Welcome to Alaska: a Desert Safari

Wednesday 12th May

Off on the desert safari - at high speed!

Today I managed to escape the air-brushed utopia of El Gouna into the desert – the best thing I’ve done so far, a real highlight of the trip.

I was picked up from outside reception by a Toyota 4WD, driven by Khalel – whose Mad Max driving style we were going to become acquainted with during the course of the day! A nice couple from Norway were already in the back – Celia and her boyfriend, Lochlan, who was actually a Kiwi, but had been living in Norway for so long he had almost lost his accent. Our driver – hard to hear against the roar of the traffic – would point something out, which usually looked like a semi-derelict ruin, and declare – ‘Factory!’ or ‘Hotel!’ The police station, with its apricot walls and watch-towers, was a particular highlight.

We whizzed along to the edge of Hurghada – an area of mega hotels, bazaars and shopping malls that resembled an Egyptian Las Vegas, and just as tasteless – where we picked up three Swiss (newly-weds with the mother-in-law in tow!). Tried to strike up a conversation, but alas their English and my German was lacking. Then finally 3 chirpy Austrian girls – Brigitta, Caroline and Christie – and off we went, driving to a police check point before entering ‘the desert’: a scrubby hinterland of Hurghada, where we rendezvoused with three other 4WDs (if going anywhere in Egypt it’s wise to go in convoy – despite Mukarab declaring an extension on the state of National Emergency recently; which seemed like an excuse for more draconian measures and free reign by his Stasi-like secret service than to deal with terrorism). We had a briefing – in German! – then off we set, bouncing over the sand, back end swinging with alarming lack of control. Whenever we hit a bump and all gasped, our driver would shout: ‘Welcome to Alaska!’ as though he was saying ‘Praise be to Allah!’

fata morgana - the lake that was not there

The first photo opportunity was a fata morgana – a mirage that looked like a lake, shimmering an inviting blue in the distance beneath the mountains – so convincing that you would be forgiven for walking towards it if you were dying of thirst. A frenzy of snapping took place. We were invited to climb onto the roof of the vehicles and act like, well, complete tourists – so I did!

in the desert - at last!

Next, we stopped off at a ridge for the fabulous views – this was a first real taste of the desert. I gazed into the distance, savouring the vastness, the austere beauty, the space, before we were encouraged to race each other down the sand on the other side – just for the sake of it – an interesting variant on the cheese-rolling of Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire, but equally as barmy! There wasn’t much time to enjoy the view – or any possibility of enjoying the solitude that the desert offers. This was inescapably a group experience.

let's run down a dune!

It was all being filmed by a guy in camouflage, hanging off the roof of one of the vehicles – filming upside down at one point. You could buy the DVD of the safari afterwards. I don’t think anyone did.

We progressed through increasingly rugged terrain – nearly banging our heads on the roof of the transport (no seat belts, no hand grips). Lots of squeals and whoops. Khalel joked out loud ‘crazy driver!’ echoing our thoughts, laughing like a mad man – we were completely at his mercy and he knew it!

Trailing dust, we careered along the sandbeds between the foothills of the mountains. The scenery got increasingly epic.

putting things into perspective

It felt like we were in real desert now – truly in the middle of nowhere, although in reality we were only 30 km from the road. But that would feel like a long way if you had to ride it by camel or walk it in the heat of the day. None of the vehicles seemed to have spare tyres – rocks peppered the sandy ruts – but it turns out they keep them on the roof, out of sight from sticky hands.

We passed by an abandoned Bedouin village – a few shells of buildings. Apparently they moved on after the well had run dry.

the well in the desert

Approaching their new settlement, we stopped at a well – 35 metres deep, although this can drop to 50. Not one you’d want to loe your golden ball down. We were invited to drink and wash – I did the latter, splashing my face. Pellets of camel dung littered the immediate vicinity. The settlement is never next to the well – as it attracts snakes.

Then finally the Bedouin village – located dramatically amid a ring of mountains. We were given cold bottles of water – then shown to a shady ‘apartment’ where our guide, Gabriel, introduced us to the region and to Bedouin culture before we went for a camel ride. These famous desert nomads were originally from Saudi Arabia, there are five Bedouin families in Egypt – comprising of around 5000 members each. 4 are Muslim, 1 is Christian (based in the Sinai, they look after St Catherine’s Monastery). The head of the family, the chief, decides everything – he is the judge in all matters, from marriage to disputes. They live outside Egyptian law, like the outlaws of Sherwood Forest – they think of farmers as ‘peasants’, themselves as ‘masters’. They follow a harsh code – reflective of a harsh land, perhaps. If a woman when she marries is found not to be a virgin, she is sent back to her family in shame – who have the ‘right’ to kill her. ‘This is their life, this is their law,’ our guide would say.

Some choose to escape this life – and move to the cities, eg Hurghada, Sharm. Many Bedouin men become taxi-drivers – a surrogate nomadic existence, always on the move. Their car replaces the camel as their most prized possession. How many Toyotas for a wife, I wonder?

Bard on a Camel

My camel was guided by a Bedouin woman, wreathed in dark robes, with the most amazing eyes. I asked if I could take her photo and she assented – gazing at me with fierce intensity. I thanked her, giving her a coin, as is the etiquette.

Here is the poem I wrote about her.

Bedouin woman

Bedouin Woman

Bedouin woman wreathed

in black, flowers, the moon,

what fire flashes beneath

the veil of your faith.

In your eyes I glimpse

the heart of the desert,

an oasis beyond

the burning sands.

Holding your two camels –

you are worth many more –

proud, you deign

to allow me the privilege

to take your photograph.

But not your soul.

You sit there in the dust,

with dignity.

You are free of our Western weaknesses.

We are the ones

Bedouin woman and camels, Eastern Desert, Egypt

who are tethered by our lifestyles,

hobbled by our schedules.

What is it like

inside your world?

What is it like

being you?

Are you happy?

Do you dream of simple luxuries –

hotel toiletries, clean linen –

choices we take for granted?

What do you desire? Or

have you forgotten the taste of your own thirst,

so long has it been denied?

Has that well run so low –

drunk dry by your chief, your father,

your husband, your many children?

Drained, scattered

with camel dung.

Yet dung is fuel

to bake your bread,

to light your vast desert nights.

It is fire

the fire in the heart of everything.

Your eyes.

What the desert blows your way

is a gift. Curses,

blessings.

Inshallah.

Kevan Manwaring, Egypt 13-14 May 2010

Then we visited a tent where handicrafts and herbal medicines were sold. I bought a bracelet and some ‘tiger balm’ – tourist tat really, but I wanted to support the Bedouin, who were clearly not wealthy, in a Western sense.

Bedouin woman making bread for us

We continued along the ‘High Street’ – a rubble-strewn plain – to the bakery, where we watched a local woman make pan bread – on a fire fuelled by camel dung. She rolled the dough out like a pizza base, then slapped it onto the iron disc, flipping it occasionally with a poker. It didn’t take any time at all to cook. She offered it to us, hanging from the spike, hot and delicious.

Gabriel showed us some cute goats in a tiny compound – the kids tried to suckle our fingers; and a humble a Bedouin dwelling – with two rooms – one for the parents, one for the children and very little privacy. There was alot of ‘junk’ lying around – litter was strewn everywhere – it was a rather scrappy set up, with the air of an underpopulated shanty town. The handful of dwellings were placed far apart – with no house facing another (so a neighbour cannot look through the front door and see another man’s wife undress). This wasn’t a ‘paradise’ and the Bedouins were not ‘noble savages’ (a European fantasy). None of it was ‘perfect’, which made them infinitely more interesting – a welcome contrast to El Gouna.

Bedouin man - a quiet dignity

They had built a row of loos for visitors, but I imagine the locals squat in the sand. The desert is one vast ‘cat litter’. Like the sea, the salty sand sterilises. Indeed, in the absence of water, the Bedouin use the sand for washing before prayer – ‘the sand in the desert is clean’, explained Gabriel, showing us these ritual oblutions – hands, face, mouth, nose, ears, feet, elbows. The Mosque was a very simple affair – an enclosed shack with room for a dozen carpets – an alcove for the imman.

our Bedouin chef

Then it was finally time for dinner – a table was brought in and food set up upon it: rice, tahini, salad, sausages, and ‘Chateau du Bedouin’, Coca Cola! It was a simple, but very satisfying meal – I enjoyed it more than the 5 Star buffet back at the hotel. Something about the Great Outdoors – and the fact it was prepared by Bedouins with the most basic of facilities.

Looking over the desert village - with Bedouin headscarf

After, I wanted some space, some time to reflect – so climbed up to the rocky ridge for a better view. From my perch, I watched the sunset. As it slipped behind the jagged line of peaks – one shaped like a camel’s saddle – one of the Bedouin started singing a simple haunting song, to hail the day’s end, to greet the evening. I felt at peace and wished I could spend the night – a week – in such a place.

Bedouin singers sending us off

As we gathered to depart four Bedouin men – boys really – sang a song for us in harmony, the drummer leading a call-and-response style song, like the Bedouin Beatles.

It was time to go. I bid farewell to our excellent guide, Gabriel, promising to send him the photos.

Gabriel, our guide

Khalel went hell for leather on the way back – racing his fellow drivers – it felt like at any moment we would crash. All you could do was grin and bear it. By some minor miracle we survived. With relief we returned to the relative safety of the tarmac – here speed bumps and police checks slowed down our driver’s Formula One ambitions.

Returning to ‘civilisation’ – massive shopping mall – was a bit of a contrast and come-down. It was so ugly in comparison to the austere beauty of the desert. I can see why the Bedouin live out there. What must they think of it all?

I sat in the front and had a faltering conversation with Khalel – who drove us back in the gathering dusk. It was nice to ‘bond’ with a local. By talking to them they become more than ‘extras’ in the movie of your holiday. They become people.

He dropped me off and we shook hands. My shirt sticking to my back with sweat, I was glad to dive in the shower and crack open a cold one, flopping onto my soft bed. Such effortless luxury again – but, oh, what I would give for a night under the stars!

in the Bedouin village

Such light. Such space. Such freedom.

a peak experience - desert safari

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