There is only one place in Egypt where you’re likely to be staying for more than a night or two in tents – the vast, unpopulated southwest desert corner of Egypt, where the highland Gebel Uweinat and Gilf Kebir plateau are located at the borders of the Sudan and Libya. Although the whole area to the west of the Nile in Egypt is referred to as the Western Desert, this corner of the area is often referred to as the Uweinat Desert.
Desert travel is challenging but can be immensely rewarding. This short guide to travelling in the southwest desert of Egypt assumes that you are considering making a tour to the area and is intended to make you feel that you know how to prepare for it, not to put you off.
Desert travel is fabulous, and it is even better if you have a few basic guidelines to help you make the most of it.
Why visit the desert? When I first planned to visit the far southwest corner of Egypt I took out my copy of Cassandra Vivian’s book The Western Desert of Egypt, which is one of the few books available on the subject of the Western Desert. Here’s what she had to say:
Cassandra Vivian 2002, p. 364: “There is no infrastructure. There are no communities. There are no amenities. . . . To visit the Uwaynat Desert is an ordeal. All food has to be carried. There are no gas stations, so all gasoline for the car must be carted 1500km or more. There is no water, so all water for drinking, cooking and bathing must be toted along. Because an emergency may require more water than available, no one bathes. In winter, it is freezing. In summer, it is boiling. Sand gets into the creases of your eyes, your throat, in all your clothes, books and personal items. After a week you clothes begin to smell, you smell, your companions smell. It is likely that one will not see another human being. It is likely that the wind will turn your skin to leather and you will age ten years in a few days. This is the driest most fearsome desert in the world.”
Scarcely encouraging! As her statement clearly indicates travelling in the southwest Egyptian desert is something of a challenge, and it comes with a learning curve. But there is so much to see and do and the sheer sense of adventure makes the idea irresistible for many people, of whom I am one. Many of us have visited more than once and plan to travel to the area many more times. It has an allure which is difficult to explain, but once experienced difficult to ignore.
The southwest corner of Egypt offers some fabulous desert scenery including marvellous rolling sand dunes of different colours, outcrops of rocks in fascinating shapes, sand plains, stone pavements, extinct volcanic craters, fascinating mirages, and endless changes in light. Wherever you go there are faint hints of wildlife insect, reptile and mammal trails in the sand, migrating birds, falcons nesting, and fugitive areas of grass, shrub and the occasional tree. Mirages appear from the moment you start hitting the hot sand and there is a very real sense of being an extremely long way from anything even remotely civilized. Archaeological sites and abandoned stone tools are strewn across the area, along with fossils and the strangest and most beautiful slices of stone and rock. Man-made monuments to past explorers are a vivid link to the recent past, and eerily abandoned vehicles and landmarks from the Long Range Desert Group’s World War II activities remain like ghosts in the sand. The rock paintings and engravings are beautiful and provide a very real echo of a past when the area was much more humid and when herds could be brought here to pasture.
Imagine going to the top of the crater of an extinct volcano and looking for miles and miles around you at the desert and dozens more extinct craters, black melted fortresses in an endlessly beautiful sandy plain. Look down at your feet and find yourself standing on a myriad of colours, rocks and minerals, the sheer chemistry that exploded to life right where you are now standing and blasted the surrounding area with lava bombs and molten rock. Amazing.
Imagine sitting, one seethingly hot morning, in a spectacular yardang field, staring in real pleasure at the fabulous view. You lift up your water bottle to drink some water, spill a few drops on your hand and, seconds later, find a butterfly balanced on your watch to drink from your wrist. Where on earth did it come from?
Wake up one morning, look out of your tent and, miles from any water source, find yourself gazing at a desert fox who is staring back at you only a few metres away. Both of you freeze and stare eye to eye, waiting for the other to move and break the spell. Tiny and delicate, big-eared and wide-eyed, suddenly it turns and vanishes into the night.
See the Earth’s shadow for the first time in your life, a purple haze fringing an endlessly curving horizon as the sun goes down and the moon comes up. Sit and write notes in the middle of the night by moonlight that is so bright that you don’t need any artificial light source. Look up and see stars so dense that you can scarcely see any blackness behind the sparkling silver intensity. Look away from the sky towards a nearby dune and you may well see that desert fox again, come back to find what leftovers from dinner are to be discovered.
That’s what the desert is like – visually stunning beyond the wildest imaginings and full of wonderfully heart-twisting surprises. Moments like that make up the fabric of life.
The area provides an entirely new experience, the chance to engage in an adventure in an entirely new realm. It gets into your blood.
Like any real adventure, the experience of desert travel is accompanied by practicalities and common sense procedures. Click on the links below to read about those practicalities.
Andie Byrnes trained as an archaeologist and is presently carrying out post-graduate studies in Egyptian Archaeology (prehistory) at UCL, London. She writes and manages Egyptology News, the most comprehensive news blog about Ancient Egypt and related topics. Article and Photos by Andie Byrnes ©2008-2009