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A night under the stars in Egypt’s Western Desert

The Sahara! It conjures up images of the endless desert, a vast sandy graveyard of countless caravans and foolhardy men who have dared to brave that desolate place. It invokes a gamut of emotions in people, and when we were planning our upcoming trip to Egypt, it certainly stirred our imagination. To make the long story short, in addition to the standard tourist sites of Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, we decided to add a desert trip in the Sahara to the itinerary. Fortunately we had a friend who had already done a similar trip – so she put us in touch with Christine Leber, a German lady settled in Bahariya who conducts such tours. A couple of emails were exchanged, and we were all set to set foot in the greatest desert of them all.

The microbus (actually a minivan) driver was waiting at Cairo airport as we stepped off our plane from Aswan. Today our plan was to drive to the Bahariya Oasis which is located about 340 km away south-east of Cairo. As we wound our way past the un-plastered bleak brick houses of Giza and then the massive Pyramids, there was definitely a sense of expectation amongst us and we looked forward to having a unique experience. The landscape around is utterly empty – the only comfort is provided by a railway line for a while – probably to provide an additional transportation option to a few isolated oil rigs that we pass. 340 km sounds like a lot, but after 3 hours, we see a large clump of green in the distance, which enlivened us like lost sailors sighting land after a while. Bahariya is quite a large place (population: 35000) and has a number of hot springs which led to its oasis status and subsequent growth. It is a featureless town with mud and brick houses, and dispels some of the romantic notions of what an oasis should be. We checked into the old Oasis hotel on 31st Dec 2008, and it was biting cold, almost felt near freezing. No revelries for us on New Year’s Eve, though the staff served up an excellent dinner. We packed in early and when 2009 dawned the next morning, we were all set to go on our safari.

We met Mohammed, a small cheerful and alert man who was to be our driver, cook, guide – in short everything. The big Land Cruiser was stocked up with lots of stuff inside and on top, and looked reassuring. A quick stop to do some paperwork related to our permits, and we were off. We took the road that goes from Bahariya to Farafra (another oasis) – after a about 15 km we drove into the desert, though the landscape was a far cry from the dunes that we normally associate with deserts. However, we did stop at quite a large dune and had great fun sliding down the sand, which was of a very fine nature. Riding in a 4X4 across the dune is also something that is exhilarating, provided you don’t have a full stomach of course. Our first stop was the Black Desert, which is a vast expanse of the desert streaked in black, apparently the remnants of a volcanic explosion many millennia ago. This is not a flat desert, it is dotted with small and big outcrops of rock, all bearing the same black imprint which gives the impression of the desert dipped in ink. This is not the vast sand sea that we imagine the Sahara to be but a curious place standing tall and dark in all its bleakness. I and my son even climbed up one of these outcrops, which gives stunning views of the landscape, and gives an idea of the sheer loneliness of the place. Mountaineering expedition over, we settled back and approached the White Desert National Park, which was to be our main area of exploration and camping location. The way from the black desert to the white one wounds through a small range of hills known as the Aqabat Mountain range, which are also quite spectacular in their color and shape. After driving through the Aqabat we asked Mohammed to stop so that we could take some pictures of the vista. Imagine our consternation when he brought the SUV right to the edge of a rather steep precipice and then halted it.

Muttering under our breaths as to the foolishness of such daredevilry we clicked our pictures and then climbed back in. It was then we understood that our intrepid driver was actually planning to go down that slope in the car, and before we could stop him we were going down a 60 degree rocky slope in semi-slow motion. It was of course great fun and my son really enjoyed this careening down.
The excitement however took a different turn due to two separate incidents that followed soon after. First our car got stuck in an area of soft sand. Mohammed fiddled with multiple levers and gears and then started a very slow crawl of the car, explaining that if we try to accelerate the spinning wheels will literally dig a bigger hole to sink in. After about 15 minutes of this nerve-wracking crab-like advance we reached harder ground (rather sand) and could finally pick up some speed. We were all a little quiet during this time and just as we started relaxing and chatting again, the next mishap stuck, this time in the form of a punctured tire. I’ve changed lots of tires in my time, but this will definitely count as the highlight – changing the land cruiser wheel in the Sahara with the thought that this was our only spare and if bad luck struck again – walking was the only option. However, we reached our first resting point without any more problems – a place simple known as the Spring. It’s a tiny clump of palms centered on an even tinier spring, but who am I to complain, having seen no green or water for the last 4 hours. This was our lunch stop and a lot of people converged here for the same reason – the first people and cars we had seen in 3 hours of driving. Mohammed rustled up an excellent lunch of pita bread, salad and tuna and our stomachs were content. We met his brother who was guiding a party of people on a walking tour of the Sahara. More importantly, he managed to get a spare tire also, so refreshed and stocked up, we resumed our journey.

 The White desert is an area which is quite simply – out of this world. There are two areas – the old and the new. The old white desert comprises of rock formations which have had their edges smoothened with the passage of time, with the result of a large area dotted with white stumps of rock – from afar it almost looks like mounds of snow strewn around an expanse of barren sand. The new white desert has the eroded rock formations of a more recent origin – which are exceptional in form and shape. Combine the utter desolation of the largest desert on the planet with an expanse of landscape dotted with fantastic rock formations, and you will get the general idea. The white is really brilliant in color and the rocks themselves, eroded by wind blowing through the ages, lend themselves readily to formations which can be given shapes limited only by your imagination. As you drive along, every few hundred meters there is something to arrest your attention and the rays from slowly setting sun lighted them up like so many candles. We saw formations akin to everything from the Phantom’s skull mountain to chickens and mushrooms and it is a place that photographers will drool over.

As the hours went by, the sunlight changed from yellow to orange to a sullen red, thus signaling to us that it was time to setup camp.

Sunset was approaching and we parked the car near one of the bigger formations to set up camp. Mohammed, as efficient as ever, et up in a short time, a nice and cozy camp, complete with campfire, cooking area and tents for sleeping. We watched a spectacular sunset as the sun went down in the distant horizon and then relaxed to reflect on a day spent quite uniquely. The temperature at this point was dropping alarmingly, and by dinner time, it was really becoming a challenge. Pita bread, zucchini tomato curry and a wonderful butter lemon grilled chicken (grilled on our own charcoal fire) made for a memorable dinner. While we ate, suddenly we had a nocturnal visitor – a desert fox came trotting up! I guess it knows that tourists camp here and is a likely place to get food, but it was a welcome sight as the only living entity (excluding the plants) that we had seen in the last 12 hours (with apologies to the living bushes at the ‘Spring’). As we were planning to turn in, Sahara had one more trick up its sleeve. The moon went down early, and in the utter blackness of the night was the most spectacular array of stars in the sky, studding the whole of the night sky like so many diamonds – with the Milky Way galaxy clearly visible. Our limited astronomy meant that we soon ran out of identifiable stars/planets/constellations, but the night sky at Sahara is something that all of us would certainly cherish for a long time.

We woke up at dawn. It was still dark and cold as we stretched our limbs outside, and slowly the horizon lightened. A few fingers of light crept out gingerly from the sun to feel at the rocks and slowly expanded into a red and orange ensemble of colors as the sun assumed its rightful place in the heavens.

Sunrise in the White Desert is really something quite spectacular and something that is not to be missed.

An uneventful drive back to Bahariya left me regretting that we had budgeted only a single night for camping in the Sahara – another day would have been ideal to soak up the environment as we got accustomed to the landscape. At Bahariya we spent some time with Christine at her house.

She had come over 11 years ago to the oasis to escape the West and has stayed on ever since, marrying an Egyptian and from what I could see, living quite contentedly in the oasis with her husband, two kids, a frisky Alsatian and cat. We picked up a packed lunch of shish kabobs, bread and salad, and then it was back to the microbus for the trip to Cairo. Mohammed also accompanied us (I learnt that he is actually studying for an engineering entrance exam in Cairo), and he made sure that at least for the trip from the bus-stand to our Cairo hotel we won’t be duped by the notorious taxi-drivers of Cairo. He called a taxi, escorted us in and told us that he is taking care of the fare since people in Cairo are not like the people in Bahariya – Cairo-ites are more apt to dupe us – I would tend to agree – I was reminded of a similar impression of our own hill-folk and plains-folk. All things considered, Bahariya and the desert safari ranks amongst one of the highlights of my travelling experiences and will probably be unparalleled for some time to come. So if you plan to go to Egypt, visit the Pyramids, the temples and the tombs, but keep a couple of days for the great Sahara. Trust me, you will feel enriched and enthralled by a unique experience in a unique land.

Relevant facts:

Location: 340 km south-east of Cairo in the Sahara
When to go: October-March
Tour Options: 1-6 days safari by 4X4, Walking tours in the Sahara
Hotel options at Bahariya: The Old Oasis Hotel, The New Oasis Hotel, Minamar Hotel
Contact Email for Christine Leber, Bahariya: [email protected]

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