A vast expanse of sand stretched out before me, the fine soft grains covered in abstract monoliths of all shapes and sizes. For a moment, I felt as though I had been transported onto the film set of a “Star Wars” movie. All I needed now was my son’s light saber and you could call me Luke Skywalker.
The rock-strewn landscape glittered like gold in the midday sun, the harsh rays bouncing off the twisted structures. Eager to get a birds eye view of Egypt’s mystical White Desert we left the 4X4 behind us and headed off to climb one of the larger rocks. With no wind to speak of, and ravaging temperatures somewhere in the mid 40’s it was an intense endevour, but worth it for the mesmerising views.
The chalk sculptures, which rise up majestically from the sand have been formed by the fierce desert winds – an art gallery that comes courtesy of the natural world. If you look closely, the gnarled shapes have a certain “lifelike” quality about them – as though faces have been carefully etched into the rocks by a human hand.
As the sun started to set on the rich desert landscape we were invited to camp out in a traditional Bedouin tent, which is customarily divided into two sections by a woven curtain known as a ma’nad. One half, reserved for the men and for the reception of most guests, is called the mag’ad, or ‘sitting place.’ The other, in which the women cook and receive female guests, is called the maharama, or ‘place of the women.’ Inviting as it was, I decided to roll up one of my three comfortable mattresses and spend the night pitched out on a rocky outcrop under the stars. With only one evening in this enchanting region I wanted to savour the experience in its entirety, from dusk to dawn. The sun melted away into the ether casting hues of violet and pink across the massive rocks, the moonlight throwing strange shadows over the rugged terrain and lulling me into a peaceful slumber.
Arid and deserted, the white desert contrasts sharply with the bustling streets of Cairo and its nearby treasures. Only a few days before I had been treated to the delights of ancient Egypt with a tour of the Giza Pyramids, Sphinx and Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The tourist zones, as you would expect, are populated by truckloads of eager globetrotters, all coming to marvel at the country’s famous monuments. Yet, despite giving into the desire to cross off all the must do pit stops, I was in search of the less well-travelled corners of the country.
Even in the recession, Egypt is encountering somewhat of a gold rush when it comes to travel. As the value of sterling continues to plummet, people have been rethinking their choice of destination, and with one pound buying you roughly eight Egyptian pounds (EGP) the North African country still offers real value for money. There’s also sound economic reasoning in getting off the beaten track, as prices tend to drop dramatically. For instance, a three course meal in the Western Desert might cost you as little as $5.50 GBP a head.
Adventure travel isn’t for everyone, but it is incredibly addictive. For years I’d been an overland fanatic getting my kicks out of Africa for anything up to five weeks at a time. However, in 2009, I’d decided to forgo the usual holiday and opt for a shorter itinerary. Ever since my visit to the Tutankhamen exhibition at the O2 centre, I’d been itching to get a taster of this exotic country in the hope of venturing further than the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. My 17 intrepid counterparts were also keen to get away from the tourist enclaves and begin a journey of mythical proportions.
A 4X4 is ideal for traversing the more remote regions – our next journey taking us to the Frafra Oasis. The least known amongst the oases of the New Valley in the Western Desert, this area is a world away from the tourist trail and it is also home to the famous sculpture, Badr. Somewhat of a celebrity in otherwise little known Egypt, Badr is a self-taught artist who has exhibited in Europe and Cairo.
We were invited into Badr’s museum and home, which is surrounded by a colourful desert garden, cluttered from beginning to end with his ingenious works of art. A magical wonderland, each piece leads you on a tour through his imagination. Inspired by desert life, the sculptures range from donkeys to wizened old women and tall elegant traders on camels. You could even say that Badr breathes colour into a world that we encountered for only a brief moment.
Our new-found friend played host for an hour or two while we sat wide- eyed and watched him chipping away at the sandstone. Within a few minutes you could see his vision unraveling before us. The rock crumbled, and the features of a small boy slowly came into being. A truly thought provoking experience – I parted with just eight pounds sterling, adding yet another customised relic to my collection of travel artifacts. A reminder of undiscovered Egypt, a haven which I am eager to find out more about on my return.
Acacia Adventure Holidays’ new 15-day ‘Pharaohs & Deserts’ adventure also includes a traditional felucca cruise down the Nile to Luxor and costs $954pp (based on two sharing). The price includes all highlights, transport, accommodation, airport transfers, mattress for felucca/camping, meals as indicated, services of drivers/guides.
Excludes visas, travel insurance, departure taxes, flights, tips, drinks, sleeping bag for felucca/camping, optional activities and items of a personal nature. Year-round departures.
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