Journal: Thursday 20 January 2011
Goodbye to Mut and on with the next and most exciting leg of our journey. When we left Dakhla at 9.30 in the morning the weather was dull, with dark mountainous clouds scudding over the horizon to either side of the road. The four-hour drive from Dakhla to Farafra took us up over the escarpment and onto a flat and fairly featureless plain. Bordered by the surrounding mountains, we saw many fields of crops irrigated by huge water sprayers – high-tech agriculture for Egypt. We stopped for a much needed cup of coffee at a tiny place called Minqar, about 200km into our journey. By then the sun was hot and we sat outside in the shade while several tiny scrawny tabby cats scampered about and one very well-fed ‘English-looking’ black cat sat presiding over them all. Many locals stop here and several 4WD vehicles were parked on the side of the road while their passengers and drivers sat drinking tea and playing dominoes. On my map I saw that there is a bir, or well, some distance from the road, which must be why there is a building here in the middle of nowhere.
Another 100km on the road and we arrived in Qasr el-Farafra pulling up outside the Hotel Badawiya. We had expected that our police escort Basim would have only come with us as far as Dakhla, but he was now in Farafra with us, having squashed into the minibus with all our luggage and slept most of the way. As I glanced over to him I noticed his gun laid on the seat beside him, his finger was loosely curled around the trigger and I hoped we wouldn’t hit any big bumps in the road. I also wondered what Basim would do tonight as Sam was staying at the hotel in a beautiful suite (she said she’d spent too many nights in the desert already and refused to do it one more time), while Fiona, Malcolm and I were camping in the White Desert. It would be interesting to see how he could be in two places at once. As it turned out, he stayed in the town – a night in the desert was obviously beyond the call of duty.
We had pre-arranged with the hotel for a guide and a Toyota Landcruiser to take us on our expedition and before long our transport was ready, loaded up with canvas, blankets and drums of water on the roof and sleeping bags and food inside. The three of us were allowed only a small bag each. Our guide/driver was called Mustapha and after saying hello he set off straight across a sandy track and back out onto the road. I was last here in 2003 and since then the White Desert has become a National Protectorate with very strict guidelines for driving and camping and is now known as White Desert Park. Certain routes are marked out because tourism was destroying so much of the environment here. I have to say I did feel guilty for contributing to this, but wanted to see it one more time and for Fiona and Malcolm it was the whole purpose of this trip to Egypt. When we turned off the road there were several vehicles already stopped in various places and my first thought was that we were not to be allowed very far off the road. However, Mustafa was just showing us the main places of interest that all tourists are taken to in the Old Desert, such as the Mushroom Field, The White House, the Cave and other famous spots I had seen in other people’s pictures.
Soon we had left the main track and were bumping our way over the sand past weird alien shapes and brilliant white boulders seeming to grow out of the surface of the desert. The rocks are sculpted by harsh winds and rough sand so they are constantly changing shape. The formations are given descriptive names such as ‘mushrooms’ or ‘ice-cream cones’ and some look like chickens, camels, hawks and pigs. In some areas it felt like we were travelling through a strange polar sea because the white chalk surface of the desert is rippled like ice-capped waves.
Each of the guides has his own favourite spots for camping and Mustapha took us to a remote location far away from other people, into the New Desert where he had a hidden stash of kindling and twigs for a campfire. He stopped the Toyota close against a rock and we all piled out. The sun would soon be setting.
While Mustapha put up a windbreak to form a little camping area and laid out rugs and sleeping bags, the three of us began to explore. Here in the New Desert the landscape becomes even whiter and the boulders crowd together and are higher and larger than in the Old Desert. As the sun went down the landscape began to turn amazing shades of vivid pink and burnt orange. On the horizon we could see a row of giant rock figures, cloaked in black shadows with the fiery sun outlining their shapes. Fiona, who has travelled the world extensively in adventure mode, was speechless.
As the darkness gathered around our little camp the smell of cooking drew us back. Mustapha had got the fire going and a large pot of chicken and vegetables was simmering nicely, along with another pot of rice. A little low table had appeared and bread, mugs for coffee and fruit and biscuits were laid out ready for dinner. We sat on our sleeping bags and enjoyed a real feast. Our only light was the camp fire and a candle in a sawn off plastic water bottle, which slowly melted as the candle burned down, keeping us amused.
Mustapha had asked if we would like to sleep in tents, but we all preferred to be out in the open, however cold it got. After a delicious dinner we went off for another walk. The desert now pitch black, lit only by the stars and the rising full moon, we were careful to note the direction in which our camp lay. It would be very easy to get lost here and be doomed to wander the desert all night. As the moon rose the surface of the land and the surrounding boulders took on a pale eerie light and the rocks looked like ghosts glowing from within. Finally, around 9.00pm we crawled into our sleeping bags that were laid out in a row. We must have looked like mummies lying side by side. A desert fox visited us for a while, investigating scraps of left-over rice and a few chicken bones that Mustapha had thrown aside. It took me a long time to get to sleep, the moon was now so bright that it seemed like a flashlight shining in my face, but even so the stars were more brilliant and numerous than I’ve ever seen. The desert is immensely silent at night with few birds or animals to disturb the peace. But in the far distance a long way from us, another group of campers were playing music and drumming late into the night and it sounded as if they were just on the other side of our rock, so clear was the air.
I woke with the morning light and Fiona urgently whispering “Quick, the sun’s coming up!” and crawling out from my sleeping bag, hurredly piled on several extra layers of clothes. Dawn is the coldest time in the desert – it’s hard to believe just how cold it can get and my fingers were numb as I fumbled with my cameras in a race to capture the sunrise. Malcolm had woken up too and we all went off for a walk, leaving Mustapha still sound asleep. Then the sun rose rapidly and washed the desert clean for a new day to begin. As the sand and the rocks turned a beautiful delicate pink we investigated animal and bird tracks – it seemed like there was a lot of activity around us during the night after all.
Eventually Mustapha woke up and began to get the fire going to make coffee and we were grateful to huddle round it now to warm ourselves. Breakfast consisted of flat Egyptian bread and jam, fruit and wafer biscuits and lots of hot coffee. All too soon it was time to break camp and we helped Mustapha to re-load the Toyota. He told us that in his day job he teaches philosophy in Farafra and had to get to work on time.
We were all subdued on the drive back through the desert to Qasr el-Farafra, awed by the night’s experience and not yet ready to leave this wonderful place. Back at the hotel we took turns to borrow Sam’s bathroom for long hot showers which at least made us feel human again, before the long drive back towards Kharga.