I’m off into the Sahara to fulfil another life-long dream. Throughout my life, I’ve been drawn to the old black and white British films of daring exploits in the Western desert. From ‘The Desert Rats‘ and ‘Benghazi‘ to, probably one of my favourite films of all time, ‘Ice Cold in Alex‘. I’ve longed to see dunes for myself, to feel the contrast of the searing heat of the day with that of the chill of a desert dawn. I’ve long wanted to cry ‘Keep the bloody brake on‘ as we career down the side of a sand dune. Both hope and expectation are high in equal measures.
And so we set off to Faiyum, a city some 150km southwest of Cairo and on the edge of the desert. It used to be known as Crocodopolis, a grand name which sounds as though it should be the home for a large American rubber sandal emporium. It’s a straight and long road, dotted with police checkpoints and military barracks.
Occasionally, along the sides of the Qarun Lake, there are resorts with elegant tourist villages, compounds that are self-contained and with little reason for holiday-makers to wander off for the length of their whole stay; except, perhaps, to take a brief walk down a rather dilapidated promenade. The edges of the lake are full of flotsam, branches and other bits of agricultural waste. It’s not the Mediterranean, not by a long shot.
Occasionally, we see a small collection of shops. Enterprise out here depends on what you can find to sell. If you own five tyres, you have a tyre shop. Half a dozen bottles of Pepsi and an old fridge and you have yourself a mini-market. All you need are customers.
From there, we are picked up by Landcruiser and meet Mefreh, who will be our guide and driver for the next day or two. We make a short stop in Tunis village, a collection of dusty houses and run-down shops, with people making the most of the little that they have. And, for most, it’s clear that they don’t have much at all.
Donkey carts are everywhere, carrying sugar cane and reeds. Single donkeys, loaded down with produce with small boys sitting on their haunches, are a common sight. Women carry water on their heads. Not in any ethnic or rustic pitcher, unfortunately. It’s Dasani water, in boxes of twelve, litre and a half bottles, produced higher up in Egypt by Coca-Cola.
Cats and dogs, sheep and goats, children and babies; they’re everywhere.
On the edge of the town we find a delightful oasis with a lone hotel, the Sobek Lodge, complete with its own artisan pottery business, Turning out the most beautiful and elegant plates, bowls, jugs and cups at almost throw-away prices, it shouldn’t be missed, and it isn’t.
And then, with a long-awaited cry of ‘El-Lawrence‘ it’s on into the desert.
Our first stop is at Wadi El-Hitan. It’s a restricted and protected zone that is only accessible by four-wheeled drive and a registered guide. It’s a paleontological site and used to be a sea-bed forty million years ago. It was only discovered in 2005 and UNESCO protect it, but the small camp there does allow people to shelter from the sun and make good use of the clean and well-kept toilet facilities.
It’s known as Whale Valley, as the fossils of the Basilosaurus whales, some as long as 21 metres, have been found and are still there, on site for all to see, at the spot where they floundered when when the oceans retreated. There are all manner of fish and sea-creatures, all huge and all doomed by the cataclysmic change in climate. We stand amazed at the fossils and equally so at the buildings that surround the site. It’s reminiscent of Star Wars and would be a superb backdrop for a science-fiction film, albeit that there is only a single sun in the sky on this November morning.
We eat lunch under a rough pergola, looking out across endless miles of sand towards Libya. Our guide has been busy preparing fresh flatbreads, tomatoes, cucumbers, tuna salad and beans in a rich tomato and onion sauce. It’s a feast.
Mefreh, who is Bedouin and lives on the edge of the protected zone, well away from town, is mahogany-brown and his face is deeply lined from squinting up at the intense sun. I suspect he may only be in his early forties, but he looks considerably older. In his turban, made from a length of cream fabric, known here as a shaal, a white galbaya and grey gilet, he looks the part. He is an ex-rally driver who has competed all over this part of Africa, from Sudan, the Niger, into Somalia and Libya. The Landcruiser is rugged, rough around the edges but more than adequate. It takes us out into the unknown. There are few landmarks and no signs. Mehfreh takes regular glances out of the side window. Whether he is judging direction by the sun or some familiarity with the area, it’s hard to tell, but his mobile rings regularly enough to be a comfort. No doubt, he would know where we were if we broke down and needed help.
Mefreh tells me he spent ten years as a geologist before setting up this business. He comes in useful when he suddenly pulls over, jumps out of the vehicle and starts scurrying over the sand and rocks. We follow and he points out sheets of gypsum and pieces of alabaster. He picks up shark teeth, and I have to remember that they are from a time 40,000,000 years ago, when the whole of the Sahara was an ocean. It’s hard to take in. We collect teeth as souvenirs, some as long as five centimetres and as grey as dust.
From there, we move on to Wadi El-Batikh, which is the Arabic for watermelon. The ancient sea-bed is covered with perfectly spherical stones, the size of bowling balls and strange rocks that stand upright and have been carved by the wind and the sand into shapes that look strangely familiar. Here there is a tortoise, and a cat, a dog and an elephant. Over there, a mouse and a horse, a hawk and a seal. It’s fascinating how closely they resemble well-known creatures, considering it’s all simply the product of wind and weathering.
At last I see my first mirage, and then another. I call out, Look a lake! Look water! Mefreh half-turns in his seat and says, ‘There is no water in the desert’, and I realise that I have done what many must have done before me. Fortunately, I’m not walking barefoot with my clothes in tatters, tongue swollen, eyes burning and throat parched. Instead, I’m sitting high up on a comfortable leather seat, bottle of Baraka water in hand looking out to the horizon. And still, I am fooled. The shimmering heat produces the illusion and a desperate imagination does the rest.
As the afternoon draws to a close we arrive at the camp for the night. It’s a small oasis in the desert, used regularly by tour groups. Our companions for the night are a small party of Germans, some Arabs, one or two Italians and, away in the distance a lone white tent of Americans. They are set apart from the rest of the camp. We know from our guides that any group of Americans that exceeds ten or so requires armed guards. It’s all the fallout from 9/11 and, whilst they are welcomed as warmly as any other tourist in Egypt, care is taken to offer them extra protection as they are invariably potential targets. Whatever the reason, our Americans keep themselves to themselves and we only pass on the way to the wash-room.
The area is stunningly beautiful. I climb to the top of a dune and look around. In front, the sands stretch away in pristine curves, far away to the horizon. The backdrop of high sandstone cliffs is magnificent and to the left, me you can look over a flat plain and away into the distance.
We dine on chicken, potatoes, tomatoes and rice, sitting cross-legged on Arabic rugs. The camp is maintained by Bedouin guides and helpers who cook, look after the fire and keep the whole area clean. For those who worry about privation and personal plumbing, there is a small, yet spotless, toilet block a short distance away, disguised within a mud-hut and containing running water from a hidden bowser, flush-toilets and a huge cesspit buried in the sand. Twentieth-century comforts in an ancient landscape.
After dinner, we sit around chatting, while the guides eat and entertain each other. Suddenly, we hear a noise and we see that one of the Landcruisers has tipped over on a dune. Fortunately, no one is hurt, but out here, with poor telephone reception and few roads, it’s a matter of utilising the other vehicles and manpower to right it again. It’s in a parlous state, panels and windows smashed, tyres burst. At home, we would consider it only worthy of scrap, but here, in Egypt, a little time and work and, no doubt, it’ll be ready for the next tour group or expedition.
By day, the temperature can reach into the 50s and yet, by night, it can drop into single figures. In November, it still manages to reach 30 degrees by noon, but in the evening a cold wind whistles across the sand and I seek the comfort of a pair of longer trousers, socks and a jumper. Dusk is at 5 pm and by nine I am ready for bed. We’re offered the choice: sleep by the open fire, curl up in the main hut or in a makeshift camp outside on the sand. We opt for the latter, and they erect a windbreak between two Landcruisers, a long length of bright fabric, and erect two small tents.
Although the night is not yet clear, the moon lights everywhere with an eerie yellow glow. It’s bright enough to see the horizon and I realise that this is how and why travellers would rest up in the heat of the day and start walking the desert at night. The lack of any light pollution eventually makes for a wondrous night sky, full of diamond-bright stars on a backcloth of navy velvet.
At dawn, the air is crisp and clean. I climb out of the tent a little before six to find the bedouins have kept the fire going, the smell of wood smoke drifts across the wind and there is a welcome early mug of coffee.
With a light breeze to my back, the sand is cold but the sun will soon warm it. I climb the dunes to take photographs and there are tracks of desert fox and the Arabic spiny mouse. They have visited the camp during the night looking for scraps. The bedouins tell me that the mice come late at night while they are sleeping by the fire and run over them looking for crumbs and dropped specks of food. They are fond of them and one wonders how anything can survive out here, but survive they do.
After a breakfast of fuul, a dish of beans, onions and spices, eggs, tomatoes, flatbread and a delicious pastry dipped in molasses, we break camp and head out across the dunes. Climbing the dunes on foot is an arduous task, the sand is soft and legs sink up to the knee all too easily. Racing up them in a four-wheeled drive Toyota is much easier and plunging down the other side, even more fun. I suspect Mehfreh enjoys dune-bashing as much as we do although this morning, we are in an alternative Landcruiser, as it was his that was wrecked the previous evening.
We head for Wadi Rayan and the Magic Lake. The salt-water lake sits in the middle of a wasteland and provides it’s own oasis. It’s man-made, fed by three sulphur springs which gives its turquoise colour, and covers some 133 square kilometres. It’s been created to enable the irrigation of agriculture around Faiyum but has now become something of a tourist site with sand-boarding right down to the water’s edge. Whilst the lake might be interesting, what is far more so are the cliff edges that surround it and the long views away to the west. It really is beautiful country.
And so, our trip in to the Sahara comes to an end. We drive back to Tunis and change vehicles for the long drive back into the melee and bedlam of Cairo. We swap the near-silence of the desert, broken only by the singing of the wind, for the car horns and traffic noise of the city. Enervated and exhilarated in equal measures, it’s time for an early night.
Click here for ‘Two weeks in Cairo’