Lost in Cairo, Found in the Desert

We arrived into Cairo in the early afternoon and were picked up by Mohammed, who would be our guide in the desert for the next four days. We had connected with him through our friends, Richard and Anke, in Australia; they had used him as a guide in the Sinai a year ago and gave him high marks.
Mohammed is from Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula and he would be our cook, guide and philosopher on the trip. He brought Khalid with him, and experienced Bedouin guide and former basketball star on the Suez team. Khalid would handle the driving on the trip, which had started early that morning when they left Dahab on the 700 Km trip to Cairo where they picked us up.
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We piled into the back of a Toyota Landcruiser (the obligatory desert vehicle)CIMG6332
and sped off into the desert. Actually, since it was rush hour in Cairo, we really spent the next hour and a half fighting our way slowly out of the city and it’s suburbs.
It was a little disconcerting to see that our guides were asking for directions on almost every street corner as we made our way through Cairo. If they could not find their way through the well marked streets, how would they know where they were going in the open desert?
When we finally go to the open road (“The runway” as Khalid called it) they cranked it up to 130 KPH and launched us out towards Bahariya Oasis, a full five hours down the road. The kids slept in the back some of the way while the scenery flew by.
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It was dark by the time we reached the Oasis. We had dinner at the curiously named “Popular Restaurant”. Ironically, we were the only customers.
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and fell happily into bed in a small, but comfortable, hotel. It had been an exhausting day of travel but Mohammed promised that the next day would be slower and that the next night we would camp in the desert.
By day Bahariya Oasis was a cute little village, although it did cater to tourists
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Next it was on to the “Sahara Suda” or Black Desert near the Oasis. This desert had a layer of basalt on top of the sand which gave it a black color. We stopped at a hill for a hike to enjoy the view.
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Then we hit the edge of the “Sahara Abyad” or White Desert. We immediately pulled off to see the “Crystal Mountain”; a hill formed with many layers of quartz crystal.
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From there we made our way deeper into the White Desert to find a good place to have lunch. We went off-road to find a suitable location and it was then that we realized why we were in a Landcruiser. The Toyota Landcruiser is legendary in the Egyptian Desert for its ability to handle the tough terrain. We were in a 2005 model which was still in very good condition. It could travel on the sealed roads at 130 KPH and still be comfortable. But it was in the sand that it was really at home.
This was also the point where we started to appreciate Khalid’s abilities as a desert driver. With over 15 years driving the the Egyptian Deserts he could maneuver the Landcruiser through deep sand like a speedboat in open water. There were times he would go up to 80 KPH through the deep sand and could climb up onto steep rocks confidently as well. His Bedouin heritage also gave him an incredible sense of direction in this unforgiving and disorienting landscape. We were grateful to have him at the wheel (see sand cruising in this video)
A major portion of the White Desert is made up of calcium carbonate (chalk) that forms incredible structures in certain parts of the desert. It also holds curious treasures – small black rocks that come in unusual formations. We stopped for a bit before lunch to collect a few of the rocks.
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The site that Mohammed picked for lunch was spectacular: a mountain of chalk surrounded by beautiful sand
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The rock rose 60 feet above us, pure white in the places where it was protected from the sand.
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The views were spectacular and the day was sunny and warm. The area looked like the mesas of Arizona in a snowdrift.
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and perhaps a bit like the surface of the moon
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Mohammed was a spectacular camp cook and this first lunch proved it. With all fresh ingredients he whipped up a couple great salads (tuna and Greek) somehow managing to keep everything free of sand. He washed all the veges in clean water and had everything ready in under 30 minutes. La Zizza! (delicious).
After lunch we packed up our stuff (including putting Anna on the roof)
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and headed back to the highway. We stopped at a spring by the highway to wash up and get more water.
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From there it was on to the “New White Desert” which contained striking chalk structures much like the Tufa of Mono Lake in California.
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The kids played in the desert while we set up camp.
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The vistas here were surreal
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And we enjoyed the lovely colors of the sunset
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while Khalid and Mohammed prepared dinner
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and the kids tended to their own campfires
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That night, after the kids went down, we had a long discussion about the US, Muslim beliefs and the state of the world. It was special to be sitting around a campfire talking with our Egyptian hosts.
After a very quiet and starlight night, the sun rose on the magical landscape
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And we were off again for the open road.
We stopped by a wonderful artists gallery to watch the artist, Badr, at work.
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The kids had the chance to join in and carve some sandstones with Badr. He had set up his home as his own personal gallery and dreamland. Every surface of the place was covered with his art. We stayed for over an hour in this peaceful and comfortable place.
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Then we headed to another Oasis, Dahkla, which included a hot spring near the wonderful hotel we were staying at. We all enjoyed bathing in the warm water (especially after the heat and sand of the desert) and had a great sleep in the simple, but elegant rooms, complete with domed mud brick ceilings.
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The oasis was green and lush, but surrounded by desert and mesas.
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The hotel had an unusual water sculpture, placed there by a German couple that lived nearby. We had seen similar “flow forms” in Australia – they are based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner and it was a surprise to see them here in the Egyptian Desert.
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The next morning Khalid and Mohammed got ready for what would be our last day in the Western Desert
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We started out with a trek into the dunes on Camel back, something the kids had been looking forward to since we had started the trip. We rode on two mother camels, with their ridiculously cute babies in tow.
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Khalid and Mohammed had wrapped our heads Arab style for the ride. Having these scarves placed on our heads by the guides was a bit like having your brains vacuum sealed. They were surprisingly tight, which helped keep them secure in the desert wind. We soaked them in water to keep our heads cool during the ride.
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The camels make a strange sound when calling to each other. They were using this plaintive call to their babies as we rode through the sand. We realized that it was the sound used for Chewbacca’s voice in Star Wars and the babies would answer back with a weaker version of their own. (hear them in this video)
When the camel ride was over our guides got some fresh camel milk
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and we were on our way again for the 5 hour ride to Luxor.
We stopped on the open highway before we arrived in Luxor, knowing this would be our last time in the desert.
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Anna and Mohammed played on the road (you could see cars coming a mile away)
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Mohammed and Anna had developed a special relationship. Anna found she had to play fair with Mohammed; if she was being sassy or difficult he would be the same to her. He was tolerant but firm and they had become fast friends (although Anna would still pout or pull faces from time to time).
Mohammed and Khalid had been wonderful guides and it was because of them that we loved our time in the desert so much. The photos of our trek are spectacular, but they are very different from our experience of the place, which was magical in a way that the camera cannot capture.
It was sad to say goodbye in Luxor when they dropped us off at our tourist hotel on the south side of town. We hope to see Khalid and Mohammed again on another trip to Egypt in the future, Insha’allah.

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