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

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14-18 September 2005

Wednesday 14th September 2005    day 64     whereami     Satellite view

Relaxed morning just chatting with a few of the others - the cliquey groups have gone and it's much more sociable now. One of them had been to a wedding yesterday and shared a big chocolate gateaux he'd been given - I only had a little but it was extremely rich and I regretted it for a while.

Set off in the afternoon to look for the used-book market. Got to the right area in 30 mins but what looked like the park described to me was closed off due to building work. I kept looking around anyway, the area was full of the usual market-type stuff and I'd not been around there before. After another hour I checked an interesting-looking sidestreet and walked right into the book market.

There was probably 20 or so little shops rather than stalls - like "lock-ups" with roll-down security doors. Each place was piled high with books and there was a fair amount in english. I spent hours there browsing around and haggling for good prices. I could happily have spent days there and come away with a car-full. I left with an extravagant and heavy 11 books for about 70-80LE - mostly classic literature and science.

They had many quite old books and some very obscure stuff that was great to leaf through. I was very taken with "101 Things To Do In Wartime" - a 1940 english book full of wizard ideas to help a family get by. It had some great pictures of how dad could keep the kids entertained for hours with a piece of string, and then a later chapter on how mum, with just a spoonful of egg-powder, could transform the same piece of string into a hearty meal - well almost, you get the idea. It was very quaint, but it was also a heavy hardback that I couldn't possibly carry - my load's just increased by a couple of kilos as it is.

I staggered off with my load, picked up a couple of damias and slowly wandered back towards the hotel. Stopped at an internet café, did some emails and confirmed that my webspace provider seems to have some problems - I have no website (??). Back to the hotel about 8pm.

I asked the hotel staff where and what time I need to get the bus for the Bahariya oasis in the western desert. The bus leaves at 8am from near Ramyses station. I packed my gear - the books fitted in ok - and spent the evening chatting with others again in the communal area - a very pleasant evening.

I went to bed about 1am and suddenly thought it would have been sensible to have bought my bus ticket today. There's only one bus a day. Too tired to do my diary and my website is still down anyway.

      High: great several hours buried in the book stalls, and I now have a well stocked library
       Low: got pretty sick of the endless haggling - they start ridiculously high sometimes

Thursday 15th September 2005    day 65     whereami     Satellite view

Woken by the alarm at an unearthly 6:30am after very little sleep. Checked out at 7 and taxi'd to the bus station. The unhelpful ticket seller seemed pleased to tell me that the bus was full - no more tickets today.

I stopped for a shay to think about it and went back to confirm there was nothing else today. He told me the name of another bus station to try. A taxi wanted 35LE to take me the "35 kilometres" - I can't believe it's that far and can't be bothered to argue with a bloody taxi-thief. Went back in and bought a ticket for tomorrow.

I haven't got enough small money for a taxi back to the hotel (this place drives you nuts sometimes) so set off to find a minitaxi - but stumbled across a metro station so took that. Back to the hotel just after 9am and checked back into my same room.

Tried to update the website but it's still not available - I might have to sort something else out if this continues. Had some breakfast and was slowly joined by the crowd as they crawled out of their beds. Sat around with the usual chat most of the morning - they're a good and varied bunch.

Went out about midday to "do something". Started walking, looking for a barbers but couldn't find one. Walked for an hour and got myself a bit lost trying to shake off some unwanted company and was soon in new territory. Stopped for a shay to try and work out where I was but failed.

Decided to head south-west - I'm sure to reach the Nile somewhen. Eventually reached it way south of the hotel. I was knackered by this time but kept going and crossed a bridge onto Roda Island and then across El Giza bridge onto the west side of the Nile. Walked north along the west bank taking photos all the way. Some of the Nile cruisers moored up look like floating hotels. They obviously are floating hotels but unlike most cruise ships that look like ships that have been fitted out to operate as hotels, these look like hotels that just happen to float.

Nile View   Nile View

Nile View   Nile View

Nile View   Nile View   Nile View

Nile View   Nile View   Nile View

Kept going north, crossed El Galaa bridge onto Gezira Island and across El Tahrir bridge to Tahrir Square and back in home territory. Had one more half-hearted and weary look for a barber but found nothing. Picked up some salad, bread and fruit and went back to the hotel about 6:30 - absolutely shattered after a major walk. It seemed pretty hot out today too - it's been noticeably cooler than when I first arrived.

Ate some grub and started to catch up on my diary but soon dozed off - little sleep and big walk had caught up with me. Snoozed for an hour or so, caught up my diary and drifted out to the communal area. Had a really nice evening just chatting with other travellers about where we'd been, what we'd seen and where we were planning to go etc. There's a really good crowd here now and I'll be a bit sorry to leave - as usual.

Crashed out at 1am and set my alarm for another early start - but I'm more confident about making some progress this time!

      High: very nice (long) walk and a really good evening in great company
       Low: the full bus - but I suppose it was my own fault - too absorbed with my books to think yesterday

Friday 16th September 2005    day 66     whereami     Satellite view

Up, showered, bumped into the austrian couple and aussie girl on early start to pyramids. Taxi'd to bus station and we left about 8:15. Pretty uncomfortable on the bus, my neighbour seemed determined to take my space. We stopped in the middle of nowhere when the fanbelt broke but they soon fixed it. We stopped in a village and a load of lads got on - all carrying hunting rifles. I've had my penknife confiscated a dozen times and here they're armed to the teeth!

After 5 hours we suddenly arrived in Bahariya, quicker than I expected - so I hadn't read my guidebook to choose a likely hotel.

It was extremely and unexpectedly hectic with very pushy hotel scouts pushing brochures in my face, grabbing my arm, come to my hotel etc. I really wasn't in the mood for it after my early start and uncomfortable journey and just got on with sorting my gear out and walked off to find a shay. The few other tourists had all been captured so it was just me left and they wouldn't leave me alone - I was really getting fed up with it. Found a café and went inside and the owner told most of them to go away. Most waited outside and a few slowly drifted back in.

One of the quieter ones was saying he had a camp where I could stay for free, with free food. I decided to go with him, mostly out of curiosity to see what the catch was. We went to the camp owner's house where I waited while they prayed. While I was waiting I was joined by Mohamed, a canadian of iranian descent, who I recognised as another traveller from my bus. He already had somewhere to stay but was also intrigued by the free offer. Hamouda (the owner), and Wajdi (my scout) returned from the mosque and told us the story. His "Sand Dune Camp" is a new venture very much in development but he has problems with the local council and the tourist police regarding the ownership of the land he's occupying. They keep threatening to come and break his camp - but they won't do it all the time he has guests. He seemed like a genuine honest guy who was being persecuted by officials with ulterior business/financial motives.

We went to look at the camp - about 1.5km west of the village, 3km by road/track. It was very nice, very rustic and traditional and situated on a fairly high dune with spectacular views of the desert and the oasis gardens. The facilities are very basic, no power, no water, basic squat-toilet, and just a few shelters to stay in. My only reservation was Mohamed, he's clearly a nice guy but he runs around and gabbles non-stop like a hyper-active child on Christmas morning. He could drive me nuts - the desert is a place for quiet, awestruck contemplation - not manic, trivial jabbering nonsense!

We agreed to stay and do what we could to help. Back to Hamouda's house to do the paperwork etc. and slowly back to the camp to eat. They're a great bunch of lads working in the camp - Wajdi, Taar, Osama and a dozen others that wandered in and out over the course of the next few days. We're the only guests and they can't do enough for us and seem genuinely overjoyed that we're staying with them. We just hung around the camp chilling out and chatting - I went for a long solo walk in the desert at midnight when I could take no more mindless chatter from the over-excitable Mohamed. We slept under blankets in the main shelter in the cool desert breeze - very nice too. Had to hide right under the blankets from a few night-mosquitos and the many morning-flies.

A funny day not helped by my irritable mood. I just hope the desert chills me out a bit, and especially chills Mohamed out - I've not been very courteous to him today.

      High: great camp run by very nice people
       Low: WAY too much hassle at the bus stop

Saturday 17th September 2005    day 67     whereami     Satellite view

Up in good time for a nice breakfast. All the food here is traditional and is eaten from a low table with everyone sitting on the ground around it. We have communal bowls of ful, salad, cheese, okra, green beans, meat (usually chicken) and we eat it by tearing of bits of their pitta-like bread and dipping/scooping in the various bowls - all with hands, no cutlery. Spoons only appear when there's rice. It's great food and it's a fun way to eat.

Mohamed seems a bit more chilled out today - and I feel more tolerant and we become good friends and have a good laugh. We all went to a nearby spring to fill up the trailer-tank with water. A few of us got in and splashed around in the warm water and cleaned ourselves up a bit.

We'd been asked if we'd help get some more guests from today's bus so we went into town to meet it. I'd made it clear that I wasn't going hustling 'cos I hated being on the receiving end of it - but I'd talk to anybody who was interested in the camp. We stopped for a shay at the north end of the town and followed the bus into town when it appeared over the horizon. We got a short brush-off by a bolshy american. We chatted with a young taiwanese couple Adin and Eva and persuaded them to come and look at the camp.

They liked the camp but want to go straight out on a desert safari - they're back to Cairo tomorrow. They're a really nice couple and we agreed to go as a foursome to make it cheaper for all of us. The lads quoted 300LE a head and wouldn't come down. We must speak to Hamouda if we want to negotiate. He arrived and we had some lunch before finally agreeing on 200LE to visit the Black Desert and stay the night in the White Desert - seems a bit pricey compared to Siwa but it is a long way.

We hung around in the camp while the lads prepared the car and overnight gear. It took them ages and we finally set off about 6pm. We drove south through the Black Desert as the sun set.

Black Desert sunset   Black Desert sunset   Black Desert sunset

We got to the White Desert at about 8:30. We turned east off-road and drove a few km into the White Desert. We parked up about 9:30pm and all went wandering in different directions while Wajdi and Ala prepared dinner on a campfire.

White Desert camp

It was an absolutely amazing place, I've never seen anything like it and it exceeded all my expectations. The guidebooks show the strange rock formations that look like giant mushrooms sprouting out of the ground but they give no clues about the number of them or the extreme strangeness of the place. It was mindblowing.

the White Desert

There was a bright, almost full, moon shining and it's bluish light only added to the wierdness - it seemed like a different planet.
The rock mounds are quite soft calceous rock that's been exposed as the surrounding sand has shifted with the winds. Once exposed they are sandblasted and windblasted into these strange, sculpted shapes. You can't help but see things in the shapes - a woman's profile, a lion's head, a baby's head, a donkey etc etc. And hundreds of them in all directions.

We had a great traditional meal and all went walking again - we couldn't get enough of the place. About 1am we all went and found our own quiet piece of desert to sleep in - just a blanket on the sand - it was just great. I set my alarm for 6:30 to catch the sunrise.

      High: the astounding White Desert
       Low: not sure about the tourist-hunting, but we were successful and got Hamouda some good business, and us some good company

Sunday 18th September 2005    day 68     whereami     Satellite view

White Desert:
I was woken by Mohamed at 6:15 - from deep sleep, I didn't have any idea who he was or where I was for a few strange moments. We went walking in the early morning moonlight - just spectacular.

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

The sunrise came along a little after 7am and I just walked and walked and took loads of photos. I'm running out of adjectives, it was er. . . breathtaking.

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert   White Desert

White Desert   White Desert

We had breakfast and packed up to visit the Black Desert. The fine white sand and white rock of the White Desert ends abruptly and we entered the Black Desert. The sand is coarser here and the surface is mostly covered in black rocks. It's a very different environment. The rocks are of volcanic origin and are mostly small enough to be picked up in one hand, Some are very hard, brittle, light, aerated cinderblock and some are heavy solid lumps (dolerite I think) that have frozen into odd shapes - probably in mid-air, maybe mid-water - when they were spewed out from erupting volcanoes millions of years ago.

We stopped at Crystal Mountain that has a lot of onyx and an interesting arch.

Crystal Mountain   Crystal Mountain

We stopped and climbed a "mountain", looked for interesting shaped rocks and admired the view.

Black Desert   Black Desert

Black Desert   Black Desert   Black Desert

Black Desert   Black Desert   Black Desert

Black Desert   Black Desert

We stopped once more at a warm spring to splash around and freshen up, and returned to Bahariya for lunch at the camp.

We took Adin and Eva to catch their Cairo bus and didn't find any new guests. Back to Hamouda's house for another long conversation about his business problems - the other hotels, the city council, the tourist police all seem to have ganged up on him as they want the land. Land ownership is very vague here - there are no papers or deeds or the like. He was almost begging us to stay to protect his camp.

We eventually returned to the camp for a quiet evening and, for me, another midnight walk.

      High: the astounding White Desert again
       Low: erm, leaving the White Desert

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