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Into the wild: The White Desert safari

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun,” wrote Jon Krakauer in his nonfiction bestseller Into the Wild, a chronicle of Christopher McCandless’s post-graduation two-year travel experience throughout North America.

McCandless's decision to depart on the journey–which ended with his death in Alaska–aimed to rediscover his identity by living in symbiosis with nature. The young American’s “fight” against society became a “fight versus himself” first, and against nature later on. But, as Krakauer’s book portrays, nature is both wonderful and harsh, and you must know its rules to be part of it.

Without a similar tragic ending, the Egyptian Western Desert safari camping experience echoes the themes of Into the Wild. Feelings fluctuate between astonishment over what only nature can create, relaxation, forgetting the stress caused by a restless society, inner peace thanks to the silence that compels you to reflect, and harmony with others.

And camping, as with any other “wild” experience, really helps people socialize.

Coming from crowded Cairo, where you can easily forget the sound of your own voice, nature in this surrealist landscape–dominated by mushroom-shaped rocks coming up everywhere evoking the paintings of Salvador Dalí–may help to reconcile your urban frustration. Here, men are mere guests, spectators of the miraculous landscape that changes daily.

The Bahariya or Wahat al-Bahariya oasis, in Egypt’s Western desert, is a depression located about 360km west of Cairo. It is part of 6th October Governorate, and consists of a number of villages including Bawity, the largest village and administrative center of the oasis.

The tour starts in the Black Desert and reaches the White Desert roughly 160km south of Bahariya. The white color of the shining limestone that covers the surface gives the landscape its name. Rock formations jut out from the sand with particular shapes due to the erosion process–either a beheaded chicken, mushroom, a face, or the sphinx depending on one’s wild imagination.

A two-day desert safari camp is adequate to fall in love with the desert, and to experience camping without missing everyday amenities. For adventurers who really want to get in contact with the place, however, two days are not enough. In both cases, you might take into account two extra days to get over the post-travel shock (being woken up by the breeze and the sunrise one day and by the “bekya guy”–Egyptian seller/buyer of old objects–the day after, is not always an easy thing to handle).

The trip from Cairo to Bahariya oasis takes about 5 hours by bus. Upon arrival in Bawity, enjoy your last contact with civilization before reaching the camp, where no washing facilities or restrooms are available. Man versus nature. The confrontation is not completely fair, though. The Wahati people (people of the oasis) take care of everything–camp equipment, tents, sleeping bags, mattress, blankets, food and drinks. But this is a good method to avoid the unhappy end of Into the wild, at least for the first experience.

The call of nature starts by dividing the group into subgroups of five to six for each jeep. You begin your journey by hoping your driver can traverse the sand dunes towards the Black Desert, without repeatedly getting stuck in the middle of a dune (which is an exhilarating experience regardless, if you can manage to breath, laugh and remain sitting in your seat all at the same time). The sun set around 5PM, leaving you in complete darkness until the moon lights up the oasis, creating a very romantic ambiance.

The safari can be organized by jeep as well as by camels through the oases of Bahiriya, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga, Gilf Kebir, Gebel Uweinat, Silica Glass, and Siwa. Upon arrival in the oasis, the team prepares double occupancy tents and lights the fire for the barbecue dinner.

The Bedouin party is definitely the best part of the trip; the atmosphere becomes intimate and you can have fun, particularly if you are with a large group of people. The plummeting night temperatures gather people around the fire, which hosts music, traditional songs (some Egyptian friends got crazy with “taxi coming from a place called Haman” and “Hey Pen”), camping rituals, like the roasted marshmallows placed on a slice of chocolate which is then put between two crackers (you can also use chocolate biscuits), and tea made by boiling the water on wood, delivering a very different taste to the beverage.

For those with insect and other animal-life phobias, such as scorpions and snakes, this is the best time of the year for camping. While they all might appear in the summer, they are totally absent in the winter. Foxes, however, might visit you in the camp, who audaciously come close to the tents, perhaps because they are used to human guests (this is not dangerous if you have guards protecting your dreams).

The alarm clock wakes you at dawn in order to catch the sunrise. This is the most magical moment of the day; the white rocks conjure up images of the Arctic landscape with an endless stretch of sand and white limestone. After breakfast, you can continue the tour of the White Desert with the “Wahati people,” while visiting the old acacia tree, Ain Khadra Spring, small valley, big valley, the crystal mountain and many other sites you might plan with the Western desert team.

The so-called crystal mountain is a hill between the oases Bahariya and Farafra, located in the northern sector of the White Desert. It was discovered by chance and partially destroyed during the construction of a road that now connects the two oases. The visible veneer is white desert limestone, and the area is currently protected to prevent people from removing the crystal pieces from the mountain.

To really have fun you should also schedule sand boarding. The team provides assistance and equipment. Either standing or sitting on the board, alone or with a couple of friends, fun is guaranteed. Trying is a must.

A two-day trip for a group of about five people, including transportation from Cairo, a barbecue dinner, safari by jeep, one-night camping with all the equipment, a visit to the Crystal Mountain, and sand boarding costs around LE400 each. You can find more information and contact the Western Desert Hotel and Safari here.

At the end of a two-day trip, coming back to “civilization” can be hard, and it might produce a few days of melancholy spirits. You will be nostalgic for the silent, introspective conversation and the “fight” with nature. But you will surely overcome post-travel depression with the new and old friends who joined the tour because the fight versus nature is worthless if you don’t share it with other people.

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