Ok, time for the rundown on our trip this weekend to the Black and White Desert, located like 7 hours South West of Cairo. The trip started early Thursday morning, when we had classes canceled so we could get on the bus at 7 am and head out before traffic in the city got really bad. As I expected, I fell asleep pretty quickly with the help of my iPod and a neck pillow, so when I woke up a few hours later, I was presented with a fairly new view: endless desert on both sides of the only road in sight. It was very reminiscent of my family’s Out West Adventure vacation in the past, only this desert had more dunes and our driver didn’t speak English. I remember thinking during that vacation that we could have done 100 mph the whole way on the deserted road without a problem, and I think our driver had the same thoughts in his head. While i didn’t feel unsafe at any time, the relaxed traffic laws of Cairo certainly apply to all of Egypt, and our drivers had no trouble passing each other or using both sides of the road when there was no traffic heading the opposite direction. We arrived at our hotel for the night, more of a motel in the middle of nowhere, with about a dozen rooms and a natural-fed pool with questionably colored water. It was nice enough, but you could tell that the place didn’t get many guests, and we soon learned that many of the bathroom doors were broken and couldn’t be opened from the inside, after one or two people got trapped inside. After dropping off our stuff we loaded into some 4×4 Jeeps and set off for the numerous sites we had to see that day.
Our first stop was the museum of golden mummies, which held some mummies recovered from the are during the roman era of Egypt, which means that they were decorated in ancient Egyptian themes, but with a Roman style, which to me is pretty strange looking. The museum was tiny and you could tell that it didn’t get a whole lot of tourist attention, but the mummies were interesting, and actually the first actual mummies that I have seen so far in Egypt. Next we headed to some tombs of Roman traders, which included more Roman style art, with really well preserved bright paint colors. After exiting the tombs we headed to a nearby ridge, where we got a good look at the greenery of the oasis in which we were staying.
This is a panorama of the Baharya Oasis, a welcome sight after hours of driving through more or less barren desert.
Next stop was a natural water source, a spring that pumped out water at about 40 degrees C (104 F). They used this water for irrigation of crops, as well as washing. During the time we were waiting, a few people, probably nearby workers, came up to wash their hands, faces, or feet in the water. After we got some bottled water, we headed out to our next stop, a man made lake in the oasis, with plenty of salt in the water.
While this lake wasn’t as impressive as the sea at Alexandria, it was a nice break from all of the desert and especially from the cement jungle of Cairo. A few people did some wading in the lake, but I contented myself in just standing nearby and checking out the awesome sight. The next stop was my favorite, because I got to practice my long-unused hiking and mountain climbing skills.
This is the view from the top of English mountain, after a nice little hike where I went all lone wolf and made sure I was the first one up so I could have a little time alone at the summit. The view was amazing; with little patches of palm trees and towns among huge expanses of sand and rocky plateaus. Though it was a warm and sunny day, the wind, stronger in the desert than Cairo, kept us nice and cool, and everyone took some time to wander around and enjoy the cloudless view.
I even got the chance to get some deep thinking done while looking out over the landscape. Although I have fallen out of the habit of going on camping trips due to general college business, being stuck inside a huge city like Cairo helped me realize that I really miss heading out into the wilderness and climbing to the top of some giant rock face. This whole trip was a good reminder of the good times I have being in the wild, especially in contrast to some of the high maintenance girls who couldn’t seem to go a day without somewhere to charge their iPhones or more than half an hour without asking pointlessly detailed questions about what we would be doing next.
After the mountain we headed back to the hotel for dinner and to relax for a while. Some of the other guys took the opportunity to swim in the pool for a bit, where the water turned progressively more and more dirt colored, even turning their skin a little orange. The night was pretty uneventful; we ate and then walked to get some shesha before heading to bed fairly early.
The next morning we moved out of the hotel and headed farther south, where we took some time to head off the road, literally. Out of nowhere the Jeeps turned off the pavement into the desert itself and started driving us across dunes until we reached a nice spot where they stopped and let us out to play for a while in the really soft sand.
I ran up the dune so that I could be sure that I made the first footprints. I had decided to ditch my shoes and was able to run around like I was at the beach. I’m sure I made a fool of myself by running and jumping around in the sand, but I liked having the chance to be out in the open and maybe show off a little to the people who were struggling to work through the thick sand.
I got to do even more thinking here, mostly about how it is cold and gross back home, while I had beautiful sunshine and sand to play in. Sorry about that… After some fun times on the dunes we went for some more adventurous off roading, with some pretty steep inclines and quick descents from the dunes. Our Jeep had two bench seats along the sides of the back, so we got to do plenty of bouncing around as the car worked its way through the thick sand.
We headed next to an ancient volcano which gave the name to the Black Desert. The area is full of rocks formed from the cooling lava and the sand has a much darker color than other areas we visited.
At this site we went on a little hike through the valley between two volcanoes, which painted a very Lord of the Rings-esque scene, at least for me. We were all starting to get fairly hungry as we headed through the pass and were pretty excited that the next stop was a cafeteria area for lunch. It was a nice open room covered with carpets and cushions to sit on around low tables. An interesting aspect about the place was that it had a small irrigation channel running through it from the natural spring right beside the building.
In which I went swimming! The guide told us that this spring was a good place to go swimming, with nice warm water and lots of sunshine, though it felt a little weird to be super touristy in the water that they use for their crops. After we got out some European tourists came and did the same thing, so then it didn’t seem so weird.
After lunch we headed out to a neat site called Crystal mountain, which had tons of little shards of alabaster all over the place. It’s not like there was a lot to do here, but it was a pretty site and the ride out through the desert was nice and interesting.
Some of the alabaster was still set in some formations, while the majority were just lying around the hill that we got to climb on.
Possibly the coolest part of the trip was the next section, in an area called Agabat, accessible through a narrow pass and a fairly steep downhill, for which we had to get out of the jeeps and walk. At a few points during this part our jeep got stuck in the thick sand and had to do some tricky maneuvering to get free. Unfortunately I started to have some stomach problems during this part of the trip, so I wasn’t able to enjoy the area completely, but it was still a weirdly beautiful area.
This part of the desert had this surreal, surface of the moon, feeling to it that was really awesome.
I don’t really have a good way to describe this place, so some pictures are gonna have to do. There are more pictures of everything here.
Our last scenic are was the White Desert National Park, where there were tons of strange rock formations left over from when the entire area was underwater. Most of the cool stuff we saw was during the ride, but we stopped at some of the most famous landmarks, like the rabbit rock.
By this point in the day we were all pretty exhausted and filthy from the sand blowing everywhere, so we were ready to call it a day when the guides said that it was time to head back to the cafeteria, where we had a delicious dinner of fire grilled chicken and some authentic music and dance before turning in for an early night in sleeping bags in the big carpeted area. I think some of the girls were really intimidated by the idea of sleeping in a group on what was essentially the ground, but I can just say that it was much more comfortable than a lot of places where I have camped in my life.
As we headed back into the city the next day I was really glad that I had chosen to do this optional trip, because I think the constant city atmosphere was starting to weigh on me. It was a good break to get me recharged for the next two weeks before spring break!