It was Rob Cooke who spotted them and wandered up to me, a perplexed expression on his face. I’m not sure about this,’ he said in his quiet, unassuming way, but there’s a couple of birds over there that look a bit like pigeons. You’d better take a look.’ One glance through my binoculars confirmed it: City Pigeons. Nothing odd about that you might think. Except that we weren’t in the middle of Solihull or Skegness. We were at a nomadic Tuareg encampment more or less dead centre in the Sahara Desert. Saying that a few City Pigeons here looked pretty incongruous was the understatement of our desert safari.
You don’t find many birds in the middle of the Sahara. That might sound a tad obvious. With summer shade (where you can find any) temperatures that soar towards 50°C and an annual rainfall so low that it all but defies measurement, it demands a pretty resilient life-form to survive here at all. I certainly hadn’t bargained on Town Pigeons. But these birds are nothing if not adaptable and resilient. They were presumably scrounging spare grain from the Tuaregs’ chickens or picking up a few seeds in the dried-up droppings of the goats, that grazed on whatever sharp-spined shrubs they could find in the scatter of wadis.
From where had these pigeons travelled to get here? We were in southwest Libya with no villages for hundreds of kilometres. The closest settlement is 400 km away: Murzuq, a small desert oasis town with a few thousand residents and in one of the driest spots on earth. Maybe these were Murzuq pigeons that fancied a change of scenery. But how would they have found a remote spot comprising arid rocks, small cliffs and sand dunes at the edge of a dried-up wadi temporarily occupied by some goat-grazing nomadic Tuareg families? Could they smell the grain from 400 km away or had they simply taken a long-distance chance – a pigeon reconnaissance flight? Both seem to me to be pretty implausible options. Maybe they followed the semi-nomadic Tuareg in stages, eventually ending up here; leaving anything to chance in such a hostile, arid environment like this would be life threatening.
Africa Wildlife Travel Quotes Photo Gallery
This wouldn’t have been a trip that could be contemplated at any time since the Arab Spring of 2011/12; Libya is now far too dangerous. But I was one of a small group of the so-called 153 Club (see Chapter 6) who had organised guides and 4WD drivers to take us from Tripoli, where we had spent a couple of days, south by road (a very long and tedious minibus trip) via Sabha and out into the heart of the Sahara. Closed to tourists under Libya’s repressive regime, in his later years Gaddafi had decided to allow a limited amount of accompanied tourism. But because few Westerners had ventured out into the Libyan Sahara, its animal life was a bit of an unknown quantity. I didn’t know what to expect.
You might imagine – most people do – that a huge, often extensively sandy (not rocky) desert like this supports little wildlife. In terms of birds and large mammals that is true; there are only maybe seven bird species out in the Sahara, and even they are very scattered.
One of those species, though, seemed to be with us almost all of the time; whether it was the same pair of ravens following us on our journey or a different pair at each campsite I can’t say. Here, the species is the Brown-necked Raven; almost identical to the much more common species found across Europe. Every evening they would turn up somewhere nearby, perched often on a rock outcrop where they would spend the night ready to scour the place for scraps when we left in the morning. Our drivers were very particular cleaning up our campsites so they must have had thin pickings. Still they persisted. There were probably more of them than any other bird, evidence maybe that Libyan Desert expeditions have become a reliable food source.
Camping wild in the Sahara was an absolute delight, especially for a snorer like me. I had a two-person tent all to myself while my fellow travellers pitched in a wide scatter to avoid any such night-time disturbances. Some of our group slept outdoors, probably by choice. Looking up at the night sky with its myriad pinpoints of stars -enough to cast a very dim, slate blue glow over the sand – I would never have slept a wink.