- While Egypt’s best-known sites are ancient ruins like the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, the country is home to many beautiful natural landscapes.
- Perhaps the most beautiful of Egypt’s natural destinations is the White Desert, a national park of white calcium rock formations in the Sahara Desert.
- The area around the White Desert is full of interesting geological formations like the “crystal mountain,” the Black Desert, and the salt lake Lake Marun.
- After spending two days visiting the area, I’m convinced that every visitor to Egypt should make it part of their itinerary.
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Most tourists to Egypt have a long checklist of sights they want to see: The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx, the Red Sea, the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian Museum, to name a few.
I was like that too when I visited last December.
The problem with all of those destinations, for me, is that I’ve dreamed about visiting them for so long that they could never possibly live up to my expectations.
As I’ve found time and again, the best tourist experiences are the ones I didn’t plan and had no expectations for. With that in mind, when I spotted an ad for a tour to Bahariya Oasis, the Black Desert, and the White Desert at Dahab Hostel in Cairo, I was intrigued.
I was dying to get out of the city after a week in busy, polluted Cairo. Though I knew little about any of the places in the tour, I decided to take a chance.
I am so glad I did. All three locations are part of Egypt’s Western Desert, the section of the Sahara Desert that covers the half of the country west of the Nile. Each place was more beautiful than the last.
Here’s what it was like to visit:
The trip to Egypt’s White Desert wasn’t smooth by any stretch. After waking up at 6 a.m. in Cairo, I was crammed into a van with a dozen others for the drive to the Bahariya Oasis, the jumping-off point for a desert safari.
After a very bumpy five-hour drive, my companions and I were picked up in Bahariya for a tour of the oasis. Our guide, who spoke little English, told us his name was Mohammed.
The Bahariya Oasis is probably the most accessible oasis to Cairo. Human settlement at the oasis dates back to ancient Egypt and Roman times when it was a major agricultural center. It is still a major producer of dates, mangoes, guavas, and olives.
Though the oasis lies in Egypt’s Western Desert, a 262,800 square-mile section of the Sahara Desert covering two-thirds of Egypt’s land area, it is very green. The Western Desert has lots of water trapped below its surface, which comes up in springs at the oases.
Agriculture in the oasis is aided by a complex irrigation system fed by the springs. There are more than 400 natural springs and wells in Bahariya that are full of rich mineral water.
Source: Our Egypt
Our first stop was Lake Al Marun, a salt lake near Bahariya. The guide was driving us around in a old SUV that he manoeuvred off-road like it was the finest safari jeep.
There are many salt lakes all over the Western Desert, but Lake Al Marun is known for being a magnet for migratory birds.
Source: Western Desert Tours
The shores of the lake are full of these large salt crystals.
Source: Western Desert Tours
The trees, plants, and driftwood are all covered in salt crystals too.
Source: Western Desert Tours
After the lake, we drove around the oasis, where I spotted several camels hiding under the shade of some trees …
… and locals heading from the date palm groves back into the small town of Bahariya. Agriculture and iron-ore mining are the main industries in town besides tourism.
There are many interesting geologic formations to explore in the area around Bahariya, including cliffs of sedimentary rocks. Much of the area was once an ancient sea bed and there are many fossils to find in the surrounding area.
After exploring until the late afternoon, we drove to a high point to watch the sunset.
The next morning, we had a few stops to make before going to the grand finale: the White Desert. First, we stopped at Ghurd al-Ghurabi, a large sand dune known as the “Raven Sand Dune.”
The dune is part of the Abu Muharrik dune system, the longest dune system in the world. It’s a dramatic sight.
Before going to the White Desert, we had to see the Black Desert. About 30 miles south of Bahariya is Sahra al-Suda, an area of dozens of black-topped sand dunes.
The Black Desert dunes are regular yellow sand dunes that have been covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions from millions of years ago.
Source: Western Desert Tours
Before lunch, we stopped at another hot spring. The springs are fed into these irrigation basins before the water moves on through pipes to the fruit groves. Locals use the basins to cool off or warm up after work.
We had lunch in a traditional Bedouin restaurant run by a local family.
Lunch was a mix of classic Egyptian vegetarian dishes like ful, a dish of spiced cooked fava beans, and a white cheese dip with tomatoes.
Our last stop before the White Desert was the Crystal Mountain, locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz. It’s more of a crystal hill, seen on the right. Though many advertise the Crystal Mountain as being made of quartz crystals, it is more likely that it is barite or calcite crystals, which are much softer.
It’s still fun looking through the hills for crystals of different sizes and shapes. The mountain was discovered when the Egyptian military created the nearby road. The destruction opened up the mountain and revealed the crystal inside.
Source: B14643 Germany
As the sun moved down the horizon, it was finally time to see the White Desert. Our guide had been hyping it up as the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises we would ever see.
I was sceptical that this SUV could handle driving on the sand, but I clearly am just a novice.
Our guide was racing down the sand dune at full speed, gliding over the top.
The guide was blasting Bedouin music through the speakers at full volume.
The White Desert is made up of calcium rock formations that have been shaped by hundreds of years of sandstorms
The sandstorms erode calcium rock into natural sculptures. Some look like mushrooms, ice cream cones, or atomic bombs.
Source: Atlas Obscura
The guide wasn’t wrong about the sunset. The light of the setting sun was diffused by a band of low-lying clouds into a purple-red gradient.
With the sun nearly set, we had to set up camp. And by “we,” I mean that our guide did most of the work and the rest of us gathered branches for a bonfire.
We spent the night sitting around the bonfire, trading stories, and drinking too-sweet Egyptian mint tea. There’s no internet or Wi-Fi out in the desert so it’s all about connecting in the moment.
For dinner, our guide cooked up lentil soup, rice, veggies, and a whole barbecued chicken over an open fire.
Throughout the day, our guide kept joking that we’d be staying in a “million-star hotel.” As the night progressed towards midnight, I started to understand what he meant.
I visited in December, the coldest month in Egypt, so the desert was very cold at night. Temperatures dropped to the mid-forties Fahrenheit. Somehow, one of the guys on my tour slept outside the tent. I, on the other hand, woke up throughout the night shivering.
I didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up before the sunrise. The cold got me up just fine.
The desert is quiet at any time of day, but particularly at dawn. After spending a week in Cairo — the most noise-polluted place in the world — the silence of the desert was shocking.
I sat on one of the large dome-like rock formations known as “inselbergs” and watched the sun rise. The desert was freezing right up until the moment the sunlight hit me.
Source: Lonely Planet
As the sun rose over the horizon, it sprayed the calcium rocks with golden light.
With the sun rising high into the sky, it was time to pack up the tent. We gathered the rugs, sleeping bags, and canvas and bundled it all up on top of the SUV, then raced back out of the desert.
But first, we had to see some of the more famous calcium rock formations, like this one, that looks like a rabbit …
… and this one, which is known as “mushroom and chicken.”
The seemingly luminescent white rocks really do look like the surface of the moon.
As we drove back to Bahariya and then on to Cairo, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the White Desert and its surrounding sights. It was never in my plans to visit Egypt, but I was so glad I took a chance on the two-day tour to see what Egypt has to offer besides the Pyramids.
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