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Egypt: The Mystery of the Great Sand Sea

By Chris Scott

The Great Sand Seaof the eastern Sahara is aptly named; an unbroken mass of dunes the size of New Mexico which smothers the barren frontiers of Libya and Egypt and is home to not one living soul. Parallel dune ridges run north-south for hundreds of miles, and anyone journeying here has to be exceptionally well prepared, as there's not a single well or water source in 150,000 square miles --extreme even by Saharan standards.

Until the 1930s, this hyper-arid region had barely been explored, but during WWII, clandestine German and British desert patrols, including Count Almasy, aka The English Patient, probed this remote area, spying on each other's movements. Today, the area still remains largely unknown and is so rarely visited that 60-year-old tire tracks are still visible on certain surfaces.

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On the southern shore of the Sand Sea -- on the Egyptian side close to the Libyan border and a hundred miles from the nearest tree lies a unique geological oddity: Libyan silica glass.

On a recent tour, our group zeroed in on an e-mailed grid reference with the aid of GPS and satellite maps, and soon found ourselves driving along a corridor of colored stones dividing two dune ridges 200' high. We had arrived at the heart of the world's only known field of silica glass.

We stumbled eagerly out of the cramped trucks, stretched our legs and began scanning the ground. Almost immediately came the cry, "I've found some!" as someone discovered a tiny pebble of pale green glass, its upper surface polished by the incessant winds.

As our eyes grew accustomed to recognizing the translucent gems, we spotted new pieces every few minutes. The group spread out in all directions, unearthing chunks weighing up to ten pounds, half buried like icebergs in the reddish sand. But the finest specimens were the tiny pebbles lying windblown on the desert floor, scoured by millennia of sand storms into lustrous prisms of glass.

By evening everyone had their cache of "faux emeralds;" one of the Egyptian drivers had acquired the knack and guarded a sack full of glass that he'd sell in the souks of the Red Sea resorts.

The exact origin of the glass is still unknown. A plausible theory suggests that the sand, which is almost pure silica, was fused by the intense heat of a meteor impact. But no crater, let alone a partially fused or aerated piece, has ever been found. Which suggests a less exciting origin: a super-saturated lake of silica that slowly dried into pure natural glass hard enough to resist a scalpel's mark.


GETTING THERE

The silica glass field is located in the Great Sand Sea around N25° 17' E25° 33' and about 50km east of the Libyan border. This is the way most independent travelers approach the site, leaving the Kufra-Jalu road at the right latitude and driving cross-country. It's not for the faint-hearted, as there is a risk of landmines, as well as confiscation of your vehicle if caught by Egyptian or Libyan desert patrols.

TOURING

There are no outfitters operating regular tours to this hyper-remote region, but a visit to the silica glass field may be included along with other historic and prehistoric sites in Egypt around the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat massifs. Tours leave the road in Egypt at the last fuel point, Dakhla, and work out around $200/day plus flights--double the average for Sahara tours.

The acknowledged expert in this area is:
Lama Expedition
Roederbergweg 106
D-60385 Frankfurt
Germany
Phone +49 69 447897, Fax +49 69 4990767

 


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