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Published: February 17th 2017
Farm fields outside Bawiti
Egypt is very dependent on tourism, and tourism has slumped since… Well since the revolution six years ago. Six years is a long time. It is a disaster for the country. Once thriving tourist destinations are empty and forlorn, and even the biggest of the big like Luxor are feeling the pinch, though it isn’t as bad as at some places. Probably the worst hit areas, tourist wise, are the Western Desert Oasis. People used to come here in droves romping around the desert on camels, four-wheel drives and everything in between. Nowadays nobody comes! Most hotels have closed down, slowly being gobbled up by the sand as they stand quietly crumbling in streets and on ridges outside town. Those that are still open have diversified into farming and other businesses. It’s not only the hotels though, the restaurants are gone as well, and even banks have shut shop and moved away. One cannot but feel sorry for the locals.
The Western Desert Oasis have an image problem. Partially it’s their location. West towards Libya. Unstable Libya. Cross-desert smugglers of arms and narcotics pass through here, and clashes with the Egyptian military are not unheard of. An unfortunate case of
mistaken identity around a year ago in which a desert tour was targeted by the Egyptian armed forces and six or seven tourists were killed by helicopter gunfire was the final nail in the coffin for tourism in this area.
The government, keen on avoiding any more incidents and bad publicity, have ramped up security. There are numerous checkpoints and when the police sees a (rare) tourist, they will shadow him or her for as long as necessary. This can mean a policeman sitting in front of your hotel, accompanying you to the restaurant, going on your tour with you, sitting next to you on the bus and possibly standing next to you as you take a leak in the toilet. Just in case the odd smuggler would pop his head up out of the urinal and shoot you.
However don’t let all this deter you from going. The Western Desert is beautiful and with a bit of cloak and dagger work you might avoid your private security escort. I did. At least most of the time. I arrived in Bahariya late at night and had arranged a free pick-up from the bus station by my hotel. This
View of Gebel Dist
is what saved me. Had the police seen me get off before I was whisked away, I would have had the company of a personal guard throughout my stay in Bahariya, which undoubtedly would have got on my nerves.
I stayed in a wonderful little hotel for almost nothing! It was ridiculously cheap. And the family that owned it incredibly friendly. Breakfast, lunch and the odd dinner were somehow included in the price. A nice courtyard full of shady trees was the icing on the cake.
I was alone when I arrived. Once this hotel was constantly full, my host Mohammed told me. They had around ten four-wheel drives and he spent more time in the desert on tours than at the hotel. Those days are long gone. They sold most of their vehicles and laid of most of their staff. They have started up a farm to make ends meet and the hotel and tour business have become a side show. I was lucky however, another tourist arrived the next day. I say lucky, because I wanted to take a tour and on my own it would have been rather expensive. Mohammed took us out to their
We climbed up Gebel Dist
farm, then to a salt lake, Gebel Dist a pointy mountain, and up Gebel al-Ingleez for sunset… For free! But the raison-d’être for coming out here are the Black and White Deserts. And that wasn’t free. But it was cheap enough and worth the money.
The Black Desert is… black! Who would have thought, right? Full of swarthy cone-shaped peaks, like giant ash heaps, which you can wander up at leisure. The White Desert on the other hand is… white!! I bet you didn’t see that coming. It is made up of chalk rock formations on which the wind has had its wicked way resulting in all sorts of strange shapes. A typical tour takes in both deserts, with a night under the stars in the White Desert, or in our case under a full, glaringly bright, moon. It gave the surroundings an eerie quality, white ghostly silhouettes cast moonlit shadows over snowy desert floors. And in the morning a pink moon set as the red sun rose over the fantastically sculpted rock formations. It was quiet. It was perfect!
I snuck into Bahariya and I snuck out of it. Mohammed made sure the police never saw me.
View of Bahariya Oasis from the top
As such I wasn’t escorted on the bus to my next destination, Al-Qasr village in the Dakhla Oasis. I arrived at night and the cheap hotel along the road was no more. It was abandoned, it was gone. Another victim of the tourist draught. What to do? Nobody spoke English, but somebody phoned somebody else. And that somebody else on the other end of the creaking phone spoke English. The hotel was closed, he said. No surprises there. But, he said, there was another hotel, also cheap, outside town. He would send a man to bring me there. A man arrived. We drove into a dark night. Out of town. Black roads. Emptiness. Where is he taking me? I wondered. Suddenly a sliver of light, three heads popping out of a window. A rustic resort of mud build bungalows on the edge of the desert, below mighty cliffs. A garden, a private hot spring, lush farms surrounding us on three sides. Another gem.
It was about 7 km’s outside of town. With sublime views. And it was peaceful and beautiful. A short-cut through dried up creeks and over sand dunes brought me to town, an invigorating one and a
Sunset view over Bawiti from Gebel al-Ingleez
half hour walk away. Al-Qasr has an abandoned old core, with winding lanes and crumbling mud brick houses, mosques and medressa’s, full of wooden lintels carved in intricate Arabic script. I had it all to myself.
But I needed a more modern convenience from Al-Qasr. Remember I said banks had closed down? Well, they have. Instead there are ATM’s. Just ATM’s. And only one (or none) per town. ATM’s that don’t always work. I needed money. Bahariya’s ATM had failed me. I was flat out of cash. Al-Qasr was my next hope. Its ATM… was out of service! Argh!!! I already had settled down to doing dishes at my hotel to pay for the bills when lo and behold the ATM sprung back to life. I was saved. The moral is, stock up in Cairo before heading out into the Western Desert.
The police finally caught wind of me in Al-Qasr and when I left at four thirty in the morning from my hotel I had an officer next to me. He put me on the bus to Asyut which is in the Nile Valley. Next to me on the bus was a plain clothed policeman. He left
me in the next oasis town. But I was not alone. I was being watched. As the bus passed the many checkpoints a policeman would look into the bus and make sure the tourist was still on it. When I arrived in Asyut they were waiting for me. They went with me to the train station when I bought my ticket to Luxor, they waited for the delayed train with me, they put me onto the train and they waited for the train to leave. I felt like a VIP.
And so I arrived in Luxor. Where the police don’t care if you wander around. But the horse-carriage drivers do all the more. They hound you every step of the way. My first day in Luxor, however, wasn’t spent in Luxor. I went to Abydos and Dendera instead, north of Luxor. At least that was the initial plan, it became just Abydos, because by the time I was finished with Abydos there was no more time for Dendera. Abydos was… breathtaking. According to some I have spoken to it is, hands down, the best preserved and most impressive temple in Egypt. I can’t tell you if that is true,
because I haven’t seen any temples yet. What I can say is that its hieroglyphs still have retained their original brilliant colour schemes, it was truly amazing. In parts it looks like it was only yesterday the Pharaoh finished the darn thing.
Yet despite all its impressiveness, it is very light on tourists. Most tourist simply don’t seem to know about it and stick to the more famous attractions of Luxor. If only they knew what they were missing. While it was light on tourists it was heavy on police. Nervous police, escorting our car until it was deemed safe enough for us to continue on our own again. Nervous police at the many checkpoints along the way, writing down the number plate of the car, taking the details of our driver, scribbling the nationality of its occupants in their little books... Ah the nervous police of Egypt, where would I be without you?
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