Secret of the Desert
During my first week with Barbara in Cairo, I confess that I succumbed to the lure of a tourist-trap perfume shop and purchased a blend of what I was told contained some 26 herbal essences including lotus and… papyrus (who knew paper could have its own scent!?). The blend was called “Secret of the Desert” and the shopkeeper presented the little bottle to me with a twinkle in his eye and tight lips. It was hermetically sealed and packaged in a box for safe transport home. I never opened it during my trip, yet the smell of it still lingered in my bag… somehow. (Even now, I’ve not broken the bottle’s seal.) For some reason I’ve been hesitant to dab the exotic fragrance on my skin. I bought this stuff, so why don’t I want to wear it? I have no idea. Maybe it was the look on the guy’s face when he sold it to me — as if he knew… I had no idea what I was purchasing. Still, I liked the name and the sample he rubbed on my wrist, so it’s mine now and I just have to accept it. I have just one question: What’s the big “secret”?
Two weeks later in Luxor, Ahmed (#1), Marie, and I departed for the Western Desert early in the morning on November 1 in a well-used Toyota LandCruiser driven by our Bedouin guide, Sameh or Sam for short, and his “sidekick” (for lack of a better title) Saleh, whom Marie dubbed “the Little One” as he was of smaller stature than Sam. With a hearty “Welcome!” from Sam, we drove out into the desert toward Kharga oasis, but had to stop a couple of times along the way to change tires on our 4WD car. This is never a good sign — changing tires… twice… on Day 1 of a trip. While the Bedouins got busy with the repairs, Marie photographed the scene and the stretch of desert road on which we waited, and Ahmed and I chatted about some topic or other whilst I looked for interesting rocks in the sand. After about a ten-minute wait for each tire change, we’d piled back into the car, and off we’d go toward Kharga.
Kharga is a small oasis that has some of the best-preserved and oldest ruins of Christian cemeteries with mudbrick tombs in the world at the Necropolis of Al-Bagawat. There is also a shady cafe where you can take the edge off your thirst, use the toilet, and perhaps pet a nice cat (if it isn’t too feral). We explored the ruins with a guide who spoke barely a word of English (Ahmed served as our translator), and we absorbed as much as we could in about an hour’s time before heading on to our first stop for the night in Dhakla oasis.
Our hotel in Dhakla was a pleasant surprise: the perfect combination of comfort and rustic earthiness. Each domed mud structure was carved with patterns and looked out over the desert toward the sun setting as we arrived. We were happy campers. I’d definitely go back to this hotel. There was also a dining hall and an outdoor campfire area. That night we went to a natural hot spring to soak under a zillion stars, Venus, and Orion, and then enjoyed Bedouin music around the fire at our hotel. Some Scandinavian college girls danced and I got a quick lesson in playing the tabla (drum) from Sam. How I love tabla music!
We awoke early the next morning and drove into town to stash some of our gear at Sam’s home base hotel before heading out into the desert for our first real night of camping under the stars. The drive to our camp was punctuated with ambitious climbs up steep dunes in our LandCruiser. Each time, the car teetered precariously on the dune’s crest before plunging down what became a landslide of sand all the way to the desert floor. Honestly, it was a thrill. I could have done this all day. There is nothing better than the feeling you get in your stomach as your car lurches toward a sand abyss and then cascades with you, sliding into near calamity. And of course, sand is everywhere. It’s a mess. It’s great. It’s fantastic. I love the desert. Perhaps the best part about it is that there is nothing there. No buildings, no people, no pollution, no noise — just you and all those dunes. It is total peace. And at night it’s even better — when you awaken in the darkness and all you can hear is the wind blowing sand against your shelter. There is nothing else. I could go on and on, but I mustn’t….
Bedouin people are nomadic. They pitch their tents wherever and whenever they see fit. So, our camps were quite… impromptu and improvised, yet they had the basic comforts of home: a stove, campfire, table, and sleeping area. We packed in our own water and food, of course. What more do you really need? We slept in a small tent the first night and were out in the open under the night sky on the other three nights. The Bedouins built a standing shelter around our sleeping area, however, to protect us from the wind. We all slept together on thick mattresses on the sand – reminded me of girl scout camp. Actually, it was quite comfortable, and I didn’t have any trouble sleeping, but then again… I do sleep like the dead.
In Dhakla, I got up at dawn and went out to do my walking meditation (more like a morning stroll than a “meditation” really). Counting out each movement as I stepped, “…one, two, three, four…”, I paced the sand some distance away from our camp to quiet the voices in my head. No, I’m not schizophrenic. It’s just that stuff tends to come to the surface when you are in what I would call a “pure” environment such as a desert with no real distractions. Any doubts, fears, or desires seem heightened, or perhaps they just stand out more in contrast against the desert’s barren landscape; I don’t know. Anyway, 10 minutes of walking did the job, and I got cleaned up for breakfast.
Bedouin food is simple but good. Breakfast usually consists of pita bread, a hard-boiled egg, cheese, jam, and coffee or tea. And in fact, this was pretty much what I ate throughout my ENTIRE 43 days in Egypt and Jordan (except for two glorious days at the Marriott’s Dead Sea Resort when my friend Linda and I indulged in a rather lavish breakfast buffet – yum!). Lunch (usually taken anywhere from 12 noon until 4 pm) consists of vegetables (usually tomatoes and cucumbers), cheese, pita bread (again), hummus or babaganouj, fuul (a bean dish), sometimes soup, perhaps a meat dish, and tea. Dinner is (you guessed it) pita bread, rice, a rather tasty hot vegetable dish of tomato sauce with potatoes, carrots, green beans, and zucchini, a meat dish (lamb, beef, chicken, or fish), and of course… tea! By the way, the Bedouin offer you tea CONSTANTLY. (Actually, now that I think of it… Egyptians and Jordanians in general offer you tea constantly.) And you’re not really supposed to turn down their hospitality from what I understand. I guess that’s smart also because drinking constantly does keep you hydrated. So, social etiquette aside, tea (and a little caffeine) is always a good thing.
From our desert camp in Dhakla, we continued on across the desert highway to Farafra oasis. The road followed a long ridgeline or plateau which Sam referred to as “his” mountain, and his enthusiastic “Welcome!” made us feel that perhaps we had entered a part of the desert to which he indeed laid claim. Along the way, we were sure to stay on course thanks to the GPS Ahmed had brought with him. What can I say here? The man has a passion for gadgets. He also brought an iPad loaded with movies and books, his iPhone which rang “bling bling” seemingly every hour with colleagues from work calling for help (I nearly did him the favor of chucking it in a hot spring one day), an astronomical laser pointer to single-out stars each night, a high-powered flashlight which came in handy in the pitch darkness of the desert, an auxiliary electrical charger for the car which saved the day when the battery died on my portable hard drive whilst I was backing up photos, and several glow-in-the-dark bracelets (we’re not quite sure what they were for, but I can imagine they may have warned anyone approaching the latrine area that it was being used by a wearer, plus they were just plain fun). I’m probably forgetting other gadgets Ahmed had in his bag. But indeed, Gadget Man was there to fight for user-friendliness, convenience, and easy access in an otherwise inhospitable, technologically-deprived desert. Still, much as we all appreciated his fondness for gadgets and their undeniable value, it was a rather ridiculous last straw when upon looking at his GPS, he found it necessary to announce that we had “just turned left”. Umm… yah.
As we arrived in Farafra, Sam prepared Marie and me for our little “meeting” with the local tourist police. Now, I have not written much about the Egyptian tourist police in my blog posts so far. I felt I needed a bit more experience with them before I could comment more fully. But from what I can tell, the tourist police are a mixed brew. Some are good guys just trying to do their duty; others are jaded bureaucrats in love with self-entitlement and power. I would say that we encountered both types during our trip.
Our stops at the various police checkpoints en route through the Western Desert would have been no different from those in other parts of Egypt… except for one key detail: we were not just two foreign women traveling alone with our guide and driver but had an Egyptian guy, Ahmed, with us. Why, you may ask, should this change the situation? Well, apparently when tourist police see an Egyptian traveler with foreign tourists, it raises questions – many questions – potentially endless questions, actually. Questions like, “Is this guy another one of your guides?”, and “Why do you have two guides?” and “What is he really doing here? We know he can’t be traveling for fun because Egyptians don’t travel to the Western Desert just for fun.” So at each checkpoint, Sam patiently would tell the police that there were just “two different” foreigners in our car (Marie, a Belgian, and me, an American). The police would look puzzled, seeing Ahmed, and would ask, “But we see three; where is HE from (pointing to Ahmed)?” And each time, Sam would have to turn to Ahmed and ask him to say something in Arabic so the police would believe that he was Egyptian. But this only churned up more confusion, as the police then tried to work out what an Egyptian traveler was doing with two foreign tourists. Thankfully, they soon gave up on the complicated problem of who we all were and why we were all traveling together, and just waved us onward: Whatever. Be gone, crazy tourists.
Perhaps now you’ll understand why Sam had to “prepare” Marie and me for what was about to happen at our Farafra tourist police meeting. The plan was that Ahmed would go with Sam and Little One to the Farafra museum and wait there for us. This would remove Ahmed from the tourist police equation which gets more and more complicated and red-tapey as you get farther and farther out into the desert. Essentially, the tourist police are there to protect foreign travelers, but it’s rather beyond their job description, shall we say, to protect the odd Egyptian citizen (i.e., Ahmed) who elects to travel into the desert with foreigners. So, Marie and I would go alone with our driver to the tourist police office in town and when the police would ask us where we were going we were instructed to say, “Siwa,” only (even though we were stopping at the White and Black deserts first). And when asked if we wanted a police escort, we would politely say, “No, thank you”. Then, we would sign away our lives on paper, stating that we were declining said police escort, and would be sent on our way. We’d then meet up with Sam, Little One, and Ahmed at the museum and our trip would continue as planned. And in fact, this is precisely what happened… without a hitch… no doubt in part due to the fact that our driver slipped the police officer a little baksheesh under the table just for good measure. Some call this giving the guy his “tea” and it’s very common.
However, Marie had another idea, and en route back to the museum, she hatched a plan to fool Sam and make him think we had screwed up our police interview, said far too much to the officer, and were being sent back to Dhakla! Of course, she got me and the driver to play along. When we arrived at the museum, our first challenge was convincing Ahmed of our failure. I felt horrible doing this, but I went through with it, faking my disappointment and upset. The look on his face was heartbreaking but necessary in order to fool Sam. Then, Marie and I told Sam we had to return to Dhakla. At first, Sam looked at us in disbelief, but then as we wove our lies into an unfortunate tale about our own stupidity at the tourist police meeting, Sam picked up the phone and starting calling the police office to sort out the problem! You know that moment when you suddenly realize that you’ve gone too far? Well, we were clearly there. Thank god we caught Sam before his call went through! But then the police phoned him back… and I guess Sam had to come up with some lame excuse that he was just calling to say, “thanks”. Yikes! That was a close call. Sam vowed to get even with Marie… although I don’t think he ever really did. Ok, kids… don’t try this one at home. Lying is bad… even when it’s just to play a joke on someone. This has been a public service announcement.
Having recovered from our little tourist police game, all of us toured the art museum in Farafra and then continued on to the White Desert between Farafra and Bahariya oases. The White Desert looks like a bizarre Dali-esque lunar landscape. Rock formations rise up from the desert floor like white cotton candy shaped by the wind and sand, and chalky white dust blankets the ground. Some of the formations look like animals, people, or mushrooms. We camped here one night and very late that evening as we lay on our Bedouin mattresses covered with thick wool blankets to keep out the cold wind, we heard the calls of what was probably a small, unidentified fox. The next morning during my walk, I found fox tracks everywhere as well as a number of fossilized shells and coral blackened with age. Too cool!
Leaving the White Desert, we moved on to Crystal Mountain, a sub-volcanic vault and ridge of crystal-laden limestone probably dating to the Oligocene, and then the Black Desert, dotted with black basalt canyons and volcano-shaped mountains. We hiked up to lookout points at both locations and took many photos of these areas.
While driving to our camp at Bahariya oasis, our tires got stuck in the sand briefly and we had to dig our way out. It was windy and cold in our camp that night; perhaps 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit). During dinner, a fox came into camp to steal some scraps. It was probably a Ruppell’s fox which is a little larger than a fennec fox and has a white-tipped tail. I was able to film it briefly with my video camera. After dinner we gathered around the fire for Bedouin music, conversation, …and tea, of course.
The next day, we traveled on to Siwa oasis at the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Settling into our hotel in Shali, a village deeply rooted in Berber culture, we met Omar, guide and agent for Sam’s Bedouin tours. Omar was a character I’ll always remember. In his late twenties, he was an extremely knowledgeable and professional person. And when Omar was not touring with us, we sometimes ran into him, equipped with remote microphone, leading groups of 90 or more tourists donning headsets at some of Siwa’s archeological sites. Best of all, Omar’s smile made others smile back. He was quite mild-mannered, but had a great sense of humor. Omar seemed to carry with him an invisible bag of private jokes and sometimes he giggled without warning and his nose wrinkled up when he laughed. This made the rest of us giggle too – it was infectious. One night, Omar took us with him to a friend’s hot spring camp and we soaked under the stars and then dried ourselves around a campfire while the Bedouins passed around the sheesha.
During our time in Siwa, we also visited the ruins of Shali Fortress at sunset, and took a donkey cart ride to visit the Mountain of the Dead’s (Gebel Al-Mawta) tombs dating to the 26th dynasty of Ptolemaic and Roman times, the Temple of the Oracle of Amun where Alexander the Great consulted the oracle and was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt, and Cleopatra’s Bath. Later that afternoon, we biked out to view Fatnas Island at sunset.
Siwa had a great deal to offer, and consequently, we all agreed that an extra day’s stay was needed for more exploration. We put this third day to good use with a morning visit to the Siwa House to learn about the Siwan and Berber cultures, and then a jeep safari out into the Great Sand Sea… with the best desert driver I’ve ever seen (he was also quite a good singer). He was a true showman and drove the dunes like an Olympic skier tackling moguls… with style and grace, power and precision… and a great deal of terror… for our benefit, of course. But any panic we may have felt quickly turned to exhilaration; the drive was better than any rollercoaster ride at Disneyland. Along the way, we stopped to swim in a lovely freshwater lake right in the middle of the desert. The scene was perfection… except for some biting flies that quickly swarmed us once we got out of the water. I should issue a general warning here for anyone traveling to Siwa: Use insect repellant – gobs of it!!! Mosquitoes are also a terrific nuisance after sunset. None of us escaped the little vampires. So, beware!
Leaving Siwa, our drive to Alexandria took about 5 hours on the bus with stops along the way. Fortunately, we were rewarded with a hotel in a good location near the Mediterranean Sea and spent our next two evenings walking the length of Alexandria’s corniche. In Alex, we visited the Graeco-Roman catacombs, Pompey’s pillar and the Serapeum, the Roman Amphitheatre, Fort Qaitbey (site of Pharos’ lighthouse) built in 1480 AD, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandria Library), a church, a mosque, and Montazah Palace where President Mubarak stays when he’s in town. En route to Cairo, we toured a Greek Orthodox monastery in Wadi Natrun and were invited to lunch there as well.
Back in Cairo, due to the ungodly traffic, it was a mad dash to get Marie to the airport for her flight back to London. And while Ahmed and I were out exploring Old Cairo later that night, we learned that she missed her flight entirely. Poor Marie. She had to go back to Dhakla afterall! Well, no; not really. Instead, I offered Marie the spare bed in my room for the night, and found her sound asleep when I returned to the hotel at 2 AM. An hour later, I left for the airport to fly on to Sharm El-Sheikh (in Sinai). I’d just like to mention here that 3 AM is about the only time you will find yourself cruising through the streets of Cairo unimpeded by bumper-to-bumper traffic… hamdulallah (Thank God)! Be warned. In Sinai, I would meet up with Linda, an English woman with whom I would share the rest of my trip there and in Jordan. So, yes… the journey continues… inshallah (if God wills it)….
So, what is the “secret” of the desert? – Having a really good desert driver and a lot of mosquito repellant, of course! If you don’t like that answer and want a more meaningful one, you’ll have to buy the book (if it ever materializes). ; > Egypt’s Western Desert is a magical place. Go there and discover your own secret.
© 2010 Laurel Colton