Sun and endless sand....
08.01.2010 - 12.01.2010 28 °C
OK, that’s a lie… the deserts of Egypt certainly do have lots of sun and sand, but there was no sign of Andrew Ridgely at all. Our travels West from the Nile Valley involved hours of driving, and some stunning scenery.
West of the Nile the ‘desert’ is actually comprised of several deserts, each quite unique, but all desolate and unforgiving, save the oases.
First stop on our tour de sand is the oasis of Dahkla, about 8 hours drive by mini-bus, punctuated only by the occasional ‘pit-stop’. Surprisingly, small oases are everywhere, and wherever there is water there are people. The contrast between the wall-to-wall brown of sand, rock and dirt, and the areas of irrigation and farming is stark. The green almost looks artificial against the harsh arid surrounds. Our romantic notions of an oasis are shattered upon arrival to Dahkla - although there are indeed palm trees and water, the oases of the Egyptian desert (at least the ones we see) are actually small towns which have grown over the centuries at the caravan watering holes.
Dahkla Oasis - the green looks out of place
Sunset from the rooftop of our lodgings
Off again, and another day of driving, this time switching from bus to 4WD to tackle the off-road desert terrain. We first visit an ancient Egyptian Village dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
11th & 12th century mud brick village
The ancient mosque
Allah appearing or a trick of light?
An ancient olive press
Leaving our lunchtime pit-stop town we even have an armed police guard and escort to see us into the White Desert (we don’t dwell on the reason for this - just accept it). The White Desert is aptly named as it turns out… quite white, and definitely a desert. After the browns of the landscape thus far, the white stone and sand looks uncannily like egg white or drifts of snow. Wind-carved sculptures loom overhead, looking like giant mushrooms sprouting from the surrounding desert.
We're on a road to nowhere...
Jac and some shadowplay
Our trusty desert steeds
Us in the White Desert
Fellow travellers Sally, Lyrian and Penny
Our travelling buddies - Eric and Markus (Mariah behind the camera)
It is here we camp under the stars for a night - an experience to remember. Like the old Coconut Rough song, it’s cold in the desert tonight, so cold in the desert tonight! 30+ degree days (its winter thankfully, else we’d have been looking at 50+ during the day) give way to near zero nights. We are prepared with thermals and toasty warm sleeping bags. We are visited by a desert fox who comes right into our campsite seeking scraps, and are warned these cheeky beggars will steal our shoes at night (they have a real thing for Nikes apparently). Night in the desert is eerily beautiful, with a starry sky unblemished by pollution or light.
Sunset in the White Desert
A foxy visitor
The next day sees us enter the Black Desert. Like it’s White neighbour, the Black Desert is also aptly named, being, well… Black(ish). The landscape changes however - looking very much like a sea of volcanic cones. Everywhere we stop, we can see reminders of the fact the desert was once a sea - fossil shells litter the entire Western desert region.
Another overnighter in another dusty, littered desert oasis (Bawiti this time) and our 4WD journey hit’s the ‘real’desert… sand dune country!! This is the Great Sand Sea, bordering Libya not far West of here.
Thus far, as a group, we have not been prone to complaint, preferring to suck up any shortcomings in our transport, accommodation and food as “cultural” experiences. Incompetence, however, warrants a mention. The 4WD Mavis had been in the previous day had sprung a fuel leak - thankfully diesel, so it was never about to burst into flames, but enough to fill the vehicle with diesel fumes, making for a very uncomfortable day for those on board. The same vehicle also suffered from a flat battery after the night in the desert, requiring a tow-start. Assured the fuel leak had been fixed, we switch vehicles only to find there also seems to be an exhaust leak (i.e. into the car). Nice! A tyre blowout slowed proceedings somewhat, as did running our of fuel completely later in the afternoon. Guess that fuel leak is not as fixed as one would have hoped eh?
Being towed, 10 feet from the vehicle in front, in desert temperatures, over the dustiest piece of road in the entire Middle East, with the windows open was pretty cultural alright… but not as cultural as we were feeling about 1am the next morning…
Chalky woke feeling nauseous around 1am and had an unexpected chat to the great white telephone, followed by several more 'conversations' throughout the course of the night. By morning Chalky had graduated to the other end, and Jac was equally ill - requiring a tag-team approach to the bathroom. Upon emerging from the room we discovered that 9 of the 15 group members were also very ill… the result of a nasty bout of food poisoning. Some slick detective work led us to the conclusion that our friendly drivers were as good at food preparation as they were at vehicle maintenance. Welcome to Siwa, have a nice day! Up to this point we had done rather well - not drinking the water (bottled only), not brushing our teeth with tap water, not eating the yellow snow etc. Poor Jac had to write the entire day off, bed-ridden.
Siwa turned out to be a lovely town, surrounded by large lakes (quite an eye-opener seeing a lake in the middle of the desert). Chalky opened up a can of harden-the-fk-up, and joined Mavis and the few still-standing group members on a bike-tour of the Siwa Oasis, including a stop at the temple of the legendary Oracle of Siwa.
Our last day of travel through the desert (with more than a couple of people still feeling rather less than 100%) involved a 6 hour drive North to the Mediterranean coast and Alexandria, stopping at the second world war memorial at El Alamein on route. The coast itself is a a funny mix of resorts, the majority of which appear to be abandoned mid-construction. In between however are the top-end resorts where Egypt’s wealthy come to holiday.
The Commonwealth war memorial was a sobering stop on an otherwise tedious day. Thousands of graves of the young men of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are set out in rows on a sandy slope. It was something of a shock to see so many unknown soldiers buried there, and it saddened us to think that although the nations these men came from are all green, they are buried so far from home in barren, sandy soil.
Our arrival in Alexandria ended our 6 day desert sojourn. A vast empty place of landscapes to set George Lucas‘ heart racing, long hours in the car, and dodgy mechanical skills.