Before I studied abroad in the Middle East, I could only picture one type of desert – an endless sea of dunes extending out into the horizon. Traveling around the region however, it became clear that this is only one of the many types of deserts, some of which even have specific names in Arabic. Our most recent expedition to Egypt’s famed Western Desert has shown me yet another beautiful variation of this arid landscape.
After a four-hour trip from Cairo, we met our guide, Wagdy, with his 4×4 in Bahariya, the main town in the area (in fact the only town in the area), and after a quick lunch, we set out for the desert.
After a short while, Wagdy engaged the four-wheel drive, pulled off the road and quickly had us bouncing up and down in our seats as we raced across the alternating patches of rock and sand. We first passed through what is known as the Black Desert, which is blanketed with small black rocks and whose flatness stretches out in all directions, with only a few hills to break up the monotony.
When we crossed over into the white desert however, things started to become more interesting. Soon the landscape was broken up by hills and small rock formations rising up out of the sand. These quickly turned into cliffs made from an incredibly white almost chalk-like stone. Wagdy said that we were making our way toward the ‘Agabat or miracle mountains. Not quite sure what we were looking for, our question was answered when we crested a dune and saw a field of huge stone mountains, all seemingly growing up individually out of the sand. I cannot imagine how these were formed but it certainly took an incredibly long time.
As if these were not scenic enough, Wagdy drove us out to the “New White Desert” (labeled such because it only really became accessible with the introduction of the 4×4). In a few short minutes, we went from Egypt to the moon. We were driving through a forest of oddly shaped rock pillars shooting up out of the ground. Some had large bulbous tops balancing on thin bases, which our guide referred to as mushrooms, and there was even one that looked like a chicken! We set up our first camp amongst the incredible formations and the twilight gave the landscape a pronounced otherworldly feel.
The morning found us romping across the dunes of the Western Desert, Wagdy’s favorite location, and we could see why. The Western Desert seems to be the brilliant combination of all the places we passed through before, with rock-strewn ground giving way to large dunes that butted up against beautiful cliffs studded with veins of quartz. We even found some small shells and other fossils, prompting you to think about the crazy notion that this place, currently so lacking in moisture, was once the sandy floor of a vast sea.
Although it seems that it would be easy to get lost in the vast expanse, our guide confidently told us that he could wander out in the desert for days without a map or GPS. And he has apparently done so; often walking at the head of multiday camel trips out into the desert. If you have ever ridden a camel for more than an hour however, you will know why we chose the decidedly comfier 4×4!
We emerged from the Western Desert in the early afternoon and made our way back to Bahariya for lunch. Spending the last 24 hours in a desert gives you a tiny taste of what many ancient travelers must have felt when they caught sight of the seemingly miraculous oasis after spending days, if not weeks, crossing a very hostile landscape. We passed fields of date palms, pomegranate trees, watermelons and olive trees, all watered by a number of natural springs in the area and in great contrast to the rocky hills just a few miles away.
Leaving Bahariya once more, we made our way out to a series of dunes on the outskirts of the city. Sitting in our camp under the fast-appearing stars, we were struck by the tranquility of our current surroundings in comparison to our lives in Cairo. Silence had replaced the ever-present motorized cacophony outside our apartment window, the air smelled refreshingly clean and the clear nigh sky was a wonderful replacement for the pollution of the city. Coming from a Cairo, where everything is constantly in motion, driving toward some unknown future, it was comforting to stare at the cliffs and dunes, which possessed a clear sense of timelessness and permanence.
That deep calm is a feeling you don’t realize you miss until you experience it again and it certainly made it harder to come back to Cairo the next day. We made it back with our pockets and pant legs full of sand, tired but satisfied. We then took advantage of the one thing our beautiful desert excursion did not provide: a nice warm shower.