Egypt: More than just desert

By Anne Tucker

A family journey over the dunes of Egypt's vast and unusual White Desert is as rewarding as the landscape is sparse, writes Anne Tucker.

The White Desert, in a corner of the Sahara, is a seemingly endless landscape of sand trapped between chalk-white limestone barriers. Photo / Wikimedia Commons, original uploader was Zadokite at en.wikipedia
The White Desert, in a corner of the Sahara, is a seemingly endless landscape of sand trapped between chalk-white limestone barriers. Photo / Wikimedia Commons, original uploader was Zadokite at en.wikipedia

Tonight we are making camp on top of a giant sand dune running between two low hills of rock. All we can see, running to the horizon in every direction, are more rolling hills of sand trapped between chalk-white limestone barriers. This is Egypt's White Desert, a unique corner of the vast Sahara, an ocean of emptiness.

In this great wilderness nothing makes a sound - no animals, no birds, no insects, no wind in the trees - just the noise we make as we unload our gear from the four-wheel drives and set up camp.

Awan and Hamood, our amiable Bedouin drivers-cooks-guides, have positioned the three vehicles into an open-sided square and now line their sides with brightly coloured hangings and mats. A large gas burner is put in one corner and for dining tables two large metal trays are balanced on short legs pushed into the sand.

Awan is a shrewd, good-humoured and chatty man, with laughing eyes, in traditional white robe, trousers and red headdress. Hamood is younger and wears a baggy tracksuit, green headdress and usually a look of quizzical appraisal.

In addition to our family group of eight adults and two children, we have one other person. When we left our starting point of El Bawiti, an oasis town 360 km southwest of Cairo, the local police insisted we have an escort, who turns out to be a very young man who for most of the next two and a half days looks rather bored.

Once everything is set for the night, Awan and Hamood lie on their sides in a corner of the room they have made, smoking and chatting, and we walk along the dune and down and around the rocky hills. The sun is going down; the sand is turning a richer colour and the limestone is softening to a gentle yellow. It is also getting very cold. After a day in T-shirts, we are now putting on down jackets, thermal leggings, and woolly hats.

A fire is lit beyond the cars and we sit round it chatting, while the kids climb on to the roof racks and play at being king of the castle. What turns out to be a very tasty vegetable stew, along with rice, is being cooked on the gas burner and a metal rack of chicken is balanced over the fire.

The stars come out as we eat, and on this moonless clear night, the sky becomes bright white with them. We lie back afterwards and look up at the panorama of the night sky. The children toast marshmallows on the fire.

I listen out for something, a night bird, a cricket; surely there will be something to hear. But there is nothing, just a vast silence.

Then, someone with a torch sees eyes shining. It is a desert fox, come for the leftovers Awan and Hamood have put on the sand a short distance away. It runs off when it realises it has been noticed.

We wake early the next morning. The sand is almost grey until the sun starts coming over the hills, sending shafts of golden colour and warmth.

There are paw prints all around the camp and the meat is gone. Awan and Hamood say the fox will eat the remaining vegetables and rice the next night when there is no meat.

We breakfast on flat bread, boiled eggs, hard cheese, oranges and sweet black tea which provides welcome warmth in the morning chill. But by the time we break camp the sun is further up and it's getting hot.

We drive off along the dune, down the alleyway of white rock and on to the desert floor, the three cars in convoy, but well spaced.

The pace is fairly steady across hard sand and flat patches of rock but when there is a dune ahead the cars burn across the sand at maximum speed, sand billowing up behind, to get the momentum to carry them over the crest.

In our car, Hamood deftly changes down to keep the revs up as the car gets slower and slower towards the top and then finally we crest the dune and drop sedately down the other side. If we did not make it to the top, we would have to back down and try again, but we never do.

Rachel, my sister-in-law who lives in Cairo, has learnt how to drive in the desert, and the Bedouin are particularly expert drivers.

We drive through an undulating landscape of rock and sand, past long depressions where enough water is trapped for patches of scraggly date palms to grow, past places where the desert suddenly drops away to long lines of mountains in the distance, until we come to a small oasis, like a garden; small dunes around rocks with date palms, reeds and other plants in the dips between them.

Someone has channelled the spring into a rough rock trough, an algae-filled bath, which is surrounded by animal tracks from the night: wild camel, fox, rat, lizard, and beetle. Camel droppings are everywhere, small dry pellets like walnuts, the only waste from this large energy-efficient animal.

We see nothing living during the day, but clearly, out there, there are many things. If it had not been winter, we would have seen snake and scorpion tracks as well.

A short distance away there are small caves in the rock and shards of pottery. We fossick around this mini-Garden of Eden looking at pottery handles and curved fragments of pots, which are probably at least 2000 years old.

Awan and Hamood make tea, boiling tea and water together in a teapot, and serve it out into tiny flowered-enamel mugs on a tray. We sit on fallen date palm trunks sipping our hot sweet tea and asking them about the animals making the tracks.

Then we drive on until we get to a limestone sea where the rock has eroded to form white waves and islets in the sand. There are seashells embedded in this artificial sea, bivalves and what looks like a giant oyster, showing the true seabed's beginnings, millennia ago. Over all this white there are lumps of black iron pyrite scattered everywhere.

That night we camp among white rocks sculpted by sand and wind into strange figures: giant mushrooms, vast animal heads, strange plants and other contorted creatures from the imagination. We wander through this Alice in Wonderland landscape and climb one of the sturdier rocks to watch the sun sink on the flat horizon. In the falling dusk, a desert fox cruises past, and stops to look at us for a while.

It is another evening of sitting round the campfire after dinner chatting, asking Awan, Hamood and the policeman about their life in Egypt, and telling them about our family. But we are still early to bed because of the cold.

During the night, I hear a small animal sniffing around the tent. I unzip the entrance and stick my head out, but I have made so much noise there is nothing to be seen.

In the morning, all around our tents, again there are fox footprints, large and small, adult and young.

That morning, as we break camp, the young policeman fastens a compact semi-automatic weapon to his holster and puts on a large baggy leather jacket that largely hides it.

This is his moment. This is really why he is with us. We are going into the western part of the White Desert, heading towards the outer boundary of the National Park, where visitors sometimes strike trouble. He is more consciously alert today, always looking around when we stop and keeping his large leather jacket on despite the heat.

We drive through older limestone, crumbling and yellow, then stop to look out over huge cliffs rising straight from the sand. We keep on the move as a precaution but still have our usual morning tea in the pretty enamel mugs, sitting on an enormous curved sand dune that creates an auditorium around an enormous pointed rock.

Finally it is time to return to El Bawiti. We stay the night where we set off, the Hot Springs Hotel, a pretty group of one-storey buildings painted white and blue.

The rooms are simple, but the showers, flushing toilets and sheets are well-appreciated luxuries. We sit on the roof of the main building having a drink as the sun goes down. We are now surrounded by many comforts we enjoy, but we are back to being town dwellers, and somehow, something is missing.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies regularly to Cairo from Auckland via Dubai.

Camping tours: Camping and other White Desert tours can be arranged through whitedeserttours.com.

Further information: For information about visiting Egypt see the Egyptian Tourism Office website.

Anne Tucker paid her own way in Egypt.

- NZ Herald

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