Friday, July 21, 2006

Into the Great Unkown

Last weekend, a few friends of mine and I headed for a two night trip to the desert oasis of Bahariyya. Ten of us who study at Kalimat went through the language center to do this trip to explore the desert and oasis with local Bedouin guides. Bahariyya is the smallest of Egypt’s four oases, but at only five hours it’s the closest drive from Cairo. For all the shoulder-to-shoulder bustle of Cairo, it takes only about twenty minutes driving to leave all civilization, at which point you see no towns or even houses for the entire five hour drive out to the oasis. We all packed into a microbus and suffered through the suffocatingly hot drive on a one lane road across the Sahara. The size of the road makes for interesting confrontations when cars of varying sizes need to pass one another; a game of chicken breaks out until the smaller car pulls off the road to let the bigger one through.

We got to the town of Biwiti in Bahariyaa at around 10pm at which point we moved our bags over to a couple of Libyan made Land Rover-esque desert vehicles for a twenty minute trek into the desert. It was late and we weren’t going far, but a twenty minute off-road drive away from a tiny town that, itself, is hundreds of miles from anywhere is enough to get me excited. When we got to where we were going (just one of the tens of thousands of sand dunes out there) we set up camp. The Bedouins who were leading us pulled the two Range Rovers nose to nose, forming an “L” and creating an effective wind block. They then tied fifteen foot canvass walls to the cars, essentially putting up two walls of a tent. They also put mats all over the ground. This had taken them all of five minutes in a display of professionalism so alien to Cairo. They cooked dinner for us, and we feasted on potatoes, eggplant, meat (I’ve learned not to ask what kind), rice, and tea. After dinner, the ten of us sat around a fire and listened to the Bedouins play music for a couple hours and then most people called it a night. I, however, decided to set off and do a little exploring, which led me through the monotony of several sand dunes before I decided there wasn’t much to see and that I ought to get some sleep.

After a breakfast of excellent Bedouin beans and Twinkies the next morning, we set out to explore the desert. What we learned is that the desert is not, as the movies would have you believe, thousands of miles of rolling sand dunes. To the contrary, the terrain of the desert varies tremendously; we had spent the night in the area of the great dunes, and over the next two days we were to explore various other parts. After getting back on the “main” road, we drove for about an hour to the black desert. This is an area in which the brown sand of the desert is covered with black pebbles for as far as the eye can see. The landscape is also marked with sharp peaks (one of which we climbed) that make for dramatic views. Afterwards, we went back to the oasis to spend the balance of the day out of the heat before continuing our adventure. For about four hours we lounged under date trees and olive trees, reading a chatting, and quite happy to escape the blistering sun.

At around 4pm, we loaded back into the cars and headed to the crystal desert. Here, all the rock structures are loaded with clear crystal-like rocks. Essentially, you look at these brown and gray rocks and they all glisten and sparkle, and it takes a closer investigation to realize that these rocks are covered in these smaller clear rocks that one girl supposed was quartz.

Next, we went set off on a very long drive southwest. For about two hours we drove down a tiny road, not passing another car, heading still further from Cairo. Indeed, when one looks at a map as I did later, to drive southwest from Bahariyya is to head to what is probably to most remote part of the Egyptian Sahara. After about two hours, our Bedouin suddenly veered off the road and headed toward a drop off that was about one step shy of a cliff. We all yelled and braced ourselves, and I’m still not quite sure how we made it down the massive sand embankment, but one way or another we slid down and were rewarded for our patience. We were in a part of the desert that was never identified to me, but it was the most spectacular stop we made. We were on top of a massive dune with the desert unfolding before us and white mountains surrounding us. I’ve included a photo of this stop here, and if you look for a speck in the middle of the shot, you will see me waving my arms over my head.

After that awe inspiring stop, we headed to the white desert to make camp. I had naturally assumed that “white desert” referred to the color of the sand, but as we bushwhacked in our four-wheelers across the desert for another hour, I began to realize that I was mistaken. The sand was the same color, but soon massive chalk structures began to rise out of the earth. Some were no more than a foot or two tall and others topped thirty feet, but they stretched on endlessly in every direction. When we finally stopped to camp, we were surrounded by several of the tallest we had seen. When evening set, I headed off a ways until I found a mound that looked like it had a nice place to sit at the top. I climbed it and sat there for about an hour watching the sunset. I was out of sight of the cars and the other travelers, and so I reflected on how remote we truly were. Five hours southwest of Cairo to Bahariyya, another two and a half hours southwest down an empty desert road to the spectacular views from atop a massive dune, and another hour across the desert floor to the very place where I sat.

When I returned to camp, everyone got a good laugh because I was covered head to toe in chalk that had rubbed off on me. We then ate dinner and sat around chatting for a couple hours. It was somewhere near bedtime when we began hearing noises beyond the light of our campfire. Suddenly, one of us saw something dart by, just on the edge of the light. This startled everyone a bit, but about five minutes later we all had a good laugh as a mangy little gray desert fox with huge ears, much too big for his small head, strode brazenly into our camp. He took a look around and headed over to the food containers. When he almost caused one to tip over on himself, he was startled and fled. About an hour later, he returned… this time with reinforcements. We counted six foxes in all, and they did their utmost to startle us constantly and also steal our breakfast. I fell asleep pretty quickly, but the next morning a friend of mine told me that the foxes had stolen our sugar and had tried to steal a shoe but were scared off. Apparently, too, a couple of people had woken up in the middle of the night to find the foxes strolling among the sleeping bags.

After dinking some sugarless instant coffee, we set off toward home. A quick stop in the town of Biwiti for a shower and lunch broke up what would have otherwise been a brutal drive. By the early evening, the lights of Cairo we coming into view, and when I saw the distant silhouettes of the pyramids, I knew that probably never again would I feel so blissfully isolated and cut off in my life.

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