After any more than a few days in chaotic and carcinogenic Cairo, thoughts inevitably turn to escaping to a place of tranquillity. No better rest bite then, than a weekend foray into the Western Desert: Bahariyya Oasis, and the other-worldliness of the Black Desert and the White Desert.
Following the tarmacked road south west out of Cairo, passing the fledgling housing developments in various faltering states of advancement, the road was soon flanked by sand as far as the eye can see. Egypt’s Western Desert is a vast expanse, bordered by the Nile to the East and nothing but a line on a map that is the Libyan border to the West.
The inter-city coaches of the Upper Egypt Bus Company hurtle down the road, punctuated occasionally by bus stops in the most desolate of places. Incredibly, the odd passenger will alight there and wander to the horizon, presumably to a low-lying village or camp obscured by the dunes and heat haze.
We arrived in the sleepy village of Bawiti nearly five hours after departing Cairo’s Turgamon bus station. The village is largest of the brace spread across the Bahariyya Oasis. Clustered around a number of small oases, the local population survive on agricultural small holdings, nearby iron ore mines and a trickle of tourism.
We spent the night a little way out of the village, on the edge of the irrigated fields and on the cusp of the desert. Our accommodation of thatched huts sufficed, for the clean air and absolute silence made for the soundest of sleeps. Awakened with a splash in the chilly oasis waters and well fed on omelettes, our journey continued.
A little further down the sole tarmac road, we veered suddenly off road. From a distance, the sand appeared to darken; sprinkled with black. Closer inspection found black volcanic rocks, the size of house bricks and larger, peppered the surface of the sand, from the highest peak to the desert floor.
A stark and beautiful sight, the Western Desert wasn’t done yet.
Continuing on southwards, we left the road again. This vista was an eye squinting array of golden sand and bright white rock monoliths and mushrooms rising from the desert floor. Worn away by wind today and presumably water over the millennia, the obscure shapes ranged from ripples of white rock in the desert floor, echoing the gentle wash and crest of an ocean wave, to veritable icebergs, of significant size and shape.
As the sun set, we pitched camp in the open desert amongst the field of chalk figurines. In reality, this meant setting up a small fire for grilling chicken, and cooking up a vegetable stew. Before the light faded, numerous mats, durable mattresses and rugs were laid out for a bed under the stars.
The setting sun gave impressive shifting gold and purple hues to the rock formations before night engulfed the desert scape. Alone but for the field of rock statues and a vast field of stars above, we dined simply and slept well.
The first rays of dawn brought much needed warmth after a cold night. The transition from night to day briefly brought the field of statues to life, through the shifting colours and shadows, before the new day’s sun flooded over us.
After a morning’s exploration of the White Desert’s curiosities, our brief trip was over. We hailed a juggernaut Upper Egypt bus from an isolated roadside bus stop and hurtled back towards the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The charm and geological curios of Bahariyya Oasis are undoubtedly one of Egypt’s hidden treasures – and one that I secretly hope remains so.