#This_is_Egypt, desert paradise…

In 2009, I was requested to prepare a presentation, regarding a  topic of my choice, for a panel interview at Schlumberger. While introducing myself, I decided to let them know I have a crush on Siwa labelling the desert as my “happy place”. Later on, I realised it wasn’t the desert in general, and definitely not a deformed one with rigs and drillers…It was the Great Sand Sea that I desired, its soft sand dunes had my heart, rippling and moving constantly as if it were waves dancing in a big deep sea, bare from any distraction…My fantasy wasn’t far from reality; once upon a time, the whole oasis was immersed under the ocean.

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Sand dunes at the Great Sand Sea near Siwa

Upon arrival, the bus stop leaves you at the town’s centre facing Shali ruins, the old fortress hosted the Siwi population inside on top of the mountain, but with time, rain, wind and dryness; the houses condition deteriorated, very few people still live in their old homes, many left for houses down the road with better infrastructure and services.

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Siwa Entrance and Shali  fortress

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Camp fire

Around the centre you can find restaurants(Abdo’s most popular), cheap accommodation (my favourite is hotel Cleopatra) and cafes slightly different in definition: open space bound by a bamboo fence, in the middle of each table there is a small slot to simulate a camp fire, and they serve hot and cold beverages and light crepes

The small town is walkable, if you want to explore more options, there are bike and donkey cart rentals. No need for a car, there are plenty of decent Siwi guides to take you through your Great Sand Sea experience. If you want to have your own adventure, do it in groups, do not defy an infinitely deserted field on your own…

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Bike tour amidst siwi houses

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Siwa kids in a donkey cart outside Bir Shuruf

The Oasis was part of the ancient Egyptian heridatery and by consequence hosts a couple of temples in the mountain of the dead( Siwa’s valley of the kings), most importantly, the oracle temple of Amoun. It’s being said that Alexander the great have been frequenting this temple, as a gesture to establish the rapport with Egyptians at that time. An exemplary sovereign who unfortunately have died young, he had a unique style of conquering nations and making them fall in love with him…Logistically speaking, the same route leads to several hot and cold springs, Cleopatra’s bath, Dakrur’s mountain and Birket el Zaitoun.

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View from dakrur’s mountain and lake Zeitun

The oasis offers different relaxation experiences as well on the west side; for example Fatnas  or Taghaghein islands by Birket Siwa, 10 minutes away from the centre, are brilliant spots for some afternoon tea , a fresh water swim and serene sunset.

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Fatnas Sunset

Alternatively, the Great Sand Sea offers the ultimate spiritual experience, for that you’ll need a guide with a solid 4X4, the guide will either go in groups or would keep his colleagues informed of his route.  As much as it’s breathtaking, it’s also dangerous. The Great Sand Sea extends beyond sight in a repetitive pattern, you cannot distinguish a rock or a mountain top most of the time. The dunes swiftly move at night, they will switch places, reshape themselves in different sizes. Everyday you will get a slightly different scenery at the same spot, dramatic weather conditions mean you will not be able to stay for long as you may end up buried under a dune…

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Sand formations away from the camping site

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A smiling Aly – Shyatta lake – Minolta SLR & Film

There are also group camping sites. Alternatively, an experienced friendly guide would take you to a low key location. It’d be still hard for you to fathom the difference, as the sand is all the same. However there will be no traffic, no tourists, no nearby campfires or noises. There will be stillness; just you, a small drop,  in a literally vast sea of sand…

 

Typically, the trip starts 12 Kms away from Siwa at Bir Wahed, in the middle of sand dunes and mountains, a green space will erupt around a water well, make sure you have your swim suit  as there will be a lot of good opportunities on your route…

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Bir wahed area and the springs – Minolta SLR & Film

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En route to Bir Wahed

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Bir Wahed view from the adjacent mountain top…Minolta SLR & film

As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, Siwa is also a shallow depression area below sea level, the inhabitants used to live in Shali, a fortress on top of a mountain, a hint that there were plenty of floods. Geologists indicated that this land used to be fertile 7000 years B.C. The amount of  wells, springs and lakes insinuates there is a massive ground water discharge that is not yet fully exploited. The Siwi’s main craft is farming, each individual digs his own well to guarantee the plantations supply…

Among these water surfaces, before reaching the fossils area, there will be Shyata, a beautiful salty lake located in the middle of a vast sandy desert.

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Shyatta salt lake in the great sand sea – Minolta SLR & film

A land that has been there before time, would definitely have early fossils from the ice age, indicating there were a marine life. On top of the fossil mountains there are human foot prints that may date back to millions of years…

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Human fossil

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Siwa Fossil area…Minolta SLR & film

By the time you reach your night location, there will be enough light to setup your camp and start the fire, a necessity, around you there is nothing but a continuous stream of sand under a clear blue sky and soon the night will fall and it’ll become cold…

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Unpacking…

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Camp is set…

Besides the fascinating sunset palettes and photographic landscape, the setup will absorb you, the air is fresh, dry and clean. Your soul will find solace in the absurdity of time, the wind will blow away any stressful memoirs, your relationship with all things you relate to will become as vague as dust…You’ll be blessed with forgetfulness and peace will soon reign over your spirit. Victoria Erickson in her book Edge of Wonder have nailed it:

“Desert sunsets. The sun and earth always seem larger. Wilder. Brighter. More demanding. More silent. Somehow more certain.”

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Sunset view

Your guide will not sit still though, only for a while maybe, but then he will start sorting the metal pots and kitchen tools. He will rummage through sacks of vegetables, potatoes,  rice and an ice box  full of chicken. Cutting and slicing, then tossing it all into pots and metal nets… The food will be slow cooked over your campfire, followed by a dark bold sugary bedouin tea. I am not sure if it’s the lack of surroundings or nature’s bliss that makes it one of the tastiest meals you’ll get in a life time.

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What’s for dinner?

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Standard Siwi food; rice, assorted vegetables and giant chicken…But it was a christmas special, with some red wine.

The night despite being long, will not allow you to sleep. The sky is ornamented with silver, and it lures you to explore the spaciousness around you, guided by the stars. If you are into alcohol, ask your guide to bring you some home made “Arak el Balah”, the distilled liquor of dates, to keep you warm while wandering in the darkness, contemplating all things or nothing at all…Hours later from your position, the light will slowly try to break in, the desert will suddenly feel like a giant fridge, you’ll be yearning for a warm sun ray to defreeze your toes…

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Waiting for the sun…

You are still hazy on your way back, your life has been diluted into a dream…The road is endless, you are in your own head, where time and distance definitions have been warped. Soon you’ll get caught in your daily routine, everyday loads and endless stress. When it gets too much, come back again, dream of eternity…

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En route between Matrouh and Siwa – Minolta SLR & film

As Rumi once wrote: “There is a desert I long to be walking. A wide emptiness. Peace beyond any understanding of it.”

All photographs were captured by myself, all copyrights reserved.

 

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