23 -29 May 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Aladdin's caveExploring in the Western Desert, Jenny Jobbins finds the magic beneath the surface -- but fears it is all too vulnerable to plunder and desecration
In the early morning, sleepy Farafra seems as far from anywhere as one can get. Our destination, though, is a place as inaccessible as almost anywhere in Egypt: the Al-Garra cave, discovered in 1874 by Gerhard Rohlfs and immediately lost again, to be rediscovered well over 100 years later, in 1989, by Carlo Bergman and Mary Taylor. Two people in our group have been there before so we are pretty hopeful of finding the way.
Click to view caption
We are waiting at the hotel. It is now 8.30am and we should have left for the desert an hour ago, but there is still no sign of our travelling companions. The vehicles are not even packed. Beside them, everything is piled up ready to go in -- even a kitchen sink, of sorts. Barbecues, gas cylinders, a generator, strobe lights -- and we are only going away for three days.
By 11.00 we have moved a couple of kilometres to meet up with the rest. Some of us are still pacing impatiently, while three members of a group calling itself the Egyptian Desert Pioneers Society are plastering stickers on our vehicles. Their leader is tall and rather dashing, and is wearing white slacks and a white jersey. I ask him if he plays cricket, to which he sniffily replies that it is a tennis jersey. As if he is Pete Sampras.
CARAVAN ROUTE: A quarter of an hour later we were on our way. I was in the back of the Pioneers' vehicle. We didn't get off to a good start. "America will be finished in 10 years," their leader announced. I had a fleeting concern for my American cousins, whom I have never met -- although perhaps, despite the panache, he meant politically rather than physically -- but into this debate I did not wish to go, so I hedged.
"Have you been in the desert before?" Pete Sampras asked me next. I merely said, "Yes," but I wondered to which desert he was referring, precisely? I've seen the Gobi desert, the Australian desert, the deserts of Afghanistan, Iran, Jordan, Palestine -- occupied and unoccupied -- South Arabia, North Africa and most of Egypt. I've even been to that most eclectic of tourist attractions, the Desert of Maine. I'd seen more deserts than he'd had hot dinners.
Sampras asked if I minded that they spoke Arabic? "Of course not," I said. So he and his two female friends spoke Arabic for the rest of the way, unless they were addressing one another directly, and when they thought I was out of earshot, in which case they spoke English.
We ran for half a day over a sandy plain on which white limestone patches were lying like pools of melted ice cream. The sand was blown in from the Great Sand Sea, which has been eroding the limestone here and in the White Desert for the last 60 million years. A pinkish-grey volcanic rock lies just under the surface, partially exposed.
The car stereo was playing Bach's Magnificat, which seemed utterly perfect for the desert, even better than silence. Through this we seemed to be driving haphazardly, but our route actually lay along the 200-km long Darb Al-Assiut, the old caravan route from Farafra to the Nile Valley, and was much used. Before long we arrived at the Bir Sirrw. This is a stereotyped oasis, a mound topped with a mass of date palms and carpeted with real grass. We stopped, and the Pioneers started posing for pictures: both the women were attractive; one had a Parisien femme fatale air about her and struck a pose as naturally as an Elle model.
The rest of us inspected the spring. The water, held in concrete cisterns, is said to be good and we filled out jerry cans. "Elle" sat on the edge of one of the basins and bathed her feet in the warm, sulphur-tinged water.
There were many prints around the spring which we identified as quail, crow, scarab, gerbil, desert jerboa, lizard and a dangerous viper which can kill in a few minutes, one of our guides told us. We found broken pottery which might have lain there for 20 years, or 2,000.
After the spring we met limestone, and no vegetation. The formations, though, were elegant and dramatic, some rising like white fortresses from the desert floor. Was it perhaps a formation such as this that gave rise to the legend of Zerzura, a mythical city several hundred kilometres to the east, its walls "white like a pigeon" and sought by romantics for centuries?
We stopped and climbed to the top of a shale escarpment to take pictures. The only sign of life was a line of small fox prints running over the sand at the foot of the escarpment. What life form could exist at the bottom of this food chain?
THE ACACIA GROVE: We made camp in an acacia grove, which provided plenty of dead firewood, and some that looked dead (unfortunately the Pioneers seemed to have a hard time distinguishing between the two). First a large, three-sided wind sheet went up, then the barbecue, table, gas cylinders and metal boxes of food and finally, just as we were getting used to the stars, a row of generator-powered strobe lights came on to illuminate the kitchen. We sat round the camp fire and ate a wonderful dinner of macaroni, soup, salad and baked chicken. I had seldom camped like this before. After a while it grew too cold for comfort and I went to my tent, but the Pioneers and the guides battled the cold by partying and cracking jokes. I lay in my tent trying to fall asleep, but it was too cold and too noisy, and I could hardly contain my laughter at their wisecracks.
I was awakened at dawn by a sound which turned out to be someone praying. It was too cold to stay in my sleeping bag. I went for a walk, and found a patch of milky quartz. I also found several squiggles in the sand which we thought belonged to a snake, but which Hamdi, our Bedouin guide, later identified as a gerbil dragging a piece of bread back to its nest.
Hamdi had put on a fresh powder-blue suit of clothes. Farafran male dress consists of a knee-length cotton tunic over matching, loose trousers, a waistcoat, a long scarf and a turban fitting tightly over the skull with the band furled like a piecrust and the loose ends falling behind the neck. "Elle" put Schubert's Unfinished Symphony on the car stereo, and our spirits rose with the sun. I busied myself about the site picking up garbage, including the old tissues and plastic bags strewn around the Pioneers' car. "Do you want this?" I asked the youngest Pioneer, picking up a bag. "No," she said. I was glad they weren't in charge of erasing our traces.
The drawback with luxury camping is the amount of time it takes to break camp, and not until 10.15 were we ready to leave. The landscape from here on was wind-blown sand wrapped round pinkish, volcanic rock. Strewn on the sand like burnt breadcrumbs were black pebbles, remnants of the hard crust which once roofed the now-eroded hillocks. Here and there a piece of quartz glistened, and a block of limestone struggled to be free of the sand.
WATERMELONS: After an hour we arrived at a spectacular geographical phenomenon dubbed Watermelon Valley. Here a straight, wide line of evenly-scattered black stones the shape and size of watermelons lies across the plain. Many are almost completely round: some are elongated balls. Some, unfortunately, have been broken open, vandalised by fortune hunters looking for the odd one that might contain a geode. Others have split naturally from rapid temperature change. These broken balls afford a study of the centre: most of them are hollow, some not. This area needs to be protected before all the stones are carried away or smashed open.
The breadcrumbed desert went on and on with exceeding monotony, kilometre after kilometre and as far as the eye could see. I had seldom seen such emptiness; there was nothing, not even a whiff of sprit or enchantment. This is a very old corner of the planet. Perhaps its gods are also too old, and have stopped caring.
I, too, have given up. I shan't sulk. I shall speak when I'm spoken to, and smile even when I'm not smiled at. My car- companions have nothing more to ask me although, I admit, there are plenty of things I should like to ask them. Why, for example, they seem to derive such pleasure from driving around making new tracks and posing for pictures, and why they show so little interest in the landscape.
On either side were piles of shale like miniature volcanoes. There was still no vegetation at all. Eventually some limestone mounds appeared with the same volcano shape, but with a smoother surface of laminated sandstone melted by the sun.
Suddenly we stopped. On the side of the road was a marker and a hole in the ground, about 18 inches in diameter and extending to a very great depth. This was possibly another cave like the one we would soon arrive at. A few minutes later, we reached the Al-Garra cave.
AL-GARRA: We parked the vehicles outside the line of stones which marked the limit of vehicular access and immediately went into the cave, not even waiting for the guides to unpack the strobe lights and the generator. Although there are crumbly mounds around, the ground above the cave is quite flat, which may be why it was lost for so many decades after the Rohlfs expedition was led to it by Bedouin guides in 1874. The excitement of Bergmann and Taylor on rediscovering the cave can only be imagined.
The shaft is perpendicular to the sandy ground, and can only be entered in a crouching position. One then almost falls down a soft, deep sandy slope to the floor of the cave below. Centuries -- or millennia -- of rains and sandstorms have carried sand into the depths of the cave, so that the actual volume of sand inside can only be guessed and the true dimensions will not be revealed until, and if, it is removed. Perhaps stalagmites as huge and impressive as the stalactites which hang from the ceiling above will be uncovered, or other dark wonders will reveal themselves. At present all we can do is stand in awe, and be glad the monotony of the last two days' journey has reaped its reward.
The sand was deep and powdery, but not difficult to walk on. The tips of one or two supposedly giant stalagmites do raise their heads above the sandy cushion, but it is to the roof of the cave that the eye is drawn. The stalactites hang in mystic formation. Some are neatly folded like artichoke leaves. Some give the impression that one is standing under the branches of an ornamental tree imaginatively lit by reflections from the strobe lights which have been lain on the floor. But the main impression, from whatever angle, is that one is standing under a perfectly symmetrical dome, a fantasy cathedral. If one looks directly overhead from any position, one sees a miniature version of this rose dome with a distinct centrepiece; a few steps to either side, and one is standing under another, and so on. Yet all come together under the massive central cupola, from the centre of which hangs a closed, upside-down artichoke and from where the stalactites, lit dramatically from below, hang like a thousand delicately-woven threads or a lacy Christmas arrangement of whitened twigs.
The caves I have seen in Europe and China are wet, and still forming. The Al-Garra cave is old and dry. It can be seen as the finished article. There is nothing left for it to do but crumble away.
Yet it is amazingly beautiful, and has been so little seen. The floor is paddled with fox prints but because it is usually dark in here -- the only daylight falling through the doorway perched like a high window and half hidden by the cave's structure -- the foxes cannot see the wonderful patterns over their heads.
And what of its pre-historic occupiers, for investigators have found evidence of early human habitation in the form of rock carvings -- although we could not make them out for certain. What a secure home this must have made.
It was getting dark and we had to leave so the lights could be used for the camp, but I couldn't wait to go back the next morning.
We were up early, drinking coffee round the rekindled fire. At 8.00am photographer Farid Atiya, another reporter, two of the guides and I again descended into the cave.
Enough light beamed down from the opening to cast a faint glimmer on the slope, and once one's eyes were accustomed to the dim light one could make out the shadows and distinguish the nearer contours of the cave. The light was just enough to allow me to write in my notebook. I felt a huge sense of wonder, and so privileged to be here in an early year after its rediscovery. In the years to come, if and when the sand is cleared away, more passages and caves might be found, and greater depths. But for now I could almost share the excitement of Rohlfs and Bergmann.
The strobe lights went on, and we disturbed the three Pioneers who were sleeping on the far side. This was annoying enough: it was freezing outside and warm in the cave, but as much as we'd all have liked to sleep inside body and breath humidity is not what this cave needs. What was even more annoying was that cigarette butts littered the sand, and a bottle and a cup each half full of red wine were waiting to be kicked over. The Pioneers staggered up the slope carrying some of their things and almost immediately, to our horror, we saw a wet patch in the sand which showed they had thought their night's accommodation included an ensuite bathroom.
We might have photographed the offending patch for posterity, but our driver Usta Ragheb, disgusted, had already kicked sand over it. Our other guide looked so upset I felt he was bearing the shame of the whole group, if not the frailties of all mankind.
I too was sickened by the desecration, by the cup and uncorked bottle of wine balanced in the sand, by the pile of blankets waiting to be picked up by someone else. There was hardly going to be a genie in this bottle.
But we forced this to the back of our minds and turned to enjoying the precious remaining moments. This time we stretched them to three hours, and every minute -- once our anger had abated -- was enchanting. I paced the cave. It measured 60 paces from the bottom of the slope to the far side (including the sides, which were too narrow even to crawl under) and 45 the other way. The tips of many of the stalactites had broken off, and -- unless they had been removed by souvenir hunters -- were probably buried way down in the sand.
We were under pressure to finish: it had taken us an extra day to get here, and it would take us two more days to get back. Finally Farid couldn't claim any more "Five minutes!" and we gathered up cameras, Pioneer blankets, bottles and cigarette butts and clambered up to the opening. I was balancing my notebook, a bottle of water, the wine bottle and the half-full cup, and at every step I had to put down the cup to gain my balance.
A few years ago, the German BOS (Historians of the Settlement of the Eastern Sahara Society) strung a blue metal box in the cave opening. The box contained a fabric-covered guest book, which was full and had been supplemented by an Al- Ahram diary. Both contained extensive observations and comments, in German and Arabic, with signatures and dates. I added one in English, exhorting visitors in a final sentence, which might have been written by a crusty church warden, not to desecrate or litter the cave.
The original book contained a record of the cave's discovery and a photograph of Gerhard Rohlfs (doctor), and the names of his expedition members: Georg Littel (geologist), Wilhelm Jordan (geographer), Paul Ascherson (botanist), Philipp Remelé (photographer), with their "German assistants" and their guide, "Hadj Solieman," and the members of his caravan. There was also a clipping from Rohlf's book, Drei Monate in der Lybishen Wirste (Three months in the Libyan Desert), published in 1875 by Kassel Theodore Fischer.
While we added our names to the book, Usta Ragheb hauled up the lights. The camp still had to be dismantled and the cars packed -- no one had bothered to do this while the guides were in the cave. We set off to drive, not the way we had come, but on an uncharted path over the dunes and hills to Dakhla.
I could barely drag myself away. I knew that I would long to come back here, and that I would cherish Farid's photographs. I fervently hope Al-Garra will remain hidden and unspoilt for a long time to come.
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time