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April, 2014

is one
of our
favorite destinations and we have traveled there many times and seen most of the major sights along the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel. But, until recently, we knew almost nothing about the vast desert areas that span most of the country. We were instantly intrigued when a friend traveled to this region and made us aware of it. It seemed like a natural fit for us as desert expeditions are one of our travel favorites.

We flew from San Diego to New York where we connected to a flight to Cairo, arriving at 11:10 am the next day. By 2 pm, we were en route with our Memphis Tours guide Mohammed to El Alamein (3 hr. drive) for our first night’s stay along the Mediterranean.

El Alamein was the site of several pivotal battles for control of North Africa between the Allied and Axis forces. Each side was led by a legendary commander, the Allies by British Field Marshal Montgomery and the Germans by Field Marshal Rommel. The Allies’ victory was one of several that turned the tide of war against the German army. The Allied cemetery is a respectful, well-maintained site with the individual graves of those who died in these battles. It is a compelling and touching memorial. Not far away is a memorial site for German soldiers lost in battle and another for Italians who perished in these battles. There is also a museum but, disappointingly, it is closed for major renovations after the partial collapse of the roof.

After spending some time at these sites we continued on to Marsa Matrouh, our last stop along the Mediterranean. At a checkpoint about 8 miles from the town, we picked up an armed 5-person military escort which accompanied us to a café in the town center. It seemed wholly unnecessary. The homey little café which specializes in fresh fish dishes had been recommended to Mohammed by the officer in charge. While our lunch was being prepared, we had a chance to look around the authentic market area. (The chef had gone to the mosque for Friday noon prayers). We seemed to be the only foreigners in the vicinity.

After lunch, we began our 5 hour drive to the isolated oasis village of Siwa. When we reached Siwa (located only 30 miles from the Libyan border), Mohammed had to register our presence with the police and this process was repeated at each of our subsequent stops where we were obliged to register our arrival and our departure and receive papers that would permit us to continue to our next stop. Since the military assumed control of the Egyptian government, border security has been beefed up considerably because of concerns about terrorists, weapons and drugs coming in from Libya. The prior regime of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was apparently much less concerned about border activity.

From Siwa on, there were innumerable police check points, each manned by a military contingent with an array of weapons. The security procedures varied. Our driver’s travel permits were always closely checked. Sometimes our passports would be examined and sometimes our vehicle and luggage would be inspected. On at least two occasions, our driver’s satellite phone (required in the desert region) was checked to see what calls had been made and received. Sometimes we would be called between checkpoints to see if everything was OK .The soldiers at these checkpoints were almost always courteous and friendly. Sometimes we would be invited to have tea. The only problem was that the checkpoints added a lot of time to our journey.

Siwa Oasis
We were transported to Siwa in a standard passenger vehicle. At Siwa we met our expert desert driver, also named Mohamed, and transferred to a 4-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser for our expedition into the desert. The two of them were a lot of fun and greatly enhanced our desert adventure. Guide Mohammed grew up as a city boy in Alexandria and is a certified guide and Egyptologist with a 4 year degree from Cairo University. Driver Mohamed grew up and still lives in Bahariya Oasis and repeatedly proved his intimate knowledge of the Western Desert and his desert driving skills

Of the five oasis villages in the Western Desert, we found Siwa to be the most interesting and atmospheric. The small town is built right up against a 13th century mud brick fortress. Three days of heavy rain in 1926 turned it into a spectacular ruin that is further accentuated at night by well-placed spotlights. There are steps all the way to the top (about 4 stories high) and from that vantage point, you can see the two mile or so swath of thick date palms and olive groves that define the town as a spring-fed oasis. The olives are still processed by burro-powered presses. The olives and dates are prized purchases for visitors.

The friendly small town of Siwa, while somewhat ramshackle, is nonetheless appealing. Donkey carts add a delightful flavor to the town and are used for hauling produce and all manner of supplies as well as for transporting people. Due to its remoteness, Siwa is probably the most conservative of the oasis towns and most women cover their faces and well as their heads with hijabs.

We checked in at the Ghaliet Lodge which was to be our very comfortable base of operations for several days. The expansive, well-manicured grounds appear to have been carved our of the adjacent date palm groves. The lodge has about 17 units but we were the only guests for the 3 nights we were there so we dined alone each day at breakfast and dinner. Tourism levels are generally low in the Western Desert and the present political climate and ongoing warnings from the US State Department and the foreign offices of other countries has further reduced the number of visitors to a mere trickle. The meals were excellent and they paid no attention to our request that they serve us small portions for dinner. When Judi mentioned that her favorite Egyptian dessert was Om Ali, it was served to us that evening.

There are a surprising number of important and picturesque archeological sites to see in the vicinity. One is the already mentioned Shali Fortress. Another is the Temple of Amun which Alexander the Great visited in 331 BC after founding the city of Alexandria. Alexander’s main purpose in making the difficult and perilous desert journey to Siwa was to consult the temple’s Oracle who served as the representative of the god Amun and was thereby believed to possessed divine knowledge and wisdom. The Temple, believed to have been build in the 6th century BC, is a partially ruined but beautiful structure steeped in ancient history. It is also dramatically illuminated at night. Alexander never returned to Siwa but, by some accounts, his body was brought back there to be buried when he died 10 years later in 323 BC at the young age of 32.

Another impressive site is the Mountain of the Dead which contains a large number of tombs from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods spanning a 500 –year period after Alexander’s death until the 2nd century AD. We were able to enter two painted tombs in which the colors are well preserved (no photos allowed).

There are also many underground springs in the Western Desert, some very hot with the water temperature exceeding 100 degrees F, very popular for bathing

A few miles from Siwa is a stony area where an archeologist in 2007 discovered some fossilized hominid footprints believe to be 2 to 3- million years old, which would place them among the oldest yet discovered.

On the outskirts of Siwa perched atop a hill with a commanding view is a mansion constructed in 1896 by an Ottoman general. Sadly, much of the construction material was obtained by blowing up a previously intact Egyptian temple. And guess who used it as a retreat for the past several decades? Former Egyptian president Mubarak of course.

On our last day in Siwa we set out for the Great Sand Sea, a huge swath of Egypt extending from the Libyan border eastward and most of the way south from Siwa to Sudan. This is a classic tan-colored desert with huge wind-sculpted dunes that change form continuously. It is a great place for speeding up and down the dunes and for sand boarding (which we did). We stopped in one place to see some petrified logs from an ancient forest, testimony to dramatically different geology that existed at an earlier point in time. Similarly, in another area, we walked through an ancient sea bed covered by fossilized sea shells and sea urchins.

The usual 5 hour drive to Bahariya Oasis time has increased to 7 hours as there must now be at least 15 checkpoints along the way, some only minutes apart. Bahariya gained an instant measure of fame with the discovery of the “Valley of the Golden Mummies” in 1996. A guard had been chasing a runaway donkey which stepped in a hole in a nondescript field a couple of miles from Bahariya. Peering into it, the guard reported seeing the gleam of gold which proved to be a gold leaf cover for a mummy. The first three years of excavation focused on 14 tombs, revealing 233 mummies. The mummies are believed to date back to the Greco-Roman era in Egypt (332 BC to 395 AD). While thousands more mummies were believed to be buried at the site, archeologists recognized that the mummies had begun to deteriorate after excavation and further work was halted until better preservation techniques have been implemented.

I have to say that the village of Bahariya might be the shabbiest we have seen anywhere. Trash, rubble and building materials like rebar and bricks are piled everywhere and abandoned vehicles are left to rust away all over town (making for great photos).

Driver Mohamed is from Bahariya and as we drove through the town picking up some supplies and equipment, we couldn’t help but notice his warm interactions with practically everyone we encountered including many relatives. The point I am trying to make is that Bahariya remains a highly traditional, family oriented village and those factors should no doubt far outweigh the clutter in judging the quality of life here. I should add that maintaining Bahariya’s traditions has been more difficult since an asphalt road was completed all the way to Cairo in the 1970s. The road brought electricity, automobiles, television, phone lines and more recently cell towers. Women in Bahariya wear head scarves but most no longer conceal their faces. Cell phones seem as ubiquitous in Bahariya as in the US and its residents seems as addicted to them as Americans.

In the evening, we drove a few miles to the Black Desert, an unforgiving, bleak expanse where the ground is covered by black quartz that looks like cinders and crushed lava,

From Bahariya we set out for the remarkable White Desert, one of our main trip objectives. One internet commentator (Jimmy Dunn) asks this question in reference to the White Desert: why pay 20 million dollars for a trip into space when you can go to the moon for so much less? That’s not far off the mark. It is an other-worldly expanse of dramatic white formations and white-crusted terrain that defies description.

Our first stop was Crystal Mountain, a most unusual structure perhaps 20 feet high, comprised largely of sparkling quartz crystals. The crystals cover the ground several inches deep. Continuing south, you begin to see the white formations that rise from the ground to heights of from 5 or 6 feet to perhaps 50 feet or more. Many of the shapes look like mushrooms, others like tables and some are dome-shaped. Many others make it easy to imagine all sorts of forms – human and animal. One particularly well defined form looks unmistakably like a rabbit, another like a Sphinx.

For Judi and I, perhaps the highlight of the White Desert was a place called the Valley of Agabat (Valley of the Obstacles). As we drove up a rise, driver Mohamed asked us to close our eyes . He stopped about 15 seconds later and we opened our eyes to a splendid view. Rising from a sand swept valley framed by sandstone cliffs on either side were a series of high rounded columns.

Our next treat on this day was our arrival at Shahrazad Camp., a group of large, well-spaced white tents in a sandy desert setting about as remote as one can imagine. The interior of the tents looked like something out of Arabian Nights with a classically styled wooden cabinet and table, a boudoir-style fringed lamp on a pole, Middle Eastern carpets and two wood-framed four poster canopy beds with decorative spreads and pillows.

We were scheduled to camp the next day in the White Desert. But guide Mohammed, recognizing our love of the Sahara and our sense of adventure, suggested we drive further south to the oasis villages of Farafra and Dakala where we could camp in an especially beautiful setting and see more Egyptian and Roman sites. We agreed, Memphis Tours made the necessary arrangements and off we went.

Near Dakhla, one of the largest oasis towns, we visited two interesting sites. One was a partially restored sandstone Roman temple, Dier Al-Haggar, dedicated to several Egyptian gods. Many of the reliefs are still vivid and colors are still present on the painted walls. It lay buried until uncovered in the 1990s.

Nearby was a Roman era tomb site named Muzawaka, discovered in 1972. We were able to enter two tombs with surprisingly well preserved paintings. As in the case of the Roman era tombs we saw in Siwa, the paintings, while impressive, lacked the fine art quality of those from the earlier Pharonic period found in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens in Luxor.

The main point of interest in Dakhla is a remarkably well-preserved 12th century Islamic mud brick village atop a hill overlooking the town. In 2006, it was discovered that this medieval structure is built on top of an earlier Roman fortress. An ancient grinder and press for harvesting olive oil may be seen as well as a corn mill and pottery kilns. There is also a mosque. Several of the dwellings within the extensive village have been converted to colorful gift shops with baskets and fabrics from the region.

From Dakhla we headed out to our campsite which was as scenic as guide Mohammed had promised. Enroute we encountered the unusual site seen in some oasis regions: brilliant green planted fields fed by natural springs adjacent to expanses of barren desert dunes. Our campsite was in a valley bordered on either side by dramatic sandstone escarpments. Wind swept dunes cascaded against the slopes and were brightly illuminated by a full moon which conveniently rose while our driver/chef Mohamed was preparing dinner. Shortly after we arrived a fox approached our camp to check out the possibilities. Guide Mohammed cautioned us not to leave any small items out. But I failed to zip up one pocket in my day bag and the fox helped himself to my small bag of trail mix. I later discovered he had also made off with my alarm clock! In the morning we found his tracks all around our small 2 person tent.

After breakfast we headed back north to Farafra, one of the smaller oasis towns. We visited the studio of an artist who fashions paintings and sculptures with the many colors of sand found in the Western Desert and then continued back to Shahrazad Camp. We were the only guests and most of the staff was leaving as no other visitors were arriving for another week or so

In the morning we departed Shahrazad Camp for Bahariya where we were met by a driver from Cairo and said our reluctant good byes to driver Mohamed whom we had become very fond of. The 5 hour drive to Cairo was mostly devoid of the checkpoints that are so frequent between Bahariya and Siwa when we were so close to the Libyan border. Our closest point had been a mere 10 miles.

The Cairo international airport is a modern structure. More good byes to guide Mohammed who we had become as fond of as our other Mohamed! Our Egypt Air flight was not scheduled to depart until 2 am. That is a common but brutally inconvenient departure time from Cairo. Can someone please tell me why?

In sum
This trip exceeded our expectations in almost every way. The desert regions varied greatly in their nature and were stunning to see. The wealth of Egyptian, Greek and Roman archeological sites was a real bonus. Traveling with our guide Mohammed and our driver/chef Mohamed was a distinct pleasure as they shared their love and knowledge of the desert with us. Camping under the stars in that beautiful valley near Dakhla was a truly special treat, one that few have the opportunity to experience. All in all, we were introduced to a fascinating, scenic region whose existence we hardly knew existed not so long ago.

We thank our great guide and Egyptologist Mohammed Abdessalam,and our expert desert driver and cook Mohamed Abu Ziad.They provided us with historic and modern perspectives on the Egyptian desert regions and also made our trip a lot of fun. We also thank Yousri Abdallah at Memphis Tours for making our trip arrangements.