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Published: January 27th 2006
Christmas Eve in Alexandria saw me stroll along the Mediterranean eating considerable amounts of ice-cream, and it afforded me the opportunity to walk to the site of the Pharos Lighthouse, the fifth of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World I have visited. My final journey in Egypt was about to commence and it would take me to a place I had heard much about. So on Christmas Day, I boarded a bus for an excruciatingly awful nine-hour journey to a place near the Libyan border called the Siwa Oasis. Siwa is a sleepy village where the men seem to idle away their time sitting in coffee houses smoking water-pipes and playing backgammon, lounging around the streets engaging in sporadic conversations or silently basking in the sun. However, the women are rarely seen at all, because they do not roam in public after marriage (normally in their mid-teens). Occasionally, you would see a woman venture forth covered in a full length blue-grey shawl and their face totally hidden behind a black fabric - without even a slit for the eyes. This attire gives the women an alien appearance as their face is totally replaced by this black visage.
the transport is by donkey and cart - under the command of a male (be it a vociferous young boy or a weathered old man) who ferry grains, chickens, groceries and other people between their mud-brick dwellings. Siwa's narrow winding dirt roads are lined by a wall of desert palms whose fronds are tinged brown by the constant dust being churned up by the countless carts which trundle along below.
After a hectic month, it was time to unwind amongst the palm trees and sand dunes of Siwa and spend as much time doing as little as possible. But I did punctuate my periods of extended indolence with some energetic pursuits. One day I went for an extended walk to the outlying villages near Siwa. Upon returning, my pedometer indicated that I had now walked over 500 kilometres since leaving Australia five weeks ago - and considering that every step of the way I have carried my daypack filled with camera equipment and sometimes my backpack as well, felt quite proud of this achievement.
On another day, I took a safari into one of the last great wilderness areas of the world - to the desert known as
the Sahara. Our small group (four Germans and myself) were in the capable hands of another proficient desert driver, the sombre but affable Ali, who slid and skimmed his four wheel-drive across the sand and over some incredibly steep inclines. This was also the sight of probably my greatest linguistic triumph as I needed to translate the conversations of my mono-lingual companions - from German to Arabic, and visa-versa.
A short way into our trip, we teamed up with two jeeps of friendly Americans from the US Embassy in Cairo, and together the three vehicles formed a convoy through some truly spectacular desert. At one stage we passed another group and both their vehicles were hopelessly bogged in the sand - a reminder of how treacherous this place is, even for experienced desert drivers.
The enormity of the desert's starkness was incredible - pale yellow dunes that spread off in every direction for as far as the eye could see, and every time you crossed another ridge of dunes, the view was exactly the same. A fairly strong wind was blowing that day so it caused thin tentacles of sand to glide across the desert like a wispy brown fog. It was amazing to see how quickly the wind would cover the tracks we had made in this sea of shifting sands.
In order to view sunset from a high locale, the group left their vehicles and struggled up a near vertical dune. It was quite a challenge because for every three steps up you took, you slid two steps back. This effort was rewarded with a sweeping view across the silent desert. We lined up along the ridge of the dune (to prevent us from sliding back down) and watched an amazing sunset. Rain was falling on the horizon and the sun's last rays coloured the clouds, the sheets of rain, and the desert dunes with differing hues of red, orange and purple. It was the most spectacular sunset I have seen in a very long time.
Afterwards, down in the valley, a camp-fire was lit, and the Americans produced plenty of marshmallows, which they shared around. Toasting marshmallows in the Sahara is an experience I would heartily recommend, and I was even taught how to eat a marshmallow "Like a Yankee"!
After returning to Siwa, I met up again with the US Embassy staff and we gorged ourselves on a banquet at their hotel, before retiring outside to a warming fire beneath the palms, where we smoked water-pipes and talked long into the night. While reflecting on this incredible day, I gazed at the stars of the desert sky, and though they are beautiful, a night sky just doesn't seem quite the same without the Southern Cross.
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