“[The deserts] come perhaps as the most stimulating surprise in Egypt. Instead of the even yellow expanse of one’s naive imagination, one finds a world with hills and valleys of its own, plateaux, mountains, and empty watercourses. It is a world of unbelievable structural beauty. It has a tenderly unsoiled and virgin quality; it is unwatched, untrodden, unploughed. It has something of the cleanliness of a country under snow. You have the impression of looking upon places so stark and fresh that they can never have been seen before. By seeing them you create them; they owe their existence to you. Thus there develops, between the landscape and yourself, a sudden intimacy.” Robin Fedden, pioneering desert explorer, 1939, quoted in D. Manley & S Abdel-Hakim (eds) ‘Traveling through the Deserts of Egypt’.
On its way northwards through Egypt, the River Nile comes up against an unpassable obstacle in the form of a limestone massif some 50km from west to east by 40km south to north and with an average elevation of some 400m. Taking its name from the largest settlement in the vicinity, the change in the river’s course is known as the Qena Bend. From the ancient Greek name for the settlement further to the south that is modern Luxor, the geological feature is generally known as the Theban Plateau. The bend is such a prominent feature that it can be seen from space.
My first glimpse of this upland desert landscape came ten years ago, on my first visit to Egypt, as I stood on the summit ridge of el Qurn, the prominent peak of the Theban Hills that rises like a natural pyramid above the Valley of the Kings. From that moment I felt myself irresistibly drawn to these hills and, increasingly, to making a crossing of the plateau from south to north. Apart from the stark beauty that others had recognised before me, there were a number of elements to this attraction. First, the combination of solitude and silence that I experienced, almost like an electrical charge, on my first visit ten years ago (to the ancients, el Qurn was sacred to the cobra goddess Meretseger, “she who loves silence”). Second, the physical and psychological challenge of walking for a whole day in desert conditions during which I was unlikely to meet another soul. And last, but not least, the appeal of completing a walk that I could point to, not with reference to local maps – none have been produced for almost 100 years – but on a globe.
If you are used to walking in the British Isles it comes as a surprise to discover a place of such beauty where nobody walks. Hiking just isn’t something Egyptians do. Even among the friends I have made who grew up in Qurna, the village at the foot of the Theban Hills, there was no-one who had ventured far off the main tracks immediately above the Valley of the Kings. When I mentioned my ambition I was met either with incomprehension or with a list of reasons I shouldn’t carry it out, the main ones being that it was officially forbidden (true: since the terrorist massacre at a nearby temple in 1997 this had been reinforced by a police presence on the fringes of the Valley of the Kings) and that the area was the resort of criminals and general undesirables (in fact, on my many walks in these hills over the past ten years I have only met three other people, all tourists).
Yet archaeological surveys of the past twenty-five years have revealed that to their ancient ancestors these desert hills were as familiar as the Nile Valley itself. Long-distance migration and hunting routes had existed since prehistoric times. To the ancient Egyptians, from the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE) onwards, the upland desert was closely associated with Hat’hor, universally-popular goddess of life and love, and at the dawn of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) the plateau crossing was a shortcut that made possible the military re-consolidation of southern Egypt and the establishment of Thebes as the country’s spiritual capital. So for hundreds of years ordinary citizens took holiday picnics high up in the dry upland valleys or wadis (some of the graffiti they left still survives) while the upland trails were frequented by military and police patrols as well as pilgrims taking an alternative route to the major religious site at Abydos. At the height of use, during the time of Ramesses II – the great builder of Karnak and Abu Simbel – the American archaeologist John C. Darnell has found evidence to suggest that the cross-plateau route was used like an ancient “Pony Express” taking important messages between the royal capitals of Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south.
The trails continued in use following the Arab conquest of Egypt which brought with it the introduction of the camel, and became incorporated into the long-distant caravan routes from the African interior to the Mediterranean. But archaeological evidence suggests they were little used beyond the end of the 18th century, and Belzoni is typical of early 19th century explorers in viewing the hills beyond the Valley of the Kings as the abode of bandits. In modern times the few people venturing onto the plateau will have included the archaeologist Howard Carter and the British survey team of the mid 1920s. I know from internet searches of only two definite successful traverses of the plateau, one German and one English, around 2008-9. But in both cases they spent the night in the hills at the northern end. It was my intention to get as far as the Cairo to Luxor desert road on the northern side in a single day.
The trails themselves are visible on Google Earth. This allowed me to do the equivalent of an aerial survey of the route from the comfort of my study and mark a number of waypoints (latitude and longitude) that I could then copy to my hand-held GPS unit for navigation on the ground. Since the modern name for the trail is the “Farshut Road” (from one of the settlements on the northern side) I named these F1-16.
In 2010 I made my first exploratory reconnoitre (‘reccy’) of the southern end of the plateau, including a section of the Farshut Road. This confirmed that the trail varied in width from just a few metres at its narrowest points crossing the heads of wadis to about 30m at its widest on flat expanses of plateau. Similarly, the going underfoot varied from stony rubble to spongy sand and I knew that on the latter I would be able to make good progress of around 5km an hour, giving a total walking time for the 40km route of eight hours.
In January 2015 I made my first attempt at the traverse but was forced to abandon the expedition due to a combination of route-finding difficulties which delayed my ascent to the plateau, and tiredness due to the unusually cold conditions. This also prompted me to give more thought as to whether I should attempt the crossing on my own and, indeed, in my lodgings that year I met a Norwegian, Thore, who shared my ambition of making the traverse. He was unable to join me on this occasion as he was leaving for Cairo but we agreed to keep in touch about potential future plans. In the event, our opportunities to visit Egypt in the following two years did not coincide.
Realising that in the most likely event I would be undertaking a solo expedition, I spent much of the next two years working on minimising potential risks and reading up more on desert survival. From this I came to the conclusion that I was considerably more in danger of suffering from salt depletion than I was from being attacked by the wolves (or jackals) whose presence on the plateau I had become aware of in 2015. However, the greatest challenge was an ethical one. I knew that for my own part, this was an ambition for which I was prepared to face the ultimate personal cost, and had discussed this (albeit briefly) with my wife before departing on my 2015 expedition. When I set the date for my next attempt for early February 2017 my instinct was to limit knowledge of my plans to my immediate family. But at a late stage I changed my mind and involved others: with potentially life-changing consequences.