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White Desert Egypt

ALTERNATE EGYPT

Again! Again! This was the united cry from family and friends that assailed our ears, when Nirupa and I announced our return to Egypt. A call we can never ignore!

But this was to be a trip with a difference (Yes we would do the traditional tombs, temples and monuments ramble) but we yearned to see another side of the land of the Pharaohs; Egypt Unplugged - as we liked to call it was our pursuit, with a bit of indulgence thrown in, after all we were on holiday!

With a month at our disposal our schedule was flexible and undemanding (or so we thought) except for the travelling time, as distances are vast and buses the main form of transport.

White Desert Egypt

We slipped the arms of Nut after eight hours in her bosom. As Horus of the ancients was slowly edging above the Eastern horizon, this 21st century Horus of metallic lustre was gently descending to the embrace of mother earth. A grey familiar March dawn, revealed the outskirts of the ever-expanding Al Qahira, with the desert shades it is slowly but inexorably replacing.

My love affair with Egypt began in 1963. After seeing the epic Cleopatra at least seven times, I was converted and over the years I have become a true devotee of this land of sand and sun and as any true pilgrim I need to return to my adopted land my Kemet, to be renewed and re-energised

The feelings of anticipation, or is it anxiety, are always the same.

White Desert Egypt
Will it have changed; will the people still be as welcoming as before; what about our safety? Childlike concerns that play on the mind like the tug of a toddler on a mother’s apron strings.

Every visit my needless fears are allayed • nothing has changed. From Cairo to Aswan the green fields spawned by the Nile are still tended by an army of diligent fellahin, as has been the custom for millennia.

Cairo is still as crowded and frenetic as ever. Venturing into this traffic of chaos is still a risky business, but for all this it is the people I remember: friendly, curious, inquisitive and talkative. Their hospitality knows no bounds and their: “you may choose but not refuse” refrain, accompanies every offer to partake in a refreshment break.

White Desert Egypt
Yet it is the drivers, who in spite of their lack of respect for pedestrians, deserve special mention! They are masters of the tarmac bar none. Demarcated three lane roads are converted to five lanes of jostling, squeezing, revving motor mayhem. Yet accidents are rare, not withstanding the congestion and flagrant disregard for the rule of the road. As one Cairen commented on the traffic lights “Christmas decorations!”

 The city is in a permanent state of traffic jam. What with a population of seventeen million at last count, it would seem that as many vehicles are on the road as people.

 Journeying from Luxor, famous for the Valley of the Kings and other ancient treasures, lay a gruelling sixteen hour bus ride to Dahab.

White Desert Egypt
A trip not for the faint hearted. The driver a suicidal maniac for whom oncoming traffic, slow moving vehicles, animals and any other obstructions were mere annoyances to be hooted out of the way. With only parking lights on to make it all the more challenging, we said a silent prayer to St. Christopher. Could it get any worse? Yes, competing with the roar of the engine was the latest on the Egyptian hit parade pummelling us into a near state of paroxysm.

Dawn heralded our deliverance from this nightmare and as Dahab came into view we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

 Dahab, Arabic for gold, so named after its glimmering sands.  Ensconced on the Gulf of Aqaba, roughly halfway between Sharm el Sheikh to the south and Nuweiba to the north, the coast of Saudi Arabia is a mere stones throw away across this placid turquoise sea lane.

White Desert Egypt
Originally a Bedouin encampment, Dahab was popularised by Israeli troops in the sixties on R&R until discovered by the Flower Children, who in turn gave way to the back packing fraternity and now the haunt of the Russian nouveaux riche.

A diver’s paradise, famous for its coral gardens, sunken ships and the unique Blue Hole: literally an eighty metre deep pool in the reef, just off the beach - sadly many divers have lost their lives in attempting this depth.  The coral is a riot of colour, in a wonderland of shifting tones, tints, hues and shapes, populated by some one thousand species of marine life. The residents so accustomed to humans, have no fear, staring you down inches from your goggles. Besides Dahab’s many earthly attractions we were here on a spiritual quest as well, to visit St Catherine’s Monastery and Mt Sinai. The Monastery houses the remains of St Catherine the legendary martyr of Alexandria and has been a place of pilgrimage since the 4th century AD.

White Desert Egypt
The Roman Empress Helena had the chapel built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from the Moses story.

 

The Monastery, at the foot of Mt Sinai was an easy hours’ drive from the coast.  We were here to follow the one thousand five hundred  year old pilgrim’s route up to its summit, some 2285 metres above sea level to experience a sunset like no other. The path is nothing more than a lazy winding rocky track, which zig zags its way up the mountain. To our utter surprise and disbelief we found the world of commercialism had even reached this far flung desolate and for many, sacred environment. Greeting us with mixed blessings, makeshift "tuck shops" selling tea, coffee, hot chocolate and Mars Bars if you like! • are a welcome sight to foot sore weary hikers, brave enough not to have opted for a camel instead.

White Desert Egypt
  Three hours later we arrived at the summit. The 360 degree view was awesome, mountains packed upon mountains, desolate, silent…ageless, like the casually discarded crumpled wrappings of the ‘gift of Sinai’ stretching to and beyond the horizon in shades of greens and browns marching to the tune of the fading light, the silence only broken by the sighing of the wind.

The trek back down turned out to be more of a challenge than we bargained for. Halfway down the light began to fade and soon it was dark-dark as only the desert can get. Stumbling on by starlight we finally lost the path. But fortune favours the intrepid and we managed to attract the attention of a Bedouin from the monastery, who to our great relief, guided us down the rest of the way to our waiting transport and our relieved driver who soon had us headed for the beckoning lights of Dahab.

A week in the laid back culture of Dahab, its string of restaurants, hotels, shops, camps, internet cafes and dive centres, squeezed between mountains and desert on one side and sea on the other, was the antithesis of the Egypt we had come to know and love.

White Desert Egypt
Sadly it was time to move on • the Eclipse was approaching.

 On the Western side of the Nile lays the Libyan Desert, all 2.8 million square kilometres of it, our next destination • the Bahariya Oasis. The road to Bahariya, winds past the pyramid crowned Giza plateau now rubbing shoulders with the suburbs of Cairo, a straight black marker for the next three hundred and sixty kilometres.

We passed the 6th of October City on our right, Cairo’s answer to its burgeoning population. In South Africa our townhouse complexes are modest by any standards. October the 6th City stretches for tens of kilometres along the road pushing back the desert to make way for sprawling mass housing.

White Desert Egypt
The suburbs for want of a better word are each hundreds of kilometres square! Fenced, guarded and holding every shape style and design of living unit imaginable, all in luxurious gardens and parks, truly mind boggling. The greatest builders on earth are still at it, their pyramid ancestors can be truly proud, the style has changed but not the scale. As the kilometres slipped smoothly beneath our wheels we could barely contain our excitement for the big event the next day would bring.

For here in Bahariya we had come to witness a once in a lifetime event, a total solar eclipse from Upper Egypt and take in a desert safari. Unfortunately the oasis was just outside the umbra, so we had to settle for ninety five percent of totality. Still an eerie awesome experience with the temperature dropping and the sunlight appearing decidedly diluted.

Our first night was spent at the modest Ahmed Safari Camp on the fringe of Bawiti the capital.

White Desert Egypt
Yes the oasis has a capital, city it is not. Consisting of a dry dusty main road, some shops, a few guest houses and one or two modest hotels, together with the squat square dwellings of the local inhabitants. Bawiti is also famous for its sulphur springs, where one can take the cure as has been the custom since the days of Alexander the Great. But beware some are hot enough to boil an egg in. Bahariyas other claim to fame is its Golden Mummies from the Greco-Roman period. Discovered in 1996 and so named because of their lavish guilding covering the mummies from head to chest. It’s estimated there are some tens of thousands of mummies in this six kilometre square 2,600 year old cemetery.

Our four by four now fully fuelled and loaded, we were off down a surprisingly good tarred road. The only link between Bahariya and the other four, “Islands of the Blessed,” as Herodotus called these life sustaining oases that arc through the desert, forming a rough crescent from Cairo to Luxor. The same route followed by the camel caravans of old.

Our first off road encounter was the Black Desert, where eroded particles of  sun-baked black basalt like rocks litter the desert floor, dusting the sands in shades of charcoal and grey.

Pit Stop White Desert
  Still marvelling at this unique natural display, Crystal Mountain was upon us. Sadly a mountain no more - the elements and souvenir hunters having decimated this geological wonder to a hilly outcrop of quartz.  Never the less, remains of its former splendour shimmered in the myriad of crystals that glittered and sparkled in the brilliant sunlight.

For some the desert is an inhospitable wilderness, a place of extremes, punished by the sun during the day and frozen by the moon at night. But for me it is a magnetic landscape. It overwhelms my senses with its wide endless sands capes. It speaks to my soul with a yearning and a thirst that invites, nay draws me to a communion of reverence, for the hand of God has surely touched this place and I am overcome with emotion and humbled by its majestic solitude.

But nothing could have prepared us for our final stop, The White Desert.

White Desert Egypt
In the rays of a dying sun it was all but Daliesque in its surrealism, stretching out on both sides of the black tarmac, a meandering blemish on this otherwise pristine landscape. Brilliant white formations of gypsum known as Inselbergs in every shape and size and in their thousands appear to float like icebergs in a sea of sand. Their colour changing with the diminishing light, until all one can discern are starlit silhouettes, silent sentinels between heaven and earth, the results of constant weathering through the ages. Eventually they will all disappear leaving nothing but their crystalline remains to dust the desert floor.

After pitching camp, now there’s a euphemism for you. Camp consisted of nothing more than a blanket thrown on the sand, and a sleeping bag next to our vehicle. Our driver/guide and excellent cook was soon coaxing life into a brushwood fire in order to prepare our evening meal, the silence broken only by the crackle and hiss of the dry hungry wood. Leaving Mohammed to his culinary magic, we contemplated our surroundings, an epicurean feast for the senses. Drinking in the unimaginable beauty and mystique of it all, like souls long deprived of sustenance, allowing it to flow in and through us, satiating our mind and spirit.

Mushroom Rock, White desert
 Minutes later we were feasting on a melange of chicken, tomato chutney with diced potatoes, rice and bread with a little conversation. Mohammed’s English though better than our Egyptian, we still struggled to keep a conversation going.

Drifting through the stillness of the night the far off sound of music (no pun intended) got us to our feet, like hounds on the trail we followed it to it’s source; a group of European campers being entertained by some Bedouin musicians. As is the custom in the desert, unannounced visitors are always offered hospitality and soon we were part of the circle around a roaring fire. Clapping hands, drinking tea and cheering on those who were uninhibited enough to join in the impromptu dancing. A magical moment in the vastness of nowhere, here no words were necessary, the gestures said it all.

Finally in the glow of the dying embers, our hosts faded away like shadows, becoming one with the night and with the music trailing behind us we slowly made our way back across the silky sand, bathed in the soft starlight of a sky we city dwellers can only dream of.

Dinner party, bedouin style, White desert.
A sky so studded with stars that it appeared as if the vault of heaven threatened to come crashing down. Crawling into our sleeping bags, sleep did not come easily, the cold was almost tangible. A mysterious pitter- patter kept me alert but all the discomforts and distractions soon gave way and I was totally mesmerised by this enchanted sky. A sky animated by not one…. two…. three….. but four flaming meteors performing on Nature’s magnificent stage. A solo performance for an audience of one. Orion almost close enough to touch, bowing out into the west.

 The glow of dawn was a silent nudge not to be ignored as it slowly advanced across the slumbering landscape. Grudgingly and slowly we arose, drawn by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, served with the ubiquitous flat brown bread, boiled eggs, cheese, cucumbers and jam.

In the light of day, the pitter- patter mystery was explained by the small imprints all around our camp of a small desert fox, no doubt on a midnight forage.

Sunset in the White desert

We had one more stop before heading back to Bawiti; that was ‘The Desert of Flower Stones’. A small patch of desert littered with small hard black stones resembling petrified berries. Remnants of a meteor shower perhaps? The how and why of - a mystery!

After the rigours of the past weeks we decided to shake the desert dust off our shoes and spent a relaxing 3 days aboard the Aton, a five star cruise ship plying the Nile between Aswan near the Sudanese border and our original jumping of point, Luxor.

 

  Ray 

 June 2006

 

 

 

 

poohgirl56 says:
do you happen to know what's the weather like in the beginning of september?
Posted on: Apr 27, 2008
kristinasub says:
I have to say again BRAVO :o)) really non-usual shown Egypt, lots of people doesn't know even that White desert exist and this blog is soo good chance for that.
Photos are amazing,i like desert so much and I saw Sahara in many shapes in Tunisia ... and White desert is so specific.
Posted on: Jan 27, 2008
Andy99 says:
Excellent blog!
Posted on: Jan 26, 2008
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White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
Pit Stop White Desert
Pit Stop White Desert
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
Mushroom Rock, White desert
Mushroom Rock, White desert
Dinner party, bedouin style, White…
Dinner party, bedouin style, Whit…
Sunset in the White desert
Sunset in the White desert
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
White Desert Egypt
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photo by: vulindlela