The Gilf Kebir is a spectacular sandstone plateau 150km north of Gebel Uweinat, rising 300m above the desert floor. The setting feels as remote as a place can be, with a rugged beauty that used to attract the most ardent desert lovers; on the northern side, the plateau disappears into the sands of the Great Sand Sea. It is famous as a setting for Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It was off limits to foreigners at the time of writing.
In 1933, some dramatic rock carvings and paintings were discovered by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy. The stunning depictions of people who look like they are swimming – known as the Cave of Swimmers – and of abundant wildlife, including giraffes and hippopotamuses, are probably around 10,000 years old. Almásy suggested that the swimming scenes were a real depiction of their surroundings before the climate changed.