Waking up at 6:15 am isn’t the easiest thing to do when it’s your day to sleep in, but it’s certainly worth it if you’re heading to the desert for the weekend. We met up with our friends outside the local McDonald’s (which isn’t open at 7 am, grrr…) making our group 12. We piled into a white 15 passenger van and headed south out of Cairo for a 5 hour journey to Bahariya. We arrived at Camp Sahara – a cozy camp in the desert with bamboo huts for guests to sleep in. As we were served a delicious Egyptian lunch, our guides were preparing two 4×4 Toyota 4Runners with the necessary supplies for a night under the stars. Shortly after, we climbed into the 4Runners and were off for the desert.
For about an hour we cruised down a 2 lane paved road with the windows down and the Egyptian music up. We reached our turn off point – both from the road and from the last remaining evidence of civilization. Our driver and guide, Ahmed, floored it as we whipped and weaved between intricate rock formations which increased in number the further we drove.
Though I saw little sign of one, Ahmed seemed to be following some sort of trail. He was a fantastic driver, knowing exactly how much to slow down over rough terrain and exactly how much speed to travel at to avoid getting stuck in the sand. In the next 24 hours, neither of the SUVs in our caravan would get stuck, amazingly! We finally reached the top of a massive valley punctuated with large, mountain like formations rising out from the sand. We stopped along side the hoards of other tourist groups to snap our pictures and have a little fun.
We left the valley and headed further into the desert. Ahmed was kind enough to let us hang out the car windows and even let Mark and I stand on the back of the 4Runner. We held on tight as we were racing the sun to get to a great viewpoint for the sunset. We made it, barely, and enjoyed a surreal image of the sky’s colors mixing with the unique white rock sculptures scattered along the foreground. These sculptures, as we learned, are chalk, and are the leftover remains of an
ocean that used to cover the land a long, long time ago. You could see the evidence from the masses of seashells that were stuck deep in the rocks, with only the ends of them sticking out of the sides. As dusk turned to night, we drove to a secluded patch of desert where we’d be camping for the evening. As early as 7 pm, the stars were already starting to fill the sky and we couldn’t help but gawk at a sight which was all too foreign after months of living practically starless in Cairo.
Meanwhile, our guides were already hard at work setting up camp for the evening. We offered to help but they insisted that we just relax. Shortly after they started a campfire and began making dinner – roasted chicken, rice, soup, and 7-up. It was as late as 9 pm before we actually started eating, but it was well worth the wait. Later that evening we were visited by an unabashed desert fox that came searching for whatever remnants remained from our supper. We hit the hay (err, sand) about midnight and drifted to sleep to the sound of distance drums and singing at other camp sites. The evening was a bit chilly, but the sleeping bags and heavy blankets our guides provided us kept us warm as we all we laid huddled in a Tetris-like square.
We woke up to the sun and to opera music (thanks, Mark…) around 7:30 the next morning. We strolled around the immediate area, snapping pictures and climbing up the chalky slabs of rock all around us. Meanwhile, our guides were preparing our breakfast over propane stoves. As we gathered to eat, we noticed the day beginning to heat up, so many of us began to shed our heavier layers for more desert appropriate attire. A table full of bread and jam, and a dozen or so Nescafes later, we began tearing down camp and packing up the vehicles for our next destination.
Once again, our guides let us hold onto the back of the SUVs as they raced us through the White Desert. Eventually we came to the main road and climbed back into our seats. We drove to the nearby Crystal Mountain for a quick stop. Crystal Mountain is what geologists call an exhumed cave, that is, a cave complete with stalagmites and stalactites that has been thrust upwards by earth movement. With time it has lost its roof to erosion and has almost weathered away. Probably not helping with the natural erosion of the feature is the human impact made by the large groups of tourists that climb all over it on a daily basis. *points finger at self*
A few desert miles later, we found ourselves standing at the base of one of the Black Desert’s many mammoth hills. Naturally, we all started to climb. What makes the Black Desert black are these millions of volcanic rocks that scatter its expansive surface. This large hill had no shortage of the micro-boulders. The view from the top was impressive. After a rather quick decent back down, our guides drove us over and around a rather abruptly placed dune. They appeared to be having more fun than us while they whipped their 4×4 chariots diagonally up the sides of the dune, showing off their years of desert driving experience. I was impressed.
Back to Bahariya we went for two last stops. The first, a salt lake, which we may have spent a whopping 5 minutes at. The second, ruins of an old stone British fort atop a mountain overlooking the city. Time was quickly running out on our day, and it wasn’t until nearly 5 pm before we had lunch! The concept of when meals are eaten are a little different in this country…
Bellies full from another delightful Egyptian style meal, we made our way back to Cairo as the sun dipped once again below the sprawling desert horizon. I was looking forward to a peaceful drive home, but I would have no such luck. Instead, I was violently woken to the speeding up and slowing down of our van driver passing and then being passed by another van clad with a tourist group with way too much energy. Complimented with flashing lights, honking horns, and loud Bedouin music, I may have managed a meager 15 minutes of shut eye. As they say in Egypt, “malesh”, or whatever. The desert was amazing. Probably one of the best weekends we’ve had in Egypt, or anywhere for that matter. We will be returning soon…Insha’Allah (God willing).