DRIFT Travel magazine - - Inside This Issue - BY: KERI HAR­VEY

Ex­plor­ing Egypt’s western desert.


“Love is very sim­ple” says spe­cial­ist desert guide, Khaled Hafez, as he lies back on a tightly wo­ven Be­douin car­pet and sips sweet black tea, sur­rounded by the White Desert. He rubs his chin slowly and says: “A Be­douin man draws the out­line of his foot on a rock and shows it to the woman he de­sires. If she places her foot in­side his, her an­swer is yes and there’s mar­riage. Deserts, on the other hand, are far more com­pli­cated. You can hate them one day and fall in love with them the next. Then they get un­der your skin, and then you have to keep com­ing back, like I do.”

Those with no in­ter­est in mu­se­ums claim they are bor­ing, and the unin­spired say the same of deserts, along with ‘there’s noth­ing but sand to see’. This, only be­cause they haven’t taken time to feel the desert, and most def­i­nitely have never seen the un­speak­able beauty that is Egypt’s Black and White deserts.

Stand­ing on the roof of our desert lov­ing ve­hi­cle, Be­douin driver Ali Ganawi ties down a crim­son car­pet and a short-legged ta­ble along­side jerry cans of fuel and wa­ter. “Yalla (let’s go),” he says, with a wide white smile to match his pure white robes and tur­ban. Ali and Khaled are up front and I slip into the back seat for a magic car­pet

ride through Egypt’s great Western Desert; it in­cor­po­rates the Black and White deserts, about half a dozen set­tled oases and thou­sands more square kilo­me­ters of Sa­hara.

The low slung oa­sis town of Ba­hariyya is in the rear view mir­ror, along with Be­douin chil­dren in lay­ered cloth­ing play­ing joy­fully along the road­side. Within min­utes we are sur­rounded by silky sand rolling out in a creamy car­pet in all di­rec­tions. About 80 mil­lion years ago we would be driv­ing on the sea floor, now we are in a sand sea with inky blue skies over­head. The Sa­hara known as The Great Sand Sea - is an im­pres­sive nine mil­lion square kilo­me­ters, roughly the size of the USA, and stretches right across North Africa, coast to coast. It is also a place of ex­treme beauty and harsh­ness, some­where you never travel alone.

Ali was born in the oases of Ba­hariyya and has been driv­ing these un­marked deserts for over 20 years. He laughs when I ask him if he’s ever been lost. “Lost?” he says, rais­ing his eye­brows in dis­may, “you can’t get lost if you can see the sun or the stars.’” He points to his head and says: “In here is a Be­douin com­pass.”

This desert has no land­marks, no ap­par­ent per­ma­nent fea­tures what­so­ever. Even the sand dunes shift six kilo­me­ters a year, so the sky is the only map there is and a good ‘Be­douin com­pass’. With one hand on the wheel and the other an­i­mat­edly ex­plain­ing a story to Khaled in Ara­bic, Ali says desert driv­ing re­laxes him and the still­ness brings him closer to him­self. Life at home

with six chil­dren can be hec­tic. As we drive, the land­scape takes on a scorched, sun­burned look. The sand creamy sand is now black. When we stop and look closer, it’s not the sand that’s black but rather a cov­er­ing of tiny smooth black peb­bles that now cam­ou­flage the desert sand as far as you can see. “It looks like a big hand in the sky scat­tered the peb­bles across the desert,” says Khaled, “it’s re­ally amaz­ing”. The black is dolomite, and in be­tween lie creamy boul­ders, which re­veal flint­stone when cracked open. The land­scape is quite other worldly, a lit­tle like land­ing on the moon with­out leav­ing earth.

A lit­tle fur­ther along, Ali pulls off the track and Khaled beck­ons me to fol­low him.

“Come and look,” he says, mo­tion­ing with his hand to fol­low him. “It’s the en­trance to heaven.”

And there, in the sand­scape stands a per­fect arch of nat­u­ral crys­tal, daz­zling like a day­time disco in the mid­day sun. Crys­tal Moun­tain is not a moun­tain but an out­crop, and can eas­ily be missed if you don’t know where to look. That’s the thing about deserts. Their treasures are not al­ways ob­vi­ous, but re­vealed only to those who take time to dis­cover them.

“Are you hun­gry?” asks Ali, as he hoists him­self back onto the roof of the ve­hi­cle. He passes Khaled the ta­ble and car­pet and a cooler box. An in­stant Be­douin pic­nic ma­te­ri­al­izes, with a soft car­pet to sit on and ta­ble too. A spread of flat bread, boiled eggs, fresh toma­toes and tahini is cool and de­li­cious. In a heart­beat a small fire is burn­ing too, for no meal is com­plete with­out at least three lit­tle glasses of sweet black tea. “It’s Be­douin whisky,” jokes Ali, while sip­ping glass af­ter glass.

“Now pre­pare to be amazed,” says Khaled as we con­tinue on our way, swathed by sand in all di­rec­tions. The desertscape slowly be­gins to trans­form again. Sand turns honey hued and white lime­stone for­ma­tions like icy ter­mite mounds start to emerge. We turn off the main desert track and drive deeper into this field of strange white sculp­tures, all care­fully chis­eled by wind and time. They rise as tow­ers from the desert floor, and then a skull ap­pears

be­fore us huge and ghostly - and then a sphinx and an ea­gle in static flight. Your imag­i­na­tion runs wild as this en­chanted gar­den of sand and lime­stone, with gi­ant mush­rooms and fan­tas­ti­cal stone crea­tures, slowly re­veals it­self for over 3,000 square kilo­me­ters. This is the White Desert, a play­ground for the mind. Khaled and Ali have been here count­less times, but say ev­ery time is like the first.

Ali stops the ve­hi­cle and we get out and walk slowly amongst the as­tound­ing nat­u­ral cre­ations that re­sem­ble plants and an­i­mals, but have stood there for all time. It’s per­fectly silent as the af­ter­noon light dusts the desert in pas­tel pinks and blues. We set up camp for the night on the soft sand floor, with lit­tle need to speak. It seems in­tru­sive in such quiet. The land­scape is so sur­real, so breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful, you want to fo­cus on soak­ing it into your soul so you don’t for­get such places still ex­ist on earth.

Then the moon rises, wash­ing the White Desert in pure en­chant­ment.

We lie on our backs in the cush­ion­ing sand along­side the danc­ing fire, and stare heav­en­wards as a mil­lion bright stars pierce the night sky with light. “Ev­ery time I come here, I fall in love,” says Khaled softly, “and just wait for the pur­ple sun­rise in the morn­ing. It looks like you are on an­other planet. That’s why I keep com­ing back, the light here is nat­u­ral magic” And then there is quiet as we fall asleep in the desert’s mil­lion-star ho­tel, with­out need for a bed.


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