Young Pioneer Tours

Bir Tawil: The Strange Tale of Unclaimed Land

In 2019 Young Pioneer Tours ran the first-ever tour to Bir Tawil and as of now remain the only people to have toured what is in essence the only terra nullus (unclaimed land) in the world. What we encountered was to prove not only an adventure, but something very different to what the internet had led us to believe was there!

This is the tale strange tale of the unclaimed land of Bir Tawil, AKA “the place that not no one wants”.

Table of Contents

Where is Bir Tawil?

Bir Tawil lies between Egypt, and Sudan, the area and dispute lie in their being two maps drawn by the British in 1899 and 1902. One map gave the Hala’ib triangle to Egypt and Bir Tawil to Sudan and the other visa versa!

With the Hala’ib triangle being the “better”of the two this meant that whoever claimed it did not claim Bir Tawil, thus with both claiming the former, the only true Terra Nullus, or unclaimed land in the world was created. And by unclaimed we mean by actual countries, in fact if we include the crazies of the world, there are in fact a lot of people claiming this big bit of desert!

Geographically these map discrepancies mean that both regions lie on the border of Egypt and Sudan, as well as being next to each other and either side of the 22nd parallel, which Egypt claims as the “real”border.

How big is Bir Tawil?

As countries go, if it were ever to become independent, it would bar far from the smallest nation on earth. Bir Tawil is 2060 square kilometres in size, bigger than the Vatican City, not all that hard, but also even little Nauru!

To read the strange tale of Nauru click here.

Size though is not everything (as the ladies tell me) and while relatively big there is a reason why both sides would rather have the Halaíb Triangle and not this plot of land.

The area is for the most part desert and lacks vegetation and for the most part water. Alas the discovery of gold was to come much later.

Who claims Bir Tawil?

Despite not exactly being easy 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 allegedly 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 and proclaimed 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 guardians of vicarious offense: “cultural appropriation.”

His story though was an inspiring one and has undoubtedly raised the profile of Bir Tawil, which again ironically has led to many more people claiming the area.

And he is not the only claimant to fall into the bizarre, or flat out dick category. Other land grabbers have included an Indian who proclaimed the “Kingdom of Dixit” (aftwer himself), as well as a Russian who claims everyone else is liar and he is the only person to have actually been there, oh and that the “country” is actually his.

Ironically there are definitely Russians in the area, although they are more concerned with mining and arming tribes than conquest. Unsurprisingly none of these claimants get along with each other, with me only being able to say one thing for sure, I know that I have been here, the others I honestly cannot confirm….

In this respects I find myself in the unique position of perhaps being the only person to come here and not actually proclaim it a country, although who would I be to argue with folks with guns?

To read our short intro into claimants in the region click here

Why do people claim Bir Tawil?

The reason for people claiming the land: is due to the aforementioned historical anomaly, whereby neither Sudan nor Egypt claims the territory. Both sides claim the Halai’b Triangle and thus neither claims Bir Tawil.

This has created what is known as terra nullius, or “nobody’s land.” and it is pretty much the only place on earth with this status.

And it is this anomaly that means that makes the whole world and their dog want to claim the area to make their own little country!!!

Has anyone recognised any of the claims?

After 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.

And of course no idea goes unnoticed, so as mentioned before there are now multiple claimants to the area. Yet while international responses to the claims have largely been to poke fun at the fake rulers, the Ababda were a little less forgiving referring to Heaton as “that stupid American talking too much online”. Their words, not ours of course.

The 2019 Tour to Bir Tawil

When I initially put out the feelers for doing a tour to Bir Tawil I was generally considered to be a bit mad by well everyone involved. Many stated that it would only appeal to travel geeks (partly true), but also the reasoning for actually going here. To me it was rather like why people climb Everest – “because it is there”, but also much more.

I am of course a Micronationalist myself, and perhaps part of me even thought about claiming it for myself, but mostly it was about seeing one of the great anomalies of the world first hand.

The trip of course proved to be much much more than just that, with YPT having the adventure of a lifetime, which while it involved a certain period under “guard” from the Ababda tribe, also allowed us to be some of the few foreigners to actually see the place first hand, as well as witness its reality.

This area is far from uninhabited and there are people here that have zero intention of sharing it with other people. We might have been the first tour group here, but we were far from teh first people.

You can read about our full adventure in the book we wrote here.

What is the population of Bir Tawil?

Many people claim that Bir Tawil is uninhabited, but frankly, it is anything but. The Ababda tribe considers it their native homeland and are fiercely protective of it. And they are extremely far from receptive to people claiming their land.

The people that live here are generally speaking are working in the Gold Mines of the area, which are administered by the Ababda tribe, but with most workers seeming to be from the Darfur region of Sudan, from where they are bussed in to work.

And as for the population of Bir Tawil? No one can actually confirm it, but from what we saw at least we would estimate it to be in the thousands at any given time, with Bir Tawil Town certainly having the capacity to support a lot of people.

So Bir Tawil isn’t unclaimed?

The Ababda tribe very much claim this is their land, with even Sudanese people calling it their land, rather than a part of Sudan. And while the tribe do not (yet) claim it it as a nation, it is very well protected militarily with new Russian assault rifles and it is an area that as of 2022 at least the Sudanese military has no intention of going into.

In older times while defacto terra nullus, one could have argued with was dejure part of Sudan, this does not currently seem to be the case.

Does YPT consider visiting Bir Tawil as a country? You can check our rules here

Are they any settlements in Bir Tawil?

Wikipedia and everyone else claims that the area is uninhabited, but this was far from what we found in 2019. In actuality there are a number of small settlements in Bir Tawil, which consist of gold mines, as well as at least one large “town” of sorts.

We ourselves nicknamed it “Bir Tawil Town” and as well as having thousands of workers also had shops, street food, restaurants and even a satellite phone, something which would prove very useful on our trip. There is also farming in Bir Tawil to a degree, which we found out when a goat was killed in our honour. Yes we left Bir Tawil as friends of the Ababda!

Are there any bars in Bir Tawil?

There are no bars in Bir Tawil, but the technically lawless nature of the place means that you could drink some “Sudanese whisky” here. We ourselves made do with some Sudanese alcoholic beer, which was readily available in Bir Tawil Town, as was Vimto!

What is it like to travel to Bir Tawil?

Traveling to Bir Tawil is not only not an easy task to do, but is also potentially fraught with danger. If there is a commodity, particularly in an area of dubious ownership then there are people that want to protect it – in this case that is gold. We therefore do not suggest going to Bir Tawil on a whim, but doing it properly and with permission.

If though you do make it to Bir Tawil, it is in my mind at least one of the most amazing places that you can go. Getting here involves driving through amazing desert scenery, camping in amazing places and of course going somewhere literally few westerners have ever been.

Overall traveling to Bir Tawil is pretty damned special…..

Bir Tawil – the land that no one wants?

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, so while the internet can and does paint it as unclaimed and indeed uninhabited the truth is not only very different, but much more complex. This is not a place that no one wants, but is just one of of those weird anomalies that colonialism has thrown up. So, can you just claim Bir Tawil? No in short you simply cannot.

While the area is not currently administered by either Egypt, or Sudan and has a lawless element to it, the fact is that neither country would allow an upstart nation, no matter how small on its borders. There’s also the fact that not only do people already live here, but also that the whole affair has come up because of what is essentially a dispute between two very big countries.

If they do one day manage to sit own and sort things out then whatever arbitration happens, the area will likely end up in the hands of either Egypt, or Sudan, no matter how fancy a website you might have made for your upstart nation.

Visiting Bir Tawil in 2024 – The Update!!!!!!

After having such an amazing trip in 2019 and of course actually building a relationship with the tribe it was always our plan to go back to Bir Tawil at some point, with 2024 finally being the year we were to ideally make it happen.

Plans were duly put in motion negotiations were held and eight of us set off for Bir Tawil in 2024, alas things did not work out as planned. I will go into more detail in a later post, but alas while the main tribal leader had granted us access, at least one faction had not, so we headed off into the desert and thus away from cell signal.

When word finally did get to us that we could visit, alas the logistics meant we had to head back to Khartoum and the sad reality of not being able to miss flights. And this is both the allure and danger of visiting such a place, nothing is every guaranteed, but at worst case you get to explore some of the most beautiful desert scenery in the world.

We also learned another very key lesson with regards to Sudan in general. Since the revolution it has become a much more fractured country and we saw nothing resembling a Sudanese military presence here. Sudan is becoming much more fractured and trivialised, making the logistics of travel not what they were in 2019, when for all intents Bir Tawil was a defacto part of Sudan. A fluid situation which could indeed change further.

So, while we may have only gotten to 120 km of Bir Tawil on this trip, it certainly does not mean we have given up on the place and a tentative itinerary for 2024 can be found here. Whether make it to Bir Tawil in 2024 no one yet knows, but the negotiations are very much already underway.

But I really want to start my own country!

Alas starting your own country in these days is nigh on impossible, no matter how great your idea is. This is fo course not us saying you should not follow your dream, more that you should forget Bir Tawil as an option. We honestly get hundreds of e-mails from people asking us to hook them up with the Ababda, but alas we can assure you they are not interested…..

You can though still join the Principality of Islanda, AKA Lets Buy An Island, which is my own take on nation building and after we were featured in CNN going pretty strong.

And that is the strange tale of unclaimed land, not written by click baiting journalists, nor Micronational fantasists, but by people that have actually been and can genuinely claim to be experts on Bir Tawil!

Sadly Bir Tawil and Sudan are both closed due to the ongoing war, but we do have a plethora of other Africa Tours in the meantime.

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