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Published: December 6th 2009
My first chance to crack open the tent is as the only camper in my Bahariyya hostel
On my last day there is a fire in Cairo. In my stomach. Taking this as a cue that the city no longer agrees with me, it's time to leave. I arrive too late the next morning to catch the solitary bus to Bahariyya, a desert oasis that is to be my next destination. Instead I am pointed towards the minibus depot, located miles away under a urine soaked flyover. There isn't a foreigner or English speaker in sight but I am eventually able to locate the correct desert taxi and we get underway after barely an hour of waiting.
The minibus has 17 seats but we get away with just 23 occupants. Behind me the back four seats are taken up by two voluminous women and their assorted baggage. I have already noticed that many Egyptian women are – erm, how do I put this politely – hefty. Some appear large enough to exert their own gravitational pull, as the multiple children usually found in orbit can attest to. Fortunately they are offset by four infants and the three men who rotate sitting on each other's laps in the front two seats. My foldable chair is uncomfortable but
the journey is relatively short at 5 hours. The only annoying part is that, having gone to extravagant lengths to drop off every passenger precisely at their desired spot in and around Bahariyya, the driver waits for the last to disembark before he turns to me and, with a callous whine, rubs his thumb and first two fingers together. Baksheesh. Apparently I must pay extra to be accorded the same service.
I've come to Bahariyya to view the famed Black and White Desert and it does not disappoint. The White Desert is very bizarre, with impossibly shaped chalky rocks jutting out of the calm sandy surface, and I have great fun strolling through and attempting to photograph this visual enigma. Our group of four sleeps under stars which are fantastically dense and bright, lending the already mystical surroundings an ethereal light. Despite knowing that there are other tours camped not too far away, and someone's thunderous snoring, it is a great experience. Of course, this being Egypt, the locals strive to ruin the experience of another of the marvels with which their country has been blessed. We originally depart base far too late on day one and our
driver potters along in no real hurry so we arrive and pitch camp after the sun has sunk below the horizon. To compensate he rushes the return journey the next morning and we barely stop in the Black Desert. What is advertised as a one night/ two day experience is actually a one night/ four hour blast.
Like a young boy swapping football stickers I shake hands goodbye with my desert comrades at the bus station and immediately exchange them for two new ones - a Kiwi couple, H and R. If only the next leg of my journey were so simple. All transport emanating from Cairo is rammed because of Eid. So when the lunchtime bus arrives it is so full that I half expect to see arms and legs protruding from open windows. We return to the Kiwis' hotel and laze around for a few hours. However, things turn sour when the hotel owner corners R just after she has showered, insisting on giving her a massage; a situation she struggles to escape. We are grateful to get out of there and, after our taxi stops quickly for "petrol" (hash), we board the night bus.
We are not welcome. It takes much negotiation even to be allowed on, but this is only the beginning. The fronts of the buses here are generally occupied by women and, as we squeeze into the only available space close to the driver, the place erupts. I would sympathise with them for our apparent cultural faux pas, but quite where else we're supposed to go I have no idea. We make clear that we’re happy to swap with some ladies, but to no avail. I am unimpressed with one particularly burly matriarch who insists on persistently and pointlessly push-slapping me while the other women violently harangue us. Eventually they give up and we knuckle down to an interminable 7 hour journey, the first half spent standing, the other hunched on the floor. We make a surprisingly smooth early morning transfer in Dahkla onto another 7 hour bus ride, but now, in complete contrast, the three of us make up half the number of passengers. Arriving in Asyut we switch to the train, pass Qena (where effigies of Bush were burned at the start of the Iraq war), and eventually stutter into Luxor after a solid 21 hours on the
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