Saturday, March 3, 2007
Through the Sun-Drenched Dust: Part 1
This weekend was another intense adventure. I haven't written in several days because I've been away - in the deserts surrounding the oasis hamlet of Bahriya. There are two, actually: the Black Desert and the White Desert.
But first things first. Joe and Kimberly organized the trip through a tour guide, who after a bit of haggling and a bit of pressure were pushed from 450 LE down to 300 LE, a nice break. Thursday night, half an hour after class ended, we were standing at the door of the dorm with our luggage. A microbus - van, really - pulled up and we piled in with our suitcases, bags and cameras. They spoke no English - us, only the Arabic we'd learned in class and the streets. Off we went.
The drive lasted around 4 hours, barreling at upwards of 140 km/h down the center of a two-lane desert highway. The drivers would flash their lights and occasionally pull just far enough to the right to allow semis to blast by going the other way. Believe me, out in the middle of the blackness a one-headlight car is a scary thing. At the end of this long and harrowing voyage, we arrived in a tiny hamlet, spotted with mud walls and palms, and pulled up through the still-bustling streets at the Western Sahara hotel.
We ate typical but delicious Egyptian food: bread, rice, potato and tomato stew, couscous soup, tomatoes, chunks of grilled beef. After that we retired to the roof to admire the view, sip Bedouin tea, and shoot the breeze with our guide, Saeed. As it turned out, he was a university student in Cairo at the prestigious al-Azhar University, where he studied French language and literature. The conversation flowed in a mix of English, Arabic and French, and somehow we managed to get all of our ideas across as Saeed smoked his shisha and we drank cup after cup of strong, sweet(and occasionally salty?) tea.
The next day found us leaving bright and early, in varying degrees of rest. Our first destination was the volcanic peaks and valleys of the Black Desert. The LandCruisers - our faithful steeds throughout the two days, that required neither refueling nor repair despite the abuse we put them through - quickly turned out into the desert.
After a brief stint on a small dune, we headed out for some serious off-roading. While Naguib, the driver of the red Cruiser, seemed to be pretty calm, our fellow, Abdel, was a madman. He loved to slalom through the sands, throwing us around like dice in a cup, and take the crests of dunes at full speed. A short drive with him made the hardest rock seem like a tossing ocean.
We arrived at the foot of a curving valley and went for a walk while the Cruisers took the long way round. It was a bizarre and unique environment - it reminded me alternately of the landscape in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Mordor from Lord of the Rings. We scrambled up and down the sand and black rocks, and Thalia and I braved a sheer - and probably foolhardy - ascent to the top of this cliff/mountainside/valley wall. It was worth it, though, for the sheer breathtaking vista. The descent was even more terrifying, as footholds crumbled beneath our very feet.
Reuniting with the 4X4s, we headed to another, more manageable mountain, snapped a couple of group photos, and then rolled out for lunch at a roadside cafeteria. This was excellent despite - or perhaps because - of its simplicity. We did feel a bit bad about being served by a woman at least 8 3/4 months pregnant - with twins! But to refuse her hospitality would have been a terrible offense.
We climbed reluctantly back into the LandCruisers - the combination of our full bellies and Abdel's driving would combine to create an effect like a food-processor gone haywire. Slip-sliding our way across the dunes, braced against the walls, ceiling, and even doors for support, we turned our supplications to Allah. Finally, we reached a huge dune that dropped away between massive white limestone formations, giving us a stunning view of wildly eroded pinnacles and gnarled peaks.
After time spent climbing, watching, taking pictures, and helping some fellow-travelers fix a flat(ish) tire, we blitzed down the dune and into that bizarre landscape. For those of you have never driven through serious dunes - it is intense. The steady reverse to a high vantage on tractive terrain, the moment of anticipation, the teeth-rattling eyeball-jolting charge down the side, and then the long, whining climb to the peak, holding your breath for the moment of truth - will you make it or fall short. If you make it, cheers and sighs of relief. If not - climb out, dig, turn around, and try again. And these weren't even the great dunes of the Dune Sea farther west, which we'll visit later on, Inshallah.
To Be Continued...
(Next time, on The Sun-Drenched Dust: pyroclasm, tents with no roof, fat men bellydancing, Yellow Submarine, chickens both stone and savory, and much much more)