Explore Egypt’s Saharan Wild Western Desert
It's not a pretty sight. The stark landscape of Egypt's desert burns my retinas, forcing me to squint as I scan the quivering, molten, 40°C scene before me. Besides my two friends, our jeep driver, there's not a soul around, nor is there a signal that life could survive here - even if it wanted to. Instead, ochre sands meet dark smatterings of iron ore from the region's volcanic rock formations. It's a surreal corner of the earth almost entirely untouched by mankind.
We're deep in the Western Desert, which makes up two thirds of Egypt's landmass. To put that into perspective, we're driving through a jigsaw piece of the planet that's roughly the size of Texas. It's a place of extremes, holding both the Black Desert, with its dark-tipped dunes, which we're driving through now, and the surreal chalky White Desert, which we'll reach later on.
Considering the entire region lacks a single river, I'm flummoxed when we pass a lone tree, which looks to be standing stubbornly in defiance of all odds. But several hundred metres later all becomes clear as we drive up to an oasis of biblical proportions. Breathing life into the sandy panorama around us is Bahariya, a 2000sq/km emerald blanket of palm trees which is one of five oases in the Western Desert. It's the first one we've come across and we're relieved to escape the pressure cooker of our jeep when we stop in Bawati, its main settlement. This is a place with serious historic credentials - not least i the fact it's home to the thrillingly named Valley of the Golden Mummies.
We quickly slug freezing cold cokes to bring our body temperatures down to lukewarm before our tour guide, Nelly, leads us to a simple, unremarkable-looking doorway. A robed Bedouin appears and pushes it open, gesturing for us to step inside this huge burial site. The shade is welcome - even if it's only marginally cooler than the scorching midday heat outside. We tiptoe into the gloom and with some trepidation head over to four caskets inside. There is absolutely nothing by way of tourist-pandering introduction - no signs, plaques, nothing, just the still figures. I bend over one of them and a gaping gold death mask stares straight back, with its fine regal features indelibly etched in flawless gold paint that belies a thousand lifetime's worth of decay. These four mummies, along with 90 others, have been excavated from a 6.5km strip of desert several miles out of town.
This huge cemetery was discovered in 1996, when a donkey stumbled - literally - on an ancient well, prompting archaeologists to conduct a full-scale excavation of the area. It was worth their efforts, as these delicately preserved bodies are among an estimated 5000 - 10,000 mummies, including nobles and kings, that sit in tombs deep in subterranean sediment. It is possibly the largest mummy necropolis in Egypt - some of the mummies found so far wear golden masks and have magnificent designs of ancient Egyptian gods on their chests, while others are coated in plaster, covered with linen or lie in terracotta sarcophagi.
Despite that huge amount, fewer than 100 mummies have been successfully unearthed because of restrictions around their rate of decay once above ground. I feel amazingly lucky to have seen them here, not to mention excited about the next 48 hours in the desert.
Back in the truck, the driver cranks up the Arabian hip-hop and proffers a fresh bag of sun-sweetened dates. "They're straight from Bahariya's palms," Nelly explains, bobbing her head in time to the thumping bass. "Good energy for sand boarding - this is one of the best spots in the Sahara to try it."
This is news to me - I hadn't banked on any adrenalin sports in the middle of the desert, but it seems our tour group have decided otherwise. So with that, our driver pulls a hard left and swerves confidently on to the sand in the direction of some giant 100m dunes a couple of kilometres ahead. Well, when in Rome, I tell myself.
Our jeep whips through the powdery sand like a knife through warm butter and we're there in a matter of minutes. Boards in hand, we trudge clumsily up the dunes, our feet sinking into the soft sand - it's murder on the thighs. It takes a Herculean effort to reach the top, but when we do, we're rewarded with staggering views of the empty Saharan panorama. We are the only ones here - which I have to admin totally compensates for the lack of ski slope-type lifts, although they would have come in handy.
I'm first up kicking off my flip-flops and promptly burning the soles of my feet on sand that's been baking since sunrise in 40°C and then some. But I ignore the pain and, stepping on to the sand board, launch myself over the crest of the dune, sliding down the slope at top speed with sand spraying out behind me. The wobbly ride finishes when I fly head first into a great big bank of the yellow stuff. At least hurting yourself is (more or less) impossible here.
Dignity abandoned, I wake up the dune for a second go, bending my knees much lower this time like a surfer, so gravity and stability work in my favour. It's great fun, even if completely exhausting in these temperatures.
When we get back to the jeep. I immediately plunge my feel into the giant icebox containing our supplies, the skin already puckering from what felt like walking on hot coals. I'm in serious need of healing, so it's a good job we're only an hour's drive away from Crystal Mountain, the next stop on our itinerary. Although its origin is disputed, many experts say it has a sub-volcanic vault dating back to the Oligocene age (that's a whopping 23 million years ago). This natural wonder is composed of glimmering calcite and anthracite crystals, plus a limestone cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites created by what Nelly refers to as "the sun's alchemy and lots of hydrothermal action in between the different layers of chalk, limestone and coal". Apparently, the negative ions in the rock particles have healing properties which soothe the body and restore balance and inner calm. I lie down on top of the prickly crystals to test this theory and after a two-minute rest I'm left feeling inexplicably revitalised - it is as if a New Age-masseuse has just placed some exotic healing stones on my skin, but multiplied by a thousand.
Our journey continues along a road that takes us lower and lower into the Farfra depression, a landmass which used to sit entirely under the sea. White milky outcrops and bizarre rock formations flash past the jeep windows like enormous, polished chess pieces, each one more trippy than the last. It's like a scene straight from Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, only with Nevada swapped for the Western Desert and considerably less paranoia. But it's certainly surreal.
Now mid-afternoon, the sun is starting to go down, so our driver hits the pedal hard - we want to reach the site we're going to camp at before sunset. Then, 15 minutes later, we turn off the main road and park up beside three guides swathed in traditional galabeya robes waiting to take us to camp, or "the middle of nowhere", as Nelly calls it. Her smile suggests this isn't going to be a straightforward camping trip, so I mask my apprehension by smiling back (silently hoping she's stashed some anti-venom for the rattlesnakes that I've heard come out after sundown around these parts).
There are camels waiting for us, and we mount them with comical difficulty. They stand up hind legs first, so anyone not hanging on gets thrown forward on to the sand below. We all somehow manage to cling on as the camels lurch upward, before starting a slow, rhythmic plod into the White Desert for the approaching sunset. The heavy silence, gentle rocking from the camel's steady gait and the overwhelming scenery makes the ride feel tantamount to meditation.
Everywhere I look, natural sculptures buffed and polished by harsh desert winds present themselves; giant ice cream cones or mushrooms, flat-topped inselbergs and even a large bunny rabbit rise out of the sedimentary rock. It's like being in some kind of super-sized, psychedelic Alice in Wonderland, made all the weirder by the knowledge this landscape was once at the bottom of the ocean.
The light starts to fade and as if brought to life by the sun's energy, the rocks begin to shift in hue from purple to lilac to pink to indigo. The irony is not lost on me that only this morning I regarded the desert as barren nothingness. Only now, I'm starting to understand that it is in fact a living, breathing environment.
Dismounting from our one-humped vehicles, Nelly and the other hosts immediately set up a simple, yet comfortable camp, ingeniously created by turning the camel saddles upside down as makeshift sofas and unravelling blankets. They finish up just in time for the next natural highlight on our agenda: watching the full moon.
With our camp set up, and tranquillity at a peak, there's only one thing to do: kick back under the stars for some desert downtime. The scent of supper being carefully prepared by one of the Bedouins and fresh hibiscus tea brewing on a crackling fire stirs my stomach. The full moon's milky light is more than enough to see by, but soft enough to allow the hundreds of thousand stars above us to take centre stage. Watching them, I feel a rare sense of total contentment. Perhaps it's due to a lack of phones, deadlines, social media and other distractions, but I'm totally lost to the cosmos above us. At that moment, a sneaky desert fox takes advantage of the quiet to pop out from a rock and sneak some scraps from our camp.
As soon as it's ready we devour a delicious, slow-cooked stew of chicken cooked in what must have been 20 different spices. As we eat, three shooting stars burst overhead and I silently thank my good fortune at finding myself smack bang in Nelly's "middle of nowhere". Glancing at her over the embers of a fire that's keeping the rattlesnakes at bay, I now get exactly what she was grinning about.