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John Hare  






Crossing the Sahara Desert  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
6 Dec 2002

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Show: John Hare Interview
Log of DAT #: 1 of 1
Engineer: Studio 2A, Arthur
Date: 12/6/02

JH = John Hare
AC = Alex Chadwick

0:13 AC
John tell me, tell me where you're from in England? And what your village is?
We're just going to get a level here.

0:24 JH
I live in Benenden in Kent, Kent in Southern England.

Alex talks with them about England. Getting level.
Alex asks Arthur if he is putting it into DALET.

1:13 AC
First of all, how do you want to be identified? I always ask people that at the beginning of an interview because it's easy to get that part wrong.

1:19 JH
Yes, of course. How do I want to be identified? Hmm¿of course with my work with the wild camels I would call myself a conservationist. Part conservationist, part explorer I think is¿if you don't like that.

1:34 AC
That's good.

1:35 JH
Part conservationist part explorer, because that's really what I do.

1:39 AC
Let me ask about the inspiration for this trip.

1:43 JH
The inspiration comes from years ago in the 1970s, I read a book called across the Sahara which had been written by a man called Hans Vischer, and I'd worked in northern Nigeria and so had Vischer both of us worked for the same institution in what used to be called the colonial service. I was the last and he was one of the first in that service, and I was entranced by his book which was a walk across or a ride across the Sahara desert with camels at a time when there was a lot of disruption in that area because the boundaries weren't completely stable. And it was such a modest account. He sound a very, you could read between the lines that he was a very modest man. And I thought what a fascinating thing. And he wanted to go back and do a return journey and was stopped. Not unnaturally but rather harshly by his boss there. I thought gosh one day I would like to do that journey because at that time I was very involved very much with camels as I have been for a number of years.

2:56 AC
So the expedition that you eventually do first imagine and then undertake is about as close as you can make it to Mr. Vischer's expedition. You have no vehicles you have no backup. The only concession to modern times is a satellite telephone. How often did you actually use that.

3:25 JH
Umm¿how often did we use it? I used it occasionally when there was, for example we had a great friend of mine called Jasper Evans who came with me from Kenya, he was a bit worried about his wife's health and one of two things like that and he telephoned. We had a bit of a problem at the Niger ¿ Libyan border although all our papers and everything were in order Libya being what it is, if you come to a border post, they have to refer it to a higher authority who refers it to a higher authority. In other words people cannot take decisions. And uh, we looked like we were going to be stuck there for quite a long time and we had no food for the camel. And so I telephone the British embassy in Tripoli and asked for there help. It was vital then. And to answer your question, I think it was about 6,7,8 times. 8 times at the most.

4:18 AC
But you wanted to make this expedition as close to Hans Vischer's expedition as you could. That is, you like that style of traveling.

4:29 JH
Well, it wouldn't be right for me if we had a back up vehicle and a medical team that other people take, or even television cameras actually because I find that you're doing an expedition for television. And its fine, we're all different. We all have our reasons but I find that. I couldn't do it like that. I have to do ¿ I explore like the old fashioned explorers I suppose.

4:58 AC
Your companions you're taking along, there's an old friend of yours from Kenya, a camel rancher 77 years old. There's a retired academic from China, whose also a camel expert you'd known on expeditions out there. I don't know if these are the kinds of people most people would imagine saying, OK I got to get one of these guys to go with me.

5:21 JH
Of course they wouldn't. We were quite an eccentric bunch as you've just described. Jasper is, I don't think there's anybody over 70 that I would have taken in the world. But he's a very special. Man. He's a very tough man. He's a real, what I would call a bushman. In the nicest possible sense. He's self-reliant. He's wonderful make do in tough situations. And also he has an encyclopedic knowledge of camels and their sicknesses and diseases, and in bringing Jasper, we were also bringing an amateur vet which proved very important. The professor had been, the Chinese professor had been very responsible for making an introduction which got me into the Lopnor, the former nuclear test area of China.

6:18 AC
Where you went looking for¿

6:19 JH
For the wild camel, the double-humped camel. And ummm, he'd been most supportive and helpful in difficult situations and I felt that I just owed him a favor actually. He'd never been to Africa in his life, his wife was absolutely terrified of him going to Africa, she thought the most terrible things would happen to him and I think he was quite brave actually. He came not knowing Africa, not knowing anything and yet he completed that journey. The Tuaregs who are the local nomadic people in the Sahara, they liked him a lot, they thought he was a great character and it worked very well.

6:58 AC
So here you are, you're starting out from Northern Nigeria, you're heading right straight across the Sahara desert that you've acquired.

7:08 JH

7:09 AC
And off you go¿

7:12 JH
Off we go, we just disappear into the blue. And but obviously I had done preparation, we didn't just go blind. I don't want to give the impression that this was an unplanned expedition. I'd had all Hans Vischer's papers, I'd had his daily journeys, where he'd camp, where he'd set off, where he'd found water which is the most important thing. We had maps obviously, we did have a GPS so it wasn't unplanned but it was unknown because this camel road in its entirety had not been done for a hundred years since Vischer and Vischer had marked the water points but that was a hundred years ago, and wells can fill up or dry up. And so the worry before I set out, although I didn't talk about it very much but the worry at the back of my mind was would we have enough water. And point in fact, that wasn't my problem. We did have enough water. We found the wells. 90 percent of them were still active. We were carrying, obviously carrying our own water. My problem, I discovered was lack of food for the camels in certain areas. That was the big problem.

8:34 AC
You start out with a guide a man named Aba who is a part of the desert tribal group named the Tubu. How does he find his was? You're starting out, you have a GPS that tells you where you are but how do you know where to go?

8:51 JH
Well, we're entirely in the hands of the guide, now AbbA yes he's a Tubu which is a tribe in northeastern Niger. But his house is the last house where humans could live if you like. Permanent house. As I said the Tuaregs are nomads in the desert but this is a proper little compound of houses, practically a hamlet really so living where he did, he knew because travelers traveled parts of this road. I mean Tubu travelers and Tuareg travelers. He knew where to go, he knew what the location was, he knew where the sand dunes were, whether to go left or right or over the top or whatever because he lived there.

9:40 AC
You know to a certain extent but then you get out to a point as you write in your article really no one's traveled before. No one in your group of Tuaregs or people you had helping no one had been there.

9:53 JH
No so we were in the hands of the guide so if he wanted to not be very nice to us he could have compromised our situation very quickly. Ummm¿absolutely, we had Vischer's maps. I had other maps, in a sense we knew where we had to get to from oasis to oasis but how we actually got and ummm. If you make a mistake actually, you go off the route and the route isn't a track on the ground because the wind is blowing and the sand is covering everything all the time if you go off your course than I don't think you live to tell the tale.

10:37 AC
Well, what is it like out there? You're on a camel crossing the Sahara desert. Well first of all it must be incredibly hot. Well that is true at certain times of year but when we went during winter months last last winter months during 2001 and 2002 it was hot a bit. I'm talking Fahrenheit now. It was about 99, 102 was about the hottest we got in southern Niger but the further north we got it got cooler and cooler. Last winter in Southern Europe was very cold in Greece and Turkey and the wind comes from the northeast sort of from Siberia and keeps blowing right across the Sahara. And when we got to Libya, southern Libya it was really cold, I mean really cold. And there were night when it went down below freezing. Water froze. We'd wake up in the morning and find that water that we put out for our kettles had frozen. People think of deserts as really hot but believe me at certain times a year they can be really cold. And during the day with that cold wind blowing. Actually the cold was one of the biggest problems, not the heat.

12:00 AC
You have photographs here from a German photographer who accompanied you Carsten Peter. There's a particular shot of an oasis or a lake called Tekar¿

12:12 JH

12:13 AC
Takartibah, it is so beautiful, this is a, this is what one imagines an oasis might look like in the desert, and then you think nothing could look like what I'm imagining but that's what it¿there it is in a picture.

12:29 JH
It is an amazing place. It's in the middle of Libya, and um¿there are 13-14 salt lakes, some large some small hidden amongst some of the most gigantic sand dunes. It was interesting for us because by that time we had done ¾ of the journey. The sand dunes were incredible difficult to get across and you sunk up to your knees and the poor camels sunk up to their knees. And it was really very physically tough to get through it and we had to unload the camels and carry some of the loads occasionally and then suddenly you've gone sweating and stumbling over these dunes and you're looking down on the most beautiful lake and as you've just said they really are beautiful, incredibly beautiful. These lakes up until the 1970s were inhabited by a very primitive people who were just sort of hidden away in these dunes for centuries and in this water which obviously you don't see in the photograph, it seethes with a tiny little minute red shrimp and the people who lived here, these primitive people, this was their basic food. They used to catch them and they have a lot of protein and they used to live off these. In the 1970s because the other people had come into the area, murderers, robbers and also political opponents of the regime in Libya. They were all cleared out, everybody was moved. So these lakes are now totally uninhabited and there's nobody there at all.

14:32 AC
Let me just ask you at a place like this at a moment like this now you're leading this expedition and you're still in what I think most of us would consider a great deal of danger. But in the moment there are you able to lie back as you are going to sleep and say, I am a truly happy man here or are there so many considerations about the expedition that you are constantly fretting and working in your head about what we're going to do next.

15:05 JH
No, no, no. I'm not a fretter. I hope I'm concerned about the safety of the expedition and also about the next days travel but I'm not a fretter. Oh no. I mean we'd sit around and joke in the evening and I wouldn't sit there scratching my head and worrying. The way I approach an expedition like this when you've got to and what we haven't said is the whole journey was 1,462 miles. Very precise, but that's what it was. I, there's always a point in front of you, either an oasis or a town or a village. And I just focus on reaching that point. I don't think what's going to happen after there, how are we going to get to Tripoli, what's happening. Once we've got to that point then the problem's at the next point, so in other words, this is my way of doing it I'm sure other people would have different ways, but my personal way is I approach it stage by stage. I complete this stage then we take apart the problems of the next stage and in doing that you're not worrying about the whole expedition getting to the far end. You're worrying about getting to the next point. So I suppose your frets and concerns are much less than if you were continually worrying about the whole expedition.

16:30 AC
You didn't, sleep in a tent you slept just outdoors.

16:35 JH
Yep, yep, for 3 ½ months I didn't sleep under a roof. That was personal choice. I could have gone in a tent, we did have two tents. We haven't mentioned there was a fourth member of the team a man called Johnny Patterson, a young, young, youngish fellow. We felt we needed somebody. Here we were all over 61 over 70 and we needed somebody with a little muscle power and youth. And so Johnny was there. Johnny had one tent and the professor had another. And Jasper and I slept in our sleeping bags under the stars. I think for me that's just another personal preference. I don't really like sleeping in tents unless I have to and there's also the hassle of packing them up and everyday, taking them down and putting them up, taking them down and putting them up. And if you can avoid that sort of hassle then I will avoid it.

17:30 AC
Did you feel a moment of extraordinary contentment or something when you camped by these beautiful oases on your journey?

17:37 JH
Oh yes, and not only by the oases, I mean, you lie oh gosh yes. Many, many, times. Please don't think it was a worrying all across the Sahara not at all. You would lie back at night and you would stare up into this wonderful view of the solar system and the stars so bright. Sadly today in many parts of the world because of light pollution, you can't see the stars as they should be seen, but you can in the Sahara, and also another sensation that I got, I was following not only Vischer's footsteps but other explorers going back before Vischer. A man called Heinrich bath who had worked for the British government but made the journey in 1850 a very famous explorer. And 2 other Englishmen called Denham and Clappiton who even earlier in 1820, they were the first people to do this route. And when we were in that area of the lakes and looking across the dunes. In Denham and Clappiton's book in 1820 he describes standing where we were and looking across the dunes and I suddenly thought to myself, there are very few places in the world where you can be and look and 170, nearly 200 years, nothing has changed. I mean obviously the dunes have changed their positions and shapes and things but what we were looking at was exactly the same as what Denham and Clappiton¿I mean exactly¿there was no house that had been built or no tree had been cut down. It was exactly the same view and what he had written I could have written and I think that's quite an interesting sensation.

19:19 AC
Hold on just a second¿You do get to a point in the journey because you've crossed into Libya, you've left one guide behind to acquire a new guide who doesn't seem to know his way around. You're lost, you're lost in the desert.

19:38 JH
Yes, we¿ Again, I think your listeners should understand that the Sahara is not one huge desert. There are different types of desert. There are sand dunes, there is just sand and scrub, there are rocks. And this last desert where we had this guide was a plateau, a totally, utterly featureless plateau which Vischer called the worst desert in the whole of the Sahara. And it is a 180 mile stretch that you have to get across. And you can't see anything. There's no hill there's nothing. All you see all around you is just horizon. We had taken on a guy named shiku and he was a Tuareg, a Libyan Tuareg. First of all he couldn't stop talking, and then we discovered that he couldn't ride a camel very well. Well we could put up with all of that if he knew the route, but he didn't and he lost us up on this plateau. Well I say he lost us, he lost us two days by taking the wrong route and that was quite serious for me because we wanted to hurry across this area as quickly as possible, secondly my camels were extremely tired. Before we met them, they'd done 400 miles. Add that onto the 1,462 and you're nearly at 2,000 miles, and two camels died of exhaustion. I'm not saying directly¿I think we could have saved one of them if it hadn't been for this disastrous guide. So luckily I met a vehicle on the top of this plateau, managed to bribe this driver to take him away and get rid of him because he was driving¿not just the foreigners¿he was driving the other Tuaregs crazy.

21:21 AC
But, is it a good idea to fire your guide even though he's gotten you lost? I mean?

21:25 JH
Yes absolutely. If A he's affecting morale and B he doesn't know the road anyway. It was quite patently obvious that he was pretending that he knew where he was going and he didn't.

21:37 AC
So you have GPS, you have maps, you are kind of able to figure your way back.

21:43 JH
Well, we had Agali, one of our Niger Tuaregs, he had been in the area but not up on the plateau. He said I know how I think we can get you out of this. We take a compass bearing, we know where Tripoli is and we know just about where we should be going. We know the direction we should be going. We're going north, pretty accurately. I didn't find the GPS wasn't that much help in that situation. Except it could tell you what your reference point on the map where you were, so you could correct your position, so anyway by luck, good fortune, maps and a little bit of GPS we hit on the place to get out of this situation. I mean all these expeditions have, all the expeditions I've been on have a slice of luck attached to them. If your luck goes sour, that's the way of the world. You're in trouble.

22:45 AC
Let me ask you, you get to the end of this expedition and I can imagine some people listening to this interview saying well now you've completed it and so what, what have you got at the end of this expedition, what have you done.

23:00 JH
Well, that's a good question because the question most people ask me if I'm giving a talk or just talking informally to people is why do you do it. And I think what your listeners need to know is, I run something called the wild camel protection foundation. There is a wild camel in China and Mongolia and this charitable foundation had been set up because this animal is critically endangered it's like the panda, there's only about a thousand left in the world. And one of the reasons I did this trip was that through publicity, through the National Geographic, through even talking to people like you is that I would be able to increase awareness of the wild camel. That was a major reason for doing this journey and secondly, as I said to you earlier, I did it for Vischer. Vischer was described in 1909 in the illustrated London News as one of the greatest explorers of our age, on a par with Shackleton. Today, many many people have heard of Shackleton, he's had a revival I'm sure you're aware, but nobody's heard of Vischer. And so this is my personal contribution to enabling people to remember Vischer. So that was another reason and I feel that we certainly achieved that because at National Geographic they are giving him quite a bit of publicity. And thirdly is the personal reason for wanting to do something and do it. Which is why if you ask a mountaineer why have you climbed that mountain, he will say because it's there. And I think that's the 3rd reason. (Out: 24:50)


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