Beyond the Pharaohs’ tombs, Egypt’s oldest and most alluring secrets lay in its extraordinary geology.
At 3am, Egypt’s desert landscape glows a dazzling, almost luminescent white. Under a full moon, a crazy cluster of chalk outcrops scattered throughout the White Desert National Park reflect the lunar glow so brightly that it seems as if dawn has awoken our Bedouin campsite early. Australia has many magnificent desert vistas, but this surreal vision has no peer.
The desert has its grip on Egyptians. It’s more than just a geographical truth; at least 90 per cent of Egypt is classified as desert. It’s not even due to the insidious creep of the golden Sahara sand, which infiltrates its way to the streets of Cairo. Rather, it’s the solitude of the big open spaces west of the Nile that prove so seductive. Such splendid isolation is a welcome antidote to the cluttered chaos of a heaving city that accommodates up to 30 million people on any working day. Strangely, only an hour away from Cairo’s choked streets, where at least six lanes of traffic are forever trying to squeeze through three lanes of bitumised highway, there is not another person to be seen among the sand and rock stretching to the western horizon.
To enjoy the best taste of this, our 4WD safari veered off the highway onto sand running through the White Desert, about 570km west of Cairo and deep in the belly of the eastern Sahara. Classified as a national park in 2002, this area is startlingly remote. Covering about 3000 square kilometres and located 45 kilometres north of the 2000-person oasis town of Farafra, the national park is at the eastern fringe of a desert that covers 2.8 million square kilometres across northern Africa.
It’s easy to be mesmerised by the brilliance of bleached chalk formations that were once an ancient seabed, whose floor is now etched into a clean, white wave pattern by the billowing Sahara sands. The scouring becomes more dramatic as we near our evening camp spot before sunset, encircled by contorted chalk outcrops. Imagination starts to run wild – one looks like a chicken, another like a fox – but these white chalk inselbergs are from the cretaceous period, 60 million years ago, when a shallow sea covered this bedrock of limestone. Now, after a long history of erosion, fossilised shells are evident in the windswept chalk beds.
Our guide, 42-year-old Helal Selim of Cairo, recalls when campsites would be dotted every 300 metres through the White Desert – before the revolution that unseated President Mubarak in 2011, which subsequently saw tourism take a catastrophic dive. Now, we are the only overnight campers within eyesight.
Because of the erratic nature of tourist bookings, Helal has commenced other businesses and doesn’t guide often, but says the desert remains his favourite place. Similarly, our driver, 38-year-old Maher of Bawiti township, has hosted desert tourism treks for 15 years, but recently started working at a roadhouse to ensure a wage. These are hard times for desert folk, yet our journey still begins and ends with expansive meals in Maher’s modest mud brick home, in the reception room. He is unfailingly polite, hospitable and generous.
This doesn’t mean he won’t drive like a demon across the dunes. To reach our overnight destination, we pass through the Black Desert, its eroded mountains coating golden sand with flecks of volcanic dolerite and ironstone, and the Crystal Mountain, with coarse outcrops of crystal tinted in every imaginable colour. Occasional depressions in the landscape sprout outcrops of green. Oases such as Ain Khalfa abound with date palms, while a trough captures water constantly bubbling from a natural spring. More than 100 such artesian fountains are dotted across this region.
The big attraction is the chalk formations and as we wander to explore them at sunset, a feast is prepared over an open fire – ful (Egypt’s famed fava bean stew) and grilled chicken marinated in zaatar, teamed with salads of tabbouleh and feta with tomato and cucumber.
It attracts the interest of desert wildlife. A timid desert fox draws near in the darkness, looking more like an anxious bilby than the snappy European foxes. Our leftover food is left a distance away from the campsite, which the foxes nibble at quietly through the night. Other creatures can also be observed in the vacant expanse – falcons in the sky, a herd of feral camels in the distance.
There is no need for a tent; that would be too restrictive, our guides insist, robbing us of the luxury of such a big night sky. Instead, an elaborate fabric printed with brilliantly coloured geometric swirls is placed as a windbreak beside the Land Cruiser. A vivid quilt of woven rags becomes our groundsheet, and the sand makes a comfortable mattress that absorbs our forms.
We are most fortunate, says Helal, because there is a full moon and no wind. The giant orb sits as a big bright light in the night sky – so bright that moonlight reflecting off the surrounding limestone rouses me long before dawn. For a long time I just sit and stare, amazed to experience complete stillness and peace, and understanding why Egyptians hold this desert so dear to their hearts.
Smart Traveller currently advises a ‘Reconsider your need to travel’ warning for the majority of Egypt and a ‘Do not travel’ warning for areas within 50kms of Egypt’s border with Libya and Governorate of North Sinai. For more info go to smartraveller.com.au