The not-so-rarefied earth: The desert has much more to offer than sand

The not-so-rarefied earth: The desert has much more to offer than sand

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Mon, 10/12/2012 - 10:45

It’s impossible not to notice the great expanse of desert that seems to fold out indefinitely around Siwa. Rolling hills of sand stretch for miles, and you can’t help but wonder what has been swallowed beneath the grains of beige.

The Siwan desert guide deflates the wheels on his 4x4 jeep. Increasing the surface area of the tires prevents the car from getting stuck in the sand while racing across the Sahara.

The typical desert trip is one day and one night, while half-day trips are also available, and, if you’re feeling particularly one with nature, you can stay a few days in the depths of the desert. The standard trip includes hidden water springs, salt lakes and hot wells, while during extended trips your guide can show you massive petrified forests almost a day’s drive away from Siwa.

Racing up and down dunes in the 4x4, feeling your stomach turn and looking out the shaky window, you see the stoic desert and feel nothing but awe. Civilization has made its home here, somehow.

After a quick stop to catch a panoramic glimpse of what lies ahead, the driver perches along a large plateau with sheets of limestone formations jutting out ahead of you. The stone is littered with white specks, and with a closer eye, the specks turn into sand dollars — white, fossilized and smoothed over, leaving only the star-like engravings stuck permanently in centuries of rock.

You may find yourself sitting among the remnants of shells and sea life, and wonder if this landscape is what the bottom of the ocean looks like.

The guide, with a perfect mental map of the desert, drives between valleys and flat expanses until suddenly the sparkle of sun shining down on water meets your eyes. A massive lake — a salt lake, the guide explains.

It’s so salty that hardly anything other than algae and small mollusks can live. While the guides prepare a refreshing lunch, you can change into your swimsuit behind one of the few small bushes that have made life amid salt and sand, and float effortlessly, gaping at the impossible sand mountains around you.

As you leave the salt lake, the hot sun dries you within minutes. The guide takes you on a rollercoaster ride around the desert, and you stop to see the site of a meteor landing. The massive rock, allegedly from space, sits there silently, reddish brown in a sea of sand.

We drive farther away from the space rock and the guide looks for the ideal dunes — dunes that shift with every week and each turn of the wind — and stops atop a steep ridge of gorgeous shaded dunes. Sand boarding is an experience like no other, but if you want to do it, make sure to rent the boards in downtown Siwa before you leave.

Rent at least two if you want to stage some sand boarding races. Squeeze your bare feet into the board straps, balance precariously on the precipice, bend your knees, look down the dune and try not to close your eyes while you begin the speedy descent.

Make sure someone has a camera ready to capture the inevitable crash and burn halfway down the dune while the sand avalanches around you. Surprisingly, the hardest part is not getting down in one piece, but crawling back up the dune for a rematch.

When you’ve had your fill of races, you can collapse at the base of the dune and give up trying to prevent the sand from getting everywhere.

The desert is filled with many secrets — life, beauty and surprise pockets of water. The next watering hole is a cold freshwater spring that emerges from the desert expanse to reveal a small area of lush green. Nearby is a small hot spring, discovered accidentally while drilling for oil. There’s even a pipe in the center where they initially drilled.

The water is hot enough that you need to slowly ease in, and its rust may turn your clothing orange. Staying past sunset, the moon and the mosquitos come out, but the beauty of the desert and its hidden secrets is nothing less than amazing.

Finally, the campsite is settled, and with some exploring, more seashells are discovered. Soon, you realize the entire area is covered in them.

The guides prepared a dinner of grilled chicken, cooked vegetables and brown rice over the fire. The after-meal, hyper-sweet Bedouin tea comes and goes while you sit around the fire and talk about life.

Watch the stars in the sky move past you. Wander along the night dunes, sit around the fire, and try to find the most perfect shells, but make sure not to take them away from their age-old home.

There’s no need to set an alarm to catch the sunrise, because the sun’s warmth will wake you, and there are no curtains to block out the light. The world around you lights up, shadows shifting along dune facets, and while everything may look the same, realize that the desert is not constant and still.

The hundreds of little sandy footsteps and tracks give away the life that has managed to exist there. Track the footsteps and wonder if the desert foxes and small mice were cuddling with you all night.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.