SAND, SILENCE AND SOLITUDE
The New Valley of Egypt, a landscape of towering dunes & oasis villages, inspires a humble respect for nature
text and photos by Ellen Warner
"The desert? No, I've been to Egypt 17 times, but I've never gone into the desert," said our travel agent, sounding rather puzzled. "You know, you see the desert right next to all the ruins."
When I persisted, she put me in touch with a travel agent in Washington, D.C., who had a branch office in Cairo. Talking with them several weeks before my trip last April, it became apparent that yes, they could get me a car and a driver to visit the oasis villages of the New Valley - an area of the Western Desert about halfway between the Nile Valley and the Libyan border. But did I know, they asked without enthusiasm, that it would be very hot?
I decided to check further. Friends working for the Agency for International Development in Cairo suggested that I call Amr Shannon, a rally driver who took people on desert safaris. When I told him I'd always wanted to go to the desert and asked him what it was like, there was a pause and he said respectfully: "It is beautiful - unlike anything else. You have to be there to feel it." I knew I had found my guide.
Then came the practicalities. Did we want one car or two? With one four-wheel-drive vehicle we could travel up to 25 miles off "the asphalt," the sparsely traveled road that connects the oasis towns. If anything happened to the car, it would be possible to walk back to the road, which meant civilization. On the other hand, with the addition of a support car we could travel 125 miles off the asphalt.
I consulted Richard, my English friend who on the spur of the moment had agreed to accompany me, and he said that he thought 25 miles would do it, so I agreed that we would be conservative.
The car would cost $200 a day, including our guide, Amr, and we would pay extra for gas and the food we took with us. Amr cautioned us to take sweaters and a warm jacket, as in April the desert can get below freezing at night.
We planned to spend a total of five nights in the Western Desert (as the Egyptians call the Sahara in Egypt) and the oases of the New Valley. The valley comprises the bulk of Egypt's Western Desert and the oases of Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafra and Kharga, which roughly parallel the Nile.
Four weeks from my initial telephone call to Amr, after several days in teeming Cairo, I got together with Richard and Amr, and we headed west in a Jeep packed with everything from tents, shovels and sand mats (which are placed under your tires for traction if you get bogged down in the sand) to basic food for the week. Our trip had been postponed a day because of bad sandstorms. April as it turns out, is the month of the khamsin, a warm wind that blows north from the Sudan.
There were a fair numbers of cars on the road during the first hour's drive out of Cairo as we passed new housing developments and a few industrial parks, but from then on we saw only about one car an hour. Our first destination was the oasis of Bahariya, 225 miles southwest of Cairo, where we planned to stop for lunch.
The land was flat; sand as far as the eye could see, often lightly covered with black pebbles of basalt, called "the pavement of the desert." Halfway to Bahariya something caught Amr's eye. He slowed down and turned off the road. There in front of us were petrified tree trunks from the days before the Sahara was desert.
Half an hour later he veered off again, this time to a field of shells dating from 40 million years ago, when what is now the Sahara was ocean. Translucent mother-of-pearl shells the size of my palm, which had once held soft oysters, peeled apart in my hand, shining like mica. Because of the lack of humidity in the Sahara, it is not uncommon to find shards of ancient pottery and other artifacts, as well as prehistoric remains such as these.
Continuing toward Bahariya, the topography became hilly. Amr scanned the landscape, and we swerved off the road heading toward pebbly hills (actually formed by piles of petrified shells and marine life). Leaving the car at the bottom of one of these, we climbed to the top in the midday sun to find two chains of longitudinal sand dunes, the Ghard Ghorabi, stretching as far as the eye could see. I was awed by their majesty and mesmerized by their rhythmic waves.
The variety of dunes is astonishing. Some are only a few feet high; others reach several hundred feet and traverse hundreds of miles. A flat, rocky area can suddenly become a range of sand dunes. Their shapes are determined by several factors: the direction, strength and consistency of wind; the amount of sand; the hardness of the terrain, and the amount of vegetation. Dunes are constantly moving, propelled by the wind, sometimes more than 100 yards a year. Nothing can hold them back.
Oases are depressions in the plateau of the desert, usually ringed by steep sandstone escarpments. They can be large, often 20 miles long, and contain many villages. The houses of El Bawiti, capital of Bahariya and a typical oasis village - where we had lunch -are made of brick the color of the surrounding sand. The only color is on doors and windows painted wonderful pastel blues, turquoises, greens and yellows. It is common to see charming, primitive drawings of camels, jumbo jets and cars on the facades because all good Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes, and upon returning draw a picture on the front of their house illustrating the story of the trip.
We ate at Bayoumi's restaurant, where our meal was the same one we were to have at every restaurant in an oasis town - vegetable soup (usually lentil), Egyptian beans, chicken, rice and a fresh vegetable (zucchini or yellow squash) in tomato sauce - hearty and healthy. We were invariably the only tourists (we saw only one other couple during our week in the desert). The Egyptians are very friendly and respectful of visitors. When people did not want me to photograph them, the subjects (usually women) discreetly turned away or asked for baksheesh (a tip), but they were never rude or angry.
As it was now only a few hours until nightfall, we got back into the car to continue. For the more leisurely traveler, Bahariya boasts some modest ruins - rock tombs over 2,000 years old, skeletal remains of Roman garrisons, a Ptolemaic temple and a Greco-Roman village.
The more mountainous terrain between Bahariya and Farafra begins to resemble a lunar landscape. We camped about 55 miles south of Bahariya in an area called Crystal Mountain. Here the ground is covered with hard sand and there are outcroppings, sometimes mountainous, of quartz that shine like crystals in the sun. We pitched our tents in the hollow between two of these hills and Richard and I took a walk across this moonscape.
At dusk we climbed an adjacent hill to watch the sunset. Without the distraction of electric lights from nearby humanity, the desert night sky is ablaze with stars. A book on stars, with a simple chart of the constellations, is a must for any desert safari.
It got cold, so we climbed back down close to the campfire and put on turtlenecks and jackets. You can almost hear the quiet in the desert. Amr says that people either love the desert or are scared by its loneliness.
My own fear was more of scorpions and poisonous snakes, both of which come out at night. I worried about having to get up in the dark and stumbling on some hidden interloper. Amr said: "snakes and scorpions only disturb you if you disturb them. Take a flashlight and be careful not to kick over any stones, and in the morning shake out your shoes to make sure nothing has curled up inside them."
Daybreak was spellbinding, with deep shadows and sunlight reflecting off the quartz outcroppings. After breakfast we drove south and after several stops arrived at the White Desert, so called because mounds of white chalk are blown by the sand and wind into strange mushroom-shape formations.
The Egyptian Desert is the driest part of the Sahara - in Farafra, according to National Geographic and "The Sahara Handbook" by Simon Glen, it rained in 1945 and not again until 1973. The smallest of the oases, Farafra consists of several hamlets, some dependent on old Roman wells. We had lunch in one of the two roadside restaurants in the village, then started the 190-mile drive to the Dakhla oasis, along the most desolate and worst-maintained section of the road.
It crosses a corner of the Great Sand Sea, a vast area of flat sand and dune fields stretching westward to Libya. Now, truly isolated, we were lucky to pass a car every two hours. It was hot and there was a slight breeze, so sand was blowing into the car. I tied a handkerchief around my head covering my nose and mouth, but my nose clogged up and I found it slightly hard to breathe. Amr showed me how to snort water in through my nose, blow out and clear out the sand. That was the only moment when I felt a twinge of fear, in the isolation of the Great Sand Sea.
We had hoped to camp next to a dune field about 35 miles west of Dakhla, but by the time we arrived the khamsin wind had picked up. When it starts blowing before dusk, it means a sandstorm during the night, so we pressed on to the village of El Qasr in the Dakhla Oasis, where we spent two nights in rooms above the local café. We were disappointed not to be camping out but out little "hotel" gave us a new experience.
Each night the men of the village congregated there to smoke their water pipes, play dominoes, talk and watch a terrible Tarzan-type American soap opera with Arabic subtitles on TV. We were welcomed into the domino games and treated as part of the group. Dinner was brought to our domino tables, we were encouraged to smoke, and everyone was thrilled when one of us happened to win a game.
The food in the café was delicious - dinners of the fare to which we had become accustomed and breakfasts of taamia (ground Egyptian beans with parsley and sesame fried in oil like little hamburgers), omelets, pita bread, white cheese, fresh fruit and tea.
In El Qasr, the most charming village we saw, mud brick houses with ornamented doorways, and decorative friezes line narrow sandy alleyways. Their doors have lintels, beneath which one has to stoop because sand has spent centuries rising over the thresholds. The veils of the women and the djellabas (long robes) of the men waft gracefully with the breezes, adding an aura of tranquility to the timeless feeling of the village.
Dakhla is the largest oasis in the valley, and the main occupation is farming. In the morning we watched men harvesting wheat. They cut the stalks with sickles, then girls collected the sheaves and gleaned the kernels left behind. The boys threw the wheat onto a wagon, which a donkey pulled to the village. It was a scene that could have taken place 3,000 years ago.
Heading for our last oasis, Kharga, 125 miles from Dakhla, we stopped at Balat to see the newly discovered pharaonic tomb of Pepi II, dating from 2200 B.C., and then what used to be a camel stand on the old track between Dakhla and Kharga.
There we saw prehistoric writing on rocks striped with very soft sandstone - yellow, red, blue, and green. When you rubbed it, the color came off onto your fingers. The women of ancient Egypt used this sandstone as makeup. We arrived in Kharga in time to visit the Temple of Amun-Re in the ruins of the ancient town of Hibis. Completed by the Persian ruler Darius I in the sixth century B.C., it bears a later inscription of Nekhtnebf, one of the last native pharaohs. It was decorated with pharaonic painting and hieroglyphs, and high up on the walls we could see the graffiti of 19th-century explorers.
When the light started to fade at the temple, we settled ourselves into the three-story Kharga Hotel - where, aside from a few Russians there on business, we were the only guests.
Our last morning we visited the necropolis of El Bagawat, a Coptic Christian burial ground dating from the fourth to seventh centuries, its numerous mausoleums dotted over several small hills. They are made of mud brick, many with domes, decorated with primitive frescoes in bright colors, depicting biblical scenes, well-preserved by the dry desert air. St. George slaying the dragon and Noah's Ark seem to have been favorites.
Our last stop in Kharga was the Archeological Museum, which houses decorated coffins for mummies, glass, pottery, jewelry and other remnants of desert life from pharaonic times to the present. Surprisingly, perhaps because of the lighting and the way the objects are arranged, the exhibits here seemed to be better displayed than those in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Then we were pressed to reach Luxor, a five-hour drive, before nightfall.
Traveling at night in the countryside near Luxor is frowned upon by the Egyptian authorities because of the possibility of terrorist attacks. Since the killing last November of 58 foreign tourists by Islamic militants in the courtyards of a Luxor temple, the Government has tightened security measures even further, and travelers may find that they are accompanied by a police escort in certain areas near Luxor if the authorities deem it necessary.
The road from Kharga to Luxor is desolate. Every hour or so there is a checkpoint, the soldiers stationed there the only signs of life along the way. We had our last picnic lunch between buttes in the middle of a "waterless sea" of sand. The last miles of desert seemed precious, and we began to wistfully conjure our next trip.
I now know that once the desert is in your bones, there will always be a pull to go back - to hear the quiet, to see the night sky, to feel the power and rhythm of the dunes, to sense one's smallness in nature.
Reprinted with permission from the New York Times