Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sahara Suda & Sahara Beida—The Black and White Deserts

United We Staaand

By Chuck

We were heading out to the Sahara Beida to spend the night with some trepidation: We had heard that it would be very cold—so we prepared for that—and there might be scorpions. The good news is that we found no scorpions at all. However, less optimally, we did find pesky, persistent flies; they headed straight for your face—I have been told this is to get the moisture from your lips and eyes. And, we saw a fox try to come into our dining area and steal our food! And we did have reason to be glad for our cold weather preparations—wool underwear (top and bottom), layers on top of that: Basically, we went to bed with our clothes on. Claire added a fleece scarf and a ski hat and her wool glittens (fingerless gloves with a mitten cover).

The Desert

Happy Couple in the Desert

As you can guess, the distances between sites in the desert can be fairly long. We got to spend much of our time, yesterday, tooling around the Sahara Suda and Sahara Beida in a Toyota LandCruiser 4X4. It was exhilarating; but, it was hard on the butt and spine. The ground alternated between rocky, sandy—soft or firm—and mixed. At one point we did not make it all the way up a grade: Hamouda stopped, got out and checked the rear driver’s side tire; he told us there would be a five minute break. Only later, did we realize what the problem had been: the tire sidewall had been cut—on rock, I suppose—and he packed rope into the cut to prevent the tube from coming out—I think.


Crystal Mountain

The Tire Patch

Early in our off-road adventure, we were given the opportunity to walk around Black Mountain. This is not the same one that we walked over in Bahariya; so, either this is a very generic label or there are multiples with this name. The interesting thing is that our armed escort, Mahmoud, came with us as we circled the mountain to meet up with Hamouda and the vehicle on the other side. It also gave me a chance to pee; I think this is one purpose of some of the stops.

The Sahara Suda (Black Desert) is so-named because of the enormous amounts of basalt found all over the area. Much of this is in rocks or chunks; but, much of it is in a granulated state and forms a cover over the fine brown sand that is everywhere. This solves the mystery about the nature of the black “soot” that we noticed frequently as we left Cairo and entered the unpopulated desert areas. At first, we thought it might be residue from trains or vehicle exhaust; after we saw the Black Desert, we decided that it had to be basalt.

The Black Desert

In some areas of Egypt, Americans are required to have an armed escort; I don’t know the areas for sure; but, I am told the middle Nile corridor is one. Tourism is major in Egypt and they cannot afford another massacre like the one several years ago where a number of (non-American) tourists were hacked to death by “terrorists.” Mahmoud wore civvies and a loose shirt that covered his pistol on the left hip and a semi-automatic slung across his back.

We stopped at a number of sites along the way—about 2 for every military checkpoint, I think. We started seeing more and more mirages of water as we drove along and realized as we came closer that we were fooled by the sun’s reflection off the abundant calcite that gives the White Desert (Sahara Beida) its name.

We drove to a café in a small oasis where Hamouda prepared lunch from supplies he had brought with him while we sat and relaxed in a Bedouin tent. Once seated, we realized our gaffe: we had failed to remove our shoes upon reaching the carpeted floor. Oh, well! Live and learn.

Lunch spot

Lunch by Hamouda

Cool spring

I noticed that the power lines running parallel to—and sometimes across—the road were often quite different in style to those in California. Ours are giant towers with very wide bases; they have those here, too; but, it is more common to have shorter towers—there seem to be two different heights; but, they both have a very narrow base; and, the wires are frequently slung so low that I wonder if there is ever a problem with very high trucks passing beneath them. This could be a problem even for those that parallel the road, since trucks seem to bring in loads of construction materials or minerals from the desert to the main road at numerous points; almost none of these are paved, and a few are not even dirt roads: they are simply well-travelled paths across the desert.

We finally arrived at our destination for the night—the middle of a geological phenomenon that had miles of various sandscaped stones scattered around the desert. It was very reminiscent of Cappadocia and the fairy chimneys: They are the sculpted remains of the work of the wind and sand on rock and what you see is what remains. These are not as tall as those in Turkey; but, they are more varied: we had great fun trying to see what images we could read into the various weather-worked stones.

The White Desert

Setting Up Camp

Camping In the Desert

Aspiring Cowpoke in the White Desert

Chicken and Mushroom

Mushroom in the White Desert

Bear and Two-faced Couple

The Evil One

The dinner we had prepared for us that night was hands-down the best we have had in Egypt! He had a little help from our police escort, who worked on the barbecued chicken; but, Hamouda managed to turn out Bedouin tea, soup, rice, vegetables on a single propane burner. And it was all warm and delicious, served as we sat on the ground on our skinny mattress pads that would be our comfort as we slept that night. We asked him if he ever cooked at home; he said, “She doesn’t cook out in the desert; I don’t cook at home.” He said this good naturedly; but, this is a culture with strong role assignments: women are fully responsible for the home, and this includes cooking. One nice touch during dinner—it was dark by this time—was the light provided. Hamouda opened the hood, clamped a wire onto the battery and put the other end on the windbreak that provided partial shelter while we ate and while we stargazed. This dinner, by the way, marked the first time in Egypt that we have had tea that was not Lipton’s Yellow Label. This tea is from Libya and he gets it at the Siwa Oasis; he buys it when he takes tourists there; he says it is the best! We decided not to go to Siwa Oasis due to the distances involved, though we would love to have gone there—Alexander the Great went there to have their Oracle support his claim on the throne of Egypt.

Our dining room


Cleanup After Dinner--note Hamouda's headlight.

It would be interesting to know how Lipton’s got such a lock on the tea market here (and in much of Turkey). And, if you are a foreigner ordering coffee in either country, you will probably get crystallized Nescafe, unless you clarify exactly what you do want—expresso, Cappuccino, Egyptian (or Turkish) coffee.

After dinner, watching the “billions and billions” of stars above us, Claire and I saw a star that seemed to roam around. We each witnessed this apparent phenomenon several times and even noted the startup of activity after a period of star-rest a couple of times. This may be a routine observation, but I don’t recall it—I did not have a lot of curiosity about nature as a child.


The highlight of the day, for me, was actually at night. I woke up in response to a call of nature and left the tent to find myself surrounded by a moonscape of naturally lit stones in the middle of a mild sandstorm. I soon was joined by Claire; she had trouble sleeping, partly due to the light—she wondered why Hamouda had left the light on, realized that I was up and followed me outside. It was astonishing how bright the moonlight was; it was utterly lovely and we looked around in amazement for some time, sand battering our faces. Waking in the morning, all was still and we watched the sunrise over The White Desert.

Hamouda prepared a simple breakfast of hard boiled eggs, pita bread, cheese, tea, coffee and twinkies. We found out that Hamouda and Mahmoud had trouble sleeping too; Bedouin do not sleep in tents and they were simply wrapped in camel blankets, open to the elements.

As a closing note, we were each given two small plastic bags to collect all our waste. There are plenty of mushrooms to find some privacy...Leave nothing behind but footprints.

Last night I lay in bed looking up at the stars in the sky and I thought to myself, where the heck is the ceiling. ~ Unknown


Karin said...

I am so completely awed by your experiences in the oasis's (is that plural?) that I am speechless! I have read books about explorers doing what you are doing, and read with my breath held....but NEVER have I "known" someone firsthand (well, almost) to do this. I love your descriptions...especially the one about going outside one night and looking at the heavens. That must have been almost overwhelming! Seems you are being very well taken care actually must be a difficult journey, but oh, oh, oh, so worth it!

I eagerly wait for more....
Karin from Paros in Prague

Stargazer said...

Bravisimo !! What a wonderful blog. Thank you so much for sharing all the detail. I am going on a trip to Egypt, but will not be able to to into the desert. But I feel like I already have by reading your blog !