Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Egypt - The Western Deserts

Dedicated to Becky

There is a seemingly infinite road that flees the congestion of Cairo for the barren Western Deserts.

It is even more featureless than I imagine the Nullarbor Plain to be. Unlike driving into the Sahara through Libya, the landscape simply does not change for most of the journey. It is despairingly horizontal, showered with tiny dark pebbles, and pursues a dead straight path to the horizon. Many, many horizons. It is a continous deja vu, and an agoraphobe's nightmare.

This form of landscape induces a meditative state of mind, and it makes the large logs of petrified wood exposed by railway and road construction all the more exciting. The unnamed truck stop (deep in the middle of somewhere) is a lively centre of activity, bearing a great similarities to an Antarctic scientific research station.

Eventually we met with a border into the Great Sand Sea, where the dunes rise like oceanic waves, threatening to break with all the gusto of a glacier. A slow curve in the road marks a site where we stop to stretch our legs by collecting fossilised nummalites from the sand beside the road, little orange spirals like archaic coinage. These are the single-celled creatures that the Pyramids of Giza are made from.

We reached the oasis town of Bahariya in time to change cars. The three-car 4WD convoy set off into the White Desert to reach our camp in time for the panoramic and luridly intense sunset.

The White Desert is divided into two parts - the Old and the New, determined by the ease of accessibility that came with the introduction of 4WD vehicles. To drive through these deserts is to glide over sand through fields of surreal chalk monoliths resembling icebergs. It looks like a spawning ground for Sphinx, lunging forth from the earth. The air is misty from the fine particles carried by the slight breeze, and the marks of tyres are prominent. There are many campers, attracted by a prospect of New Year's in the desert, but they are all well spaced and there is no litter.

There was an excellent evening under the spectacular array of stars, with great company and hearty hot food. It reached 2 degrees that night, but who would notice when sleeping under a heavy camel hair rug?

The next morning was blindingly white, and revealed the fresh tracks of gerbils and foxes. We found expanses of fascinating specimens of iron pyrites, shaped like nails, flowers, spiky walnuts, figurines, phalluses, and fragile lattice bowls. There were hills made entirely of shimmering quartz crystals, with those at the summit as long as your forearm, crumbling into sands thick with tiny translucent shards. The Black Desert is a landscape of hills created by magma flows and wind erosion over 30 million years. It is a silent and timeless place.

An afternoon was spent seeking out old doors and interesting faces in the oasis town of Bahariya. Quite an album of photographs was taken, but we fear the unique painted door we originally sought has now been destroyed. It is a conservative community that places value on the nearby deserts, which is undoubtedly the source of all revenue from tourists, but has ignored its local cultural heritage to a disappointing extent.

2006 was welcomed upon the hotel roof. We had sought a private place, away from the din of the parties below us, to lie back and watch for shooting stars in the heart of the oasis. It was a romantic and understated beginning to another promising new year.


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