Desert is one of the mysterious places on earth where normal rules about living are suspended and even absent. More like the sea than any comparable landmass the desert stretches away to the horizon blinking as if it is its opposite- a giant lake- but of course this is just a mirage. To visit the desert is to plunge into a place of marvels. Monastic and spiritual folk have traveled to the desert since the beginning of history to get away from distractions of life to find a communion between man and the natural world in all its awe, wonder and vastness. Some of those ancient monasteries are still inhabited in the Egyptian desert still far from ‘civilization’.The desert is above all a clean place there are, once you leave the oases, no mosquitoes and no flies, and the ground is as clean as antiseptic- when a Bedouin cuts his foot he will rub sand in the wound to hasten healing as sand in the deep desert is as clean and bacteria free as things get.
The sheer variety of the Egyptian Sahara is staggering. It is the most varied desert on the planet. Unlike the endless gravel plains of Libya, the Egyptian desert landscape can change abruptly from steep lines of seif dune to rocky canyons to vertiginous escarpments to plains dotted with strange conical hills to sand sheets that seem to stretch for ever only to end in a confusion of star dunes after a distance. The variety is endless which is why walking is always fascinating in the Egyptian desert. At first the very lack of anything apparent causes one to focus and open up. In our busy modern lives we close ourselves off to survive, but in the desert we return to our primeval state where every rock, flower and flying bird is of vital interest Then, after a while, you begin to see that desert is not a dead world, an empty world at all- it is overflowing with things to find and look at: fossils, flint scrapers, lizards, beetles, diminutive fennec foxes with their huge ears, falcons, petrified wood, stone axes and spear heads left behind from when the entire desert was a wetter savannah; grinding stones, ostrich egg shells, 5000 year old rock art paintings and carvings, old camel route markers, Roman pottery, acacia trees clinging to life, ochre deposits, pre-historic shark’s remains- the list goes on- the desert is a place of marvels just waiting to be found.
Egypt is 95% desert. Yet for much of its history Egypt has been the story of the fertile 5% that lies alongside the river Nile. More and more, though, people are beginning to value the overlooked desert, this great wilderness which is a place of incredible beauty and wild solitude.
Where did all the sand come fromScientists have yet to fully agree on this one. Some of the current theories include the idea that the constant growth and then shrinkage of the Mediterranean over the last 70 million years generated what might be thought of as the world’s biggest beach. The sea came inland as far as the oasis of Bahariya, which is over 300km from the current Mediterranean coast of Egypt, and then retreated.
The animals you expect to see in the desert are not the ones you will see. Most people expect to see snakes and scorpions- when in fact these are rare, very rare in the deep desert. You are much more likely to see falcons wheeling in the sky or a jerboa, a small rodent, hopping along. Deeper into the desert, especially at old campsites, you may get a shy visit from a Fennec fox, whose big ears help keep it cool without sweating. You can also expect to see pad footed geckos and other desert lizards. Beetles with elongated legs to keep them above the hot sand. Weddan, or wild sheep, still exist down near Uweinat and the Gilf Kebir. Ibex, long horned deer, are still seen in the Eastern desert, some as near as twenty kilometers from Cairo.
People in the DesertIn the Oases people are the same stock and same traditions as the people of the Nile- broadly speaking. Mixed with them and influencing them are Arab Bedouin from the East, and Berbers originally from North West Africa. The different oases have different mixes- for example in Siwa the culture is very different since the majority are originally of Berber origin.
E xplorers of the DesertGerman, Egyptian, British and Italian explorers have all played their part in discovering the secrets of the Sahara in recent times. One of the most prominent was Gerhard Rohlfs who attempted to reach the Libyan Oasis of Kufra from Dakhla in 1874. In the end he turned north to Siwa after receiving a rare two days of rain at a place forever after named Regenfeld- rainfeld. After Rohlfs came the aristocratic Egyptian explorer Hassan in Bey, whose six month journey from Siwa past Uweinat and into the Sudan ranks as one of the greatest desert journeys of all time. Hassan Bey was not only the first explorer to visit Uweinat; he was also the first to glimpse the Gilf Kebir. At the same time, using half tracked vehicles, the Egyptian Royal, Prince Kemal Al-Din made the first extensive journeys around the Gilf Kebir plateau, which he named and was the first to map. Tracked vehicles were followed by the motor car. Explorers such as Count Laszlo Almasry of Hungary the real life model for the book and movie character “The English Patient” and Major Ralph Bagnold of Britain drove for thousands of miles in adapted Model A Fords through country no one had ever seen for many years, and certainly never mapped. Modern explorers of the desert have tended to relinquish the car for the camel and walking on foot. German Carlo Bergmann and Dutch-woman Arita Baaijens have used camels to track thousand of miles along ancient camel routes that have long been disused.
Timing in the DesertOne day can be all you need to get a real taste of the desert. You can walk up a dune and feel the true emptiness of the place even when you are only a few kilometer from the road. But most would agree that you have to spend at least one night in the desert to get its real flavor. See the incredible night sky; sit by the fire and next morning watch the sun rise in all its glory. Longer trips of a few days are even better as you will have a chance to learn something of the stars and see how varied the desert is. no trip, however, is likely to last more than two weeks without restocking on fuel and water. But even on this, the longest time you are likely to spend in the desert you will still not feel it is quite long enough.