This piece is reprinted with thanks from the new book by my old friend and ICA International colleague John Burbidge, titled “More Than Halfway to Somewhere: Collected Gems of a World Traveler“.
As I wrote for the cover, in this book:
Burbidge leads you on a whistle-stop world tour of travelers’ tales rich with exotic locations, colourful characters and often extraordinary adventures. These are gems indeed, mined from a life lived as journey and sparkling with compassion and humour!
The book is now available, just in time for Christmas, from John’s site wordswallah.com.
I was not involved in the writing of this, but I was very much involved in the adventure. I first visited Bahariya probably in the first of my six years in Egypt with ICA MENA. After befriending Reda (aka ‘Desert Fox’) early on, we led a series of jeep trips together from 1993-95 for groups that I recruited from the lively social network of the Cairo Hash House Harriers.
The ‘never-ending book’ that John was editing at the time of this, my last trip in 1996, was “Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society”. John and I had been corresponding extensively on this as I was writing my own masters dissertation at the time, “Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK”.
Do not take this trip…
- if you prefer things to go according to plan
- if you don’t like sand in your food, hair and underwear
- if you object to going unwashed for days on end
- if you’re overly sensitive to heat and sun or local food
- if you’re not prepared to dig jeeps out of sand, or perhaps wait until dawn to do so
- if being thrown around in the back of a moving vehicle is not your idea of fun
- if you’ll be upset when, after three days in the desert, you get back to your oasis hotel to find there’s no water in the bathroom…
This was the disclaimer that trip organizer, Martin Gilbraith, offered those contemplating the five-day excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert following the ICA International 1996 international conference in Cairo. It was enough to turn away most conferees in favor of trips down the Nile or snorkeling in the Red Sea, but for 20 adventurous souls — young and old, men and women from 10 countries — it was just the turn-on we needed.
Were we disappointed? No way. Not only was the disclaimer fulfilled in detail, it was surpassed on several fronts. But the lure of the desert’s ever-changing landscapes, the warm and generous welcome of its inhabitants, and the unputdownable spirit of our Egypt guide team made the disclaimer fade into insignificance.
Before we headed out of Cairo in two minibuses we picked up our last but possibly most important passenger, Reda Abdel Rasoul.
“I am Reda, zee Desert Fox,” exclaimed this vibrant young Egyptian with the most engaging smile and thick black moustache. His exuberance masked the fact that he’d been in Cairo to visit his seriously ill brother and had only just decided to make the trip.
Reda was the local organizer of our desert safari. His slick, photographic business card described him as a ‘histary’ teacher but like a number of other educators in desert oases he turned to tour guiding to supplement his meager income. He lived in Bawiti, the largest town in the Bahariya Oasis with a population of 18,000.
Having a history teacher as our guide was an unexpected and valuable bonus. Egypt’s ancient roots as a land of pharaohs, pyramids and the fertile Nile Valley is well documented but the vast Western Desert that occupies much of the country is less well known. Its harsh terrain is not conducive to human settlement but people have managed to eke out a living there for eons. It’s a place where myth and history have intertwined, such as the puzzling disappearance of the 50,000-man Persian army under Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, in a sandstorm in the 6th century BC. No trace of this massive force has ever been found.
Throughout the 365-kilometer journey to Bahariya our minds were on more immediate things, as Reda patiently answered our endless questions. Why don’t those telegraph poles have wires connecting them? Why are there railway stations in what appears to be nowhere in particular? Where do all those vehicle tracks into the desert lead? What is the Arabic word for…? And more frequently as the hours progressed, how far is it to the nearest rest stop?
The answer to the latter was simple. There is only one stop between Cairo and Bahariya, almost half way. As we entered the cavernous refreshment room we were greeted with ecstatic cries of “Martin! Martin!” Recognizing our British expat leader from many previous trips, the operators of this lonely outpost were effusive in their welcome. Clearly we were in friendly territory. The cold drinks and snacks were delightful, the chance to stretch our legs most welcome, and the toilets were, well…better left to themselves.
Our first clue we were approaching landfall in this endless sea of sand and rock was the police checkpoint near the mining town of Managum, site of Egypt’s main source of iron ore, which is transported to Cairo by rail. Some ore never made it that far, given the number of damaged wagons that littered the tracks along the way. We saw our first vegetation in five hours at Managum when we entered an avenue of oleander bushes and eucalyptus trees so reminiscent of Australia. The entire landscape had a distinctive ‘outback’ feel to it, especially those parts of the land down under that are sandy desert. It increased the sense of connection I’d already begun to feel with this vast, seemingly empty terrain.
Shortly after Managum we drove through a gap in the escarpment and descended into an oasis. For the first time I began to understand what an oasis is. Far from the popularized Hollywood image of a cluster of date palms around a spring and a pond, oases are vast depressions in the desert plateau formed as a result of the combined action of wind, tectonics and water. They are near or at sea level where the massive reserves of underground water flowing north from central Africa come to the surface. The 2,000 square kilometer Bahariya depression is the smallest of the four major oases in the Western Desert. It is surrounded by several tiers of high escarpment which enclose a valley full of hills and mountains, some conical, some mesas, and others folded like the layers of an ancient garment.
One of the most dramatic parts of the Bahariya oasis is the White Desert near Farafara. Entering this area was like walking into a Salvador Dali painting. The numerous bleached, wind-eroded limestone sculptures gave the appearance of a bizarre collection of pieces on a gigantic chessboard. Arriving late afternoon, we were fortunate to experience the White Desert at three of its most enchanting moments — sunset, moonlight, and sunrise. Wandering among this surreal setting, I found a flat-topped piece about waist high and long enough to accommodate my body. I stripped to my underwear, hoisted myself atop the rock, and after checking for scorpions and other creatures, lay down on my towel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the evening star appeared in a seamless transition. I wanted to capture and hold on to this precious moment but that was not to be. The air temperature quickly dropped, reminding me it was time to get dressed and rejoin the group.
While the days were a test of endurance with long drives in intense heat, the evenings were like a reward for our labors. Our first night in the desert we camped at Bir Ghaba, the Well in the Forest — ‘forest’ being a highly relative term. Situated on the old caravan route to Cairo, this popular well was shrouded in a grove of eucalyptus trees adjacent to a campsite operated by Bawiti’s ironically named Alpenblick (view of the Alps) Hotel. Later that evening when the buzz around the campfire had died down to hushed whispers, I grabbed my towel and swimsuit and headed to the well. It was empty and silent, except for the torrent of water gushing out of the massive pipe at the deep end of the pool. As I lowered myself into the 38°C water, the moon appeared over the horizon in the most star-studded sky I had ever seen. The desert breeze, an ever-present companion, wafted through the trees. As I floated in the highly mineralized water I unloaded the six-day conference I had just come from, the never-ending book I was editing, and the long drive from Cairo.
We had two other opportunities during our trip to explore desert springs and wells. Although there are hundreds scattered throughout the oases, most are known only to locals and used by them for bathing and washing. Although some springs have cool water, many are hot, often severely so. One spring in Dakhla Oasis is said to be able to boil eggs. We tried our own egg boiler in Bahariya Oasis on our last night in the desert. With water at 45°C, Bir Ramla is the hottest spring in the oasis. While most of our group decided to pass, a few daring souls put their toes in the water to test the temperature. Shrieks filled the air. It reminded me of the copper cauldron in which we cooked crabs in when I was a boy. I took a deep breath and sank into the steaming water. While I’ve always handled hot water better than cold, this pushed me to my limits. After the initial shock my body adjusted to the intense heat, but I soon joined the others on the sidelines. I didn’t want to become like the proverbial frog that boils itself to death while gradually adapting to the rising temperature.
Another spring captured my imagination in a totally different way. Known as the Magic Spring, it was identifiable by a lone clump of palm trees in an otherwise barren landscape. Our arrival at the Magic Spring came after a particularly harrowing ordeal. When we arrived at Bahariya, we transferred from our two minibuses into three Toyota jeeps to go on off-road excursions. A fourth jeep was our supply vehicle. On our second afternoon we were behind schedule and keen to arrive at our destination before sunset, so two of the drivers entered into a friendly race. The lead driver tried taking a short cut and strayed off course. As he started to descend a steep dune he lost control of the vehicle. It plummeted down the slope and rolled over before landing on its side. The other jeep arrived at the top of the dune seconds after, and seeing what had happened its driver managed to bring it to an abrupt halt.
A front-seat passenger, our oldest member, suffered cuts and abrasions to his head but others escaped injury. Built to withstand this kind of treatment, the jeeps came through in better shape. I was in the third vehicle, considerably behind the other two. We knew nothing about the accident, but when the faint sound of a horn kept repeating in the distance our driver sensed something was amiss. He entered into an intense discussion in Arabic with his companion but didn’t divulge anything to the rest of us. When we joined the others and learned what had happened, a dramatic change of mood came over the whole group. After a brief discussion, the Egyptian crew decided to put 19 of us into two vehicles, while the supply truck went ahead to set up camp and the other jeep was retrieved from the bottom of the dune. By now it was pitch dark but remarkably the drivers managed to find the Magic Spring with nothing but headlights, their memory and instinct to guide them.
There was none of the usual singing and dancing that night, although a hearty meal of roast chicken and rice, along with an extra ration of beer, helped raise our spirits. The mood was subdued as we nursed our wounds and reflected on what we’d been through. We had just had a hard lesson in the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of this beguiling place. As we huddled together under camelhair blankets beneath a blazing sky, the silence of the desert enveloped us. Conversation died away as the last embers of the campfire glowed in the dark. Fennec foxes, hedgehogs and other animals that frequent this place stayed away that night. The Magic Spring cast its spell over us and sleep became our welcome friend.
Most evenings weren’t so restrained. Reminiscent of scenes from the film The English Patient, we would gather after dinner around the campfire, sip mint tea or down a mildly warm beer, and let the show begin — the kind of show in which we were both audience and actor. To loosen us up, our Egyptian friends would ply us with rousing renditions of local folk tunes. The real act began when Mohammed, alias Baghdadi, took centre stage. With black, loose-fitting, drawstring pants and buttocks made for hard seats on long trips in fast-moving vehicles over rough terrain, he demonstrated the art of male belly dancing. Pounding the sand with his bare feet, he could move his middle body in gyrations that would rival those of many a professional female dancer.
Once Mohammed led the way, Reda and others followed. First among the foreigners to shed his European reticence was Cristian Nacht, who in his other life was the president of one of Brazil’s largest steel construction companies. Clad in a flowing gray galabiya, Cristian tossed propriety to the wind, and with his feet and hips in sync, shuffled around the campfire like an old pro. After he’d broken the ice there was barely room to move, as the more timid among us took to the sand and made it sing.
While some found a way to escape this public celebration-cum-humiliation, there was one occasion when this was not possible. It was our last night in the desert before returning to Cairo. We had traveled all afternoon, run out of fuel, and arrived at Bawiti tired, dirty and starving. After freshening up at the Hotel Alpenblick — where the water was running this time — we headed to the home of our host, Mohammed Ahmed el-Bayumi. El Bayumi was the proprietor of one of Bawiti’s most popular restaurants, El Ghash (the Little Donkey). El Bayumi’s reputation extended far beyond Bawiti or Bahariya Oasis. We had been warned that before entering the hallowed halls of his mud-floor establishment, we should be able to count to ten in Arabic or expect a clip over the ears. Should we master that feat we would be prime candidates to marry his sons or daughters, most of whom were in his employ.
But we had not been warned about El Bayumi’s habit of blowing a shrill whistle to command the attention of his customers, like a sergeant-major drilling new recruits. Was this some ancient Bedouin custom or El Bayumi’s way of asserting his dominance over this corralled band of foreigners? We first encountered this practice after our long drive from Cairo when we had lunch at El Ghash. Seated on the floor, we were eating and chatting among ourselves when El Bayumi strode into the room, let forth with his whistle, and asked in brusque Arabic, “Do you like my food?” Under the circumstances there seemed only one possible reply. We all agreed it was terrific.
Although we were now primed to expect the unexpected, none of us quite anticipated what El Bayumi had in store for us on this last night. The feast on the rooftop terrace of his sprawling home was a much grander affair than our earlier restaurant meal, with endless plates of barley soup, vegetable stew, roasted chicken, rice and hummus, along with plentiful supplies of beer. Our Egyptian guides decided it was their last chance to put their captive foreigners through the hoops. One by one, Baghdadi chose each of us to join him on the dance floor and get our bodies moving in time with the Bedouin music booming out of a ghetto blaster. Now and again a donkey would join in the festivities by braying loudly.
Next day as we contemplated our return to Cairo and our different countries, each of us reflected on this five-day excursion into what the Greek historian Herodotus called the ‘Islands of the Blest.’ Indeed, we had been blessed in a number of ways — the rich variety of time-tested landforms, the ever-welcome presence of water in the most surprising places, the engulfing silence of the starry desert nights. Most of all, we had been blessed by the effervescent spirit of our Egyptian colleagues. One experience captured this for me more than all others.
On our second day in the desert, after a quiet lunch in the shady palms of Ain el Ris (Spring of the Source), our convoy headed up the escarpment that marks the southern boundary of Bahariya Oasis. Although dunes cover 40 per cent of the Western Desert, they are not dominant in this oasis. This was our first encounter with these deceptively picturesque but potentially destructive desert landforms.
Of the four vehicles, the one I was in was the Cinderella of the group. Since it lacked a radiator cap, we had to stop frequently to let it cool and refill with water, which it consumed in endless quantities. On this occasion, the other three vehicles had reached the top of the dune and were watching us flail away in the sand. I couldn’t tell whether their intermittent cheers were urging us on or lording it over us. Mahmoud, our driver, would thrust the gears into four-wheel drive, stomp on the accelerator, and let it fly. In Sisyphean style, we would make it almost to the top of the dune, peter out, and roll back down, only to have to repeat it.
At our fourth attempt we made it. Without hesitating Reda grabbed his drum and Mohammed his flute and goaded this motley group of sunburned foreigners into action. “Dance? Did you say dance?” It was Zorba the Greek, Egyptian-style. It was time to rehearse that great Islamic expression, insha’ allah — if God wills it. Clearly, Allah was willing a little celebration.
Some say the people of the Western Desert have a greater sense of humor and a more light-hearted spirit than inhabitants of other parts of Egypt. Those we encountered during these five days certainly possessed that and more. Their willingness to embrace life’s mysteries and intrusions, its highs and lows, its blessings and curses was something to admire and emulate. It has, no doubt, enabled them to survive in unbelievably severe conditions for tens of thousands of years. It is not surprising, perhaps, that several of the world’s religions emerged from places like this. If only a little of their spirit rubbed off on us during our brief encounter with the Western Desert we were so much the richer for it.
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