January 23-24, 2009
West of the Nile and south of the Mediterranean, Egypt is one big desert. Earlier in the trip we met people who said that it’s really worth visiting this part, especially a section called “The White Desert”. We looked at the map and noticed that there are a bunch of oasis villages out in the desert, and the closest one is called Farafra. So, that was our next destination.
Getting to Farafra
We caught a night bus from Cairo to Farafra. Generally when you take a night bus, the advantage is that you can skip paying one night’s accommodation, but unfortunately our bus dropped us off at 3 AM – not quite late enough in the morning. A local guy guided us to the El Waha Hotel. It had busted beds and no hot water, but $14/night is as cheap as it gets way out here.
The next morning we finally had a chance to look around Farafra. The first thing we noticed is that it’s not as small as what we imagined when we heard “oasis”. It’s a full-on town with stone-built houses, paved roads, shops, schools, and so on. Simultaneously, we noticed that the weather was very strange. There was a muddy fog everywhere. It looked like we were in the middle of a sandstorm but the air was completely still.
The guy who owns our hotel, Hamdi, also runs Jeep tours out to the White Desert. He invited us to visit his home where we can have some tea, look at photos from previous trips, and discuss what kind of trip we might want to do with him. We accepted – we started to figure out that being invited to a Bedouin home doesn’t obligate you to anything, it’s just how business is done around here. Well, we had tea and even lunch (with home-made pitas – probably the best we’ve ever had). We looked at the photos and got some prices, but we told him we don’t have a decision yet. Partly we wanted to get other quotes around town and partly we weren’t sure we wanted to go, considering the crappy visibility outside.
So we left Hamdi’s place and started wandering around town. It was a ghost-town – businesses closed and hardly anybody around. It felt like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Perhaps the emptiness was because it was a Friday which is the holy day for Muslims, or perhaps that’s just how things go in Farafra.
We only found one other tour operator to speak with, at the rather fancy hotel called Badawiya. If you plan to head to Farafra and you don’t mind slapping down $35, we recommend it – a very nice place. But their tour prices were no better than Hamdi’s, so we went with him. We don’t recall exactly how much we paid but we think it was about 500 EP (just under $100) for the morning-to-evening tour.
We told Hamdi that we’d like to do the tour, but we’d prefer to wait a day for the weather to improve. He agreed, and he suggested that we can use the remainder of the day to visit the hot springs that made Farafra an oasis, a place where visibility doesn’t matter too much. It sounded good to us so we went along.
In the vicinity of the hot springs there are some vegetable farms. It’s a very strange sight – patches of green growing out of the dusty sandy ground. It’s impressive that these farmers are able to grow anything out here.
There are several hot spring pools. They are made of concrete and the water flows out of a giant metal spout – it’s not as picturesque as we had hoped. Also, there was enough sulfur in the water to smell bad. But the water was warm and felt great, especially since it was still pretty cold outside. Before the drive we asked Hamdi if we need to bring anything except a bathing suit. He said we don’t even need that – he’s planning to go naked. We thought he was kidding, but nope – he stripped right down to his birthday suit and jumped in. Alrighty. We kept our suits.
On the way back we asked Hamdi to stop by a strange looking tower. He said that it’s a pigeon tower, used to farm pigeons – it’s a fairly common food in Egypt. When I approached the tower I could hear the cooing of at least a hundred birds inside, but none of them flew in or out, probably because of the cold weather.
The White Desert
The next day the weather was great – sunny and blue sky. Our jeep came along and we found that Hamdi stayed behind but instead we have two tour guides, Haled and Ima, both of them Hamdi’s relatives. We left Farafra, cutting through the desert on a perfectly straight road. Soon we started seeing white formations peppered throughout the sand on both sides of the road – the formations that give the desert its name. Our first stop was a place called Nasser Desert.
From there we continued a short way to the official place called The White Desert, a national park. Again we hopped out of the jeep and wandered around exploring the white limestone formations and taking photos.
We noticed a very colorful RV not far from us – it really stood out against the not-so-colorful surroundings. We walked over to investigate. We met the owner, Thierry, his wife, and their four children (ages maybe 5-15). Together they are off on a very long trip around the world in their custom-built, custom-painted RV. How long? They’re not really sure, but they are guessing three years!! Holy cow. This means that they home-school their kids along the way. They started in Switzerland and they headed down around the Mediterranean, and here they are. They said they’re planning to head south in Africa, so we gave them some safari advice. If you can read French, you can follow their adventures on their blog: www.sixenroute.com.
We climbed back into our jeep and drove further away from the highway and into the white desert. We stopped in various places with cute names like “the white house”. We took a break for lunch at a small hut, and then we continued to “the new white desert” where we saw the famous mushroom-and-chicken rocks. A lot of the rocks in that area looked like something else so we had a good time walking around asking each other “what does that look like?” It was like staring at clouds. The only annoying thing was that there were tons of flies all around, but that became a new game – how many can you kill by randomly clapping your hands?
Our last stop was a place called “the tables”. The plan was to watch the sunset here, but it turned out to be kind of a dud compared to the places we saw before, so we asked Haled to backtrack a bit. Because the surroundings are so flat, we could see the sun way off in the horizon and it looked huge. It wasn’t as impressive as some of the other sunsets on our trip because there were no clouds in the sky to reflect the warm colors, but it was good anyhow.