Plains, trails and automobiles
Do travel writers have the most interesting trips? Jenny Jobbins becomes a geologist for a day
I realised some time ago that describing the geographical features of the scenery I was travelling through in food terms was becoming tiresome. Deserts topped with burnt bread crumbs or chocolate sprinkles; chalk formations shaped like mushrooms, ice-cream cones or meringues; caramel-smooth sand and lumps of glacier-mint crystals were displaying as much my ignorance of the fabric of which our Earth is made as that I tend to get exceedingly hungry in so much fresh air. So when I learnt that the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) was holding its annual convention in Cairo, and that afterwards members were dispersing on various field trips, I called Dr Moataz Hassouba, exploration general manager of the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company (Gupco), and Martin Oldani, exploration general manager of Apache Egypt (no relation to Apache helicopters), and asked if I might join the three-day field trip to Bahariya. I hoped I might learn a thing or two. But I was also curious about spending time with a group who, as more than mere sightseers, would be taking a keen interest in a part of Egypt so often ignored by tour guides -- whose history seldom goes back beyond the Fourth Dynasty. A geologist's view gives the past a different meaning. Perhaps journalists and geologists are at the opposite ends of the scale: one deals in the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow, the other in events that took place before people, mammals, dinosaurs were even a gleam in the cosmic eye.
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A slab of pink limestone on Gabal Maghrafa makes a convenient seat. The writer and AAPG members on Gabal Dist. Dr Moataz Hassouba is second from right
I was to meet the group in Bahariya -- we were due to assemble at the hotel for lunch. Since I was acutely conscious of being a rookie I went down by bus the day before to give myself space to prepare. On the way I swotted up on a borrowed geological time chart, and by the time we reached Bahariya I could date my Eocene from my Cretaceous. So far so good. Unfortunately oasis time overtook us, and the bus broke down on the outskirts of Bawiti, Bahariya's main town. By a stroke of luck, though, the bus gave up just at the juncture of the dirt road leading to my hotel. A jeep rolled up and the driver leapt out to snare a group of stranded Japanese backpackers into taking rooms at his camp, plus a camping safari, at a rate he probably made up on the spur of the moment, pausing long enough to inform me that the person who was collecting me was still waiting in the Bawiti bus station. The bus wasn't going anywhere and I was tired of the tourist trap circus, so I decided to walk and let my drive overtake me. Unfortunately I took the wrong track and the car must have missed me, because when I found my way back on the right trail there was no one in sight. My bag felt heavier and heavier, but finally a minibus pulled up behind me. "Are you going to Peter's?" a voice said. Gratefully I climbed in: there were three smiling Italian couples, and as on those moments when one is extremely glad to see anyone I overcame my natural linguistic paralysis and attempted to speak some Italian of the "Spaghetti, macaroni, multo caldo" variety. It was only later I realised that on the roof of the minibus were tents and plastic chairs. And the minibus was a two-wheel drive. I wondered what sort of a desert camping holiday they were planning to have.
Next day the AAPG group was delayed and didn't arrive until late afternoon, which gave me a chance to relax under the frangipanis, a thing I seldom have the chance to do. After lunch I set off down the dirt track towards a palm grove, and there I spied a little girl of about three standing by herself on a corner. As I approached she began to wail, and the closer I got the louder the wails grew, until she turned and ran straight into the arms of her big sister who was coming in the opposite direction with a cousin. The older girls thought this was very funny and ran up to me to show the little one I wasn't an afrit -- a ghost. They led me into the palm grove and showed me a hot spring. I asked why they weren't in school, and they said they attended the morning session. One of them begged me to come to her home but the other seemed horrified at the idea. I had no wish to embarrass her mother, so I hastily said I had an appointment and would meet them another time.
The AAPG convoy's entry into the hotel compound was quite dramatic: rather than the assorted Toyotas one is used to, which arrive in twos and threes spilling sleeping bags and Coleman boxes, there were 12 pristine vehicles, mainly black, mainly Jeep Cherokees. They were numbered front and rear, and they were in order. Out jumped the 29 group members, 12 drivers, and three minders, two in suits and polished shoes and one in civvies. This was a cut above the usual safari group.
Over dinner we introduced ourselves. A few members had come from the US for the conference, and another from Canada; most of the rest were working in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. About two thirds were Egyptian. For many it was their first trip to a Western Desert oasis. For me it was a bit overwhelmingly laddish.
Next morning was an early start. We assembled after breakfast and piled into the cars: happily I was seated with Dr Moataz and the only other woman in the group, Professor Randi Martinsen from Wyoming University. Also in our car was Zarif El-Sisi, who also worked for Gupco and had the distinction of coming from the Delta village of Dunshway where in 1906 Lord Cromer gave the notorious order for the execution of 12 villagers after a British officer was attacked and killed in a pigeon shooting incident. "Poor Lord Cromer", we all agreed. "He did so many good deeds and built straight roads all over Egypt and he's just remembered for his one bad mistake."
By 10am we were at Gabal Dist, Hill of the Pot, which is composed of layers of sedimentary rock that has been weathered away to give it a conical shape. Once, we were told, this area was honeycombed with swamps and later with meandering rivers, so at the foot of Gabal Dist was a layer of mud flats covered with a layer of fluvial silt. This silt has proved a good mine for dinosaur bones. I tagged along behind Mike Zinger, visiting from Saudi Arabia, who promised to show me one, but before long I had found one of my own -- a small piece about two inches long which proved all too fragile. Scattered about on the sand were fossilised root formations and nummulites or star-patterned "sand dollars".
We began to climb Gabal Dist, the sides of which were of crumbling sandstone swept with, I learnt, fluvial and then marine sand. The marine layers came further up, when the river network had been swamped by the sea. We climbed on up through the seabed. I was not at all sure if I'd make it -- years of sitting at a desk does not equip one for this kind of exercise. It was two steps up, one slip down, and nothing to hold on to. After a while I stopped caring whether this was fluvial sand or marine sand, and was only concerned about not joining the dinosaur bones at the bottom. Oddly, though, whenever my knees were about to give way, an outstretched hand came from above and, at eye level, I saw a black shoe, a little sandy now, and the black cuff of a minder's suit. One of them was always there, walkie-talkie in one hand, ready to haul me up with the other.
We rested on the slope bellow the summit, and Martinsen took my picture. "You're sitting on a rock 24 million years old," she said helpfully.
We beheld the plain below, ringed by the escarpment of stratified sandstone whose exposed cliffs revealed the history, the uplifting and the movement of this corner of the globe. Above us on the top of the mountain was a hard pink crust of limestone left in the Eocene period by the ancient Tethys Sea.
Now to get down again. "Hyena-style," they advised, which meant sliding on your backside with your hands and feet on the ground. Why ever hyenas would choose to move this way I can't imagine. "Lord Cromer should have built a road here," someone said.
After a short break we moved on to Gabal Maghrafa, Hill of the Spoon. This had layers of slate and sandstone: swamp at the foot, followed by a fluvial layer and then a tidal delta layer. It was topped by the crust of limestone from the Eocene seabed. "You can climb to the top to see some cross bedding," Dr Moataz said, "but later on in the day we'll see a similar formation on the side of the road at the end of the oasis."
"Then let the mountain come to us," the group chorused in reply.
By now I had learnt that petroleum geologists are not into pretty pebbles -- no more than the rest of us, anyway -- and that you need to have a palaeontologist around before you can identify a fossil. Geologists are not up to making hazardous guesses. I had also learnt that oil does not float in underground ponds. It seems that petroleum geologists look at sandstone to see if it is fluvial or marine: both types yield oil. "Is it dinosaur oil or fish oil?" Zinger said. Dead dinosaurs were washed down in floods and caught up in tidal swamps, as anyone who has seen a dead gamousa floating down the Nile knows. "It's a question of thinking, 'What does it look 5,000 feet down?'" Gabe Artigas of British Petroleum said, indicating the sandstone. Instead of ponds, oil is contained in grains of sand and has to be extracted under pressure. "What happens to the hole in the grain of sand?" I asked Zinger. "It slowly fills up with water," he said. Perfectly clear.
We went on to the next stop at the western end of Bahariya, parking the convoy on the roadside just as it climbs out of the depression (the usual safaris must be really impressed at the sight of us, I thought). We climbed down a sandy slope to examine a "very beautiful example of cross-bedding". The sandstone was marked as though someone had taken a chisel and drawn an extended, flattened checkerboard. "These are different kinds of channelling between fluvial and tidal flood channelling," Dr Moataz was saying. There was a long discussion about why the collapse had taken place, but it was way over my head and I was far more interested in the exposed worm burrows which, apparently, indicated that the sandstone was fluvial rather than marine, while that they were vertical suggested the water was brackish.
It had taken a million years for the floor of the oasis to weather away to this escarpment -- which encircles the depression -- and expose the strata. I confess that by this time I was thinking of the next few hours and looking forward to a rest before the Bedouin party to be held in our honour at the hotel.
But the next stop was the enchanting Crystal Mountain, an exhumed cave (one that is no longer buried). This was once an underground limestone cave but has been pushed up and lost its roof. The crystals are very soft and crumbly, but there are traces of giant stalagmites and stalactites.
Here I heard a geology joke. Martinsen stooped in the sand to pick up a piece of dried camel dung and handed it to Dr Moataz. "Is this mud or silt?" she asked, "It's silt," he said without hesitation, refusing to take it. She explained to me that geology lecturers taught their students that the way to tell mud from silt was to taste it: silt was gritty.
That evening we had a rare treat -- a young Bedouin woman had agreed to sing for us, and the accompaniment of the traditional instruments delighted the visitors from the US. There was another local treat in store next morning for the handful of us who got up early to take advantage of it -- a camel ride below Gabal Maghrafa.
Unfortunately for those of us who did get up at 5.30 it took nearly an hour to wake the drivers, who were sleeping off the night before. This seriously cut short our ride. As we drove across the desert to the camel farm we were confronted by the vision of at least 80 camels standing or sitting on the sand, but only a handful seemed to be rideable and one of us was left behind when his camel sat down, tipped him off her back and then stood up and loped off. The rest of us enjoyed a wonderful ride. There was no doubt that this was the way to study geology. One of the group did just that, sending a little camel boy this way and that to pick up specimens which he carried back on his camel.
Next day was "Antiquities Day" -- the Valley of the Golden Mummies, The Temple of Ain Al-Muftillah and the 26th- Dynasty tombs of the rich merchant Zed-Amun-ef-ankh and his son Bennentiu at Qarat Qasr Selim. Here the geologists seemed genuinely absorbed -- shedding their air of seen-it- all-before they took a keen interest in this much more recent epoch. All the group -- to the very last driver -- braved the formaldehyde smell in the gruesome tombs of the Golden Mummies.
There was just time to pick up our lunch boxes and head back to Cairo. The convoy held together until we reached 6th October City, when it splintered to ferry passengers to different parts of town (car seats had been allocated accordingly before we left). I heard that the minders hadn't enjoyed themselves much -- perhaps next time they'll be forewarned and wear more appropriate shoes. Theirs were probably ruined.
Had I learnt anything? The meaning of the passage of time came home to me as I climbed a little way up Gabal Maghrafa and sat on a slab of pink limestone, trying to figure out why it was below the sandstone layers when it should have been resting on top. This must be because it collapsed as the sandstone weathered away. Fine. I climbed a little further and found three of the guys sitting in the shade under an overhang and trying to hit a stone marker with small rocks. I joined them. "We're contemplating the wider scale of things," one said. "When this was a massive river system with swamps and dinosaurs." We mused for a while, holding our own mental picture of a lumbering Brontesaurus picking its way through the ooze.
"Let's see what direction North is," one of them said, checking his watch.
The second one looked at his. "And the temperature," he said.
"I can tell the time with mine," the third one volunteered.
"That's a neat watch," said the second to the first. "Does it have GPS?"
"Yes, it does."
"I have a small helicopter in mine," said the second.
"Will you guys keep it down? I'm trying to watch TV."
Eventually we climbed down and they checked who had won the stone game. As we neared the foot, British Petroleum's Gabe Artigas said to me: "You see those layers, the ones oozing like chocolate mousse? Well... "
Now I've not used that one before.
The AAPG group stayed at the International Hot Spring Hotel, Bawiti. Tel: (02) 847 2322. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.whitedeserttours.com
Buses for Bahariya leave from Turguman Square at 7.00 and 8.00am daily. Fare LE13 plus LE1 baggage fee and LE1 toll. Upper Egypt Bus Company: 576 0261.