Middle East | Egypt – and since then….
Well blimey have I got a lot to tell you! Where were we….ah yes, the Pyramids. I think they can best be summed up using two descriptions given by other people:
‘The Pyramids seemed to wear out the air, boring holes in it all day long.’ (Florence Nightingale)
‘Very big,very old’ (A camel owner)
It doesn’t matter how many people tell you that the pyramids are big – you will never be prepared. They are bloody huge. They are awesomely massive. They are monstrously large, indeed I would venture as far as to say they are mind bogglingly gargantuan.
I got there early as the Giza plateau was opening, and the first hour or so was a delight. Then the convoys of tourist coaches began to pull up, and before long the hoardes were swarming all over the place.
This sudden increase in ‘game’ caused a renewed voraciousness from the hawkers, touts and camel mongerers. The combination of swarms of people and the rampant but extremely well oiled tourist exploitation was enough to rob the Pyramids of all their dignity. It was time to leave.
After another day of general firkling in Cairo, I was craving some peace and fresh air. I decided, not being desperately interested in Egyptology, to skip Luxor with it’s myriad temples, and instead head out into the Western Desert, which is far more my sort of thing. Having got a train to Alexandria, I headed along the coast by bus, through El Alamein and Marsa Matrouh, towards the isolated oasis town of Siwa, near the Libyan border. Past MM the journey passed through an utter wasteland of nothingness, for hour after hour, and for hundreds of miles. A flat, featureless horizon stretched out for 360 degrees, and never before have I had such a sense of being in the middle of nowhere. We were served an extortionately priced cup of tea at the Saharan equivalent of motorway services (a small shed staffed by a nine year old) and finally arrived in Siwa about 8pm. I was in love with it in seconds. The main mode of transport is the donkey cart. The town is dominated by the ruins of a thirteenth century mud built fort called Shali, in which the people would shelter from marauding invaders. Indeed for most of recorded history the Siwans have been fiercely independant and hostile to outsiders. Before WWII they’d seen one Greek traveller centuries ago, and chased off the only other Europeans ever to make the journey. An entire army was sent there to destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun, but they disappeared in the desert, never to be seen again. Nonetheless, today they are friendly and welcoming, and all seem to speak about five languages. I heard Siwans greeting people in Spanish, English, French and Korean!
After a few days exploring the delights of Siwa itself, I embarked in the company of a couple of very nice people from Aus and NZ who I met on the bus from Alexandria, on the other main activity in Siwa – desert safaris. We arranged everything with a delightful guy called Ahmed, and just after 10am, headed off in two apparently indestructible Landrovers (the other was full of French people)into the desert. There followed three days and two nights of total bliss. We stopped for lunch at a place called El Bahrain, which can only be described as mind blowing. There is no way I can possibly convey the magnificence of the view, so just imagine dunes, cliffs, canyons, rock outcrops, and the biggest blue sky you’ve ever seen – and that might start getting you there. After a few hours of driving through one stunning landscape after another (the desert is incredibly diverse -ranging from flat nothingness to dune fields to mountains, to rock strewn wastelands, to canyons, to scrubland) we hit the Great Sand Sea and camped for the night at the base of a huge dune. The guys (Ahmed, Ali and Ahmed) put up a windbreak, and after an amazing vegetable stew with rice, and many many cups of Ahmed’s phenomenal mint tea, we slept under a billion stars. I can now confirm that it gets bloody cold in the desert at night. Still, the stars and the sunrise were well worth it, as was the berber breakfast the next morning.
Our next destination was Bahariyya, another of the six or so oases scattered through the Western Desert. It was largely devoid of atmosphere, and not nearly as charming as Siwa, so we weren’t disappointed to leave fairly speedily on our way to the Black, and White Deserts, lying between Bahariyya oasis and Farafra oasis further South.
I don’t know what to say. I’ve never seen such stunning scenery in my life. The Black Desert is so named because iron deposits colour the sand black. From the ground rise a series of volcano shaped hills and mountains, giving the place a thoroughly primeval appearance. It’s not just that though, it’s the fact that (as with most of the desert) it’s so bloody BIG. The vistas are almost too large to take in. Everything is enormous wide open spaces stretching to infinity under vast cloudless blue skies. It was humbling.
After the Black desert comes the White. A more bizzare and other-worldly place you would have trouble to find. Blindingly white rock formations, carved by the wind into weird and wonderful shapes litter the whole landscape. There are thousands upon thousands of them. It was here that we camped for the night, to the sound of desert foxes, and the sight of Ahmed 2 cheating like a bastard at cards. He lost anyway.
Next morning after a hearty breakfast and a drive around the White Desert’s most famous formations, we lunched in a spectacular canyon, beneath a blazingly hot sun, before I joined Ahmed for a quick run to Farafra, which turned out to be largely a total non-event of a place. We then gunned it hell for leather back through the desert to Bahariyya, where I bid Ahmed a genuinely fond farewell, and sat down by the side of the road to await transport to Cairo. I was tired, I was filthy, I had sand and dust in every concievable orifice (and a few more besides) but I was very, very happy. The last few days had been incredible, and some of the most unforgettable of my life. The desert exceeded me expectations tenfold. It was simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the fortune to see.
And so it was back to the other side of travelling. Waiting at the side of a dusty road, knackered and in dire need of a shower, for a transport which is due to arrive at an unspecified hour. I was faced with a choice in Bahariyya. Either wait until midnight for the Cairo bus, or get a minibus earlier in the evening. Since I’d arrived at about 6pm, the latter seemed preferable. It all started well. I had a seat. Admittedly it was the kind of seat that will have you in intensive physiotherapy for the rest of your life, but it was a seat nonetheless. My legroom was on the non-existant side of modest, but hey. We began with a scenic tour of the arse-end of Bahariyya for about 45 minutes, making untold inexplicable stops,and filling up with more people than could reasonably fit into the vehicle. The journey, once it finally got underway was short on comfort and long on hours. Still, myself, the 15 chain smoking Egyptian blokes, and the teenage boy who to all intents and purposes was sitting on my lap, made the best of it by listening to very loud Egyptian pop for five hours and periodically driving the pitch dark desert road with no headlights, just to liven things up. Cairo was a welcome sight.
And so that’s where I am now. I’m on a night bus to Sinai tonight, and then a ferry to Jordan tomorrow. How much fun can one person handle?