Posts Tagged ‘R A Bagnold’

R A Bagnold: Libyan Sands

June 22, 2016

41C2r-8YDZL._AC_US160_I’ve had this book on my ‘wanted’ list for several years, and finally came across a secondhand copy unexpectedly. It’s a classic of desert exploration, and set in my favourite desert, the Sahara.

A groups of British army officers in the late 1920s and early 1930s really do not seem to have much official work to do and appear to be allowed sizeable amounts of time to mount expeditions to explore and map large areas of the desert, in Egypt and the Sudan and towards the Libyan border (Libya being an Italian colony at the time). The group varies in composition over the years and the various expeditions recounted, but Bagnold was always a member.

A particularly fascinating aspect of their travels is that they were the first to explore the Sahara in cars, initially using Fords which they had bought themselves, and when you see some of the photographs of the vehicles, you do wonder how they ever managed with such primitive-seeming transport – we are in days long before the Land Rover and such all-terrain vehicles. So they are not only exploring uncharted terrain, but are also experimenting to see just what cars are capable of achieving in places where there are literally no roads, only sand; they discover the different kinds of sand and how navigable they are, and how to excavate their bogged-down cars, too. They learn how to create fuel and food dumps to allow them to extend the range of their travels; they camp out in the desert; they encounter native tribes; they create real maps of vast areas of desert out of vague sketches, rumours and hearsay.

It’s fascinating, in a low-key sort of way, if you see what I mean, and clearly their logistical skills as army officers stood them in very good stead in terms of making a success of a number of expeditions; they had also been involved in the Middle East during the First World War, so did have some familiarity with and understanding of what they faced.

There are some maps accompanying the text but they are not very well-reproduced, sadly, and are not as helpful as I would have liked in terms of following the various journeys. This often seems to be the case with travel classics that are rediscovered and republished: the high-quality maps that came with the original editions are far too expensive to reproduced and so are either omitted or crudely copied.

When you have read a fair bit about Western explorations of such areas and terrain as I have over a number of years, it’s very gratifying to see the various pieces of the jigsaw coming together over time and place, and the knowledge and description of the area being completed. It’s also useful to remember that this knowledge and discovery is Western, to be seen in terms of control, and for future reference – for example the desert campaigns of the Second World War. The knowledge and understanding of the terrain, the track, trails, oases and what else it contains, of the local inhabitants was something completely different, known for centuries and suited to their very different needs. Nothing is value-neutral.

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