Egypt, Day 6: The Sahara

A group our size needs permission overnight in the Sahara from the Egyptian ministry of tourism. Our tour coordinator applied for a permit, but didn’t get one. This doesn’t deter our camping plans. It makes things a little more interesting though. We have to get a little clandestine.

As a group of 50, we’ve been traveling on a single bus. If you’re American, Australian, or British, and in a large group, you get a security detail.  Armed guards in lead cars with sirens is not exactly low profile. So we’ll be leaving in smaller groups of 7 or 8 people by van. We rendezvous in the hotel lobby and checkout at 5:30 am with all of our luggage . Single vans pull up to secret us away.

It’s a five hour drive to the Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, about 230 miles from Cairo. I sleep soundly for most of it. About halfway in, we stop at a truck stop in the middle of the nowhere with nothing around. Local men linger at the tables inside, smoking and watching us gather snacks from the shelves and queue up at the register.

After a few minutes, frantic honking comes from outside. I was not aware of it at the time. Later on, one of my companions told me. Our drivers want us to get back to the vans. The longer we stay, the more risk. Someone could be tipped off and we could be targeted for robbery or worse.  I haven’t felt that I was in jeopardy since we’ve been here. Maybe I am naive. I consider the stories of ambush or kidnapping and my stomach turns. I suppose the Egyptian government has a legitimate interest in keeping a group of Americans from wandering aimlessly through the Sahara.

I fall back to sleep fitfully and wake up when we near the oasis. We stop at a couple of squat brick buildings edged with palm trees. Beyond them, the desert spreads empty to the horizon. A generator hums in a pump house, sending a clear stream through an open culvert in the ground. The stream runs into the next building, through the room where we eat lunch.

The walls and floor are concrete and the roof is thatched. Colorful blankets line the floor, and low-slung tables line the perimeter of the room. Lunch is laid out on a table in the center. There’s a hot dish with stewed tomatoes and onions flecked with egg, a cold  tuna fish with shaved carrot, tomato cucumber salad with yogurt and cheese, and pita bread. There’s also raw sliced tomato and cucumber, potato chips, and fruit for dessert.

The Bedouins who live here prepared the food. I sip some of their strong tea, which they call “Bedouin whiskey” and we load our gear into a fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers. There are 12 of them. We take the blacktop highway we came in on. Workers are busy constructing a parallel set of lanes, but for now we share three lanes with oncoming traffic and the occasional pile of construction materials placed haphazardly in the road. It isn’t clear who has the right of way most of the time, and there are a couple of tense moments staring down oncoming trucks.

Our driver, Yassir, doesn’t speak much English, except for a phrase or two. He is quiet, but his playful personality quickly reveals itself by his driving. We make a left off of the blacktop into the desert. Other groups are ahead, but out of sight. Yassir takes the set of tire tracks before us as a mere suggestion, preferring to careen over bumps and between obstacles. He blazes his own route over the dusty ground and takes quiet satisfaction in pushing the limits of his truck. I sit shotgun and occasionally squirm. We are kids again, delighting in the speed and Yassir’s mechanical acrobatics. With dumb grins on our faces, we giggle around perilous turns and shout “YES!”

First stop is Crystal Mountain. The sand forms peaks and rocky crags peak out. We start to see crystals in the sand at our feet. On closer inspection, the crags are made entirely of crystals. I gather the clear shards and climb the peaks to look out over the parked trucks below. We fall into the cool sand, eager at the chance to relax. The sky is cotton with strings of steely gray.

We load up again and pass out onto a flat expanse of sand. The trucks pick up speed. Quickly. Sand flies from the tires and the trucks pitch like boats in the water. I watch the other trucks swarming around us. The needle pushes past 70 and I hold on tighter.

Cresting a hill, the valley opens broadly before us. On the desert floor far below, stone domes touch the sky all the way to the horizon. They are magnificent. It is one of those views that suddenly render you insignificant. There’s timelessness here where eons pass in silence. Majestic, dramatic, and peaceful. We park in the sand between two rock ridges and climb up to look out over the valley. We take pictures and have a foot race all the way down, where we build a human pyramid. It feels nice to get my body moving, those endorphins pumping through my system again.

We stop at a peaked dune and slide down on snowboards. I have a good run, but the sand puts up more resistance than I would have thought. It’s evening by this point. Through the haze and clouds, the sun is a white disc over brown ridges.

Our guides stop at a desert spring that is 2000 years old. A pipe carries water from under a clump of palms into an ancient stone cistern. I wash my feet and splash cold water over my face and arms. Our drivers step to the side and bow down for evening prayer.

The terrain changes. We pass over sand speckled with what looks like gravel onto ragged rock. It gets dark and the headlights show boulders outside getting larger. Yassir cuts between them at breakneck speed. He weaves the tires over and around. The fenders of the Land Cruiser slide by the rocks unharmed, and when we reach camp, I can definitively say that this has been the most enjoyable car ride of my life.

Some Bedouins are tending a fire when we arrive, and sections of chicken spit fat over red coals. Our drivers circle the wagons with their trucks. They lean wooden poles against them and attach colorful tapestries to form a wall. They are efficient and waste no movement. In 45 minutes, they have a long dinner table set that runs the length of the wall.

We each get a piece of the chicken over rice in a metal bowl. They serve a brothy soup with orzo pasta and a squeeze of lime, roasted potatoes with tomatoes and onions, and, of course, cucumber and tomato.

After dinner, we gather around the fire in a large circle. The Bedouins bring out drums and a flute and begin to play. My buddy Victor treats us to a belly dance. They start to dance, first with each other, and then pulling us up one by one. I’m reticent to jump in. I would rather stay on the sidelines, but it happens. A man pulls me to my feet and we circle the fire. The flames dance as well on the rock faces around us. I stomp around the circle and stab at the air with my arms to the beat of the tribal music.

The galaxy is cast across the night sky in the glittering gems of the stars. I drift off to sleep with dusty feet and the music still hanging in the air.

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