Beyond the Pyramids: a Trip Report

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Beyond the Pyramids: a Trip Report

*The following is an account of our Egyptian trip. We went with friends in 1993. If readers can squeeze any useful tips from it, that is great. If instead, you merely need a sleep aid during the dog days of omicron, that's fine too. enjoy.

Beyond the Pyramids

The four of us had lathered and scrubbed. We were now submerged in warm water, enjoying a moonlit soak in the bir, which was a cement tank the length of a small pool. The hot spring here was fed by an ancient Roman well and known to contain minerals such as magnesium. Subtle breezes ruffled the fronds of nearby palms and the crisp desert air offset the faint sulfur smell. A lunar glow suffused all and promised a romantic night under the stars. Our idyllic Zen moment was interrupted by the camp cook, who brought a camel over to drink from the same basin. While the beast was slurping, the cook nonchalantly dipped a kettle into the water until it was full. Then it hit us. It was the same kettle that he had used earlier to serve us tea. Not only was our bathing pool being used as an animal trough, but it was also the source for our drinking water. We had just learned a basic fact about life in an oasis: water is recycled to the max.

There is a lot more to Egypt than the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The storied ruins that dot the Nile Valley are wondrous attractions to be sure, but one can explore a different aspect to this desert land. We accomplished this by driving the 1,500 mile loop through the Sahara which goes through three outlying oases: Bahariya, Farafra and Dakhla. We went beyond the Pyramids and were rewarded with rarefied travel that most tourists miss.

Our journey traversed the driest destination on earth, the fabled Sahara. Dry as a mummy. The evaporation rate reaches 200%. Generations go by without ever seeing rain. One of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the planet was here: 140°F or 58 C. (at this point readers may want to play Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’)

We viewed a squalid scene of goats and garbage. Newly-electrified compounds. Groups of kids practicing their ‘hello’. Elders in frayed turbans, not quite sure what to make of these photo-obsessed infidels. Few cars. Fewer phones. This was the scenario as we drove into Bawiti, the village headquarters of Bahariya (‘most northerly’) oasis. We were two married couples: our friends Kevin and Teresa plus my wife Ellen and myself. We were on the road and had just passed the massive Ghard Abu Muharik sand barrier.

An asphalt road linking this area with Cairo was completed in 1985. Electricity arrived a year later. A battered sign near the ramshackle post office read, ‘wEl CoMe in BaWiTi’. Another notice outside a general store shrieked, ‘The cheapest shop in the town.’ This shop had a pair of white rollerblades for sale, even though Bawiti was a totally unpaved community. It was a stark frontier town. Everything ran in elastic time. This dusty oasis became infamous among adventure traveling circles after a local guide simply abandoned a group of Germans in the inhospitable desert due to a miscommunication about the camping fee. They survived. He was jailed.

What is a modern oasis? The Hollywood cliché of a tiny haven ravaged by Tuareg bandits, sandstorms and time, doesn’t always apply. Most Egyptian oases are best described as a modest town collective with adjoining small hamlets. Many of the modern grandsons of those old Bedouin nomads have traded in their camels for jeeps, their robes for tracksuits. Nonetheless, it is a world seldom seen by outsiders.

Ahmed’s safari camp

“Bawiti is part of Africa, but Africa is not part of Bawiti,” our contact Ahmed quipped. His t-shirt read, ‘Nob Job’ over a sketch of the frieze showing circumcision operations from the 3000 BC tombs at Sakkara. He had uncommon blue-green eyes and ran a secluded ‘safari camp’ on the far outskirts of town. We stayed our first nights there.

The four of us walked back into Bawiti to have dinner. Scrawny kittens played at our feet. We enjoyed spinach soup, falafel and the ubiquitous staple, ‘fuul’ beans. Dips included ‘baba ganoush’ eggplant purée plus ‘tahini’, a sesame paste, tonight mixed with date syrup. There were miniscule pebbles in the food. Then chicken dishes were brought by our waiter. After noticing that Teresa’s chair had a backrest with an Egyptian queen image, he was unintentionally funny,” Ahh, Queen Nefertari was longest queen, sat on thorn many years!” We were further amused by a pair of gray hoopoe birds on the nearby ground. This exotic duo seemed to enjoy taking dust baths.

Later by Ahmed’s campfire, a group of youths played Alexandrian-style roots music for a gathering of foreign tourists. The all-acoustic performance began with the dramatic drone of a wooden ‘nay’ pipe. Soon after, the hypnotic beat of inlaid tabla drums joined in. These were accompanied by a large ‘duf’ tambourine. One minstrel played a lute-like ‘simsimiyya’, made with a lacquered gazelle spine. I was permitted to join in by tapping an empty ‘araki’ booze bottle. They played some indigenous folk songs. Vocalists chanted, ‘Hayla Ho’ and also ‘Majiana’. The musicians’ compelling rhythm eventually got everyone up dancing, in some cases with bamboo poles balanced between stomachs. We were spellbound, with a million silver stars overhead.

Our drinks consisted of honeyed fenugreek tea and ‘Stela’ brand Egyptian beer (served in only the finest oases). And lastly for the very brave, the local brandywine. There were strong hints to be wary of this one. “It is really powerful date cider, so take care. It will give you a wooden face”, warned Ahmed. He meant a hangover. The players drank some.

The next morning, it was a beautiful 20° December day. We visited the souk (or market). Booths were selling such unlikely desert product as green beans, fresh peaches, guavas, mangos, tomatoes, kumquats, melon and dill. One youngster sat half-submerged in her papa’s cauliflower cart. Flame saffron was piled neatly beside blue indigo powder. Dozens of tiny chicks cheeped away in wooden cages. So much for the concept of a barren wasteland.

Cultivation on this scale was possible in these harsh lands because of water trapped underground. Extensive supplies were hidden below the arid desert floor, sandwiched between layers of limestone. Scientists believe that this water is an irreplaceable remainder of a 25,000 year old source. Other experts believe that it is an endless migration replenished from wetter parts of Africa. Debate continues over the feasibility of creating a hydro lake by joining this remote area to the Mediterranean with a canal.

This area was the setting for former President Nasser’s ‘New Valley’ project, his 1959 plan to defuse Nile Valley overpopulation. Migrants received free acreage to farm as part of the still ongoing ‘Green Revolution.’ About 2% of all Egyptians live here. Desert yes, deserted no.

That evening we went to the post office, the only two-story structure in town. It was Tuesday and a sizable crowd was watching an overdubbed episode of ‘Falcon Crest’ on a black and white TV. Note that one of the god Amon-Ra’s symbols was this bird of prey. “Our teens copy the contemporary Cairene accent from this and also from Egyptian soap operas,” one man explained. The traditional Wahiti dialect is dying out here, bringing to mind what travel writer Dervla Murphy calls ‘endangered cultural integrity’. A subsequent news clip featured an undaunted prankster whose trick was to have dozens of scorpions crawl over him as he lay.

The White Desert

We intended to leave Bawiti early the following morning, but were delayed at the first of many police checkpoints on this trip. Each governate had its own stop. The only English sign read: ‘FOREIGNERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO DRIVE OUT WEST THE MAIN ROAD WITHOUT PERMISSION.’ Passports were collected. Now we could be officially lost. After we were given the once-over inspection, someone in the station decided to show his might and we were kept waiting for nearly 2 hours until we were cleared to go.

We began to feel like true desert explorers in parts unknown. We headed over to ‘Crystal Mount’ hill, so named because of the lovely quartz chips spread over the sand. On the hill itself, molten streaks of mocha-colored rock spilled across grainy protuberances. Beside the hill was a natural arch. Erich von Daniken would have had a field day here with the nearby ‘rill’ patterns. These narrow grooves cut by wind form neat concentric targets. Some had spokes and unlike crop circles, went on for mile after mile. These crenellated ridges formed what could only have been extra-terrestrial parking spaces.

The voyage was now one of unexpectedly striking beauty. We entered the dreamy ‘White Desert’. We marveled over this unique testament to wind power and calcium. Strange and surreal, the eroded remnants of a prehistoric seabed created a most bizarre desertscape. Marine fossils and also dinosaur remains lay scattered amidst the bright white buttes. Ranging from 2 to 200 feet tall, these eerie outcrops would be the undisputed motifs on tourism promo, if this were a more developed area. Here, a giant mushroom forest. There, an abstract shape carved by giants. The naughty favorite would be ‘The Erection’. Stillness prevailed in this unearthly, lilywhite place. To admire the beauty, each of us lay back against some thin sheets of limestone that were wedged into the sand. Later, when we arose from these makeshift lawn chairs, there were some laughs, because thick chalk marks were imprinted across our backs.

Our next stop was the Madusa Knoll. All along the top of this knoll, Sudanese camel traders had arranged bare rock piles into cairns that reminded us of Inuit inukshuks. These stony stacks were used by passing caravans as directional guides. They were made from the omnipresent gray dolorite chunks, which made a pleasing glassy ‘chink’ when rustled or ‘crunch’ when stepped upon. Only these noises broke the sheer silence.

Ironically, an hour later we chanced across one such caravan on its journey to market further north. Most of the herd would be sold to shall I say, non-vegetarians. After haggling, I bought a traditional dagger from one of the Sudanese cameleers. The knife’s leather sheath had been tanned in tobacco and camel urine, so it outsmelled any other item we had encountered on our travels.

These oases had supported civilization for millennia. A few tantalizing traces remained. The Romans named this district ‘Zeszes’. Of marginal importance in their scheme, it nonetheless endured. Apparently, Julius Caesar favored the local wines. Emperor Diocletian did not. He ordered a local Christian depopulation (oh brutal irony). During this holocaust, executioners worked in shifts because their arms got too sore. Hundreds of Roman noble tombs and pre-Roman mastabas existed throughout, often closed to the public and lying in the ‘romantic’ state, partly-excavated yet still half-buried. Some had highly-accessible mummies with bleached skeletons. Examples open to the public included Muzekwa, Balat and Deir el Hagar. Our own city Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum had played a major role in uncovering the latter.

We pitied the young conscripts doing their mandatory military service at the isolated border checkpoint which loomed into view. It was the ultimate hardship posting in this cruel thirstland. Twenty infantry here, clutching out-dated rifles and without radar, expected to be the first line of defense against domestic terrorists or ISIS jihadis. What a lonely life in this forsaken place, broken only by tri-weekly leave in flyblown Bawiti. Were any of these unlucky guards natives of cosmopolitan Cairo? Imagine their reaction to being assigned to this risky outpost here in the sticks! Prolonged isolation can do weird things to a sergeant’s mind. Evidently, three transgressing privates had drawn punishment from their unforgiving superior. The penitents were being forced to jog in nonstop circles around their dilapidated shack, all the while chanting some dogmatic foolishness (‘I will not call Bawiti a one-camel town again!’).

Faraway Farafra

Farafra oasis brought us back from geologic interests to human ones. An atmosphere of religious conservatism prevailed, but the people were friendly. These gentle country folk lead quiet lives. A notice cautioned, ‘Enjoy Farafra and the Sahara but respect local customs and don’t reveal too much.’ This was not a reference to the sun’s harmful rays, but a reminder to errant outsiders, especially women, to show respect while they visit a devout Muslim society. We however, joked amongst ourselves that ‘don’t reveal too much’ could be a plea asking us not to trumpet Farafra’s existence to the outside world. This oasis was more isolated and shone with authenticity, whereas Bawiti had been more of a gateway point of entry.

We respected this community’s wishes regarding proper clothing, unlike the thirty-something Italian tourist whom we saw much later in Aswan. With her husband and children trailing, she marched into our hotel lobby wearing, wait for it……a black string bikini covered only by a flimsy, see-through blouse. You should’ve seen the looks on the faces of the male staff! What cultural insensitivity.

In Farafra, we met the largest Egyptian man any of us had ever seen. Bakarat was the umda or chief, a very big fish in an unspoiled little pond. Think a Bedouin the size of Shaquille O’Neal. He radiated masculine authority. “Of course, foreigners (are) welcome here, after all, the baker’s wife (is) from Luxor!” he roared in welcome. This far-flung village had long been known for baking the best bread around, but tribalism kept villagers from selling any to the other oases until the early ‘90s. There were 3,000 Farafronis, comprising two very extended families. They had a reputation as honest, tough and hospitable. They thrived on cooperative team farming, and enjoyed ample water--some 100 wells were set throughout the large depression. Many of these gushers of hope were upgraded Roman relics. Fed by an underground aquifer, an artesian spring supplied the wells. Recent Egyptian governments had invested in Farafra, calling it,” The oasis with the greatest potential for land reclamation.” We were told that the term ‘Garden of Eden’ originated nearby. Nowadays, the word ‘garden’ means any palmed area, of which there are quite a few. A late afternoon stroll along pretty palm-fringed lanes to a tranquil garden revealed apples, almonds, apricots, bananas, carob, and citrus. Even bougainvillea and native grasses were thriving here. Fat geese, nursing sheep and numerous camels were being raised amidst all the subtropical green. In this classic version of a fertile oasis, our minds delighted.

While my three mates wandered ahead to see the village’s neo-Cycladic medical clinic, I lingered behind to take pictures of an olive grove and its scarecrows. As a man, I was welcome to wander about alone. However, if a woman did this it could be regarded as an invitation to sex. When I rejoined my mates, they were observing a sign just below the clinic’s dun-colored dome. It read: ‘Specialist in women and other diseases.’

Two young girls had been asking us for kelim (pens). We often brought school supplies to donate to local teachers around the globe, so I gave a few coloured markers to the girls. I assumed that they knew the items were art tools, but before we could stop them, both children had smeared bright stripes all over their faces. I was aghast. Had the kids mistaken the washable markers for lipstick? At least Bakarat sensed my embarrassment. He smiled and quietly explained the situation to the grinning girls.

We sat outside underneath a timbered passageway with Bakarat and a few of the local elder men. His nephew Abdul brought a tray of mint tea for everyone. With hands the size of ham hocks, Bakarat passed a cup to each guest. These cups seemed like little thimbles in his grasp. Abdul later also served some tasty dates. The senior men weren’t interested in fruit. Like their ancestors, they were content to calmly puff on their ‘shisha’. These homemade hookahs each had a simple glass jar that percolated a mix of tobacco and what appeared to be apple chips. Hubble bubble… hubble bubble.

An enthusiastic farmer named Habib pointed out one of the village’s first-ever tractors. “(They) Arrived a month ago with many others. The Sahada (local pronunciation) is proud of us!” When the dreaded ‘khamsin’ sandstorms blew last month, these tractors were vulnerable. Their red paint would have been sandblasted away, had they not been properly stored. Each November brought hot gritty winds blowing northwest against the prevailing current, turning the normally azur sky a brownish-yellow. A number of locals had sinus problems during the khamsin season. Habib’s young daughter hurried by, carrying a large pile of branches atop her head. A naked little boy, assumedly her little brother, trailed behind, sipping from a can of sugarcane juice. He stopped to pee and this drew a loud “Yaaa!” from Habib. This meant that the boy was being summoned. Habib scolded his son. For peeing? For being naked? No. For being outside. As the sun beat down upon his face, a closer look revealed that this wild-haired child had measles. I made the customary hand-to-heart-to-lips farewell gesture as we departed from Habib.

Our gang of four ventured into an alley, where we became aware of the harsh realities that came with the local lifestyle. Crude head and hand bandages were commonly worn by the villagers. These gritty survivors had prematurely aged, with weather-worn faces showing deeply-creased foreheads. One older woman was concealed in her black abaya cloak. An old man with colitis moaned incessantly. But most folks stayed positive, ignoring the flies, fleas and mosquitoes.

A gang of scraggly juveniles performed a good-natured prank, interrupting our exploration. Their leader, wearing faded Adidas garb, limped forward moaning loudly, holding his cheek and offering an oversized brown clay replica tooth as proof of his supposed recent cavity yank, “Wizout dentist!” We immediately played along, “Walah! (My God) Ya salaam! (Oh heavens).” Actually, sugarcane does take its toll on many an Egyptian tooth. While shaking hands goodbye, we noticed that these farm boys’ hands felt like sandpaper.

Midnight at the Oasis

Ali was the tourist office representative who showed us our lodgings at idyllic ‘Bir Sitta’ (hot spring well #6). He was a Coptic Christian, a tattoo of the cross on his wrist as proof. These lodgings were very rustic. We bedded down inside a pair of bamboo huts. Each came equipped with mattress, cot and blankets. We had also brought sleeping bags. They were needed when it got down to freezing on this December night. We roughed it in this camp a few comforts.

Donkey brays and rooster crows awoke us. It was still early enough to see the immense canopy of stars. There was Orion, Cassiopeia, and even a satellite. Ellen pointed out Venus. We spied a trio of desert foxes. These clever hunters hid in wait by a dry-stone wall for prey that came to lick the morning dew. Thus, we have Nazi General Rommel’s nickname, the Desert Fox. Sunrise was remarkable, one for the ages. A thick bank of cottony mauve clouds framed the soft foreground. The escarpment to the northwest became a backdrop for what seemed a pastel canvas. The jagged cliffs were a lovely glowing cream, while the swaying palm foreground provided a lush contrast. A serene horizon completed not a wasteland but a Wonderland. This panoramic view was unsurpassed on this trip. It may seem a corny choice of adjectives to call this peak experience ‘magical’ and ‘unforgettable’, but really there are no other words.

Saad’s restaurant was the scene for yet another frugal breakfast of pita bread, fig jam, goat cheese and mango juice. Hamdy the manager explained that young Saad himself was almost always absent. Having cornered the market on restaurants serving foreigners, he had moved on to Cairo. The irony: that was the exact opposite of what Nasser’s original relocation program was all about.

Here, a young backpacker from San Francisco kept hogging the toilet. He later explained to me why this was necessary. He overshared about having ‘ishal’ (diarrhea aka Pharoah’s revenge aka Cairo quickstep). He leaned in to whisper a description of his previous night in a nearby hotel. He claimed that while he was in the lobby toilet there, nauseous and trying without success to perform normal body functions, a sympathetic older employee suddenly appeared to help the stricken lad. It seems this was done by repeatedly inserting a finger into his anus in an honest effort to encourage defecation. He claimed that this method worked. No baksheesh was requested. We were not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

One had to squeeze by a display of camel wool products display (gloves, socks, caps) in order to access the grotty washroom. I nearly tripped over a stitched saddle there. While squatting over the egregious pit toilet from hell, I noticed a faded poster of Aswan: ‘You are radiant in Aswan. You will never forget. We wait you come back with our best wish.’

Hamdy recounted a special event from the previous year. It apparently rained for eight straight hours, so much that some of the older mud structures dissolved. Desert flowers bloomed shortly thereafter, producing a crimson carpet. One imagines the locals praying extra hard during that freak downpour.

We visited a craft museum run by a multi-talented artisan. Like many of his neighbours, this artiste’s home was painted blue. Paintings, mounted wildlife, geological artifacts and a host of unflattering figurines of locals formed his gallery. He seemed to be satirizing his fellow villagers. “This one (is) old Umda Akbar,” he motioned nonchalantly to a particularly ugly and doubtlessly non-commissioned bust.

The art that is taken most seriously in this territory is the depiction of one’s ‘hajj’, that $4,000 pilgrimage to Mecca which is the unchanging goal of every Muslim. Upon their return, the mostly male devotees are greeted by the villagers, women screaming the celebratory ‘zaghruta’ ululation, men beating percussion instruments and everyone singing. It is a major status symbol to have completed a haj and, in their absence, the outside wall of the pilgrim’s home is painted with a mural. Typically, a plane and/or a boat are pictured en route to the black Kaaba stone, the nucleus of Mecca. One collage included an evil eye pierced by a pin. Others featured wildlife collages, with an emphasis on fowl.

Out of Farafra

There once was a road linking Farafra with Dakhla oasis. It was constructed in 1982, but it had deteriorated badly. Frowning, Hamdy had warned us that it was ten times worse than last year. We braced for ‘the worst stretch of driving on the trip’. Our vehicle heaved and weaved over bumps and avoided, well…’potholes’ is too simple a term. Craters was more like it. The rutted pavement turned to gravel. Then that gravel turned into an earth track, merging with the roadside so that the two became indistinguishable. Dry wadis (streambed valleys) filled hour after hour of ancient floodplain. Our trip now felt like a proper expedition. “So desolate,” Kevin observed. As always, there was little traffic, but a massive oil spill had been left behind by someone driving a very large vehicle.

We ascended the escarpment and arrived at a vista showing an intriguing desert landform known as a ‘yardang’. New theories propose that one of these smooth-edged hillocks, molded by wind, served as the actual base for the Sphinx. Other scientists argue that water erosion was more likely to have created the base. Theorists also believe that the inspiration for the triangular shape of the pyramids came from a particular set of pointy hills in this evocative outland. We went by those very hills and their parched peaks certainly were reminiscent of the iconic tombs.

We pushed on until we finally caught our first glimpse of the majestic ‘Great Sand Sea’, about 30 degrees above the equator. Such grandeur. Here one finds the sweeping dune fields called ergs that form most people’s idea of a desert. Sting could’ve had his ‘Tea in the Sahara’ here. The golden waves were smooth and sensuous, with their classic purity of form undulating on into the distance. Endless breakers ranged across the wilderness and swirled out of sight. The towering dunes begged to be climbed. Walking barefoot on the drifts, we luxuriated in the surprisingly cool, powdery feel. Skin met silica. “It feels soft,” my better half observed. The infinite sand hills were composed of crescent dunes and their ‘sief’ relatives. These gently sloping whalebacks were formidable obstacles to local progress, making survival a struggle as they obliterated rows of telephone poles and threatened to envelop vital roads. Strategically-placed experimental scrub varieties had been planted as potential deterrents to dunes encroaching upon villages. But in the Sahara, as elsewhere, Mother Nature bats last. An unceasing march of sand mountains had advanced to cover the scrub. Propelled by tireless winds, the sand banks were not fixed features; rather they were ever-shifting, mobile hills. The NASA documentary film, ‘The Dream is Alive’, revealed dune progress, from 10 to 100 yards per year. NASA’s satellite also produced the first-ever comprehensive local map. We were actually traveling on new branch roads, the originals having been obstructed.

We skirted the sun-baked ‘Black Desert’. Tawny hills topped with charred iron oxide formed mounds that Ellen justly called ‘chocolate-covered pudding’. The desert became dessert, amidst a vast expanse. A lonely stop sign appeared in the middle of nowhere. Towards Dakhla, the hilly topography changed back into wide open plain with sparse vegetation. We had regained the bitumen, bordered with a heaped-up chalk foundation. Hamdy had also cautioned us that this stretch had quicksand off to one side.

That this was a vicious region, land that could reach up and kill you without provocation, was beyond doubt. Over yonder lay a memorial to a Swiss man who had expired in extreme conditions years ago during an unescorted solo trek. His white chapel, surrounded by scorched rocks, reminded us that this was adventure travel, with little margin for error. It was a beautiful but treacherous terrain, a brutal hinterland that suffered no fools.

Eternal sun yes. But in fact, it is wind that controls all here. This was yet another wind-eroded plain with sandstone pitted by eons of storms. The striated sections of exposed rock seemed like the artistic creations of some inventive interior designer who’d been told to ‘go natural’. Boulder-strewn stretches were evidence of wind-resistant stone. In one layered area whose signature colors were ochre-pink, I discovered a unique piece of shaped sandstone that we nicknamed ‘The Triskelion’ after a Star Trek planet. It was like an artifact from another galaxy. Mr. Spock would have prayed before it on particularly auspicious days. It was the most unusual souvenir that we ever brought home.

Nearby was some remarkable ‘gibber’ country. The basin there resembled a rocky Martian plain. Glossy ‘chert’ nodules stippled the sand, giving the impression of a colorful, wet, pebble bed. There are parallels in outback Australia.

But that was not the only optical illusion. The most elusive aspect of this desert was the shimmering mirage. Uncannily liquid images reflected out of place, on top and in front of each other before vanishing. Was that a lake in the distance?

We rolled past the newest of the New Valley villages, Sphinx Village. This basic housing was set in empty badlands. We were told that the austere units were extremely hot inside because only the cheapest materials were used, but better than nothing for the poorest of the poor. Mohammed explained this to us. He was our mandatory minder, an undercover cop assigned to escort us for the duration of the loop. His presence was due to the ongoing terrorism, which was plaguing Egypt from within and without. His expression darkened any time that vehicles approached.

Dakhla: Time Stands Still

Some travelers preferred the Berber Siwa oasis, up by the Libyan border and outermost of all the oases. It had unique cultural attractions, but it did not have the allure of Al Qasr (the castle), one of the most exotic of all oasis attractions and a key reason to visit Dakhla. Seen from afar, Al Qasr citadel was perched on high ground and surrounded by wheat fields near a reflecting pond. This thousand-year-old fortified Ottoman settlement had so far been spared being overwhelmed by tour buses. The result was a place of singular fascination, not least because of its unusual layout. Teresa called it a rabbit’s warren. The area was back-dropped by pinkish cliffs. Hence Dakhla’s nickname, the pink oasis.

Al Qasr had once been a prosperous crossroads and embodied the area’s historical roots. It was an aged mud maze as well as a living museum. Three families still resided in its core, which explained the whiffs of woodsmoke. Over thirty doorways still had centuries-old wooden name lintels lettered in Arabic. Some also had wooden mashrabiya, the lovely latticed window covers, emblematic of a bygone era and supposedly made without nails or glue. While pointing at a crumbling frieze, the local guide informed us that this crooked beehive of twisted alleys was “where history began to finish.” As the guide spoke, a blind donkey rider suddenly appeared and nearly ran us down. The animal and rider carried on below an arch towards what we had thought was a dead end, but the clip clop sound of hoofsteps continued into the distance. The covered passages ran in, out, under and between gnarled dwellings of various heights. A blacksmith labored at his bellows. Covered in flour, a miller wore a stylish, brown head covering. This place was a tad spooky but oh-so photogenic. It was also earthy. I once read that a travel writer had been given a freshly-slaughtered bull’s head as a souvenir here. Mongrel dogs were tolerated to keep the snake population down. The public hanging apparatus of yesteryear still sat in place. Crow calls and the howling desert could be heard outside and reinforced the bleak atmosphere. The atmosphere was eerie and we felt like we had gone back in time. Things had not changed much here through the centuries. And we were still locked in the firm embrace of the Sahara.

The muezzin wailed his soulful call to prayer, a religious ritual that I found compelling. The entrance to his Nasr el Din mosque had another unintentionally funny English sign: ’Please remove your shoes. Thank you for your coordination.’ Climbing the narrow minaret staircase, we took care not to trip on the steps, worn smooth by time. The dubious handrail was ignored. Near the top the passage became so narrow that it was necessary to turn sideways to continue. From the lookout we could see all manner of enduring traditional practices: housewives sweeping; families working antique olive presses; goat pens and children attending poultry on the roofs. One mother with lotus flowers in her hair carried white chickens upside down in each hand. Her daughter followed, cradling a gobbling turkey. Men spun cotton. Ducks quacked. Orioles and starlings flew by. Further off, a white egret picked its way daintily through a lush rice paddy. Descending the minaret stairway, we arrived at the bottom to see an artifact from more modern times. It was an empty can labeled Icelandic Penguin Cheese. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to bring this particular item here. Was it a prank?

The capital village of Daklah was called Mut. We ventured out amidst the hardy inhabitants and experienced traditional village culture and old-world charm at its best. We were introduced to sweet red ‘kirkaday’ hibiscus tea and also tamarind juice. Shy young women in flowing robes scrubbed laundry down at the pond. Just over a weather-beaten, chevron-topped wall was the Kuttah Koran School, where students sang Islamic scripture in call-and-respond fashion with their teacher. A whipping post of sorts stood nearby. The Dakhlans sported their own distinctive straw sombreros and colorful kerchiefs. Elder women wore gold nose rings.

The time warp continued. A granny sat on the ground as she made brooms while others weaved baskets. Men axed bamboo for fences. Others shaped bricks, their partners passing the raw material up from a pit, all by hand. A ragamuffin rolled an old bike tire. Men dug something black (coal?) from a ditch. A teen boy picked dates high above in a shady grove. He wore a thick safety belt that hugged him to the tree trunk. He smiled at the teen girls who passed underneath, carrying water. Many people toiled at home, such as the mat-maker. By the canal we saw a real ‘saqiya’, a near-medieval waterwheel that was hand-cut from acacia and driven by buffalo. Its scoops were jars from the local potter. His clay complex had endless rows of product spread over the ground. Most of his pieces were workaday, but he also crafted excellent ethnological vignettes, with villager figurines telling their frozen tale.

Heavily laden dromedary camels from the hamlet el Gedid loped by, their riders sitting atop impossibly large stacks of sugar cane. Apparently, minerals in the soil around El Gedid caused citrus to taste markedly sweeter than normal. We were also told that families from that same area rotated two-year stints as operators of a Cairo cleaning outfit. Sort of like hillbilly-does-Manhattan.

Before leaving Mut, we wanted to see a fascinating slice of heritage, the herbalist shop. Stuffed pelicans and lizards hung over the entryway, as was the custom. Jasmine filled the air inside. Legendary singer Um Kalthoum was on the radio. A handful of dried mulberries sat atop some reeds. Much of what was peddled was unfamiliar, but we intrepid four did all try some delicious ‘sahlab’, a thick winter drink. The ingredients boiling atop a potbelly stove included ground orchid root, peanuts, seeds and raisins. Also for sale was a pinecone–hedgehog concoction ‘to reduce the fever of children’ and jars of desiccated crocodile ‘to be eaten by the oversexed’. The stomach remedy ‘hafbar’ looked like sawdust until it was made into medicinal brown tea. But most amusing was a potion for ‘eliminating the sexual coldness between the male and female races.’ Fact or folklore? No comment.

A young Londoner straggled into the shop. We exchanged travel notes. He warned us to give a pass to nearby Bashendi village, “The umda invites you to tea then tries to flog his jewelry on you—it is absolute rubbish!” He also shared a story about Bashendi’s neighbour, Mushiya village. The mayor there had apparently misunderstood a visiting government official’s request. The poor mayor rushed about to all the households and assembled the entire village for the official’s inspection. It turned out that the official had actually asked to inspect all the local livestock.

Our desert odyssey concluded in ugly Kharga (the outer) which was an oasis only in name. Nearly 70,000 people lived in this settlement, which was connected by rail to the Red Sea. While there, we traveled outside of town to see the main draw, the frescoed chapels at Al Bagawat. Built around 200 AD, this well-preserved early Christian cemetery was all bricks and arches. One would have to think that Al Bagawat is now on the ISIS hit list for destruction.

(readers should now play any songs by Tinariwen)

Even seasoned travelers find Egypt somewhat intense and overwhelming, so it is good to have this little-known desert circuit as an alternative or supplemental itinerary. This loop takes one deep into the desert, so winter is the best time to do it. Those whose quest is to seek old-fashioned culture will find that differing degrees of modernization await. There are also caves, prehistoric petroglyphs and glassy desert silica in the most hyperarid southwest corner. The novel/movie ‘The English Patient’ was loosely based on the region.

It is not possible to write about this part of the world without mentioning the sinister menace of terrorism. The current need for security cannot be overlooked. One must travel smart. Siwa is currently patrolled by military helicopters, due to its proximity to the porous Libyan border. The day that we had booked this trip, the Toronto Star headline screamed, ‘TOURISTS HURT IN EGYPT BY NEW TERRORIST ATTACK.’ When we later toured Aswan, our somber guide pointed out a dusty, parked car. “That was my brother’s car. He was a policeman killed by the terrorists.” It was curious that no major incidents had thus far occurred in Luxor. We overheard one Luxor businessman remark, “We make our survival from tourism. We will take care of business.” He meant vigilante justice. A sobering reminder of the constant threat of terrorism occurred just two days after we returned our vehicle. It was nailed-bombed by masked fanatics as it toured the old Coptic part of Cairo. The Austrians who were then inside the vehicle suffered injuries, one of them losing an eye. The next day, a small army of security police stormed an island in the Nile near Assyut town, that hotbed of fundamentalism, killing several terrorists and arresting forty. A stockpile of arms was uncovered. The village El Gedid, near Dakhla, was to suffer tragedy in July 2014, when jihadi terrorists twice attacked their security checkpoint in planned offensives. Dozens of ill-prepared guards were killed.

Egypt also has a high rate of traffic accidents and some areas have landmines as well as roving bandits. How many years will it be before travelers can once again safely visit the oases worry-free?

I thanked Min, the patron saint of desert travelers in ages past, for sparing us.

I am done. The end.

Last edited by zebec; Feb 2nd, 2022 at 11:05 PM. Reason: tempted by travel while typing
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Old Feb 3rd, 2022, 01:00 AM
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Old Feb 3rd, 2022, 09:52 PM
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Fascinating TR zebec. I've just perused it and will be back for a more detailed read tomorrow.

My interest is that in 2011 we had booked a trip through the Great Sand Sea, from Bahariya to Dakhla. We decided to cancel after the events of January 2011. We rebooked for 2012 but had to cancel this time due to health issues at home. By 2014, our next chance to go, we decided it was no longer a good idea, that we had missed the boat. Or in this case, I guess, missed the camel.

Anyway, reading your TR definitely gave me good insight into things we may have experienced. Thanks for posting, are photos coming?
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Old Feb 4th, 2022, 09:55 AM
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Yo Nelson! My development (heh heh) as a picture-taker was still then a work in progress, but there def are some good ones. Unfortunately, they were bien sur, pre-digital. We are still having ongoing difficulty learning proper Nikon Coolscanner usage viz a viz the actual program. The latter seems to alter our original shots (both my wife's plus mine) in unflattering, inaccurate ways. I am a certified technopeasant and rely 99% on Mrs Z to do most of that tech stuff. I am quite capable of the Lightroom program but beyond that, I become a 4 year old next to useless.
One fellow Fodorite got cross with me a couple years back, after I'd responded to her post about some of the abovementioned oases security realities. I sympathized with her frustration but thought that her over-the-top response to me afterwards was inappropriate.
I left out some of the aspects of that trip. Later I could possibly address those other additional things of interest.

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I am done. The Nelson.
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Old Feb 25th, 2022, 10:32 AM
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Another humorous 'oases moment' has come to light, one that happened to a pair of old acquaintances, a couple whose names are Fotis and Anna.
Fotis and Anna were once very kind to me on their Greek island. Recently, Fotis took Dane-born Anna plus their Brit gardener friend, on an Egyptian oases tour. Their main stay was in the Siwa oasis. After their stay was over, they came back up north to visit Fotis' birthplace of Alexandria. After they finished a cafe lunch there, their waiter got his English mixed up and was unintentionally funny: "Desert?" (he meant dessert).
The Brit gardener pal responded, "No thank you. We have had enough!"

I am done. The smiles.

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Old Dec 4th, 2022, 12:17 PM
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Greatly enjoyed reading this. Brought back memories of a trip I took with friends across Morocco to the Mauritanian border....must have been around 1983. Quite an adventure!
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Old Dec 4th, 2022, 08:30 PM
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Carrom, our 60 year old just-retired neighbour just traveled on the famed Mauritanian desert train, the one that transports mineral ore and offers very little comfort to those brave souls who clamor aboard.
The video clip that he sent us showed him covered with ore dust and resembling a Mad Max character!

Your '83 trip went right across le Maroc--you surely covered a lot of ground.
Hope all goes well on the upcoming voyage. That new museum is such an upgarde and shows King Tut items never before taken out of storage til now.

I am done. the mummy
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