Adventure Tours to the Western Desert
By Jimmy Dunn
Most of the desert tours specifically visit Egypt's Western Desert, which in more general terms, is known as the Sahara Desert. Its a big place, actually made up of a number of different deserts with very different landscapes, sometimes, in fact, often very remote, and a place where whole armies have been swallowed up without a trace of their misfortune. Today, we are still wondering what happened to the soldiers of Cambyses who were sent out to attack the Siwa Oasis. They never made it, nor have their remains been found to date.
Most tours to the Western Desert are perfectly safe. Modern roads and even trains transport passengers to the desert centers, such as the major Oasis, every day. These include the Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga Oasis (though sometimes the Fayoum, though not a true Oasis, is also included). There are actually many other smaller (sometimes very small) Oasis in the Western Desert, but these major ones have considerable land mass and relatively large towns.
Some of the Oasis even have their own airports these days, and visiting the major sites in the Oasis are hardly an adventure at all. Even these convenient, well known archaeological sites are well worth a visit because they are often very different than those found in the Nile Valley. While little more than temples and tombs have survived along the Nile, due to their construction in stone, in the Western desert, we find a more diverse catalog of sites, including well preserved structures made of mudbrick, which could not have survived in the Nile Valley.
Yet, there are more remote sites that are indeed an adventure to visit, no matter how one makes the journey. Some of these sites are natural wonders, landscapes that seem not of this earth, as foreign as walking on the moon, while others are archaeological sites with something special to offer. Places such as Karnak, Giza and most of the other regular stops along the Nile, while grand and amazing monuments, are very septic. They have been excavated time and again, cleaned up, renovated, restored and made very "tourist accessible". One does not see, for example, the temples at Karnak the way early explorers saw them, full of intrigue and possible mysteries to be solved. No, in these places the mysteries have mostly been laid out in guide books and full color coffee table folios.
But there are sites in the Western Desert one may explore that are little changed from the time of their discovery. Here, in some remote locations, potshards still thickly cover the ground, turning it red with the waste of ancient communities. Here, sand still covers unexcavated remains of ancient Roman fortresses, some of the earliest Christian churches, and even much earlier remains, and here, absent of other tourists, in wonderfully picturesque settings, time suddenly comes to a standstill, having no meaning and no effect. There is no noise, but those served up by nature, no power or telephone lines, no airplanes overhead, or any other sign of our age. This type of adventure is made of magic and the stuff of lifelong memories.
In fact, some tour operators are now tasked with exploration of the Western Desert. There are so many rock paintings, carvings and other sites that professional archaeologists could probably never succeed in recording all of the archaeological treasures.
Yet, such experiences are not for everyone. One does not travel to such remote sites alone, simply renting a car or a four by four and taking off into the desert.
First of all, for many of these sites, it would be illegal. Restrictions frequently change, but in general, there are few problems with going anywhere on paved roads, and one can visit all of the major oasis without permission. However, off-road travel to deep desert destinations usually requires some sort of permit. At the very least, one must gain permission from the local antiquity office (usually located in the main Oasis towns) to visit these sites, and in most cases, this will necessitate at least one companion from the antiquity office. At other times, military permission is required, which will also frequently necessitate an escort. However, even with the proper permissions, one usually does not travel to these places without a good, local guide. Even they can get a bit confused by shifting sand dunes and the like, and having a good GPS and the coordinates of a site does not mean that one can navigate to its position.
It is probably far better for most people, when visiting these sites, to do so with a tour operator who will obtain the proper permissions and provide the required transportation and guides. The best, or should I say most "tourist friendly" travel companies will make all of this very easy and
though the trip will remain an adventure, it will be a rather comfortable adventure. Some companies even employ nice, air-conditioned off-road busses (such as South Sinai's Unimog). Other companies, including some very good ones, will provide more primitive adventures including camel caravans, though usually only for certain legs of the trip, and usually related to nature treks. While most anyone can enjoy visiting the ancient sites by modern transport such as air-conditioned 4 X 4s, camel treks, even with the most experienced travel operators, are certainly not for everyone. The desert is hot, one frequently camps out on these types of treks, camels are not that comfortable to ride, particularly over a period of hours or even days, and they can even be dangerous (people fall off). Yet, for others, this is exactly the type of holiday they enjoy most.
On more primitive tours there is, of course, more to keep in mind pertaining to safety. We have already discussed much of this in our desert travel section of our travel tips. However, even when traveling by more comfortable means, many of the same issues still apply. Even if one travels about in an air-conditioned vehicle and returns to a hotel each evening, one must still be aware of the heat and sun and take precautions such as drinking lots of fluids and wearing sun lotion. When out in the desert, one should not casually walk about with little awareness. While some locations are more critical than others in the desert, there can be snakes, scorpions and other dangerous creatures about, and this becomes even more of a problem when exploring the cracks and crevices of ancient ruins, where these cold blooded animals might themselves be escaping from the heat.
Obviously, if one is camping out in the desert, an inspection should be made of sleeping arrangements such as sleeping bags before climbing in, as well as in the morning checking clothes and particularly shoes before dressing. However, this is also a pretty good idea even if one is staying in an Oasis hotel. One should also stay with cooked foods and bottled water, as stomach problems in the heat and particularly away from normal conveniences can be difficult.
All of this said, probably the most important safety issue is choosing a good, reputable tour company to make arrangements for and conduct the remote desert tour. Such companies will have solid guides who will know what to look out for and how to keep their clients safe and sound, even under the most adventurous of conditions. While all of our AETBI members are good companies, if one is not dealing with one of them, there are several indicators as to how experienced the tour company is in the desert.
For example, vehicles should be supplied with lots of water, but of equal importance, they should also have multiple spare tires when making remote treks. Some rocks in the desert are as sharp as glass, and can shred tires. Furthermore, it is generally recommended that more than one vehicle accompany a tour, in case of mechanical breakdown, and for other reasons. If a tour member becomes sick, or in some cases just simply cannot take any more of the head and dessert environment, everyone else need not return to town.
The most sophisticated companies will also have satellite telephones for communications (your cell phone want work), and a home office that is very aware of the group's planned destination and time schedules. Obviously, what one does not under any circumstances want to do is take off for a remote site in the desert from Cairo in a questionable vehicle with no one there knowing where you are supposed to go and when you are suppose to be back. But tell a taxi driver and he will probably offer you just such a tour. If offered such a "cheap" tour, chances are the guide doesn't know enough to get you where you want to go in the first place.
Safety concerns should not stop one from using a good, reputable tour company to visit the Western Desert, and particularly the main Oasis and sites, though health and age issues should indeed suggest the methods of doing so. The Western Desert is both a wondrous place, and a last frontier of Egyptian exploration. It is a wealthy experience for the enthusiast who wants to do a little investigation of their own, though one must be warned that the antiquities, including potshards, are the legal property of the Egyptian government, and an exotic experience for the nature lover, who can take home as many rocks as the airline will allow. Few adventure tours anywhere in the world can match a desert trek in Egypt.
You may contact our Travel department if you are interested in booking a Western Desert Tour.
Some photos copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte
Last Updated: June 12th, 2011