Asleep under the stars in the White Desert

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.

Those few hours under the palm trees were slow and sleepy, but it was sensible to take our time and stay out of the blistering sun at the hottest time of day.

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.

13 Responses to “Asleep under the stars in the White Desert”

  1. March 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    How fascinating. I’m so glad you’re writing in detail about your trip.

  2. March 29, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    What fantastic photos. I really want to go there now, and honestly, I’d never heard of it before you posted about it.

  3. 3 G
    March 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Beautiful. Looks like a very serene vacation.

  4. March 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    What a fantastic landscape. Like Adam I have never heard of it until now, but it will be in my day dreams all day.

    • March 29, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      I’d heard it mentioned before, but never really considered going there until I started doing research for the trip. I realised we couldn’t go all the way to Siwa, which is near the Libyan border and even more wild and remote, and still go all the way over to the eastern shores of the Sinai on the same trip. This was the toe-dip-in-the-desert trip, if you will.

      And G, yes, it was very serene, but the way they drive, it was punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

  5. 6 lilalia
    March 30, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Fascinating landscape. Great story. I can hardly wait for the next story when gasoline was rare. I’ve only been on one or two desert islands off the coast of Venezuela. These island were once tropic, but were hit by a massive wave and destroyed all greenery. During the day there seemed very little animal or insects to be seen. But, during the night the place came alive.

  6. March 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I like your photos too, and that’s really cool you got to see the foxes in the daytime, we only saw them in the dark near our fire. It was definitely one of my favorite parts of Egypt.

  7. April 2, 2010 at 12:56 am

    amazing photos Ian. Is that your wife or is the little red haired girl all grown up now?

  8. April 2, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Good nurse,
    She is growing up fast, but still a ways to go ’til she’s taller than us.🙂

    The girl in pink is the little red-headed one, and my wife is the one on the right in the photo of the spring and the one of the two of them looking off into the distance at the butte.

  9. April 3, 2010 at 5:40 am

    Wow, Ian, truly amazing photos! Spending my holidays in a desert never crossed my mind, but your post will make me consider adding it to my “things-to-do-before-I-die”-list.
    I am looking forward to seeing more pics and next thing I’ll do will be subscribing to your blog😉
    Have a great day, Gerrit

  10. April 6, 2010 at 3:46 am

    What a beauty the fox is – and how quickly Rommel came to mind! It surprised me.

    There’s something about scoured landscapes – your White desert, our Utah, the Sahara – that’s weirdly compelling. It must have been bright, under that quarter moon – surely the sand reflects light like the snow?

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