Not your typical Tombs & Temple Ramble
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.