Saturday, March 15, 2008

Exploring the Western Desert with Mark and Colleen

Egypt is the land of the Pyramids, the great tombs of the Pharaohs, and an abundance of some of the world’s most treasured possessions of the ancient world. Tourists flock to this county every year to see wonders of the Egyptian civilization born out of the waters of the Nile. But there is another part of Egypt that is less well known, and it is found far from the banks of the world’s longest river, buried deep in the sands of the Sahara. I am talking about the oases of the Western Desert. There are five major oases, but the most traveled to is the Bahariya Oasis. Not only is it the closest to Cairo, but it is in close proximity to both the stunning White and Black Deserts. When Mark and Colleen visited me from California, I journeyed with them out to Bahariya for a weekend of sightseeing and camping.

The beauty of the deserts surrounding the oasis cannot be underestimated. The Black and White Deserts are just that. Unique geological characteristics created a landscape covered in either hard, smooth, black stones or a soft, chalk-like rock which serves as a canvas for the wind’s artistic impulses.

We left Cairo early Friday morning for the desert and arrived in Bahariya around noon. We had a simple lunch of chicken, rice, soup, and bread before touring the oasis by jeep. The contrast between fertile land and desert is dramatic. Natural hot and cold springs feed the land, and a lake lies still between rolling dunes. After exploring the surrounding area for a few hours, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and tea before going to bed.

Saturday we left at 10am for the Black and White. But first we stopped at a giant sand dune stretching out into the barren, rocky terrain like a long finger. We climbed all the way to the top before running down. The weather was perfect, not too hot, not too cold, so we could enjoy the sunny day without the inconvenience of a lot of heat. We then moved on to the beautiful lookout points in the black and white deserts. We stopped at “Chrystal Mountain” and collected quartz stones in a variety of colors. Finally we made our way to the natural sculptures of the White Desert, each one taking on a special form. Like clouds, the shapes were left to one’s imagination. Perhaps a bird, or maybe a rabbit. By the time we were finished snapping photos, the sun was preparing to set.

Our guide Sabri parked the jeep next to one of the white outcroppings and set up camp. The tent was simple: two pieces of cloth and poles forming a two-sided shelter. The roof was nothing but the endless expanse of the universe and millions of stars that glimmered in the clear desert sky. The view was stunning. Living in Cairo, I’m lucky to see five stars in one night. Out here, I didn’t even know where to begin.

Our dinner consisted of a delicious vegetable stew with rice and chicken. I had all I could possibly eat, which was nice. Then we sat around the campfire while Sabri made us cup after cup of different types of tea—“Bedouin whisky” he called it. Some had mint, some did not, but it all was loaded with one magic ingredient: heaps and heaps of sugar. Sabri didn’t speak much English, so I used my colloquial Arabic skills as best I could. It was challenging, but I enjoyed the practice. We talked until the fired died down to embers, and we laid down under the stars, protected from the cool desert night be a sleeping bags and blankets.

Sunday morning we woke up with the sun and ate our breakfast. Simple food again (bread, jam, and cheese), but such is the life of the Bedouin. We packed our belongings and drove two hours back to Bahariya where we showered and changed and boarded our minibus back to Cairo, another four hours through desert highway.

I’ve been many places in Egypt, but I must say that the Western Desert was one of my favorite. Escaping Cairo is refreshing. It’s difficult to understand unless you’ve been here, and now Mark and Colleen understand how stressful and tense life can be in this city. There’s something to be said for the freedom of open air and the serenity of the universe.
All of my pictures are available at:

No comments: