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The Northern Sahara by YJ-L

Posted in Events on October 1, 2012
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Last time we introduced you to Feature Editor Verne Simons’ lifelong pal, world explorer, adventurer, and geologist, Dr. Thomas Bown. We told you about and showed pictures of some of Tom’s US-based adventures from the ’60s and ’70s and hinted at his time spent in North Africa. Luckily for all of us Tom carried a camera on most of his adventures and frequently found himself bumping down a trail on the seat of a Jeep. In 1992 Dr. Bown led a small group to the Quatara Depression, a geological low area in northern Egypt west of Cairo in the Northeastern corner of the Sahara Desert. A depression sounds kind of sad, but really it’s scientifically interesting because it is an area of erosion of very old rocks important to understanding the history of one of the last explored areas of the earth. The Sahara stretches across northern Africa and is one of the world’s largest deserts at 3.6 million square miles. How about exploring a very small part of it in a long-wheelbase YJ Wrangler, the Egyptian military-spec YJ-L? Sounds good to us! Here is the story as told by Tom and a few pictures from his adventure.

“In the early ’80s, I got interested in studying the origin of the Qattara Depression in Northeast Africa. Around 1987, I worked on a grant asking for funding for exploration of the Qattara Depression and surrounding area, in which I could study how the depression was formed and collect data on any fossil mammals we found in the sedimentary rocks of the area. I submitted the grant proposal in 1988, hoping for funding for an expedition across the depression by camel caravan so we would go slowly enough to do some good prospecting for fossils and hoping the National Geographic Society would send along a camera crew because of the adventure of exploring the geology of the desert by camel like the first explorers to visit the area around the turn of the century. Unfortunately the idea was rejected because of the cost and logistics of using camels. I resubmitted the proposal in 1990—leaving out the camels—and I was awarded the grant in late 1991 and we went to the field in the fall of 1992.” (Simons: Lucky for us, I guess a Jeep will have to do!)

“The YJ-L was our lead of two vehicles on the Qattara trek. The other was a 3⁄4-ton GMC pickup. The Jeep was piloted by Kevin McKinney with me riding shotgun, navigating with the maps. The Jeep, less laden than the GMC, could move much faster and we commonly used it to go well ahead of the GMC to test the passage through difficult terrain. After reconnoitering the western end of our expedition at Qara Oasis in the western Qattara Depression, we set up camp 2-3 miles west of Minqar Abu Dweiss (south of El-Alemein, in the eastern part of the Depression), and searched for fossils around there for two days. Then we headed west, spending 4 days crossing the depression. At first, it was good driving on bedrock, but the driving surface soon changed to sabkha; a dangerous dry quicksand, and, after a few more miles, driving on the sabkha was unavoidable as the sabkha now pressed directly up against vertical rock outcrop. At first we found several fossil localities but, as we neared the midway of our trek across the depression at Ras al-Qattara, we began getting so seriously stuck in the sabkha that we became most intent on just getting out of the depression. The Jeep seemed to glide over the sabkha, but the GMC pickup (laden with gasoline, water, all our tents, luggage, and food—not to mention several people) got badly stuck four times. Each time it got stuck we had to unload it completely, dig out the tires, jack up the back tires to insert the sand ramps carried on the sides of the Jeep, and build rock tracks for several yards in front of the truck so it could gather speed as it got going. To obtain the loose rock for the tracks, we commonly had to drive the Jeep several trips of several miles each up into the escarpment to find loose rock to haul back down to the stuck vehicle. All in all, we drove for more than a week and almost 600 desert miles, zig-zagging around and through the sabka and during exploration on our Qattara trip. Among sights we saw were desert roses, camels, camel bones, graves, fossils, morning fogs, towering cliffs, and relics of WWII. Among the latter were discarded jerrycans, ammunition belts, land mines, helmets, and boots. All of these were of German origin and are testament to a reconnaissance by Rommel’s army to investigate the possibility of a southern end-run around Montgomery’s forces near El-Alemein. Rommel, the Desert Fox, of course, was too brilliant a tactician to send his armor, single-file, along a slow, sabkha bordered track with no air cover.”

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