The Surreal Egyptian Desert

We’d both had our little hearts set on a tour to the White Desert and the initial plan was to catch a bus into Bawiti and sort one out from there. We had no idea how long that would take us though, and with only 30 days to see as much as we could we decided to just get it booked so we could get picked up from Cairo and dropped back there at the end. Gosh, the luxury! The convenience! I’m definitely finding that as I get older I value comfort and convenience a lot more, a fact not reflected in our hotel room in Cairo with the power sockets falling off the wall and the vague feeling that we might get murdered as various unseen organisms chewed on our flesh.

Not the organism that was chewing on us. This adorable ball of fluff and knives was at Ahmed Safari Camp, the hotel owned by our tour company. Cats everywhere.

Anyway. It’s a bloody long way from Cairo to Bahariya Oasis. Once the minivan was full of tourists off we fucked for five hours of driving. I did that nodding off thing you do when you wake up because your neck is about to fucking snap and your gob is open wide enough to swallow solar systems. When I see people sleeping sat up with their mouth closed I just assume they’re robots. Or lizard people. Or aliens sent to observe us and they haven’t quite got the nuances of human behaviour down yet because they were too busy trying to master blinking.

The roads are covered in sand and sand drifts pile up against the crash barriers. Hashtag desert life!

It was an uneventful drive which is exactly how I like these kinds of drives to be and we pulled into the Oasis around lunchtime. We were a group of eight. You’d think they’d split us four and four but no. They split us up according to gender so after lunch we got in a 4×4 with one other woman whilst the five blokes crammed into the other Landcruiser. We didn’t mind. More space for us.

Our chariot.

Our driver, Bedr, was also our guide and cook and he was great. Today we’d be doing a bit of asphalt driving and a bit of off-road driving and the dude could drive! Honestly, as soon as we were off the tarmac and heading into the Black Desert he ragged that Toyota around the sand, choosing music on his phone with one hand and expertly steering around various rocks with the other. It was a shit tonne of fun! Although I was mentally sifting through my insurance policy and wondering if we were covered should we end up roof first in one of these spectacular conical hills.

Aforementioned spectacular conical hills. We thought this was awesome but it was going to get better.

The Black Desert is so called on account of the volcanic rock strewn about the place making it look, well, black. The sand has a very slight orangey tinge to it too which just adds to the effect, and the landscape is covered with these random hills just poking into the air. We climbed up one called Black Mountain for a better view but there was no way I was getting to the top of it. There’s no trail per se, you just sort of muddle your way up it as far as you can before your basic motor functions remind you of your general inability to get down hills. I stopped halfway. Tarrant tried to get a bit higher but she couldn’t get to the top.

The Black Desert. Lesbian for scale.

Bedr called our next stop the cold springs and added, “They are cold to us, but probably warm to you.” I mean, I’d call them tepid. The springs around here aren’t lovely, natural pools. The water is pumped from ridiculous amounts of metres below ground, 600 metres in this case, and they’re functional rather than pretty. They’re for the surrounding farms. They grow dates around here. I’m not sure what else but they’re very proud of their dates. We dangled our feet in and Bedr brought us Bedouin tea.

Just a nice temperature to stick your horrible feet in. The lads from the other car went for a swim. I feel like it’s a bit easier for guys to strip off and swim in Egypt.

This tea, right. So it’s black tea, and they put a sacrilegious quantity of sugar in it, but then they add mint. It is life changing. We asked for it with less sugar and it’s really fucking lovely like that, I’m genuinely considering drinking all of my tea like this when we get home. Bedr says you can only get it in the desert where the nomadic Bedouin people hail from. I kind of feel like I’ve been shown nirvana only to have it cruelly snatched away and replaced with Aldi teabags.

Obviously I took this photo that evening. Bedr calls the tea Bedouin Whiskey. He told us you drink it twice. The loose tea goes in the pot with the water to be heated and the result is strong tea which is served with a little sugar. More water is added and the tea is less strong and is served with more sugar and a bit of dried mint. To stir the sugar in he spooned it into the pot after it had been heated and poured it from a height into a cup, put the tea back in the pot then repeated this a few times. He prefers the second pot with the mint and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Next stop, Crystal Mountain. This area of Egypt used to have volcanos 120 million years ago hence the Black Desert. They think that the insane heat from these volcanos forced the rock into crystals. A second theory is a meteorite hit the area and the heat from that compressed the rock into crystals. As you drive in you can see the sunlight glinting off them like glitter. We jumped out for a closer look.

Crystal Mountain.

From a distance the hills and rocks look like any other hill-rock combo (which sounds like a genre of music played by people with very few teeth and loud guitars) but up close you can see how a lot of them are formed from crystals. They’re a bit dusty on account of Egypt being an inherently dusty place, but when you’re looking at them properly you can see how layers of rock have contorted into shiny white shards. It’s quite beautiful.

See? Crystals. These aren’t the most interesting shaped rocks but this photo shows the crystals the best.

Right then. A quick stop at a viewpoint so we could marvel at Agabat which is an unreal landscape of random rocks then we headed to a big dune to do some sandboarding. Tarrant and the German woman we were sharing a car with had a go anyway. I’ve done sandboarding a few times and, in conclusion, I don’t find it to be that much fun.


I can’t stand up on account of having the balance of a badger on ketamine and the one time I tried it resulted in a groin strain. Sitting down only results in half the fucking desert getting lodged in every orifice you had the audacity to leave uncovered, and then you have to get back up the fucking hill. Have you ever walked up a sand dune? It is utterly miserable, I’d rather listen Boris Johnson describe his wet dreams. I sat and watched the others get covered in sand.

Tarrant shot off too fast for me to get a photo so here’s one of her and two others slogging back up the hill, possibly regretting a few life choices.

We’d officially been in the White Desert for several kilometres now but as Bedr drove us further south it started living up to its name. We’d see flashes of white rock getting more and more frequent then we left the road again and the bizarre rock formations we’d come here to see started springing up. There’s the Old White Desert which is sort of an off-white, and the New White Desert which boasts unbelievably white rocks broken up with sand. It looks like icebergs, I’m not even shitting you.

We saw a few camels knocking about, apparently they’re semi-wild. A guy comes out every couple of weeks to check on them. I have no idea why they’re just roaming but I guess it beats carting tourists around the pyramids.

Bedr spun us through the desert at speed, fishtailing around corners as we resisted the urge to point out small things like the fact we were headed straight for a fucking rock. Of course he knows what he’s doing, this is his job, just when you think he’s not going to make a corner he spins the wheel the other way and everything is good again. He pulled up at his camping spot fifteen minutes before sunset. Impeccable timing, sir! We wandered off to take it all in whilst he set up camp.

Our little campsite. He moves his camp every few tours to try and keep the area clean. Another driver told us that at the end of the season all the drivers go into the desert, camp out and clean it up ready for the next season.

What I couldn’t get my head around was the vast differences in the landscapes. First, the black lava and the conical hills. An hour later we’re clambering over rocks made of crystals. Then we’re being steered through sand dunes, and now this absolute belter of a landscape. It doesn’t seem real. We watched the fiery skyball fuck off, munched our way through the absolute mountain of food we were given, then just hung out round the fire.

There wasn’t a single cloud in sight and the moon wasn’t due to rise until well after midnight so you can imagine the sky. There was a glow on the horizon from the nearest town, El Farafra Oasis, but not enough to spoil the show. We could see the Milky Way dusted across the sky above us. It doesn’t matter how many times I see this it never fails to be magical. That night we had the choice of sleeping in a tent or outside so of course we opted for the latter. I lay awake as long as I could underneath a very heavy, very warm camel hair blanket, watching shooting stars, until my eyes refused to stay open any more.

Best I could do with a fixed lens camera with a 1″ sensor. The Milky Way had the audacity to rise right over the only light pollution for miles so I couldn’t try for the shot I wanted.

The following morning we got up to watch the fiery skyball reappear before breakfast which was, predictably, way too much food. As we were eating Bedr tried to start the car. Nope. Having none of it. He did eventually get it going but it didn’t sound great. Once everything was packed up, off we fucked back to Bahariya Oasis but not before stopping at all the famous rock formations.

Goooood morning, White Desert!
Rabbit Rock.

Rabbit Rock went without a hitch but after we’d gawped at the various formations around the Mushroom and Chicken Rocks it all went to shit. The car refused to start, there was a problem with the battery. We all got out and pushed it a few metres and managed to bump start it and we carried on to the next attraction; a bunch of rocks shaped like ice cream and cupcakes. He’d parked on a hill so he got the car started this time but we hadn’t gotten far when he started batting at the dashboard, stopped the car and jumped out. The fucking fuse box was on fire! I’ve never exited a vehicle so quickly in my life.

The famous Chicken & Mushroom Rocks. Named after my least favourite Pot Noodle. They’ve fenced it off, I assume to discourage dickheads from carving their fucking name into it like they’ve done with Old Mushroom Rock which we saw later on.
The whole desert is just strewn with interesting rocks.
Sphinx Rock

Fortunately there are a fuck tonne of drivers ferrying tourists around the desert at any given time so we weren’t short of help. Two cars stopped and a fuse was replaced which was, apparently, all that was needed. We stopped a couple more times in the Old White Desert to put some more stuff in our eyeholes but the 4×4 started with no issues after that and we headed back to the hotel where we were taking our meals.

Camel Rock
These buggers resemble ice cream or cupcakes.
Off the top of my head I can think of one 4WD excursion that I’ve been on where the car or truck didn’t break down. Is it me? Am I the jinx?

We’d opted for two nights which consisted of one night in the desert and one in a hotel. We were taken to a hotel around the corner, the hotel owned by the tour company was full, and I can’t remember the last time I was this pleased to see a shower. It was gloriously hot too. Yes, I know, we’re in Egypt, the air is lava, but I’m that prick that wants a hot shower regardless of how much I’ve been complaining about the heat all day.

A couple of photos of the Old White Desert.
A very defiant palm tree. Bedr also showed us where algae grows under loose rocks. They get their moisture from the morning condensation on the rocks.

Around 1.30pm we were collected from our hotel along with two absolutely wonderful Canadian blokes and were taken for some lunch. Gilles and Dave had been in Egypt for three weeks and were full of hints and tips. We picked their brains for everything from excursions to food. They also happened to be fantastic company and they were a joy to share our afternoon tour of Bahariya Oasis with.

Date palms. These were growing behind Ahmed Safari Camp but we did drive through a lot of date palm plantations this afternoon. The yellow dates aren’t ready yet.

Now, when you think oasis you think palm trees and beautiful, clear lakes you can drink from. Yeah nah, that’s not what an oasis is here. I think it just means it’s not a total desert and shit can grow here. Sure, there are palm trees, they grow dates here but I wouldn’t go drinking from Salt Lake. I mean, the lake isn’t salty, the ground is apparently where it gets its name from, but I wouldn’t describe the lake as inviting. Back in the day the local people would collect the salt from the ground, clean it and use it in daily life.

Salt Lake.

We were taken to another spring too which pulls the water from over 1000 metres underground. It’s very fucking hot, too hot to swim in if that even crossed your mind, and even remained on your mind after you caught a whiff of it. A driver was washing his rugs in it when we arrived. As with the other two springs it’s functional rather than pretty and apparently the palm trees around here are perfectly happy being watered with molten lava.

We were taken to look at Pyramid Mountain which is a fuck off hill that looks like a pyramid so no surprises there then, then we were off to English Mountain to watch the fiery skyball exit stage west. Now, this is so called on account of when the British occupied the area during one of the World Wars and a chap called Williams wanted somewhere with a decent view of the whole oasis. This is the mountain he chose and the ruins of his camp still remain.

Pyramid Mountain. You can see why they call it that.

The views really are quite stunning from up here, you can see why it was chosen. The four of us hung out and chatted until the sun hovered just above the horizon, a big, yellow disc, then headed back to the car where our driver had more of that delicious Bedouin tea waiting for us. The drive back took us through Bawiti, the largest settlement in the area, and the guys pointed out that there wasn’t a woman in sight. It was all just men sat around smoking shisha and drinking tea. Several years of no travel seems to have knocked the confidence out of me and I was quite glad that we’d opted to book the tour in advance rather than try to find one here.

Sunset over Bawiti.

So I worry that we peaked too soon with Egypt. This tour has been so absolutely perfect it feels like it can only go downhill from here. Hashtag eternal pessimist. We’re heading back to Cairo tomorrow and people say things like Cairo “isn’t fun” and it’s too busy and dirty and there are scams everywhere. We were pretty lucky when we arrived to be fair, we didn’t encounter any of the scams we’d heard about. We’ve opted to stay in Giza rather than Downtown out of some misguided idea that it might be a bit more touristy therefore a bit easier to navigate. I think I’m looking forward to the challenge but we’ll see how quickly my mind changes when the challenge actually happens.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Black Desert, Giza Governorate & White Desert, New Valley Governorate, Egypt

الصحراء السوداء ، محافظة الجيزة والصحراء البيضاء ، محافظة الوادي الجديد ، مصر

Stayed at: Camping in the White Desert, & Sands Baharia, Bahariya Oasis

Sands Baharia. Actually a really nice room with great AC (once we’d worked out how to switch it on like the idiots abroad we are) and lovely, hot showers. It’s a bit isolated, I’m not sure you’d want to stay here if you were in the area independently, but Amir arranged for a driver to collect us for food and the tour. Breakfast here was nice too.

Useful shit to know…

  • We used White Desert Travels. You can email the GM, Amir, but his preferred form of communication is WhatsApp. You can get him on +201143133000.
  • He’s really helpful and you can trust his advice. He kept in touch a couple of times between booking and actually getting there to make sure we were still interested as we’d paid no deposit.
  • He charged us US$210 each. This didn’t include park entry fees which was an extra LE110 each.
  • It also doesn’t include drinks with meals at the hotel.

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