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The Quest for Zerzura

By Ron Gilliam
4/2/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Laszlo Almasy pioneered the aerial exploration of the North African desert, locating Egypt’s legendary ‘lost oasis.’

Unlike the title character of the Oscar-winning 1996 film The English Patient, the real-life Laszlo Almasy didn’t leap from trains or have a passionate affair with a British colleague’s wife. But the movie is partly based on fact: Almasy was among  the first to explore Egypt’s Western Desert from the air—a risky business in the interwar years. Piloting a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, Almasy found the fabled “lost oasis” of Zerzura in 1932.

In 1835 British Egyptologist Sir John Wilkinson described Zerzura from a camel herder’s account as “an oasis abounding in palms, with springs, and some ruins of an uncertain date.” After he identified it as “Wadee Zerzoora,” described in 15th-century writings as a “whitewashed city of the desert [where]…you will find great riches,” the spot became a sort of holy grail for British Sahara enthusiasts. When in 1930 several of them founded the informal Zerzura Club in a gritty Greek bar at Wadi Halfa, Zerzura remained Egypt’s only undiscovered oasis that was known from accounts in Arab literature.

Count Laszlo Almasy was a born explorer. His father and grandfather, Hungarian landed gentry of the Austro-Hungarian borderland, had both led Central Asian expeditions. Young Laszlo excelled in languages as well as technology, and was drawn to foreign cultures, automobiles and flying. At age 10 he drove his father’s Oldsmobile, and at 14—to the vexation of his teachers in Graz, Austria—he crashed while flying a homebuilt glider, breaking several ribs. Sent off to boarding school in England for three years, he joined the Eastbourne Flying Club, earning his pilot’s license at age 17.

During World War I, after serving in a fashionable cavalry regiment, Almasy became a scout-fighter pilot in the fledgling Austro-Hungarian air service, gaining a reputation as something of a daredevil, though apparently also a skillful pilot. In March 1918, he was shot down over the Italian Front. He spent the rest of the war as a flight instructor near Vienna.

Whatever hopes Almasy had of flying immediately after the war were dashed by treaty restrictions on aviation. After briefly becoming involved in two royalist attempts to restore the exiled Hapsburg emperor to his Hungarian throne—for which he reportedly received the title of count—he studied automobile mechanics and became a rally driver-mechanic for the Steyr Automobilwerke in nearby Graz. He also organized glider outings for the Boy Scouts and hunted in the forests of western Hungary, occasionally guiding guests of the exiled pro-German Prince Yusuf of Egypt, who had a hunting lodge near Schloss Almasy. In 1926, at Prince Yusuf’s suggestion, Prince Antal Esterhazy undertook a safari in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, with Almasy serving as hunting guide as well as driver. Steyr decided to provide Almasy with a sturdy touring car to demonstrate its performance in extreme conditions.

Almasy clearly discovered his métier in North Africa. He eagerly returned the next winter as Steyr’s Cairo agent, making pioneering safaris and test-driving trips and also writing accounts of his adventures for geographical journals. When the Depression resulted in his office being closed, he stayed on as a freelance desert transportation expert and tour guide. He realized he had found a new calling: “the technician,” he wrote, “had become a geographer.”

Almasy knew mapping the Sahara’s interior was important, but what really excited him were historical mysteries—such as the lost oasis of Zerzura. His new pursuit reawakened a past interest. “One night as I lay in the desert sand under the stars,” he wrote, “the wish came to me that, instead of this tortuous wandering which only afforded an overview of narrow strips, I should get myself up high in order to get an unlimited view of the obstacles in my path. I resolved to acquire an airplane for my explorations.”

Almasy’s research in ancient Greek and Arabic texts and native tales convinced him that the lost oasis lay somewhere on the Gilf Kebir, a Switzerland-size massif deep in the Sahara along the Libyan border. Although the water table was too deep for wells, the plateau was high enough to squeeze moisture from a stray tropical storm every few years and thus might conceal a rain oasis. If so, it would explain how raiders from Libya’s Kufra oases had been able to ride east 600 miles across the desert, with neither wells nor grazing, to raid settlements along the Nile. Moreover, with Italy’s 1931 occupation of Kufra and its designs on East Africa, an oasis there would be strategically important.

But the Gilf Kebir was still a blank spot on the map five years after its 1926 discovery; few nomads had even seen its top. With vertical cliffs rising over 1,000 feet on the west and the trackless Great Sand Sea pressing on the east, the plateau appeared inaccessible.

Almasy’s immediate obstacle in his search for the elusive oasis was a lack of money. Early in 1931 he ran into Captain Geoffrey Malins, who was then organizing a Cairo-to-Cape Town auto expedition. Malins agreed to add a side trip to the Gilf Kebir. Almasy secured funding for a plane from a Hungarian newspaper and a friend, Count Nandor Zichy, who would accompany him.

Almasy had seen Alan Cobham land his de Havilland Gipsy Moth in Cairo during his historic 1927 London–Cape Town flight. Accordingly, when it came time to choose a plane for his own Egyptian ad – venture, Almasy purchased a D.H.60X Gipsy I Moth at de Havilland’s plant in Kent, England. Taking off from Lympne airport on August 8, he flew to Budapest to collect Count Zichy, then headed for Cairo via Turkey and Syria. Near Aleppo a severe sandstorm forced them to crash land. Neither man was injured, but the plane required a factory rebuild. Almasy crated and shipped his battered Moth back to de Havilland, then returned to Budapest, depressed because he was un – able to pay for the rebuild or buy another plane. To top it off, Syrian newspapers reported that the two Hungarians had been killed in the crash, so Malins had left Cairo without them.

Forced to start over on his pet project, Almasy initially found that prospects were bleak. He later recalled “days and nights at my desk, exchanges of letters and memos, much disappointment, many rejections.” Then, literally out of the blue, came rescue in the form of a wealthy young adventure-seeking baronet, Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton (“Clifton” in the film). In London to arrange his own transfer to the Royal Air Force’s Fleet Air Arm, the 23-year-old sub-lieutenant had learned of Almasy and the mysterious Zerzura from a dinner companion, and was seized by the idea of an aerial search for the lost oasis. Taking six months’ leave on half pay, he immediately flew to Budapest. They made a deal: Sir Robert, a civilian pilot, would provide another Gipsy Moth while Almasy would furnish the cars, and they would split the other expenses equally. With the official blessing of John Ball, director of the Egyptian Desert Survey, Almasy secured funding from Prince Kemal ed Din, who had discovered the Gilf Kebir in 1926 and, most important, had deep pockets. Almasy invited along two desert-hardened members of the Zerzura Club: Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Hugh W.G.J. Penderel and Patrick Andrew Clayton, a topographer with the Desert Survey.

In the spring of 1932, Almasy’s expedition camped on the southern side of the Gilf Kebir with three desert-modified Ford Model Ts and Sir Robert’s Gipsy Moth (Almasy’s plane, rebuilt and resold to Sir Robert, who named it Rupert after a popular comic strip bear). With Almasy, Sir Robert or Penderel serving as pilot and another of the four as observer, they made reconnaissance flights over the massif, following Almasy’s flight plans. As they were turning back on a flight over the Gilf’s northern section during the expedition’s last days, Penderel and Sir Robert spotted a deep wadi with green vegetation. Was it one of the “three fertile valleys” Wilkinson had described in 1835?

Almasy was “burning to see it with [his] own eyes,” but the others wanted to locate the green wadi’s outlet by driving along the western wall. After three frustrating days with no sign of an opening, they agreed to tap their dwindling fuel supply for two final flights the next day. Suddenly two swallows dropped out of the sky onto one of the cars. When Almasy offered them water, one bathed in it but neither drank. As the birds flew off, straight toward the Gilf Kebir, he checked their course with his compass. When he plotted the swallows’ course and that of Penderel and Sir Robert’s last flight on their map, the lines crossed over the northern section of the Gilf Kebir, 12 degrees east of north from their new campsite.

That night, lying on a folding cot outside his tent under the stars, Almasy tried to fall asleep by identifying the constellations. He later wrote that to his right, where the sheer 1,000-foot-high western wall of the Gilf Kebir loomed, he could almost feel Zerzura’s presence. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of flying over it.

After brushing a light covering of sand off the plane the next morning, Almasy, with Penderel as observer, made a bouncing takeoff against a gusting headwind and took a 12-degree heading. “For several long moments,” he recalled, “I thought I’d have to reverse course, as I was flying straight at the rock wall, but the strong headwind heaved us up like a paper dragon kite and the rim of the plateau slid past under us with safe clearance….Eleven minutes after takeoff, the wadi came into sight and we were flying straight as a string towards it—the swallows’ course was right! I wanted to loop the loop!”

The deep canyon stretched northward in regular, sinuous bends, its walls broken by the mouths of side canyons. It had clearly been cut by running water, an ancient stream channel that had carried the rainwater falling on the western part of the massif in a raging mountain stream down to the plain below. After following the wadi for six miles, Almasy spotted the first green acacia trees. “Soon there are more,” he wrote. “I can make out hundreds from above, standing among salam bushes and patches of green grasses—a wonderful sight in this world of sand and stone!”

To the east a second huge wadi came briefly into view, but Almasy dared not deviate from his flight plan. The Moth carried five days’ water and rations, but if they were forced down here, their chances of hiking out or being rescued by their colleagues were at best slim if they stuck to their flight plan, nil if they didn’t. Almasy dropped down into the first wadi for a closer look at its floor. “No, a landing is out of the question, so, back up!” he later recorded thinking to himself. “But there…some grass shacks, built in the Tibbu [Tebu] style as we’ve seen in the ’Uweinat massif. Roofs and walls well-preserved—people must have been living here only a little while ago!” He turned to get the wind at his back, throttled the engine and called Penderel on the intercom, asking him to take the controls so he could photograph the vegetation and huts and sketch the canyons.

They returned to camp shortly before 6 p.m., aided by Pat Clayton, Sir Robert and the native drivers standing in a row with arms outstretched, to indicate wind direction. After a hurried conference, Almasy turned Rupert over to Sir Robert, with Clayton as observer, to explore the rest of the wadi by the remaining daylight. The topographer sketched and photographed the rest of the canyon to its mouth— an alluvial fan spreading out over the desert floor like a river delta.

Returning to Cairo, Almasy reported to Prince Kemal that they had “explored and surveyed the hitherto unknown northwest side of the Gilf Kebir, discovered a trafficable route from the Gilf to Kufra [where Almasy had made an emergency side trip to get water from the Italians], and photographed from the air a vegetated wadi corresponding to Wilkinson’s description of Zerzura.” Rather than a “whitewashed city of the desert,” though, they had found only a few Tebu huts—evidence nonetheless that desert nomads knew and regularly used the oasis.

Almasy’s report created a sensation. Apart from his discoveries, he thought the expedition had proved “how superior an aircraft is to any earthbound vehicle in mountainous desert lands,” and was eager to return next autumn. A couple of months later, however, he received word of Prince Kemal’s death from complications of surgery, and a few months after that Sir Robert also died suddenly from a blood disease contracted from the sting of a poisonous desert fly. Almasy, Penderel, Clayton and Sir Robert’s widow all did return separately over the next four years, ultimately exploring all of Wilkinson’s “three green valleys.” Less impressive in reality than in fable, Zerzura was nevertheless no longer the “lost oasis.”

 

Ron Gilliam retired from the aerospace industry and writes about early and Golden Age aviation. Further reading: The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, by Saul Kelly; and The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy, by John Bierman.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.  

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