Explore The Western Desert Oases
Farafra Oasis is renowned for its White Desert, which many tourists visit on safaris from Bahariya rather than from the oasis “capital”, Qasr al-Farafra, a one-horse town if ever there was. Historically, Farafra was the least populous and most isolated of the four oases. When camels were the only means of travel, the Farafrans had less contact with Bahariya (a journey of four days) than with Dakhla, which was tenuously connected to the Forty Days Road. Fakhry relates how the villagers once lost track of time and could only ascertain the right day for Friday prayers by sending a rider to Dakhla.
Qasr al-Farafra was the only village in the oasis before the New Valley scheme seeded a dozen hamlets across the depression, now inhabited by fifteen thousand settlers from the Assyut region and the Delta.
Qasr has remained a tight-knit community of four extended families and is noted for its piety, apparent during Ramadan, when the mosque overflows with robed imams and sheikhs.
Compared to Bahariya, few people are involved in tourism so there’s almost no hustling – but little to do at night either. Few tourists stay longer than a night in Qasr, and many simply use it as a pit-stop after camping out in the White Desert and before carrying on to Dakhla Oasis. There are, however, other things to see besides the White Desert, from local hot springs to stalactite caves far into the desert.
The low ground in QASR AL-FARAFRA has been colonized by modern infrastructure, which obscures the view of the ancient hilltop village, backing onto palm groves. Even there modernization is apparent, with austerely beautiful old mud-brick houses topped by flowing pediments or crenellations being superseded by breeze-block homes with proper bathrooms. Though Qasr’s population has shot up to five thousand in the last twenty years due to better healthcare, its shops and market are still meagre and frugality is the order of the day, despite a few wealthy locals who’ve built villas on the edge of town.
Come nightfall, there’s little to do but hang out in teahouses or maybe wallow in the hot spring at Bir Setta, unless you happen to chance upon a zikr in somebody’s home. These play an important role in the religious and social life of Farafra; foreigners of both sexes are welcome, providing they respect that they are guests at a religious ritual, not spectators at a tourist attraction – which means modest dress and behaviour.
The creation of Badr Abdel Moghny, a self-taught artist who has exhibited in Europe, Badr’s Museum resembles a Disneyfied desert mansion, with reliefs of camels and farmers decorating its walls and an antique wooden lock on the door. Its dozen-odd rooms exhibit Badr’s rustic sculptures and surreal paintings, stuffed wildlife, weird fossils and pyrites. Here, “Mr Socks” sells handknitted camel-hair mittens, hats and thick woolly socks, for those cold desert nights.
At the highest point in the vicinity, houses merge imperceptibly into the ruined mud-brick fortress (qasr) that gives the village its name (though the full title isn’t used in everyday speech). Until early in the twentieth century, Farafrans would retreat inside whenever marauders came; each family had a designated room, where, during normal times, provisions were stored and guarded by a watchman. Damaged by heavy rainfall, the fortress began to crumble in the 1950s; the less damaged parts are now home to several families.
The palm groves
The extensive palm groves behind the village look especially lovely just before sunset. They are divided into walled gardens planted with olive and fruit trees as well as date palms (whose branches are used to fence the land). You can walk the paths freely, but shouldn’t enter the gardens uninvited; for single women to do so is regarded as provocative. Likewise, avert your eyes from the men’s bathhouse on the edge of the village, where youths splash around in a concrete tank fed by a pipe gushing warm water. Foreigners are expected to bathe at other springs, such as Bir Setta.
White Desert National Park
Covering 3010 square kilometres on both sides of the highway, the White Desert National Park was established in 2002 to protect this unique landscape from over-exposure to tourism. Heavy fines for littering and the restriction of jeeps to specified tracks forced safari outfits which only cared about making a fast buck to mend their ways. However, after the ticket office was burned down during the 2011 Revolution and park wardens went unpaid, enforcement ceased. At the time of research, safaris were only paying fees to enter or camp in the park if they happened to meet one of the few park wardens on duty.
Crystal Mountain and Agabat
Coming from Bahariya Oasis, you’ll enjoy a succession of fantastic views as you enter the Farafra depression, where safaris halt to let passengers admire the Crystal Mountain (Jebel al-Izaz), a shiny quartz ridge with a human-high natural arch through the middle, which is why locals call it Hagar al-Makhrum, the “Rock with a Hole”.
At this point jeeps can turn off onto a signposted route into the White Desert known as the English Track (after the 1920s explorers who first found a way by car), but most traffic continues along the highway, descending the Naqb es-Sillum past the landmark Twin Peaks, to the east.
Beyond Twin Peaks lies the spectacularly rugged terrain known as Agabat (“Wonders”). Its pale rock “sugarloaves” are a feast for the eyes, but the surrounding soft sand and powdered chalk can easily entrap vehicles – which is why some locals call the locality Akabat (“Difficult”).
The White Desert
Agabat segues into the famous White Desert (Sahara el-Beida) on both sides of the highway. Everywhere you look are chalk yardangs (pinnacles) eroded into surreal forms, looming above a dusty pan strewn with shells, crystals and iron pyrites shaped like sea urchins or twigs. The yardangs glint pale gold in the midday sun, turn violet and pink around sunset, and resemble icebergs or snowdrifts by moonlight. All originated as deposits of countless sea urchins that thrived in the shallow sea that covered this area during the Cretaceous period, one hundred million years ago. After the sea receded in the mid-Tertiary Era, twenty-odd million years of wind-erosion produced the shapes that amaze visitors today.
Most safaris enter the desert at Bir Regwa to follow tracks past such rock formations as the Mushroom, the Tents and the Sphinx. The first two refer to multiple yardangs, each a different shape. Another landmark is a large Acacia Tree growing from a hillock, whose canopy offers welcome shade. Shrubs and palms dot the landscape where subterranean water nears the surface at Ain Sirwal and Ain Abu Hawas. Roman pottery scattered about suggests that this was once a caravan route between Farafra and Bahariya.
The Hidden Valley and the New White Desert
Though relatively few safari outfits run trips there – or even know the area from experience rather than mere heresay – the western reaches of the Farafra depression are no less fascinating than the White Desert. The Hidden Valley (Wadi al-Ubayyid) behind the Qus Abu Said Plateau looks superficially similar but is more geologically diverse, with volcanic massifs as well as chalk yardangs.
The northerly route into the valley passes the well of Bir Bednui; a 20-metre-high pinnacle call ed Al-Qabur (“The Chisel”); and humped monoliths known as Hummocks. In the 1990s, Italian archeologists found the remains of a prehistoric village beside a long-vanished lake, leading to the discovery of the Al-Ubayyid Cave 50m up a cliff-face. Its three chambers contain rock art, with engravings of gazelles and cattle, and the blown-outlines of human hands. The cave is officially off-limits but some safaris visit it nonetheless.
Further west stands the Infidel Rock, an anthropomorphic rock formation that locals believe marks the last known location of the fabled Lost Army of Cambyses. Sphinx Valley is a locality where almost every yardang calls to mind (and might even have inspired) the famous monument near the Giza Pyramids. The plain beyond is dominated by huge chalk inselbergs, or isolated hills, prompting local safari operators to dub this the New White Desert.
Until a decade ago the New White Desert was off-limits due to the proximity of Ain Della (“Spring of the Shade”), which has played an epic part in the history of the Western Desert as the last waterhole before the Great Sand Sea. Used by raiders and smugglers since antiquity, explorers in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Long Range Desert Group in World War II, it now has a garrison of Egyptian Border Guards. This elite force pursues smugglers using jeeps (rather than camels, as in the days of the Frontier Camel Corps), roaming up to 200km into the Great Sand Sea on four-day patrols. The spring-water is sweet to drink and allows the soldiers the luxury of showers at their barracks in the middle of nowhere.
Off road from Farafra to Dakhla
If you’ve got time to spare, the off-road journey from Farafra to Dakhla is an amazing two-to-three-day journey that takes you through constantly varying scenery. Safaris starting from Bahariya may travel via the White Desert, or take the easier approach used by outfits in Farafra, via road (62km) to Bir Qarawein. This ancient well has now been supplemented by boreholes, allowing watermelons to be grown among dunes that are perfect for sandboarding. When the boreholes were first sunk in the late 1990s, enterprising locals grew a far more lucrative crop – marijuana – until their plantations were spotted by chance from an army helicopter.
From Qarawein, jeeps backtrack by road to pick up a track to the sweetwater spring of Bir Dikkur, marked by two palms and a camel’s skeleton, and into the dune lanes advancing in a southeasterly direction. Some have trees protruding from their crests where the dunes have buried whole palm groves on their relentless march towards Dakhla Oasis. Over the next 100km or so, safaris pass through the Black Valley, strewn with iron pyrites, and the Marble Labyrinth, whose sharp stones are equally hard on cars’ tyres. The route ends with a steep descent from the plateau to Al-Qasr in Dakhla Oasis.
Some safari outfits run trips to El-Qaf (also known as Gara or Djara), beyond the limits of Farafra Oasis. Entered via a shallow depression in the desert, this remote stalactite cave was known to local Bedouin long before it was “discovered” by Gerhard Rohlfs in 1873, though its whereabouts were subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered by Carlo Bergmann in 1989. Archeologists have since found stone arrowheads and knives in the cave predating similar tools in the Nile Valley by five hundred years, suggesting that Neolithic technology originated in the desert.
The cave was formed some 100,000 years ago but its limestone formations stopped growing when the rains ceased about 5000 BC. Since then it has filled with sand to a depth of 150m – what’s visible today is a fraction of its total size. Some of the pure white stalactites and veil-formations are six metres tall; each one resonates with a different note if gently tapped at its point. Bring lighting, since there’s none in the cave.
Ghard Abu Muharrik and the Sand Volcano
Safaris to El-Qaf often contiunue 20km further east to see the Ghard Abu Muharrik (“Dune with an Engine”). Stretching from Bahariya to Kharga Oasis, this is the longest whalebacked dune in the Western Desert, only disqualified from being the longest in Africa by two ridges that trisect the dune into three stretches 100–125km long. It’s an awesome sight, dune piled upon dune from horizon to horizon.
Somewhere out in these wastes, Samir from Western Desert Safari in Bahariya has discovered what he calls a Sand Volcano, where sand blows up from a subterranean fissure – a phenomenon that has yet to be explained and which can only be seen on his tours, since he jealously guards the secret of its location.
The road to Dakhla
Relatively few vehicles follow the 310-kilometre road between Farafra and Dakhla Oasis. Once you’re past Ain Sheikh Mazouk, the desert shifts from white stone to gravel and golden sand until you reach Abu Minqar (“Father of the Beak”), an expanse of crops and acacia trees in the wilderness where wells have been sunk and houses built in an effort to attract settlers. It’s also the westernmost point on the Great Desert Circuit, and an obligatory tea-stop.
Beyond lie more undulating golden sands, with the escarpment that delineates Dakhla Oasis visible a few kilometres to the left of the highway. Notice the telephone pylons, half-buried by dunes. Entering Dakhla Oasis, you’ll pass through Al-Qasr and Mut Talatta before reaching Dakhla’s main centre.
Bathing and fossil-hunting in Farafra Oasis
Bathing and fossil-hunting in Farafra Oasis
Although most visitors are content to see the White Desert, those with time to spare might consider visiting other beauty spots in the oasis. Farafra has about a hundred wells and natural springs used for irrigation, some of which are also suitable for bathing. Bir Setta (Well Six), behind the defunct AquaSun hotel 6km northwest of town (£E20–30 by pick-up truck from the petrol station) is a keyhole-shaped tank of sulphurous warm water that stains your clothes brown. Further north, all kinds of birdlife are drawn to the reedy freshwater lake of Abu Nus (£E30–40 by pick-up). To the south are Ain Besai, a cold pool beside the rock tombs and chapels of a settlement abandoned in Christian times, and Ain Sheikh Mazouk, a hot sulphur spring feeding a tank where local men bathe (both are close enough to the highway to be reached by bus, or by pick-up for about £E30).
If you happen to be on a jeep or camel safari to Dakhla Oasis, ask your guide to stop at two sites of geological interest. An area across the highway from Ain Sheikh Mazouk is strewn with hundreds of thousands of iron pyrites shaped like flowers, starbursts, twigs or dog turds (their black colour caused by a chemical change from sulphide to oxide), plus fossils of ancient marine creatures such as Terebratulina and Spirobris. Further south towards Abu Minqar lies the Valley of Shells (Wadi el-Khawaka), strewn with prehistoric sea-shells.
The Lost Army of Cambyses
The Lost Army of Cambyses
One of the most famous tales in the Histories of Herodotus is that of the Persian conqueror Cambyses (525–522 BC), son of Cyrus the Great, who sent an army across the desert to destroy the Siwan Oracle. According to Herodotus, the fifty thousand-strong army marched from Thebes (Luxor) for seven days to an “oasis”, and thence towards Siwa – which leaves room for doubt as to whether the oasis was Kharga or Farafra. Depending on which you favour, their last watering hole was Ain Amur or Ain Della, beyond which the army ran out of water and perished in the Great Sand Sea after a sandstorm scattered and buried the weakened troops. Some ascribe this disaster to the Persians miscalculating their longitude; others blame their ignorance of the hostile environment. The mystery of where the Lost Army disappeared tantalized explorers such as Almássy, who claimed to have found the site but never disclosed its location. In 2001, an Egyptian professor announced he had found it after discovering bronze arrowheads and human skeletons north of the Al-Ubayyid Cave, but failed to convince anyone; in 2010, two Italians claimed to have found Persian armour, but were denied permission to excavate. Others theorize that the army numbered far less than fifty thousand soldiers (Persian sources routinely overestimated the size of armies), and was in fact perhaps no larger than five thousand.