The Cave of Swimmers

Useful Information

Location: Gilf Kebir, southwest Egypt, near the border to Lybia.
Open: n/a
Fee: n/a
Classification: Speleologysandstone cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave abri
Light: not necessary
Guided tours: No regular tours. Cave is a station on several desert expedition schedules.
Bibliography: Ladislaus E. Almasy (1998): Schwimmer in der Wüste. Auf der Suche nach der Oase Zarzura, DTV, München, ISBN: 3423126132. (Deutsch - German) amazon
Hans Rhotert (1952): Libysche Felsbilder. Darmstadt. (Deutsch - German)
László Almásy (2002): The Unknown Sahara. Translation of the hungarian original Az Ismezetlen Szahara, 1934, by Andras Zboray
Peter Clayton (1998): Desert Explorer - A Biography of Colonel P.A. Clayton. Zerzura P, ISBN: 0953135004. amazon
Address: Tour operators:
Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions, Budapest, Hungary, E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1931 nearby Giraffe Cave discovered by P. A. Clayton.
OCT-1933 Cave of Swimmers discovered by the expedition of László Almásy.
1935 nearby Shaw's Cave discovered by W.B.K. Shaw.


Is it just fiction or a real cave? The Cave of Swimmers is a central location in the movie The English Patient. A cave where prehistoric paintings show swimming people in the middle of the desert. This seems impossible, but there is an easy explanation: this area was not a desert some 10,000 years ago during the last cold period of the Ice Ages. To say it clear: the cave in the film is not the real cave, it is just a film set. The area around the cave is a location in Tunisia, near Degache. The cave interior was painted by an Italian woman painter. She painted the cave, and she is shown painting in the title sequence of the movie.

The real Cave of Swimmers lies in southwest Egypt, at the border to Lybia. It was explored by the real László Almásy who wrote a book about his discoveries. He also wrote a whole chapter about his archaeological findings, which unfortunately was left out in several editions. He mentions the theory, that the motives of the drawings were real live scenes of daily life at this place. He explained this with a dramatic change in climate since then. This theory was so new, that his first editor added several footnotes, to make clear that he did not share this opinion.

The discovery of the prehistoric rock painting sites in the Uweinat mountains, was the most important result of the 1933 Almásy expedition. This expedition explored the Uweinat and Gilf Kebir region: Ain Dua, Karkur Talh, and Wadi Sora. Despite he was adviced and promised not to cross the border to Sudan, he did so and discovered several rock paintings in oases over there.

Gilf Kebir is a large mountain ridge, which extends over three countries, Egypt, Lybia and Sudan. The mountains consist of sandstones and crystalline rocks, like granite. Sandstone layers are porous which makes them good water reservoirs. They collect rain water and, at low points around the mountains, there are several springs which make small oases. Typically the rocks around the springs get eroded by the water, so each spring forms a sort of cliff or cavern. Most of the erosion happened long ago, when the area had much more rain and the yield of the springs was much higher.

The caverns around the spring were used for shelter by stone age man, and of course they were important, maybe holy places. So they used paint to draw scenes of their daily live on the walls of the shelters. Flint stone tools can also be found, but as far as I know, no scientific excavation was made by now. This kind of caves was found all around Gilf Kebir, most of them at the south-western corner in Lybia.

The cave of swimmers has a different geology. It is located in granite, so it is not the place of a spring. But it is located at the bottom of a wadi, a valley which once contained a river. So it is a cave formed by the flowing water at the undercut slope. It is easy to understand, why people would draw swimming people, while sitting at the banks of a river.

A last piece in the puzzle is the question how the paintings remained in the extreme climate of the desert. It seems, the natural pigments of the colours can resist temperature changes very good. Paintings on certain rocks, where the surface is eroded by temperature changes, are lost forever. But granite is rather resistant. And the last problem is light, especially ultraviolet light, which destroys many colours (bleaching). Almásy describes the absence of paintings in the part of the cave, which is reached by sunlight. It seems that direct sunlight destroyed the paintings at this place.

To make one point clear: it is not easy to visit the real cave of swimmers. The geographic and political difficulties make it difficult for the regular tourist. But some tour operators from Egypt organize desert expeditions which include a visit of the cave. You should organize and book such a tour in advance, as you will not find it on the regular day trip schedule in your Hotel...

During the last years the cave has suffered various damages. Because of the movie several hundred people visit the cave every year. Unfortunately they leave garbage and destroy the surrounding area and the cave itself. Actually the awareness to protect the cave is not very high among the local guides. During the last years tons of garbage were removed from the area in a yearly cleanup. The country now started a project [2008] to protect the place by educating the guides and explaining the necessity to protect the area. Actually the guides should have an urge to protect it as it is the base of their income. The project now had a first success when the last cleanup produced only a fifth of garbage compared to previous years.