We had been feeling selfish for a while not to write about this experience with you. We were exposed to the mean version of us which just wanted to keep guarding the secret of Egypt all by ourselves. Eventually we gave up because of the power of a natural beauty which is unforeseen, unequalled and untouched, all of which proved to be stronger than our selfishness of concealing it.
After all, it is a secret as mysterious and magical as the Pyramids in Egypt. But while the publicity-porn decades after decades had saturated the greatness of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, not much attention had been given to the barren natural playground in the vast Bahariya Oasis in western borders of this country. While the human civilisations flourished along the banks of the Nile, nature continued to play its solitary, sad, rocky and dry melancholy on the western side of Egypt and nowhere this earthly orchestra can be experienced but in the Bahariya Oasis.
Like different floors in a theatre playing different music like jazz or classical, the entire Bahariya Oasis offers different sights to behold to those who care to venture. Starting with the Black Desert, you can head to the untapped Crystal Mountain and stop en route to ponder and wonder at the uniquely shaped rocks at the Watermelon Valley. Certainly the Martian was filmed in Jordan, but they should have done that in Bahariya Oasis to deliver the true eerie and Martian experience. Jewel of the Crown of the Bahariya Oasis is undoubtedly the remote White Deserts which had been playing the white symphony of the natural orchestra centuries after centuries, always open to the astonished audience under the pitch black skies awash with countless stars but yet not to many human admirers on ground. You learn to truly ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ only after you have walked around this vast land of magical chalk formations.
So let me ask you, will you ever travel to the Moon? Or to the Mars? Asking really on a serious note and a serious response would be ‘no’ unless this post is being read by Sir Richard Branson. Even if you work for Virgin Galactic or you are a virgin yourself, you will never find such a virgin piece of land on this planet Earth as seen in this western region of Egypt – the country where they claim it all began. Even if you cannot travel to the Moon or to Mars, you can travel to Egypt I hope. If you can travel to Egypt, you have to travel for some 4 hours towards west of Cairo to reach the Bahariya Oasis. Here you have to swap your city car with a 4 wheel drive and keep driving south-west closer to the arms of vast, rocky, dusty and dry emptiness.
Adrenaline introduction aside, it was more complicated than the above steps. Partially because of the fact that it is recently Egypt’s turn to be the land where all wrong events had been taking place unleashing security alerts and terror warnings. So much so that the UK travel insurance was declared null and void incase of travel in this region. Naturally not many tour operators inside Egypt were willing to take the risk. While selling Pyramids in Egypt means easy money for locals and easy photo opportunity for ordinary tourists – why bother for the extraordinary? After much speculations, online research and feeling the punch of the hunch, we decided to take the risk all in the name of love – for travel that is. Alles fur die wanderlust! We decided that we will go no matter what but make it a day trip and not be hijacked or killed in sleep during any overnight camping in the desert under the open sky.
Much of our anxiety was alleviated by prompt, professional and informative email responses from Khaled, whom we found after a brief search on TripAdvisor. We emailed someone who went with his company called Western Desert Tours and got positive response. Apparently, Khaled knew the desert like the back of his hand. We got a good assuring feeling about this guy and went ahead to book the adventure. We strongly recommend you contact him and mention ‘onetimefashionista’ for getting preferential rates for any excursion you envisage in this place. Incase of any issues, feel free to contact us and we can make sure you get the best deal.
Khaled’s team member Karim came to pick us at 6 in the morning at the lobby of our hotel at Le Meridien Pyramids at Giza. Punctual and friendly, we were welcome by Karim to join him for the 4 long hours of drive towards Bahariya. The interesting thing of early morning drives is that shortly after the wheels hit the road, you tend to doze off again. Same happened this time as well, while the serene sound of the religious recitations came from Karim’s radio and the casual honking continued while the car accelerated, we gently leaned our head against the window and slept.
Like the next shot of a rolling movie, we woke up to another planet. Rocks, dust and more rocks as far as eyes could see and a 2 lane highway with hardly any traffic, or humans or any birds. A few lorries passed carrying soldiers of the Egyptian Army with curious but stern looks on their faces while they assessed their fellow road users who went away to their destinations. We reached Khaled’s house around 10 in the morning. While we took a quick break to freshen ourselves, Khaled arrived. With an imprint on face of a Desert Donovan, a firm handshake and fluent English, established the trust in no time. He was flanked by his ‘brother in arms’ – Hammadu – the tribal chauffeur who would be the co-pilot of our 4wd. Without much ado, we got ourselves installed inside the Land Rover and hit the road to reach even farther from Bahariya.
After an hour, we stopped at the Black desert for some photo opportunities and then went onto the Crystal Mountain. These locations were en route to White Desert so they were worth the wait and wandering for a little while. Every second the thought kept crossing the mind after having travelled to so many countries of the world – that no other place was as barren as this one.
Excitement and anxiety kept going hand in hand while Khaled and Hammadu took turns in leading the Land Rover over the treacherous terrain. We stopped at locations where the GPS could not lead, where no signposts were seen.
It was the experience of the two guys sitting in front that they knew every rock and every edge of the terrain. True that there were trails of wheels in some places which made it easier for them to drive and follow the track, but it was vastly unmarked, uneven, rough and rocky.
We stopped at the Watermelon Valley in the Black Desert to observe pieces of rocks everywhere which looked like, ofcourse watermelons!
You would wonder how these were shaped so evenly to be having this unique shape. When the wind keeps whistling pass the stubborn rocks for million years, even the rough edges of a sharp heart is bound to become mellow and smooth. There were also some elements which were claimed to be from a meteor which had landed in this region millions of years ago destroying everything and leaving elements of unearthly materials. There was an abundance of fossils of tiny sea creatures mixed with rock and dust. We were wondering what this place was! Was this an observatory, a zoological garden, an astronomical wreckage, was it really the Egypt they showed in media? Or was it Mars? Like a long lost childhood with broken memories with no link to each other, we kept on driving for another couple of hours while we had lost track of turns and twists long time ago. It just kept heading somewhere ahead ‘where the streets had no names’ and there were no streets either, just driving from one mountain pass to another.
After a while it appeared that the sun had reclined towards its resting stance, implying that it was time for prayer for Khaled and Hammadu. The faithful guides requested a small time off to express their gratitude towards their God. We stopped at a place which they called the ‘oasis’ – supposedly the only place in this vast desert where underground water was available.
They washed themselves and performed the Asr prayer (evening prayer).
We resumed our journey and this time patches of white were appearing more frequently. The anticipation kept bubbling that what we had been seeing in the internet for so long was going to be finally true. The faster the vehicle travelled towards that wonderland of all-whites, the faster the scenery and shapes of the rock kept changing. The pupils kept expanding and contracting and the head kept turning from left to right. One of those moments when you regretted not having eyes like a fly so that you could see all around at same time. Suddenly like the force that releases a rocket from gravity and installs it in the orbit gently, we felt like we had taken a giant leap for ourselves to have landed in a remote white planet without any passport, visa and rocket but by just driving endlessly in a Land Rover.
This planet perspective was paramount because of the fact that there were only four people in that vast region at that time and no one else. May be aliens were hiding somewhere watching our every move but they did not make any appearance to abduct us. We put foot on this land and thought we were the first humans to have made this remarkable journey. Surrounded by chalk formations of various shapes and sizes, they were just extraordinary. Millions of years ago, the very land where we stood was a deep ocean which kept drying to forces of nature. What was left as the residue were these magical white chalk formations which continued to struggle and negotiate with the desperately dry wind for millions of years. Left at the whims of the egoistic wind, some took the shapes of mushrooms, some looked like a chicken. While some looked like human faces, some looked like a big flower.
Basically it just appeared to be the art gallery of an artist where we felt too miniscule, too paltry and too ecstatic. The blue sky was so blue and the chalk mountains in the desert were so white that all other colours were too shy to show up anywhere in the form of plants or bushes. Like Alice in Wonderland, we felt lost in this White Desert. And we felt so privileged and exclusive because there were really no other companies, cars or choirs to jump into our bandwagon of discovery- only the two of us and our two guides. Once we reached the much famous ‘mushroom’ formation, we simply lost it. To our amusement, Khaled and Hammadu shelved all their inhibitions, took away both our cameras and started clicking shutters in frenzy!
The dynamic driving duo raised their hands in victory to have delivered us the experience we so much wanted. We kept staring at the charisma of nature while the sun started its setting display in the western sky. A brilliant splash of quickly changing orange to pink to crimson against the various shapes of the rock formations meant that it was magic all around. What a pair of human eyes could absorb could never be captured with the best camera in the world. What could be felt by just being there could never be explained by millions of words in black and white. What was seen and felt in the White Deserts could never be felt anywhere else in the world – since nothing like this place exists. Especially we went berserk at the sight of the famous Chicken & Mushroom shapes which were the only ones to be fenced to keep drivers off bay. That didn’t mean that we were not allowed to jump and climb the structures which the forces of nature carved for million years.
While we made our return journey back to Cairo, the full arc of the horizon was glittering with stars and the chalk formations were looking even more mysterious. As if it was the moon on earth or earth on moon, you would certainly be confused. We regretted certainly for not spending the night in the desert under the twinkling black lid of a sky above us. We regretted to have missed the chance to hear the real sound of silence. Interestingly the night would have not appeared as dark as we usually see in the cities, because along with the Moon as the main lead, the accompanying shiny objects on the canvas of the sky was just too many to keep things illuminated. We wondered if we could have handled the magnitude of nature in its raw, exposed and untarnished setting especially during night time? We don’t know, but we certainly left the White Desert with some grey marks of regret of not passing a nuit blanche.
We kept reflecting on the fact that everywhere we had been so far, there were always others doing the same thing at same time. White Desert was the only such place which was so exclusive that for reasons good or bad – not many people travel there or travel at the same time. So the kind of experience you will feel will be surely exclusive than all your previous or future adventures.
So, here is your chance to make an extra-terrestrial trip of a lifetime in this planet itself. Avoid those who avoid Egypt because of fear or stigma. Away from the Pyramids, Egypt’s best kept secret lies in this remote western arm of this country which is not only the richest in terms of man-made history but also in terms of natural history. White Desert is the most beautiful display of this natural history exhibition and found only in Egypt. So hit the roads now before everyone else does and ruins it.