The name Gilf Kebir was given to the plateau by Prince Kamal el Dine Hussein in 1925, as it had no local name. It is known for its rugged beauty, remoteness, geological interest, and the dramatic cliff paintings-pictographs and rock carvings-petroglyphs which depict an earlier era of abundant animal life and human habitation.
Its name translates as “the Great Barrier”. This 7770-square-kilometre sandstone plateau, roughly the size of Puerto Rico, rises 300m from the Libyan Desert floor.
If you ever dreamt of experiencing the story of The English Patient, the acclaimed movie based on the 1992 novel, visit Gilf El-Kebir. A round trip between Cairo and Gilf El-Kebir is about 2000 km; you’ll need plenty of fuel, snacks and water!
Follow the steps of Almasy, the Hungarian explorer whose story is narrated in the English Patient by exploring the Regenfeld and the Swimmers Cave. Go deeper into the Gilf El-Kebir National Park to discover more of the hidden secrets of this barren land.
The Gilf El-Kebir is a sandstone plateau located in the southwest corner of the Western Desert. The rocky surface slopes south-eastward are partially covered by sand because the Great Sand Sea to the north is gradually encroaching on the plateau. The area is extremely arid but it supports the Barbary Sheep, and several species of reptiles as well as small birds, among the latter is the ubiquitous White-crowned Black Wheatear. You’ll find ancient rock art in Shaw’s cave, and El-Mestikawi cave depicting several types of cattle that attest to a wetter period in prehistoric times.
It is advisable to visit Gilf El-Kebir in the cooler months of the year, from October to May, that is. Temperatures in summer can reach intolerable maxima of 35-45 C.
Wadies of the Gilf Kebir Area
The many wadis of the Gilf Kebir area are very diverse
Hamra is in fact the Arabic word for red. Wadi Hamra penetrates deep into the cliffs of the Gilf from the north east and splits into three separate valleys. The red sand is set off by the dramatic black backdrop of the cliffs.
Wadi Abd al-Malik
The Valley of the Servant of the King- contains rock art and splashes of green from hardy acacia trees.
Still contains remnants of cars and trucks probably used by the Long Range Desert Group. An abandoned WW2 army truck fully loaded with explosives was driven out of this valley in 1992, more than 40 years after it was left there. It was then displayed at the Al Alamein Museum.
The Valley of Luck- was visited by Bagnold in 1938 and was found to be blocked by a 30m high dune that had once acted as a dam for an ancient lake. Due to the presence of water there are many signs of ancient human habitation in this valley.
Winds its way confusingly through the southernmost tip of the Gilf and contains many branches. One of the major side valleys is the Valley of the Green Earth Wadi al-Ard al –Khadra which also shows signs of human presence in the ancient past and evidence that it was once the site of a dam.
What to see at the Gilf Kebir area?
Uwainat and Karkur Talh
Here you’ll find some of the most stunning scenery the Western Desert has to offer. Uwainat, known as Gebel Uwainat, is a 1900 meters high mountain that looms over the valley of Karkur Talh. The valley is named after the acacia trees which still grow there. The valley is definitely worth a visit. There are many rock art paintings and engravings to see in the valley. Your guides will know the locations of some of the best rock art to see. Hiking up mount Uwainat is a great option for the more adventurous traveler. Allow up to 16 hours of ascent and descent. You’ll need plenty of fuel and water to reach and enjoy this part of the desert.
Gilf El-Kebir National Park
The Gilf El-Kebir is a sandstone plateau located in the southwest corner of the Western Desert. The rocky surface slopes are partially covered by sand because the Great Sand Sea to the north is gradually encroaching on the plateau. The area is extremely arid but it supports wild sheep known as the weedan and several species of reptiles as well as small birds, such as the ubiquitous White-crowned Black Wheatear. You’ll find ancient rock art in the area that attest to a radically different environment in prehistoric times that depict numerous pictures of several types of big cattle.
If you reach Gilf el Kebir, you shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Regenfeld. Past the flat topped plateau crossing several deep valleys and towering dunes, Regenfeld is the site where rainfall saved the life of Gerhard Rohlfs during his exploration of the desert in 1874. You can still find the cairn Rohlfs used to mark the area. There’s also a marble tablet set up since 1933 by Almasy, the Hungarian explorer who was depicted in The English Patient, in honour of the Egyptian explorer, Prince Kemal el Din.
Silica Glass Field
Located in the southern end of the Great Sand Sea in the Egyptian Western Desert, the Silica glass field is an astonishing geological wonder. Very close to the Libyan border, no other place on earth has been found to house the amazing gem-like pieces of yellow-green color that were discovered in that location. The exact origin of this tektite material is still unknown and scientists speculate that it is the result of the impact of a meteor which would have taken place centuries ago, causing sand to fuse due to the intense heat. However till this day no crater proving this theory has been found. The glass is worn with wind and has a polished feel; it was used by the pharaohs in making jewellery. When visiting the Silica Glass Field, make sure to resist the temptation of taking some of the shiny pieces of desert with you. This field is accessible through safaris and tours of the Great Sand Sea.
The English Patient Movie Set
Made famous by The English Patient, the Cave of Swimmers was discovered in 1933 by the Hungarian explorer Laszlo Almasy. The cave has stunning rock paintings of people swimming. The paintings are over 10,000 years old. Almasy speculated that paintings depict daily life in the area before climate change radically changed the environment. The rock art is a rich archaeological site and a part of our world heritage, please do not touch or apply water to the paintings, and do not litter the cave.
Prehistoric Rock Art in Egypt
El-Mestikawi Cave is a well-known site because of its prehistoric rock art. Located near Gilf el-Kebir, it features similar art to the Swimmer’s Cave and Shaw’s Cave. El-Mestikawi Cave was discovered in 1922. It is larger than Swimmer’s Cave and Shaw’s Cave and has lot more rock artwork and engravings. Variations in colour as well as subjects, with some art having been painted over, indicate a sustained and prolonged habitation of the area. The site is remarkable for the handprint drawings that are prominently featured over a half buried wall that also has paintings of human figures, animals and representations of hunting activities. There’s also an impressive drawing of a headless bull drawn in several parts of the cave. Please do not touch the paintings or use flash when you take pictures because the ancient paint will peel off.
Discovered by Prince Kamal el-Din
Walk next to thousands of ancient broken pots and shards of pottery that litter a hill discovered by Prince Kamal el Din in the early 1900s. The scattered pottery consists of mainly Amphorae ceramics that date back to the Roman occupation of Egypt. Abu Ballas was a major station along the caravan trail that linked Wadi el Natroun to the south west of Egypt. Located about 64 km from Qasr el Sagha, Abu Ballas can be reached after a safari in Gilf el Kebir.
Rock Art in Gilf El-Kebir
Shaw’s Cave, also known as Mogharat el Kantara, is a rock art site discovered in 1936 and named after the explorer who unearthed the cave. Located on the western side of Gilf el Kebir, far from Swimmer’s Cave (the famous rock art site depicted in The English Patient), Shaw’s Cave is easy to reach from Dakhla. There are three rock art paintings depicting cattle and a homestead scene. The paintings are about 50 centimetres above the floor and have a weathered look despite the dry climate due to extreme old age.