This weekend, I went on an AUC-sponsored trip to the Black & White Desert…and it was hands-down my favorite place in Egypt so far. This post is going to be pretty picture-heavy, and although my pictures definitely don’t do it justice, it’s difficult to describe these places in words! You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.
We all met at 5:30 AM Friday morning to get started on the 4-5 hour bus ride into the western desert. I fell asleep pretty promptly, but was jostled awake every thirty minutes or so by the bumpy road. Every time I woke up, the view outside of our window remained exactly the same: sand, sand, and more sand.
After a few hours, we stopped at the only sign of civilization in the area for a bathroom break. We were presented with a building that consisted of one large room with tables, a prayer area, bathrooms, and a snack food stand. It was a pretty weird combination of customers: a few tourist buses were parked outside, but the ‘regulars’ were women fully cloaked in abayas and men in gallabayas drinking tea. I managed to avoid having to use the bathroom (a hole in the ground), and instead waited outside admiring the….sand.
The rest of the bus ride offered a more diverse landscape. White sand was marked with round, full bushes, and after awhile, we drove through the beginning of the black desert on our way to the white. I had no idea what to expect, so it was surprising to see that the black desert wasn’t just dark sand- it’s actually orange-tan sand with an infinite amount of small, black rocks littered across the top of it. It kind of looks like someone sprinkled black powdered sugar across the desert. There are also huge, pointed hills lining the horizon that could be easily mistaken for volcanoes.
We continued driving, and after a few hours stopped at a small hotel to freshen up and switch from our bus to about seven or eight jeeps. Six of us climbed into the back of a jeep, and sat on two benches facing each other. Our caravan of cars took off into the desert, and I promptly noticed that the fuel tank in our car was at ’empty’ from the start. It was obviously broken. Normally, I would think that knowing how much gas we had would be kind of important, especially when we would be driving for hours in the desert with no gas stations in sight, but hey- T.I.N.A.
At various points along this ride, the drivers suddenly decided to drive off the road and into the sand. We were all thrown around in the backseat as they drove over hills, rocks, and loose sand. The ride was full of “Sorry!”‘s as we were launched out of our seats and onto everybody’s bags and space. After awhile, we just stopped apologizing for bouncing around into each other. I’m pretty sure the off-roading was just for show, but it was a ton of fun. After a few minutes, we always returned to the same paved road, maybe having saved a couple of minutes from cutting through the desert. All of the bouncing around did come at a price, though- I ended up hitting my shoulder on an edge of a zip-tie on the jeep’s roll bar and have a pretty impressive cut to prove it!
We stopped for lunch at an inconspicuous brick house off the course of the road, with a donkey resting outside. Upon walking inside, we were met with an open kitchen and beautifully decorated restaurant. Tables were only about a foot off of the floor, which was covered in colorfully woven rugs. Guests sat on circular plush cushions, and open arched windows let in natural sunlight. There was even a small stream of water running through the middle of the main seating area. We were served guava and grapes as an appetizer- I’m pretty sure that was my first guava!
I couldn’t believe my eyes when they brought out the main course. I SWEAR it was goulash! We were presented with a huge serving plate of macarooni noodles, meat, and some kind of red sauce and spice. It obviously wasn’t quite as good as the home-cooked kind, but it was really strange to encounter in Egypt. We also got the typical “salad” (sliced cucumbers, tomato, and bell peppers) and pita bread.
After lunch, we continued driving and ended up at one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen. We literally drove over a huge sand dune, and upon emerging on the other side, were faced with gigantic domes of limestone in a vast sand valley. The sun peaked over one of the outer rock walls, casting a bright glow over our surroundings. We quickly climbed out of the jeeps and raced down the side of the soft sand dune and into the valley, climbing the rocks, laying in the sand, and marveling at the huge proportion of it all. It was a bit of a shock to be dumped into such a magnificent setting, with absolutely no warning whatsoever. I thought that this was just going to be another stretch of sand before arriving at camp!
The final stretch of the journey in jeeps was my favorite. The sun began to set, casting a colorful glow over the desert. The landscape was full of tall rock formations in pure white limestone, which give the white desert its name. The jeeps stopped for a break every 15-20 minutes or so (I still have no idea why), and the drivers would get out and chat for awhile before resuming the trip. At one point, we all got out of the jeeps to admire the sunset and play a little football (soccer). I tried to speak with the drivers in Arabic, but all I accomplished was learning their names (Walid, Abdullah, and Mohammad). When I tried to ask why we were stopped so much, they either laughed or stared at me in confusion.
We finally reached camp right after nightfall. I also have no idea how they knew how to get to this particular site, or what designated it as a campsite at all. To me, it seemed like we just drove through sand for awhile and decided to stop wherever looked nice. This lack of information was a pretty common trend for the entire weekend. We were literally never briefed on the trip- we had no idea who was really in charge, the drivers didn’t speak English, and the head RA there didn’t speak Arabic. Nobody ever told us where we were going once we started driving, how long we would be there, when we would eat or have a bathroom, or what we needed to bring. Again, T.I.N.A.
All in all, though, the drivers seemed to know what they were doing. We got out of the jeeps and wandered around, amazing by our surroundings as they began to set up camp. We were literally in the middle of the desert, dwarfed by colossal white limestone structures. The only company we had were one or two faint glimmers of other bonfires far off in the distance. The most striking part of the night was the sky. In Cairo, you can usually only see a couple of stars because of the smog and light of the city and campus. Here, you could see billions of stars. The only light around us was our small bonfire and a couple of lanterns, and the nearest city was hours away. There were so many stars that it was difficult to pick out the most popular constellations from among them.
Kjrstin, Alex, and I eventually wandered off to explore some of the rock structures. We climbed up onto one of the larger ones, amused to find that the limestone was like chalk- it rubbed off on us and turned our palms and feet white. Pieces of rock chipped off easily. We stood for awhile, admiring the silhouettes of the other rocks against the light of the starry sky, and watched the bonfire grow at our campsite down below. After reluctantly returning to camp, we found that most of the students had formed a ring around the fire to talk and watch the guides prepare our dinner. They used the open fire to barbecue chicken, boil water for rice, and cook potatoes. It was a pretty impressive task- they prepared food for 30-40 people over one solitary fire.
The night grew cold, but Kjrstin and I decided to leave the comfort of the flame to “find” a bathroom spot. When we had arrived at the site earlier, one of the guides proclaimed, “You need hamem? This is the biggest one in Egypt!” Hamem means ‘bathroom’ in Arabic, and we realized that we had the entire desert to use as one thanks to the lack of actual facilities. (Side note: Hamem is also very close to the Arabic word for ‘pigeon’. Upon returning to campus the next day, Margaux joked, “your guide said he had the biggest pigeon in Egypt??”) Kjrstin and I soon got distracted by the starry sky, and instead ended up just staring upwards for awhile. I stood with my head completely tilted back, mouth open wide. Soon enough, we both ended up just laying on the sand, watching the stars twinkle and catching a few shooting stars passing by. I honestly have no idea how long we were there- it could have been ten minutes or two hours. It was completely overwhelming- we were surrounded by complete silence and darkness, humbled by the infinite sense of the sky above us. I could have stayed there all night.
We eventually dragged ourselves up and returned to camp once again, just in time for dinner. The whole group sat at one long table, again only about a foot off of the ground. We got comfortable on small cushions against a backdrop of a traditional Egyptian tapestry that the drivers had hung to create a type of ceiling-less room to eat in. I was starving, and quickly dug into the barbecued chicken, rice, potatoes, and salad that they had prepared for us. After cleaning up, we all returned to the bonfire. Most of the drivers had gathered around it as well, and a couple of them brought out a drum and flute-type instrument. They played music for us and sang while we clapped along to the beat. Soon enough, a few of the drivers got up to dance around the fire, bringing some students up to join them. I immediately realized that my choice to talk to the drivers and find out their names would come back to haunt me- they remembered my name and insisted that I join the group dancing. I eventually got up and made a few circles around the fire with the rest of them before returning to my seat.
At this point, most of us were ready for bed. The guides had set up a couple of tents, but most people just grabbed a cushion and a sleeping bag and set up under the stars. Kjrstin, Alex, and I sat with a few of the guides for a little longer, and they offered us mint tea from a pot that had been warming over the fire. We had a (very broken) conversation with them in Arabic and a little bit of English, and learned that most of them live in Baharea, a town nearby. They admitted that they come out to the desert a few times a year just on their own, to “get away from their kids and wives”- haha! We talked for awhile, enjoying tea and watching the moon come up before heading off to bed. The rest of the night was not so enjoyable- they didn’t have enough sleeping bags for everyone, so Kjrstin and I ended up freezing all night with only one blanket each! I never thought I’d get that cold in Egypt.
After a restless, cold night, we all woke up to the sunrise at around 6 AM. The guides had set up our long table out on the sand for breakfast of bananas, pita bread, honey, jelly, and cheese. We bundled up and ate before helping pack up camp.
Our surroundings were even more imposing by daylight. We couldn’t decide what it resembled most: Antarctica, the moon, Star Wars, or a Dr. Seuss village. The limestone was purely white and formed huge rock structures against the beige sand. Limestone also poked out of the ground, making it look like fresh snowfall. The sky was streaked with white clouds.
We all wandered around for a bit, climbing the rocks and taking pictures before it was time to leave.
Our next stop was Crystal Mountain, which required a lot more driving through the desert. I literally thought that we were going to fall off of the hills a few times after the drivers decided to cut across them instead of staying on flat sand, but we all somehow made it. The mountain is an area full of different rock and crystal formations. It wasn’t quite as impressive as I expected, especially compared to how great the White Desert was, but the crystals were beautiful nonetheless.
On the way to our last stop, the Black Desert, the whole driving-through-sand thing started causing problems. Almost all of the jeeps got stuck in loose sand, and at one point, our car was almost beyond saving. I was sitting in the back with five other girls when we suddenly stopped moving. The driver insisted that we all stay in the car, and that he would fix it, but we all doubted that this would be the case. We opened the back door, and saw that sad came right up to the door itself- we were completely buried! Finally, a few of the drivers came over to help, and we got out of the jeep. Five or six men -and Kjrstin- pushed the jeep until it was freed from the sand, upon which the driver continued driving away. We ended up chasing the jeeps across the dunes of sand until we finally met up again on more solid ground.
The Black Desert was our last stop of the trip. We pulled right up to the base of one of the “volcano hills,” and most of the students immediately decided to try climbing to the top. I followed, trying not to slip on the loose sand of the hill or misstep on one of its billions of black rocks. After a long, hot climb, we finally reached the top.
I’m glad I made the journey- it was a beautiful view of the entire Black Desert. There were a couple of smaller rocks piled into mini-pyramids at the top, and we were surrounded by orangey-black sand and countless other volcano-hills. There was one lone road leading from one end of the horizon to the other.
After this stop, we rode in the jeeps for awhile before switching back to the bus and stopping for a quick lunch. We were all exhausted for the journey back, and I slept for most of it. Apparently, we were supposed to get back to campus by around 7 or 8 PM, but (again), T.I.N.A. The bus ended up breaking down multiple times on the way back. By the time we were about an hour and a half away from New Cairo, we were stopping every fifteen minutes or so to try to fix the bus- apparently the fan belt had broken, and the replacement wasn’t functioning properly or something. We waited for a good hour or so before a few friends and I decided to just abandon the bus and take a taxi back to campus. It was a pretty frustrating situation for me- the bus company offered to send another bus to complete the journey, but it wouldn’t have arrived for a good 30-45 minutes (which usually means about 1.5 hours). I tried to ask if they would reimburse us for the cost of the cab, but that got lost in translation pretty quickly.
We got a cab pretty quickly, though, and squished the five of us (and our bags) in for the hour or so back to campus. I’m so glad that I got to see this part of Egypt- I had no idea that things like this even existed here! Hopefully, I can return sometime soon.