Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 November 2008
Issue No. 921
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Liberated by the dunes

Hani Mustafa and Rasha Sadek sign up with those who dare experience the discrete charm of the desert

Click to view caption
The White Desert is nature's symposium of abstract sculpture

There is something outstanding about the desert for which we will always have a soft spot. In one way, it liberates our souls for it urges us to drop all, and pay more focus on the things that really matter inviting us to relive the simplicity of the basics. In another, its challenging rough terrain tempts the wild in us to live whichever adventure that comes our way to the maximum. The combination understandably makes one's trip euphoric, ecstatic and on top of all meditative.

A satellite view reveals that the dominant colours of this country are yellow and brown, which means that gigantic areas are endless extensions of sand and mountains. Zoom in and notice various rock formations, colourful canyons and oases with inexplicable abundant greenery. This, however, can't begin to tell enough how embarking on a desert safari feels or looks like. Simply because each of the three deserts of Egypt -- the Western, Eastern and Sinai -- offers ingredients different from the others, be they cultural, geological, religious or archaeological.

So, what does being in the desert entail?

Finding a definite philosophy for the desert will forever remain far fetched, since such is a very individual experience. And, in so many ways, the desert has what it takes to cater for all tastes, once you dare to explore.

For some, the desert is the genuine meaning of life. The naked truth of beings. For others, the desert is in its essence the opposite; the opposite of everything life in the city is about. When objects of luxury are taken away one gets the chance to concentrate on oneself, on the minute details, like for instance, the pace of breathing. Does this ring a bell? Isn't uniting with oneself the ultimate goal of yoga? Here it is, on a silver platter, in the desert.

Those who are not into desert safari are usually people whose taste can only admire full-fledged luxury or those who prefer stretching by the beach. While trekkers who are infatuated with the desert understand and respect its originality, hence they enjoy it. The desert is the ultimate power of nature, and that needs no explanation. One ought to be sedulous enough to come in contact with it. The desert invokes in men their strong, primitive being and in women their search for a new adventure. It's no easy picnic.

Allow us to correct the misconception that in the desert you hear the sound of silence. Rather, it's the sound of your inner voice. Indeed, man is part of the universe; the same system that produces the sound of air whooshing through mountains and valleys, and the same system that shapes sands according to meteorological conditions. The desert has such impact. "It seeps through oneself", explained a colleague of ours who recalls that on one of his trips to the western White Desert he spent three days commuting on the slow rhythmic camelback where by the time he returned to the city he'd obtained a much slower pace.

The desert is not only about the stretches of sand. The sky is the limit alright. A dark blue rooftop with zillions of sparkles is a picture that could invoke an ever-flowing sea of emotions. It's, again, the bare truth, pure and simple. It's no longer about names, titles, positions, wealth and social status.

Journey is the translation of the word safari in Kiswahili . The first safaris were born when 19th century European adventurers began to explore the "Dark Continent". Dedicated desert enthusiasts believe that "when you leave you will take a little bit with you, or leave a little of yourself there."

The Cave of Swimmers, featured in the climax scene of the 1996 production The English Patient, lies in the Gilf Al-Kebir famed for its prehistoric paintings. The cave contains paintings on rocks of swimming figures dating over 10,000 years ago. And being located in the remote southwest of Egypt, access to the isolated plateau of Gilf Al-Kebir requires vehicles equipped with state-of-the-art technology to factor in safety. Of course such trips are costly. Most desert safaris, however, especially the ones more familiar (such as in Sinai and around the Western Desert oases) can be arranged for an average of LE400 a night with a guide whose home is the desert.

THE WESTERN DESERT: Tranquillity, purity and serenity are indeed sought after while planning a trip. Except that the Western Desert can be least described as spellbinding, and that is why we have made it a yearly habit to visit this magnanimous site. Was it the Siren of the Desert, perhaps? Indeed, as during one of our three-day trips starting off at Bahariya Oasis, a German friend insisted every night to part our company and delve alone on foot in the depths of the desert as if she had a pressing urge to unite with its nature. She would only return the next morning.

Sunset is the first scene that encounters travellers if they arrange their trip from Cairo early morning to Al-Boeita, Bahariya's main city. This is approximately a six-hour ride before taking a 4x4 for another three hours to a camping site in the heart of the desert. Watching the sunset in the Western Desert is enchanting. Picture this: the orange sky turns gradually to different shades of blue until complete darkness falls.

However, the beauty of sunset pales when in comparison to the splendour of sunrise -- witnessing how it all began.

Arriving at Agabat (originally aqabat, meaning obstacles) at sunset was a splendid treat. This spot is so called because rocky hills serve as obstacles to the eyes of the beholder of the vastness of the desert. Our camp was based on a sand dune. Oh, how tiny we had felt in the presence of such gargantuan nature.

On the second day we headed to Agabat West, which is geographically an extension of Agabat, and far more charming. Still comprising hills that surround sand dunes, the hills are wider, surrounded by semi-cylindrical pale yellow limestones two metres in height. What bedazzled us about these formations is that they were so punctiliously lined up that it was near impossible for our minds to conceive of the fact that they were merely a random act of nature. Upon setting sight on these limestones, it struck our friends it was all part of a science fiction film, where giant aliens inhabited the area.

On to the White Desert on the last day of our safari. Although part of the Western Desert, the White acquired its name from the vast extension of limestone on its grounds that makes it look like a frozen shot of sea waves -- five million years ago this area was indeed a sea. Ranging from one to three or more metres high, the ice-white limestones with their different structures have turned the desert into nature's symposium of abstract sculpture.

Agabat is a geological wonder, for spurred in its sands are petrified seashells and fossils. And while man is originally consumed by his own selfishness, it gets kind of difficult to resist the temptation to pick one of those seashells to decorate a corner in the house. Appealing as the idea might sound to some, desert aficionados are instantly appalled by the thought simply because it means losing a geological treasure. And this is exactly what happened to the Crystal Mountain.

Located 120km south of Bahariya Oasis is the 20m high Crystal Mountain. The name suits it alright since the reflection of sun rays on the semi-transparent rocks makes it look like a huge crystal in the middle of nowhere. What we noticed during our frequent visits to the Crystal Mountain, is that it has lost almost two-thirds of its rocks.

There are special "rituals" we find compelling on venturing into the desert. Click off the cellulars, dump watches in the backbags and break loose; free to sleep, walk, eat or stare in the vacuum. Our utmost pleasure has always been wandering aimlessly after gathering around a fire and an authentic Bedouin dinner composed of rice, potatoes and lamb or chicken. Don't take this meal lightly, though, for food Bedouin-style tastes like nothing elsewhere. The secret here is coal which adds an exotic aroma during the cooking phase. Lucky we were for sampling mandy, a rich delightful Bedouin dish of goat meat buried in the sand for a few days to be heated slowly by the sun rays after which the goat was taken out, wrapped in tin foil and cooked on coal. After that we would delve into the experience of Bedouin tea, a three- course serving. The first round is dark tea, a blend of sweet and sour that shoots right up to the head before nestling in the stomach. Next comes tea lighter in colour with mint, followed by the last round, lighter still, and also with mint. Tea in Bedouin culture is an interesting study, components of which vary according to geographical area. In Sinai, for example, added to tea is habak which is a mint-like herb grown in Mount Sinai in winter that is mashed with tea and boiled on coal. The result is exotic.

The five senses take new dimensions with desert nomads. They are known to hear before we do, see farther than we can, and know the routes of the desert like the back of their hands. During one of our desert safaris, our nomadic guide Ashraf Lotfi dazzled us by identifying a travelling group at a five-minute ride distance from our location. One of our travelling friends was jealous of Lotfi's extraordinary capabilities so he tried to prove that he had matching sharp sight and pointed to a number of tiny black spots that appeared in the horizon and said that we were "headed towards the people over there". Immediately, Lotfi corrected that what appeared to us as spots were trees and palms. Our friend was indeed green with envy.

Unity is the desert's code of conduct; even the people who roam it should too abide. On the way to visiting the White Desert's Ain Al-Serw Spring (Al-Serw is a tree up to 30m high), Lotfi noticed a trail of footprints and upon closer inspection indicated that the prints belonged to a tired man. We followed the trail in our 4x4 until we reached the spring where indeed we found a man who exhaustibly made it there on foot after his car broke down and had to walk for three hours. We helped the man with water and food before we escorted him to fix his car.

SINAI: This is where legacies are relived. The Sinai desert had provided the setting for dozens of remarkable religious happenings that represent a common link in the faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It's strongly advisable before embarking on safaris in Sinai to get acquainted with the historical details concerning your trek. This way, you will feel like reliving the past, which will definitely enrich your experience and make it far more interesting.

The St Catherine protectorate is certainly one of the most familiar, albeit mystifying desert attractions. The protectorate, standing on 4,350 square kilometres, was declared a natural park in 1996. The high altitude ecosystem of the Monastery of St Catherine and Mount Moses (aka Gabal Moussa) and the religious landscape intertwine in this area with rich Bedouin culture. The Jebeliya Bedouin tribe has a particular regard for Mount Moses as holy, and back in the third century the monastic tradition grew when Christians sought refuge from Rome's persecution. Relics of these Roman and Byzantine eras can still be seen on the mountain in ancient quarries, paved paths and water conduits.

Itineraries to this area are easily arranged with professional guides and can be tailored according to travellers' fitness level, their interest in specific attractions and time available. One of the famous treks is about 7km and takes from five to seven hours to complete. It's a trek through the Exodus when Moses was sentenced to death for killing an Egyptian, and to escape persecution had fled to the Sinai mountains where he married Jethro's daughter and tended to the man's flocks. One day God revealed himself to Moses in the Miracle of the Burning Bush. While Moses was on Mount Sinai God presented him with two stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments.

The trek starts off at Wadi Al-Deir (The Monastery Valley) where close by there's a chapel and a mosque. This is the area reputed to witness the making of the golden calf. On the road to the St Catherine Monastery are the remains of the mid-19th century barracks that Abbas Pasha built for his soldiers and workers in 1853. Further up the road, look to your left at the lower slopes of the mountains, for loose stones from this plateau were used in building the monastery and its fortification in the sixth century.

By now you should reach the Monastery of St Catherine. Watch closely the interdependent relationship between the Jebeliya Bedouins and the monks of the monastery. Long ago, the Jebeliya depended on the supplies and services the monastery provided while the latter relied on the local Bedouin for manual labour and protection. The Jebeliya are originally descendants of soldiers and servants who were sent by Byzantine Emperor Justinian to build and maintain the monastery. Today, Jebeliya still work at the monastery as gardeners, groundsmen, carpenters and bakers.

In the third century, at the site of the Burning Bush, Saint Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, ordered the building of a church and tower to serve as a shelter for the monks and hermits who escaped persecution and followed a life of prayer and devotion. Three centuries later, Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a fortified monastery to encompass the church and tower, et voila the St Catherine Monastery. Behind the monastery starts the camel path that leads to Elijah's Basin where the camels stop and you take the remaining 750 steps to the top of Mount Moses on foot. While on camelback, look for rocks on the surface of which are black plant-like patterns. Legend has it that these patterns were the cause of divine light intense enough to imprint the shadows of plants on stone and reminiscent of the leaves from the Burning Bush. Geologists, however, call this phenomenon dendritic pyrolusite and concluded that it is formed by a chemical reaction which leaves a manganese deposit. When finally you reach the final steps of the Stairway of Repentance, you will be 2,285 metres above sea level and on top Mount Moses. Perhaps it was Edward Hull, in 1885 who described it best when he said, "Nothing can exceed the savage grandeur of the view from the summit of Mount Moses. The infinite complication of jagged peaks and varied ridges, and their prevalent intensely red and greenish tints..."

If you decide to go further down the camel path, on a bend is the Monastery of Saints Episteme and Galaktion. The latter was born in the fourth century to pagan parents who had been childless until a priest advised them to pray to the God of the Christians for a child. Galaktion was born and brought up a Christian and later married Episteme. Both became monastic and settled in Sinai to escape persecution but were then captured by the Romans and killed in the arena in Alexandria .

For more information on this and other lesser known treks in Sinai, the Protectorates Development Programmes (+20 623 470 032) have issued detailed maps and booklets. Visiting hours to the Monastery of St Catherine are strictly between 9am and noon daily except on Fridays, Sundays and feast days when it is closed to all visitors.

THE EASTERN DESERT: Perhaps it's the least visited by travellers on account of the simple fact that it did not witness as many historical events as its Western and Sinai counterparts. Roman ruins, however, dominate the desert parallel to Hurghada. A few kilometres from the Red Sea city and 33km into the desert there's Kharaz Al-Malki. This site works the imagination of travellers due to its huge rock formations. Looking like a Roman arena, the centre of the site is surrounded by mountains of every size and shape. Bedouins there make their living by inviting travellers to starlit dinners, folklore and tanura shows and belly dancing performances.

Transportation in the area of Kharaz Al-Malki is either by quadrunners, camels or 4x4 vehicles. There are many Bedouin villages there that bring travellers closer to nomadic lifestyle and ancestral traditions such as Moaza tribe's Kab Al-Galab and Um Kibash. Wadi Meleiha lies approximately 80km south of Hurghada, and it's an oasis heavily planted with acacia trees and palms in the heart of the desert. Meleiha is unique in the fact that it represents the stark contrast between greenery and sands. For a stunning sunrise view, try Wadi Um Enab that lies 700m above sea level and hosts some springs.

You can plan an excursion to Mons Caludianus, a Roman city that was the first centre of Roman activities and mining in the Eastern Desert. The black marble granite excavated there was used for the emperor's large constructions in Rome, especially the pillars of palaces. Worth seeing also are a small temple, the valley of pillars and a gold mine.

For a little bit of romance, the same site of Kharaz Al-Malki hosts digital telescopes (Meade LX 200 GPS) for stargazing. There you can spend up to three nights in the desert to explore the Roman ruins in the morning and stare at the sky all night long.

To arrange an itinerary in the Eastern Desert, visit www. or contact Ahmed El-Rawy on 010 103 3795.

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