The Great Desert Circuit extends for around 1400km through four oases, once ruled by pharaohs, Persians, Romans, Mamlukes, Turks and Britons, which have been transformed since the 1970s under the New Valley programme. Bahariya and Farafra harbour the fantastic Black and White deserts, hot springs and palm groves, while in Dakhla and Kharga, temples and villages attest to historic ties with the Nile Valley and Saharan caravan routes. As well as the inhabited oases there are more remote sites such as the El-Qaf stalactite cave and the Ghard Abu Muharrik dune, plus uninhabited oases along the road to Siwa.
Visiting the oases
Allow a week to sample all four oases. If you only have a few days, Bahariya and Farafra are the ones to aim for from Cairo; starting from Luxor or Assyut go to Dakhla rather than stopping in Kharga. Each oasis shares the climate of Nile Valley towns on the same latitude – Bahariya is like Minya and Kharga like Luxor – although the air is fresher (except during sandstorms). Winters are mild by day and near freezing at night (bring a sleeping bag); in summer temperatures can soar to 50°C at midday and hover in the twenties after dark. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, with orchards in bloom or being harvested and enough tourists around to make sharing costs easy.
Don’t expect any fancy restaurants (though you can look forward to Bedouin parties round a campfire) or be surprised by accommodation and safari operators under the same roof (which can cause problems if you decline their trips). Tourism is in the hands of officials and entrepreneurs whose competence and honesty varies. While it pays to shop around, don’t let over-suspicion sour things, as you really need local help to get the best from the oases and will have to strike a deal with somebody in the end.
Visitors should respect local values by dressing modestly and observing the conventions on bathing in outdoor springs (mostly keyhole-shaped concrete tanks fed by hot water pumped up from below). The ones nearest town are always used by local men; if women bathe there, it is only after dark, never when males are present, and only fully covered by a galabiyya. You can avoid these restrictions by bathing in isolated spots, but most women cover up anyway. Women on their own should beware of entering palm groves or gardens – regarded here as an invitation to sex.