This year’s school calendar afforded a welcome respite for weary teachers and students at the end of April: two four-day weekends in a row. For the first of these, Andreas and I booked an oasis tour with our friend and desert guide extraordinaire Ahmed of Safari Oasis Western Desert Tours. Ahmed had organized the excellent Black and White Deserts camping weekend last month so we were confident this would be another great trip. Six of our colleagues signed up to come with us.
Ahmed and our driver, Walid, picked us up after work on Thursday. Our ultimate destination was Siwa, a remote oasis 350 miles west of Cairo, almost at the Libyan border.
We broke up the long drive with a night at the seaside town of Marsa Matruh, where we feasted on a late dinner at the Bedouin restaurant Abou Sultan. If you leave there hungry, you are doing something wrong.
On the way out of town the next morning we stopped at Cleopatra’s Bath, a gorgeous white sand beach with impossibly turquoise blue water. The waves are too dynamic for swimming but it is really something to behold. Many photos were taken.
Three more hours on a desert road.
We lunched in Siwa at a small cafe, then whiled away the afternoon walking through the date palm farm next door and relaxing in the hotel’s natural spring-fed swimming pool.
On Friday morning we switched out the van for two 4WD Landcruisers, picked up some supplies, and headed out to the desert.
On the way we stopped at a salt lake for a very buoyant swim. A non-swimmer in our party was thrilled to find herself unsinkable.
Then onward to the Great Sand Sea of the Sahara. Our drivers stopped to let some air out of the tires, then took us on a thrilling roller-coaster of a ride up and over and around the mountains of sand (they obviously enjoyed making us scream).
We stopped briefly at a campsite where we borrowed a table and tied it on top of one of the cars.
We spent the hottest part of the day at “Cold Water Lake,” where the morning’s swimmers were happy to dissolve their salt crust in the fresh water. Ahmed and Wahid cooked up a fine lunch and served it on the borrowed table.
We stopped next at “Bir Wahed” (it means spring number one) – a slightly sulfuric-smelling natural hot spring where Ahmed and company washed the lunch dishes while we goofed around unhelpfully.
Next on our itinerary was a place where we could see thousands of tiny sea fossils from the Cambrian period. We had a bit of a delay getting there when the other car, which was ahead of us, didn’t quite make it over the crest of steep dune. We all got out and watched while the drivers and Ahmed attached a cable to try to pull it back down; when that didn’t work, our driver drove over to the other side of the dune and pulled the car down that way. Some of us sandboarded our way to the bottom.
Quick stop at the fossil area. It’s hard to imagine this hot dry sea of sand underneath the actual ocean, but the evidence is clear.
Then back to the cars and over the dunes to a place where we enjoyed more sandboarding and little cups of mint tea while watching the sun go down.
More dune driving – in the dark this time – back to the camp to return the table and spend the night.
Some of us lay out on the silent sand before dinner, naming the constellations and looking out for shooting stars. Then we watched the just-past-full moon rise. It cast so much light reflected on the sand that it was almost like daytime for the rest of the night.
Andreas and I slept out under the night sky. We didn’t see any fennec foxes but in the morning we saw their little tracks trailing through the desert to our sleeping mats. They must have walked right up to us… as did the dung beetle who left the cross-hatched track intersecting with the footprints.
Tomorrow: Siwa Oasis