For the Ancient Egyptians civilization began and ended with the Nile Valley and the Delta, known as the “Black Land” for the colour of its rich alluvial deposits. Beyond lay the “Red Land” or desert, whose significance was either practical or mystical. East of the Nile it held mineral wealth and routes to the Red Sea Coast; west of the river lay the Kingdom of Osiris, Lord of the Dead – the deceased were said to “go west” to meet him. But once it was realized that human settlements existed out there, Egypt’s rulers had to reckon with the Western Desert Oases as sources of exotic commodities and potential staging posts for invaders. Though linked to the civilization of the Nile Valley since antiquity, they have always been different – and remain so.
Siwa Oasis, far out near the Libyan border, is the most striking example: its people speak another language and have customs unknown in the rest of Egypt, while its ruined citadels, lush palm groves, limpid pools and golden sand dunes epitomize the allure of the oases. The four “inner” oases of Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga lie on the “Great Desert Circuit” that travellers can explore starting from Cairo, Assyut or Luxor. Each oasis is different in character due to their diverse landscapes and degree of modernization. The Black and White deserts draw visitors to Bahariya and Farafra, whose village-like “capitals” are trumped by modern towns in Dakhla and Kharga, with Roman temples and fortified villages (qasr) in their hinterlands.
Nearer to Cairo are two quasi-oases: the Fayoum and Wadi Natrun. The Fayoum resembles the Nile Valley, with pyramids to prove its importance since the Middle Kingdom, while Wadi Natrun is renowned for its Coptic monasteries. Both make good day-trips from Cairo.
Much of the fascination of this region lies in the desert itself – vast tracts of which were savanna before climate change and overgrazing by Stone Age pastoralists altered it irrevocably. The Western Desert, covering 681,000 square kilometres (over two-thirds of Egypt’s total area), is part of the North African Sahara belt: its anomalous name was bestowed by British cartographers who viewed it from the perspective of the Nile – and, to complicate matters further, designated its southern reaches and part of Sudan as the “Libyan Desert”.
Among its most striking features are the Qattara Depression (the lowest point in Africa), the Ghard Abu Muharrik (Egypt’s longest dune) and the Great Sand Sea, which swallowed up an army. Mysterious craters and silica glass may be due to meteorite strikes, while the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uwaynat are rich in prehistoric rock art, made famous by the book and film The English Patient.
Cassandra Vivian’s The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer’s Handbook is the most comprehensive source of information (including GPS waypoints), while Alberto Siliotti’s pocket-sized guides to The Oases and Gilf Kebir National Park contain excellent maps. All are available from bookshops in Cairo and Bahariya.Read More
Desert safaris and travel permits
Desert safaris and travel permits
The best (and often the only) way to reach many sites, desert safaris are organized by operators in the various oases, Cairo and Europe. Bahariya Oasis is the safari-hub of the Western Desert and the best place to arrange one at short notice, particularly to the White Desert. Longer safaris (four to nineteen days) to remoter sites such as the Great Sand Sea or the Gilf Kebir must be booked at least a month ahead and are generally restricted to spring and autumn, due to bureaucracy and the climate. Sadly, some safari outfits fail to respect the environment, leaving rubbish behind or even helping foreign collectors to plunder artefacts or minerals. All those we recommend below have good environmental credentials.
Travel permits and escorts
Several near-fatal incidents in remote areas have prompted tighter controls on travelling in the “deep desert”, which the Egyptian Army takes to mean everywhere west of the highway between Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga – namely between Bahariya and Siwa, to Ain Della, the Great Sand Sea or the Gilf Kebir – but not sites east of the highway, such as the White Desert or El-Qaf.
Permits for 24 hours (£E50/person) can only be used to travel by day between Siwa and Bahariya (without leaving the road), or to Ain Della and the Hidden Valley. Doing either with a safari operator means they’ll handle the paperwork, otherwise you’ll need to submit a photocopy of your passport and visa (plus your licence and insurance if you’re driving) to NGOs in Bahariya or Siwa, which will process them in 24 hours (except on Fri & Sat).
Only registered travel agencies can apply for overnight or multi-day permits for off-road travel between Siwa and Bahariya (£E100/person daily) or to the Gilf Kebir (£E160/person daily). Expect to pay a surcharge if your safari outfit uses a partner agency to apply on its behalf, and allow a month for the application to be processed.
A soldier with a satellite phone accompanies vehicles travelling between Bahariya and Siwa in case of breakdowns. Safaris to the Gilf must have an armed escort from the Tourist Safari Police (established so that responsibility no longer lies with the army). Four guards are required for travel below longitude 27° and eight guards below longitude 23°.
Though gravel plains, limestone pans and scarps account for sixty percent of Egypt’s Western Desert, it is the region’s dunes that captivate the imagination. Lifeless yet restless, they shift and reproduce, burying palm groves, roads and railways in their unstoppable advance. Their shape is determined by prevailing winds, local geology and whatever moisture or vegetation exists. Where sand is relatively scarce and small obstructions are common, windblown particles form crescent-shaped barchan dunes, which advance horns first, moving over obstacles without altering their height. Baby dunes are formed downwind of the horns, which produces parallel lines of barchans with flat corridors between them, advancing up to 20m each year. Barchans can grow as high as 95m, extend for 375m, and weigh up to 450 million kilos. However, their mass is nothing compared to parallel straight dunes, or seif dunes (from the Arabic word for “sword”) – some in the Great Sand Sea are 140km long. Formed by a uni-directional wind, they have slipfaces on both sides and a wavy, knife-edged crest along the top. When seif dunes fall over an escarpment they reform at the bottom as crescent dunes, which is why barchans are the prevailing form in Dakhla and Kharga. Occasionally, they pile one on top of another to create mountainous whalebacks or mega-barchans. Seif and whaleback dunes can combine to form huge sand seas or ergs. Egypt’s Great Sand Sea extends from Siwa Oasis to the Gilf Kebir and far into Libya, where it merges with the Calanscio Sand Sea. When the wind direction alters constantly, it can even form star-shaped dunes. These are rare in Egypt, but one has been recorded at Wadi al-Bakht in the Gilf Kebir. Another type of formation is the flat, hard-packed sand-sheet, found in the Darb al-Arba’in Desert.
Much of the science of dune formation was discovered by the explorer Ralph Bagnold, whose classic book The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (1939) later helped NASA to interpret data from its Martian space probes. The book was written with the benefit of five years’ experimentation with a home-made wind tunnel and builder’s sand; after his desert journeys of the 1920s, Bagnold felt “it was really just exploring in another form”.