Camping under the stars in the Western Desert, Egypt

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Camping in the Western Desert

Camping in the Western Desert in Egypt was one thing we were all looking forward to, and also dreading. However we had a fantastic time and would definitely camp in the desert again. We were only there for a day and a night but we saw the Black Desert, the Crystal Mountain, the Aqabat and the New White Desert, not to mention playing in a natural cool spring.

Getting to the Western Desert and arriving in Bahariya Oasis

It is a long four hour drive out to the Western Desert oasis of Bahariya. We were due to meet our guides for the desert when we arrived in Bahariya so we were surprised to find two people sitting in the van when Select Egypt picked us up from our hotel in Giza. However we thought nothing of it until we stopped at the halfway point for a break. The cafe was not particularly clean and was almost deserted. However it was the only roadside stop we'd seen since leaving Cairo, the rest of the journey being a long straight road with nothing but sand and rock on either side. As we got out of the car the children noticed that our mystery traveler had a gun at his hip. Seeing the children's surprise he smiled and explained that he was "your policeman". It seems that security on this long journey is a concern and although we saw nothing out of the ordinary we were grateful of the reassurance of our guard.

We'd started to realise that driving is a fast and furious affair in Egypt and this trip was no exception. We saw only a few other vehicles on the road and they all tended to bunch together, driving fast and close to the vehicle in front, then taking over and reversing the positions! Whether this was for security, or to relieve the boredom of the drive or just for fun I couldn't say.

El Bishmo Hotel

Other than that the drive to Bahariya was relatively uneventful and we arrived in the small town just before midday. Our driver dropped us at a hotel, El Bishmo which we were not due to stay at or have lunch and we were a little confused. However one of the hotel staff came and sat with us, explaining that the drivers and the staff at the hotel we were due to have lunch in were at Friday prayers. He showed us the local hot spring and a few of the sights including the pyramid mountain.

The hotel itself was deserted, probably due to being low season, and was not particularly clean. They had a party of Koreans staying the night before and perhaps because they had no one booked in for that night they didn't seem to have tidied up. However the location was nice and Mohammed, who showed us around was very friendly.

Palm Valley Hotel, Bahariya

It wasn't long however before our guide and driver returned and we transferred our luggage from the van to a green four by four and drove to the Palm Valley Hotel for lunch. We didn't see much of the hotel but it looked smart and the food was good, although there really was too much of it!

The Black Desert

After lunch we set off on our desert adventure. We toured the town first as Tamar our guide picked up food for the journey. We had heard from others that making sure there was enough water for the trip was important and we mentioned this to Tamar. He laughed and said there was 12 two litre bottles in the back but when he came back from the shop he'd brought another five - one each - just to reassure us!

Our first stop was the black desert. We were not quite sure what to expect. In my own mind I imagined black sand, like fine coal but when we arrived the description became more logical. The mountains and hills in the area were rich in basalt rock (which is black) and the wind had exposed this basalt. Rich seems of it sat atop the hills and the wind had then clearly dispersed the rock over the surrounding area giving it a black appearance.

Playing in a natural spring

Leaving the Black Desert behind we set off towards the New White Desert. On our way we drove through a small village and stopped at a cold spring which feeds the water system. There was a small group of other 4x4s there already and our driver pulled up, jumped out and leapt straight into the water!

Getting out to see what was going on was probably a mistake! Quickly our drive soaked us and one by one we were pulled in, some willingly others less so, fully clothed! It was one of those great moments that you remember in your holiday - completely silly, unplanned but great fun. We wouldn't have planned to do it but the spontaneous and infectious excitement of the driver made it impossible to refuse and we're glad we didn't.

Getting back into the car, still soaking wet, was less pleasant! However it was amazing how quickly we dried off. I was wearing jeans and I don't think they dried completely until the evening but most of the clothes were close to dry by the time we'd visited our next stop - the Crystal Mountain.

The Crystal Mountain

While the Black Desert is named for the black basalt rock, the Crystal Mountain is so named for another rock found in the area - quartz. The mountain itself is slightly misnamed, being a small hillock by the side of the road but its well worth the visit. Unfortunately the main area is now cordoned off because people were breaking pieces of quartz off which is a real shame. However you can walk up the hill to the side of the main quartz seem and find plenty of small lose rocks.

You can also get close to the quartz seem and get a great picture of the sun shining through the picturesque natural arch that is the classic image of the Crystal Mountain used in guide books. It was definitely worth the short 20 minute visit on the way to our next stop....the Aqabat.

The Aqabat

From the Crystal Mountain we drove, off road, along marked sandy trails. We were probably driving too fast along these sandy tracks but that was part of the fun and the 4x4, expertly driven but someone who had clearly done it many times and enjoyed the thrill, coped well with the shifting sand. We climbed up the sand and through several passes with high rock faces on either side. Then Tamar asked us to close our eyes. We did so, with slight trepidation, thinking we it might be the prelude to a rapid roller coaster decent.

The New White Desert

The New White Desert, names apparently because the original "White Desert" was over visited (but can't confirm this for certain) was just a magical and slightly eerie. At regular intervals around the New White Dessert are naturally formed rock shapes in limestone (which creates the "white" that the Desert is names after) standing like enormous grave stones or monuments. Each has a distinctive shape carved by ancient waters that must have turned most of these rocks into small islands. Tamar pointed many out to us, asking the children to guess the shape - the Camel, the Chicken and Tree among them!

Camping in the Desert

At last we stopped, literally in the middle of the desert and Tamar and our driver parked up and started to put our little camp together. We watched and enjoyed the sun setting behind the strange rocks. We were not quite sure what to expect but the camp turned out to be a simple L-Shape construction, secured against the 4x4 with comfortable mats as a floor. Upon this was placed a small table that we knelt down and ate one of the most wonderful, if simple meals of rice and barbequed chicken we have ever tasted.

Then to our surprise, Tamar brought out a large, simple spounge cake with a candle to celebrate Kate's birthday (I don't ever remember telling him that it was her birthday!) and she opened her presents under the twinkling stars of the Western Egyptian Desert. I don't think I could have thought of a better way to spend a birthday.

We were joined in our celebrations by the odd Desert Fox - quiet, and shy animals that would sneak up to see what was going on and whether there was food available but would dash off as soon as they were spooked by a movement or loud noise.

After dinner, we were joined by another guide and spent the evening singing and dancing around the fire until eventually we all laid down, looking up at the stars and fell off the sleep with the sound of our guides talking quietly around the fire. What a magical day.