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Published: April 12th 2012
The White Desert
Greetings from the Sahara Desert! Wow – what a place to send greetings from, and what a place to visit. This place is amazing, and most unexpected to be honest. While most visitors come to Egypt for pyramids, temples or beaches, surprisingly few come and explore the desert, which makes up around 96% of the country’s land area (incidentally, Egypt's population of 81 million inhabit just 6% of the land!). And even fewer people are coming here now.
Yes, I must say, despite having seen a fair number of tourists in Sharm, of the package holiday variety, and a few tour buses in Cairo, there really haven’t been as many as I expected. I have only just been able to speak with people about this over the last few days, and confirmed my suspicions that tourism really has been buffeted completely by last year’s Egyptian Revolution. I thought this was the case immediately after the 2011 events of Tahrir Square, but that it might be getting back to normal now. But in these oases that I’m hopping through in the Western Desert of Egypt, it is most evident. This used to be a popular route for independent
travellers like myself, and is referred to in this way in the latest edition of the Lonely Planet, published pre-Revolution. Indeed, the book advises to book hotels in advance, be careful of touts who harass tourists immediately upon disembarking buses, which themselves need to be booked in advance due to their popularity, and speaks of many tour operators and guides constantly offering their services. I have seen none of these, and have been able to count the number of other foreigners encountered the last four days on one hand. Indeed, here in Dakhla, I haven’t seen any. While this is indeed terrible for all those dependent on the tourist industry here, and confirms the fickleness and dangers of relying on the industry in general (hark back to my Geography-teaching days again…!), it is just great for me! I feel like I’m exploring new territories, with no tourism kitsch in sight, and extremely welcoming local people who all say “hello” or “welcome” as I pass them by. It has been an amazing few days since I left Cairo.
So yes, I believe I last wrote having had enough of the pollution and chaos of the capital, bound for a bus
heading south-west into fresh air on the desert oasis loop which extends over 1000km from Cairo back to the Nile again between Asyut and Luxor. First stop, and 6 hours later, the oasis town of Bahariya. Checking into the Desert Safari Home hotel, just outside of town, I first noted the lack of tourists, as it was just myself and a Polish lady in the 25-room most-highly recommended establishment in the Lonely Planet section on the town. It took a while to drop down the couple of gears needed to transfer from a hectic 20-million peopled metropolis to the relaxed, timeless pace of desert life, but I got there in the end and enjoyed it very much.
The owner of the hotel, a certain Badry Khozam, was extremely welcoming and hospitable, and took me and the Polish lady around the sights of town for free – first evening, sunset over the desert from nearby sand dunes, and yesterday morning, a visit to one of the local hot springs, which bubble up deliciously to sooth wary travellers in numerous places amongst these desert oases. But Tuesday was just magical, stunning, splendid – another day which defies definition with mere words.
Did a day trip with Badry and the Polish lady through the desert wonders of the area: the White Desert, Black Desert, and Crystal Mountain. The first was by far the most spectacular, so-called due to the white pinnacles of rock which infinitely dot the landscape and which have been eroded by the desert winds into ever weirder and more wonderful shapes, some recognisable as a camel, sphinx, mushroom, tree and parrot, others just plain bizarre. Without the heat, you could almost imagine you’re in Antarctica instead and are surrounded by snow-covered land and rocks. After taking some awesome photos, we headed on to the Crystal Mountain, a huge block of quartz stone just off the main road, which glistens and twinkles in the desert light. Not so much a giant block of white crystal as I’d imagined, but a rock nearly wholly submerged by sand with bits of it sticking out from the desert floor, which upon closer inspection you note the crystalline stone. Finally, a drive through the Black Desert, so-called as the top-most layer of sand and gravel is made up of bits of black rock which have been eroded, transported and deposited (Geography teacher!!) there by
wind action on the surrounding black mountains. A huge contrast to the White Desert only a few kilometres further south. What a day! Spectacular, and once again probably making the desert landscape one of my favourites to visit.
Unfortunately, along with the lack of tourists also comes the lack of transport readily available to travel between the oases on the desert route. I had counted on there being fill-up-and-go minibuses from Bahariya, to take me further on to the next oasis, Al-Farafra, 200km further south, and then on to here, Al-Dakhla, 300km south-east. However, there weren’t any, so while waiting for the daily bus which passes through from Cairo around midday, the one I took to get there, Badry informed me of a guy he knew who was heading to Dakhla and would take me as a passenger for about £10 – not bad, and I jumped at the chance!
So yesterday was an adventure in itself getting here. The ever-so-slightly friendly, but rather aggressive and gruff-looking driver Abdullah pulled up in his beaten old desert vehicle which took three attempts before you could successfully open or close the door. This man was to be my company for
the next 7 hours as we half-rattled, half-cruised through the desert for 500km. We passed through some even more stunning desertscapes, the Black and White Deserts again, gravelly-type desert, tiny oasis settlements, newly planted and irrigated fields of wheat and olives, a flat immense sea of sand, and finally the ultimate in desert vistas: beautiful sand dunes just as the sun was setting – nice. Along with the beauty of our surroundings, however, Abdul was a bit trickier to deal with. Not speaking much English, and me with my smattering of Arabic, we did communicate on occasion. But on a number of occasions through his careering all over the road, I had to politely but quickly remind him that we needed to drive on the right-side of the road as a truck or donkey cart was coming up quick and fast in the opposite direction and that it’d be best, and in both our interests, if we avoided it. He spent half the journey looking at his mobile phone, a quarter with his eyes closed, and the remaining 25% looking at the road ahead. Towards the end he offered me a peek at what was on his mobile, which involved
movies of a blue nature. Fair enough if it made his journey go quicker, but he became more and more insistent that I looked at the downloads, at which I became more and more insistent that I’d rather not. Certainly the journey out the window was splendid, but I was more than glad when we finally pulled up just after sunset outside my hotel (fantastic and friendly, again with only 3 guests, the other two being Egyptian, in a 45-room place) in Dakhla, and rather glad to be saying goodbye to Abdul and his mobile phone…
And finally this morning, a trip to the nearby fortified Ottoman oasis town of Al-Qasr, made up of mud-buildings built around the 16th
Century onwards, protected from desert marauders who needed oasis towns such as this one for water and supplies as they plundered and pillaged.
Indeed, and just before I conclude with what’s up next, just a quick word about these amazing oasis towns. Originally founded in Pharaonic times as places for agricultural produce, the towns were later developed by the Romans who fortified the towns and built garrisons out here to protect their trade routes through the desert from the
local Bedouin bandit tribes and marauders, and then again by the Arabs and the Ottomans. In the 1960s, it was President Nasser himself who invested heavily in the region, through agriculture and industry, naming it the “New Valley” in a bid to attract settlers from the overcrowded Nile valley and delta towns. Today, at least until last year, it seems that tourism added greatly to the revenue of the towns, but as mentioned this seems to have temporarily died a fickle death, making them at least for me fascinating places to explore. I also just find it incredible that life can exist in such remote and inhospitable desert areas, all thanks to underground sources of water which I still find amazing that they exist out here in the middle of the arid nowhere. There is something truly magical about journeying for hours in the parched and desolate desert, and then coming across an isolated area of lush palm groves, hot springs and life. I also try to imagine back to the days of desert trade routes, and how these places which dotted the whole of the Sahara from Egypt to Morocco sustained thousands of people and camels on their incredible
journeys. Not least of all Santiago’s in Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”…
So yes, my journey has taken me thus far to Dakhla. The planning of my next few days has taken a bit of a knocking to be honest. It is theoretically possible to travel from here another 200km eastwards by minibus towards the final oasis of Al-Kharga, and then take a private taxi through the desert direct to Luxor as there is no public transport going that way, which is what I had originally planned. However, upon enquiries at the super-friendly Tourist Office (probably their first customer in days, seriously…), I found out that this route is currently off-limits to tourists. Apparently there have been recent skirmishes along the way between local Bedouins and the government, as the former have taken to stealing railway track along the disused route, apparently responded to by the government with firearms. It is understandable that the government does not want tourists in this area, and I don’t think I’d want to get caught up in such a skirmish anyway, so I’m going to have to go with Plan B. Thus, tomorrow the plan is to take a minibus to Al-Kharga, the final
The White Desert
oasis on the desert route, and then north-east towards Asyut, large city on the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. From here it’s possible to take a train south to Luxor instead, but I’m going to have to break the journey there as it’s a long one. I had wanted to avoid Al-Kharga and Asyut, though I think this is more in my mind than in present reality, as these two places in particular were centres of Islamist insurgency during the 1990s, when the Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) operated as a terrorist unit which amongst other tactics attacked tourists on their boats in this region, travelling along the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. This boat route has ever since been banned, and travel in the area remains tightly controlled and often restricted. Since then though, the Group have turned 180 degrees in their tourist-targeting tactics and are now a functioning political party contesting next month's elections as the "Building and Development Party". But the memories remain - not only for me, having also recently read William Dalrymple’s excellent book “From the Holy Mountain” in which he describes travel in this area in the 1990s rather worryingly, but also for the government.
Travel restrictions are still in place for tourists to take only certain routes and train services, and apparently armed police bodyguards still escort foreigners in both these towns… Seriously though, there is nothing to worry about as there has been no trouble in this area for the last 15 years, and the Tourist Office here in Dakhla, as well as the pre-Revolution-published Lonely Planet, both insist that it is completely safe. At least I’ll be seeing a very little-visited part of the country, before ending up in Luxor hopefully at the weekend for the last few days of my journey.
And thus ends another blog entry for my Egyptian travels 2012. Hope it’s been as interesting to read as it has for me to write it, and hope you like the photos!
Take care, and will write again soon.
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