A Million-Star Hotel - Few Experiences Rival Egypt's Deserts & Oases
It’s hard to believe that a great inland sea once covered the massive desert west of Cairo, where resident crocodiles were revered in a holy reserve and worshipped in the form of the god Sobek. Even the fossilized remains of whales have been found here, and can be seen in Wadi Al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, where the huge creatures once thrived in waters surrounded by sand.
Wild desert can be found almost up to the outskirts of Cairo, and it continues for hundreds of miles to the east and west, through sands, rock, mountains and oases. Scenery is surprisingly varied and the people who live in these remote areas distinctive.
The lowest point in Egypt at 134 metres below sea-level is the Qattara Depression in the Western Desert. Qattara’s Moghra Oasis, unlike many other oases in Egypt, is uninhabited, but Bedouin tribes move their livestock through the area to drink and graze.
Saline marshes, unusual rock formations and black dunes (black due to the high shale content) mark Qattara and it’s the last place in Egypt to find the rare cheetah. Tour operators bring expeditions from Cairo, and an overnight experience in the desert can be powerfully serene.
The rich oasis of El Fayoum, about 150 kilometres from Cairo, covers an area roughly 1,800 square kilometres, and it has been a favourite hunting ground for millennia.
Irrigated some 3,500 years ago with a network of channels and dykes, it still draws diverted water from the Nile, keeping the area lush.
Evidence of the Middle Kingdom’s grandeur can be seen in the temple of Medinet Madi and the pyramids of Sesostris II. Remnants of the area’s Roman past are seen in mummy portraits, discovered in numerous local tombs and in ruined Roman cities. Even today, two ancient (and creaking) waterwheels turn on the main square in Medinet El-Fayoum, itself an ancient city.
Several companies offer full-day trips from Cairo to El Fayoum, most using four-by-four vehicles in a modern-day caravan. The trip might include a visit to the fishing village of Chak Chouk on the shores of Lake Qaroun (a huge body saltwater) and driving between the dramatic sand dunes with their theatrical play of sun and shade.
Farther southwest – 360 kilometres from Cairo – lies Bahariyya, the Valley of the Golden Mummies. Eight ancient villages dot the oasis here, and they were hardly known until recently.
People came to see the temple built for Alexander the Great during his lifetime, some 400 hot and cold mineral and sulphur springs, and the pastoral oasis. Then, in 1996, thanks to a donkey falling through the roof of a burial chamber, it was discovered to be part of a Ptolemaic-Roman necropolis with thousands of intricately decorated mummies. The digs are not open to the public, but some of the mummies are on show nearby.
Excursions to Bahariyya include an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent. There are few experiences to rival a starry night in the desert, literally the “million-star hotel.”
Oases in the Western Desert offer a different kind of vacation, appealing to adventurous travellers. Being in miles of open space in a raw environment is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy different cultures and traditions, this enormous area offers an unusual and memorable visit.
Relatively close to Bahariyya is Farafra in the White Desert with its surreal, nature-sculpted sand formations. And after the long journey, a bathe in the sulphur springs is surprisingly refreshing, readying visitors for a trip to the necropolis of Ain Besai, 15 kilometres from the settlement.
In the far west is Siwa, Egypt’s most remote oasis, appearing like a mirage. It was here that a divine oracle told Alexander the Great of his right to rule over Egypt. And today, it draws those who seek solitude and relaxation in one of several eco-lodges, taking a bath in the pearly mineral water of Cleopatra’s fountain, and resting among the shady palm groves. Siwa Museum and the annual October date harvest are additional attractions.
Dakhla and Kharga are relatively close to each other with the latter boasting more than 500 wells to provide vegetation for animal life. Particularly picturesque here is the village of Qalaman, and the old fortified city of El-Qasi, both with labyrinthine lanes covered in reed mats.
Kharga is Egypt’s southernmost oasis, also the largest with about 60,000 residents. They’re drawn to the arable land and to the modern town. But Kharga’s Hibis Temple is considered the best preserved Persian place of worship. Bathe in the hot springs of Nasser to wash away the fatigue of sightseeing in this, one of the hottest places on earth.
A desert safari will take you through an amazing range of landscapes, into scenic sunsets, and unbelievably bright starry night skies. You’ll walk among contemporary mud houses and ancient ruins in desert oases, shop for locally made handicrafts, and mingle with Bedouins as they go about their daily life.
Desert landscapes include the Silica Glass Field at the southern end of the Western Desert with its gem-like yellow-green chunks used by the ancients for jewelry and believed to have been created by a meteor, and prehistoric rock art in the Gilf El-Kebir area where The English Patient was filmed. You might go sand boarding in the Great Sand Sea, quad biking, or dune camping. Egypt’s deserts are full of adventurous potential, and if you want a shorter safari, these can be arranged in the Sinai.