Friday, January 29, 2010

Travel: Following in the footsteps of Harding-King

The National (Jack Shenker)

One hundred years ago, the British explorer WJ Harding King tried and failed to cross Egypt’s forbidding Western Desert. Jack Shenker follows his footsteps into a once-isolated world on the cusp of transformation.

There is a tree in the middle of Dakhla oasis that is said by some locals to possess a soul. They call it the tree of Sheikh Adam, and it has stood for centuries at the heart of one million square miles of vast, almost waterless isolation, a space once considered to be among the most inhospitable places on the planet. It lies hundreds of miles from Egypt’s Nile Valley to the east, and hundreds of miles from the Libyan border to the west. If you climb the small hill on which the tree is perched and peer out in either direction there’s nothing to see but sand dunes, some up to 150 metres high, marching unceasingly across the void. A British explorer who reached this spot in 1910 declared the tree to be a symbol of everything magical about the desert, “a land where afrits, ghuls, genii and all the other creatures of native superstitions are matters of everyday occurrence; where lost oases and enchanted cities lie in the desert sands.”

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