Friday, 26 October 2012

Egypt (3): The Western Desert Ride

Need time for a little contemplation?

 One day's ride on quick, straight roads has taken me far into the dry, barren wild west.   I'm keen to avoid getting stranded, as you can imagine, and confronting a degree of nervousness at venturing so far from mechanical assistance.  I'm taking my chances that a slow puncture in my front tyre will behave, and that fuel stations will remain stocked through Eid (the four-day Islamic holiday).  The bike is loaded with water and provisions, and three giant aluminium serving trays lashed over the luggage: to reflect the sun and protect the sensitive electrical items in my kit.  

I pass quietly through a number of small, dusty towns - distinct settlements amongst 150-mile stretches of gritty sand and limestone rock.  There's little going on, especially as the sun climbs higher.  Just a few little shops and faded homes, the usual collection of battered Peugeot taxis.  I roll on, listening to a podcast series about the US presidential election: my eyes and ears a world apart.

Stretching west, surviving the shifting dunes, is a legendary desert oasis chain.  I make the Dakhlar Oasis - one of these improbable green gems - my base for the first night.  It's about 20km long, by 3km wide, fertile and urban.

In Mut, the main town in this particular oasis, a handful of budget hotels offer much better value-for-money than Luxor, unsurprisingly.  Although, the amplified noise from the mosques is much the same and has started to wear thin.

After resting, I take a stroll around the neighbourhood.  The locals eye me up.  I realise belatedly that it's my shorts drawing the stares: I've forgotten that exposing one's knees (yes, Mum, even my knees) is frowned upon in polite Islamic society.   (Luxor has too many debauched Westerners for this to be an issue any more; but fair enough, a demerit point for McMullen.  Must do better.)  This is an example of where my own culture creates a barrier and hinders me from understanding this new one.

My faux pas aside, I get the impression the townsfolk here are friendlier and more genuine than their Nile-ist countrymen.  Everyone is keen to help the visitor - with neither sugar-coated wiesel words nor any expectation of reward beyond reciprocated friendliness.  Kids come up to try their English out, and adults nod their consent at my camera waving. 

Or at least, the menfolk do.  It's hard to catch the eye of women - and my cheery manner is doused by the dark veils or their downward-looking eyes.  It's another faux pas - I should hardly be communicating with them at all. 

This season black is the new black.
I'll always find it hard to understand or accept such conservative conventions.  I'm falling into the trap of assuming Egyptian women are all down-trodden, repressed victims; I sometimes fail to notice the many educated, middle or upper class women working in offices, and presumably trying to juggle family and professional lives just as 'liberated' Western women do.  I need to think about this some more... my preconceptions are unsatisfactory.

The twilight walk is rewarding.  I head up towards an old mud-brick fort - long since abandoned, and surrounded by crumbling back-to-back dwellings.  The guidebook draws a parallel:

Just like the mud-brick houses in rural Egypt today, ancient homes were warm in winter and cool in summer.  Small, high-set windows reduced the sun’s heat but allowed breezes to blow through, and stairs gave access to the flat roof where the family could relax or sleep.

Often whitewashed on the outside to deflect the heat, interiors were usually painted in bright colours, the walls and floors of wealthier homes further enhanced with gilding and inlaid tiles.  Although the furniture of most homes would have been quite sparse – little more than a mud-brick bench, a couple of stools and a few sleeping mats – the wealthy could afford beautiful furniture, including inlaid chairs and footstools, storage chests, beds with linen sheets and feather-stuffed cushions. Most homes also had small shrines for household deities and busts of family ancestors.

The collapsing mud-brick dwellings in Mut are neither grand nor ancient, but ducking through the low doors and narrow passage ways I feel like I've stepped back centuries.  This is different to how I felt in the network of favelas in Brazil, or the villages in rural China, even though they resemble one another in terms of tiny living space.

Up top, the fort has good views over the oasis town.  Green date palms stretch out a few kilometres in every direction, shading irrigated fields; but then the desert encroaches and kills off any wandering plant life.  Far off an imposing shelf of limestone cliff runs along the horizon, lit from the west as the sun settles down into the Great Sand Sea...


5am rise and shine.  Another long day in the saddle takes me around a giant loop, through crescent sand dunes and north to a smaller oasis town: Farafra.  There's even less to this town, and few doors are open, what with Eid well underway.  A freshly sacrificed cow carcass is hanging outside one small convenience store, and a chap is hard at work butchering it up. 

I fill up at the only open gas station and chat to a couple of attendants and customers.  It's cooler here, in the shade.  The guys are intrigued by the foreign motorbike and ask all the usual questions - opting to 'phone a friend who can translate for us.

Beyond Farafra, the White Desert National Park is ahead.  Predictably, the desert surface starts to lighten, and then fleck with chalk(?) particles, pebbles and rocks.  But it's no coral-sand beach as you might have imagined.  No, this desert looks tough and scruffy, with little of the majestic grace conjured up on Hollywood movie screens.

I'm riding through the middle of the park on black asphalt, when wind-smoothed white spectres appear to either side of me.  The coarse wind-blown sand has sculpted these prominent rocks into strange and beautiful shapes.  Sadly, few are so close to the road that I can get a close up look (or photo).  Most are set back in the soft sand - too far and too deep for me to try with the bike or on foot.  Camping there with a 4x4 would be lovely, though.

Strange light beyond the White Desert - it turned into fog, but no rain as I got further up the road

Next up, the Black Desert.  The clue's in the name...   The desert surface ripples and ruptures into hills and ridges (nothing more than 280m tall, but prominent against the otherwise featureless surrounds).  It's dark and forbidding, but easier on the eye, as the glare is less.  I keep motoring, and watch with envy as a convoy of 4x4s drives by, heading for adventure.

And you know by now just how much I LOVE riding across soft sand.

I have reason to be grateful to one such convoy when I reach the Bahariya Oasis.  The local gas station is empty, and I doubt I have enough to quite reach Cairo.  A halfway-to-Cairo fuel stop is down the road (160km) but if I push my luck too far I could be stranded there.  Instead, I follow a friendly teen back to his dad's hotel, where he assures me is black market 'benzine' for my bike.

His offer to help, and his dad's good humoured hospitality leave me a little embarrassed:  I arrive expecting a hard sell and pressure to take a room.  Far from it, I get a free drink and tasty lunch and information on the road ahead.  If you're passing through, I recommend the Desert Safari Home of Badry Khozam (M: 02-38471321 / email:  Their friendliness makes it a pleasure to give them business.  (I wouldn't say the same about - and recoiled from - its antithesis, Ahmed's Safari Camp.)

Also at Khozam's place, I bump into an English ex-pat group.  They treat me to something better than black market benzine:  high quality '92 grade petrol from their spare container.  Although the spare container is sound, the Land Rover that surrounds has just suffered a few bumps and bruises so can't join their convoy into the desert.  I'm tickled to top the Bavarian right up with the equivalent of a few free pints of Stella.   It's enough to make her topple over with giddy delight, but we soon have her upright again.  Ahem.


Riding through the Western Desert, I've been skirting the giant dunes of the Great Sand Sea (see below).  With a properly kitted-out 4x4 one could get up close and personal, but my laden Beemer wouldn't stand a chance: we'd be stuck in yards.  

However, I've enjoyed the different landscapes, and there's a thrill seeing the sand encroach over the road.  I can imagine the stealthy threat of this environment keeps folks honest and draws a community together. 

From my Lonely Planet Guide:
One of the world’s largest dune fields, the Great Sand Sea straddles Egypt and Libya, stretching over 800km south to the Gilf Kebir. There are 18 sand seas around the world, four of them in North Africa. The Great Sand Sea begins south of the Mediterranean coast. A branch splits off in Libya, south of Siwa, forming the Calanscio Sand Sea; the rest carries on southeast within Egypt.

Sitting on a rise in the desert floor and covering a colossal 72,000 sq km, it contains some of the largest recorded dunes in the world, including one that is 140km long. Crescent, seif (sword) and parallel wavy dunes are found here, some of which are on the move while others remain in place. Undulating and beautiful, the dunes are treacherous and have challenged desert travellers for hundreds of years. ...

Aerial surveys and expeditions have helped the charting of this vast expanse, but it remains one of the least-explored areas on earth.  The Great Sand Sea is not a place to go wandering on a whim, and you will need military permits as well as good preparation.

If the threat of the desert binds communities together, perhaps this is analogous to the other influences on Egyptian society?  Against the rising, shifting influence of Western culture, which is perhaps increasingly secular and permissive, the conservative religious values evident in Egypt are standing up strongly.  In southern and western Egypt the common thread is very evident - just listen again to the five prayer calls echoing across the landscape every day.

From my Lonely Planet Guide:

Within Egypt, nothing functions outside of the realm of religion, which is often regarded as the very fabric that holds the entire country together. The family ethos, maintained and fostered by Islamic law, facilitates channels of cooperation, arbitration, conflict resolution and economic assistance within the greater community.  Furthermore, these same interactions are also used as enforcement mechanisms for common moral values, which certainly serve as a deterrent for crime within the community. Not surprisingly, breaking these informal moral ethical codes often comes with a heavy price – certain individuals may not be able to find a job, a spouse, a home, or even negotiate the bureaucracy of state institutions.

So, if I want to find the moral code and cultural integrity that I at first felt was missing in Egypt, my answer is to look at the very aspect of its society with which I am most ignorant - its religious creed.

Will this be enough to turn me into an Pharoah-phile?

[After reading all the Egypt blog posts, you can view a full photo gallery here: Photo Gallery - Egypt Slideshow ]

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