Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Call of the desert

Escaping the madness of Cairo, Dena Rashed hops into a 4-wheeler for a one-day desert safari

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Driving a four-wheel car in the city might be fun but nothing compares to tires smoothly gliding over light sand or revving against sand dunes. On a one-day safari to Qasr Al-Sagha (The Golden Fortress) and Dimai in the desert on the road to Fayoum south of Giza, one rediscovers the vast deserts of Egypt. Organised by Jeep Club, established in 1999, the trip took us to some of the country's forgotten treasures while experiencing off-road driving.

At 9am the group met to plan the day, find out what to expect in the desert and how to handle possible mishaps. After a quick briefing and good coffee, we are ready to drive off. With a convoy of more than 20 jeeps clearly marked with numbers on the back and front and equipped by walkie-talkies, the cars began their procession.

After driving almost 70km on-road from Cairo to Alexandria's toll gates, the off-road drive began. The first test for new off-road drivers is to master the courage to pass over a railway track in the sand -- a warm-up of what was to come on the "beginners' trip". The cars are divided into groups, and a vehicle driven by a professional off-roader leads the pack, guiding them on walkie-talkies in case of a breakdown or a car becomes stuck in the sand.

The first real test is driving a 4-wheeler uphill. It might look easy, but you must floor the gas pedal as soon as you are told and keep going until you reach the top. There are many twists and turns, small pits, mini-tests and other teasers for the drivers. Your adrenaline is also revved up and you eagerly anticipate the next obstacle -- quite an addictive pass time.

Knowing how to control a 4-wheeler in the desert is exciting for those intrigued by the vast expanse of golden sea; some are intimidated by the possibilities while others are exhilarated. In both cases, the first rule of the desert is to always be prepared. For the one-day, the group was equipped with desert guides, GPS, satellite phone, a location for emergency help, technicians and a maintenance team, water and drinks.

The one-day adventure is good for families, lasting about nine hours of driving, stops, breaks and lunch. Young kids will enjoy the open space and infinite amount of sand and stones. Spending time in the desert is liberating for young and old; when drivers stop for breaks in the desert the sound of silence is deafening. Living in a city that never sleeps, it is invigorating to hear one's own breath and children's laughter uninterrupted.

The other highlights of the trip are three key stops. The first is a small temple known as Qasr Al-Sagha the history of which is uncertain, although scholars believe it relates to the Middle Kingdom. Constructed of limestone blocks, it lies north of the ancient Lake Moeris (Lake Qaroun) and stands alone like an incomplete project with no decorations on the walls.

Next is Dimai, almost 8km from Qasr Al-Sagha, the site of the Graeco-Roman town of Soknopaiou Nesos which sprawls across the desert. Everyone grabs their cameras to capture the stone remains of what -- one guide said -- is believed to have been built during the Ptolemaic period. Legend has it that the Romans erected it for protection against outlaws in the desert.

Another great spot in the Fayoum desert is the Petrified Forest north of Lake Qaroun. It includes ossified trees which are 40-metres tall and have survived the test of time.

The banks of the lake are remarkable and are more fun for experienced drivers who drive up and down the dunes. An hour before sunset, the camp is ready and food cooked and served by Bedouins. Under the tent, some snooze while others sip aromatic tea with cloves.

The trip is especially fun because it is well organised and drivers stick to the rules. Although it was a hot and sunny day, the hardest part of the drive was the way out of the desert. Going through a different route to take the Cairo-Fayoum asphalt road, the convoy spent around 30 minutes driving on an excavated road in the desert for cars. Driving in Cairo one learns to avoid the bumps, but on this road one yearned for city asphalt.

As the drivers bid farewell to each other at the gas station on Fayoum road, first-time desert drivers promise to be back for the long safari -- a three-day trip to Siwa that includes camping. The desert aficionados, of course, will also be there.

The desert has cast its spell.

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