Thursday, February 4, 2010

Desert Safari Wrap Up

By Claire
Egypt definitely takes you out of your comfort zone. Our biggest challenge has been language, or I should say, our lack of it. Very few people speak English and those that do, speak very basic, difficult to understand English. However, we are coping and somehow, everything is working out. Here are a few things of note:

In a conversation with Hamouda about Mr. Peter, he told us “He is good man. Only Bedouin from Bahariya, not Egyptians. I work with him 8 year.” Clearly, Peter Wirth is a smart man who employs only locals.

The drivers have all been careful, all using Toyotas. They all have stuffed animals and air fresheners plus a lot of cheap trinkets dangling from the rear view mirror or suction cupped to the window. The fake animal fur dash board cover is de rigueur. The vehicles are owned by Mr. Peter and it appears that he lets them do the decorating.

Toilets are another challenge. My favorite was the homemade squatter style, roughly made out of concrete imbedded with a tin can with the bottom cut out, emptying onto the ground. But it was free! This one was at one of the restaurants next door to a site we visited (a good reason to eat at the hotel).

The demand for tips is wearying. Every site we go to, no matter how low-end and run down, comes with a guide whether we want him or not. He has to unlock rooms and gates and of course expects a tip at the end.

The Bedouin guide and drivers always begin speaking to us with “Excuse me.” It’s very helpful and works as an alert to us.

The desert has been colder than we expected—we’re very glad we brought our Smartwool tops and bottoms along with socks, hats and gloves. I’ve heard that February is the coldest month here. The days are fairly mild but we’ve had a good deal of wind the last couple of days and it’s cold! I’m glad I have a windbreaker and layers. Good, sturdy shoes are essential for walking in the desert; however, Hamouda was barefoot or in loose sandals. He did put socks on later in the evening. He told us to put our shoes inside our tent because the fox that comes out will take them. In fact, the fox took several pair of Japanese tourists’ shoes and they had to return to the hotel barefoot. The good thing about traveling at this time is the lack of people. We have been the only people at every single site we have visited and the number of other safari groups in the White Desert was minimal compared to other times of the year. Hamouda told us there are up to 100 groups in the high season.

There are other ways to do this trip, namely by bus. However, you are on your own when you arrive at each town and have to figure out how to find your hotel. I saw no taxis until Kharga Oasis. Again, no one speaks English except at the hotel. One idea would be to go just to Bahariya Oasis and see the White Desert as a day trip or overnight then go back to the oasis and back to Cairo. I do recommend Peter Wirth at White Desert Tours. He owns and operates his hotel, International Hot Springs and it has a nice community feeling and he is always available. We really loved our two days there.

The Desert Lodge, which was more expensive, was less appealing. Although attractive, the showers were difficult. It’s a gorgeous place, but I was in the shower with my face soaped up when the water just stopped. I called to Chuck who called the front desk. “Sorry, sorry, it will just be a minute.” There I stood, freezing. It finally came on and I was able to rinse my face and soap my body when it stopped again. The same thing happened to Chuck. I think it was just a fluke and they assured us the water works but it was disconcerting and annoying, especially when we were hot and tired and dusty and a nice hot shower sounded so good. It was also very cold. These places are great in the summer heat, I'm sure, but with tile floors and wind whistling outside and blowing into the room from the cracks around the windows and doors, it was uncomfortable. We asked for a space heat and they brought one to us--it helped a lot. During the night, I woke up shivering (we had turned off the heater since it lit up the entire room). Fortunately, they had heavy comforters in the closet. I was wearing my entire wool uniform of leggings, top, and another top.

We stopped repeatedly at check points with soldiers and at Tourism Police stations. At one site in Kharga, we were accompanied by 3 people: a soldier, a “guide” and another guy of unknown job description from the site. Our police escort came into the museums with us, packing his weapon, and seemed to enjoy the archeological museum at Kharga the most. He slept in the car for the most part but was very nice. The hotels have metal detectors that don’t seem to work. I think they are just for show.

The food has been adequate but definitely not spectacular. Once again, communication is difficult. Breakfast at The Desert Lodge was buffet style but I would not have known we could order an omelet if I hadn’t seen others eating them. No one said anything and the chef wasn’t always standing by the burner. Even when he was, he didn’t say anything. It is awkward at times. The omelet did turn out to be one of the better things we’ve had (besides the wonderful pancakes at Peter’s).

These are our total costs for the desert safari of six days which included the driver from Cairo to Luxor:

Hotels, €340
Driver, €500 (plus €20 tip)
Desert, €150 (plus €20 tip and €3.38 desert entry fee)

Extras, including tea, sites, massages, internet, lunches (at the hotels) and miscellaneous tips (10 pounds each), €127.66

Total cost: €1,161.04

We have enjoyed being in the Western Desert—it’s quite magical and another dream come true. I had no idea there were so many variations in the desert. Sleeping out was a high point and I will never forget watching the night sky showing the stars more clearly than I remember ever seeing them. It reminded me of the time my Dad woke us up at 3 am to come outside and see Sputnik moving overhead. Getting up in the night with the moon shining and the swirling sand blowing around in the haze will always stay with me as well.

Desert Lodge,Dakhla Oasis

Desert Lodge room

Pioneers Hotel, Kharga Oasis (no web site)

Local Oasis Governor and wife with arms around each other, 2500 B.C.

Idealized woman, 2500 B.C.

Big Hair

Our entourage

No comments: