Home Travelogue SAILING THE DESERT

SAILING THE DESERT

Many have expressed surprise over this new tourism that has attracted the attention of thousands of travelers from all over the world, drawing them to Egypt throughout the year, to immerse into its deserts and spend weeks wandering through its mountains, valleys, and dunes, surrounded by kilometers of golden sand.

What is the nature of this magic? What is it that attracts them to such an environment, which so many think of as sterile and lifeless? Why the sprawling Egyptian desert?
The answers to all of these questions can be found in the literature on Egyptian deserts, in libraries or on the Internet. One cannot help but notice that the writing on the subject often sounds like a serenade of love for Egypt’s deserts. At least part of the magic of the Western Desert lies in its legends, legends like that of the lost Oasis of Zarzora, or of the vanishing of Cambyses’ army two thousand and five hundred years ago. 

The 50,000-strong army had marched from Thebes (Luxor) across the desert to destroy the Oracle of Amun in Siwa.  But according to Herodotus’ account of the Persian invasion of Egypt, the army vanished under the sands of a mighty sandstorm.
 
The Western Desert is unique in many ways; its twelve depressions are covered with fossils of corals, marine shells, shark and whale teeth, and even dinosaur skeletons, testimony to the Desert’s past as an ocean basin, millions of years ago.  Stone Age caves still bear the carvings and paintings of the cavemen who once lived there, images of their daily lives and a record of the animals that once roamed the land; giraffes, elephants and deer. 
The massive dunes, some eighty meters in height, cover an area of almost 135,000 km2. All this contributes to the attraction the desert holds for travelers. 

That’s why I decide in October three years ago, to take a tour of the Western Desert.  I was encouraged by the fact that Lt. Colonel Ahmed El-Mestekawi – locally and internationally recognized for his expertise in organizing desert safaris was going to be leading the journey.  I also knew that Mr. Wael Abed, author of “The Other Egypt” (a detailed English guide to the Western Desert, currently in its third edition) would be joining us. 

We would also be accompanied, among others, by a European ambassador who really loves Egypt, its history, and its deserts.

It had been decided that our journey would start from Shali Fortress in Siwa Oasis in a few days.  It embarrasses me to admit it, but it was to be my first visit to Siwa.  The Oasis has acquired international status due to the presence of one of the sole remaining monument from Alexander The Great’s history - the Temple of the Oracle of Amun. Very little else has survived from the short-lived conqueror’s time.  The Oasis is also full of legends that call to travelers.
The journey was an experience I would never forget. 

The company you share on any journey affects each minute of your trip and your anticipation of each new day.  We were a great group, and that was a major reason for the success of our journey and the profound impact it had on me. The day before my journey was scheduled to begin, I left Cairo for Siwa in the afternoon, driven by the tourism company that had organized the trip.  The air became fresher as we moved further away from the major cities.  Eventually, we were driving with the sea on our right and stretches of sand on our left.  Flocks of birds flew overhead.  We reached Mersa Matruh, 479 km away, at sunset.  After refueling, we continued on to Siwa Oasis, another 220 km, driving down a secluded road.
As we approached Siwa, I realized that the oasis was not visible even when we were within 15 km of it.  The road seemed to stretch on endlessly.  But then it tilted downward, and suddenly I was confronted with the oasis that I had heard and read about all my life. It was breathtaking. 


I saw the dim lights scattered here and there among the thick palm tree plantations, the reflection of the moonlight in its silver lakes.  Its beauty appears suddenly and unexpectedly, as Siwa is in a depression sixty meters beneath sea level, a geographical state that helped keep the oasis invisible and hidden away for many centuries.
I was reminded of how Alexander the Great suffered to find this oasis in his quest to reach the Oracle of Amun.  I recalled how he had almost lost his life in the search, before finally reaching it and being crowned King of Egypt and Son of God.  In the moonlight, I saw Queen Khamisa’s hill on the far west side, now known as the White Mountain.  To the east was Gebel al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead, and before me stood the grand fortress of Shali. We stopped at the eco-friendly Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel, owned by Lt. General Mustafa Abdul Aziz.  The two-storey hotel is situated in the middle of a palm tree plantation.  The first tourist establishment built in Siwa, the hotel is adorned with a mineral water spring in its center.  I dined and went to bed, sleeping deeply in a quiet state I had not felt for many years.
 
I rose at dawn the following day and had my breakfast next to the spring.  I was introduced to Lt. General Abdul Aziz and his son, Mohamed, who manages the hotel.   After chatting for a while, I took my backpack and left the hotel, dressed in my safari garb.  Five minutes later, I was in front of Shali Fortress and our expedition’s jeeps, where I was introduced to the group I’d be traveling with.  They were all cheerful, and eagerly awaiting the start of our four-day journey, a trip that would take us all the way to Bahariya Oasis, 334 kilometers south of Giza. I handed my backpack to Ghardon, our driver and cook, who would work tirelessly throughout our trip, and whose smile never left his cheerful Nubian face.  While waiting for the rest of our group, the distinctive sounds of anasheed, or religious chanting, reached my ears, a kind I’d never heard before.  I saw a large number of local men approaching the city center, wearing loose, white-colored costumes and carrying green flags with Quranic inscriptions emblazoned across them. 

Their numbers increased as they came closer to Shali Fortress, until they stopped in front of a large, white shrine beside the mosque commissioned by Kings Fouad and Farouk.  I was later informed that it was the shrine of Sidi Suleiman, a local saint.  I saw the mass of people gracefully swaying to the rhythm of the anasheed, their chanting growing louder and louder, and then stopping. Then everybody started shaking hands and exchanging greetings before departing.  I asked a bystander what was going on, and he told me that it was the last day of Siwa’s yearly three-day religious festival, held after the full moon of the month of October.  He described how, during the feast, Siwa’s elders would arbitrate local disputes, marriages would take place, and the dates and olives were harvested.  I immediately decided to visit the oasis the following year, to watch and record the whole ceremony.

After the introductions were made, we got into the jeeps and started heading east.  After an hour, the convoy went off the road, bearing north, to stop at Areg oasis, which was situated in a deep depression that could not be approached by cars due to the fragility of the surrounding earth.  Thus, we stopped on a strategically located hill that allowed us an excellent view of that beautiful oasis and the ancient cemeteries carved into its sides while we ate a light meal.  At some point during the meal, the tour leader suggested I look under my feet.
 
I discovered that I was standing on thousand of uniformly-shaped stones, flat and circular, much like coins.  They were known as angels’ coins or desert dollars. Lt. Colonel Mestekawi told us that this was just the first of many unique natural phenomena that we would encounter during this journey.

An hour later, our convoy headed back towards the road and eastwards again.  We stopped at two oases; Bahrein and Nuwamisa, where we saw a number of archeological sites and sharks´ teeth scattered across the sand. Soon afterwards, we stopped and erected a tent to eat lunch, in preparation for the start of the real desert journey.
We headed south towards the Great Sand Sea, driving across both low dunes and rocky terrain.  We made camp in the afternoon, each of us erecting our personal tents, and then wandering around, taking pictures and sightseeing, walking barefoot through the coarse sand.  The fine undulations in the sand, the delicacy of the shells strewn around us, the stunning colors of the sunset on the sand, all served to transport us to a magical world.  Soon after, lamps were lit, and we sat down to dinner.

Gathered around the fire that night on Bedouin Siwan rugs, hot drinks in hand, our conversation drifted naturally to the adventurers who’d conquered this desert: Count Laszlo Almasy, Prince Kemal al-Din Hussein, Patrick Clayton, and Gerhard Rohlfs.  We talked of the British Long Range Desert Group Patrol that was formed to attack Rommel’s forces during the battles of Alamein.

One by one, each of us made way back to his tent.  I noticed the Ambassador and his son dragging their sleeping bags out onto the sand.  Pointing at the night sky, he explained that he could not deprive himself and his son from the enjoyment of spending the night beneath that divine beauty, the like of which he had never seen in such complete purity.  I looked upwards at the dazzling sky, sparkling with millions of stars and planets, briefly illuminated every now and then by a shooting star streaking across the sky.  I spent the next hour on my back outside the tent, relishing the stunning, wondrous beauty of the sky, before finally seeking the shelter of my tent for the night.

I realized how much beauty city people were missing, beyond the wonders of nature, and I was happy I’d decided to take this trip.  It saddens me that whenever I have a conversation with most of the younger generation, they believe that the desert is death, arid and ugly.  The truth is it’s completely the opposite.
Certainly, we’re Nile people, but it’s still worth treading the desert that covers 94% of Egyptian land, and seeing with one’s eyes the breath-taking beauty and richness, and just wander between its valleys, oases, mountains, and dunes.

We awoke for breakfast in the chill dawn air.  We ate our food tousled and half-asleep, before packing up our tents and equipment, ensuring no trace of our stay was left, loading up our jeeps and finally driving off.
Our convoy finally reached the Great Sand Sea, a beautiful expanse of gigantic sand dunes, some eighty meters high.  We slid rapidly across the steep dunes, from dune crest to bottom.  Driving over the dunes was a strange experience.  The movement was soft, with no vibrations; it felt like we were moving on clouds.  In the distance, hawks flew over the stony hills, like Amoud Rock. During that journey, I fantasized that some time in the future, the drifting dunes would reveal the lost army of Cambyses, a discovery that I imagined would have an even greater impact than the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb over seventy years ago. Around five in the afternoon, we stopped at the base of a dune and made camp.  While dinner was being prepared, I came across some of the local insect life in that secluded place: green colored flies, and a species of tiny spider that buries itself under the sand. Climbing one of the nearby dunes, I examined a handful of sand.  The grains were differently colored; yellow, white, red, black, and a transparent crystal-like grain.  I lay back on the top of the dune for almost an hour, watching the sunset in the clear sky, the colors reflecting off the dunes and our camp. I was soon roused from my contemplation by the call to dinner.  I climbed down to camp for dinner and my second night of sleep in the desert.
 
Praying in the desert is a totally different spiritual experience than in the city.  Ritual ablution is done with desert sand to preserve water, though we had come prepared for most eventualities.  Completely isolated, one can feel and see the greatness of the Creator all around, surrounded by a serene beauty everywhere.  There, one could concentrate deeply and in great humbleness, closer to Allah than ever.  I was reminded of Allah’s messenger, and his profound relationship with the desert, and contemplated the meaning of that relationship.

The following day we headed east towards Ain Dalla. Two hours into the trip, we arrived at Gebel Sofra, or Table Hill. Our vehicles made their way up a nearby hill, where amazingly the rocks that covered the hill were almost completely spherical in shape allowing us to enjoy ourselves, literally bowling while lunch was being made. Taking a closer look, I noticed many of the rocks had taken rare, surreal shapes; some of them had edged protrusions that ended with identical perfectly-rounded globes, shaped by erosion and the winds.

During lunch, Colonel El-Mestekawi told us that there are many caves in Gebel Sofra, caves that had been used by the British Long Range Desert Group Patrol reconnaissance forces to store fuel, ammunition and provisions for operations against Rommel’s forces. After lunch break, we continued on towards Ain Dalla, stopping to replace a burst tire on one of the jeeps, sustained while crossing an expanse of razor-sharp stones. Seeing the greenery of the palm trees after two days in the deep desert had a profound effect on me. We stopped by the spring, situated in the middle of a vast, isolated desert, two hundred kilometers away from both Siwa and Farafra.  I sipped the pure, cool water, recalling from my readings how this same spring was and still is a vital stop for journeys through the desert, where weary caravans stopped to replenish their water supplies and rest after days of travelling.

An hour later, we headed east on a semi-flat road known as Darb Ain Dalla.  After a while, white shapes started to appear in the distance.  Sometimes the yellowish sand could be seen covered totally with a white chalk layer.  We were informed that we were crossing the spectacular natural phenomenon called the White Desert.  The vehicles went off the road and into that desert, where a wonderful location was selected, situated in the middle of a number of differently sized chalk shapes and rocky mountains up to 30 meters high, with ripples of sand in between. We were urged to take pictures and videos to memorize the scenery. We made camp before wandering around, examining the terrain’s features and the different shapes of shells, corals, and iron pyrites in the chalk.  I also spotted a number of hawks flying agitatedly over us, and we were informed that our camp was close to their nests. After sunset, one cannot adequately describe the effect of the silvery moonlight reflected on the white chalk, which left us all transported. 

We ate our dinner surrounded by that beauty and serenity, visited by a gerbil, who hopped around us.  At that, our third night had ended, and we slept deeply. I rose with the sun, and lifting my tent flap, I recognized the tracks of a fennec fox, famous for its big ears and white color, in the sand around my tent.  After packing up, we traveled twenty kilometers to the east and then to the south, towards Farafra Oasis. We pulled up in front of a warm mineral water spring the size of a small swimming pool.  Lt. Colonel El-Mestekawi stepped down and told us that we could swim if we wanted to.   Five minutes later, we all jumped into the water.  After three days in the desert, strictly economizing in the water usage, the ability to swim was a great sensation.

After our swim, we walked into the oasis, wandering among its houses.  We visited its fortress, once twelve meters high, with 226 chambers, each designated for one family of the oasis’ inhabitants in the case of raids.  But due to rains, most of that fortress’ buildings, made of clay, were destroyed.  We also bought some local products, such as socks made of camel wool, pottery, and dates. Later, we pulled out of the oasis, heading towards Bahariya Oasis (almost 200 km away), where we saw the black desert at the oasis’ southern entrance, a phenomenon due to the increased iron content in its soil.

Bahariya Oasis is the Western Desert’s closest to Cairo. In 1914, a 90-million year-old skeleton of Stromer’s Tidal Giant, 25 meters tall and weighing 80 tons, the largest herbivores dinosaur was discovered there.  In 1996, the Valley of Golden Mummies was also accidentally discovered. At the time of our visit, they’d already excavated 105 mummies, most of them covered with a fine layer of gold. 

Consequently, the oasis has acquired a substantial degree of fame in terms of cultural and safari tourism.

We visited the oasis’ most famous archeological sites before moving back out into the desert to spend the final night.  At the dawn of the fifth day, the convoy began the 350 km trip back to Cairo, driving us back home, satisfied, and with wonderful and unforgettable memories of the desert’s beauty. I went back to Siwa the following year and spent a week there under the full October moon, observing the Siwans’ annual three-day festival’s rituals and celebrations, a custom two centuries old.

 

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