Friday, October 10, 2014

The White Desert, Western Desert: Vanilla Ice and Peppermint Drops

The landscape of the White Desert can whet the appetite. Here, in one of the natural wonders of Egypt’s natural heritage, you constantly find yourself comparing the weird chalk formations to types of food. Of course, this could be triggered by wishful thinking: a camper’s diet can be tedious, and one can’t expect to come across a restaurant when it’s time for a break.

Yet, you hardly miss the pit stops. Traveling across the desert is not just a case of getting from one oasis to another—there are many distractions in between. No less can be expected in the Egyptian Western Desert, part of the eastern Sahara and an area with intricate land formations but that became arid less than 5,000 years ago.

The White Desert lies in the Western Desert between the oases of Bahariya and Farafra. Before the advent of regular motorised transport, the 185-kilometre journey from Bahariya to Farafra took four days by camel or donkey, with water wells at al-Haiz, a day’s journey from Bahariya, and again at Ain al-Wadi, a day away from Farafra. Modernisation came late: the road to Farafra was not paved until the 1970s. 

The small oases that lie between the two larger ones still use electricity powered by generators, and they still have no telephone lines—a service already outstripped by satellite. The area is now a national protectorate, and can be explored with a guide by camel or a four-wheeler as long as one adheres to the regulations of the Egyptian environment agency.


To reach the White Desert from Bahariya you must first pass through the Black Desert, so named after the sprinkling of basalt pebbles scattered over the surface like burnt breadcrumbs. The gateway to the White Desert is the Crystal Mountain, an obligatory stop for tourists. A small, natural arch in the rock and the glittering calcified crystal walls make it a perfect place to pose for photos. The Crystal Mountain is what geologists call an exhumed cave, a limestone cave—once complete with stalagmites and stalactites—that has been thrust upwards by tectonic movement and, with time, has lost its roof due to erosion.

Soon after the Crystal Mountain the black basalt droppings give way to sand-blown chalk formations which loom on either side of the road. Giant mushrooms appear: one or two have been defaced by those keen to add their names (and easily identifies the person who dropped the odd milk carton or banana skin at the scene), but on the whole this fantastic desert is as clean and pristine as it should be.

The shapes are formed of soft, pure white Cretaceous limestone or chalk created from remains of microscopic marine organisms that settled on the bed of the ancient Tethys Sea, the huge body of water that once covered much of North Africa, and of which the Mediterranean is the only remaining vestige. Wind erosion and wind-whipped sand have shaped the powdery chalk into the spectacular formations that form the White Desert.  At certain locations, the chalk covering the flat desert floor gives the illusion of a fresh fall of snow. Within and among the chalk deposits are fragments of fossilised sea creatures and black iron nodules, some forming the clusters known locally as desert roses.


We stopped for a picnic lunch at the giant tamarisk that has stood for thousands of years on a sandy mound, and which is all that remains of a tree that used to be twice as large—its second trunk was destroyed a few years ago by a fire lit by careless campers. A host of tiny orange butterflies hovered among the branches, and we distinguished two species of small birds, one a wagtail and one a bunting type. They twittered anxiously—one small protective parent flew over our heads making threatening chirps and clearly believing it could drive us away. We watched a herd of about 20 free-range camels loping off at a distance.

The weathered chalk hills were dotted like Pavlova cakes, others like ice-cream cones or pools of vanilla icing. We threaded our way through a maze of peppermint drops until, just as the sun began to set, we came upon a corps de ballet in pink-tipped tutus waiting for the music to start. Here, on a wide bed of soft sand, we made camp. The full moon was already up: there was no need for candles or flashlights, and Muhammad, our driver, changed his Bedouin turban for an imaginary cook’s hat and started chopping onions in light as bright as day.

It stayed light for the whole night. Under the moon and stars we lay like a row of Roman mummies in our sleeping bags (to save space in the vehicle we had not brought tents), and I reached for my airline-freebie eye shades. Crystal mountains and chalk under a milky moon—one can sometimes have too much of the lighter side of life. Jenny Jobbins is the author of ‘The Silent Desert 1: Bahariya and Farafra’ with Farid Atiya, published by Farid Atiya Press.

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