The Western Desert

Typed up: at a shawarma place, Intr\@Net, and New Hotel in Cairo Posted from: Intr\@Net in Cairo

IMG 7225 As when we bought our tickets, the bus station was very loud in the morning. It’s under an overpass, and mini buses are honking their horns non stop. Joann from Australia was also waiting for the bus and headed to the same place we were. It was nice to have somebody to talk to and to confirm that we were in the right place. The 8am bus showed up at 8:30, and by 8:45 we were off. The ride was nice, although it still seems hard to believe that some people bought aisle seats for the entire ride and ended up standing for the 5 hours. There was a stop about halfway through, which was a nice opportunity to stretch our legs and to see how big and empty the desert was.

IMG 7535 In Bawiti we were immediately accosted by several touts. We didn’t have everything planned out so we went with Ahmed Said who drove us to the Old Oasis Hotel (our choice). The hotel charges too much for the state of the rooms and facilities, and the food is bad (and way overpriced) but it does have a very nice garden which looks out over the date plantation.

IMG 7328 After dumping our bags Ahmed took us to a local restaurant where he let us eat before launching into his sales pitch for the desert tours he offers. Basically, he charges more and delivers a better experience than his competitors. He seemed like a friendly guy, his English was pretty good, and the price not too extravagant (but out of our budget) so we said OK to a 2-night trip in the desert, starting the next day. The rest of the day we just napped and ate dinner.

IMG 7303 We were to be picked up at 10am the next morning, and Ahmed was even early. We were disappointed to learn that he would not be our guide. Instead we drove just outside the hotel were we moved to a different Toyota Landcruiser. We met our guide Mahmud, and our cook Wagdi. Both are still “young,” but definitely good at what they do. Driving in the desert is an order of magnitude more challenging than it was on our east Africa safaris. Here we went truly off road. Most of the time we were on fairly well established trails but when you’re driving over loose sand or solid rock, that doesn’t lead to a nicely packed road.

IMG 7239 At every place we stopped we were given as much time as we wanted to wander about. We encountered one person on a group tour whose car was honking at him to get back down already. Our first stop was at a hill in the Black Desert, which is so named because it’s covered in black volcanic rock that rained down 35 million years ago. We climbed the hill to enjoy the view, but mostly we enjoyed looking at the different kind of rocks.

IMG 7287 We stopped at a Bedouin village for tea and then lunch, before we continued on and turned off the road. At a place where gray rock poked through yellow sand we explored some more. Danielle found a geode (split open already), and we just had a great time looking at everything. There were also lots of rocks that appeared to have some rust in them. Then we stopped on top of a sand dune to play around some. Of course we found some more neat rocks at the bottom of the dune. We drove straight down the steep side of the dune, which was a lot less scary than I thought it was going to be.

IMG 7320 Finally we made camp among some other dunes in an area where we did not see any other tire tracks. It was just us 4 alone in the desert. The air was fresh, and it was totally quiet except for the wind and our own noises. It was cold too, and our long underwear came in handy. Mahmud made a fire while Wagdi started cooking. Once the fire was going he used it to grill some chicken, too. Dinner was great and afterwards we enjoyed tea around the fire. We slept next to the wind screen, under the stars and 3 blankets. (We didn’t see many stars because the full moon was out.)

IMG 7370 On our second day we went by several desert springs, each enough to support a handful of palm trees. Close to the first one were the remains of 3 Roman mummies in a hollow in the rock. Around there we found our first pottery shards, which Mahmud assured us were in fact Roman. It’s still hard to believe, just because at home a site like that would be fenced off, but here anybody can walk in and touch it. At lunch I explored for an hour while Danielle took a rest. Walking through the desert was a lot of fun, looking at rocks, rodent tracks, a hawk, and in general a varied landscape. It wasn’t even that hot, even at 1pm.

IMG 7432 Towards the end of that day we entered the really famous part of the desert, the White Desert. It’s sandy with big chunks of chalk poking through everywhere. Each one is shaped by the wind in a different way. And there are so many of them that the whole thing feels magical. To make it even better, we found sea shells in the chalk. The last time there was an ocean here was 70 million years ago, so as we walked around we crunched on ancient shells. Of course we also looked at them and didn’t try to crush too many. Then we camped right there, among the crazy chalk sculptures.

IMG 7488 The next day we went for a leisurely walk to see more before continuing on to Crystal Mountain, which is named there for the amount of quartz found there. It wasn’t quite as spectacular as the guidebook made it sound, but we did find 2 really big pieces of quartz, and smaller veins were pretty common. Then we drove straight back to Bawiti, getting through police checkpoints by handing out a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of water respectively. We checked into the Old Oasis Hotel again because the guidebook made it sound like it was the best place in town, despite its problems.

IMG 7495 Then in the afternoon we got a tour of the Baharia Oasis from Ahmed himself. Driving through the date plantation was pretty surreal, but the main thing that struck us was the expansion of irrigation to support more people and more crops. We also passed a salt lake that people were in the process of turning into farmland. Like everywhere in Egypt, there are too many people and not enough land to go around. There was a very sharp transition between green, irrigated land and then suddenly a sandy desert.

IMG 7526 In the sandy desert part I climbed Pyramid Mountain (also not that tall, but plenty steep and lots of loose rock). Danielle stayed below, and was pretty upset when I took a different route down where she couldn’t see me. Back in the car Ahmed commented that Danielle looked different, and what happened? In some ways Egyptians sure are a lot more direct than us Americans, where you’d never comment on somebody being upset unless you know them very well.

IMG 7531 Ahmed offered to take care of our bus tickets, which was nice. That night we ate at Popular Restaurant downtown, which was good and not too unreasonably priced. We talked to a family of 4 from Seattle who are travelling for 10 months, with their children. In the morning we saw them again at breakfast before they went out into the the desert with Mahmud. Because this was the end of the Eid holiday the buses were all full, but in the late morning Ahmed got word that 2 spots had opened up on the 3pm bus. So we ended up spending all day sitting around at the hotel (with lunch at Popular). For all its problems the hotel garden is a really great place to sit around and relax.

Equipment rave: We each got a travel towel from Rick Steves, and they’re great. They feel a little funny at first but do a great job at drying you off (much better than most hotel towels). They dry very quickly, and they pack down very small.

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Living the good life in Seattle, occasionally sharing something interesting with the Internet.