Living in Cairo is full of ups and downs. On the one hand, there is incomparable history and culture, and plenty of friendly neighbors–on the other, there is chaos, noise, dirt and pollution. It’s a wonderful town in which to live; at the same time, it’s important to take excursions outside of its chaotic reach, and often.
Luckily, Cairo is an easy city to leave. If you’re willing to spend a few hours in a car, there are endless adventures awaiting, two glorious coastlines, ancient ruins and monuments, vast expanses of open desert, and endless opportunities to get off the beaten path. Most importantly, leaving Cairo gives you a chance to recharge, refresh the senses, and prepare to submerge yourself again into the glorious chaos of the capital with renewed spirit and positive outlook.
If it’s a peaceful antidote to Cairo you’re after, then one of the best options is the desert. Ninety-nine percent of Egypt’s population, after all, lives on four percent of the land. The remaining 96 percent of the land is relatively untouched wilderness, and has been summoning travelers since the beginning of time. If you look at a satellite image of Egypt, the inhabited green area is a sliver, surrounded by two great deserts. As a result, there are great options to access the desert located within an easy day’s drive from Cairo, providing ample opportunity for peace and tranquility.
One of my favorite entry points into the Egyptian wilderness near Cairo is the desert around Bahariyya. While there are closer entries into the desert–the dunes around Fayoum for one–Bahariyya provides an endless variety of desert excursions, and so is perhaps worth the five hour drive getting there.
Bahariyya itself is the first of a string of oases that run south-west of Cairo, followed by Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga. A road trip through these towns has been reviewed previously in this column. The town of Bahariyya itself, though like many oasis towns in Egypt a bit worn, has a variety of attractions, including one of Zahi Hawass’s archaeological finds, the Valley of the Golden Mummies, and various temples and tombs.
But the true excitement starts once you load up the 4×4, nearly guaranteed to be a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser, and head into the desert. There are various itineraries you can discuss with your guides, depending on your interest and the amount of time you have. Any tour of this area, however, should include the White Desert with its glorious wind-formed limestone sculptures; the Black Desert with eerie formations of black volcanic rock, wide variety of mini-oases and springs; the Crystal Mountain, a great pile of geological wonders, glorious sand dunes, including the Great Sand Sea to the west of the road, and what has been labeled the mini sand sea to the east; and Agabat, a great valley of soaring dunes to rival the much more frequently visited Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Along the way you’ll have endless opportunities for diversions, including sand-boarding down dunes, taking a dip in a hot spring, and hiking in unspoilt nature. The sand dunes are picture perfect–what you’d expect on the cover of National Geographic magazine, but within a day’s drive of your house.
When night comes, you’re not exactly roughing it. Near oases, extravagant tents can be arranged, complete with beds with sheets, a warm fire and musical entertainment, even basic latrines. Farther out in the desert, jeeps manage to bring along only basic tents. Either way you may prefer to camp outside, under gloriously bright stars that your Cairo life will have persuaded you hardly exist.
A desert trip around Bahariyya is easy to arrange. If you’re looking to get away from it all, you needn’t pack weeks' worth of gear and head out into the Gilf al-Kbiir. Glorious sights are available much closer to home.
Details: Expeditions are organized by a variety of agencies, including Oasis Expeditions (www.oasisexpeditions.com) and Badawiya (www.badawiya.com). Rates run around LE500 per person per day, including jeeps and transportation, accommodation, guides and all food and beverages. For those seeking more luxurious accommodation in Bahariyya, try Qasr Bwaity (www.qasrelbawity.com) or the Desert Rose (www.desertrose-ecolodge.com).