While packing our bags that morning in Giza, we thought we were leaving the place in Egypt. The weather was pleasant, unlike the previous days. Hoping for a friendly company like Ibrahim’s, we began chatting with our new guide Mamdouh.
The No Man’s roads to the white desert
I have always loved driving on the mountainous roads filled with trees, GREEN and grasslands. But, for the first time, I was on a road that had nothing but endless asphalt road and brown soil on either side.
Some 100km later, the empty lands were filled with shorter black mountains. The barricade’s edges were touched with the carpets of sand magically. Looking at us excited, Mamdouh smilingly said, ” You like this? This is nothing compared to when you reach the best place in Egypt in the evening.”
“This is already beautiful. Maximum, this brown sand may be white there” – We thought
The journey continued with good Egyptian Music. Munching on the Taameyas Mamdouh got us from Cairo; we were still hung over the pyramids. With nobody honking and overtaking, it felt like we were the only ones travelling in that direction until we saw a minor accident between two trucks somewhere! Fortunately, there were no casualties. That must have happened the previous night. Egyptians overspeeding, not following the lane adds to the risk of night travelling even more.
The serious talk got lightened when we saw was green fields with black mountains far behind in the background. We were nearing the fertile Oasis area. It was filled with Olive and date farms.
There were signs of human settlements here and there.
A few kilometres ahead, we spotted small houses. Hardly 10-15 houses constituted a village. I wonder how/who looks after those farms when their villages are so sparsely populated. Crossing these tiny villages, we entered the village Bawiti – The biggest village near the white desert. For us, it was, pure untouched, the real countryside of Egypt. But the villagers and locals find it “underdeveloped.” Mamdouh explained how villagers struggle in this place, having a hospital with very basic amenities, one school with hardly any students and no proper teachers. I would call it “Old World Charm”, but it is a village that lacks “basic necessities” for people who live there.
Half-built white brick houses, date trees popping out from the compounds, a man on a donkey cart, women in black Burkha, barren lands – The typical Egyptian village that the media always portrays Egypt to be was here.
The host and our desert safari driver were waiting to welcome us. Though the language was a barrier, their smiles and gestures showed warmth. In the courtyard, there was one date palm tree.
In India, we keep dates in a glass jar safely inside the refrigerator to avoid getting spoiled because it is expensive. But here at our host Ragab’s house, it was dumped inside an old plastic basket as if it was nothing!!!! Our host owns acres of date palm fields. This one tree is just for guests like us who get excited about dates.
It reminded me of us having Tulasi in front of the house. I thought it is a tradition in the village to have a date tree in the front yard.
His house was modified to comfort tourists. Inside the compound, there was a bathroom and a squat toilet. Then there was a guest room with couches on carpeted floor and walls painted bright. The rear end of the house is where his family lived.
Like typical Egyptian tradition, Ragab came with a big kettle full of Kadkade. Egyptians love Kadkade at any point of the day. So while I sipped my 4th cup of Kadkade, Ragab arranged our lunch table filled with almost 7 to 8 dishes. Check our post “Egyptian Delicacies” to know why this is the best meal we had in Egypt.
FROM LEFT -US, AHMED (JEEP DRIVER), AHMED ( ONE WHO DROVE US FROM CAITO TO BAWITI IN CAR), HOST RAGAB, MAMDOUH ISMAIL (GUIDE)
After a delicious heavy meal, it was very convenient to doze off. The long journey and Ragab’s delicious roasted duck, and aish bread with Mulukhiya made us lazy. We were 100km away from the white desert. The goal was to be there at the chicken and Mushroom point for sunset at 6 PM. But we were not yet ready to move our asses off the couch.
” What is the hurry? 100km on a straight road might take us 45 minutes. So why are we leaving at 3 PM? We could have spent more time with the host chatting and have more Kadkade,” we told each other.
Mamdouh pumped us up, saying, “The best place in Egypt awaits you ahead”
Leaving the trolley behind in our car, we shifted to the 4W drive jeep to the white desert. The luggage carrier on top had carpets and a mini table. I wondered what were those for? They asked us to carry minimal luggage, but what are they carrying!
We were back on the road. Driving through the nothingness again and sometimes through the olive fields. At times, a few small buildings popped up-Tiny domes, white bricks with nothing around it. Most of them looked like hotels or guest houses, but no trace of humans.
Those reminded me of Tatooine of star wars ( It was filmed in Tunisia, though
The landscape was getting stranger almost every 2km. Dark brown-coloured soil, olive field and a rocky mountain in the background for a kilometre. Suddenly everything would turn empty, leaving only a giant flat and tall rock as if someone built it the boundary wall. At one point in time, those walls resembled the Northern wall of Game of thrones. Instead of ice and snow, it was the black rock and beige sand.
Mamdouh said something to our driver Ahmed; he took a right turn off the road. We were clueless about what we were about to see. Five minutes later, we were on the endless dunes – Offroading. The swift change in the landscape was shocking – Green to no green. Rocks to no rocks. Anything may appear here within minutes.
The fine sand before reaching the white desert
Riding on the straight dunes felt good. The sand looked so smooth and fine as if someone powdered the granules to their best. The place was surreal. The ride got bumpier by the time we got into that “wow, so nice and peaceful”. The 4W jeep was climbing almost an 8′ high sand dune. After a few minutes of rollercoaster ride kind of a drive, Ahmed stopped at a point, asking us to get out of the car. It was a shiny bright afternoon, but the sand felt cold and super smooth. As far as we could see, it was sand everywhere. There were no signs of any other humans here.
HAPPILY POSING WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT
Ahmed took out a wooden board and said, ” Let us go sliding”. With zero experience of skiing/sandboarding, we screamed – “Whaaaat? Sand sliding? We have never done it before! If we get hurt, there is no decent hospital nearby. But who cares, let us go sliding.” we said
We took the boards in our hands and walked towards the steepest dune. Both of us needed a push even to begin sliding. With a push from Ahmed, zooooooooooooop!I was at the bottom of a dune. Sliding down was easy, but climbing up the dune was hard but super fun. Mamdouh was better than us, but Ahmed was a pro!
Now I know why we left that early. We were sure then, there might be surprising things lined up for us. All we knew was about ” Chicken and the Mushroom”, But Locals always know better.
Whatever was going to come on the way, was a bonus for us.
So we stopped asking questions like “Where are we? Why Am I not on the regular Road.” We trust Mamdouh and Ahmed entirely now.
The next stop was at the hot spring – Oasis water. There is nothing remarkable about the place, but it is good for the joints and skin to dip the body in natural hot water. After sandboarding, dipping the foot in this mineral-rich hot water felt relaxing. Such fun it was.
The hotwater spring
We were no more bothered about reaching that Chicken and Mushroom destination. That one super slide had changed our minds. All we did was sit in the car with windows open to get the best of the best in the desert. With good music, the friendly company, the journey on asphalt road changed to the offroad often.
Ahmed suddenly stopped somewhere. We were clueless about why he stopped. If I call this No Man’s land, it will not be appropriate. Because most of our journey since morning has been through “No Man’s land” only. I could see a bit of white traces on the sand now. But the place had something more – Crystal caves.
Crystal caves really had crystalline-like stones
These translucent stones looked as if someone chiselled them to a shape inside the caves. Many years ago, people were allowed to quarry the crystals to make decorative items and chandeliers. It is wholly banned now. Though nobody checks you at the airport or the desert, it is illegal to carry stones from here. So pick smaller ones, if you want to carry one.
The caves were beautiful. But the view of vast open desert with a hint of white and more of beige was fantastic from the top of smaller boulders there. As far as I could see, it was white and beige sand with fewer white rocks.
The ride got bumpier.
At times the road was stony, sometimes pure sand. We knew we were up for surprises. With lots of sunshine and great weather, we were having a perfect day. At one point, Mamdouh asked us to close our eyes for a surprise. After ten seconds, he said, ” See now.” The downhill sand road led to a maze of tall beige rocky formations, which look as if someone drooped them there from the sky.
Though we love solitude, seeing two other cars here was a relief – I started to think if I was in the most beautiful spot in the world.
For the first time, we saw something like this in our lives. I felt this must be where Dormammu’s followers (Doctor strange movie) live? For Sahana, these looked like Godzilla’s eggs. This spot is called Al-Aqbat, meaning hurdle in Arabic. Mamdouh’s words in the morning were right. What we saw in the morning was nothing in front of this beauty.
We were monkeying around the rocks for a while. Sitting on the sand and trying to slide without the board, happily, we spent 30 minutes. After a lot of climbing up and down, we were missing something -Kadkade. That could have been more amazing if we could sip Kadkade sitting there in the valley of Al -Agabat! A part of Egyptian culture had stepped into our blood, you see.
I thought we had to take a U-Turn and hit the main road to reach our destination. All the other two jeeps did the same. But Ahmed had other plans. Mamdouh said, ” Do you want to go back to the asphalt road or offroading?.” No!
Ahmed drove straight on the dunes downhill
We were exactly in the middle of those egg-shaped rocks. Whatever happened hereafter was as if it happened in a dream. From that moment, I was in a kind of trans. Everything, every second spent here, was magical. Am I on a different planet? Am I in Egypt? Where is the Libya border? Should we have planned one more day extra here? There was so much rambling in my mind that I felt I was missing in the present.
That one rock in the back looked like a giant penis !
Finally, after clicking countless pictures, we both decided to keep the phones aside and sip every bit of the desert.
We thought we know most things about this place by reading enough blogs before coming here. I thought chicken and mushroom was the only Lime rock formation. While playing Assassin’s Creed Origins, I thought they must have made up a few things to make the game more interesting. I was wrong. I knew a tiny part of this massive desert. Chicken and mushrooms were not the only ones here. I saw a rock that looked like a goat; I spotted a giant snail, and a lion sitting on the sand.
What I knew seemed to be foolish. The white desert was beyond my imagination.
The desert mood, our mood kept on changing (in a positive way). Sun gearing up to set, was turning the sand into golden brown and white rocks into gold. We were adventuring, offroading and screaming out of joy in the afternoon. But now, we switched off the music and kept the phones (phone is our camera) away. It was complete silence with a broad smile on our faces with a sense of contentment. Fortunately, the wind was not stronger for a while. Happily, we rolled the window down to smell the desert air and see the strange rocks pass by.
The single tree before the white desert
Everything was happening so swiftly. We felt we needed to slow down. That lonely tree place was the best spot to take a break from driving to walk around. When I asked Ahmed if he can stop for a while, he went beyond our request and drove over a small rocky hill and stopped. Tiny little things looked like Mushrooms popping in the field. It was so isolated and quiet that we could hear the wind blowing. After 15 minutes of silent walking, we had to ger back to the car if we wanted to catch the sunset at Mushroom and the chicken.
We had lost track of time. We were least bothered to get the network to call up home and update them of our whereabouts. It is rare we both keep quiet without talking. It is hard for us to keep the void of our minds, but we were silently watching the most unique landscape here unknowingly.
Ahmed and Mamdouh seemed to be bothered. They wanted us to see the sun setting behind “Chicken and Mushroom.” Sun had just begun to set. The blue sky was fading to the orange spectrum. Ahmed, with all his energy, began to drive faster. Somehow he managed to reach the final point right before the sunset.
Except for us, there was one more jeep of tourists
We got off the car. The silence broke. We had made it to the spot. The brown sand had a white sheet kind of a thing spread across. I knew it was not snowing. To make sure, I touched the white patch. It was hard with a smoother texture. The spread of white lime, countless formations, orange sky – I was there where Bayek roamed once. I was there where SRK romanced Kajol. We were there, at the place we had dreamt of for the last three months.
Enjoying the sunset, we were lost in the white desert. The satisfaction of accomplishing something left us clueless about what next. It felt like the entire desert belonged to us, just like we created our paradise under the blue sky, on the brown sand with the lime spread that looks like snow. “Oh wait, where are we going to sleep in this paradise? It is getting colder by each second”
The famous chicken and Mushroom of the white desert
Ahmed and Mamdouh were discussing setting up the camp while we were lost. We thought we had to drive further to our camp expecting proper tents set, portable toilets, a small wood fire kitchen, and a caretaker like a typical camp. We even wanted to change our dress in the morning to our Indian ethnic wear to pose and click like SRK & Kajol in that movie. When we asked Mamdouh about camp, he pointed at a rock 200m away and said, ” We are going to camp there. Right amidst this beautiful nature.”
“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat” was our reaction in our minds. We were shaken. We thought we are going to die of cold in the tents if we camped there. But we did not want to disappoint or create an awkward situation there. So ended up saying, ” Oh, that is wonderful. we would love that.”
So we went wandering in despair rambling-
“Are we going to die in this cold? Do they have proper tents? Is there a sleeping bag? Do I have to sleep on the sand? It was better if it was summer. Where shall we change? Can we even change our dress? Where to poop? Do we have enough tissue papers? Oh my god, we are hungry already. What will he feed us with? What is all that luggage in his Jeep?”
A few minutes ago, we were content, quiet, blissfully lost, and now our mind was gloomy.
I told Sahana, “Don’t you think we are overthinking? These guys must have been doing this for ages. They know the best. Why worry about this now. Let us forget all that and enjoy every second here.” So Sahana wandered ahead while I came back to the rock to check and help Ahmed set up the camp. In the last 15 minutes, they had already pulled a Shamiyana, set a campfire, prepared a wood fire for cooking, and Ahmed had begun cooking!
Cooking and camping in the remote area of Egypt are unforgettable
The number of vegetables, fruits, cutleries, and spices he had got there was insane. I then realised what was all that luggage about. Mamdouh pulled a low-height table. Spread a Carpet around the campfire. We both set the tents—one for us and one for them. There was a sleeping bag, along with many blankets. All my worries vanished. I felt bad about losing the fifteen minutes of my time here worrying. Sahana saw the fire from far. It was getting too cold for her to walk. She was surprised and relieved) to see the camp! Everything was perfect. But where shall I pee now? I asked Mamdouh. He said, “ The entire desert is yours. Choose a rock, go behind it. Do your job.”
Sahana explaining Mamdouh how nice a song Suraj Hua Maddham is and how beautiful they filmed the song here in the white desert
We sat around the campfire, sipping hot Kadkade made on the wood fire. Ahmed comes out of his kitchen set up, holding something in a box. He pulled out something gently out of the box to place it on the metal griller stand. It was pieces of chicken brushed with Egyptian spices for grilling!
Seeing the chicken grilling, I was expecting rice or some Ash bread with it. The only thing you can expect in the white desert is “unexpected” Ahmed spreads the course on a low-height table filled with multiple dishes. Veggie curry, boiled veggies, freshly made bread, rice with vermicelli, strawberries! It was beyond our limits to think how Ahmed could cook that much food in a desert just with the help of a stove in such a short time! The delicious dinner continued with some hot Arabic Coffee.
The coffee and conversations for hours together turned into a dancing session
. A plastic can filled with water was the drum for the folk song by Ahmed and Mamdouh. Dancing our hearts out in front of the bonfire on that cold night, we ended the day peacefully sleeping inside the cosy warm tent.
We got up early at 6 am to watch the sun rising on the horizon. Before the sunrise, the white desert was dull. Then, as the first rays hit, they began to glow yellowish.
It was time for our “First Open Toilet” in the desert, along with the first desert sunrise.
It is easier to do it in the forest. But the desert is so open that it is difficult to hide. We waited till Mamdouh and Ahmed finished. Mamdouh pointed at a rock and said: “We went behind those rocks. You go in the opposite direction”. Apart from us, there was only one more set of tourists who stayed overnight in the desert. But they were far from us. Praying they won’t come our way, we both chose two different rocks. In the beginning, I felt as if my ass froze in the cold breeze. Luckily the sun was up already to save my ass from freezing.
The morning coffee session was filled with fun and laughter. In the beginning, everyone cursed me for my snoring—especially Sahana, who could hardly sleep for three hours because of my loud snoring. Then the topic went on to how badly we wanted to wear Dhoti and Saree to pose like SRK & Kajol, why Egyptians like Amitab Bachhan and what actually happened during the Egyptian Revolution in 2012. From snoring to world politics, we talked it all.
The freezing cold of white desert and otherworldly landscape
Morning rituals, including pooping and walking, were over. It was time to leave the camp after breakfast. That is when it hit us. The desert is so vast and surprising that we might have seen 10% of it. We should not have planned to leave for Luxor that day. We could have spent more time in the desert if only our flights to Luxor from Cairo were not booked.
The extreme cold and car battery usage for the previous night’s lamp made the jeep battery weak. So the Jeep did not start. There was almost nil cellular network. It was impossible to call for help. Ahmed and Mamdouh were panicking, but we both were happily wandering nearby. Luckily the other tourist group was leaving at the same time. That driver towed our car. Should we have been worried about getting late, right? But nope. We both went off wandering. Though we left with a heavy heart, the journey back was equally exciting; we saw a jumping rabbit, a peacock, Broccoli and so on!
The Hopping bunny?
Though Ahmed had planned to take us off-roading, we had gotten late. So we had to hit the main road to make our way to Cairo Airport on time. The Farafrah desert road looks like chalkdust spilt on either side of a black carpet. That is where white fades into beige and turners to Brown and ultimately turns Black! There are many spots to see in the black desert. But we had to settle for a nearby one.
Egypt can easily contest the most beautiful roads in the world
The black desert looked like a big bowl of coffee ice cream with dark black chocolate sprinkles! We did climb up the mountain to an extent for a birdseye view. Who made that circle on the ground was our first thought. Even Mamdouh and Ahmed do not know.
Tiredness gets heavier when you are sad. We were back at Ragab’s house in the Bawiti village after a 2hour journey. The previous day we were laid back but were curious about the journey that was ahead. Now, we knew we had to leave the place carrying memories only. We still had a few more days in Egypt left. Saying it again –
Leaving Pyramids behind was sorrowful. But departing Egypt was more painful.
As expected, Ragab’s homemade meals were excellent. The duck was replaced with chicken that day. This tasty meal could suppress our sorrow state a bit. While leaving our host, Ragab came with a bag of fresh dates. Anyways we wanted to buy some, so we were glad to buy some fresh, unprocessed dates. The saddest part was he refused to take money from us. We kept on trying to ask him for a price, and ultimately in Arabic, he said, ” Please don’t pay me. This is my gift to you. I will be extremely sad if you try to pay for me. You mentioned that I am your friend. Friends do not pay each other”
Every place on earth is beautiful. It is the people who make it more beautiful.
Do you agree that the White desert is the Best place in Egypt? Let us know in the comment section below.