Jeremy Curl has just returned to Europe after an epic voyage on foot through the Sahara desert in search of prehistoric art. The Anglo-Irish explorer is one of the few people to have ever visited the remote Tibesti mountains in the heart of the Sahara, and he spoke to Euronews Explorers about camels, thirst, and the importance of having a travel pass from the King of Toubou.
What are the basics of your recent expedition – where did you go, how long did it take, how far did you travel, how did you travel?
The expedition’s aims were twofold: to explore the Tibesti mountains in northern Chad in order to document ancient rock art that was thought to exist there in great numbers, and secondly to photograph the Teda people, the nomadic residents of that part of the Sahara. I set off from Mao near Lake Chad with three camels and a Teda tribesman with the aim of reaching the Tibesti 900 km away. A large range of volcanoes, the Tibesti mountains, are located right in the middle of the Sahara and so are hardly ever visited due to their remoteness.
The area has seen heavy fighting between Libya and Chad and has been the scene of many uprisings against the Chadian government by Teda fighters. The Teda control this area of the desert and the threat of kidnappings and continued violence has kept the Tibesti a no-go zone for a long time. As a result, little in the way of research has been done on the prehistoric rock art. I wanted a chance to go there and make a photographic documentation of as much rock art sites as I could find to send to the Bradshaw Foundation, who work to protect such art around the world.
It took some six weeks in the capital N’Djamena to sort out the paperwork and the permissions to go across the Sahara to the Tibesti, and a further five weeks in the desert to arrive at the mountains. I had contracted malaria while in the capital so was forced to stop a while at certain points in the journey. We travelled by camel, walking most of the day and only riding the camels when exhausted. The camels carry all of your life support: water, food, shelter materials. All these provisions are heavy enough for them, and so to prevent wearing our camels out we rode as little as possible.
On a day by day basis the distance we covered varied. Most days we would average 30 kilometres. However, due to various tasks, perhaps making charcoal, hunting or enjoying the welcome hospitality of a nomad encampment, it was sometimes much less. On the other hand, for a week we walked 60km a day, for 20 hours each day, in order to make a necessary jump across the most barren sandstorm blown stretch of the Sahara, the Borkou Depression, as quickly as possible.
Upon reaching the Tibesti, I spent a month in the mountains exploring some of the many valleys and lava flows, looking for engravings in the rock that depicted human life in these mountains some 10, 000 years ago. At that time the Sahara was savannah. The images show hunting scenes of animals now long gone from the area, warfare and dancing warriors.
Are there maps of the Tibesti? How do you know where you are?
I had an old French map form the 1970’s which was adequate, a GPS and compass and of course, my indispensable Teda tribal guide Koshi for the desert crossing. If you were looking for a particular grain of sand in the Sahara, he could find it for you. He knew that part of the Sahara better most people know their own garden. While in the mountains themselves, I travelled with Ogei and Hassan, two characters who had once worked trafficking people across the Sahara to Libya. Their characters were polar opposites of each other, with Ogei being the careful and considered one and Hassan the risk taker. Nevertheless, they were both masters of travel in the TIbesti and threw themselves into the task of trying to catalogue the locations of rock art sites and picking out new routes into areas of the mountains that I doubt anyone has been for hundreds of years. Upon finding the rock art, the site was measured, co-ordinates taken, along with guide instructions as to how to approach the rock face if needed, and the site photographed.
How does it feel to be in the remote Sahara – do you really feel cut off from the world, even with modern communications systems?
In some parts of the desert, where you can see nothing but flat sand around you, in every direction, and judging distances is impossible it can feel very claustrophobic. Especially if you have had little sleep and you have been walking across a flat landscape for weeks. I felt cut off. I couldn’t imagine that a bustling city like London could still exist on the same planet. I had a satellite phone, and I used it to send text messages that would update my twitter page. On the odd occasion I needed to make a call, I didn’t feel that I had really connected with outside world, as even trying to make a call on the phone means concentrating your mind on your surroundings: staying out of the sun, sheltering from the wind and driven sand, and keeping one eye on the camels.
Tell us about the people who live in the Tibesti region, who are they and how do they survive and make a living?
The Teda tribe, who are a part of the Toubou people, live in the Tibesti. They and the Tuareg would raid the weaker peoples on the desert’s edge and often fight each other for control over the desert. Since a peace agreement in the 19th century, the Tuareg cannot come to the Tibesti. It is the Teda’s ancestral home despite many Teda now living in Libya and Niger. They traditionally survived through trade caravans and raiding. Nowadays, they run trade routes up to Libya and keep goats, sheep and camels, grazing them where ever they can and having to move to better grazing depending on circumstances.
What’s your favourite memory from that expedition – is there one place that you keep going back to in your mind?
There was a huge volcanic crater called Doon on the western side of the range next to a large volcano called Pic Tousside. It is one kilometre deep and seven kilometres wide. Hassan and I wanted to go down into it and after a very precipitous climb down we spent the day at the bottom. Inside the crater were three mini volcanoes. It was such a vast and surreal netherworld that when I think of the bizarre nature and wild remoteness of the TIbesti, I always think of the two of us scurrying around like ants at the bottom of this enormous volcanic crater.
You were travelling in areas that are considered lawless and dangerous for European citizens – what was it really like?
It’s true that no government has control of the people there. The north of Chad and the Tibesti are run by the Teda. They have a code of their own and they have a culture of respect and the rights of individuals. However, it if you are not a Teda, there can be problems. I had an issue with camel traders that could have gone very badly wrong, and certainly if I had not known and met the right people prior to arriving in the Tibesti I would have run the risks entailed in being an outsider amongst a violent and protective desert community. I was lucky enough to spend five days with the King of the Toubou who lives the Tibesti, and he granted me free travel around the mountains. He signed a piece of paper and put his stamp on it, and that became more important than any passport while I was there. Overall I would compare being in the Tibesti like being in the Wild West. On the outside, everything seems fine. But when trouble flairs up, it could be pretty savage.
What’s the biggest danger – humans, dangerous animals, or lack of water/food?
Although I had a few threatening moments from people, I would consider the environment to be by far the most dangerous element of the journey. Thirst was a constant issue. If we could not make it to a well on time, i.e. before the water ran out, that was it. Your options are walk faster or drink less. Neither of those are particularly palatable, especially as the rationing of water was already pretty severe. It’s when your camels get into problems regarding food or water that you really have to worry. You camels are your lifeline to the world. You can always lie unconscious on one, but a camel that is too weak to carry on, one that has died, will cost you your life. A few times we had to burden the camels further with grazing to take with us as in the deep desert where there is nothing for them to eat. As far as dangerous animals, we didn’t have any major issues. Many mornings we woke up to find scorpions in our blankets, and we had some run-ins with vipers, but luckily they didn’t have bad outcomes. The scorpions were bothersome though, as they are the most deadly in Africa, and can kill you if the wounds are untreated. We would have bets as to who would have a scorpion under their bedding when we woke up in the morning.
You’re studying ancient cultures in the remote Sahara. What did you find? Who created those artworks and artefacts? How should they be documented, preserved and studied?
I’m not an expert, I just went there to find this art on behalf of the real experts, but I do take an interest. The art in the Tibesti are in the form of engravings that are carved into the rocks. They depict elephants, giraffe, buffalo, crocodiles, warriors, dancing and hunting scenes. I even found an engraving where the artists had engraved his own hand print. It is thought that they were done at various stages between 10, 000 and 4, 000 years ago, in a time before desertification began when the area was full of lush vegetation and game.
The later rock art shows the domestication of animals and the beginnings of animal husbandry. My photographs and findings are being passed to the Bradshaw Foundation in the UK. They are the real experts and can ascertain the era of the etchings and what they tell us about life all those years ago.
Although they work to protect these etchings around the world, the Tibesti are so remote that I imagine most of them will be safe from looters for a long time. I talked to the Teda in the Tibesti and showed them my pictures, because they were curious as to their own cultural background, and were also looking for answers to where the art came from, who made it and what it shows. Hopefully, the Bradshaw Foundation in connection with the British Museum can shed some light on this.
Would you go back? And if so what would you do differently?
Yes, would definitely plan to go back. Now I know some of the people there I hope that jumping through some of the bureaucratic hurdles would be easier. As for the Tibesti, there is so much to be explored that it will certainly pull me back. I’ll only be reminded how difficult it is when I arrive back though!
What is behind modern day exploration – do you think the priorities and motivations of explorers in the 21st century have changed compared to the great explorers of the 19th and 18th centuries?
Well, I think the thirst for knowledge is a common place to start when talking about exploration: what is around the next hill? What are the people like here? Nowadays however, the internet gives us most of these answers. The application of the knowledge that people brought back in the 18th and 19th centuries tended towards empire building, whereas now I feel it is more for scientific and cultural study, understanding the world which we all share. It is more pure. But there is still a surprising amount about the world we don’t know, and my litmus test to justify a new expedition is to Google pictures of where I am planning to go. If I can’t find any pictures then I feel like I’m on the right track.