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Tracing an ancient trade route in the Sahara

It is a 3,000km journey through the Sahara desert. Andrea Vogel

Switzerland's Andrea Vogel, accompanied by local guides and camels, is embarking on an adventure trip across the world's biggest desert.

This content was published on January 1, 2006 - 10:03

The North Africa expedition coincides with the beginning of the International Year of Deserts and Desertification and is aimed at furthering understanding between Europe and Africa.

Vogel is planning to set off on New Year's Day from Timbuktu in Mali, following three years of preparation.

His tour is supported by the Swiss branch of the United Nations Education and Science Organisation (Unesco) and funded by several Swiss companies.

The three-man team with ten camels will head north from Mali to the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.

They will be travelling on a historic route from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, which was used by caravans of gold and salt traders in the Middle Ages.

Hottest point

On their 3,000km journey, Vogel and two Malian nomads, Abdou Mini and Youba Ould Mohamed, will not only have to brave scorching temperatures at the hottest spot on the African continent.

They are also due to cross the huge Erg Chech desert, and climb the highest peak in northern Africa, the Jebel Toubkal (4,167m altitude).

"I'll walk most of the distance, because I'm not fit enough to ride a camel for a long time," Vogel told swissinfo.

The team will sleep in the open and carry provisions for the entire tour. They will replenish their water supplies at regular intervals during the three-month expedition.

Vogel is no stranger to the Sahara region, but he has never undertaken such a major expedition.

"It's a otherworldly experience of living on the edge," he says.

Dangers

The 47-year-old experienced adventurer says the challenges he faces don't paralyse him with fear. But he is aware of the dangers, such as being in the middle of a huge sandstorm and losing all sense of direction, or having trouble finding water wells.

Another danger not to be underestimated is bites by poisonous snakes or any other injury that could happen as they walk at night.

"We can't rely on an emergency rescue service like in Switzerland despite satellite telephone link-ups," said Vogel.

The three men will try to find their way using the landscape and the stars. Fittingly enough their expedition goes by the name of "Orion tour".

"This star constellation will be our guide and point of reference from the beginning to the end," said Vogel.

Vogel has been gone through an extensive training programme to prepare both physically and mentally for the desert experience.

"You have to know your limits and those of your partners. Otherwise it's impossible to turn such a project into reality," Vogel said.

Poverty and beauty

The trained plastics engineer quit his job 15 years ago feeling dissatisfied with the daily routine. Instead he wanted to help make this world a better place.

Vogel says his tour through the Sahara region during the International Year of the Desert has a symbolic dimension.

He plans to regularly send photos from the tour over a satellite link-up to encourage understanding between the western world and Africa. The aim is to raise awareness of the poverty in Africa, but also draw attention to the beauty of the region.

"With my small income I can't really do much against the extreme poverty. I'm paying my two Malian guides so they can send their children to school in Timbuktu and ensure that they have a better future."

Vogel is also planning a series of events together with a Swiss songwriter, Dänu Brüggemann, in February 2007 to spread his message and let a broader public take part in his desert experience.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein

Key facts

Swiss-born Andrea Vogel, 47, is a plastics engineer by trade.
He led several mountain expeditions in Africa, the Himalayan region, Russia and the Andes between 1985 and 1991.
He has made it into the Guinness Book of Records twice and climbed 11 alpine peaks above 4,000m altitude in one day.

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In brief

The Orion tour will set off in Timbuktu, Mali, on January 1 for a 3,010km trek, and is hoping to reach Marrakesh, Morocco, three months later.

The UN made 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification to help prevent land degradation.

Unesco, the UN scientific organisation, plays a pioneering role in studies on desertification and desert cultivation.

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