Our trip begins in Cairo on a Sunday, which for most of the Islamic world (including Egypt) is the equivalent of the Western world’s Monday: start of the work week.
We are woken around dawn, given a breakfast box and bundled into a landcruiser driven by a man given the name Teddy Bear. The roads are thick with traffic and Teddy Bear, a Bedouin from a small desert oasis, moves with caution and at times alarm through nose-to-tail traffic and a chorus of horns.
“He is from the desert. He hates Cairo!” Our tour leader laughs.
Still strangers to one another (our small group only met yesterday) we have long stretches of driving time to talk. I find myself curious, irritated and warmed as I slowly get to know my new travelling companions.
We make two stops for thick Turkish coffee, once in Bahariya and once at a remote roadside cafeteria, then head into the Western Desert, a vast and isolated expanse that covers around two-thirds of the country.
We stop first in the Black Desert. Black rocks, stones and dust remind me of a volcanic landscape, like that of Hawai’i.
We stop at Farafra Oasis to swim in the hot springs and to visit Badr Abdel Moghny’s art gallery.
As we continue on our way, the landscape slowly lightens.
…until we enter the White Desert. A lunar landscape of wind-eroded limestone formations, it is where we set up camp for the night.
We wake up freezing and in bad humor. After warming up with cups of coffee and digging through the piles of the pita bread and boiled eggs that will become our staple for the rest of our time in Egypt, we shuffle into our clothes and back into the landcruisers to explore the nearby dunes.
Yelping and clutching the seats, we barrel up and down the dunes. When we stop, we take turns sliding down them on an old piece of plastic. Some are reluctant; others insist on taking another go.
Bob, one of our Bedouin guides, makes lunch.
We spent the night at a Bedouin camp in Dakhla Oasis, home of our guides. The Bedouin code of hospitality says that Bedouin people must treat visitors well and not ask for payment; the increasing numbers of visitors to the oasis was putting a strain on the locals and so this rustic camp, which charges very modest prices, was set up.
The next morning we swim in another hot springs then return to the camp to let the heat pass. Late in the afternoon we head out on camels through the desert to the base of a great escarpment where we spend the night. Our tour leader says that he hates the camel ride, and makes a point to show his disdain by lighting up a cigarette and making calls on his mobile while atop his camel.
The next day we drive on to Al Kharga oasis town where a bored guide leads us around the 7th century Christian burial ground at Al Bagawat in sweltering heat.
Our police escort finally shows up and we reach Baris Oasis, where we spend our final night in the desert.