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The Third Zarzura Expedition, organized by Dorothy Clayton East Clayton widow of the late Sir Robert


Lady Dorothy Clayton’s posthumous memoir of her search for Zerzura, which was published in The Times (London) on September 16, 1933, the day after her death due to a tragic airplane accident:

THE LOST OASIS _______________


In the following article Lady Clayton East Clayton, who met with a fatal accident at Brooklands yesterday, tells the story of her attempt to find the lost oasis of Zerzura in the Libyan desert, which her late husband also attempted without success to find. The account reached “The Times” yesterday afternoon shortly after her death. _______________ By the late Lady Clayton East Clayton

In the course of an aerial survey which my husband made in 1932 he observed a large well-wooded wadi on the eastern edge of the Gilf Kebir which at the time he believed to mark the site of the legendary oasis of Zerzura, the oasis of birds. It was impossible then to make a landing, but the possibility that he had discovered the solution of this great puzzle remained in his mind. After my husband’s death I determined to finish the work of discovery we had begun. The Gilf Kebir is the great flat plateau bounded by steep cliffs and interested with deeply eroded valleys which lies at the southern end of the Sand Sea and forms a barrier almost as impassable between the Libyan oases of Kufra and Owenat and the Nile Valley and it satellite oases of Baharia, Farafra, and Dakhla.

It was accordingly with this end in view that I started out from Cairo last March. I had originally intended to use the aeroplane I had brought out from England in the survey, but local conditions convinced me that it would prove rather a source of worry and danger than a help. I and Commander Roundell, who accompanied me, decided therefore to rely on lorries and camels for our transport.

While in Cairo I had the good fortune to be put in touch with Sir Ahmet Hasseinein, without whose assistance it is very doubtful if my expedition would have materialised at all.

Hasseinein, whose duties to his King have all too long deprived geography of one of its most brilliant explorers, arranged for me to join forces with P.A. Clayton, who was just off on one of his periodical surveys in the area I was bound for. This fortunate coincidence enormously increased the chances of obtaining valuable scientific results.

Our transport consisted of six Ford lorries, four of Clayton’s and two of mine, and the personnel, besides the Europeans of 12 Arabs. Though prepared by the experience of other travellers, I must admit I was surprised by the performance of our lorries. Neither the cliffs of the Gilf nor the looses sands of the dune sea could provide a serious obstacle for them, and though in the course of the expedition we did break two back axles, all of the lorries were brought safely back to Cairo.

Our first stop after leaving Cairo was the oasis of Baharia, where we rested and made up deficiencies in our equipment. This beautiful oasis is thickly inhabited and intensively cultivated, the fresh green giving an impression of unsurpassed luxuriance by contrast with the aridness of the desert.

From Baharia we moved to Ain Dalla, a small pool of fairly good water just under the eastern edge of the Sand Sea. Ain Dalla was to become our base for water supplies, for our survey of the waterless country on the western side. Everything depended on the success with which we could organise and maintain communications across the Sand Sea with the camp which we intended to establish on the other side. Our lorries proved themselves equal to this task. No fewer than four double crossings were made, the trip taking about two days each way, and at no time did we feel cut off by this apparently formidable barrier.


The dunes of the Sand Sea, for most of its length, consist in long ridges running roughly north and south. Between them are “streets” of comparatively firm sand. The eastern slopes of these ridges are gradual and fairly easy to manage, but the leeward slopes on the west are steep and the sand is loose and tricky. At first, before we became experienced in driving over dunes, we had some trouble with these western slopes. The sand haze and the monotony of the colour as one drives across the crest of a dune are deceptive. Before one notices it the car has come to the western edge and is hurtling down a steep slope of loose and with its cargo of passengers tumbled in a heap in the back. Gradually, however, we learnt to watch the colour and texture of he sand, and mishaps of this kind became fewer.

From our camp on the western side we made a series of trips to the south-east, where the Sand Sea abuts on the Gilf. In the course of one of these we established a camp in an area where large quantities of glass were scattered over the soil. This glass, which is probably of cosmic origin, varies from light bottle green to almost pure white and appears to have some kind of affinity with the darker Moldavites found in the Balkans. Its distribution seemed to indicate an impact and burst, being thick in the centre of the area and more scattered towards the circumference.

The geographical results of the surveys are in the course of preparation and will in due course be published. Before returning north to Western camp, and in order to replenish our water and petrol supplies, Commander Roundell and myself decided to make an expedition to Kufra, which we reached by striking the Kufra Abu Mungar Road and following it westwards. The road is one of the hardest of the North African Caravan routes, evidence of its terrors being the white bones of the camels which are the travellers’ guide along almost its whole length.

At Kufra the Italians gave us a great welcome. I had previously on my way out by air made acquaintance with the hospitality of the Italian Air Force Mess and knew that we should find friends; but I was almost overcome with their welcome. I should also like to place on record that both in Italy and North Africa it would be impossible to find greater helpfulness, hospitality, and good company than with the Italian Air Force.

During this and another visit to Kufra a week or two later, I made a tour of several of the villages of the oasis. The Arab population has somewhat declined as a result of the occupation, the uncompromising fanaticism of the Sennusiya making it difficult for them to live at close quarters with the Italians. Many wandered out into the desert to die of starvation and thirst after resistance had been broken in 1931. Others crossed the border into Egyptian territory. The Tebbu population, who were the inhabitants of the soasis before the Arabs came, have been less affected by the change. In Kufra they are sedentary and much easier to get on with than their fierce nomadic kinsmen in Tibesti. The Tebbu are a negroid stock, and their clean and tidy dwellings built of palm folds provide a striking contrast to the squalid and dirty houses of their Arab neighbours.

We returned from Kiffra to the Gilf and made a survey of the top of the plateau. The car was successfully got up the steep cliffs , but getting it down again nearly ended in tragedy. With all the brakes jammed on and the whole crew holding on for all they were worth, the feat of tobogganing it down was accomplished. This finally convinced us that there is no country which cannot be traversed with a little optimism and a Ford lorry.


After another trip to Kufra we set out to explore the mysterious Wadi which I had seen from the air. We found the entrance on the eastern side and penetrated some way along it , though a shortage of petrol and water limited our movements. The wadi is well wooded, and we saw a considerable amount of animal life. There were birds and there were foxes, one of which I photographed, but we found no surface water. It is possible that there may be pools in the rocks further up the valley. In one ravine we found a cemetery of mountain sheep. Hundreds of skeletons were piled one on top of another in a narrow cleft. Whether it is the place where mountain sheep go to die, or a herd was overtaken by some catastrophe, it is difficult to say. There is, so far as I know, no parallel to this place of death.

After this expedition we rejoined Clayton and proceeded to Western Camp to prepare for our journey north to Siwa. Clayton was anxious to make the journey through the middle of the whole length of the Sand Sea. A feat which would appear barely possible, but we accomplished it with really very little difficulty. Sometimes we would drive along the crests of the dunes and sometimes in the “streets” between them, and all the time the going was easier than it had been during the east to west strips between Western Camp and Ain Dalla.

From Siwa the journey home to Cairo over the Quattara depression was dull and uneventful. WE reached Cairo after being away just over a month, with all the members of the expedition and the lorries being none the worse. We had covered a wide area of unexplored country, filling in many of the gaps which Clayton himself and the other great travellers, Major Bagnold, Hasseinein Bay, and Prince Kemal ed Din left for their successors, and we had proved that much useful work can be done even with such limited resources.

If the problem of Zerzura still remains unsolved, and area which there are wadis with trees and some vegetation has been found. There may even be more than one such valley where recently none was known o exist. When all these have been visited and the oasis of Birds has still not been located then we shall have narrowed down even further the Zerzura problem, perhaps to vanishing point: but until that has been done the lost oasis is still there to be found.

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