Tuesday 18 January 2011
The drive from Kharga to Dakhla Oasis is perhaps the most varied and interesting stretch of the New Valley road. We left Kharga City this morning for the long drive, only after discovering that Basim, the policeman who had accompanied us around the Kharga sites, was to travel with us in the mini-bus all the way to Dakhla. There didn’t seem to be any explanation for this extra security, if that’s what it was, it was just the way it had to be. We also had a police truck escorting us out of the city as far as Dakhla Governorate.
The Arabic name Dakhla means the ‘inner’ oasis, being further west and deeper into the desert than Kharga. We drove along the road that follows the ancient route of the Darb el-Ghabari, past sickle-shaped sand dunes, yardangs that look like sleeping sandstone lions, then fields of black conical hills that seem to extend deep into the desert. These strange natural hills look like prototypes for the pyramids and I’m sure this is where the pharaohs got the idea from. The road follows the distant slopes of the Abu Tartur plateau which rises steeply to the east.
Our first stop, about 140km from Kharga, was at the rock inscriptions just before the village of Tineida, at the entrance to Dakhla Oasis. Here, large outcrops of sandstone rocks rise on either side of the road, one especially notable as being shaped like a camel. Many faces of the rocks are covered in inscriptions and graffiti. I have seen drawings of prehistoric figures on these rocks and when I first visited the site in 2003 I’m sure there were at least a few surviving ancient carvings that we could identify. Today we could find nothing that we could be sure was old. The four of us covered every inch of the largest of the rocks but could see nothing but modern graffiti. It was very disappointing. Admittedly, the sky had clouded over and the hammered and bruised inscriptions that we did find, looked very shallow without the sun to define them. The dry harsh wind that is invariably blowing at Dakhla may have eventually destroyed them, but I cannot believe that rock inscriptions which have survived thousands of years could disappear in a few decades. It is more likely that modern graffiti has obliterated much of the original prehistoric art. This is pure vandalism!
Driving onwards into the oasis we began to see vibrant green fields of rice, wheat and animal fodder and of course date palms. We passed the village of Bashendi and the site of a recently discovered temple of Amun-Nakht at Ain Birbiya, knowing that it has now been back-filled to preserve it so we didn’t stop. We took a detour up the sandy track to Ismant el-Kharab, the ancient town of Kellis. The gafir here told us that a team was working at the site and though he offered to let us look around we didn’t feel it right to disturb the archaeologists.
The escarpment to the east of the road looked amazing as we contnued our journey. The palest apricot sand-covered slopes reflect dark, constantly-moving cloud patterns and look like they have been airbrushed in above lush green fields. We began to see men and women wearing the distinctive conical woven sun-hats traditional to Dakhla who were driving donkey-carts along the road, at last suggesting that we were nearing civilization. Dakhla has a totally individual flavour unlike any of the other oases and a wonderful feeling of tranquility.
Our next stop was near the village of Balat at the Old Kingdom necropolis of Qila el-Dab’a. It was only early afternoon but the clouds were thickening and the wind was raw and cutting as we left the parked minibus to meet the gafir. We bought our tickets for 25 LE and were shown around the site by a guard. There are remains of seven or eight large stepped mastabas here, most belonging to Dynasty VI governors of the oasis. When we reached the mastaba of Khentika, who governed the oasis during the reign of Pepi II, we descended a steep flight of stone steps into the beautifully painted and restored subterranean burial chamber. We also visited another restored tomb, or at least the sarcophagus, of a man named Bitsu which I hadn’t seen on my last visit. Some of the other mastabas can be seen only as low walls that mark out the area of the superstructures.
We would have liked to visit Ain Asil, the town site associated with the necropolis, but the track from Qila el-Dab’a was covered with sand and none of us especially felt like walking the few kilometres to the site as we were freezing by this time. Back in the minibus we drove on to our destination, the town of Mut, capital of Dakhla Oasis, and to the Mut 3 Hotel. Last time I stayed here a friend had dubbed it the ‘Mudhole Hilton’ because of its hot spring, one of several in Dakhla. At the hotel we were given chalets around the spring, which is in the form of a circular pool, though the brown sludgy colour could easily put anyone off going for a dip. Today however, the water from the spring was turned off so no-one was allowed to use it anyway. We were told that there had been rain in the oasis in recent days and the farmers who controlled the spring had turned it off to conserve the water as it was not needed for the fields.
We all had dinner in the main hotel building which is a short walk down the road. It didn’t look like there were any other guests today. Later, in the darkness, Sam and I sat muffled in our coats near the pool and watched giant bats sweeping over the water after insects and piercing the otherwise silent night with their high-pitched peeping noises.