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Sahara Trek

Hare did a reverse of Vischer's trip, starting in Nigeria and traveling north to Tripoli.
Katherine Parker, NPR Online /
Hare did a reverse of Vischer's trip, starting in Nigeria and traveling north to Tripoli.

Nearly a century ago, a young administrator in the British Colonial Service undertook a harrowing, 1,500-mile trek across an ancient and deadly slave route in Africa's Sahara desert.

Hanns Vischer published a book about his journey, Across the Sahara, and went on to become one of the most famed explorers of his era. And then, he was mostly forgotten -- until modern-day camel conservationist John Hare set out to recreate Vischer's expedition.

NPR's Alex Chadwick interviews Hare about his trek for National Geographic Radio Expeditions.

A 30-year-old Vischer was stationed in Nigeria when he made his 1906 journey across the world's largest sand desert. Heading a caravan of 40 men and women, an equal number of camels, and two horses, he set out from Tripoli on a nearly six-month journey through Ottoman, French and British lands.

Vischer later recounted run-ins with hostile tribes and marauders, torrid heat and an unending search for water. "I had entered it frivolously, like a fool," Vischer said of the journey. "I left it as one stunned, crushed by the deadly majesty I had seen too closely."

Hare, who had also worked in Nigeria for the British government, came across Vischer's book in the 1970s. Hare was entranced by the account and considered undertaking the journey himself -- some day.

"I loved his tale of stirring encounters in terrible desert wastes, where no water could be found for days," Hare writes in the current issue of National Geographic magazine. "I was gripped with a sense of the amazing capacity of a camel to survive in the toughest of surroundings and on the longest of journeys."

Fast forward to 2001, and Hare does just that. It's an odd expedition team, made up of Hare, 68 years old; Yuan Guoying, a retired professor of zoology from China; British-born Johnny Paterson, some 30-years younger than the rest; and Jasper Evans, a 77-year-old camel rancher from Kenya.

"We were quite an eccentric bunch," Hare says. "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 real, what I would call a bushman... He's wonderful to make do in tough situations."

Hare did the reverse of Vischer's journey, starting at the southern end in Nigeria and setting off north for Niger and Libya. With only a handful of guides and 25 camels, he had substantially fewer men and camels than Vischer. But Hare and his companions traveled much like Vischer did, with a satellite telephone the only concession to modern times.

Hare was armed with Vischer's maps and extensive notes about the route and where to find water. An early worry was that the expedition wouldn't be able to find Vischer's oases. But they did, without problem. The larger problem turned out to be finding grass for the camels to eat.

In all, Hare's team traversed 1,462 miles, through horrific sandstorms, extreme heat in the south, and freezing wind in the north.

Hare says he made the journey for three reasons. The first was for the camel. He runs the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, an organization that works to protect the wild Bactrian camel in China and Mongolia. The camel is in a situation similar to the giant panda; fewer than 1,000 are left in the wild.

"One of the reasons I did this trip was that through publicity I would be able to increase awareness for the plight of the wild camel," he says.

"And secondly, I did it for Vischer. Vischer was described in 1909 in the English magazine The Illustrated London News as one of the greatest explorers of our age, on a par with (Antarctic explorer) Ernest Shackleton. Today, many many people have heard of Shackleton, but nobody's heard of Vischer. And so this is my personal contribution to remembering Vischer."

And the final reason behind the journey? Because he wanted to.

Hare's account of his trek, "Shadows Across the Sahara," was published in the United Kingdom in 2003.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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