Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Into the heart of mystery

Before the intense heat sets in and calls travellers towards the lull of the sea, desert lovers still have a chance to go on the safari of a lifetime. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he discovers Al-Gilf Al-Kebir

Click to view caption
A briefing before the adventure, Wadi Hamra -- green at last amid the arid desert, Graffiti in El-Mestekawi Cave, Dried red mud lake

Our trip began early in the morning, when I joined a Zarzora Expedition caravan leaving from Cairo. Zarzora constitutes one of the few Egyptian expedition companies specialised in long desert safaris. Operating mainly in the Western Desert, they have focussed on the very far ends of it -- Al-Gilf Al-Kebir and East of Uwainat. Al-Gilf Al-Kebir is a huge plateau that was first discovered, as it were, by Egyptian adventurer Prince Kamaleddin Hussein in 1926, and it was he who gave its original name Al-Dilf Al-Kebir, which translates as "the black escarpment". Khedive Ismail's grandson and Sultan Hussein Kamel's only son and heir Prince Kamal had asked to be relieved from his future responsibilities as Egypt's monarch, exchanging power for an exciting life of discovery and travel.

Following the asphalt road, we passed Bahariya and Farafra oases before we finally hit the largest of the Western Desert's oases: Dakhla. Though big in size, it is serene, and particularly enjoyable when having lunch amid the old mud buildings of Qasr Al-Dakhla. Indeed, the remains of the very old oasis are still in good shape. Dakhla holds a historical strategic importance -- it is civilisation's last south-western frontier before venturing into the unknown realms of the Great Sand Sea and Al-Gilf Al-Kebir. To Egypt, its strategic importance lives on. After all, it is our last stop for fuel, water and food. From there onwards, it is desert, and only desert.

Taking off from Dakhla, Abu Ballas was our first stop. The word ballas literally means "jars", and one needs no more than a few moments there to figure out the reason behind its naming, as the site is filled with jars which are, in fact, broken. On enquiring about Abu Ballas back in Dakhla, I heard an interesting story. In former centuries Dakhla came under frequent raids. The attackers were slender men with veiled ebony black faces, whom the natives of Dakhla called the Razzouz, or "the polished people". In the second half of the 19th century, immediately after one of those raids, the natives of Dakhla took off in pursuit of their attackers. Though they couldn't catch up with them, they came upon the Razzouz's supply station -- Abu Ballas. Hundreds and hundreds of jars were found, some filled with water, while others were filled with grains. According to the story, they broke the jars and the Razzouz never returned. When the site was rediscovered in the early years of the 20th century, more than 300 complete jars were found intact. Interestingly, not a single unbroken one can be found today.

For days we drove through open sand sheets until Al-Gilf Al-Kebir came into sight. A majestic sleeping giant, the closer we came the smaller we felt. Most of the valleys were once river beds, and lakes were found in land depressions and trees grew at its banks. Herbivores giants once roamed Al-Gilf Al-Kebir: onyx, gazelles, Barbary sheep and even giraffes had grazed the fertile pastures. The site where early man once hunted and gathered thousands of years ago had been transformed into a barren desert without even a flicker of life.

We reached Al-Gilf's eastern ridges by around 4pm, and expedition leader Ahmed El-Mestekawi chose a convenient spot for camping, thus announcing the end of travel time for the day. El-Mestekawi is an ex-military colonel who once served in the Border Patrol Corps around the Western Desert for over 23 years, and he literally knows the area like the palm of his hand. He insists on having his caravan fully equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technological gadgets. With his unrivalled experience, plus all the high-tech equipment, one can rest assured navigating the desert is safe.

The weather was perfect, as a cool breeze came with the onset of night, but all in all it was warm enough for me to make do with just a light jacket. A few metres from the camp site I found myself an ideal spot from which to watch the stars. The sky was crystal clear, and the absence of the moon made stargazing even more of an enchanting experience. Although I had left the camp, I made sure I stuck to the ground rules -- I had my torch light and bottle of water with me, and I had informed someone from the camp of the direction I would take and of when I would be back. Though such rules may sound somewhat restricting, they were laid out to guarantee the safety of the traveller, as roaming haphazardly in the desert can certainly have fatal implications, as history tells us. In the history of Zarzora's expedition, no fatal incidents have ever occurred, thanks to the discipline implemented with due safety precautions.

With the very first rays of light we woke up. Hurriedly I grabbed a cup of hot tea and something to keep me warm as the early hours of day are usually the coldest in the desert. Right after breakfast each of us packed up our respective tents and bags and left them to the care of the staff while we headed for our one hour morning walk -- a refreshing experience that cleansed our lungs from urban pollution and our minds from daily worries. Prospects of the day ahead filled me with excitement, as I was set to see, for the first time in my life, one of the world's oldest artistic sites -- El-Mestekawi Cave. Rock art is the oldest form of art left by the human race. While few countries are blessed with samples of such art, Egypt enjoys a handful of them. Al-Gilf Al-Kebir was home to groups of hunter-gatherers, who lived, as their name suggests, on hunting animals and gathering fruits and vegetables. When Al-Gilf Al-Kebir was still an inhabitable place, hunter-gatherers roamed the area, and in addition to their daily routine they painted and carved some of the most spectacular pieces of art in the whole world.

Al-Gilf Al-Kebir enjoys three main rock art sites: the Swimmers' Cave, Shaw's Cave and El-Mestekawi Cave. The Swimmers' was the first to be rediscovered, when Hungarian aristocrat and adventurer Count Almàsy came upon it in 1933 naming the whole valley Wadi Soura, or the "Valley of Pictures". This cave features paintings of men swimming, thus suggesting the area once enjoyed plenty of water sources, such as rivers and lakes. Shaw's Cave on the other side contains paintings of cattle. And unlike those in the Swimmers' Cave, those in Shaw's remain in good condition.

El-Mestekawi Cave was discovered during an expedition similar to ours in 2002. It is by far the largest site among the three, both in terms of the number of paintings and engravings as well as in terms of variety. Not all the paintings are of the same colour, with some being painted over the other indicating different periods and thus adding to the site's value. Handprints dominate the half- buried wall with alternating paintings of human figures, different animals and representations of hunting scenes. There were also works of art so surprising that they left me truly puzzled and above all impressed, including one representation of a headless bull, repeated in various parts of the cave. Could this be the mystical water creature which, according to legend, had the power to bring rain?

Another image which we found particularly perplexing was that of the footprint. While handprints regularly act as background for other paintings in most parts of the cave, there are only two footprints -- one engraved and another painted. If you stand right in the middle of the cave, lift your head slightly and you will find two adjacent carvings. Both are astounding, and appear to have been created by a highly imaginative avant- garde artist, or perhaps even an alien! I lost track of time as I stood in complete amazement in El-Mestekawi Cave, seeing priceless pieces of art as old as rock art. Indeed, this constituted an unmatched experience that left my soul indulged in mystical harmony.

Most unfortunately, some irresponsible tourists spray water on rock art in order to secure a more vibrant photograph. Although it works, there is also a hefty price to pay in the form an accelerated deterioration of the art itself. Having been dry for thousands of years, the sandstone on which most of the rock art is painted reacts negatively with water. Soon enough, the colours start to fade and the paint starts to peel. Water spraying and camera flashes are lethal when it comes to rock art, so please be very careful whenever present in such a crucially important site.

Driving around the gigantic plateau of Al-Gilf Al-Kebir, we finally made it to the northernmost edges of the area, where the giant began to slowly fall victim to an army of a trillion or so grains of sand -- for the Great Sand Sea was slowly creeping in. This area is not only renowned for the collusion of Al-Gilf Al-Kebir's mountainous nature and the Great Sand Sea's sandy one. It is also one of the very few, if not the only area in the whole plateau where vegetation is still present. Three main valleys dot the area: Wadi Hamra, Wadi Abdel-Malik and Wadi Talh. While each has its own distinctive feature, they all share the feature of vegetation.

Wadi Talh is renowned for its acacia trees (or talh in Arabic), while Wadi Hamra acquired its name from the red-orange colour of its sand. By contrast, Wadi Abdel-Malik has a story rather than a feature behind its name. Around the end of the 19th century, the Sennusi -- who are the most powerful tribe in the Libyan Desert -- ruled the Kufra Oasis in Libya. Their ruler requested Tebu tribesmen to guide the trading caravans to Siwa. Tebu, who are Negroid desert dwellers roaming the area between Tebisiti Massif in Chad and Kufra Oasis did not dare refuse outright -- nonetheless they did not wish to accept. Having no other option they fled. Abdel-Malik Ibrahim Al-Zuwaya was the name of the man who caught the fleeing Tebu; and as a reward for his courage the Sennusi ruler named the valley where he caught them Wadi Abdel-Malik.

In 1920, the Hungarian aristocrat Count Almàsy flew over the area while exploring Al-Gilf Al-Kebir. His sighting of the vegetated valley sparked a fierce debate in various geographical societies: could that be the lost oasis of Zarzora? Going back a couple of centuries to 1447, Arab traveller Osman El-Nabulsy jotted down the very first historical mention of Zarzora. Later in the 15th century came the mediaeval Book of Hidden Pearls speaking of hidden treasures in the lost oasis. It reads: "you will find palms and vines and flowing wells. Follow the valley until you meet another valley opening to the west between two hills. In it you will find a road. Follow it. It will lead you to the City of Zarzora. You will find its gate closed. It is a white city, like a dove. By the gate you will find a bird sculptured. Stretch up your hand to its beak and take from it a key. Open the gate with it and enter the city. You will find much wealth and the king and queen in their place sleeping the sleep of enchantment. Do not go near them. Take the treasure and that is all." The author of this book is unknown, as is the exact -- or possible -- location of Zarzora.

Zarzora Expedition runs trips to the Western Desert and Al-Gilf Al-Kebir between September and June. For prices and reservations please visit or contact Ahmed El-Mestekawi (owner and expedition leader) on +02 010 118 82 21 or Wael Abed (owner and expedition leader) on +02 010 100 11 09.

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