The Beauty Of Egypt’s White Desert

Once you leave Cairo and the satellite towns and cities and head into the desert it becomes a barren wasteland, nothing to see but the parched earth covered in sand ranging in colour from a golden beige to a dark brown and black with no vegetation visible.  I arrived in Mandeesha, the community built around an oasis, very lush with thousands of Date palm trees.   I checked in to the hotel and then went out again to say goodbye to my driver that brought me from Cairo. Unfortunately I locked my key in my room and none of the master keys would open the door.  My guide and the hotel clerk worked on the door for about half an hour, eventually breaking the door jamb to get back inside.  I grabbed my things and we headed out to the nearby underground tombs that had the most vivid, colourful paintings I have seen yet, on all the walls of these underground caves- no cameras allowed – but the hieroglyphics and paintings were not as well done as those I had seen in Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria and Aswan.  We went to a small museum that had several mummies on display, all from one family. Again they were not as elaborate as those I had seen in the Cairo Museum, the death masks were made of limestone and covered in gold leaf and paint rather than solid gold.  Still it was so interesting to see these bodies preserved after thousands of years.  Instead of visiting more tombs I had opted for a visit to one of the hot springs, basically a concrete pool of water with a large pipe gushing into it.  The water was warm but not hot.  We soaked in that for about half an hour, got dressed and went to the home of my driver Mokkid in a nearby village. We had some sweet tea, grapeleaves stuffed with rice and  breadsticks coated in sesame seeds which we dunked in our tea.  I also got to meet his 3 young sons before we headed out to the nearby English Mountain, named for the British soldiers that were stationed there in the 17th century. We climbed the rocks and I was awestruck by the view of the oasis and the nearby mountains, including Pyramid Mountain shaped like… a pyramid.  We headed out to the salt water Oasis to have tea and watch the sunset,  a great way to end the day watching the orange glow reflected on the palm trees and the water.

The next day, every kilometer we drove through the hot, dusty and barren desert I kept wondering, ‘is this the white desert? Is this what everyone talks about (I don’t see the uniqueness)?’  But as we suddenly came over a ridge, there before me was the most spectacular natural beauty I have ever laid my eyes on.  Huge mountains of rock carved away by years of sandstone blasting them into various abstract shapes, with huge patches of what looked like snow across the landscape.  It reminded me of my Canadian winters in the Rocky Mountains, huge drifts of snow blown up the slides and down the slopes of the mountains, only this wasn’t snow! If you had told me before I saw it, I wouldn’t have believed it.  I knew it couldn’t be snow because the sun had pushed the temperature to well over 40C and we had no AC in the jeep so it was like a blast furnace.  I got out and walked down the sandy slope taking hundreds of photos as the jeep continued to the bottom and the shade from one of the giant rocks.  We stopped for some hot tea before continuing our journey. As we drove on, the landscape was soon dotted with thousands of white outcroppings in the sand looking alien and at the same time like they had been sculpted by an artist into masterpieces.  My mind was spinning as I tried to figure out what each one looked like, some already named like the Mushroom and the Hen, or the Sphynx, but I came up with names for hundreds of others.  My favourite was a mushroom shaped rock that resembled an alien spaceship ready to blast off.  I was a little surprised to discover the pure white patches were not made up of soft sand but solid limestone rocks created by a prehistoric sea that covered the desert leaving behind these massive rocks and caves.  I even found a few sea shells scattered around the rocks, in the middle of the desert, hundreds of kilometers from any ocean or sea.  We stopped to check out Crystal Mountain and if you picture a clear glass mountain like you’d see in a Disney animated movie, you will be disappointed.  At first glance it appears to be just another beige coloured rock but as you get up close you see the rock is actually made up of quartz crystal, catching the reflection of the sun overhead.  The Black desert is the opposite of the White Desert, created from the mountains of black basalt from the ancient volcanoes worn away by millennia of erosion and the remnants scattered across the sand, leaving everything a dark great colour.  I’m sure the pharaohs must have seen this part of the desert and used it as a template for their pyramids.  Huge lava cones are everywhere and if you didn’t know better you would swear they were actual pyramids.   We set up camp in the White Desert at sundown surrounded by all the pure white stone sculptures… a magical place.  Almost immediately a desert fox came around, moving in closer when he realized we wouldn’t be a threat.  He was still nervous but became more brave as we sat around the campfire, eating a mound of leftovers we had set out for him.  Another fox came closer and that’s when the fight was one.  But instead of the usual territorial battles in the animal world this was more like… an argument. The pair laid next to each other on a large flat rock and proceeded to spar verbally, screeching out their arguments in a language only another fox would understand.  Eventually the argument ended and the one who had staked out his territory first was the winner and came back to eat some more food.  We were joined by four others from the same tour company just out on their own excursion.  We had a delicious Bedouin dinner of chicken and vegetable stew, rice, salad and Pita, before we crowded around the campfire smoking Sheesha (flavoured tobacco smoked in a huge waterpipe) .We talked, laughed and smoked for hours and I didn’t want the night to end.  When did I ever dream that one day I would be sitting around a campfire in the Egyptian Desert, smoking the sheesha and listening to Bedouin folk music (more like Techno but played on traditional instruments and telling stories handed down for generations). Eventually we all crashed but I have to say, sleeping under the stars is not as romantic as it sounds.  First there is sand everywhere so your skin becomes raw from any movement, second are all the flies that buzzed around all night, as well as the ants (I woke up with bites all over my legs).  One of the biggest problems though was the moon, as beautiful as the three quarter moon was earlier in the evening, as I tried to sleep it was like a giant spotlight in my face. Still I managed a few hours before getting up early to climb on the big rocks where I sat gazing at the landscape while contemplating the meaning of life (one of the women we dined with was doing the same thing… on a different rock).  This is really what it’s all about, and no trip to Egypt would be complete without a visit to the magical desert.

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