• 20 . 04 . 11
  • In which we spend time at a small Egyptian desert oasis near to the Libyan border and adventure out into the Sahara desert.

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Desert, Oasis

I lose track of the horizon so many times as we barrel around the Sahara in a battered white Toyota Landcruiser (Oh, What A Feeling!) with intentionally deflated tyres and an unintentionally dented front fender, that in the end I have to give myself up entirely to the driver and trust in his uncanny ability to resolve zeniths and nadirs out of the endless yellow. It is a strange thing to be looking straight ahead and not see an incline that is literally right in front of your eyes, and to feel with your body that you are tilted to one side, but not to find definitive proof out of the window. Without a frame of reference, each bump and jolt is thrilling, the feeling of velocity as we accelerate at times to 140km/h more intense, the momentary and unexpected escapes from the shackles of gravity as we crest hills at high speed, euphoric.

When stopped, the great sand sea is thoroughly untroubled by our presence, remaining vast and enigmatic, undulating gold waves expanding to the horizon and beyond in every direction. The only sign of life the few, nearly faded tracks of journeys a few days past. I don’t know why anyone would draw a line in the sand to mark one’s position. There will be no proof that we were here at all next week.

There is a haze over the dunes caused by heat that makes the air shimmer and ripple incessantly, like watching through a plane of water that has had its surface tension broken by the brief touch of a jittery caddisfly. Low-flying sand whistles inches above the ground, guided and held aloft by sirocco gusts that curl and coil the fine dust into mesmerising shapes, one moment a snake ready to strike, the next a charger rearing to throw its rider, deceiving the eye with its continuous, hypnotic motion. The term shifting sands is appropriate.

And yet even here there are landmarks. A hot spring that smells of sulphur and a cold spring of fresh water, the two separated by a sand dune steep enough to support sand boarding, though there is too much friction for a real thrill and the lack of chair lifts limits runs to just a handful. A salty oasis, the water for which comes from who knows where, with a salt-level high enough to make buoyancy aids redundant.

Later in the day, we watch another spectacular sunset, the latest of many on this journey, setting the sky on fire and turning the sands rose and red before fading to black. The lights of Siwa blink on in the middle-distance, challenging the darkness in a small pocket of resistance.

The town is small, naturally, and nestled between two great salt lakes that after hundreds of kilometres of dry desert are apropos of nothing. Hundreds of thousands of trees thrive in the area. It is metaphorically and literally an oasis. From a high vantage point in town, the ever present sands threaten to inundate the greenery, encroaching on fragile life.

Already ancient in the time of Alexander the Great, this was believed to be his first stop in Egypt so as to visit the Oracle for a reading that inspired Alexandria, or so they say. They. The mysterious, anonymous They, purveyors of legend. Constructed of salt and sand and mud, original buildings and forts still remain, though have sagged over time, like a sandcastle built by children slumps after a spring rain. The effect in parts is like a giant termite mound. The beige walls hold the evening light beautifully.

The Bedouin here are more conservative than in the capital. Married women are entirely covered, even the eyes, in a thick midnight blue material that hides almost existence itself. They do not talk to us. They might smile, they might snarl behind the veil. They might pity our decadent ways, of course. It is impossible to tell. Young girls wave and chat excitedly at us, sharply juxtaposed with their silent mothers. I wonder if they give any thought to their uncommunicative future. I feel sorry for them, then intolerant, then indignant. I don’t have all the answers, but I can’t imagine anyone choosing that for themselves.

The men are friendly, the food is good. Our accommodation is excellent, consisting of high domed brick ceilings and whitewashed walls. It has a pool, regularly replenished by hot spring water.

Tonight we return to Cairo on the overnight bus. 10 hours, 900km and an entire world away.

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