Into the Desert

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February 10th 2010
Published: February 10th 2010
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We've been traveling through the Middle East for almost 3 months now, we've seen desert. We've seen vast expanses of sand and rock. We've visited remote castles and isolated villages. They've been interesting, enjoyable, but none really compare to the spectacular scenery of Egypt's Western Desert.

It was already midday before the coach dropped us off in Bawiti, the biggest town in Baharia Oasis (yes, the oases are big enough to have multiple villages in them!), so by the time we'd met the other tourists and the local drivers who would take us into the desert in two 4x4s and stopped for 'bedouin lunch' it was getting fairly late in the afternoon and we weren't too inspired. However the road soon took us far away from other people, to where hours pass with just sand and rock as far as the horizon and sand swirls over the road in the wake of the other vehicle in front. We drove through the 'Black Desert', named for the dark, volcanic basalt rocks that litter the sandy landscape. Our first stop was Crystal Mountain - not a mountain at all and not even attractive from a distance, but up close it became clear that the entire hill was formed of one big crystaline structure: a huge quartz vein sticking out of the surrounding rocky plain. Easily the biggest quartz vein I've ever seen (although I'm by no means experienced so I don't want to say that means very much), and some beautiful patterns and colours in the crystals. We didn't dawdle for long before continuing the drive.

We soon passed into the 'White Desert' and before I realised it we had left the main highway and were driving right across the sand and chalk outcrops. This entire desert (hundreds of square miles) is set upon a a soft chalk bed that has been sculpted over millenia by the desert winds, leaving big outcrops and steep crags that shine white in the sun with valleys of soft, golden sand spread between them. The drivers came to a halt at the crest of a particularly spectacular rise with stunning panoramic views and gave us time to explore and slip and scramble around before continuing. The big cliffs gradually gave way to flatter terrain punctuated by chalk pillars and boulders created by the harsh winds. You can spot shapes in many of them, mushrooms are common but also quite a few animal heads and faces.

We were beginning to lose the light at this point so soon stopped to camp for the night, surrounded by this eerie landscape. There were many other similar camps around (the area is a protected reserve to limit damage to the delicate chalk landscape so camping is only allowed in one area) but our drivers found a spot out of sight and sound so it was easy to believe we were the only people there. Our drivers, Hamdi and Hamada, were an entertaining pair despite limited English and made the long drives and long desert night far more enjoyable than they would have been otherwise. They knew the desert so well there was no fear of getting lost or getting stuck. They pitched a quick, organised camp and soon set about making a wonderful tasty bedouin dinner followed by a steady supply of "bedouin whisky" (tea). We sat under the stars, chatting quietly and soaking up our surroundings, rolling sand dunes filled with weird chalk structures eerily lit up by the moonlight. We slept under the stars too - no need for a roof or a tent in the desert, as long as you hide your shoes in the van so the fox doesn't take them in the night.

The following day we made our way back towards Baharia, stopping at a few other places en route. We would have loved to spend more time in the desert but unfortunately the other people on our camping trip were only there for one night. After they returned to Cairo, Hamdi drove me and Dee around the oasis, showing us various sights and more beautiful scenery - hilltop views, huge palm groves, crystal clear pools of water, huge sand dunes, to name but a few. He found time for a detour to one of the many hot springs where we could swim in the small, warm pool surrounded by palm trees. Thankyou Hamdi! We stopped in a hotel that night, but that was due to the guy in Cairo that talked us into allowing him to arrange our tour rather than doing it ourselves. Our tour operator in Baharia, Hamdi's brother Wagdy, said he would have given us a night in the sand dunes had he been deciding the itinerary.

If anyone else is considering going to Egypt, definitely make time to visit the desert and oases. And definitely stay for at least 2 nights, preferably longer. If you can, arrange a desert trip directly with someone from the oasis rather than through a hotel or tour operator in Cairo you'll get a much better trip and far better value for money (I can give you Wagdy's number, on the condition that you say hi to Hamdi for me). Having said that, however you do it and however long you stay you'll enjoy it. I have definitely bookmarked the area as somewhere to come back to, because I am all too aware that I was in the desert for less than 3 days which isn't nearly long enough to do it justice. And to think, that was just a small corner of what is possible! Wow.


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