19-Dec-2007 -- After our visit to 25N 32E, a good night's rest in the Old Winter Palace hotel in Luxor, and three good spare tyres again, we headed back west along the Kharga road before turning south onto a decent track that we had followed out the afternoon before. This time we did not drop our tire pressures after the problems of the day before and because we did not anticipate encountering much sand for a while at least.
It was a track created by the seismic crew that had been through the area 12 years earlier. We followed it south west for 60 km until due north of the "Great Cairn" that was marked on the old maps along the same track we had followed the day before. Again the track was about 400 m south of where we had digitized it but we could see a cairn off to the east before we came across the camel trails clearly visible after all these years. Again there were virtually no tire tracks, only a couple of feint old tracks every now and then, possibly from the Egyptian survey in the 30's who marked them on the maps?
We turned east to visit the "Great Cairn" and found more piles of old pottery just before the cairn. There was also an old pre-war petrol tin lying beside the pottery. The track branches at this point, one branch heading northeast to Luxor and one southeast to Aswān. The cairn itself was large, well deserving the name, and befitting of this junction. Smaller cairns could be seen heading off in both directions from the "Great Cairn" but it was clearly far larger than anything else created on the trails. We then headed south west again for 24N 31E, but soon encountered some very rough terrain, outcropping limestone, boulder fields, and sharp rocks. We persevered for about 32 km to where we thought we would cross another track.
We were very cautious after our tire problems of the day before and were detouring as best we could to avoid the worst of the terrain. We crossed the digitized location of the old track without finding it, before paralleling it for 5 km till we came onto a good gravel plain where it should be easier to pickup. We had lunch on the plain and traversed first north then south trying to locate it with no success before heading southwest again. We were soon in outcropping limestone again with sharp edges, and for the sake of the tires we started following a flagged access track used by the seismic crew, although there were increasingly less signs of their activity. We followed the track round into a wādiy where although the rocks were less sharp, it was a pretty rough boulder and gravel bounce. It was soft in places but with big boulders scattered around, speed would get you through but risk serious damage from boulder crunches, so slow and steady was how we went.
Looking at the satellite imagery, the track diverted south from where we thought the best route would be, but we followed across the alluvial plain of gravel and boulders cutting across the drainage pattern of the plain until it was clear that the track was heading up a gully and onto the hard limestone plateau ahead. It was getting late, so we decided the gully could offer a sheltered campsite for the night. However the slow and steady approach failed as I tried to cross a narrow gravel filled drainage channel, softer than the rest.
My trusty land cruiser had responded magnificently each time I had been caught out before and had to drop fast into first and rely on sheer power to get our heavily laden vehicle through. It was not to be this time and the sand mats had to come out and the second vehicle positioned to help with a tow. After all the rough terrain we had crossed, we did not want to drop the tire pressures with lots of unknown terrain ahead. We got out with just enough daylight left to get up into the gully and quickly find a night camping spot. It was a pleasant evening behind our wind break and after a good meal we got the laptop out to plot our route this far, ground truth the sat imagery with what we had seen, and plot the best route to 24N 31E.
The track we were following went up onto a limestone plateau as rough and sharp as anything we had encountered, so we planned to skirt round it to the west and into what appeared to be some reasonable plains leading into the Confluence. This worked well and although we had a bit of a wādiy boulder bounce to start with, we went with the terrain as best we could and soon were on much better going heading to the Confluence. The only impediment now was sudden encounters with fish-fish which would just about stop us dead in our tracks until I could drop into first and power our way through almost blind from the cloud of billowing dust that was swept over the car by the strong tail wind.
We made good progress and covered the 40 km crow fly distance in just 2.5 hours. We stopped below the ridge and while Riḍā and Šubra got the kettle on, Stefan and myself climbed up onto the scarp to claim the point. All in all it had been quite a challenging drive in and although we still had 3 spare tires, we were still a little anxious about the terrain we would encounter on the way out.
When we climbed up we discovered the terrain on top was quite good going, so we decided to use a sand chute to climb the scarp and carry on from there. Our plan was to continue south for about 8 km and pickup this other mapped track that led out to the southeast to the wells at Dunqul and then northeast to the wells at Kurkur and then to Aswān. Alternatively there was a track shown to access the southern Dunqul well from the Aswān to Abū Simbil road, but there did not appear to be a track connecting the two wells. It could be seen from the satellite imagery that there were large scarps and wādiys in the area, so the lack of a track was not a surprise.
We finished our coffee and headed south to the track which we found 1.5 km south of the digitized location. Again it was only camel trails with only occasional glimpses of tire tracks but well marked with small cairns along the way, many just a rock or two stood up in a way that was clearly not natural. The surprising thing to me was that the trail went almost straight with no detouring to avoid the roughest parts. We were again regularly crossing outcropping limestone which we started making larger and larger detours from the camel tracks to find easier going. We could generally spot the trail from quite a way off by looking for the cairn markers but after a while we got into a wādiy system and we got well off the trail but carried on heading for the wells at Dunqul.
About mid afternoon I had two punctures in five minutes, possibly both from the same rock, the rear damage being a slow leak that we did not notice when we changed the front tire. So we were down to one spare between two vehicles. We carried on until we encountered a large scarp that was not easy to get down, the top rim covered by outcropping and sharp limestone rocks with sand in places. The problem with sand is that should you start to slip sideways turning in the sand the sharp limestone would tear the tire sidewalls which was where all the previous punctures had been inflicted.
Eventually Stefan found a route down if taken with care and we followed the wādiy out to the top of a second large scarp. To terrain on top was again outcropping limestone and very rough going. We carried on for a while until we had passed where we thought the well was located until we again came across the camel trail markers heading east but no trails visible because it was sheer rock at the surface. We assumed we had missed the well and were now on the track to Kurkur but the terrain was so bad we skipped looking further for the well and made for the bottom of the scarp we had just descended as the terrain looked a bit better than where the camel trail lay.
As we progressed east a gully encroached almost to the bottom of the first scarp and as we looked for a way round we looked over the edge and saw an extended line of palm trees and bushes – we had found North Dunqul. There was a very old pair of tracks leading around the edge of the gully, obviously doing the same as what we were doing and they made their way across a sand slip and onto the plateau beyond. With caution we scouted our options on foot, we could easily get down but getting back up would be tricky. We crossed the gully and made camp for the night, still intending to head for Kurkur the next day. However after setting up camp we had another look into the oasis and could see the wādiy leading out onto the plains beyond.
After dinner the laptop and satellite imagery was consulted and we figured that with one spare tire remaining, the best plan would be to descend into the wādiy and although we may have 10 km or so of rough boulder bouncing through the wādiy, beyond that there were 50 km of good going sand and gravel out to the black top. So next morning we got up and made the easy sand descent into the wādiy and the dry looking oasis. It would appear that the area has had little rain lately and all the scant vegetation we had encountered looked brown and dying. We picked up a few old tracks as soon as we descended but these quickly merged with others including some that were quite recent to form a major track out on to the plain and the black top. The tracks were a welcome change from the day before where we had traversed 180 km of desert and hardly encountered any tracks. Clearly a rarely visited area since the camel trains had stopped trading.
We made it out to the blacktop with no incident by about 9:30 and headed back to Luxor to catch the evening flight back to Cairo. All in all a challenging trip into a rarely visited area.