Trip to Bahariya Oasis uncovers some of the country s unknown attractions
BAHARIYA, Western Desert: The oases of Egypt are like few other places on earth; an awesome range of geographical features, terrain and wildlife are concentrated on the outskirts of the Sahara. Used in ancient times by the Egyptians for agriculture, the beautiful scenery and luscious surroundings attract few tourists. Towns, such as Farafra and Dakhla, still function as rural farming communities.
Yet, surrounding the Oasis are some of the most beautiful and usual deserts in the Middle East, accessible by four wheel drive (4WD) and a long way off the beaten tourist track, none of which are advisable without a guide. This is where the Ahmed Safari Camp in Bawiti comes in. Not three hours drive out of Cairo is the small village of Bawiti, in Bahariya Oasis, on the fringe of the Western Desert. In this area a variety of different 4WD trips are available from Ahmed Safari Camp, which is run by a small crew.
Mohammed, working at the Safari Camp as a guide, is a law graduate who left a career in the capital to become an expert in navigating the region he grew up in. He was tempted back by the natural scenery and evasive wonders that Bahariya has to offer. Working in the camp itself, situated in El Kasser, he provides safari tours for up to 14 days with his desert-hardened driver Amr. If the workplace is not lenient enough to take a fortnight off, three days is probably enough to take a round trip through the Bahariya Oasis and into Farafra.
Leaving the camp and heading towards the western desert is not at first ominous, merely driving on patchy tarmac that runs adjacent to the sheer ridges that surround the Oasis: nothing exotic. But when Amr (driving his ancient Toyota Land Cruiser) took the first sharp turn off into soft sand, the journey quickly changed pace.
Heading relatively high up into the mountains, across jagged igneous rocks scattered across treacherous soft sand and steep inclines, the journey becomes more of a challenge than anticipated. Coming through a gulley of deep orange sand, Amr’s Land Cruiser become stuck, eventually made unstuck with the use of tow ropes, sand ladders and plenty of elbow grease.
Mohammed seems unabated after an hour digging in the midday sun. Gesturing to the south of the gulley he suggests that there are decent photo opportunities ahead, wiping his sunglasses on his vest.
Mohammed was not far wrong; the sand eventually stretches into the White Desert, an ominous, dry and desolate plateau of bizarre outcroppings and wind-swept stone structures that resemble vegetation more than rock. Each stop is welcomed with a wheezing from our vehicles brakes and an opportunity for Amr to pour water over the radiator of his car. Temperatures soar during midday, but the humidity sinks in during the afternoon when everything evaporates, including engine coolant.
In the white desert, not 20 kilometres north of Farafra the scenery brings stunning rock structures, reminiscent of Monument Valley in Arizona, outcroppings that decent into sand dunes just as quickly as they disappear. The silence is astounding in the White Desert, nothing but the hum of the car engines can be heard in any direction.
Arriving late in the day at Crystal Mountain, predominately made up of quartzite and dolerite, is a stunning stop off, along the road from Bawiti to Cairo. Unfortunately, no particular effort is required to visit the mountain due to its convenient roadside location. Scarred by wind erosion and largely damaged by tourists removing pieces of quartz, the mountain has lost much of its immediate appeal, yet still worth visiting for close-up inspection.
On the road back to Cairo, civilisation feels like a long way off, the silent desolation of the White Desert and the Great Sand Sea make the background noise of Cairo seem more the cacophony it already is.