After breakfast we explored the old town – Al-Qasr –mud bricks and palm tree lintels (still used today), covered walkways, domed buildings – dating from the 7th Century and originally housing early Muslims from Mecca. The guidebook says it was built on Roman ruins, but our guide didn’t mention that. Colin climbed up the old minaret to get a great view of the whole town. It was occupied for several hundreds of years; the modern (and occupied) town is right next to it.
Next oasis is Farafra (again, a series of oases “line” the road; the district is called Farafra as is the main town). We stopped for lunch which Shariff the driver cooked in a café (we will find that he knows many cafés between here and there and does the cooking – don’t actually know why!). Next door there is an amazing art gallery – completed conceived and built by local self-taught artist Badr Abdel Moghny, whose work has been exhibited internationally. It was closed but we went back to it later: his eclectic style covers sand paintings, sculptures of found pieces, rock carvings, etc., all housed in a traditional building with many small rooms and a 2nd floor balcony.
Then through town and on into the White Desert: take sand dunes and cover with “snow” which is actually limestone “sheets”, sometimes in small patches, sometimes as rocks, sometimes in large sheets, it’s the most bizarre thing to see and experience. This first night we didn’t drive far into the desert, but drove around and camped by wonderfully-shaped, wind-eroded features.
We set-off to explore by foot as driver and guide set up camp: a long wind-break is attached to the down-wind side of the Land Cruiser, the sand in front of it is covered in rag rugs and a low table forms the campsite. We were offered tents but just slept in this space on foam mattresses and sleeping bags. Shariff does everything, including cooking. He graciously allowed me to chop onions and peel potatoes! We had sliced potatoes boiled in a tomato-onion mixture, rice, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and grilled chicken – delicious! We had green-coloured cantaloupe and peaches for dessert. Sunset caste the white structures in a pinkish hue! After dinner we talked for quite a while. Turns out that our guide was in Tahrir Square for the whole Revolution: the demonstration was planned for January 25, a Police Day, to protest the seizure and murder of an innocent man in Alexandria 2 or 3 months earlier. It was planned between educated young men on the Internet. He is of course very rightly proud of having been part of it all. He told us that the Police shot into the faces of the young men leaving the mosque after prayers: the brother of his wife was killed and a friend lost his eye. His wife who is pregnant (and is also studying pharmacy) brought him food and clothes. He is very optimistic for the future of Egypt although he doesn’t think any of the current presidential candidates is the right one (“he –or she - must be new but over 40”). He constantly speaks about “before the Revolution” and “after the Revolution”, for instance in terms of the now ease in getting desert permits. Shariff our driver was also in Tahrir Sq (he was one of the men fighting the Molotov cocktails, wearing homemade helmets).
It was quite cool at night, but it was incredible! I woke up early enough to see dawn (5:20 precisely!), and we were all up and about by 7 so breakfast could be prepared and eaten (beans, soft cheese which is called feta, but is way nicer than our version), cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese….
We drove back to Farafra for a quick dip in a “hot spring” – a great volume of water coming out of a pipe and into irrigation ditches. I dunked my feet; the others dunked their bodies! We drove back to the White Desert – this time significantly further than last night: we drove up dunes and down (only getting stuck once!), around rocks and over passes. We got out and walked when caution dictated it! And drove up to see a large arch where the underlying rock had eroded away. It’s all quite magical, and if you don’t think about it you really think those white limestone sheets are snow drifts remaining on summer slopes!
We camped on a high sand dune overlooking a wonderful vista of strange shapes. We were facing east with a ridge behind us so we didn’t get a sunset and although I woke up just before dawn I couldn’t be bothered to get up and take photos.
And I forgot to mention the foxes! On both nights we were visited by packs of small sandy-coloured foxes – between the size of a large cat or small dog, yapping and scrapping over our food scraps (far from not feeding the “animeaux sauvage”, it appears to be expected!) At first one bold one came to investigate and each evening this increased to 9 or 10 – charming to look at, although in the morning you could see their tiny paw prints very close to our beds. Anna says one jumped on her chest just like the cats!
We broke camp and “rode” down the sand dunes at an alarming pace (you apparently need momentum to get through sand!), and so back to the main road. There have been road blocks/police check points at intervals. Since the Revolution this has just meant slowing down and saying a few pleasant words, sometime they take down our license plate, sometime “Canadian” is said. Along the desert road these checkpoints also have an ambulance and a solar-powered station. The ambulance:population ratio is significantly higher than in say rural Alberta, and likely higher than in Calgary as well!
Next stop is Crystal Mountain – an area with calcite crystals in the rock formations; very pretty. Continuing on we’re aiming for the Black Desert, but first we stopped for an Egyptian coffee/pineapple pop/water melon slices at a café/general store owned by a woman who moved from the Delta with her husband and 4 children; the husband died 2 years ago and she runs the store which has everything from food for your desert expedition to local handicrafts, including woven rugs which looked quite nice; the price was right and we bought one each, and she gave us each a piece of jewelry (Colin and Anna got wristbands, I got a necklace); lovely thought. We were also given a water melon….
The Black Desert is regular sand dunes “covered” by black basaltic-like rock. We drove to a place particularly rich in the black rock which looked to us like lava-flow. Colin thought it likely to be the hard rock (diorite) used in antiquity to quarry granite. Our guide, however, said there was a German(?) survey which found the black rock to only be surface-deep and not basaltic at all. Colin is skeptical and will do some research at home…
We arrived at our final destination – Bahariya Oasis, and the major town of Bawiti. The guidebook says this was a centre of agriculture in Pharaohic times, producing wines sold in the Nile region. We did indeed see grape vines, but these days for eating not drinking! We drove through a bustling market to the local museum which houses 10 of the “Golden Mummies” found in the neighbourhood. These were not mummified in the usual way (brain not removed); I think the binding produced a more “plaster-of-Paris” effect than usual. The faces certainly are covered in plaster and fairly garishly painted, some with gold paint since these wealthy merchants couldn’t afford gold. After the museum we went to the actual (26th dynasty) tombs – some 7 meters below ground. The walls are still covered in decorations, although markedly cruder than the royal ones we saw in Luxor. The father’s tomb employed a local artist but for the sons’ an artist was brought from Luxor.
A bit further into the oasis and we arrived at our destination for the night: Qasr El Bawity hotel – a wonderful series of rooms around a forecourt/garden, but its main claim to fame is that it has its own hot spring and a swimming pool! Again we are the only tourists here, but last night they had a group of overland travelers, whom we saw in passing earlier. After lunch, we shower and wash clothes (which dry in no time!), and relax in the cool but very refreshing pool, then take a very hot dip in our own natural hot pool (well, the water is natural, the pool is like a huge bath). It instantly reminded Colin and me of the private pools at Rotaroa! The only problem with this place is the flies (to be honest, they are everywhere when you stop); Colin wants to declare a “no fly zone” but no one is listening! Tomorrow we’ll be back in Cairo after this wonderful interlude, seeing another side of Egypt that not too many tourists (especially this year!) see.