Travel and Survival in the Desert
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Travelers and the nature of deserts
For those travelers staying in well regulated accommodation in good hotels, the realities of the desert can be disguised for as long as electricity and pure water supplies are sustained. Much of the information in the following section can thus be ignored, though not with total impunity. Trips into the desert even by the most careful of tour operators carry some of the hazards and a knowledge of good practice might be as helpful on the beach or tourist bus as for the full-blooded desert voyager.
There is a contemporary belief that the problems of living and traveling in deserts have been solved. Much improved technology in transport together with apparent ease of access to desert areas has encouraged these comfortable ideas. The very simplicity of the problems of deserts, lack of water and high temperatures, make them easy to underestimate. In reality, deserts have not changed and problems still arise when traveling in them, albeit with less regularity than twenty or so years ago. One aspect of the desert remains unchanged - mistakes and misfortune can to easily be fatal.
Desert topography is varied. Excellent books such as Allan JA & Warren A (1993) Deserts: a conservation atlas, Mitchell Beazley, show the origins and constant development of desert scenery. Desert and semi-desert is the largest single surface area and so has an importance for travelers rarely met with elsewhere. Its principal features and their effects on transport are best understood before they are met on the ground. The great ergs or sand seas compromise mobile dunes and shifting surface sands over vast areas. Small mobile barkhams, which are crescent shaped, can often be driven round on firm terrain but the larger transverse and longitudinal dunes can form large surfaces with thick ridges of soft sand. They constantly change their shape as the wind works across them. While not impossible, they can be crossed only slowly and with difficulty. The major sand seas such as those a Calanscio, Murzuq, and Brak should be treated as no-go areas for all but fully equipped and locally supported expeditions. Similar conclusions apply to the extensive outcrops of rocky desert as exemplified by the Jabal As-Sawda in Libya. The wadi beds which penetrate much of the Sahara, serirs and gravel plains provide good access for all-terrain vehicles.
The main characteristic of the desert is its aridity. Aridity is calculable and those navigating deserts are advised to understand the term so that the element of risk can be appraised and managed with safety. CW Thornthwaite's aridity index shows water deficiency relative to water need for a given area. There is a gradient from N to S throughout the region, of rising temperatures, diminishing rainfall, and worsening aridity. Aridity of the desert is thus very variable, ranging from the Mediterranean sub-tropical fringe to a semi-arid belt to the S and a fully arid desert interior. In basic terms, the further S you are the more dangerous the environment. Do not assume that conditions on the coast properly prepare you for the deep S. The Sahara is also very varied in its topography, climate and natural difficulties posed for the traveler. Rapid transition from rough stone terrain to sand sea to salt flat has to be expected and catered for.
For practical purposes, aridity here means lack of moisture and very high temperatures. The world's highest temperatures are experienced in the Sahara, over 55^C. Averages in the southern desert run in summer at more than 50^C in the shade at midday. In full sun very much higher figures are reached. High temperatures are not the only difficulty. Each day has a large range of temperature, often of more than 20^C, with nights being intensely cold, sometimes below freezing. In winter, air temperatures can be very low despite the heat of the sun and temperatures drop very rapidly either when the sun goes down or when there is movement from sunlight to shade, say in a deep gorge or a cave.
Increasing aridity means greater difficulty in water availability. Scientists define the problem in terms of water deficits. The region as a whole and the deep Sahara in particular are very serious water deficit areas. Surface waters are lacking almost everywhere except in the case of the Nile in Egypt and Sudan. Underground water is scarce and often available only at great depths. Occasional natural seepages of water give rise to oases and/or palmeries. They are, however, rare. Since water is the key to sustaining life in deserts, travelers have always to assume that they must be self-sufficient or navigate from one known water source to another.
Isolation is another feature of the Sahara. Travelers' tales tend to make light of the matter, hinting that Bedouin Arabs will emerge from the dunes even in the most obscure corner of the desert. This is probably true of the semi-desert and some inland wadi basins but not a correct assumption on which to build a journey in the greater part of the Sahara. Population numbers in the desert are very low, only one person per 20 km sq. in Al-Kufrah in SE Libya, for example, and most of these are concentrated in small oasis centers. Black top road systems are gradually being extended into and through the Sahara but they represent a few straggling lines across areas for the most part without fixed and maintained highways. The very fact that oil exploration has been so intense in the Sahara has meant that the surface of the desert is criss-crossed with innumerable tracks, making identification of all routes other than black top roads extremely difficult. Once off the main roads, travelers can part from their escorts and find no fixed topography to get them back on course. Vanishing individuals and vehicles in the Sahara are too frequent to be a joke. To offset this problem read on.
The most acute difficulty with off-road emergencies is finding the means of raising assistance because of isolation. Normal preventative action is to ensure that your travel program is known in advance by some individual or an institution to whom regular check-in is made from points on the route. Failure to contact should automatically raise the alarm. Two vehicles are essential and often obviate the worst problems of break-down and the matter of isolation. Radio communication from your vehicle is an expensive but useful aid if things go wrong.
Bear in mind the enormous distances involved in bringing help even where the location of an incident in the desert is known. Heavy rescue equipment and/or paramedical assistance will probably be 500km or more distant. Specialist transport for the rescuers is often not instantly available, assuming that local telecommunication systems work and local administrators see fit to help.
Living with the climate
Living with desert environments is not difficult but it does take discipline and adherence to sensible routines at all times. It is an observed fact that health problems in hot and isolated locations take on a greater seriousness for those involved than they would in temperate climates. It is still common practice with Western oil companies and other commercial organizations regularly engaged at desert sites to fly ill or injured persons home as a first measure in the knowledge that most will recover more rapidly without the psychological and environmental pressures of a desert site. Most health risks in the desert are avoidable. The rules, evolved over many years, are simple and easy to follow:
1. Allow time to acclimatize
to full desert conditions. Conserve your energy at first rather than acting as if you were still in a temperate climatic regime. Most people take a week or more to adjust to heat conditions in the deep Sahara.
2. Stay out of direct sunlight
whenever possible, especially once the sun is high. Whenever you can, do what the locals do, move from shade to shade.
3. Wear clothes to protect your skin
from the sun, particularly your head and neck. Use a high Sun Protection Factor (SPA) cream, preferably as high as SPF15 (94%) to minimize the effects of Ultraviolet-B. Footwear is a matter of choice though many of those from the temperature parts of the world will find strong, light but well ventilated boots ideal for keeping sand, sun, venomous livestock, and thorns off the feet. Slip on boots are best of all since they are convenient if visiting Arab encampments/housing/religious sites, where shoes are not worn.
4. Drink good quality water
regularly and fully. It is estimated that 10-15 litters per day are needed by a healthy person to avoid water deficiency in desert conditions, even if there is no actual feeling of thirst. The majority of ailments arising in the desert relate to water deficiency and so it is worth the small effort of regular drinking of water. Too much alcoholic drink has the opposite effect in most cases and is not, unfortunately, a substitute for water!
5. Be prepared for cold nights
by having some warm clothes to hand.
6. Stay in your quarters or vehicle if there is a sand storm.
7. Refrain from eating dubious foods.
Deserts and stomach upsets have a habit of going hand in hand --'gyppy-tummy' and "Tripoli-trots" give a taste of the problem! Choose hot cooked meals in preference to cold meats and tired salads. Peel all fruit and uncooked fresh vegetables. Do not eat 'native' milk-based items or drink untreated water unless you are absolutely sure of its good quality.
8. Sleep off the ground if you can.
There are very few natural dangers in the desert but scorpions, spiders, and snakes are found (but are rarely fatal) and are best avoided.
Transport and common sense in the desert
The key to safe travel in desert regions is reliable and well equipped transport. Most travelers will simply use local bus and taxi services. For the motorist, motorcyclist, or pedal cyclist there are ground rules which, if followed, will help to reduce risks. In normal circumstances travelers will remain on black top roads and for this need only a well prepared 2WD vehicle. Choose a machine which is known for its reliability and for which spares can be easily obtained. Across much of the region only Peugeot and Mercedes are found adequate spares and servicing facilities. If you have a different type of car/truck, make sure that you take spares with you or have the means of getting spares sent out. Bear in mind that transport of spares to and from Libya and Sudan might be tediously long. Petrol/benzene/gas is everywhere available though diesel is equally well distributed except in the smallest of southern settlements. 4WD transport is useful even for the traveler who normally remains on the black top highways. Emergencies, diversions, and unscheduled visits to off the road sites become less of a problem with all-terrain vehicles. Off the road, 4WD is essential, normally with two vehicles traveling together. A great variety of 4WD vehicles are in use in the region, with Toyota and Land Rover probably found most widely.
All vehicles going into the S areas of North Africa should have basic equipment as follows:
1. Full tool kit, vehicle maintenance handbook, and supplementary tools such as clamps, files, wire, spare parts kit supplied by car manufacturer, jump leads.
2. Spare tire/s, battery driven tire pump, tire levers, tire repair kit, hydraulic jack, jack handle extension, base plate for jack.
3. Spare fuel can/s, spare water container/s, cool bags.
For those going off the black top roads other items to include are:
4. Foot tire pump, heavy duty hydraulic or air jack, power winch, sand channels, safety rockets, comprehensive first aid kit, radio-telephone where permitted.
5. Emergency rations kit/s, matches, Benghazi burner.
6. Maps, compasses, latest road information, long term weather forecast, guides to navigation by sun and stars.
Driving in the desert is an acquired skill. Basic rules are simple but crucial.
1. If you can get a local guide who perhaps wants a lift to your precise destination, use him.
2. Set out early in the morning after first light, rest during the heat of the day, and use the cool of the evening for further travel.
3. Never attempt to travel at night or when there is a sandstorm brewing or in progress.
4. Always travel with at least two vehicles which should remain in close visual contact.
Other general hints include not speeding across open flat desert in case the going changes without warning and your vehicle beds deeply into soft sand or a gully. Well maintained corrugated road surfaces can be taken modest pace by rocky surfaces should be treated with great care to prevent undue wear on tires. Sand seas are a challenge for drivers but need a cautious approach--ensure that your navigation lines are clear so that weaving between dunes does not disorientate the navigator. Especially in windy conditions, sight lines can vanish, leaving crews with little knowledge of where they are. Cresting dunes from dip slope to scarp needs care that the vehicle does not either bog down or overturn. Keep off salt flats after rain and floods especially in the winter and spring when water tables can rise and make the going hazardous in soft mud. Even when on marked and maintained tracks beware of approaching traffic.
The desert tends to expose the slightest flaw in personnel and vehicles. Emergency situations are therefore to be expected and planned for. There is no better security than making the schedule of your journey known in advance to friends or embassy/consulate officials who will actively check on your arrival at stated points. Breakdowns and multiple punctures are the most frequent problem. On the highway the likelihood is always that a passing motorist will give assistance, or a lift to the nearest control post or village. In these situations it is best simply remain with your vehicle until help arrives making sure that you are clear of the road and that you are protected from other traffic by a warning triangle and/or rocks on the road to rear and front.
Off the road, breakdowns, punctures, and bogging down in soft sand are the main difficulties. If you have left your travel program at your last stop you will already have a fall back position in case of severe problems. If you cannot make a repair or extricate yourself, remain with your vehicle in all circumstances. Unless you can clearly see a settlement (not a mirage) stay where you are with water, food, and shelter. The second vehicle can be used to search for help but only after defining the precise location of the incident. In the case of getting lost, halt, conserve fuel while you attempt to get a bearing on either the topography or the planets/stars and work out a traverse to bring you back to a known line such as a highway, mountain ridge or coastline. If that fails, take up as prominent a position as possible for being spotted from the air. Build a fire to use if and when you hear air activity in you vicinity. Attempt to find a local source of water by digging in the nearest wadi bed, collecting dew from the air at night. If you have fuel to spare it can be used with great care both as a means of attracting attention and a way of boiling untreated water. A Benghazi burner, two crude metal cones welded together to give a water jacket and space for a fire in the center can achieve this latter purpose. As ever in this region, be patient and conserve energy.
Last Updated: May 21st, 2011
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