A Travellerspoint blog

EGYPT 3 - Western Desert & Siwa

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6 JUNE - Dakhla Oasis

It was to be a long drive through the desert from Luxor to Dahkla. Soon after leaving the fertile Nile plains behind us we entered a desert region which is named after foreign places, ie. Algeria and Baghdad.

I guess, in the case of Bagdad, it beats going to the actual place!
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Before setting off for the day we had to register with the Tourist Police. There were police checkpoints every 50 – 100kms and we had to stop at and give our details at each one. Here's a photo of one of the many.

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We stopped briefly for a quick falafel sandwich lunch (and sheesha) before hitting the road again. We had two drivers who shared the drive – one of them getting a hotly contested speeding ticket!

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Wahid told us that the Dahkla’s old city, Mut, a labyrinth of alleys and decomposing mud brick buildings, was hardly worth a visit but it is interesting to note that there is ancient rock art in the area that shows that the region was once the home to all of Africa's big game, including the elephant.

I had a game of football with some local kids before dinner - they were so cute, trying to share the flat ball but not really wanting to. Their parents came out to watch and the young girl kept a close eye on me, peeking out from around a corner, throughout dinner.

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We had dinner at a locals joint which was the best kofta I had in Egypt. And cheap, my word, so cheap. Give me a packed to the rafters local place where there is a high turnover of food rather than a tumbleweed tourist restaurant any day.

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7 JUNE - White Desert Camp

I woke up this morning to the sound of donkey’s braying rather than the call to prayer and car horns. It was nice to be out of the city.

I don’t think I could ever get sick of having a freshly made falafel sandwich for breakfast. This one came with a thick layer of fuul – mashed up broad beans mixed with lemon juice and spices. Delicious.

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About 20 minutes after leaving Mut we came to the town of Al Qasr (which sits on the Dahkla Oasis too).

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Here we visited the fortified medieval capital where a local man seemingly popped out of a wall to show us around. I was amazed by the ancient mud brick architecture which is in pretty good condition considering it hasn’t been lived in for 100 years – although there are huge colonies of bats that call it home. We visited the Ayyubid Madresa and the Mosque of Nasr El-Din as well as some houses.

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On the way out I ducked my head into a blacksmiths and watched him hammer steel nails. It was mighty hot in his little cave.

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We then say good bye to Dahkla Oasis and continue our journey into the Western Desert. We said goodbye to the bus (and our bus drivers) at the town in Farafra Oasis where we stopped for lunch.

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It turned out that we had to wait here a few hours until the heat abated somewhat and we could head further into the Western Desert by 4x4.

We were waiting in a covered area but there were no fans. We later found out that it hit 52 degrees that day. Although I wasn’t doing much moving I was essentially sitting there stewing in my own sweat. Lovely.

At last we got ready to set off (although it didn’t feel much cooler to me).

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Mohammed was at the helm, our compulsory ‘tourist police’ riding shot gun and Andrew, Lu and I bouncing around in the back seats. This area borders Libya in the west and Sudan in the south.

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We didn’t drive for long before we left the road and drove into an area of the White Desert covered with fossils and incredible geology. The rocks were small gravel colored shaped like balls and cylinders. The color contrasted beautifully against the startling white limestone covering the ground.

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We then drove through the most famous area of the White Desert National Park with its fantastic rock formations carved by the wind.

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This is Lu being a mushroom…

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The color of the formations changed as the sun got closer to the horizon.

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We set up camp in the midst of these huge white rocks.

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Mohammed set about making dinner and I set the table.

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Then I took myself off for a wander to watch the sun set.

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There were one or two other camps which were off in the far distance but, other than that, it was just us surrounded by these incredible rocks with a blanket of stars overhead.

We ate a simple Bedouin dinner and threw our scraps to the little native foxes which came out of the rocks. They are small, as far as foxes go, and have huge pointed ears and big bushy tails. There were quite a few of them and they got more and gamer as the night went on. We were warned to put our shoes inside the car as they have been known to steal them – they like to chew on the leather apparently. They were too quick for me to get a photo.

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We set ourselves up on mattresses on the flat surface of the closest rock and watched the foxes through the darkness and spotted shooting stars.

We slept under the stars, on mattresses, up against the 4x4. It was still warm when we went to bed but we pulled on the skanky blankets provided (I’ve slept under some horrible blankets in my time but these ones win the gold medal). I was glad we did as I woke up in the middle of the night to sand swirling all around. Wahid told us all to cover up – we were in the middle of a sand storm! It was a weird experience – you couldn’t see the rock we had been sitting on earlier which was only 10 metres away. The sand got into everything and everywhere - I had little sand dunes build up all around my body, falling between the gaps in my blanket to find its way into my ears, nose, mouth, eyes (sand continued to come out of my eyes for a week) and all through my hair. I washed my trousers afterwards and found that my pockets had mounds of sand in them. And still the wind blew and there was no escape from the stinging sand. I fell back into a restless sleep.

8 JUNE - Bawiti

I was woken the next morning by a beetle making its way over my face. The sand storm had passed and it was eerily quiet. A fox came up and sniffed my toes before heading around the back of the 4x4 and dragging off the rubbish bin. I got a couple of early morning snaps of the White Desert – I think I’d expected it all to look a bit different after the sandstorm but, of course, everything was as it had been for thousands of years.

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This is Mohammed packing the roof of our 4x4 - note how tough my bag has to be to deal with varied conditions.

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We set off again and saw another of the White Desert’s attractions – Crystal Mountain (which sounds very romantic and is what it says it is although it’s probably more a hill. But you walk around and there are crystals littering the ground. It’s incredible).

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We passed some olive tree plantation attempts - not sure how fuitful they'll be under the circumstances!

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Driving on we then came to the Black Desert which is what it says it is - another strikingly beautiful landscape with its unique volcano shaped mountains.

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We stopped off at a natural spring in the middle of the desert where our tourist policeman had a game of catch with the kids.

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Then we arrived at the oasis township of Bawiti which is the major town in the Bahariya Oasis. We had a wonderful view from the roof of our hotel – the area is surrounded by picturesque mud brick villages and sparkling natural springs reticulate the endless date palm groves.

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9 JUNE - Siwa Oasis

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Today we had a five hour drive by 4WD across the desert. Our destination? One of the most intriguing, beautiful and most isolated towns in the world, Siwa.

Before setting out we grabbed a falafel sandwich and I took some snaps of town life from the window of the car.

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The drive started out on a paved road but this quickly turned into a pot holed track (which was easier to drive off than on) and, then, petering out to nothing at all as the sand gobbled up everything in sight.

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It was truly spectacular scenery which constantly changed as we passed flat nothingness, rocky mountains and the rippled windswept dunes of the Small Sand Sea.

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At one point we stopped for the loo - the formations we squatted behind were full of fossilised shells.

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Within view of of Siwa we stopped at a natural spring with a small hut at the edge. Mohammed made us a simple lunch and Wahid smoked sheesha while we watched the boys (who worked at the nearby water bottling factory) ride up on their motorbikes, jump in the water and then zoom off again.

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Huge saltwater lakes add to the spectacular scenery as you drive in to Siwa.

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Near the edge of town we passed Jebel de Cruel – jebel is the Arabic word for mountain and while the word ‘cruel’ has none of the English connotations, the side of the mountain was covered with a falling down mud brick village. In this harsh climate, ‘cruel’ felt apt. Wahid didn't think it worth stopping but I was intrigued by the place - gives me a good reason to return.

And then we pulled into the centre of Siwa.

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Isolated by hundreds of kilometers of desert the Siwa Oasis seems to spring out of nowhere with its lush, green date palm trees glistening like a mirage in the surrounding barren and inhospitable Western Desert. The Siwan Oasis is arguably one of the most picturesque and idyllic places in Egypt and is set against the magnificent backdrop of eroded hills and a sea of sand dunes. More than 300 fresh water springs sustain this remote desert oasis, feeding its 300,000 date palms, 70,000 olive groves, hundreds of fruit orchards and an incredible variety of bird life.

Siwa remained virtually independent from Egypt until the late 19th century, sustaining a unique culture. Far removed from the rest of the country, Siwan’s have their own distinct culture and way of life. Siwi, a Berber language, is spoken alongside Arabic. Siwan women, rarely seen in public, dress in costumes decorated with coins and must wear a shawl that totally covers their face and upper body. Nowadays it’s mainly older women who wear their traditional clothes of silver jewellery and complex hair braids. Life for Siwan women is very conservative and traditional and taking their photograph is a no no. Tourists must be sensitive to the Siwan traditions and dress modestly (women must cover their legs and upper arms, and must wear more than just their bathing suit while swimming). The town is alcohol free and public affection is considered offensive.

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The town was once a major caravan stop between Cyrenaica (now Libya) and Sudan. The Siwan’s are related to the Berber’s of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and the current population stands at 20,000 people.

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Our hotel was extremely basic but I had an incredible view over the main square and one of Siwa’s main attractions - Shali, the vast, maze-like ruins of the mud brick fort which overlooks the town.

After resting in the midday heat, Andrew, Lu and I made our way up the top of Shali to watch the sun set. The buildings here, made with a mixture of salt and clay, were in full use until early last century, when three days of torrential rain washed most of the structures away. It looks like melting ice-cream or honey comb which you’ve put your tongue on.

I found that the sun was in the wrong direction for me to take nice sunset photos so I made my way through the labyrinth streets of Siwa to a mosque which sat on a hill looking over Shali.

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There were some men sitting on the steps outside the mosque and we had a halted conversation while I shared my sunflower seeds with them and they, in turn, shared their dried date and sugar mixture with me.

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There was a small area behind where I was sitting and I went to walk through it to take a photo of the other direction. “No, no, no”, they cried. I was about to walk over the graves of the mosques most holy men! The graves in the Middle East are generally only marked with an upright stone and, unless they are en-mass, it is very hard to know that they’re graves. Boo boo averted I got my shot and then watched the melted ruins of Shali change color as the sun set.

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We ate a delicious dinner at Abdu’s Restaurant which was to become our home away from home while we were in Siwa.

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Three lovely brothers run the restaurant (on behalf of an aging 'uncle' who sits in the corner the entire time keeping an eye on things) – one brother is in the kitchen, one front of house and one waiting tables. The one who waited on tables wore kohl (black eyeliner) around his eyes. Kohl is traditionally used to help with the glare of the sun, mainly by camel herders or those working outdoors, but is used more for aesthetic purposes now.

Last thing Wahid did was organize a young Siwan man, Yusef, to be our donkey taxi driver around the Siwa Oasis sites the following day.

10 JUNE - Siwa Oasis

Lu, Andrew and I had planned to breakfast at Abdu’s but it turns out that the guys slept in a little bit so we ended up getting green bananas and juice from a corner store.

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We waited for 40 minutes for Yusef and his excuse, when he arrived, was that his donkey had run away! We weren’t sure if this was necessarily the case but we gave him 10 points for the most creative excuse for tardiness that we’ve heard in a long time!

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Off we trotted to the fascinating Mountain of the Dead - where for centuries Siwan's buried their dead.

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We had alot of fun seeing the sites with Yusef and Siwan Fox
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Then the mysterious 6th century BC Temple of the Oracle, where Alexander the Great sought confirmation that he was the son of Zeus.

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Here is Jebel de Cruel taken from the Temple of the Oracle over the oasis.

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Next stop was Cleopatra's bath – a beautiful bathing pool in the middle of the oasis teeming with dripping, diving, shrieking little boys.

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There was also a smaller pool which was a bit warmer and used by the little kids - there was a man from Jebel de Cruel there with this little ones, using a plastic bottle as a swimming aid.

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We had a fresh juice at a loungy bar owned by Walid, a friend of Wahids and the guys at Abdus and we watched Siwans go about their daily business.

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We travelled at a steady pace in our donkey carriage, stopping to get snaps at the pigeon houses (used for fertiliser).

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We had a race with another donkey cart back into town - Siwan Fox was the clear winner!

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Back in town, Lu and I visited Siwa House, a traditional Siwan House with items used every day and wonderful wedding outfits.

Andrew, Lu and I were picked up from our hotel at 4pm in a 4WD by Ahmed. We were heading out into the Great Sand Sea.

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We had a blast tearing up those dunes – it was very windy which meant that the sand was at its stinging best. One grain of sand can kill a camera and I was, again, grateful for the waterproof/sand proof bag which I'd bought along. We went over a couple of seriously steep dunes (one of which we got stuck at the top of – at which point Lu started having a bit of a panic attack so that was the last of the really big dunes for us).

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I love the desert

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Then we visited a lake in the middle of the sand which would fulfill your romantic vision of what an oasis should look like. It was filled with fresh water and there were fish in it which nibbled on our legs as we waded.

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Next stop was a hot spring which we sat beside and drank chai (tea) under the palms as the sun slowly made its way towards the horizon.

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There were plenty of opportunities to take photos as we zoomed along - the shadows lengthening on the moutains of the Great Sand Sea.

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Ahmed showed us fossils from when the area was at the bottom of the sea - there were unopened oyster shells and full fish skeletons.

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Then Ahmed found the perfect dune for us to have a go at sand boarding.

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It was very windy and the sand was flying directly into our faces which made it hard to see. Still we had a lot of fun – there were a couple of stacks but Andrew got the real hang of it, waxing the board up to get extra speed and speeding straight down the slope. Lu was successful too!

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We drank tea in the middle of the sand, sheltered from the wind by the car, while we waited for the sun to set and the fire flickered as the first stars appeared.

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It was around 9pm when we returned from the desert and we sat down at our regular table at Abdu’s for dinner. I had a delicious vegetable shoshoka (a baked dish of mixed vegetables with an egg on top). I had a look in a couple of the handicraft shops at the traditional Siwan baskets, embroidery and jewellery. Was hoping to find a water bottle holder that I’d seen a lot of the locals with but, sadly, they’re not in high demand from tourists so I would have had to get one made. I definitely would have done this if I’d had the time – they were so unique.

I returned to Abdu’s and had a couple of (sneaky) vodka and oranges with Wahid, Ali and Walid who runs the juice bar at Cleopatra Springs. Such nice guys. Wahid was meant to go out to the springs with the guys but wasn’t feeling great so pulled the pin around midnight. (I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I am feeling sook”. I asked what he meant by sook and he said that it was an English word. I told him that a sook is someone who complains that they’re sick but that they’re not really very sick – and that I didn’t think he was being a sook. He then said he just felt sad, sad in his heart, like he needed a hug. Awwwww. I asked if he’d like me to give him one and he said, “La, la, la (no, no, no) – not in public”. Ah, yes, sorry, Muslim. He ended up taking himself off at around midnight but I mention it here as it was an interesting little dialogue to me and a reminder that everyone gets sad sometimes and it’s ok to ask for a hug.

Posted by skyewilson 21:48 Archived in Egypt Tagged blogsherpa Comments (2)

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