Young Pioneer Tours

Bir Tawil: The Strange Tale of Unclaimed Land

Last Year (2019), Young Pioneer Tours ran the first-ever group tour to the only terra niullus in the world, Bir Tawil. Here’s is Bir Tawil: The Strange Tale of Unclaimed Land

Bir Tawil is the only truly unclaimed piece of land in the world, a not so tiny pinch of African land disavowed by both Egypt and Sudan, and generally only claimed by eccentric Micronationalists (more on that later).

Where is Bir Tawil?

Bir Tawil lies between Egypt, and Sudan, with map discrepancy being the reason for neither side wanting Bir Tawil, but both of them claiming the Hala’ib triangle (more on that later).

How big is Bir Tawil?

As countries go, if Bir Tawil were ever to become independent, it would bar far from the smallest nation on earth. Bir Tawil is 2060 square kilometres in size. Take that Vatican City!

Being a piece of land, no one wants in the middle of nowhere, and it is rather hard to get here. One of the options is obviously to join our tour there or alternatively hire some local guides and a 4X4. Bir Tawil is not easy to reach.

Who claims Bir Tawil?

But as hard as it might be to get to, Bir Tawil’s status as the only true unclaimed land in the world has led many a person to make this journey. In 2014 the first recorded visit from someone wishing to “claim” Bir Tawil occurred when Jeremiah Heaton went there at the behest of his daughter, who had asked him if she could ever be a real princess. Short of her marrying a prince, Mr. Heaton felt this the next-best option, and upon arriving in Bir Tawil, planted a flag for the Kingdom of North Sudan.

For most normal thinkers, Mr. Heaton’s now-famous endeavours were viewed as a bit of fun – and with the necessary pinch of salt – although (obviously) many accused him of neo-colonialism, and that other favorite of the latter-day guardian of vicarious offence: “cultural appropriation.” We’ve held out high hopes on being able to have a good chat with Mr. Heaton after his trip, but found him rather rude!

How can you just claim Bir Tawil?

Heaton also had genuine recourse for claiming the land: due to a historical anomaly, neither Sudan nor Egypt claims the territory. The discrepancy arose because of two different maps drawn during the colonial era – one essentially in Egypt’s favour, and the other in Sudan’s. Whichever side claims Bir Tawil effectively loses its right to the much more lucrative Halai’b Triangle. Thus no one claims Bir Tawil, and it is, in effect, what is known as terra nullius, or “nobody’s land.”

Who else claims Bir Tawil?

One would, therefore, assume that now the Kingdom of North Sudan had been claimed, surely the UN would have been notified, and all other claimants would go away, thus allowing the construction of a great nation. Alas, trying to start a nation is simply not that easy, and the response of the UN, Egypt, and indeed Sudan has been muted at best.

Also, no new idea ever goes unnoticed, nor without emulation, and there are at least five claimants to Bir Tawil, with some not even bothering to go there. The micronational world is indeed an interesting one!

Why plan a tour to Bir Tawil?

And why, might you ask, would Young Pioneer Tours wish to drive for days on end to visit Bir Tawil, camp out and then drive for even more days whence we came? I’d say it’s that almost a case of “why do people climb Everest?” Because it’s there.

But an excellent second response would be when I first started to excitedly plan our tour to Bir Tawil, and I met some resistance from some of my colleagues. One of my colleagues stated, “this trip is only for travel geeks.” Yes, he had hit the nail on the head: Bir Tawil is indeed a trip for travel geeks, and YPT is a company by travel geeks and for travel geeks.

And it doesn’t get geekier and off the beaten track than planting a flag in the world’s only unclaimed land.

Does anyone actually live in Bir Tawil?

Many people claim that Bir Tawil is uninhabited, but frankly, it is anything but uninhabited. The Ababda tribe considers it their native homeland and are fiercely protective of it. Regarding Mr. Heaton, they described him as that “silly man” during our conversations with them

So Bir Tawil isn’t unclaimed?

The Ababda Tribe claims it as the Aababda Emirati. We see no reason in arguing with people that have guns.

Are they any settlements in Bir Tawil?

There are numerous camps and mines, mostly staffed by people from Darfur, as well as the most prominent settlement that we nicknamed Bir Tawil Town (not that imaginative). There were shops, restaurants, satellite homes, and it was pretty buzzing. Bir Tawil street food was particularly good.

Are there any bars in Bir Tawil?

There are no bars in Bir Tawil, but you can drink nonalcoholic beer.

What is it like to travel to Bir Tawil?

Our tour to Bir Tawil was honestly one of the most amazing things I have done, beautiful desert scenery, friendly people, and truly getting off the beaten track.

So, can you just claim Bir Tawil?

Truth is rarely as exciting as fantasy, and Bir Tawil is no different from that. There are people who live in and claim Bir Tawil, and there’s also the fact that it not only falls under the de-facto control of Sudan but also there’s Egypt who would probably not be so keen on someone popping and starting their own country.

But I really want to start my own country!

Forget Bir Tawil, and join the Principality of Islanda, AKA Lets Buy An Island.

And that is the ever so strange tale of Bir Tawil, how to visit the place, and why you can’t just randomly claim it.