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Surfing the Sahara

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Friday, 27 November 2009 Stirred from sleep by the sound of voices and the faint clatter of dishes, I cracked open my eyelids. Through the open space around the tent flap I could see a stretch of sand glowing in the sunlight. My tent mates were still asleep, it seemed, so I heaved the heavy blanket/rug that Jamie had lent me the previous day off to one side and sat up. As quietly as possible, I laced up my hiking boots, pulled on my fleece and slipped out of the tent. The air was crisp and I sought out a patch of sun to stand in while I surveyed the campsite. Most people were apparently still asleep or at least not yet venturing out. The camp staff of about three or four men was busy in the cook tent, cleaning last night’s dinner dishes and crouching over a portable gas stove preparing what I assumed was our breakfast.

Jamie was the next to emerge from the tent, toiletry bag in hand. He mumbled a ”good morning” and stumbled off to the water tank to wash up. A few other people began to appear, stretching and blinking in the early light. Jamie returned to tell me that it must have been cold last night; the water in the big plastic tank had a skin of ice on it. He relayed the information that one of the camp people had told him it would be even colder tonight. Well, at least it was sunny now. I began to think about how I might have packed better for this little trip.

Within half an hour, the camp was bustling. One of the campfires from the previous evening, its embers still smoldering, was coaxed back to life and two or three smoke-blackened aluminum kettles filled with water were placed on the fire. Soon there was hot water for tea or instant coffee and campers huddled here and there, shoulders hunched, with steaming tin cups held up to their faces. Zohair, Joelle and Ginger made their appearances after a while and we compared our sleeps. Most people managed a few hours, it seemed, but the consensus was that our own beds were much to be preferred. Breakfast also made an appearance, a big pot of “ful mudammas,” the standard morning fare of many Egyptians, along with stacks of pita bread warmed over the fire, hard boiled eggs, fruit juices in little cardboard containers, jam, white cheese, processed cheese in little triangular foil packets, and halawa (a sweetened sesame confection). The chill air was an appetite stimulant.

The Egyptians were very friendly and most spoke some English, so we were able to share small talk and joke with them in a reserved sort of way. The kids were already split up into their own groups: the teen boys were off climbing the rock formations near the camp and throwing a ball back and forth among themselves; the three or four teen girls walked about in their huddle chatting up a storm; the younger boys ran and wrestled in the sand. Only the young girls stayed close to the adults, most tagged along at their mothers’ heels. Pretty much the arrangement you’d expect in the States except for the strict gender separation among the teens.

Slowly, the groups began to organize for their first day in the desert. The expedition people apparently considered the four Fulbrighters and Jamie one group, since we had come together from Cairo and were not Egyptian. Of course, Ginger had also made the arrangements for us so it was natural that we continue our trek together. Shortly after breakfast, we piled into the back of one of the Toyota 4x4s and set off across the sands. As we left camp, a file of about twenty camels bearing riders and led by galabiya clad guides appeared on a ridge in the distance. This was the camel safari I had almost opted for; they had been camped behind one of the white rock ridges about a mile from our camp. I was momentarily envious of them, but realized quickly that we would probably see much more of the desert by car than they would see by camel.

Our first stop was in the oasis of Farafra, where we were ostensibly filling the car’s fuel tank. The five of us were dropped at a modern hotel on the edge of the oasis while our driver and his companion went off to the gas station. It was quickly apparent that this was a calculated bit of marketing; the hotel was owned by the same company that was conducting the camping trips and they were just giving us the opportunity to see how we could be spending our four days—at 55 Euros a night… It was a very nice one-story stucco structure with a gift shop—I almost bought a wool cap but it was too small—and a kidney-shaped swimming pool. A lone European sat at poolside with a late breakfast, but no one was swimming.

Our guide returned and we mounted up again, heading back out into the desert. Jamie and I were trying to figure out which direction we were traveling in, but the map of the oases he had purchased in Bawiti wasn’t being much help. We drove on an unmarked two-lane for about ten miles and then veered off into the desert. Ashari, our driver, was remarkable in his ability to find a comfortable route between humps of sand topped with hummocks of coarse grass and the odd rock outcroppings, while at the same time avoiding patches of deep sand. As I later discovered, every vehicle carried a shovel and two perforated sheets of heavy aluminum about three feet long, called “sand sheets,” which could be placed under the drive wheels in case a car sank into really deep sand. Fortunately, Ashari was very adept at reading the sand and, while we slowed once or twice and had to creep along in low range four-wheel mode for a short distance once, we never got stuck.

About twenty minutes into our drive, we saw out the right hand windows a range of sand dunes stretching off into the distance. They must have been between forty and fifty feet high and were magnificent. So this is what sand dunes look like! Not even Texas could boast of monsters like this! We stopped on a ridge of hard sand and got out to appreciate their grandness. We were alone with this sight for about five minutes and then the other members of the camp showed up. The three expedition 4x4s had no problem reaching the base of the nearest dune, but one of the Egyptian families in their flashy American-made-for-the-street SUVs immediately got stuck and required eight Egyptian males to heave it out onto firmer ground.

From the backs of two of the expedition vehicles snowboards were produced and everyone headed up the slope of the dune for some sand skiing. The kids, of course were the most enthusiastic and adventurous. The bottoms of the boards were coated with formica, which was meant to make them slippery on the sand. They worked reasonably well, but except for the most precipitous slope near the end of the dune, no breathtaking speeds were achieved. We spent a good hour during which everyone had at least one ride down the dune. I felt like a real Americano tourist, but really, how many chances does one get to do that? Of course there was one testosterone powered idiot who had to prove his car was the most powerful machine ever built and he drove to the crest of the dune, receiving the cheers of his fellow SUV owners. The cheers quickly died however, when the car sank into the sand. He and his friends spent forty-five minutes digging and shifting a pair of sand sheets under various wheels until he finally managed to get free. Sometimes guys are SO predictable.

When the thrill of sliding down the dunes wore off, we ate a cold lunch of tuna salad, bread, tomatoes and cucumbers and bottled water. The Egyptians had packed homemade goodies and these they shared out among everyone. We tidied up after the meal, not an easy task with the wind blowing stiffly. At one point, I tried to chase down a fugitive potato chip bag but gave up after a hundred yards. The bag skipped along the surface of the sand while I had to slog through it. I finally stopped and watched it sail away in the general direction of Libya. More trash.

Once we had packed up, the convoy turned east paralleling the dune range for a while before turning a bit north. We traveled for about half an hour in this fashion, each driver choosing his own route, but never really out of sight of one another. The expedition drivers obviously had a system that allowed them to keep an eye on those who were inexperienced in desert driving. The desert isn’t all sand and we often traversed ridges of rock that emerged from the ground periodically. Some areas were quite rugged while others were ocean-like in their gently rolling appearance. There were places strewn with boulders and others where gritty bushes clung to a tenuous source of water, flourishing for months or maybe years before being blasted out of existence by a sandstorm, or outgrowing their reservoirs.

After a time, we came upon a small copse of trees with a stone marker indicating that this was a spring known as Ain Khadra, literally the Green Spring. A camel lounged next to a dry stone pool nearby. Several other Land Rovers were already parked next to this green spot in the desert. We unloaded and had a look around. I located the “spring” and found a mere trickle at the bottom of a five foot deep hole. Ashari looked at it and pronounced it “da`eef,” weak. A group of travelers was enjoying a picnic in the center of the grove, so we walked around the perimeter, wondering how such a garden spot could occur in such bleak surroundings. Now this was more like what Maria Muldaur had in mind, I think.

A short drive from here brought us to the site of an even more tenuous but tenacious grip on life in the desert, a single acacia tree atop a knoll that somehow had found a fairly reliable source of water. That source had allowed the tree to live for an estimated three hundred years. So iconic is this landmark that it is known simply by its name: al-Santa, “the Acacia” in Arabic. The tree obviously hadn’t always had an easy time of it, as evidenced by its twisted and broken trunk and its markedly prone position, but its roots were bicep thick and its leaves bright and glossy. Such determination has to be admired.

We were getting deeper into the White Desert now and the white calciferous formations which gave it that name were more and more in evidence. Much of the area we now traveled through was marked by long, low-lying hills and ridges of white stone which, from a distance glistened like snow. To add to the wintery illusion, we occasionally saw exposed stretches of the same stone at ground level that sparkled like late winter ice in the afternoon sun. In other places the sand, far from being monochromatic, looked as though it had been sprinkled with coarse salt and pepper, ground bits of the white and black stone, abraded into tiny shards by millennia of winds and driven sand. The complexity and variety of landscapes in the Sahara astounded us all.

The sun was settling toward the horizon as we reached our last stop of the day. One of the most famous areas of the White Desert contains chalk formations shaped by the winds into marvelous figures. This particular location was known as the Mushrooms and there were indeed several that looked for all the world like fungi, but the variety of shapes was endless. One was also struck by the fragility of these monuments, for everywhere one could see where huge chunks of rock had recently fallen away, splitting along fracture lines and shattering into smaller pieces as they struck the ground. I realized that what we were seeing was a snapshot of what was and what would be. Visitors to this same place in two years time—perhaps less—would see something quite different.

After a few more pictures and a few more minutes spent contemplating the view, our driver and his assistant tooted the horn and we set off on our return to the camp. Even experienced desert people know that travel after dark, particularly with newbies in tow, is not a good idea. We spent the trip back talking about what we had seen, comparing the rocks we had collected and sharing impressions of the day. Arriving at camp, we found dinner not quite ready, so I cadged another blanket from a pile near the cook tent and re-arranged my bed so that I would be warm in what we had been told would be a colder night than last. Jamie produced two cans of Heinecken from the depths of his suitcase and shared them out among the four of us who accepted his offer. We talked in the tent until the rattle of dinnerware told us it was time to eat. Dinner tonight was to include something called “fattoush,” a mixture of fried stale pita and seasonal vegetables cooked up together. We ate in the dark, with only the light of the campfire and the odd flashlight to illuminate the serving table, so I couldn’t really tell what was what. There was barbecued chicken again and a rice dish and tahina. It tasted just fine and we all ate our fill. There was another show of computer animation projected on the white rock formations and we watched those over cups of tea and coffee.

Once the dinner dishes were cleared and people had relaxed for a while, a group of men and boys, about six in number, assembled in one corner of the tent arcade and broke out drums and a flute. This was the Bedouin concert we had been promised. The drummers—two of them—started out and established a solid rhythm. A couple of young boys clapped in time. Then a third musician finished assembling a long wooden flute and started playing. The sound was complex with a bagpipe-like wail serving as foundation to a melody line produced by the musician fingering ten holes in the flute. I won’t try to describe this performance, except to say that the flute was played using a technique known as circular breathing, which allowed the musician to produce a constant flow of sound, without break. One of the young boys got up and danced in what I thought was a rather un-Bedouin manner, lots of hips and gyrations, and it occurred to me that those nineteenth century orientalist painters must have got their ideas from somewhere… I have posted a short video of their opening piece for those interested enough to want to see what I am failing to describe sufficiently here.

White Desert Concert from Karl Schaefer on Vimeo.

The group played for four hours straight, alternating between instrumental and vocal pieces. Two men alternated playing the flute and several other members of the troupe showed that they were masters of two instruments as well. It was a wonderful experience, sitting in the night in the glow of a campfire, listening to music many of us had never heard before and which none of our immediate group had ever listened to in the desert. The Egyptians had long since disappeared into their tents or were chatting at the far end of the tent arcade. As the audience dwindled, and the night’s chill took hold, the musicians moved out from under the tent and sat around the campfire to play. It was clear that they were enjoying themselves and appreciated their audience. When the flute and drums were finally put aside, we thanked the entertainers and crawled off to bed, the stars burning right above our heads.

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