Sunday 19th December 2010
My long-term plan for the Theban Plateau is to take the ancient track known as the Farshut Road right across the Qena Bend in the Nile river. From my research I know for definite of only one completion of this 40km high desert route in modern times. But on this occasion it will be enough to conduct a preliminary “reccy” of just a few kilometres onto the plateau. My aim is then to return to the Luxor west bank via a large, inviting, dry valley that during my planning I have called the “Big Wadi”. However, there is insufficient detail on “Google Earth” to know for certain if there is an accessible route into this valley from the plateau. There is only one way to find out, and that is exploration on the ground.
The first few kilometres of the Farshut Road turn out to be quite stony underfoot and it is something of a relief when the GPS points to the turn-off for the way into the valley system. Following weeks of desk-top planning the first surprise is that the descent is much steeper than I had imagined from the satellite images. After some scouting around I decide on a way down into the northernmost ‘finger’ of the system. The situation focusses my thoughts. This is not a place I would want to spend long struggling to find an escape route in the heat of the midday sun. And certainly not sustain an injury. So it is with some caution that I half-walk half-slide my way down the rubbly scree. And in case I should need to retrace my steps when I reach the bottom of the slope I take the precaution of marking the point on my GPS.
Even when I have reached the bed of the upper wadi there are still obstacles to be overcome in the form of boulders to be negotiated and hollows avoided, not least in case they hide snakes or scorpions. As the bed begins to flatten and widen it is so obviously the course of a former river that I can almost see the water tumbling over the rocky steps and shelves. At one of the bends the looming cliffs afford some welcome shade and I stop briefly to take in the excitement of exploration, of being somewhere so rarely visited by men. Of being so utterly alone. As I approach each bend and tick off each waypoint on the GPS receiver the anticipation mounts. Will I be able to enter the Big Wadi or be forced to retrace my steps?
Rounding a final bend my heartbeat quickens as I follow the now sandy ‘river bed’ to where it would once have ended in a waterfall and . . . the drop into the main valley below is one of more than a hundred feet! It is literally awesome, yet when I reach the precipice I feel no fear; there is a calmness, a reassurance in these cliffs and my spirits are simply too uplifted by the vista that opens up before me. I scan the rocks below for a route down but none is apparent and, even if I were able to make my way down the initial drop, a scatter of large boulders appears to render the top stretches of the main valley all but impassable. So here is the answer to the first question I have asked of this desert plateau: there is no straightforward return to the Nile by way of the Big Wadi and I will have to turn back. But not before doing as any self-respecting Englishman would in such a situation – take in the majestic view while finishing a flask of warm tea.
When the time comes to retrace my steps it is slightly disconcerting that much of the ground I covered less than half an hour ago seems quite unfamiliar, a reminder once again of the importance of making firm visual memories of these desert features rather than rely solely on the GPS. I am certainly glad, however, of the reassurance gained from the exit waypoint I recorded earlier, and as I scramble up towards the relative safety of the plateau I am reminded of the line from The English Patient alluding to the indefinite quality of desert landscapes: “A hill shaped like the hollow in a woman’s back. . .”
Back up on the plateau my first thought is to return via the Valley of the Kings. But after hours of peaceful solitude the thought of ending the day being harangued by guards and postcard salesmen brings on a shudder. So while resting against a natural rock shelter at the point where the Farshut Road meets the plateau I decide to return the way I came. Before setting off I pick up and examine a small, curiously evocative piece of pottery. The work of human hands, it seems somehow imbued with human spirit. Recharged with this energy I head off back on the track to the mountain of el Qurn, sweat-drenched but happy.