Camping in Egypt’s White Desert – A Surreal Experience

Who has not fantasized about a desert safari and spending a night camping in the Sahara?

There are many companies in Egypt providing theses services but each has a slightly different itinerary. Although camping is allowed near some of the spring-fed tanks in or near the oases such as at Bir Sitta just out of Farafra, most travellers would agree that the highlight of any ‘camping in the desert’ experience is undoubtedly a night at Sahara el Beyda or the White Desert 45 kilometres north of Farafra.

Why is this the case?

The White Desert is a place of bizarre and suggestive chalk formations. During the day, it is a blindingly white world in the middle of the usual ochre desert and looks like an outdoor sculpture museum created from the mind of someone like Salvador Dali. quad bike The imagination runs wild in such a place as the formations, between scattered tufts of desert grasses, change shape depending on perspective and angle of the sun. This white world looks as it it has had a recent covering of snow and is populated with strange figures: birds, chickens, mushrooms, parts of the human body such as rounded breasts and prominent nipples, fluffy white marshmallows and ice cream cones. There is one that resembles the mushroom-shaped cloud of a nuclear explosion.

Most tours try to arrive late in the afternoon to see this creamy/white expanse before sunset. Then, as the sky turns a deep indigo and the desert glows orange, the driver/guide sets up camp, usually a simple roofless three-sided enclosure of thick patterned Bedouin fabric to provide protection from any desert winds. He lays down a series of carpets on the cold sands and throws around a few large cushions and some camel-hair blankets. Of course some people bring their own sleeping bags. A blazing fire at the mouth of the enclosure keeps away the night time chill as he ritually prepares cups of excessively sweetened black tea while dinner is coking.

At night, especially under a full moon and with the sky transformed into a sea full of silver fish, the surreal shapes cast eerie black shadows on what resembles a frozen Arctic landscape. You might be lucky enough to have a guide who can recite verses from Jalaludin Rumi, as I once did. ‘Don’t you think my sky is awesome?’ he intoned on behalf of Allah. ‘Why don’t you pay it more attention? Tell me, does it have a single flaw?’

Despite the opportunity to relish the silence with only the earth breathing and the sounds of an occasional curious grey desert fox nearby, most Bedouin drivers and guides feel obliged to provide loud traditional music for their customers and encourage them to clap along and dance. For some, this might add further interest to their desert experience but I considered myself fortunate to have had Akhmed who, after dinner, took out a nai and filled the dark silence with mellow soulful sounds, liquid notes that floated beyond the camp then died away.

Despite the freezing temperatures and the aches and pains from sleeping on the ground, all are forgotten as the sunrise transforms the White Desert and its formations into a stunning soft pink landscape. Perhaps a desert hawk makes an appearance riding on the shimmering air currents.

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