“So this is Moses’ doing,” I said, shaking my head ruefully. Preston had just finished explaining that the all-consuming poisonous fog we were speeding through was one of the ten plagues of Egypt, “darkness that can be felt,” according to the book of Exodus.
Whatever the cause, our 7 a.m. departure for the Black and White Desert began with zero visibility, except for the mangled cars and blood we saw occasionally on the side of the road (the blood only happened once; the cars were everywhere). This is because Egyptians can’t fathom why on earth they should slow down if they can’t see anything, so they continue driving like maniacs, only now they’re all basically blindfolded.
“Make your peace,” Ross said in the resigned tones of a man who already has.
Soon enough, Moses demonstrated the superiority of Yaweh to Ra and lifted the plague so we were able to sleep a bit, less fearful that we were perhaps experiencing our last minutes on earth. When we awoke, we were on a lone, dominating black road through the desert.
Our itinerary for the weekend began with a stop for lunch at the Bahariya Oasis, a little more than four hours southwest of Cairo, proceeding on to the Black Desert, then the White.
Bahariya’s alright. Oases, in theory, are incredible. Palm trees and water in the middle of the desert? How did it get there? Was the Scorpion King here? After thousands of years of habitation, though, they are much like the rest of Egypt — fly infested and dirty. Lunch was excellent considering everything was pulled out of the back of our jeep. Muhammad, guide number one, and guide number two (whose name I never caught) prepared a colorful spread of dips and pita bread, accompanied by a bag of cheddar chips.
After returning to our red jeep, packed high with sleeping bags, fabrics, and even a small table, we returned to the lone black road through the desert. All signs of civilization gradually faded, and we were left with nothing but the unending sand and the bluest sky I may have ever seen. Soon the sand became darker, and black rocks began taking over the landscape. Our guide told us that the rocks were volcanic, and the whole area was underwater millions of years ago.
About 45 minutes into the drive, Muhammad slowed down and decided to abandon the road, inching the car into the rocky sand. We soon came upon a huge hill, though “hill” sounds a little small to describe what we climbed. “Picture. Panorama,” Muhammad said, gesturing to the top. We all leapt out of the vehicle, shocked at how much hotter it was in the desert than in Cairo (though I don’t know why that should be surprising- it’s a black desert). We began the hike to the top and couldn’t resist quietly judging the women dancing down the hill in their little shorts. They clearly hadn’t been in Egypt long.
Have you ever tried to climb something made of sand and rocks? Very fun, with beautiful views, but quite slippery. You seem to regress a step for every two you take. Probably the best thing I’ve ever climbed though. Nice and fast, not a single insect, and surrounding it all a sense of excitement and adventure.
After the black desert we carried on with the drive, proceeding to the white desert, where we would spend the night sleeping under the stars and go sandboarding the next day. Worried that at some point Muhammad would randomly veer off the road again, which he actually didn’t do for at least an hour, Carolyn and I figured it might be a good idea to put our seatbelts on, something unheard of in most of Africa. Reaching behind us, we found seatbelts, and at the base of the seats we found buckles. Great success! Most times one or the other is missing.
Unfortunately, the two pieces were completely incompatible. Try as we might, the belt would not fasten. However, thoughts of future news reports forced me into creativity mode.“American students die in fatal car crash in Egypt’s black and white desert. None were wearing seatbelts. Fake Ray-Bans blind lone survivor.” No thanks.
So we grabbed the middle seatbelt and strung it through first my belt, lowered like it was to be buckled, and then Carolyn’s, then knotted it amongst itself so we were both somewhat buckled. It was quite secure, and I was incredibly pleased with our handiwork.
I was even more pleased after Muhammad veered off the road again, into the desert that was now filled with monolithic white rock formations. There was a little man-made path made of rocks and a painted wooden sign that said “STAY ON PATH,” but Muhammad veered off of it within the first minute or so.
“Hippopotamus. Bird. Mushroom. Shark fin,” Ian said, selectively naming the rocks as we passed, as an ADD-riddled child might do with clouds. Holding on to the “oh shit” handle (does anyone even know what that’s really called?), bouncing around in the back of a 4×4 admiring the beauty of the desert, I felt more adventuresome and at-home in Egypt than throughout my whole trip thus far. This is the sort of thing one imagines when they decide to study abroad in Egypt. Deserts and adventure, not harassment and filth. Well, maybe people who aren’t as interested in history and are a little more realistic imagine the latter, but I certainly didn’t.
We bounced around in the desert for about an hour, every once in a while holding our breath when we thought the top-heavy vehicle might tip (the feeling of driving in the sand was a lot like being on the back of a jet-ski), but in all Muhammad was a great driver and everyone was absolutely euphoric. How could you not be, flying through the pristine desert??
With all civilization hours behind us, Muhammad stopped the vehicle at a place with a large space of soft sand and we got out, still in awe of the scenery. Our guides began unloading the the jeep, which included wood for a fire and pots for cooking. They hung large pieces of colorful cloth on three sides around the outside of the jeep, using the vehicle as extra stability, creating a sort of three-sided room. They also pushed a layer of sand against the base of the cloth, on the off chance a scorpion or asp decided to try to squirm under it. Though of course, if it came in through the front there was nothing we could do. The boys were rather freaked out by the possibility, but I’ve read that the white desert is remarkably free of such creatures. The only thing we saw were a couple of desert foxes, which look like crosses between cats and dogs (a little bigger than a cat, with cat ears, but a cute face like a dog).
Darkness fell rapidly, and with it the hot quickly turned to cold. We were happy for the fire, and in the distance could see another fire burning. More, though, we could hear the group around the fire drunkenly singing. Noise travels far in the desert. We decided that if we couldn’t fall asleep soon after sunset, around 7 o’clock, we’d go hang out with them until we got tired.
Dinner was unreal. Muhammad cooked us chicken over the fire, Guide Number 2 made us rice in his pot, and there were cooked veggies to boot. SO delicious. We all ate around the fire, sitting cross-legged in the baby-powder fine sand. The sun had set and the stars were out, but the blackness of night had not yet set in.
After cleaning up everything — you don’t leave anything in the desert — we decided to go make friends with the singers. By this point it really was night, and we walked across what literally looked like the moon to get to their “camp.” There wasn’t a man-made structure as far as the eye could see — only barren earth with white rock formations.
Muhammad came up behind us just as we were thinking it might be a little awkward to intrude on their group and said, “You going? I introduce you! Their guides my friends.” That settled that. By the time we got there it was quite rowdy. There were about six guides on the left side of the fire, two of whom were playing drums, and about 12 drunken westerners singing, in my opinion, strange songs. The reason became clear when we discovered they were all elementary school teachers. Honestly, who sings “Dinah won’t you blow your horn” these days?
Soon the guides took over the song choosing, though, and it became really fun. I wish I had my camera, I would have videoed it! Since it was unearthly dark, the images probably wouldn’t have showed up well anyway. The songs included a lot of yallas and constituted someone dancing around the fire and then being replaced by whomever got called on next. One girl fell face-first in the small fire; thank God it was a small fire in the sand and she got up quickly despite her drunkenness.
After a while the singing stopped and we all started getting to know each other, getting each other’s opinions on Cairo, etc. Of course the harassment thing came up, it’s the life you live in Cairo, and one of the guides/drum beaters from the other group was starting to act a little sketchy. He was really gross — fat, bouncing up and down on himself with each beat of the drum, and tickled puce at all of the drunk women he was getting to spend the evening with.
As we were talking, the drum guy came over and grabbed my wrist, trying to get me to dance. “No thanks!” I said nicely, tugging back my wrist from his overly tight grip. Later on, sitting by the fire talking to a French guy who was working in Cairo, I noticed that I was sinking. The guides had dug a whole in the sand directly behind my butt, and, always keeping a good attitude, I got up and pretended to be amused, moving away. As I was getting up one of them hit my butt. The first thing I thought was, “if I lived in ancient Rome I would beat this creature to death with his little drum,” but as it was I just continued my move away with disgust. I apologize if the reader finds my reaction a bit extreme, but I invite them to move to Cairo and experience it for themselves. Whatever. You can take yourself out of Cairo, but you can’t take Cairo out of the men.
When we returned to our camp, we re-kindled the fire and got ready for bed, brushing our teeth with bottled water. Our guides — who both seemed to be decent enough men — had set up our sleeping bags in a nice row, beneath incredibly heavy and warm camel hair blankets. The desert is freezing at night and none of us had jackets, so we were grateful for their foresight!
Watching the millions of stars twinkling above, laying cozy in the sand beneath a camel hair blanket, is one of many experiences I have been fortunate to have this semester that I will never forget.
The only time we awoke during the night was when two desert foxes started dueling right next to where we were sleeping, and I reconsidered the wisdom of sleeping like my Paleolithic ancestors, who were presumably much tougher than I. Being rousted in the middle of the night has a way of making one feel quite vulnerable, but obviously nothing happened again, and when we awoke it was to the absolute peace and quiet of the desert. Breakfast was as good as dinner, and soon enough we were packed and once again, plowing through the desert.
When we stopped this time, it was by dunes and we were armed with sandboards. At first I felt like such a badass, but sandboarding is actually kind of anticlimactic. You go SO slow, the sand just holds on to you and your board, and you glide down the dune. But it was actually quite fun, in my opinion. Beats falling on your butt in ice.
The scenery was straight out of Lawrence of Arabia or the Mummy. The sand was so soft, you just wanted to play in it. We didn’t shower or have access to a bathroom for 36ish hours, but I felt cleaner than after any trip to Tahrir. There was something so pure about it.
The picture below is my name written in Arabic, for those of you not familiar with the Semitic language. The picture gives you an idea of just how soft the sand was!
If you want a place to let your imagination run wild, a place so full of beauty you can do nothing but stare in awe, go to the Black and White desert. If you’re traveling to Egypt, I would honestly recommend it over Cairo. GO. And don’t forget to say hi to Muhammad and watch out for lecherous drum players.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester.