- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

FARAFRA, Egypt — In the half-moon light, the large, white rock formations tower above the dark sands in an eerie fluorescent glow, soon after the sun has set in myriad colors over the hot Egyptian desert.

Winds through millenniums have sculpted the chalk figures — many as high as two-story buildings — into countless surrealistic shapes across the White Desert — mushrooms, animals and humans, or colossi on hilltops.

Some look like camels or “ships of the desert,” the traditional form of desert transport that is making way for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Others are reminiscent of pyramids, appropriate in this ancient land that is home to the pharaonic structures.

During the day, the blinding rocks add to the desert’s heat, but they also can provide welcome shade from the scorching rays of the sun in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees.

At dusk, the formations dance in the evening hues. At night, they stand like enchanted moonlit sentinels in the profound silence.

The White Desert, southwest of Cairo, Egypt’s capital, is on the northern fringe of the Western Desert that joins the Libyan Desert in the west. Beyond that, the great Sahara stretches for thousands of miles across northern Africa.

Aptly named, the White Desert will surprise travelers who expect endless soft, brown sand dunes. Those too can be found, but much of this desert floor is covered in limestone or hard white chalk. In some areas, the elements have ground it into a fine powder that can hang in the air for days after a windstorm, unlike sand, which settles quickly.

A visit to the desert should be well-planned. Whether exploring by camel, four-wheel drive, on foot or on off-road bikes, you need tour organizers who know the area well. Venturing alone can be treacherous.

A Bedouin guide and I had to trek more than three hours in the blazing sun after our vehicle broke down, but the local man knew the way to the nearest road, and we were able to get help before our water ran out. Some guides advise against going into the desert without a support vehicle besides your own transportation.

Qasr al-Farafra, Egypt’s smallest oasis town and one of its least spoiled, 315 miles southwest of Cairo, makes a good base for exploring. The inhabitants, many of them descendants of nomadic Bedouins, hold the desert in deep respect and are among the best tour organizers.

They also provide the necessary clothing and equipment, including protection from potential sandstorms.

Hundreds of visitors have made the trip, as is apparent by numerous tire tracks in the sand, and sadly, the discarded garbage where one least expects it.

The Farafra depression of the White Desert with its many canyons has a unique natural wonder — huge, conical monoliths known as “inselbergs” — also found on other planets. Scientists have studied them to better understand Mars.

Among other noteworthy sights are Crystal Mountain, a quartz crystal rock with a hole in the middle, and the massive Twin Peaks. In contrast, minute seashells can be found embedded in the rock, and the desert floor is covered in many places with quartz, pyrites and fossils.

A guide will take you to small tufts of oases where the green vegetation provides respite for the eyes after hours in the glare. His keen eye will lead him to find a stash of firewood from a twig sticking out of the sand.

The wood is needed for a campfire to prepare a hot meal and warm drinks as evening temperatures fall fast below 60 degrees. In the winter months, nighttime lows can dip to freezing.

There is little likelihood of rain, but fog and dew are common, especially during spring and fall. Sandstorms also are possible.

There is not much to do in the desert after you’ve seen the sights, but sleeping on the soft sand with the moon and stars forming a celestial canopy as the embers of the evening fire gently fade can be a memorable experience for a tourist who wants something more than pool-side hotel luxuries.

To fully appreciate the constellations, plan your trip on a moonless night by checking the lunar calendar. Otherwise, a wake-up call is necessary a few hours before sunrise when the moon has set.

Those who prefer the full moon will find the desert brings out its intense light and magic in an unrivaled way.

After a desert trek, Farafra makes a welcome watering hole with its 100 springs and wells.

Situated on the southwestern desert highway six to seven hours by bus from Cairo, it has an oasis of some 250 acres — the soul and provider for the sun-scorched town of some 5,000 inhabitants.

Wandering among the lush groves interlaced by streams and gushing rivulets seems miragelike after the hot, arid sands. Tiny, juicy apricots, figs, olives, dates, guavas and mulberries are among its many fruits. Farmers also grow vegetables and other produce on land made arable by the oasis water supply and underground streams.

Much of the oasis is divided by mud walls with wooden doorways dating back to the Roman era. Farafra, which has sustained many desert attacks, provided a steppingstone to the Nile Valley for neighboring Libyans, who captured it in the 13th century BC.

Early signs of Christian housing and Coptic inscriptions also have been found in the town, which 200 years ago had just about 200 inhabitants.

The old fortress, dating back hundreds of years, is almost completely destroyed, although a few of its walls are used for surrounding houses.

A mosque commands the town’s central square, from where six dusty streets lead into the maze of mostly low, mud-brick houses. The main street has several cafes, small restaurants, food stores, a bakery, pharmacy, photographers’ shop and haberdashery. There is also a post office and barber shop.

On the northeastern entrance to the town, the Badawiya Hotel offers rooms in a domed single-story building in local architectural style among flowering bougainvillea, banana and lemon trees and rose bushes. An outside diwan, a covered enclosure with colorful blankets and cushions for lounging, is a perfect place for a noon siesta. Early mornings and late afternoons are the times to venture out here.

Farafra has few tourist sites, but its simple, serene atmosphere and extremely friendly people are enticing.

Its cultural center point is the art museum built and run by a local, self-taught Bedouin artist who uses one name, Badr, who has exhibited paintings, etchings and other works in Europe.

Urns of different-colored sands dominate the courtyard of the two-story mud building where he works and exhibits. Despite offers from abroad, he says he won’t leave the desert.

“Farafra gives me everything; nature, the sand, the stone, the architecture and the people,” Badr, 44, says. “The oasis and the desert allow me to be myself and to dream my dreams. I need nothing more.”

Getting to Farafra, lodging, meals

Two buses leave daily from Cairo to Farafra, one in the early morning, the other at night. The six- to seven-hour journey costs about $6.

Saad Ali, a local Bedouin who runs Hotel Badawiya, has organized desert safaris since 1985. He also has an office in Cairo from where he picks up guests. The $60-a-day fee includes a trip to the desert.

Hotels arrange desert transport with a driver, mostly in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

In the town of Farafra, the distances are short enough to walk, or one of the town’s few taxis is more than reasonable. “Mr. Socks,” the town eccentric, can be persuaded to take you for a sightseeing spin on the back of his motorbike for a nominal fee.

The climate is hot and dry. Statistics show an average zero days of rain throughout the year. The best time to go is October to April, when the average daily temperature ranges from 55 to 75 degrees.

At night, winter temperatures can fall to below freezing. In the summer, the average daily temperature is 90 degrees, but highs in the sun can soar above 120 degrees.

In August, $1 was worth about 6 Egyptian pounds. Black-market rates are slightly better. Dollars and euros are accepted in many stores (usually at worse rates than in banks), but in Farafra you need Egyptian pounds.

LODGING

There are two hotels in Farafra. Hotel Badawiya (“Bedouin” in Arabic) has 22 spotless rooms with mosquito nets, hot and cold water, many with their own shower and bath. Prices range from less than $20 for a single to less than $30 for a double room with extra beds.

A new, more modest and cheaper hotel, the El Waha (“oasis”), has 10 rooms and charges around $5 a room. Bathrooms are shared.

DINING

There are a few small restaurants in Farafra. The food is simple, chicken or beef with local bread and vegetables; prices range from 50 cents to less than $5.

Hotel Badawiya (www.badawiya.com) has the best menu in town. Most of the food is organically grown in the oasis or adjoining farms.

The main dishes include beef and chicken, pasta, rice, salad and bread. Meals usually begin with a bowl of “bird’s tongue soup,” a cardamom-flavored pasta soup.

Make sure you have an ample supply of water. Hotel Badawiya provides a refreshing welcome drink of cold hibiscus tea and an icy, fresh mint-and-lime drink that is one of the best thirst-quenchers.

Tea and Turkish coffee also are available, but unless you have a sweet tooth, ask for only a little sugar or you will get an extremely sweet concoction.

Alcohol is scarce in small towns in this predominantly Muslim country. Hotel Badawiya stopped serving beer and wine a few years ago but is considering reintroducing them for hotel guests.

OTHER THINGS TO DO

• Visit the Black Desert, which at first looks like a bad case of pollution. On closer inspection, you will find the ground is covered by millions of tiny black stones, mostly pyrite. The Black Desert begins about 55 miles north of Farafra.

• Take a nighttime dip in the sulfurous hot springs that bubble among the drooping palms on the outskirts of Farafra.

• Visit the camel farm in Farafra, where you can take a ride. Socks, scarves and sweaters knitted from camel wool are reasonably priced.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide