Egypt: Black Desert, White Desert, Best Desert
We’ve never had a bad trip. We’ve had a lot of mishaps and quite frankly several shitshows, but we never have been to a country we didn’t like. And now, looking back at dozens of excellent trips we’ve taken around the world, I can tell you with complete honesty and certainty – Egypt was one of the best trips we had. Firmly in the top 5. Maybe top 3. Sometimes I wake up and think, “Egypt was the best trip ever!” but I don’t dare say it out loud. My vacations are like my nieces and nephews, I pretend not to have favorites.
Egypt was out of this world. We sat alone inside Great Pyramid in Giza, our voices echoing around the dark chamber. We saw 4,000-year-old artifacts that looked like they could still be used today – spoons, chairs, combs, pottery. We leaned over mummified corpses and peaked below the bandages at exposed dark brown leathery skin. Our heads were spinning from sculptures, wall paintings, and hieroglyphics inside stunning temples. We explored the dusty streets of Luxor and saw a wedding procession, a funeral procession and heard an echoing call to prayer, all within a span of a few hours. And while we saw some incredible sights, an overnight trip to the White Desert stands out as one of the most unique experiences of my life.
Neither of us had any idea what we were signing up for when we decided to camp in the White Desert. We didn’t look at any pictures, didn’t read any detailed reviews, and only knew that the White Desert was highly recommended by multiple travel guidebooks, and so we booked an overnight camping trip with a well-reviewed tour company.
We were picked up in Cairo and taken on a three-hour drive on dusty roads out of the city and into the desert until we reached the oasis, a small village called Bahariya. The only notable thing that happened on the way to Bahariya is a short gas station stop during which Victor went into a seemingly normal men’s bathroom to use the only urinal, only to find that the urinal was not connected to a pipe and that he had basically pissed on his own shoes, via a urinal.
“Why did I wait for the bathroom?” Victor said to me in the car. “I could have pissed on my shoes anywhere.”
I couldn’t stop laughing until we got to Bahariya. Now, it was my turn to screw up. First thing I saw when the car pulled over was a small herd of goats, a mother goat, and a freshly born baby goat among them. The kid still had his dried out umbilical cord attached and was loudly screaming for his mother, who was nonchalantly eating grass just a few steps away. Immediately, I decided that I just had to get a picture of this adorable brand-new goat and ran full speed towards the herd. The goats scattered immediately, mother goat among them, and the kid was left behind, pitifully bleating and crying.
Meantime, Victor had successfully used a bathroom (after carefully checking all the piping of the urinal) and came out to find me chasing a mother goat, while clutching a baby goat to my chest, screaming “Please take your baby! I am sorry!”, as a small gathering of villagers was pointing and snickering at me. Victor, who as a child had spent many summers in a Belarussian village with his grandparents, told me to put the kid down and walk away – the mother will get back to him eventually when she decides that the threat is gone. Defeated, I set the baby goat down carefully and walked to the car.
“I think he pissed on you.” Victor said, looking at my sweater.
“And who pissed on your shoes?” I grumbled.
Our driver, in the meantime, pulled up in a 4×4 Jeep, packed with camping equipment, and introduced us to our White Desert guide. He introduced the guide loudly and clearly and referred to him several more times, but neither Victor nor I remembered his name. Hours later, in the Jeep, we decided to refer to him among ourselves as Lelik – a name we randomly came up with and had nothing to do with his actual name.
The name that we did remember was Mustafa.
“Mustafa!” the driver said and pointed towards a skinny teenager who was climbing into the back of our Jeep. We had no idea who Mustafa was or why he was here, but at least we knew his name.
Our first destination out of Bahariya was the Black Desert, its name due to black volcanic powder covering dunes, plateaus, and sand. As a result of volcanic activity thousands of years ago, everything in Black Desert is covered by black stones of hardened lava. We drove up and down large dark dunes, collected volcanic rocks, and saw incredible vistas of sprawling black sands. Lelik told us that the area was once an ancient seabed and home to many ancient fossils.
As we drove around, Lelik was doing his best to entertain and educate us – telling us about history and current political climate in Egypt, geographical and geological tidbits about Black and White Deserts, and, for whatever reason, stories about Ukrainian women. From the moment I mentioned that I was born in Ukraine, Lelik’s eyes lit up and he went on an unending tirade about his friend who married a Ukrainian girl and how pretty she was. As this conversation was starting to veer into a casual territory, I decided to ask Lelik a delicate question that has been bothering me for a while.
“I read in the guidebook,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “that Egyptian men think that Western women are easy. Is that true?”
“The guidebook says that?” Lelik was incredulous, “No, no! We don’t think that!”
After a brief moment of consideration, he added, “But we hope they are …”
Victor and I exploded in laughter.
We stopped for lunch at a large empty restaurant and sat cross-legged on pillows, while filling on up on traditional beans in tomato sauce and rice.
The highlight of the first day was a steep hill we climbed in our Jeep and the incredible view on the White Desert that opened up in front of us. Creamy-colored chalk rocks, like strange haystacks, littered the horizon, as lowering sun was playing off their white-washed shapes. I climbed up and down the hill, angling for the best light and composition with my camera, and still could not get a single picture that truly revealed the beauty before my eyes. Finally, letting go of my photography ambitions, I sat down, letting the sand run through my fingers, and watched the sun and wind playing among the stacks of the White Desert. I was, no doubt, witnessing one of the rare natural wonders of the world with the same sense of awe and quiet admiration I felt at the Grand Canyon, Iguacu Falls, Yellowstone National Park, or Glacier Lagoon in Iceland.
As we drove through the White Desert, we saw incredible geologic formations – sedentary rocks eroded by sandstorms into natural sculptures, some looking like mushrooms, others like birds in flight. It was unlike anything I have ever seen or imagined. The only desert I have been to before was in Israel, an endless vista of golden sand, shifting between dunes by gusts of hot wind. That is what I imagined the White Desert to be like and could not understand the enthusiasm of our guidebooks and multiple reviewers online. Now that I was here, all I could do was marvel at the natural beauty around me, holding my breath as every turn of the road revealed new wonders.