When it hits me that I must have gone off course there is a feeling of frustration but I know I must remain calm. I lay my rucksack down on the gritty sand against a low rocky bluff, and collect my thoughts. There is no need for panic as I can see from the GPS that I am still within 2km of the next waypoint at F6, albeit moving steadily away from it. It is approaching 11.00 and I have been out on the plateau some four and a half hours.
The first thing is to prepare myself for the fact that I am going to be out in the full heat of the day for longer than I would have intended, so it’s time to exchange the woolly hat for keffiyeh (Arab head dress). It is at this stage that I take in the fact that weather conditions are perfect, with a temperature in the low twenties and a gentle, cooling breeze, just sufficient to make donning the flapping head gear a little difficult. Once I am walking again, however, it proves to be an excellent piece of kit, keeping the strengthening sun off my head while allowing cool air to get around my face and neck.
I decide that the obvious course of action is to retrace my steps and look for a trail to the north-east that will connect with F6. A little way back I had noticed that after a small spur there was what looked like a single camel track heading in that direction. When I get back to that position I mark a waypoint as ‘cross’ (for crossroads) and set out to follow the tracks across the fairly featureless terrain. Frustratingly, however, the little trail soon disappears, so instead I follow the direction of the arrow straight across country. After about 400 metres I find myself scrambling up a rocky slope until….the inevitable. From the higher ground I can see that I am approaching a wadi; nothing massive but, nonetheless a feature that would take some negotiating. And what if there were more obstacles like this over the course of the next two kilometres, all to be worked around in the full heat of the day?
At this point I seriously regret my decision, in the absence of maps of the plateau, not to bring print-outs from Google Earth. At a late stage in preparation I had decided that these might be difficult to consult in the event of strong wind and it would be better, if needed, to use screenshots on my phone instead. In the event – inevitably – the glare of the sun is much more of a challenge than wind would have been. I decide to return to the cave where I can stop and look at the phone more clearly. On the way there I start to realise how far I have wandered off course. At the same time, on reaching the cave I am comforted by how calm and clear-headed I feel.
The GPS image on my phone screen shows that I am on a north-eastern tongue of one of the big western wadis which appears to be a well-worn groove joining up again with the main route. However, stepping outside onto the loose rubble that fills the narrow gorge, neither my GPS unit nor conventional compass appear to confirm the right direction. Instead of losing more time route-finding I decide to keep retracing my steps to the point where the trails diverged. Before setting off, and after taking some refreshment, I mark ‘cave’ as a waypoint to potentially return to should I need to spend the night on the mountain.
On returning home I was able to reconstruct the path I had taken, from my ‘cross’ and ‘cave’ waypoints and could see that it was a north-western offshoot of the trail marked on the 1920s British Survey map as the Darb Naqb el Ramla (Road of the Sandy Pass) and that the divergence of this and the Farshut Road was clearly marked. I put my not noticing it down to the fact that, before this map had become available online a few weeks before departure, my sole means of tracing the route across the plateau had been Google Earth, on which the divergence had not been apparent (“You can’t explore form the air, Madox!”). I was also able to confirm that following the tongue of the wadi northwards from the caves would indeed have taken me back to the correct route and saved a detour of some 4½ km, about an hour’s walking.
After a fast-paced march of some 2km I come to the point where the trails diverged. Apart from a row of small cairns on the high ground to the right it is barely distinguishable. I check my watch: the error has cost me the best part of two and a half hours. The main part of my plan, to be off the plateau before the full heat of day, is now thwarted. There will be no time for proper rest in shade before the final walk across the sand plain at the northern end of the route. Indeed, the expedition has now become a race against the clock to meet up with Hamdy and Mohsen before 6pm.