2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

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25-28 July 2005

Monday 25th July 2005    day 13     whereami     Satellite view

Lazy morning and out for water to take on safari - took it to last night's restaurant where they freeze it to take as ice.

Shali trail

Little wander and meet others for a shay - back to restaurant and leave at 2pm. Our driver is Gelgel (25) - a nickname - and he has a good Toyota 4x4. We drive a few km, pick up some bread and some big blocks of ice for the coolbox where our water is, and stop at Jebel Dakrur where there are some tombs, but we don't see them - we're here to see the famous rheumatism treatment that people travel miles for (inc. from UK). We see shallow pits dug in the burning hot sand and makeshift tents scattered about on the mountainside. They tell us to wait and we will see. Then half a dozen men come out and the attendants bury them in the scalding sand. They half-mockingly scream and moan, and the attendants kill themseves laughing while they bury them and tramp it down. Boys walk on their chests tramping. When they sweat it cools, not good, so they replenish wet sand with fresh hot several times. After 15 mins they are hurried on all fours, under a blanket to avoid any breeze, into the closed tents where they sit and sweat. This is repeated over and over for 3 days during which time they only have hot food and drink. The torture regime cures rheumatism and can help with fertility for childless couples. It was interesting and a good laugh.

cure worse than disease

We drove on for 45mins or so on roads through the desert past some salt lakes to see some springs.

dried salt lake   salt lake

We stop by a cold spring - 20x10m with block surround - which is used as a swimming pool. We have a swim then 2 more tourist 4x4's turn up and they join us. One with a spanish couple in their 30's and one with 2 young australian girls and 2 older american girls. I have my first proper english conversation since leaving Cairo but can't stop talking pidgin and gesticulating to make myself understood. They were all ok and we swam and sat around swapping travel tales and tips and drinking shay for an hour and a half.

cool spring pool

Then across the road, barefoot on burning sand, stones and asphalt to a hot sulphorous spring. It had half-inch thick blankets of bacterial growth floating in some areas and similar on the bottom - but not harmful so we go in. It smells mildly sulphorous and organic and it's bloody hot but we slowly dip in up to our waists. The floor is very soft and squelchy and bubbles where we tread - nice and not nice at the same time. I think I burnt my feet on the sand and road - bit sore the next day.

Then back in the 4x4 and off for 20mins and stop at an ancient tumbledown village - see the olive press and a few other recognisables in the ruins.

ruins   olive press

Off again and leave the road for the open desert - Gelgel clearly enjoys his work and shows off driving fast and driving down very steep dunes where you think the 4x4 could tumble - great fun.

4x4 on dune

The desert is magnificent - so big, so barren, so untamed and pure. We stop briefly and collect some fragile plankton fossils just lying around on the sand - and see better ones still firmly fixed to a rockbed beneath the sand. We go into The Great Sand Sea where the wind has shaped the dunes so they look like huge waves - it's outstanding to see - and makes you feel very insignificant - just a speck that could easily be swallowed up and absorbed into it in no time, which is of course absolutely true.

wind sculpture   The Great Sand Sea

After driving down one particularly high and steep dune we circle around and get out the car on the top. Gelgel subtley encourages Attica to take off her shoes and feel the soft sand on her bare feet - and privately motions to Olivier to ready the camcorder. Then grabs her ankles and drags her most of the way down on her behind, whooping all the way. As they descend there's an incredible, powerful rumbling that I truly thought was a big prop plane (Lancaster Bomber) flying low and close - except that it sounded far away and the whole 30-40m high dune was vibrating strongly with it - (earthquake?). A strong vibration went right up through my legs and I could feel it in my chest. It was just the sound of the sand sliding under Attica - I couldn't believe it until I propelled myself down on my back/behind and felt it for myself. It was truly astonishing and I still can't quite believe the power of it now (it's now Tue evening).

We drove around for an hour with Gelgel showing off his increasingly daring stunts and having a high time of it. We stopped on a high dune and watched a beautiful and quick sunset.


Then on in the half-light to our camp - about 10km from Shali's distant lights. We dropped off most of the gear and drove back up a nearby dune to have some Siwan tea. Gelgel put down a blanket and lit a fire - then disappeared for 10mins to pray while the water boiled. Siwan tea is strong and you drink it from a shot glass - a tea espresso - very nice.

Siwan tea   Siwan tea

Then back to camp for supper. We help prepare, peeling potatoes, cleaning carrots, slicing courgettes, finely chopping cucumbers and tomatoes. Then he spills the rice onto 2 plates and the 4 of us spend 15 minutes sifting out tiny black stones from it before he puts it in the pot. While we were preparing by the fire a desert mouse came visiting - very close - not that bothered by us. 30 minutes later we enjoyed delicious vegetable stew with rice and salad - loads of it - we men all had 2 good helpings.

preparing dinner   desert mouse

We sat around with Gelgel continuing to help Attica with her rusty arabic between laughs. It was good for me too - learning more now - also my rusty french has improved.

Then Gelgel asked if we wanted to visit a nearby hot spring - at midnight - of course! After clearing up and driving we got there about 1am - unsurprisingly deserted. It was very clean - the capped spring fills a big pool daily and each morning they allow it to settle (sediment - inc. iron ore - and sulphur to the bottom) and then pipe it around to the crops. It was bloody hot again and it took a while to get in. Attica could relax in her bikini, having had to keep covered or not swim at all at the daytime places. The pool was waist deep and was being filled from a powerfully gushing pipe. We played around and dared each other to stand under the pipe but it was too powerful and hot to take for more than a few seconds - we were in hysterics trying though. Gelgel disappeared again to pray and then back to the camp.

We chose to sleep outside and needed blankets as it was quite cool. We 3 visitors agreed to wake up for sunrise at 6:45.

A great, great day - exciting driving, amazing sights and joking and laughing all the way. Gelgel was a terrific guide and told us lots of the Siwan ways: Siwan is not a written language - most Siwans are illiterate "why I need read book? I read the desert!"; many of the 4x4's are smuggled purchases from Libya - much cheaper - they drive an old car to the border in the desert and swap the car ID for a newer one; how they treat and use the water etc.

      High: difficult - the sand dune rumbling was the most amazing.
       Low: only that the day had to end, maybe the pesky flies and mosquitos but I don't think I'm bitten

Tuesday 26th July 2005    day 14     whereami     Satellite view

I slept well, bugged by a few mosquitos, and woke suddenly at 6:30. I woke the others and we climbed a dune behind the camp for the sunrise. It was a great sight and very fast again.

sunrise   desert dawn   wind sculpture

Then back to sleep - in the shelter now out of the sun. Breakfast at 9:30 of bread, cheese and jam and tea, and back to Shali by about 11:30.
We had a shay and settled the safari money, with a 10% baksheesh not noticed as he didn't count it, and a long chat with the very helpful and friendly Laclac (a nickname again) who runs the Waha restaurant. We agreed on 30mins for showers and to meet in the Abdu restaurant opposite the hotel.

Olivier was already there when I arrived and he was talking to the spanish couple we met yesterday - they've been discussing the possibility of the 4 of them sharing Gelgel's 4x4 across the desert to Baharia on their way south to Luxor and Aswan. It's a long and relatively expensive journey so they will probably bus back to Alexandria, train to Cairo and work south from there. Their table was full so I sat at the adjacent table and was soon joined by the aussie girls from yesterday, and then Attica - we talked about our safaris.

The 3 of us then got a cart for the afternoon to see a few of the nearby sights. Yousef (12) was our driver and he spoke a little english. We went to the Temple of the Oracle - 10LE (should have been 20LE but he said I could have a "student ticket" like the others - since learnt that all this money goes to the government and the Siwans don't like to charge at all).

Temple of the Oracle

Our guide took us around and told us about it but I don't recall much of it - it was only yesterday!

Then onto the Temple of Amun - an obelisk with heiroglyphic inscriptions, and on again to Juba's Spring, also known as Cleopatra's Pool (no real link). It's a 12m dia. pool about 5m deep, and full of kids having great fun. Olivier and I have a few swims (and Yousef was straight in with his friends) but Attica couldn't as there were quite a few men about. After an hour we called Yousef several times to leave and had to be pretty firm in the end to get him away from having fun with his friends.

Cleopatra's Pool   Cleopatra's Pool

Yousef sulked a bit on the way back to Shali and his donkey seemed knackered and we crawled along all the way at 2mph. We had a minor dispute about his pay when we got to Shali - a local man intervened and ruled in Yousef's favour. Olivier and Attica wanted to snooze for an hour or so and would knock on my door to go to Fatnas Island by bike.

I went to my room and wrote the safari diary and the knock never came until 9:30 for dinner. While I was tap-tapping away on my PPC a butterfly landed on my finger and stayed there for 5 minutes while I rummaged in my rucksack, uncased my camera and took several photos before I got a good one.


I wasn't hungry and hadn't finished so I met them later, about 11. We were the only customers as usual and had a long chat with, the very honest and open waiter. I'd mentioned during the day that my guidebook said there were only male donkeys in Siwa - and we'd assumed it was to avoid donkey distractions so they work better, or maybe something religious. Olivier asked why - he said it was dangerous for "woman donkey" in Siwa because of the men. Ok I thought - the men donkeys get aggressive and dangerous competing for the "woman donkey". But no, he meant THE MEN! He told us that they have big parties for marriages that go on for days and "men drink alkooool, smoke hashiiiish" and then drunk with desire "go to woman donkey". These people are strict and conservative moslems but there seems to be all sorts quietly going on behind closed doors (inc. stable doors!).
Local women are totally inaccessible to young men - there is no courtship - a man may suggest to his parents that he likes a particular girl but from there it's all handled by the families in lengthy meetings before a marriage may be agreed - or often not.

We said that we planned to cycle to Fatnas Island tomorrow and the waiter said he would get us some bikes for around midday. He's a great guy. Off to bed about 2am.

      High: Discovering the secret of the "woman donkey" - we did laugh on the way back!
       Low: cheeky Yousef and his knackered donkey were a pain - but a laugh really

Wednesday 27th July 2005    day 15     whereami     Satellite view

Slept well and got up about 11, showered and met Olivier and Attica for breakfast at the East West Restaurant - nice omelette and Siwan bread. Then went and sorted out the bikes.
The waiter went off and got them for us and we set off to The Mountain of the Dead. 10/20LE again except nobody asked us to pay. A guide lead us up the steep climb and unlocked several doors to let us into the best tombs. Some were fairly empty, some had good heiroglyphics, and one had 2 mummies and an exposed top-half skeleton, several skulls and piles of rib bones etc. Kinda spooky but very interesting. The whole top of the mountain is peppered with minor tombs.

Mountain of the Dead

In the last empty and ungated tomb we visited an old man of 60 or so sat weaving bags. He invited us to sit down and have some tea with him. He poured us shot glasses of tea and gave us cigarettes and we talked about his weaving and had a go ourselves. He was a sweet old guy and made us more tea (mint this time - as they sometimes have it) and gave us more cigarettes and kept trying to persuade us to have dinner with him this evening at his home. He showed us several of his nice bags and Attica was a bit interested but he wouldn't say how much. After 45 mins or so we made to leave and I tried to give him something for the tea and cigs buy he just shook his head - then gave Attica a bag and still wouldn't take anything. We edged out, a bit embarrassed now by his generosity, and walked back down to our bikes - puzzled and wondering if he'd had ulterior motives. Laclac told us later that he was a good man and could be trusted - but was surprised we weren't asked to pay for entry.

tea with Mohamed   Mohamed weaving   weaving

We set off towards Fatnas Island, intending to stop at the Siwan Museum on the way, but we forgot to look for it and were soon well on our way to Fatnas - 3km away.

We got to the spring pool and there was nobody about other than Omran who looked after the island and it's little café. Olivier and I had a swim but Attica was a bit uncomfortable with Omran there. They're just not used to seeing women and tend to leer. After a while I asked Omran for a coke from his café 100m away through the palms and tried to detain him there as long as possible so Attica could swim. After 10 minutes I couldn't think of any more daft questions to ask him and he sauntered back so I followed, but he was ok.

Some kids and then a carload of boisterous Egyptian men turned up so went to the café for a quiet shay. We chilled out for an hour and a half until 7 when the sun was low enough for us to venture out to the salt lake.

Attica didn't fancy swimming across the grimey canal to get to the lake and Olivier stayed with her while I went off on my own. It was beautiful in there - not hot like the other day, just perfectly warm. I floated around for 10 mins then thought I must persuade them to come in. As I started back to the shore 3 quite big dogs came padding down the lakeside towards me. All dogs here are wild and considered dangerous. I watched nervously as they stopped near me, looked at me, and sniffed around my footprints in the sand. Then they padded off in the same direction - then worryingly turned back and sniffed again but carried on back in the direction they'd come from.
I got out and crossed the tracks back towards the canal - Attica wouldn't be persuaded but Olivier came to see, and loved it. He noted that this would be a great spot to photograph the great Fatnas sunset from so we swam back across the canal and back again with cameras held high. We got some great shots. I love Olivier's shot of me (my camera) - I'm floating on my front in about 1m of water that is so salty and dense I can hold my arms and legs out. I wondered how much weight I'd need to dive here!


sunset   sunset   sunset

We went back, rinsed off in the spring and cycled back to Shali in the half-light and then dark.

cycling home

Quick showers and back to East West for dinner. I ordered kebab "with salad", Olivier ordered a Shakshouka with a cheese samosa on the side. We had a laugh when mine was a tiny plate of meat with 2 slices each of tomato and cucumber. Olivier's was a decent bowl of stew and the samosa was 2 giant pasties - he had about 4 times as much as me! But he shared it - very nice too and about 20LE with a very sharp lemon juice.

Went for a shay and to settle up for the bikes and water we'd taken - 10LE for the decent bike. We had a good old chat with again and plenty of laughs as usual. A good part of our laughs have been about languages - my pidgin french and minimal arabic, their pidgin english and better arabic - including the curious fact that they often understand the Siwan's pidgin english better than I do! and then have to explain to me in their pidgin english. Attica said that I speak english "too much well" - which sums it nicely.

Back to the hotel about 2am and I've sat here and caught up 2 day's diary - and now it's 6:30 - better get some sleep. Laclac told us about a great sounding island today 6km away - so we're planning to cycle there "tomorrow".

      High: the bikes were great fun - and the super-floating on the salt lake
       Low: thinking I might have to fight off 3 potentially rabid dogs - in just my shorts!

Thursday 28th July 2005    day 16     whereami     Satellite view

We met in the East West again for breakfast and then went and got some bikes. We got the bikes but then Gelgel showed up and offered to take Atika (correct spelling now) to meet the women in his family - quite a privelige. Olivier and I also got into Gelgel's 4x4 and went as far as the Palm Trees hotel where they thought there might be someone to share the cross-desert trip to Baharia. We sat around in the hotel garden chatting with Ahmed who worked there.

in Waha with Atika and Olivier

He was dead keen to help Olivier and tried to persuade a middle-aged Korean woman to make the trip with them. She went off to think about it but eventually said no - making some excuse that we didn't understand and she didn't want to try and explain. She seemed a bit bewildered by it all and Ahmed was giving us sideways glances and smiling - later saying he thought she was mad.

Ahmed went out a couple of times on his bike to look for potential car-sharers but came up blank. On his last venture he came back with a cantaloupe melon which he cut into chunks and we shared. I took one chunk and felt a sharp burning pain and a very bitter taste and spat out an insect that looked like a small black wasp. I sucked at where it hurt on the roof of my mouth and on my tongue and extracted what I guess was the stinging substance - again it tasted very bitter. After only a couple minutes I had no pain and no swelling so I guess I was lucky.

We sat around chatting and reading our guidebooks working out Olivier and Atika's best route to the south (now leaving by bus at 10pm tonight) and it soon became clear that we wouldn't get to Taghaghien Island - we didn't really know what time to expect Atika back. I offered to help Ahmed with some emails which I must remember to follow-up. I left Olivier at the Palm Trees and went to the internet café and then slept for an hour in my room.

Shali from my balcony   Shali from my balcony

We met up again in the East West where they'd met some Egyptian (as opposed to Siwan) hotel owners. Atika had had the palms of her hands henna'd with straight line patterns and stars by Gelgel's sister and had spent a good afternoon chatting and swimming with the women. They now weren't going tonight but tomorrow - so I went back up for a shower - I was really struggling to wake up from my snooze.

Sharif was the main character amongst the hoteliers - he was known as the irishman as he looked very western (of Ottoman roots). There was also hoteliers Magdi and Ahmar(or similar), and Abul Rhaman who I thought was a local but was actually a spaniard traveller in the process of converting to islam. In my absence Sharif had invited everyone back to his barely open (no guests) new hotel for dinner.

I got into Sharif's car with Atika and Abul and we drove the 6km on rough tracks to his Tala Ranch hotel. I couldn't help remarking on the way that my still sleep-befuddled head was having trouble coping with the idea that I was in a strange car going to I don't know where with a french girl who looks like an algerian, an egyptian who looks like an irishman and a spaniard who looks like an arab!

We had a look around at the "chalets" and his camels and sat around on floor cushions outside, playing with his boisterous and friendly young guard dogs. Dinner was grilled fish with rice and the usual salad, bread and tahina - it was lovely. They were all interesting, intelligent and well-travelled people and we had a good old chat about all sorts. Then one of the young lads brought out a stringed instrument he'd made himself - like 4-stringed harp atop a sound box. They gave it to me to try as I played guitar but I didn't have a clue what to do. The young lad then played a simple, repetetive little tune on it that sounded really good.

Tala Ranch   Sharif, music and Magdi

We sat around chatting until Magdi took us in his ancient, rattly Land Rover back to Shali arriving at 3am. Back to the hotel and crashed.

Another language funny that we find more amusing each day is the arabic for "you're welcome". When they bring you a shay and you say "shukran", they say "hafwan" which sounds like "have one" to me, and it's not said subserviently, but almost off-hand - it cracks us up.

A very strange day full of surprises - nothing we'd planned actually happened - and we all had a great time.

      High: the surprise invitation to a great dinner in great company
       Low: eating the wasp - not recommended!

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