The dangers this year were pretty much the same as the last attempt. Landmines were still in the ground, the area was still off limits, there was a possibility of being robbed by bandits, a slight possibility of being taken hostage by rebels and an even slighter possibility of meeting a Libyan military patrol while in the mountains. Given the long odds of any of them happening I thought it was quite good odds really.
I should confess to a certain bias, here—I get a mention in this one.
I first met Ginge Fullen back in the late ’90s, when he was climbing the highest point of every country in Europe. I had just compiled a volume for TACit Tables entitled World Tops And Bottoms: High And Low Points Of All Countries And Their Dependencies. (It’s now both out of print and out of date.) He got in contact after he saw my tables, with some questions and some comments. After that, I found myself drawn into his Africa’s Highest Challenge project, in which he set out to climb the highest point of all 53 countries in Africa. It took him almost exactly five years, between December 2000 and December 2005.
Back then, we had very little information about the highest points in many of these countries—surveys were poor or non-existent, quoted heights were usually wrong and usually overestimates, and very few locals knew or cared what the highest point in their country was.
My role was to dig out and compare topographic maps, to extract heights from the newly available Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data, and to work out where the borders ran relative to the mountains. Then I’d send an e-mail telling Ginge what I thought, and he would disappear off into the bush/desert/jungle for a few weeks, to return with a GPS reading and a tale to tell. Given how baroquely inaccessible and sometimes dangerous many of these places happened to be, you can probably imagine that I often felt a certain moral pressure to get my facts right.
Bikku Bitti, in Libya, was one of those places. It was the final peak in Africa’s Highest Challenge—smack dab in the middle of the Libyan Desert, hard against the disputed border with Chad, surrounded by minefields, discarded ordnance, border guards, smugglers, bandits and reputedly unwelcoming locals. I had tapped a finger on a computer screen and confirmed to Ginge that I was pretty sure the highest point in all that desert seemed to be a conical mountain just north of the Chad border … and he went off to climb it.
Finding Bikku Bitti tells the story of Ginge’s two failed attempts to get to this mountain, across 400 kilometres of desert (he almost died during the second expedition), and his final successful ascent (the first recorded) on 4th December 2005.
It’s a slim volume—just 54 pages—and mainly pictorial. The pictures are bright and nicely reproduced. You can leaf through some sample pages online at the book’s webpage on blurb.co.uk and blurb.com. Ginge uses a nom de plume given to him by the local Toubou people—Korra Kala, “short and strong”—and credits his Toubou guide, Kosseya Barda, as a coauthor. I doubt if Barda wrote a word for the book, but he was certainly a coauthor of the successful expedition, and it’s typical of Ginge to give generous credit and acknowledgement in this way.
The text tells the story in laconic style (the quotation at the head of this post is typical). Scattered among the pages are a copy of a congratulatory letter from HRH Prince Charles, a scan of Ginge’s entry in the Guinness Book of Records, and a reproduction of a letter written by one of Ginge’s friends, attempting to put a bet on his death in the desert during the third attempt. (William Hill declined to give odds.)
The photographs show the madly rough terrain he encountered, while the text describes the endless casting around for a route through to the chosen mountain, as water supplies ticked down towards the point of no return.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the story of the third, successful attempt is reduced to some photographs of the people and locations involved, a summit group picture, and a copy of the e-mail exchange that confirmed success. Again I think it’s typical of Ginge that, at the critical moment when he could have describe a personal triumph, he instead chose to feature those who helped him along the way.
Note: I’ve now reviewed the next book Ginge has written, concerning his improbable search for the highest point in Bangladesh. You can find that review here.