The Western Desert of Egypt: Adventure Travel at its Best
By Cassandra Vivian
If I were talking about Tutankamun, this article would attract readers automatically, such is the draw of Ancient Egypt. But I am talking about Kharga Oasis, Gebel Uwaynat, and the Great Sand Sea.
Although all of them have mysteries as tantalizing as those of ancient Egypt, they are for the most part unrecognizable names in the United States. If I told you Medusa turned men to stone in the Western Desert, would that hold your interest? If I said after his 12 labors Hercules rested in the Western Desert, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra romanced here, Antony and Cleopatra faced defeat here, and the first Allied victory in World War II took place here, would that do it? If I said the heroine of the Academy Award winning film The English Patient died in one of its caves --- ahh haa, now I gotcha, dont I??
Egypts Western Desert is hard to describe in one go. It is huge. It is one of the most arid regions on earth, in fact, one of our last frontiers. German, English, and Italian tourists have been basking in its hot springs and exploring its ancient artifacts for centuries. It was primarily their explorers who opened it up to the world in the 19th century. Americans seem to think they had no part in its development, but a rag tag group of Marines and sailors crossed the Western Desert from Alexandria to Derna (in Libya) in 1805 in one of the most amazing military expeditions in history. We dont talk about it much (which is too bad), but Derna was the first Marine battle on foreign soil and the sword worn by marines at full dress today commemorates "the shores of Tripoli."
History alone may not lure a traveler to the Western Desert, but will! This is adventure offered up in degrees so there is something for everyone: mild for those who insist on a good shower and a swimming pool at the end of the day; strong for those who like to go into the wilderness to camp, but know that the paved road and the high tension lines are nearby; or intense, where one tempts the fates and carries all the water, gasoline, and food necessary for a 10-to-24-day step-off-the-edge-of-the-earth escapade. Any one of these journeys is worth putting on your wish list.
Mild: Loop the Loop to the Oases
For the traveler who likes a little bit of adventure, but wants it peppered with modern conveniences, a trip around the loop road will bring four major oases into focus. The loop swings out of the Nile Valley near Cairo and returns to the river near Luxor. It is a 700 mile journey that leads to four distinctly different worlds filled with fascinating desert people, antiquities, mysteries, and newly built resorts. The first oasis on the loop road, Baharia Oasis, is 194 miles from Cairo.
Recently a great discovery was made here. Hundreds and hundreds of ancient mummies were uncovered, most adorned with precious gold jewelry and amulets. Dubbed the Valley of the Golden Mummies, the area is now under intensive excavation and a tomb was actually opened for the first time on the Discovery channel a few months ago. But Baharia is more that golden mummies, which the world will soon see are a-dime-a-dozen inalmost every oasis in this desert (after all it, like the Nile Valley, the desert has had thousands of years of history). Baharias greatest treasure is its physical environment. The sand is golden! A string of small hills runs in an almost perfect line from north to south, most topped by black basalt stone. Both the hills and the basalt are gifts of an ancient geological upheaval. Amid the hills is the Black Desert where the golden sand is littered with tiny black stones. Hard on your tires, but spectacular to your eyes, there are dozens and dozens of places to camp.
In contrast to Baharia, Farafra Oasis, another hundred miles along the route, has a White Desert. Giant white chalk monoliths rise from a pure white desert floor, while smaller outcroppings looking like donkeys, camels, and Bedouin, enchant the visitor with their humor. Here one can roam off-road without too much fear of getting lost. One can pitch camp under Snoopy the dog or a napping Mexican with a huge sombrero. Couple these wonders with the pure air of the desert, the almost lack of sound (except for the wind), and how can one not think that this is paradise! Farafra holds the most mysteries in the desert. It was in Farafra that Cambyses, the Persian conqueror of ancient Egypt, lost an army. 50,000 strong they set off from ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) to attack the Oracle at Siwa Oasis. They never got there. Herodotus said a sandstorm vanquished this army. Historians have been looking for it ever since. Modern technology still cannot find it.
Dakhla Oasis was a breadbasket of the Roman Empire. It is lush with farmland growing vegetables and fruits in the iron-rich red earth. Here medieval mudbrick Islamic villages are perched on hills with impenetrable, sheer-sided outer protective walls. The hot springs, where hot water gushes up from deep in the earth and spills into an awaiting trough, allows the traveler to lay back and float in a mist of steam while looking up into a canopy of stars. All the oases have these intoxicating hot springs. They are more controlled in Dakhla. So are the Bedouin camps, where the young boys will beat their drums and sing around a small fire in the evening. Dakhla is where one shoots off to the deep desert. In the ancient past it was often invaded by desert tribes who carried off its camels and women. So the people of Dakhla went into the desert and destroyed the water wells for a journey of five days. That stopped the invasions.
Kharga Oasis is the last oasis on the loop before the Nile Valley. It seems to have had the longest association with ancient Egypt. It is also the place where Christians were banished in the 4th and 5th centuries and as a souvenir of the time boasts one of the largest ancient Christian cemeteries in the world: Bagawat. Kharga also claims the first five star resort with swimming pool and air conditioning. At first glance Kharga looks disappointing for its main village is a replica of a Nile Valley town, but one must dig deeper.
Kharga Oasiss greatest treasures, in addition to its marching rows of crescent sand dunes, are the Roman fortresses scattered along a famous slavers road called the Darb el Arbain, the 40 Days Road. Roman scholars marvel at the rubble of fortresses in Jordan and Iraq that stand only a few meters high. Here in Egypts Western Desert, the unexplored fortresses rise to four and five stories. And there are dozens of them. To visit the fortresses and their surrounding cemeteries is a 4x4 adventure. This is why all terrain vehicles were invented. With a local guide in tow, one leaves the asphalt and heads into the desert dodging huge multi-sided sand dunes called whale dunes. The silence, while standing in front of an ancient fort, hurts the ears. The imagination is boggled while trying to grasp the possibility that once 20,000 people lived in this remote spot, or that hundreds and hundreds of caravans pushing tens of thousands of slaves stopped for water and rest.
Siwa Oasis is not on the loop, which makes it difficult to visit when trying to tour as many of Egypts tempting oases as possible. Yet Siwa is the most intoxicating; its people the most independent and unique. All of its ancient villages are perched on huge desert rocks which rise above seas of swaying palm trees. Siwa is known for its dates and its olives. If you want extra virgin olive oil, Siwa is the place. The press is done by hand with a donkey walking round and round grinding the olives between two massive stones.
Siwa is the seat of the ancient Oracle of Amun for whom Alexander the Great made his desert trek. It is also the place where desert jewelry, baskets, dresses, and traditions remain strong. A Siwa basket is a treasure to die for. A Siwan womans dress has been the hit of cocktail parties in fashionable New York drawing rooms for decades.
To "do" the loop road a traveler needs 8-10 days, a good car, a map, and a sense of adventure. To add Siwa you need 4-5 days more. The on road travel can easily be done without a guide, it is a single road going to a specific place. Once in the different oases one may sign up for day tours into the desert. If doing it alone is a bit too adventuresome, there are tour companies in Egypt and on the Internet who offer desert travel at good prices.
Strong: Hiking and Camel Safari
If the short trip through the desert to distant forts is not enough to satiate your lust for off road adventure, there are three other ways you can get an adrenaline rush and a sense of being an explorer without too much danger: day-tripping in a 4x4, desert hiking on foot, and a genuine Bedouin led camel safari. Ex pats living in Egypt go into the Western Desert on 4x4 weekend trips all the time. You can do the same on a day off from a regular Nile Valley tour. Give up a shopping trip and head for the desert for a day. One of the most exciting day excursions is fossil hunting near Fayoum oasis, close to Cairo. In the deserts around Fayoum you will find the richest bone beds in the world (arguable): ancient rhinos, miniature elephants, early primates, and an ancient whale with feet! As with all special places, look but dont touch and definitely dont carry away!
If you love birds, then take a day to go birding in Egypt. There are companies that deal exclusively with watching and enjoying birds in all sizes. Egypt is on the major flyway from Europe to Africa and the birds are not to be believed. This is great independent adventure and tour companies in Cairo will accommodate the traveler for any and all of them.
There is at least one tour group that offers hiking. Hiking trips are usually 7-10 day jaunts where hikers walk 10 to 14 miles a day through pristine terrain. Their belongings and accommodations are carted ahead of them and a hot meal and relaxing evening awaits the walker at the end of each day.
If you want to feel like all the great explorers who came before, then a camel safari is the greatest adventure in the Western Desert. Camel safaris can be anything from a few hours in the desert to a 14 day expedition. This is as close to 19th century explorers as you are going to get in North Africa.
Neither hiking nor camel riding are do-it-yourself items. You need the safari companies. Some of the best are found in the desert (as opposed to the Nile Valley agencies who end up hiring the local guys), where Bedouin, who once roamed the caravan trails, are now taking tourists to immaculate, astonishing sites like desert caves and fossilized waterfalls. Deep Desert Extreme
For those looking for an intense extreme experience, the wild, uninhabited southwestern desert awaits. This is deep desert travel: no water, no roads, no gasoline, no food. You lug it with you. Good guides are a must and 10-24 days (without a bath) are needed. You will go where few have gone. There are three major destinations to a deep desert journey: Gebel Uwaynat, Gilf Kebir, and the Great Sand Sea. Gebel Uwaynat straddles the border between Egypt, the Sudan, and Libya, with sections of the mountain cascading into each country. It is a strange and mysterious place. Ancient nomads have left thousands of rock art images in Uwaynats valleys. They are the most eastern of a chain that stretches across the North African continent. Modern armies have left land mines. Border patrols do not take lightly to people who have mistakenly crossed into their country. This is a smugglers paradise, so extreme caution is necessary.
The Gilf Kebir, north of Uwaynat, is a huge plateau with dozens of valleys digging into its sides, some with red sand dunes. This is the spot where the young heroine in The English Patient lay in the Cave of Swimmers dying while her Hungarian lover tried to save her. The story is false. Both the cave and the Hungarian are real. The cave is spectacular. The Hungarian is the illustrious and colorful Count Ladislaus Almasy who explored this desert for decades, trying to discover its exotic mysteries. In World War II, Almasy led two German spies through the Western Desert, up and over the Gilf Kebir and through Dakhla and Kharga to the Nile Valley. The spies lived in Cairo on a house boat while they scouted out the British. All of this spy business was featured in the book The Key to Rebecca.
The Great Sand Sea is a wasteland. It is hundreds of miles of dunes on top of dunes on top of dunes. Some of these dunes are almost 100 miles long. Here you climb up one side with your 4x4 and slide down the other side, like a roller coaster. At night you camp on the dunes and look at the stars, which you can almost touch. For a visual dessert, there is the exotic area of silica glass, that strange phenomenon believed to have been created when a huge meteorite hit the earth and heated the sand with such intensity that it turned to glass. Here again, look, touch if you must, but as tempting as it is, leave it behind when you depart. I know that is hard to do, even the ancient Egyptians could not do it. Recently it has been proven that the center stone of the pectoral necklace around the mummy of King Tutankamun is nothing other than the silica green glass of the Great Sand Sea.
These types of journeys require good guides and good equipment. They dont require the perfect body, the perfect age, or perfect health (except for hiking, which does require conditioning). The perfect car does the work most of the time, so big bellies and canes are possible. All sizes and shapes of travelers come to the desert. All ages come. At 96, Theodore Monod, one of the worlds great experts on the Libyan Desert, was still traveling there. Dont let the "fitness gurus" discourage you! So, welcome to a new world: a world of adventure and excitement,
Cassandra Vivian is a writer and photographer who lived in Egypt for many years. She has exhibited her photographs and artifacts on the Western Desert at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, not once, but twice. Her book The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorers Handbook was recently published by The American University in Cairo Press. It has hundreds of maps, illustrations, and GPS waypoints.
The Cairo Times says, "Vivian has once again produced an instant classic." The book is distributed in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Although it is available via Amazon.com and through bookstores nation wide, Ms. Vivian has the right to sell the book in the US, so, if you want a copy send a check of $29.50 and $4.00 shipping and handling to Cassandra Vivian, 333 Manown Street, Apt 102 PG, Monessen PA 15062. She will be in Egypt January through mid April.
Have your Western Desert Adventure in 2001!
Join Cassandra Vivian author of The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer's Handbook on an expedition to the southern portion of the Western Desert. Cost of trip: US$2,850. (if we get 12 people, $2400) Cairo to Cairo Dates March 3-18 for 16 days Cairo, Dakhla, Mud Pan, Gilf Kebir (Wadi Almasy, Wadi Wassa, Shaws prehistoric cave, Wadi el Furaq, western Gilf, Kemal el Dins Monument), Clayton Craters, Peter and Paul mountains, Karkur Talh, Uweinat area, Beacon Hill, Bir Sahara and Tarfawi, Nusab el Bagoum, Bir Kuseiba, Darb el Arbain, Sin el Kaddab, Aswan.
Gilf Kebir is a huge plateau near the border of Libya, north of Gebel Uwaynat. We will climb and skirt the eastern side, venture into a few valleys, cut through the Wadi Wassa to the western side.
Shaws Cave: This is not the Cave of Swimmers from The English Patient. It is a second cave found on the western side of the Gilf. The Cave of Swimmers is too far north for this expedition.
Between the Gilf and Uwaynat We will visit the Kamal el Dins Monument, Clayton Craters, Peter and Paul mountains. Karkur Talh in Gebel Uwaynat The mountain (Uwaynat) is the large mountain along the southwestern border between Egypt and the Sudan and Egypt and Libya. There are thousands and thousands of rock art images in this area. However, only one valley, Karkur Talh is in Egypt and accessible to us. That limits the possibilities. Karkur Talh has sufficient images.
Crossing to the Nile: We will travel east to Bir Sahara and Tarfawi to reach the Darb al-Arbain.
Darb al-Arbain: We will reach this famous slavers route in the south near Shab, travel north to near Kharga Oasis, passing a number of oases. While on the Darb we will make several detours to visit additional sites like the Nabta Playa.
Karkur and Dunqul: On our way to Aswan we will visit several oases and possibly an ancient Egyptian quarry.
Route and itinerary are subject to weather, travel conditions, political climate, and other problems and emergencies. Be patient, this is a true desert expedition. You will see amazing things. This trip is not for the squeamish, the sick, or the difficult person with demands. It is for the adventurer willing to adapt to the changes and enjoy the desert.
Travel will be by at least two 4x4 vehicles, 3 to 4 persons per vehicle (plus driver). Travel is mostly off-road. This is true desert wilderness: no road, no phone, no gas, no water, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Travelers must provide a photocopy ofthe data passport page with photo and expiration date with payment. Bring an extra one with you in case of emergency.
If you wish to sign up, contact Zarzora directly, but let me know too. You may read all about the tour, the rules, and everything else on the homepage of our tour operators Zarzora Expeditions at
http://www.zarzora.com/ You must have a 10% deposit to reserve your space sent directly to Zarzora. It is all first come first serve and they already have 5 people signed up. If you contact them directly, be sure to tell them I contacted you and you wish to be on my tour. Cassandra Vivian If interested you can email Cassandra for additional details: firstname.lastname@example.org
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