I suppose that in any other country not already overloaded with world-famous monuments to 6,000 years of civilisation, the fantastical limestone formations that make up Egypt’s White Desert would be a major travel destination. But with the package tourist hordes sticking to Sharm-al-Sheikh and the Pharaonic ruins lining the Nile valley corridor from Alexandria to Abu Simbel, the White Desert is still relatively untrammeled, even though it’s only about five hours southwest of Cairo.
To get there you have to do a little forward planning, because you’re not allowed to go out there on your own. Though you can find a tour once you get to Cairo, we booked ours via the Internet a couple of months before arriving. Once we were through the snarl of Cairo traffic and the vast wasteland of half-built construction ruins sprawling west of the Giza Pyramids, we were rolling in our private van through the desert toward our first destination about 300km away.
The road out is straight and flat, the landscape to either side a bleak table-top broken only by the occasional oil pump or crumbling pile of concrete. The day we left a strong wind was blowing. Though I’d not call it a sandstorm, it was kicking up enough desert to turn the sky a milky white. Drifts of sand blown over the road in places reminded us of the winter snows we’d left behind.
After a couple of stops for gasoline and tea we arrived at Bahariya Oasis, a dusty jumble of sad-looking villages held together by green thickets of date palm, their wide, windblown streets totally unsuited to the baking hot climate.
We were eager to change vehicles and get out into the wilds of the desert, but were forced to wait for a couple of hours because they were having trouble getting gas for the 4×4 we’d be taking out tour in.
We whiled away the time swatting flies in a quiet little hotel near the date palms. It was empty and cool in the shade, so at least we had that.
They said the pool was hot and good for soaking, but it looked, uh… not that inviting.
Gasoline – or lack thereof – would also be a problem on our return trip to Cairo, and there’s a story to tell about that for the next post.
Once we said hello to our driver and guide and piled our gear on the top of the 4×4, we headed out toward the White Desert national park entrance, stopping for lunch along the way.
Finally on the road again, it was only in the late afternoon that we broke off the main highway and put it into 4×4 for a trek toward our first destination: a sweeping expanse of sand and limestone surrounded by smooth, steep-sided mountains.
At the head of an enormous tongue of sand spilling into the valley where we spent the night, we bounded out of the truck and ran barefoot down the dunes. After being cooped up inside a vehicle most of the day, it was a great release to get out into the wide expanse and just let go, feeling the wind on the face and sand under foot.
Once down on the valley floor, it was like walking atop lakes of hardened cream or cake icing, the white limestone surface strewn with millions of black iron pyrites. Picking them up they felt heavy in your hand. They came in all shapes, some like flowers or crooked and broken fingers. The setting sun filtered through a sandy haze cast a yellow glow over the area.
Sleeping under the stars sound so romantic, but you don’t get much rest if the winds are blowing as they were that first night.
Using broad sheets of heavy fabric, our guides had set up a high, three-sided windbreak beside the vehicle, but the it was quite gusty until a couple of hours before sunrise. You’d be amazed how loud a few tiny grains of sand can be when they spray onto your covers. I woke up in the middle of the night and, unable to get back to sleep, went for a walk because a quarter moon had risen. The white limestone cake icing glowed a faint blue in the moonlight.
The limestone outcroppings we drove through the next day were faintly reminiscent of the fairy landscape formations of Cappadocia, though of course without the centuries of human settlement. Some took on the form of birds, rabbits, horses – anything your imagination would let itself see if you stared at them long enough.
When not setting up or breaking camp, our driver and guide were making breakfast, lunch or dinner. For lunch the second day they picked the best possible spot we could have hoped for: a small clump of trees beside a spring, behind whose low walls we were given a bit of privacy as we peeled naked to wash the previous day’s sand and dirt.
It was quiet and empty and we were on a private tour, but we weren’t the only ones there. We came across a good half-dozen other groups of tourists, some in vehicles, others on camel treks. When we stopped for the second night, we walked over to a group on a camel tour. Their animals were hungry and thirsty, and we watched them fill themselves as the sun went down.
Aside from a few crows, there was not much wildlife out there, but our guides knew where to find a famous desert dweller, leading us to the mouth of a wide, low-slung cave close enough to see a pair of desert foxes and their two tiny kits. Another fox came by in the middle of the night for a closer look at our camp and to sniff around for scraps of food, waking me up as he rifled through some poorly wrapped packages. The next morning we found his tiny footprints scattered all around the campsite.