BAHARIYA OASIS, EGYPT (2 April 2018) — Leaving the surreal world of the White Desert, we returned to the tar road back through the more earthly tones of sand that gave no hint of the mysterious landscapes hidden just beyond the lonely highway. Abdou raised the volume so the music drowned out the sound of the highway and gave us some time to mentally adjust to the return to civilization. When we reached the edge of Bawiti, the main oasis town, it seemed hectic and crowded compared to the freedom of the open desert.
But a real shower felt good, and then I met another of Abdou and Ahmed’s friends, Arafat, who was one of the only area drivers to have gone to Gilf el Kebir, the place on the edge of the Western Desert near the Libyan border where I originally wanted to go. It was seven years ago that Arafat had driven there, and they had to cross the “Great Sand Sea” and use GPS to find the route, but he confirmed to me that it was amazing. He described the height of the giant sand dunes they had to cross and I wondered to myself how they could make it with those tires and no Maxtrax. There was an interesting discussion about when it may again be possible to go to Gilf el Kebir — the guys would like to be optimistic, but the reality of the current regional security situation doesn’t lend itself to optimism, and so we concluded with an “inshallah we will be able to go there one day.”
Ahmed and Arafat accompanied me for a quick loop around the main highlights of the oasis, starting with the large palmeraie that sits between the hills. Though it seems like a single plantation, the date palms are owned by many different families, and during harvest time everyone comes out to help. In addition most people have a tract of farm land where they grow various fruits and vegetables. Though surrounded by desert, the area is very green and fertile, with a number of springs as well as two salt lakes.
The lakes and surrounding mountains define the topography, making navigation easy. The most prominent peak is a pyramid-shaped mountain called Jebel Dist, where dinosaur bones were found in the early 20th century. It’s odd shape kind of lures you up to the top. There is no way to drive up it, so I climbed up part way, but it started to get steeper and the rock and sand were crumbling under my feet. There didn’t seem to be an easy path to the top, so I went back to the truck and headed for Jebel Al Engleez, or “the English Mountain” where the British had set up a lookout point during World War I to monitor the movements of the Libyan Senussi tribesmen.
The English Mountain is really more of a flat-topped “mesa” and from the bottom it didn’t look like it would have such an impressive overview, but there was a Jeep-able dirt track up the back way that went quite far before I had to climb the last steep rocky section. The ruins of the old stone lookout post still stand near the edge of the precipice and I was amazed how far I could actually see. It was an almost 360-degree view of the desert and oasis below. I could see the sprawling villages that together make up the Bahariya oasis community and even hear approaching vehicles coming down the main road. I imagined the lonely British outpost here in the early 1900’s, watching over the desert for movement, for distant dust plumes of men on camels. I noticed two dust plumes from trucks on the hillside across the way and it was almost time for sunset, so I decided to stay a bit…
ABOUT THE EXPEDITION
JoMarie Fecci, of USnomads, sets off on an independent scouting trip across Egypt and Sudan in preparation for an up-coming Sahara expedition. Driving locally-sourced Toyotas and working with small local teams in each region, she will traverse a winding route that jumps off from key points along the Nile as far south as Khartoum, where the Blue and White Niles meet. During the journey she will visit a series of UNESCO world heritage sites focused on the ancient civilizations that occupied the region and meet with local communities. The primary goal of this mission is to assess terrain, security, driving conditions, logistical concerns and approximate timeframes for future travel.
WHERE WE ARE
The Arab Republic of Egypt, is a transcontinental country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. With the Mediterranean sea on its northern border, the Gulf of Aqaba to the east, and the Red Sea to the east and south, it occupies a geo-strategic location connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. It has land borders with Gaza and Israel to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Islam is the official religion and Arabic the official language. Egypt is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, with over 95 million inhabitants. Most of the population lives near the banks of the Nile River, in an area of about 40,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq mi), where the only arable land is found. The large regions of the Sahara desert, which constitute most of the country’s territory, are sparsely inhabited. Considered a cradle of civilization, Egypt emerged as one of the world’s first nation states in the tenth millennium BC and iconic monuments such as the Giza Necropolis and its Great Sphinx, as well the ruins of Memphis, Thebes, Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings, reflect this legacy.