In Photos: A Trip through Egypt’s Western Desert

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.

Black Desert, Egypt. Photo by author.

We stop at Farafra Oasis to swim in the hot springs and to visit Badr Abdel Moghny’s art gallery.

Farafra Oasis. Photo by author.

As we continue on our way, the landscape slowly lightens.

Western Desert. Photo by author.

…until we enter the White Desert. A lunar landscape of wind-eroded limestone formations, it is where we set up camp for the night.

White Desert. Photo by author.
Western Desert. Photo by author.
Desert Camping. Photo by Susan S.
Desert Camping. Photo by Susan S.

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.

Dunes. Photo by author.

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.

Sand duning. Photo by Ahmed H.

Bob, one of our Bedouin guides, makes lunch.

Bob. Photo by author.

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.

Bedouin camp. Photo by author.

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.

Photo by author.

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.

Al Bagawat. Photo by author.

Our police escort finally shows up and we reach Baris Oasis, where we spend our final night in the desert.

Desert near Baris. Photo by author.
Photo by author.

(Note: My trip to Egypt was sponsored by MatadorU and Adventure Center)

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An Artist with a Dream

Badr Abd El Moghny. Photo by author.

“Everything is becoming really hard.” Badr Abd El Moghny is apologizing for raising the modest entry fee to his mud and sandstone, fairytale-like home and art gallery. Since the revolution and in the midst of uncertainty, he tells us, prices have risen and he has to pay more for the postcards of his work and brochures that detail his biography.

Badr Abd El Moghny is a self-taught artist who was born, and continues to live in, the Farafra Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. He describes the house that he built in the Oasis as his “dream” and embraces his self-appointed moniker “An Artist with a Dream.”

Surrealist paintings and sculptures fill the house, and it is easy to see why he cites Dali and Picasso as inspiration. El Moghny has exhibited in England, Germany and Cairo and says he has opportunities to travel more with his work but prefers to stay at home. That way he doesn’t get homesick.

Photo by author.
Photo by author.
Photo by author.
Photo by author.

Egypt by Police Escort

Here was something I was completely unprepared for: the police escort. It was bad enough, in my mind, that I was confined to a tour group itinerary, a tour guide and the company of the same people; a police escort made it all sound even more stifling.

Egypt relies heavily, depressingly heavily, on tourism, and some extremist groups have exploited this by targeting tourists in several bloody attacks including the Luxor Massacre at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, and the bombings in Sharm el Sheik and Dahab. Nevertheless, the police escort strategy has been in effect since before these attacks and, although I question their effectiveness, they did provide some comic relief at times:

–Somewhere in the desert: The men in the police car (Chinese import vehicle that I had never heard of) calling out at us in our land cruiser. I thought we were being told off for driving too fast but, no, there was no speed limit; they were just asking us to keep slower than 80km/h because their car couldn’t reach that speed.

–Our last night in the desert: We were apparently supposed to have a police escort stay with us every night that we camped out in the desert. One only showed up on the last night. He creeped me out (see previous post) and spent the evening singing loudly and very badly along with his mp3 player – interrupting the music of our Bedouin friends, who all fell around laughing.

–The tourist convoy to Abu Simbel: Nothing noteworthy to say about it, just to grumble that, as only one was allowed per day, it required a 3:30am wake-up call. And really, “tourist convoy,” what an ugly couple of words.

–Crossing into the Sinai region: We waited at the checkpoint for an hour so that the police could decide amongst themselves who would travel with us while a couple of young soldiers engaged in some dramatic play fighting in an attempt to impress us. In the end a bunch of them piled into a truck and drove ahead of us…for 10 minutes then disappeared. This was the first time I had seen our tour guide get pissed off about anything.

(My trip to Egypt was made possible through a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center)

Egypt-sick; maybe just travel-sick

They say that the time it takes to get over a relationship is two times the length of the relationship itself. How long, then, to come to terms with the end of travel?  And does three weeks really give you enough to miss a place? My three-week trip ended two weeks ago but I still dream about Egypt every night.

Travel, for me, is exquisite pain. Exquisite because it is in travel that I feel most alive; painful because travel and I cannot be together — she keeps on moving without me. I used to be able to deflect this end-of-trip deflation by just moving on, and on, and on — there was always someplace else to go. Now, unlike in that not so distant past, trips have to end. And it is always crushing when they do.

Right now I feel that my Egypt trip was the most special; the one I miss the most. Probably I will feel this way about the next one, and the next, but right now I am reveling in the exquisite pain of reliving that trip through memories, photographs, Facebook chats, and, especially, dreams. And, sometimes, this is what I see in my dreams:

Sunrise over Luxor - the view from the hot-air balloon.
One of our Bedouin guides in the Western Desert.
All photographs by author.
Karnak Temple, Luxor
The sugarcane field where our hot-air balloon landed, Luxor West Bank.
Our felucca at rest on the Nile.
Sunset from a Dokki window.

(Note: My trip to Egypt was possible thanks to a partnership between Adventure Center and MatadorU)