By Amr Bassiouny
Along the Watchtower Guest Writer
Amr is a dear friend, a revolutionary (by night) and a traveller who believes in the Bedouin traditions, the power of vast deserts, and in talking to fire and the stars (even if he’s too macho to admit it). This is a post he has written several months ago, but was obviously too lazy to publish. I decided to enterprise and steal it for my blog — it’s a thorough meditation on solo desert travel with loads of useful tips, and a personal touch. It also makes my blog look nice. The post makes a reference to Bandora, an extremely feisty Wrangler that has decided to take a different path than Amr’s (Don’t worry, he’s now got himself a black Hillux beast in place of it). Follow him on #Twitter via @AmrBassiouny.
Let’s say you decide to be a badass one day, and instead of driving 150km on road to reach Fayyoum from Cairo, you think 35km through the desert would be a lot more interesting. The only thing that separates you from the fresh waters and ancient history of Fayyoum is a series of cliffs extending for over 100km in length and 10km in width, and there’s no clear way through. It doesn’t matter though, it’s an adventure, and you’re on your own.
As I looked around the deserts surrounding Cairo on Google Earth, I found a group of sand dunes about 70km West of Cairo, starting just north of the Wahat Road. These are the Qataneyya Dunes. The whole affair looked easy and straightforward, possibly a good place to check out. I started looking around a little more and realized the whole area is relatively flat and the sand is soft, which isn’t too fun for long because if the wind picks up I’ll have a combination of soft sand and scorching sun (no mountains = no shade!) making any prolonged stay quite uncomfortable (not to mention getting sand in all my food). So I started looking around for mountains nearby. My attention went south, and I found a long range of cliffs extending about 100km, and beyond those cliffs is the beautiful Fayyoum area.
That would make things a little more interesting than just a set of dunes, I thought.
The following plan started brewing in my mind: I will take off early from Cairo, head along the Wahat road, breaking off north to Qataneyya to arrive just past noon. There, I’ll have some fun and check out the area and then head back south to meet up with the asphalt one more time before 4pm, I thought. Then I can just cross the road, and head further south off-road and make my way past what seems to be a 13km stretch of open desert, a fairly easy cliff or two, then I should arrive at a group of lakes, old whale fossils and who knows what else I could run into. I also decided that if it gets late along the way, I’ll just camp out along the cliffs then head off to Fayyoum the next morning.
No matter how fearless my thoughts were at the time though, deep inside I was still worried. I was going to do all this alone, with no more than a cheap Nokia phone that has GPS and a free promotional compass I got when buying outdoor supplies. I didn’t even have a phone charger in case the battery ran out. Also, as well-maintained as my car may be, it’s still a 17-year-old model, and you never know what might go wrong.
The solution I reached was easy: I packed plenty of extra bread and a lot of Halawa (sugar-infused sesame paste) just in case I had to walk my way back, as well as a good 12 litres of water.
I left my house late at noon, much later than planned, so I decided to save some time in the city by purposely taking a U-turn in the wrong direction along the Haram street. But police stopped me, took my license and car registration. I had to do some haggling and ended up paying an LE400 “fine” instead of a full 1,200LE fine at the police station which would’ve ruined my trip (the perk? I saved 800LE!). Leaving the policeman behind me, I took a deep breath and I told myself, as I always did in these situations, to “keep calm and carry on.”
I arrived to the spot where I needed to go off-road to Qataneyya without any more incidents, but it was already 3pm by then. Off the road I went. The dunes were beautiful, albeit spotted with plastic bags and trash thrown around everywhere which ruined the semblance of remoteness it exuded. In addition, the garbage attracted insects. When I arrived, there were a few groups of Egyptians spread out along the dunes, playing with rented ATVs and dirt bikes, waving as I drove by. I played around with my car as well going up and down the dunes (and getting stuck on top of one of them, wasting a good 20 minutes digging myself out).
At about 4pm I was back to the road as planned, and went across heading south with the thought of lakes on my mind. I drove along the smooth sand at 80-100km/h with the cool wind blowing against my face. I kept driving for about 10km, until I ran into the cliff-face.
One thing I realized standing there was that a series of cliffs 100km in width and 10km in length looked like a significantly more serious hurdle in real life than they did on Google Earth. There was a heavily used dirt road going parallel the cliff face, mainly used by trucks (most probably for mines nearby) so I decided to follow it until I found a safe way to cross down.
About 5km later through fairly rough terrain, I found a smooth way down. By then it was already sunset, and there was a beautiful spot to camp out at, I stopped there and decided I would continue for the city of Fayyoum in the morning. That was possibly one of the best decisions I made to this day, since what was coming the day after might be far more complicated and dangerous than a 10km drive through a few pretty cliffs. Something that I learned through experience is to never drive after the sun has gone down if you don’t already know the road well, even if there’s still light.
Keeping true to what I learnt from the Bedouins, I never used a tent, and it was my first time to use a sleeping bag. I normally keep a couple of Kleem carpets in my car that I lay on the ground to sit/lie on, and then one or two blankets to wrap myself in just to stay warm and keep any insects/rats/snakes/scorpions from crawling in. Pillows are nice but optional. Tents are a complete waste of space in my opinion (apologies for all the tent-lovers!), you might as well bring an inflatable bed and a teddy bear to cuddle up with.
Nothing beats waking up in the middle of the night and seeing nothing but a sky full of stars then dozing off again to that serenely beautiful view.
The night was amazing but perhaps in equal proportion to its beauty was its freezing cold. The stars were out like never before and the moon was out of sight.
I had become accustomed to following the basic order of things to do when I settle down temporarily in the desert. Set the carpet, light a small fire, then put the teapot against the hot coal and flames to let the fire take it to a boil. Add tea, sugar, measuring quantities by the handful rather than using a spoon. Take a break, drink the tea, have a smoke, relax.
As I started preparing my dinner, I smiled as I remembered my bedouin friend Saleh, a fine cook from El Muzeinah tribe in Southern Sinai, and the first to teach me how to prepare a meal without oil, water, fuel or even ready-packed coal.
“Kollo Tabi’i” as he always said, meaning “everything is natural.” Owing to the bedouin traditions, which I value deeply, I allow myself only the bare essentials, a match box and some wood. If I wasn’t in a completely unknown area, even bringing wood from the city would be unnecessary.
After eating and drinking, I laid down to rest.
The blanket of darkness and deafening silence could carry with them a threat of hidden dangers for many travellers, although in reality they are nothing less than assurances of safety and comfort.
There are two dangers one may face in the desert, pillaging Bedouins familiar with the surroundings or creeping animals. Humans cannot see you in the darkness, and this provides safety even if you are in a completely open area. The complete silence on the other hand allows a person to hear the faintest move in the grains of sand around the camp area, setting an alarm in case any wildlife is coming closer.
As morning came, another fire was lit to make breakfast and tea. Fava beans (Fuul), halawa, cheese and bread satisfied my appetite beautifully. And since I travel lightly, in no time, all was packed, and I was well on my way.
I drove south for about 10 minutes before I found myself facing another cliff, unable to find my way down — an early hurdle on the road but it wasn’t a big deal. I had to drive along the new cliff face again for a while until I found a clear way down. Another 10 minutes of driving south and there was another cliff, and then another, and another. After about 30 minutes of driving in a zig-zag pattern it started to feel like I was lost. Just south of where I was lied Fayyoum and north was the road. But how to get to either one of those through the labyrinth of cliffs I just got stuck in between was unclear. I started becoming rather worried and suspected I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Moreover, the fact that my phone battery had just died and I had no more GPS didn’t help.
At one point, I couldn’t find my way down a cliff, and there were barely any tire marks which meant the area was rarely visited by others, hence if I am lost there I won’t have any luck getting the attention of any passersby for a long time.
I had to crush my ego and accept defeat. The cliff won, I couldn’t make it through! Or more correctly, I was too scared to keep trying; if I fail repeatedly I may have to walk my way to Fayyoum instead. I had to find my way back, and once again the relaxing mantra I use to reassure myself came back to me “keep calm and carry on.”
How do I get back now? Where did I come in from? I had no idea, but I had one thing, my tire tracks. I followed my car’s tire-print back for a long time, feeling more confident as I got past one familiar sight after the next.
Once I reached the top of the cliff, I had to follow the heavily used dirt road again east until a certain point where I would turn north to reach the road. At times there were so many other tire tracks I’d have to stop, get out, spend some time comparing tracks until I recognized mine in order to be sure I didn’t miss a turn.
With a little bit of luck and a lot of concentration, I got out. I drove back to Qataneyya to spend the rest of the day just to feel I didn’t fail completely. I drove up to the highest dune I could find, made myself some chicken soup and enjoyed the view until I packed up and went home.
Lessons learned: Always have a phone/GPS charger in the car, never underestimate a series of cliffs and don’t go exploring alone again thinking Google Earth will be enough to help you make informed decisions. It’s the desert. It will always win.
Warning: NEVER drive into the desert in only one car, and if there is no other option than going out in one car, be sure to have at least one other experienced person with you. NEVER drive into the desert unless you have been to the same place through the exact same road at least 3-4 times before. ALWAYS let somebody know exactly where you’ll be and when they should start worrying.