We left the outskirts of the Egyptian capital.
Aladdin turns off the device that limited the jeep's speed. In the form of unexpected Arabian magic, he frees us for a journey through the White Desert, which is certainly less safe, but accomplished in a brilliant time. The prodigy soon proves to be imperfect.
Once the city of October 6th is passed, already in earnest in the White Desert, the device gives way and inaugurates an irritating tinkle of alarm that would be repeated throughout the entire trip.
A little before noon, we approached a gas station lost in the sandy expanse. Ayman, the guide, tells us that we are going to stop to stretch our legs. We join a small crowd of other bus drivers and passengers.
We drank hot tea and coffee without any great haste. Ayman abbreviates his tea and leaves.
As we left the establishment to wait outside for the return to the road, we noticed that we had entered a prayer room.
When we take a closer look, Ayman was part of a casual male community that shared the same patchwork carpeted mantle, the direction of Mecca and alternating prostrations driven by an unquestioned faith in Allah to which, by all indications, Aladdin did not surrender.
The believer delays what delays. Ten minutes later, he joins us. Each one refreshed in his own way, the cicerone duo announces the second half of the journey:
“Let's do it! From now on, the desert will be much more deserted.”
El-Bahariya: the first of the great oases
Two additional hours of lowly flying into the Saaara, we arrived at one of its rare and always surprising oases, that of El-Bahariya. In the month of December, the temperature is just over 20ºC.
We don't see a foreign soul in the Hotel Panorama where we check in, nor did the unobstructed scenery promised by the establishment. We install ourselves. We went down soon afterwards and shared a quick lunch with the cicerones duo.
Then the owner makes a point of showing us and Ayman the charms of El-Bahariya. With no objections, the three of us got into another jeep and set out to discover.
We were far from thinking that, even as an oasis that it was, the place could prove so lush. And yet, what we have unveiled already 370 km from Cairo is an incredible exception to the desolate and rocky landscape that surrounded us.
El-Bahariya begins as a depression measuring 90km by 40km, surrounded by moderate mountains and attracting a good part of the water only in the appearance of non-existent. In its deepest areas, a dense palm grove of date palms laden with fruit emerges from the ground.
It is irrigated by springs and streams of water, some underground, others flowing to the surface through streams and canals that the peasants in those parts manipulate in a complex network of small dikes, opened and closed with one or two stones or three or four earthen troughs.
Dirt paths between the wet and the stew furrow the forest. Farmers with hoes on their shoulders and producers and suppliers dressed in jilabas and turbans ride donkeys loaded with saddlebags full of dates.
In the urban center of El-Bawiti, vendors await us.
El-Bawiti: Capital of the El-Bahariya Oasis.
El-Bawiti is the main settlement in the El-Bahariya oasis. It welcomes 30 inhabitants Wahati (read from the oasis), Muslim Bedouins with ancestors in Libya, along the Mediterranean coast and in the Nile Valley.
We confess to Ayman that we love dates. The Egyptian guide intercedes with the host in the area to take us to a store where we could buy them with confidence.
At a glance, we leave the forest and pass through a Sharia Safaya avenue where a sequence of miniature and clay model houses stands out, some colored, others in the natural tone of solidified mud.
We entered a grid of dirt roads that recent rains had made less dusty than usual.
They are delimited by uncharacteristic establishments: grocery stores, rural shops, butchers, a shabby teahouse frequented only by men.
Signs in Arabic and promotional material from the usual multinationals battled for the commercial prominence of each alley, brandishing the most artificial and gaudy tones they could resort to.
From time to time, an old pick-up truck, crammed full of cargo, appears, or, as we could see, from passengers, several munaqqabat, which is like who says stuffed in abayas e niqabs blacks that only reveal their eyes.
These dismal and intimidating costumes usually worn by them outside the home, where they are seen by other men, are far from deserving the admiration or even the agreement of the Egyptians in general, and its propagation has generated apprehension in the authorities who interpret it. as a sign that both religious fundamentalism and disdain for the Cairo government are spreading.
In that deep Egypt we walked through, there were few women we came across. The ones we saw were either wearing that same black combination or just something less somber.
Lost in this dazzle, somewhere between anthropology and Muslim fashion, we arrived at the date shop we had been promised. There, El-Bawiti glows with color.
The sign features large olive green and cyan Arabic characters on a white background decorated with date palms and mountains.
The dates, available in different sizes and shades of yellow, brown and gold, are displayed on small fruit-bearing hillocks that emerge from crates.
They are for sale natural, but also packaged, canned, in oil and in other less expected forms. We followed the seller's advice.
We bought a kilo of the newest arrivals, the freshest, the sweetest. Around six in the afternoon, with the sun that had ripened them already dripping behind the palm grove, we returned to the desolate shelter of the Hotel Panorama.
The Dark Side of the White Desert
With the next morning, it's time to head southwest, towards the Egyptian heart of the Sahara. We are accompanied by Mahmoud, a young Bedouin hotel assistant.
We stopped again in El-Bawiti to buy groceries, including a reinforcement of dates which, as was to be expected, had already suffered a huge hole since the previous afternoon. At ten-thirty we left the village.
After only fifty kilometers, we stop at a section of the route called the Black Desert. We climbed one of its many volcanic hills sprinkled with dolerites and dark quartzites.
From the top, we appreciate the half-yellow half-black vastness around it and the almost insignificant passage of one or two vehicles coming from an apparent nothing, destined for another nothing, which only reinforce the surrounding immensity.
During that afternoon, through that Egypt, Cyrenaic in Roman times, inside, the desert takes on several other visuals, each one more surreal than the last.
At four o'clock, we arrived at the White Desert of Farafra, which at least Mahmoud claimed to know well enough not to get lost.
We believe in his promise.
We leave the Cairo-Farafra highway and enter a labyrinth of rocks and large boulders scattered without apparent end, a labyrinth and desert of the kind that, in 636 BC, would have disoriented the Persian king Cambyses II and his army when, in full conquest from Egypt, they sought the Oracle of Amon.
Farafra: the eccentric portal to the Red Planet
Farafra is the second of five depressions in the Great Western Desert. With only 980km2, it occupies half that of Bahariya. The whiteness of its sub-desert soon becomes obvious.
Calcium deposits cover the ground or stand out from it like sculptures that we find it hard to believe are mere millenary products of the impact of sand crystals dragged by the furious wind that often ravages these parts.
Our guides rejoice in the profusion of chalk rock sculptures (calcite) that show us with childlike enthusiasm.
The most famous is the “chicken and the mushroom” also known as the “chicken and the atomic bomb”. A close formation resembles an ice cream. And so it was called.
Others have grander and more formal names. There is “the monolith” and the “Inselberg”.
We got tired of circulating aboard the jeep.
When we detected a higher plateau in the vicinity of what Ayman had designated as a camp, we went out on foot and pointed to its top with the sun already falling over the horizon.
When we reach the summit, more than with funny shapes, we are confronted with an incredible immensity of stones and polished rocks resting on the calcite-stained soil.
By this time of sunset, the desert preserved little of its white. In fact, as we saw it from there, we were neither in a White Desert nor on Earth.
The ocher-yellow panorama was – no one could convince us otherwise – Martian. Redder and more Martian it grew as twilight crept into the afterglow and subjected the winter clouds to an exuberant incandescence.
Until then, we had been alone. Without us expecting it, two other jeeps appear from who knows where and cross the unlikely scenario. We didn't want to ruin the extraterrestrial imagery.
Accordingly, we envision them as NASA Rovers on an exploration mission.
The Sunset Warmed by the Bonfire of Farafra
After half an hour, the resistant light gives way to pitch. We got down from the plateau while we could do it safely and walked towards Ayman, Aladdin and Mahmoud who had been preparing the camp for some time.
We helped solve the careless lack of lighting with which the last one had left El-Bawiti.
A little later, around a hearty fire, we shared a dinner with fellow Egyptians under the hyper-starry firmament.
Ayman plays some Egyptian music on his cell phone. With the soundtrack he chose in the background, he tries to solve a very earthly problem.
He tells us stories and makes corrections that aim to shorten the distance that, in his mind, Islamic religion and culture kept us.
“You know that we Muslims also believe in Jesus and Mary, at least as historical figures.” secures us between different narratives, another one related to Noah's Ark.
Soon, he tells us of the Egyptian nationalist singers who, during the Six Day War in which Egypt (and several neighboring nations) clashed with Israel, they almost only sang nationalist anthems: “I love you Egypt” and the like.
The fire, like everyone's energies, quickly extinguished. We, Ayman and Aladino retire to the tents. More used to the desert, Mahmoud slept right next door, in the open, despite the foxes and coyotes that had been watching us for a long time, despite his visits in search of food.
We woke up before dawn. For a moment, the scene reverts to the reddish profile of Mars.
As soon as the sun leaves the horizon, the White Desert reassumes its whiteness and brings us back to the Land of the Western Desert. Until the next twilight.