BootsnAll Travel Network

Western Desert and Empire’s End

We boarded our small bus early in the morning for the long trip to Mut, the capital of the Dakhla Oasis. The western desert in Egypt is sparsely inhabited with towns centering around the few oases available. It didn’t take long for us to leave behind the Luxor cityscape and the Nile greenbelt. The landscape turned into harsh stone sandy desert almost immediately. (I should mention that before this turn of events I had a little accident. While setting down some boxes of water on the ground for use during the trip, my pants decided to split along the rear seam. This was one of those times where one is thankful for the invention of underpants. I guess my pants finally just got tired of supporting my rear after a year. Fortunately, one of the ladies in our group said she could fix them as it would give her something to do on the drive. Back to the desert) The desert was punctuated by rocky worn hills and very little plant life. The first major oasis we hit was Al Khurga. This town once went 17 years without rain. The town appeared out of no where and was constructed from concrete and mud bricks. It only partially looked like I imagined an oasis would. There were plenty of date palms and plants, but no water. This oasis like all the others, except Siwa, is fed from underground wells. The wells formed when a branch of the Nile in this area decided to forsake the surface world for cave life.

After leaving Al Khurga, we once again entered the desert. We kept having to stop at military checkpoints along the way and show papers. This part of Egypt is heavily controlled and not as touristed. We were accompanied on our bus by a member of the Egyptian military special forces. The military checkpoint life must be dull beyond imagining. The stations are in the middle of nowhere and the only entertainment appears to come from either causing tourist delays or from the dogs that live at each site. The soldiers are stationed here for 45 days and then get one week off.

We arrived in the town of Mut in the Dakhla Oasis at midafternoon. We checked into our hotel and then a group of us went for a walk through some of the nearby fields. We then ate that night at nearby restaurant. The food consisted of lentil soup, roasted chickens, the oven fired flat bread that is the Egyptian staple (like rice in Asia, or potato in the west), and hummus.

The next morning we loaded back into the bus and drove to the next oasis of Farafra 300 kms away passing through more harsh desert and military checkpoints. We stopped for a few hours at a hotel to wait for some Land Cruiser to come and pick us up for the next portion of the trip. They arrived aroun 3:00 pm. We split up between three vehicles and headed down the highway. After a while we entered the White Desert. This portion of the desert is dominated by pure white limestone formations which have eroded into all sorts of weird shapes. They jut out from the sand in all directions. Here we left the highway and headed through the sand to view the formations. We stopped at various points to look at formations in the shape of chickens, sphinxes, mushrooms, etc. We also stopped at the sole tree (acacia) in the area to view an old well. We weren’t alone and kept coming across other groups doing safaris in the desert. The drive through the desert was interesting. The driver of my vehicle was the head driver and he seemed to like to show off. He would go careening through the sand and up and down hills that the other drivers would avoid. This can be quite dangerous as SUVs can turn over fairly easily. I believe it was more fun for him than for us as we were sitting on sidefacing bench seats and were thrown all over the vehicle. Tyson tends to get a bit motion sick and turned various nice shades of color.

Our drivers set up camp for us that night while we watched a fabulous sunset over the formations. As the color drained from the desert, the whole area took on an otherworldly feel with the white limestone illuminated by the nearly full moon. Our drivers prepared a meal for us almost identical to what we had eaten the night before. During our meal we saw a fox which came close to the camp to look for food, but left after he was given some food. (Apparently he returned later in the night while we were sleeping and actually came to our sleeping bags and sniffed around us looking for food. I didn’t see him, but had the story related to me.) The desert turned cold rapidly. We slept on mats that had been laid out to cover the sand. I didn’t sleep very much from all the snoring.

The next morning brought about more offroading through the White Desert. We stopped in one area that was covered in volcanic black stone. A scavenger hunt began for rose rocks. Some of the black stones have been eroded into rose shapes. They came in all sizes and I kept a few large and small ones. My favorite was a small round rock that had many sharp pointy spikes coming out of it. We returned to the highway and stopped at a small mountain formed almost entirely from quartz (??). The outside had been dulled by time, but a few exposed sections showed the crystalline structure underneath. We then entered the Black Desert. Here the white limestone formations gaveway to large cone volcano shaped hills covered with small black volcanic stones. We climbed one large hill to get a panoramic view of the area. Part of the hill was made of a pink gritty stone that I am sure could be mixed with oil to make a pink paint.

Arriving in Barwiti (the next oasis), we checked into our hotel. We would stay here for two nights. I spent part of the evening sitting in the roof garden reading and looking out over the mud brick buildings, palm plantations, and barren rocky mountains beyond. The weather had finally turned cool and has been nice since. The first days in the desert were broiling. In the evening, I walked around the town which was full of stores selling fruits, bread, and other items. The streets were full of donkey carts, burkaed women, and men wearing the floor length one piece shirts. As I returned to the hotel, I stopped to buy some water. I had been treating my own, but the water here comes from hot springs. It has color and smell quite sulfurous. I hadn’t yet disposed of my bottle full of this water. As I neared  the hotel with my bottles of brown and good water, the owner of a restaurant called me over. After the opening nicities (hello, where are your from, etc.), he asked if my brown bottled contained local water. I replied yes and then he asked for it. Puzzled I gave it to him and he dumped it out telling me that I shouldn’t be drinking local water as it was bad. I said that I didn’t have plans to drink it showing him the good water. Despite this, he kept my old bottle anyway I guess to prevent me from trying again.

In the morning, part of the of the group went off to see some of the sights outside of the town. As this was an extra cost, I decided to stay behind and just go to the sights within walking distance of the hotel. I was accompanied by Dan and Marsha who also stayed behind. We first went to the Golden Mummy Museum. Barwiti was a sleepy backwater town (and it’s still not exactly hopping) until someone stumbled upon a canyon full of tombs. The mummies inside date from the GrecoRoman period (post New Kingdom). The mummification process was quite bad, so the mummies faces were coated in gold leaf and had an exact likeness of the face painted over it. This was to allow the soul to identify the body even when the facial features were lost. Ten of these mummies were placed in the museum. They were in various stages of decomposition. After the mummy museum we walked to two tombs that were in town. They belonged to a rich merchant and his son. The tombs were underground and accessed through very small doors. Inside they had colorful paintings depicting various Egyptian gods and religious themes. Leaving the tombs, the three of us walked around through some of the back alleyways that wound through a mud brick village. My ego got a little boost when  Dan and Marsha said they wouldn’t have went if I wasn’t with them. I think they felt comforted that I had traveled in backwater places alone, so I must know how to stay out of trouble. I am not sure how much help I would be exactly if we did run into trouble, but it was nice to feel wanted anyway. That evening the whole group went to eat at a restaurant outside of the hotel. The food again was very similar but very good. I am starting to think that there isn’t much variety out in these towns.

In the morning we piled into the jeeps for the trip to Siwa. We first had to get permission from the military to leave. We were delayed over an hour as they weren’t happy with one of the vehicles and we had to change it. After changing the vehicle, we headed out of town and turned off onto an old road heading eastward to Libya and Siwa. We would be traversing the The Great Sand Sea. One of the largest areas of sand dunes in the world. There is a new road under construction, but it’s only finished in spots. We had a 420 km drive ahead of us. The small road ran along side the dirt piled up for the new road. The further we went along the worse the road got. It soon turned into nothing more than asphalt gravel. We spent a lot of time driving on hard rock on the side of the road instead of on it. We stopped for a bathroom break a few hours into the trip. While we went about finding a place to pee, the drivers worked on changing a tire on the lead vehicle (the one I was in). Its sidewall had a large gash on it. The spare they put on had thin sidewalls and little tread. 

After all this was complete, we set off again. Now the road began to disappear totally for large sections and we had to drive over sand with just some stone piles for markers. The sand was thick and the vehicles had to struggle for traction and you could fill them sliding in the sand. After a while, thankfully while we were on a road section, the bad spare blew out. It literally disentegrated with a loud pop. We were going fairly fast, but managed to stop. If this had happened on sand, we could have flipped. A second equally decripit looking tire was put on the vehicle. We only had two spares left. Driving on, we got to a point where sand dunes had completely covered the road. We had no choice, but to try to drive over them. My vehicle managed to make it to the top, but the rear vehicle got stuck. A group of us got out and had to push the vehicle to get it unstuck. During the course of making it over these sand dunes, we had to push vehicles three times before the road (again more like a faint outline of some remaining asphalt)finally reappeared.

We stopped for lunch at a small reed filled lake that sat all by itself in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was manmade. There was a pump in the middle pulling water up from an underground spring and a pipe that was just spraying it on the ground. It looked abandoned. The water was from a hot spring and came out of the pipe very hot.  The lake had grown to cover the road which ran through the middle. During a walk by the lakeside, Tyson managed to step into some quicksand almost sinking up to his calf. I had to help him out (taking a picture of him first.) My first attempt at pulling only succeeded in nearly toppling him over, so I had to push him back up. He managed to extricate himself and his shoes and washed off in the hot water coming from the pipe. By this time it was lunch and we had more of the flat bread, tunafish, and some sort of yogurt and vegetable spread.

We had to drive around the lake to get back to the road. We arrived in Siwa in late afternoon passing through a few more military checkpoints and remote, but stunning, desert full of dunes and rocky outcroppings. Siwa, unlike the other oasis towns, actually has a natural lake made from the springs in the area. It is about 50 km from the Libyan border. Siwa produces the sweetest dates in Egypt and is full of date palm forests. The town itself is fairly small and has a central square. Buildings are either concrete or mud brick. In the middle of town is remains of the old fortified town on a small rise. It is in bad decay and now consist of ruins made of melting mud walls. We stayed in a hotel built by the military on the outside of town. It sits in the military base. (The military in Egypt has a lot of its own money and invests it in various businesses. This, in my opinion, is a bit dangerous as having all this money outside of normal government control can make them very independent and gives them the ability to do military coups if they so choose.) The hotel was very nice, but very pink. Our first night there a photographer was going around snapping pictures of everything we were doing as they were making a brochure for the hotel. To this end, they served us dinner in the garden and had a DJ set up. Employees of the hotel got our group (pretty much the only people at the hotel) to dance with them. The music, as near as I can describe, had sort of a salsa beat with an Arabic feel to it. I did my best to perform the dancing that went along with the music. Again it called for an unusual combination of salsa and belly dancing. Parts of my body don’t move this way and took a while for my hips to even partially respond. The rest of the group also had mixed results.

Our activity for the next morning was bike riding to some of the ruins around Siwa. Tyson stayed in the hotel room as he had gotten sick (usual stomach illness). (Various members of the group have been sick at different times during the trip. They seemed to either get diarehea or some sort of cold. I haven’t gotten either so far.) We selected our bikes and headed for the Mountain of the Dead. A few wrong turns and loud front wheel blow out (not mine) later we made it. The mountain has several tombs with paintings. I didn’t go in as the entry fee was extra and I had seen enough tombs. Our next stop was the Temple of the Oracle. It was built by priests of the cult of Amman. It is famous because Alexander the Great came here to visit the Oracle after being crowned pharoah of Egypt. (There is also a ruined temple to him outside of Barwiti that the group visited on the day I stayed behind.) To reach the temple, we had to peddle a long way down a very nice road through towering palm grove plantations. The temple was not in very good shape and again as the entry ticket was extra I didn’t go in. Our final stop on the bike tour was Cleopatra’s Bath. It consisted of a large stone pool that had a natural spring bubbling up into it. Locals were swimming in it, but it looked a bit slimy, so we didn’t go in. There was a restaurant on the side where we ate lunch. They made an excellent pizza that tasted as if it had some cinnamon baked in. After we returned to the hotel, some of us walked back into to town to buy some dates to take with us, as I said before, the area is known for them. I gave Tyson some of my ciproflaxin to take as he still wasn’t any better and had been feeling ill for a few days.

We went to the bus station in the morning to take a public bus to Alexandria. (Tyson was feeling a bit better, but didn’t eat anything.)  The bus was quite nice and left only about 20 minutes late. We had to drive about four hours north to get to the main coastal road. We stopped about two hours into the trip at a coffehouse/reststop in the middle of the flat featureless desert. It was the only thing around. Astoundingly, it was quite cold and drizzling. In an area where rainfall is measured in millimeters over five years, we actually got rain. The sky cleared up, but again we encountered rain when we reached the coast. This time it was heavier. We drove for another four fours parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. Everywhere resorts where going up. When we arrived at the bus station we had to stand in the rain while we waited for the van to pick us up. We were taken to an old hotel on the river walk facing the Mediterranean. It was very nice and full of old furnishings. The room look out onto the ocean. (Well some of them did. Mine looked out onto a side street that ends at the ocean.)

After checking in, Tyson and I decided to walk along the riverfront. The city of Alexandria was founded by who else, but Alexander. He decided he wanted a new capital after he was crowned pharoah by the priests in Memphis the old capital. His ascension to the throne brought about  the beginnings of 300 years of Greek rule in Egypt ending in Cleopatra. The city today has very few remaining ancient structures. Most are underwater or under new buildings. The city stretches out along a circular harbor. Behind the sea wall is lots of square stone blocks that now protect the seawall, but looked to be part of old buildings from ancient Alexandria. It was famous in antiquity for its huge lighthouse called Pharos (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). The lighthouse was destroyed during a 14th century earthquake. It was also known as the center of learning as it had the biggest library in the ancient world (also long gone.)

Our first sightseeing stop in the morning was a catacomb under the city. In 1900 a donkey fell through the ground and much to the delight of archaelogist, but not the donkey who was dead, a trilevel catacomb was discovered. Due to rising water levels, the inside of the catacomb was flooded so all the bodies and most of the inscriptions were lost. Today, only the first two levels are open as the bottom one is underwater. The catacombs are accessed via a ciruclar stairwell that spirals downward around a central shaft through which the bodies were lowered. Once at the bottom of the shaft, the catacomb spreads out in all directions. There is a dining room where relatives would come to eat and visit with their dead. Many rooms are full of wall niches for bodies. All the ground level niches were full of water. They try to keep water out of this level, but somtimes visitors still have to wade through water. Some of the wealthier people had their own rooms with stone sarcaphoguses. One such room still had some statuary and stone carvings remaining. The best way to get a feel for what I am describing is to go watch Indiana Jones when he went into the catacombs in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” without the rats.

We then went to the Library of Alexandria. As I said, the old one is long gone and they tried to recreate a similar center for learning by building the third largest library in the world. (The Library of Congress is the largest.) It has space for 8 million book but currently contains about 500,000. It is housed in a modern building that is supposed to look like a sun rising fromt the Mediterranean. I didn’t get this impression. More impressive is that the outside wall is covered with writing from every alaphabet in the world. The inside of the library has several art exhibits. The most interesting was the exhibit housing old maps and travellers reports of Alexandria through the centuries. We finished the tour by going to the fort which sits on the edge of the harbor where the lighthouse once stood. We spent some time sitting by the Mediterranean which had a nice green color. In the evening while I worked on this blog entry, Tyson went for a walk along the harbor wall alone. (I did walk a little ways but left to work on the blog as I had free Internet access.) Upon his return he said he had been invited to a wedding and had stayed for about 20 minutes.

Today we took the bus back to Cairo. I spent the evening getting my hair trimmed. (It’s not long yet, but I didn’t want to have to get an expensive European hair cut.) I also did some toiletry shopping. Tomorrow I fly to Paris where I will spend 8 days.

The bald picture will as before have to wait until Europe

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3 Responses to “Western Desert and Empire’s End”

  1. Heidi Says:

    Belly dancing in a pink hotel? Sounds like a good time! 🙂

    Did you see any temples to Maat in Egypt? She was always my favorite Egyptian deity. The goddess of truth, order, and “things as they ought to be.” Fabulous for an OC person. 🙂

    Hope you enjoy Paris in the Springtime.

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Rosemary Cannon Says:

    Hope you are still enjoying your ride! Just wanted to remind you Grams BD is on the 10th. We are all well and working hard as usual. Can’t believe a year has gone. Take Care, Love U, Rosemary

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. Jessica Says:

    I’ll slow dance with you in the desert again, anyday Barry! Just next time you give me swing lessons I need to wear a longer shirt…still have that burn. I printed all my pictures, I’m going to have to send you some of the pics of you in the desert for your blog if you want them, just let me know!

    Have an awesome time on the rest of your worldwide trip in Paris and Iceland!

    Jessy Beaupre

  6. Posted from Canada Canada

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