The Sandman of Strasbourg: Phillipe Frey

Written by SU Strasbourg student Joe Ralbovsky

Students, faculty and community members alike gathered to see legendary desert traveler Philippe Frey give his presentation on the Deserts of the Globe.

Frey, a man with a warm smile and impressive presence, hails originally from France and has traversed the majority of the world’s great deserts – mostly on foot… and alone. Not only has Frey crossed these 35000 km of desert with no one to talk to but a camel, but he’s done it in some of the most dangerous places (both physically and politically) on earth.

Sahara, American Deserts, Kalahari-any of those ringing a bell? Yea – they should be, as they’ve been labeled as some of the most difficult places to survive on earth. For Frey, these grueling environments have all been his place of work.

From cooking food on the desert sand to barely surviving encounters with highwaymen, Frey shared with us stories about his close calls, his accomplishments and the obstacles along the way. He spoke not only about deserts broadly (where they are in the world, what kind of conditions qualify as a desert etc…) but also about how one travels in the desert – for instance using a special sun-oriented tool (which looks like Camel – bling) to navigate correctly based on time of day.

He also spoke of how inhabitants of the desert go about surviving such conditions. In reference to his adventures in the Kalahari desert, Frey talks about the tricks he learned from Simon the Tortoise, his bushman guide and companion: using strategically hidden ostrich eggs to collect water, eating EVERYTHING on a gazelle at once, how to survive a leopard attack, what kind of worm to use for arrow poison – crazy survival skills of every kind.

I personally took notes (in case I ever find myself in one of the many deserts around the world). His arsenal of tricks-to-survive seemed to have everyone impressed, and to be honest, a bit nervous. This is the person you’d like to have stranded with you on that hypothetical desert island.

Not all of Frey’s experiences were fun learning games that you’d find in a well-written survival kit though.

He mentioned that during one of his adventures, his camels perished for lack of thirst and it was only through his discovery by an incredulous traveler (indeed, seeing a man walking without animals through the desert was as rare as seeing a ghost) that he was able to survive.

This mostly is derived from the fact of how much water one needs to survive. The way he put it: Without camels, one would not be able to carry as much water as you needed to last for two days. ‘You would drink 15 liters of water for one day and then that would be it. You would be able to carry no more and you would perish.’ This healthy dose of reality came not as a testimony to his own survival skills, but as a heavy statement of reality for travelers who encountered poor luck or who failed to plan accordingly for the voyage

Despite having survived some of the scariest and most interesting things ever, Philippe Frey wasn’t at all standoffish, highbrow or above talking personally with students. His humor, though dry, was friendly and well placed, and his willingness to answer our questions made us feel like VIP’s talking to an adventurer at one of his press conferences.

The evening was truly an enjoyable experience and one that won’t soon fade out like a mirage in our memories.


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