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Western Desert of Egypt
January 2010, House & Garden

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In some families they divide up property when a father dies. We were more fortunate in that we got to share bits of our mother, one of us decided to help with the animals, another the garden, another the house. I inherited the responsibility of taking her on travels into the desert once a year. First, suggestions are fed to her travelling companions, two widows also from a service background. Sudan was put to one side after one of them said “I had a very good look at the Nubian remains when Hilary was involved in a dig there”. In a similar manner southern Arabia was dropped once we heard how the other “had got to know the Yemen rather well during our three years at Sanaa”. This year, the idea of the Western Desert of Egypt scored nothing but enthusiastic nods of approval. For my part I was dead keen. I have always passionately longed to visit the oracle shrine at the oasis of Siwa, which Alexander the Great visited as a pilgrim and where he was saluted as a god. Catullus later made poetic reference to it, as the shrine of ‘sweltering Jove’. On a more practical note, I knew that the celebrated Eco-lodge outside Siwa had just opened a more modest branch in the centre of the oasis. The mention of El Alamein helped recruit one of my mother’s cousins, whilst the sound of the White Desert proved irresistible bait to my geologist elder brother. With a half-dozen-strong, we had the right numbers to fill up two jeeps. It only required high tea at the British Museum with a friendly Egyptologist, Nicole Douek, for me to gather enough insider advice to put the journey together.

The first thing we learned once in Egypt was that my carefully drawn itinerary would have to be abandoned. I had not made any allowance for the charm and hospitality of Coptic Monks. Our very first destination, which should have been a quick stop at Wadhi Natroun, turned into a day-long tour - complete with blessings, a bowl of bean stew and a good part of the recipe for making holy chrism oil with which to anoint kings. Nor had I, two days later, forseen that the coast road out of Alexandria would be a mass of bunting and police outriders, proudly escorting the Gaza convoy across Egypt towards Palestine. But our drivers and guide were unfazed by the gradual abandonment of our ‘program’. As we relaxed into holiday time, they proved themselves past masters at brewing up pots of coffee fuelled by a few thorn twigs, a vital skill on the impressively long but bleak drive south from the coast to the oasis.

Siwa with its ancient Berber Citadel all crumbling back into dust, its fertile palm orchards surrounded by sand dunes, wind-swept barren mountains and sterile salt lakes, proved to be a place apart. I had to pinch myself time and time again to check that I was not in a dream as I swam in the spring-fed pool of Cleopatra, watched the moonrise from the mud-walls of our small hotel or followed in the footsteps of Alexander up into the remains of the small oracular shrine. Though the archaeological remains are slight (by the standards of the rest of Egypt) the stories remain pregnant and there is an abiding miracle about Siwa itself, formed from its stillness, its distance from the rest of the world and also from the feeling that the whole oasis, in its sunken depression, will one day be drowned beneath the surrounding salt lakes and become just another mythological rumour. My travelling companions were much taken by the donkey taxis, driven by local boys at high speed through the palm-shaded sandy tracks. They have not lagged behind the times, and can be called-up at a moment’s notice on their mobile telephones.

The road east from Siwa, which over the past 30 years has been closed for security reasons, has just been re-opened. This allowed us to cut across through the desert to Bahira, rather than retrace our steps via Alexandria. Another oasis, Bahira is a destination in itself with a splendid pair of 27th dynasty tombs, some gilt mummies, ruined Coptic monasteries, and the black mountains which serve as a preface to the hallucinogenic shapes of the eroded hillocks of the famous White Desert.

As is so often the way, none of these celebrated marvels has become lodged in my memory, so much as the austere eastward crossing between Siwa and Bahira. In particular I remember our lunch stop during that long day’s drive. We were all walking back, having followed the tracks of a desert fox to the shore of a lifeless salt lake. I said something about how far we had come from the crowds who throng the pyramids, but also that we were now far too deep in the desert to be helped by any flying doctor or travel-insurance-funded rescue. My 82 year-old mother replied, “ Oh don’t worry about me darling. If anything should happen, bury me right here. I feel perfectly at home.”

TRAVEL BOX, Western Desert of Egypt

Book through some experienced travel agent like Tim Best (who has a trusted agent on the ground) to take care of the details, like recruiting the drivers, guides and giving your hotel bookings some clout. Tim Best/Original Travel, T 0207591-0300, W: www.originaltravel.co.uk

If you don’t fancy recruiting half a dozen like-minded friends there is a viable ready-made alternative: book yourself a place in one of Nicole Douek’s Egyptian desert trips through Martin Randall tours. T, 020-8742-3355. E info@martinrandall.co.uk, W www.martinrandall.com

Siwa Hotels. We stayed right bang in the middle of the oasis at the 11 bedroom Albenshal hotel built into the side of the medieval ruins of Shali. It has two sisters, the Shali lodge tucked into the palmery on the edge of town, and the desert embracing (and seriously upmarket) Adrere Amellal. All three are superb choices within their budgets, and can be browsed at www.siwa.com

Route hotels. On my last trip we flew in late and left early, so we avoided central Cairo (and its traffic) and stopped off at one of the half dozen swish places beside the airport, in our case the Sheraton Heliopolis. In Alexandria we stayed in the centre of the city at the splendid old pre-war hotel, The Cecil. On our way through Bahriya Oasis we stayed at Qsar El Bawity which is a charming new addition to travel in the region, W www.qasrelbawity.com

Travel Companions
Guidebook: Cassandra Vivian’s ‘The Western Desert of Egypt’, AUC, isbn 977-424-527-X is in a class of its own, and even our local guides in the desert rated it highly.

Travel writing: Deborah Manley & Sahar Abdel Hakim’s Egypt – through writer’s eyes, Eland, isbn 978-0-055010-56-9 gives a marvellous range, both British travellers and the local writers, but I would say that, as I am the proud publisher.

Local history: The Egyptian anthropologist Ahmed Fakhry has left us with two classic works, ‘Siwa Oasis’, (isbn 977424-123-9) and Bahriyah and Farafra (isbn 977424-732-9) which you might not think you need but become compulsive reading once you have spent your first night in an oasis.

Map: Lehnert & Landrock are usually the first cartographic choice for Egypt but their current map doesn’t include Siwa, so we found the Rough Guide Map to Egypt, I inch to 17.8 miles, much the most useful.

Packing Dress as if for the English summer, with a sweater for desert nights, some stout shoes for walking in the desert, something in which to swim, and some malt whisky – as most of the oasis hotels have no licence to serve alcohol.

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