Travels in Egypt: A trip to the White Desert – Part 1



We spent six full days touring Cairo, covered five thousand years of history from the Pharaonic days to the present, but never developed an affinity for the city or its people and never became captive to that distinctive Egyptian feeling. Maybe the difference in cultural traditions and political opinions was too stark or Cairo, with its sprawl of eighteen to twenty million people, is just not an embraceable city. Even though we were traveling in an ancient land, I had not yet been able to hear the voices from the past. I knew they were there, wanting to tell their story. Maybe the strident voices of the present, filled with hate and blame, suffocate those from the past. I left Cairo with less than a sense of completion but with a strong sense that I had had enough. Colonial Cairo, the graceful international city was gone, and modern Cairo, with its deteriorating buildings, piles of uncollected garbage, unrelenting traffic jams, and asphyxiating pollution, was a failure. Bring on a trip to the desert.


Bahariya Oasis is located around 220 miles southwest of Cairo in the Egyptian part of the Sahara Desert. Translated from Arabic into “northern oasis”, Bahariya, along with Siwa and Farafra, are the three most important oases in the Egyptian part of the Sahara Desert and in the past were important staging areas for the trade routes going east out of Libya. We would spend the night in a tent in the White Desert , a 300 sq. km. protectorate. As if issuing a travel advisory, the tour program stated in bold letters that the camp would be elementary and not to expect bathroom facilities. If this was a warning to stay away, it did not deter us as we were looking forward to abandoning chaotic Cairo for the solitude of the desert.

We left Cairo on an early Saturday morning. Mohammad was still our driver and Mohammad was still our guide. Saturday is the Muslim day of rest, and due to the fact they had not yet taken to their cars, we had little difficulty disentangling ourselves from Cairo’s urban sprawl and passed easily along it pretzel like course of under passes and over passes.


We had finally reached the outskirts of Cairo, with the open road ahead, when Mohammad pulled off the road and parked behind a convoy of trucks. When he got out, I thought there was something wrong with the van until I realized he had walked over to join a group of young men standing around a small table. You would not have wanted to board an airplane with this group of men, wearing galabiyyas (the traditional robe), skullcaps, and full grown beards. They were all huddled around an old man stirring a pot and a young boy preparing tea. This was not a terrorist convention but a roadside food stall and plein aire truck stop.

The old man was preparing a pot of fuul, a traditional breakfast of slow cooked fava beans seasoned with garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Groups of men, sitting in circles on plastic mats, were dipping bread into communal pots of fuul while drinking sugary mint tea out of small juice glasses. Others, wrapped up in blankets, were sleeping under the branches of pine trees that lined the road. Mohammad, the driver, had stopped for breakfast and the ubiquitous glass of tea. Our guide, who consistently avoided any contact with the locals, willingly remained in the van until Donald and I got out. Donald wanted to cage a cigarette from our driver and I wanted to see what they were cooking. Mohammad was now forced to follow along. He had to make sure nothing happened to us.


When we talked with Egyptian men, one on one, I might have been ignored, but Donald was always received in a courteous manner. Even if sometimes obsequious, they at least smiled, extending innate Egyptian hospitality. It was always different when we encountered them in groups. These truck drivers had the esprit de corps of a pack of dogs. Sensing safety in numbers, they growled and barred their teeth. If suspicious glances and threatening looks carry content, then their hatred for us was palpable. Of course, we were not sure if they knew we were American, but we were foreigners and our presence a violation of their land. Maybe we just represented the spirit of the West, which they fear, and all the potentials of a Western way of life, which are denied to them. Declining to respond to their intimating looks, we got back into the van. Both Mohammads enjoyed drinking tea, a tradition introduced by the British. Even though they were happy to throw the British out, they are never too far from their next glass. Mohammad, the driver, was now ready for the road trip. Mohammad, the guide, probably relieved that we had not been too inquisitive.dscn6002-800x600


Fifteen hundred years ago, Cambyses, the Persian ruler who conquered Egypt, beginning 193 years of Persian rule, sent his army into the very desert we would be crossing. As per Herodotus, one of Egypt’s earliest travel writers and the father of history, Cambyses wanted to kill the oracle of Amun, located in the Siwa Oasis, because he had predicted his demise. His army of 50,000 soldiers started out but were never heard from again, just swallowed up somewhere in the desert. Instead of following their trail, we drove on a perfectly good two lane asphalt road built in the 1970’s. Mohammad, our driver, took his profession seriously and looked like an Arabic version of James Dean. Back in the van with one hand holding his plastic cup full of sugary minted tea, he slid in a tape of contemporary Arabic music. Pulling onto the two lane, he was now in is groove, ready for the four hour trip across the desert to the oasis.

Engrossed in the compelling beat of the Arabic music, we soon realized we had traveled beyond the known world and our highway now was a black ribbon unfurling through an ocean of sand, stretching in either direction to the horizon. There was very little traffic and only the occasional truck. The only signs of civilization were the occasional cell phone towers and the few turn offs which led to oil wells too far in the distance to be seen. We saw a few bus stops and wondered where the people were coming from, as there were no evident signs of human habitation.

The road followed a railroad track and for mile after mile, the desolate desert lay flat around us, only interrupted in places, where it heaved a little before settling back. Still morning but our desert highway had become a sun shot stretch of road paved with white heat.dscn5995-copy-800x600Two hours into the trip, we saw a rest stop ahead, a welcome diversion after nothing more than rolling sand dunes, spiny shrubs, and a few balls of tumbleweed. It was appropriately called The Oasis and parked in front, what else, but a tour bus. Stepping out of the van, we were immediately assaulted with a fierce desert wind, throbbing with heat and saturated with sand. We sought shelter in the building and found that it had everything a traveler would need: gas pumps, toilet, snack bar, and corner prayer room closed off with a curtain. Peeking inside, there were a few prayer rugs scattered on the floor along with one abandoned plastic sandal. A rendition of a mosque had been painted on one wall and on the other, someone had tacked up a hand painted sign pointed toward Mecca. Once again, there were no rubbish bins but the garbage, arranged in piles, surrounded the building. Adjacent to The Oasis was a stalled building site, which in our travels had become a common occurrence. A water tower and a block building had been left unfinished. They had managed to erect a sentry box onto a pole, but left before building the steps. Egypt is very security conscious but often does not follow through.

We did not speak to the tourist but thought they were French and at the time did not realize we would encounter them again. Back in the van, life was good. Donald and I had bought a Snickers candy bar and the Mohammads were enjoying another glass of tea. The driver slipped in another tape and we were able to hear for the first time the famous singer, Umm Kolthum. Born in Egypt in the earlier part of the 20th century, she grew up in very humble circumstances to become the most popular Arabic singer. She was King Farouk’s favorite and reputed to be the mistress of a very rich Jewish man. All activities would stop while the entire Middle East gathered around their radios to hear her Thursday night program. When she died, more people attended her funeral than Nasser’s funeral .

The electric blue sky arched above and at times, the ribbon of dunes was replaced by chains of sandy hills rising to small peaks, creating shallow valleys. Two hours later we arrived at our first checkpoint, a mud hut nestled in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Three officials operated the booth, one asleep in a chair and the other two sitting behind a makeshift desk engaged in an animated conversation. We waited until they found the time to approach the car, not needing to wake up their sleeping colleague. The driver showed his license and declared we were Amerike, all which was recorded on a little scrap of paper. This would become the standard check point modus operandi, leaving us to wonder where these little notes ended up. The conversation continued and later we were told they understood we were from the United States but wanted to know what language we spoke. Finally assured we would not cause any trouble, they raised the barrier, which was a wooden pole with a bag of rocks used as a counterweight.

We were still in the desert and now surrounded by sandy ridges turned red by iron deposits and black sand full of bitumen. A green belt of land and clumps of date palms could be seen in the distance. This was Bawati, the administrative capital for the Bahaiya Oasis, the starting point for the White Desert. Entering the small town, Mohammad parked in the shade while our guide went to the tourist police office to present our passports.

We were waiting for our Bedouin guide who would take us on a two day desert safari in his 4WD. The government has been encouraging Bedouins to come in from the desert and settle down in a house and many of the young men have become tour guides for desert safaris. Mohammad, the guide, would come with us and the other Mohammad had two days off. After several cell phone conversations, we were assured he would arrive soon. The sun was heating up as we sat in the shade of the eucalyptus trees and waited.


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