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.



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