Tuesday 11 November 2003
The stretch of desert between Dakhla and Farafra is probably the least interesting landscape on our trip so far, just a long ribbon of tarmac without even a decent sand dune to break the monotonous endless vista to either side of the road. To the west the road is bordered by the edge of the Great Sand Sea, a vast wilderness of high wind-blown dunes that march all the way to Libya and beyond and reputedly where Cambeses lost his army. This road is relatively new and Farafra once would have been cut off from Dakhla, even in living memory, except for several days journey by camel. After about three hours drive we stopped at a cafe on the road-side where the road bends steeply back on itself and where a small community exists around a tiny oasis with a source of water. The place is called Abu Minqar and we were glad to be out of the minibus and to have coffee and make use of the facilities for half an hour. Abdul was outraged about the price of a cup of coffee here, but the rest of us were grateful. Back on the road it wasn’t long before we wound our way up onto the escarpment that heralded our long descent into Farafra and from the top of the hills there was a great view looking back over the desert.
Farafra Oasis is arrow-shaped and as the road gradually came down into the depression we could see the far distant high hills that bound both sides to meet in an apex to the north. This is the largest and lowest of the oases, famed for its gardens and was recorded as a famous source of dates and wine since early pharaonic times. As we drove towards the town of Qasr Farafra there were many small villages and farms, no doubt part of the government’s New Valley Project – the greening of the desert.
Eventually we pulled up outside the Hotel el-Badawiya, owned by Hamdi and Saad and where Sam has been before. Abdul went off to arrange our night camping in the White Desert while we sat in the hotel lounge drinking more coffee and browsing in the little shop which sold crafts made in the oasis. Many of the items were made by ‘Mr Socks’ from knitted camel wool – caps, scarves, socks and decorative embroidered items. I bought a beautiful fine gauzy cotton scarf and a couple of pairs of camel socks in natural muted shades of brown. We’d been warned that it gets very cold at night in the desert. Although I really wanted to go off and explore the old town we were told to stay put because we had to leave as soon as everything was ready. This was a bit annoying because it all took a couple of hours and I could have had time for at least a short wander, but we were eventually ready to go. Our drivers Mohammed and Abdul stayed in the hotel where they would at least get a good night’s sleep and so did Tom, who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the trip as much as the rest of us. He is a bit of a loner and doesn’t fit into the group no matter how hard we try to include him in everything. All he could think of was getting to Cairo and several times we had to dissuade him from leaving the group and getting on a bus. He had no interest in seeing the White Desert. I don’t know why he came on this trip at all.
We left the hotel at 3.45pm, later than we had hoped, because there was some problem arranging our 4×4 transport and we had a fast drive towards the White Desert, arriving just before sunset. The thing that amazed me first was how crowded the camping area was. In the place where we first stopped, every rock seemed to have a group camping in its shade. There were camels, four-wheel drives and groups of tourists wherever we looked and tyre tracks criss-crossed the whole area in every direction. I could see why conservationists are worried that the White Desert is being destroyed by tourism and felt quite guilty myself for being part of this. We drove further on to a quieter part of the desert and by the time we all piled out of the Landrover the sun was disappearing quickly.
While our driver Shahban and our guide set up camp in the lee of a large rock the cameras were clicking away. I set up my tripod but wasn’t really hopeful of getting any good pictures, having to guess at the metering on my broken Nikon in the rapidly fading light. In the end I resorted to my compact just to be sure I’d get something worthwhile. The desert was stunningly beautiful with strange rock formations all around us that looked like giant heads, silhouetted against the deepening orange light, but in a very short time the light had faded to blue then black as darkness and silence crept in. From our camp we could see no other people thank goodness. Only a herd of camels in the distance, tethered and resting for the night, stopped us from feeling quite alone.
Our guides had rigged up a canvas windbreak against the vehicle and a fire of wood and twigs was already blazing. Thin mattresses, covered by blankets and sleeping bags were laid out in rows on the fine powdery sand. As dinner was prepared on the open fire we watched the stars begin to appear one by one in the black velvet sky then a huge round yellow moon, a little past full, peeped out from behind a high rock. None of us spoke much, it was enough to lie back and enjoy the moment, the silent vastness of this space and the amazing vista of star-studded sky. There were several shooting stars that arced from horizon to horizon, seeming so close in the unpolluted sky that we felt we could reach out and catch them. As the moon rose higher and brighter the stars gradually began to fade and the nearby rocks were lit as though from inside with a pale eerie light. It was magic!
Dinner was a simple but delicious meal. A chicken was cooked in a large pot on the fire, with potatoes and vegetables added to it, with another pot of rice and mountains of bread. We ate and talked in low voices as we sat close to the fire and the temperature dropped rapidly. After they had cleared up the meal and scoured the cooking-pots with sand, our guides melted away to sleep inside the Landrover and we all eventually crept into our sleeping bags on the piles of blankets. I lay awake for a long time watching the sky and trying not to listen to Kevin snoring loudly next to me. We were all lined up cocooned like mummies in our warm wrappings.
It was not so warm next morning as we woke up before sunrise. In the freezing air I wandered off to find a private rock where I could dig a hole to use as a toilet. I was aware of the saying that if a rock in the desert affords any kind of shelter, something has usually got there before you and I noticed numerous tracks of small animals, birds and insects that zig-zaged across the sand. The pre-dawn light was glowingly bright – white tinged with the palest pink and I saw for the first time why this area is called the White Desert. The chalky white rock formations all around me produced some very odd shapes. Tiny weathered peaks that looked like frosting on a cake dusted with powdered icing sugar were scattered over the pale orange sand. Taller rocks, like little islands, rose in the form of mushrooms with narrow stems, many of them already broken off, eroded over the years by the action of wind and sand. The early light was crystal clear and the fabulous colours in the sky and reflected on the rocks changed every few seconds as the sun rose higher. I climbed up onto a large outcrop about a kilometre away from the camp, where I could look down and see the rest of my group, huddled in scarves and blankets and preparing to leave. After taking a last few photographs I reluctantly hurried back.
We were taken back to the main road on a hair-raising ride over the desert at high speed, climbing steep rocks and toppling over the top in the Landrover. Shahban was showing off his driving skills, but I wasn’t impressed. It was certainly exhilarating, but this is exactly the kind of behaviour that is destroying the desert landscape. Back at the hotel we all felt like we had crawled out from under a rock and couldn’t wait to make use of the hotel’s hot showers, in a newly built block behind the main building. These, followed by a good hearty breakfast went some way to warm us up. It was certainly a night I will never forget.