|Medemia argun -- just the sound of the name, together with the splendid and
evocative photographs in Arthur Langlois' 1976 Supplement to Palms of the World has
captured the imagination of every self-respecting palm enthusiast who has chanced upon
them. The fact that it was well known to the ancient Egyptians but recently feared to be
extinct, or at best, on the very edge of extinction, added even more mystique to this very
special palm's reputation, and set a challenge to plant hunters to prove its continued
existence in today's world. It had not been reported since two isolated trees had been
discovered in oases in southern Egypt by L. Boulos in the 1960s (Boulos 1968), and the
story of their discovery forms the basis of Langlois' account. It makes exciting reading.
In its native country, the Sudan, Medemia had not been recorded since 1907 and Genera
Palmarum (Uhl and Dransfield 1987) reports that ". . . it appears to be on the verge
of extinction if not already extinct."
We, doubtless along with many other people,
had long been thinking about this challenge and just where to begin the search, but the
final push came in mid-1995 when Mr. Jean-Yves Lesouëf, of the Conservatoire Botanique
National de Brest, France, contacted us, having read about our earlier adventures with Trachycarpus,
with an offer to pass on all his research papers concerning Medemia, on the
condition that we mount an expedition. We needed no persuasion and after reading the
information he kindly supplied (in fact photocopies of all the many accounts of this palm
that have appeared in print over the years), we were convinced that not only was there a
good chance of its continued survival, but of our finding it.
Several locations were listed, but one that cropped up time and time again, was
"Wadi Delah," near "Murrat Wells" in Sudan, a huge and by all accounts
none-too-friendly country, between Egypt and Ethiopia, and where a civil war has been
raging for many years. Missing from all modern maps, Murrat Wells turned out to be in the
far north-east of the country, close to the border with Egypt and fortunately well away
from the fighting.
Our reception at the airport of the capital, Khartoum, in October 1995 was none too
welcoming, what with currency declarations, careful scrutiny of our visas, and even a
thorough search of our baggage. It turned out that the officials were looking for nothing
more sinister than alcohol, since Sudan is a "dry" country in both senses of the
word, and finding none, they simply waved us on, and out into the warm Sudanese night.
Fate took a hand then, leading us to the Acropole Hotel, the hotel in Khartoum, whose
Greek owner, George, took a keen interest in our project and was to prove extremely
helpful to us. He was not overly surprised by our goal though; nobody goes to Sudan
without a reason. It should also perhaps be added at this point that his friendliness and
willingness to help was typical of the many people we met in Sudan, and our fears about
"hostile natives" were soon completely dispelled. Many -- most -- people
had so little, but were happy to share even the little they had.
We had imagined that it would take some days to get ourselves and our little expedition
organized, but George had other ideas, and sorted out photography permits, registration
with our respective embassies, currency exchange, supplies, together with a jeep, driver,
and co-driver/mechanic, within a matter of hours, and we were ready to leave almost before
we knew it. We thus had a few hours left that day and did a taxi tour of the city, but
Khartoum has little for the tourist. We saw the confluence of the two Niles, the Blue and
the White, a rather poor botanic garden, and just a few palms: Royals, Washingtonias and
some others, but best of all, several multiheaded Doum Palms, Hyphaene thebaica,
fabulous and wonderful trees with dense blue-green foliage (Fig. 1). The temperature was
in the high 90's (30'C).