temptation! Then, again, on all of the twenty thousand miles of journeyings each one of my companions looked out with different eyes and remembers with particular pleasure different scenes and incidents. They will all be disappointed that their pets have been left unmentioned.
The second difficulty is that we made a serious omission. We never had a thrilling disaster. We never lost our way, or broke down, with only a dried date to live on, till rescued by a harassed Authority after an exciting hunt with trackers and aeroplanes. We never went where we were not wanted, got shot up by angry tribesmen and provoked a reluctant government into sending out police and troops. In short, we had no news value whatever; a most discouraging state of affairs from which to extract material for a Book of Travel, where tragedy or averted tragedy is so great an asset.
Lastly, we travelled by motor car. People condemn the motor car as unromantic. I am afraid this is natural, for no one can become fond of a thing he does not really understand, and the ordinary person understands a camel, if in concept only, because it is an animal like himself. But there is another prejudice against the motor car, especially on the part of the elder men who have done all their travelling before its advent. There is here a sense of sacrilege; the old difficulties and limitations that make the memories of their journeys so pleasant to them have been cheapened, the old thrill of achievement at the crossing of an Immensity is now, they feel, almost destroyed. But to us, who know not the old way, our memories are just as cherished. We have our own difficulties to surmount and we have our thrills. Even when we increased the scale of the possible far beyond camel range the desert is still big enough to remain Immensity.
The transition from camel to car is under way; it cannot be checked. But the passing of a romantic tradition is certainly sad. We can but console ourselves with the thought that it has all happened before – that Roman travellers must have felt the same sense of sacrilege when the hideous camel was introduced to penetrate the sanctity of mysterious desert fastnesses, destroying all the romance of donkey journeys.
The history of the desert motor car in Egypt is oddly discontinuous. Introduced into the country early in the Great War by the British Army, it was found that the Ford car, even the Model T of twenty years ago, was capable of supplanting the camel in certain areas, notably in the Western Desert, and in 1916 a tiny force of light-car patrols, armed with machine guns, guarded the whole eight hundred-mile frontier against a possible recrudescence of the Senussi menace. These patrols covered great distances of unknown waterless and lifeless country as a normal routine, they took part in the final capture of Siwa Oasis from the Senussi, and among other things they succeeded in mapping, with the aid of speedometer readings and compass bearings, a great part of the northern desert, with its ranges of sand-dunes, between the Nile and Sewa. Their exploits, with the crude vehicles they had, were astonishing. The old tracks made by their unsuitable narrow tyres can be seen to this day, very faintly, far out even beyond the oases several hundred miles from the Nile. Sometimes one can see even their troubles; deeper ruts surrounded by vague old footmarks in the soft gravelly sand, where the cars stuck and had to be pushed out by hand. All this was a new thing, quite unknown in the history of deserts, or, indeed, of machinery. They evolved a lore of their own, so that their little patrols moved confidently about without much fear of disaster.