Book Reviews

Libyan Sands Travel in a Dead World by R. A. Bagnold


What Da Cover Says:  Ralph Bagnold was among a group of eccentric British explorers who in the 1930’s explored the deserts of North Africa using Model T Fords. This book describes his journeys into the region known as the Western Desert of Egypt or the Libyan Sahara. He is a central character in the group of explorers who would be later fictionalized in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Libyan Sands is an exploration of the Egyptian western desert and the Libyan Sahara on the eve of the Second World War.

What I Says:  Bagnold and his mates were an impressive group of explorers, it takes an eccentric/crazy person to travel into the unknown when you know if your vehicle breaks or you run out of supplies then you’re doomed, there will be no chance of rescue.  Bagnold and co do this as part hobby and part experiment…. a hobby that involves strapping tanks of petrol onto your vehicle and driving out into immense heat hoping they don’t explode.  To undertake something like this you’ll need the right people with you, Bagnold has a natural affinity with machines and can repair/modify almost anything, with him is a cook with the ability to find anything packed in the vehicle and to create meals to boost morale and most impressive of all were the navigators.  How do you navigate in a landscape of sand and where a compass doesn’t really work?

The early journeys were quite short,  week long adventures going to and from areas they knew, this was to test out the cars.  The trips they were undertaking had not been done by car before, this was camel territory, they had been told many times that cars just couldn’t do it.  And in the beginning they were sort of right, the cars were just not quite ready for this,  they needed a few modifications a few of which were quite genius.  Once they had sorted out the cars, figured out how to load them, their mileage and how to accurately navigate they were ready for a proper trip.

This is where the book comes to life, some proper edge of the seat adventuring.  You get a nice balance of history, geography and the politics of the area, all mixed up with digging out the car again and again.  There was never any complaint though, it must have been hell digging out the car in the middle of the day, a scorching sun and it could have been the 20th time digging that day, at one point they were only managing 1 mile a day before getting stuck.  When they stopped for the day at an interesting location they still had the energy to have a bit of fun….well a 24 hour mountain climb in sandals.  There was also time for some real British eccentricity….a mate flying his plane to search for them after they had just started a trip, landing the plane and unloading a full bar for a bit of a party, imagine coming across that in the middle of the desert.

This was an interesting read, very impressed by what these guys achieved and I liked the ending chapters, good to read about what they learnt being put to good use later on, I think even Bagnold himself was shocked with how much respect was shown to his knowledge of sand.  I’d recommend giving this book a read.


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