by Martin Gibbons and Tobias W. Spanner
Like many before us, we became aware of the existence of this obscure palm, thought by many to be extinct, through a picture in the 1976 published Supplement to Palms of the World by Arthur Langlois. Taken in the sixties in the desert of southern Egypt, the grainy, black-and-white photograph shows a single tree, surrounded by wild looking-tribesmen. Little did we dream that one day we would be there in the desert, looking up at the same species, and reintroducing it to the palm world.
The spur to making the trip came when we were handed a ream of documents about Medemia by a French botanist, Yves Lesoueff, who passed them on to us on condition that we mount a search for the palm which he was now unable to do. We needed little encouragement, and soon afterwards booked a flight to Khartoum, capital of The Sudan, a poor country largely consisting of desert, and with an unenviable reputation. Arriving late at the airport in Khartoum, we headed out into the night. Chance led us to the Acropole Hotel, an old colonial establishment run by George, a friendly Greek who the following day took matters into his own hands and arranged for us travel and photographic permits, a Jeep complete with driver and mechanic, and permission to visit the areas we thought a likely home of our palm--should it indeed still exist.
The following morning we set off, heading north and following the River Nile, which was everything we expected it to be: wide and muddy, and bordered by date and doum palms (Hyphaene thebaica) by the thousand. Beyond that there was some cultivation as far as irrigation from the river would allow. Outside that, however, there was only savanna and the sort of low scrubby vegetation that one associates with seasonally dry habitats. We followed the river the whole day, with temperatures up near 100°F. We passed through the hot and dusty towns of Berber and Atbara, and crossed the river a couple of times by ferry--which we shared with goats, camels and their owners. By this stage there was hardly any 'road', more a collection of tracks in the sand.
After dark we simply stopped where we were. Our driver and his mate lit a fire and we enjoyed our evening meal, soon after creeping into our sleeping bags to enjoy a night under a million stars - no pollution here! We were woken before sun-up and, after some hot sweet tea, set off again, pitching up at a desert town called Abu Hamad.
All the reports we had read about Medemia mentioned a town or area called Murrat or Murrat Wells, supposedly near where we now found ourselves. Nobody seemed to have heard of the place, though, until an old camel drover was summoned who not only knew Murrat but recognized the photograph of Medemia that we had shown around, and offered to take us to see it. Our excitement can only be imagined, and we willingly agreed to pay his modest fee. Leaving the town with him aboard, we left the Nile and headed into the desert proper, which was featureless to us, without a single shrub or tree; but to our new friend--whose name was Hessen-Ali--the desert was full of signs and clues which enabled him to steer us in precisely the right direction.
We spent a second night under the stars, and the next day we were up early again before the sun could exert its full force. There was now no road at all, not even tracks left, but our navigator found little problem in directing us. After two or three hours of desert driving, we arrived at the town of Murrat Wells, now a ghost town--hence no sign of it on our modern maps--but in remarkably good condition, preserved by the dry desert air.
The landscape now changed into a long low valley, bordered by low rocky hills. Down it we drove until, in the far distance, we saw what looked like a palm tree. A date palm perhaps? Or a Doum? We realized, as we approached, that we were looking at our quarry, Medemia argun; alive and well and living in quiet seclusion as it always had, in this remote valley in the Nubian Desert of Sudan. We drove toward it with something approaching ecstasy, seeing other, smaller, specimens around it. Even that feeling was surpassed a few minutes later as we came across a tree that was laden down with thousands of fruit, the size and colour of ripe plums.
Leaving the three Sudanese, we set off on our own for a tour of exploration around this grove of ancient palms. Only away from the scant shelter that the Jeep offered did we become fully aware of the intense heat (at least 48°C/118°F in the shade!), and cut short our walk lest we should end up like the many skeletons of camels that we had seen--testaments to the harsh and unforgiving climate. We spent many hours in the valley, collecting seeds and herbarium specimens and quizzing our guide about the palms. He said he knew of another population, some miles distant where there were 'a million' palms. Regrettably time and equipment did not allow an excursion there but we made a careful note and resolved to return at some time in the future. Then it was time to leave and we took the long road home, back through the town of Murrat with its ghosts; through Abu Hamad where we bade a fond farewell to our new friend; and back along the Nile, past Berber and Atbara to Khartoum.
A little over a year later we were able to fulfill our dream of returning to the Sudan in search of more Medemia.
Our first goal on this second trip was to investigate the even more mysterious 'Medemia abiadensis' which was described as occurring further south in The Sudan, in the more humid savanna zone. The localities given for M. abiadensis were more than vague. Despite an extensive search and asking hundreds of locals for their opinion, all we could find were Borassus aethiopum and Hyphaene thebaica, the latter sometimes forming large thickets in the dry thorn forest. Our guide, Ahmed, later continued our search alone even further south into areas we were not permitted to go, but without the desired success.
The main distinguishing characteristic between Medemia abiadensis and M. argun were that the former was supposed to prefer a different habitat and bear smaller fruit. Our finding the latter with fruit of all sizes, however, leads us to believe that there indeed are not two species but only one. How we came to be arrested during our investigations, how we were interrogated as suspected CIA spies and spent our last night in the south under lock and key and with our guide in mortal fear of having his Land Cruiser confiscated, is another story and will have to wait for another time!
Soon after returning from the south we set off north to visit the huge population of M. argun that Hessen Ali had promised us. This time we took two Land Cruisers, each with driver and mechanic, and did the job properly. After driving north along the Nile to Abu Hamad, like the year before, we went further east than the previous time, straight into the virgin desert, across the big Wadi Gabgaba to the upper reaches of Wadi Shagrib (Wadis are dry rivers that fill with water only once every few years). Arriving there one warm December day, after a long drive and countless times of getting stuck in the sand, the view was absolutely breathtaking. We climbed a little rocky hill from which we could overlook a vast sandy valley with hundreds of Medemia palms of all sizes, baking in the midday sun. The scenery was like from a different planet, there was practically no other vegetation, only the palms. It seemed unbelievable that they could grow under such dry conditions.
To our amazement, our guides led us to a well at the head of the valley, at the foot of a steep ancient mountain made from basaltic rock. The well was only about 3m/10ft deep and had quite acceptable water. Below the sand in which the well was dug, we could see solid rock. This layer of rock, impenetrable to water, must form a large basin below the sand in the palm valley. When water from the scarce rainfalls in the montains rushes down into the Wadi, it replenishes this underground reservoir which apparently the Medemia tap with their long roots. The floods must be very violent, judging by the large piles of debris that collected around the Medemia trunks to a height of over 1m/3ft, and would flood the entire valley for a short time.
Another treat this place held for us were countless ancient rock drawings that we found carved into the hard, black basaltic rock in some niches on the cliffs of the mountain. They depicted scenes with typical animals of the savanna, like ostriches, gazelles and giraffes, that could not live here anymore today in this now harsh, extremely dry climate. It suggests that the Nubian desert had a much more favourable climate in the not too distant past, permitting a richer flora and fauna. And indeed, more recent studies have shown that probably the entire Sahara had a more humid climate only a few thousand years ago. The Medemia and a few scarce Acacia here, originally starting out as savanna plants, are the last survivors of these more pleasant times.
From the first big valley we continued a good distance north along a floodplain lined with smaller and larger populations of Medemia. Some consisted of only a few trees; others filled entire valleys, like the first we saw with hundreds of trees. Some populations were in apparently bad condition with many dead trunks and no small plants around; others, however, were surprisingly healthy, thriving and regenerating, with many seedlings and young plants scattered around the older ones. The courses of the Wadis responsible for the palms' water supply are probably changing dramatically with every larger flood and decide over an areas fate.
The many healthy stands of Medemia were certainly a relieving sight and made us feel a lot less pessimistic about the species' future. While we did not find a million trees, we certainly saw a thousand and there are likely to be more in even more remote places further to the east and north. Medemia is a long way from extinct, but in view of its localised habitat and the unpredictabilities of the climate, it could nevertheless be described as threatened. We hope that despite these vagaries, this fabulous and stately tree has a bright future in its native habitat as well as in cultivation around the world.
Note: This article was originally published in the Palm Journal (Issue 149, November 1999) and is reprinted here with permission.
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