20 May 2011

In the Middle of the White: the 5 Billion Star Hotel

During my trip around the desert, our berber guides decided to call me 'Ali' because 'Justin' was too hard for them to remember.  As we arrived in the White Desert of Egypt early one evening, I felt like I had landed on an alien planet.  It was a surreal feeling to step out of the jeep into a completely white landscape of large bizarre chalk-like structures, many of which resembled animals.  I felt like a kid again as I unsuccessfully attempted to climb up and conquer these monoliths.  Along the ground, I collected a number of lustrous crystal-like rocks that were scattered around the plains.

We decided to set up shop next to this monolith
Here, we set up a rudimentary camp site.  By rudimentary, I mean that it only comprised of a few intricately patterned rugs laid against our two jeeps and along the ground!  Our guides prepared a delicious dinner consisting of grilled chicken and lemon juice.  During the night we huddled up by the campfire and played some very inventive games in the sand using rocks and twigs.  Our berbers entertained us all night with their singing, dancing, and music, playing on til the early ours of the morning.

Campfire Fun
Sand Games
As I lay in my sleeping bag with my hands dug into the sand, I stared up to the sky and noticed nothing but a perfect view of the stars.  We joked that we weren't staying in the luxury of a 5 star hotel, but rather, a much better place; The 5 Billion Star Hotel.  My receptivity to the scene was intense.  Like many people who have visited the desert, questions and thoughts regarding philosophy and religion whirled through my head.  I had just read Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel where he devoted a chapter to the human attraction to sublime landscapes, and I couldn't help but think of his writings:

'Sublime landscapes, through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles we cannot overcome and events we cannot make sense of.'

Rise and shine!
We rose early next morning to one of the most visually stunning views of my life; an iridescent sunrise over a horizon obstructed by silhouettes of odd rock formations.  T and I snapped away with our cameras to create some photo magic, however, I still don't believe it's possible for any photo to do justice to the immense beauty of the sunrise we witnessed.

White Desert Sunrise
Pack up n Go
After packing up our campsite we left the White Desert to head back to Bawiti.  We sped through the highway, occasionally departing from it to take detours through the desert in order to avoid certain checkpoints collecting road tolls.  However, this took its toll on our jeep; as we glided through a desert terrain at 100kph, one of our front tires fell off and our jeep violently halted.  We were stranded in the desert, with no sign of life in sight...we managed to replace the tire, however, 4 of the 6 bolts were missing!  Our guide insisted that we had to make it to Bawiti in time for our bus back to Cairo.  This could only be done if we drove on the highway at 100kph.  I was reluctantly stuck in the front seat...the only seat in the car without a seatbelt!  The ride back to Bawiti was tense and awkward.  J and I kept ordering our guide to drive slower, at 70kph.  We didn't care if we missed our bus, we just didn't want to be in a fatal collision on the any moment, the 2 bolts of our tire could've given way and resulted in our jeep rolling on the highway.  Better late than never we thought.
We eventually made it to Bawiti, an hour after our bus left.  Our guide, furious that we didn't let him drive faster to make the bus, left us by ourselves in Bawiti.  With no-one speaking English in this town, we sat at the bus stop hoping for a bus to arrive.  We were told to wait an hour for the next bus.  It didn't come for about 3 hours.  We were exhausted and irate at the way our desert trip ended.

But it was still an adventure I'd do all over again.


06 May 2011

______ is the new Black [Desert]

On a cool Cairo morning before the rest of the city woke up, I hailed a cab outside my hostel. I was in a hurry to the bus station to make my way to the Western Desert of Egypt (just one part of the huge Sahara Desert). There was an amusing calmness about the young cab driver who collected me. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a cigarette, he pushed the pedal to the metal and honked his horn as frequently as he could, disrupting the rarely tranquil streets of Cairo. Whenever we stopped at the lights, he’d turn to me and shout “smoking!” before offering me a cigarette. Then he’d offer it to other cab drivers next to us.

The bus ride towards the Sahara Desert was a long but scenic one. After five hours of seeing nothing but dry, dirt landscapes, we arrived in Bawiti, a town in the middle of nowhere. Here, I saw a general market, some motels and a bus stop. Two berbers with a 4WD picked me up, along with a Canadian girl I met on the bus journey. From here we drove a couple hours into the desert, before arriving at the Black Desert.

Somewhere between Cairo and Bawiti
Welcome to the Black Desert
The Black Desert is home to what looks like a large number of orange mountains with black speckled tops. Each mountain looked like it had recently erupted with volcanic ash. At a closer glance, I noticed that the tops of the mountains were actually comprised of large quantities of small black stones. The black stones lay across the orange-brown ground but for some reason, were concentrated towards the tops of these mountains.

 Piling up/Jenga'ing/Tumble'ing some of the Black Desert Rocks
From here, we moved on to another town, which actually was in the middle of nowhere. We ate lunch and made some German friends at what seemed like one of the only buildings in town. Above the entrance, there was a hand-painted sign with the words “Welcome with you in Bedween”. The place was run by one person: a plump, cheerful widow. She had two young daughters and had recently met an Australian man who proposed to her. She had only met the man once, while he stopped over on a tour to the desert, just like me. I asked her whether she would accept his proposal. She was torn. She wanted to move to Sydney, to be away from her poverty-stricken lifestyle and to provide her daughters with a better education. On the other hand, her young daughters were reluctant to move away from home to live with a man they did not know.

Restaurant in Bedween
Ruff n Tuff Landscapes
As we left Bedween, we drove further into the desert through a variety of terrains.  We experienced some extremely bumpy rides through rugged rocky landscapes as well as slippery rides where we violently swerved left and right through fine sand.  All this without a seatbelt made it even more exhilarating!  One thing we could notice was that the further we drove, the lighter the landscapes became - we were well on our way to the amazing White Desert, but the sun had started setting quickly.

Sahara Sunset
White Desert = Next Post!