Safari in Egypt: Cleanse Your Mind and Stretch Your Senses
Scale, depth, contrast. These are what move me most on a safari in Egypt–whether in the Western Desert (part of the Sahara) or in South Sinai.
Safari comes from the Arabic word safar – journey. When you mention safari, many people imagine a landscape like the Serengeti and encounters with lions and other wild animals. A safari in the desert is different. My safari experiences have been from two bases: in the Sinai from Nuweiba, a quiet town on the Red Sea coast, and around Siwa Oasis, coming from the crowded city of Cairo.
When you drive for four hours from coastal Marsa Matruh, the last town before you turn inland toward Siwa Oasis, you start to wonder if you are trapped in a dream where escape from the desert is impossible.
To drive from the beaches of Nuweiba with its intense blue water and expansive views across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, into the wadi, sand and rockscapes beyond the Sinai Mountains, brings home the dryness that makes up so much of Egypt. After a day on safari in Sinai, when a turn in the road from the mountains reveals the sea again, your eyes and skin can almost taste the coolness of that water.
Egypt is mostly a desert country, not so different in that respect from my birth country Australia. The Nile, the seas that form part of Egypt’s borders, and the oases keep the country alive. When you move away from those watery places, you feel a shift that reaches into your soul just as the sand reaches into the corners of your shoes and clothes.
You can travel for hours and not see much other than sand, rock formations, and again, sand. When you drive for four hours from coastal Marsa Matruh, the last town before you turn inland toward Siwa Oasis, you start to wonder if you are trapped in a dream where escape from the desert is impossible. Yet this seeming endlessness is hauntingly beautiful. The deep greens of the date palms and olive trees of the oasis seem more intense when you travel in from the bright desert than they do when you have been living among them for some time.
While I was living in Siwa, a lush oasis on the far side of the Western Desert, I was taken on many safari. Each experience was different. Covering a lot of ground and going deep into the desert by jeep or truck included climbing some of the larger sand dunes, and, from the top of a dune, watching the sun setting as the moon rose. Dinner and sleeping under the stars with a few friends, luxuriating in what is known in Egypt as “the million star hotel” made it difficult to believe there were cities of millions of people living somewhere across that desert, in Alexandria and Cairo.
Other safaris stayed close to the edge of the oasis and its salt lakes, where the gardens end and in just a few steps, you find yourself in the desert. Transport for these trips was my neighbor’s donkey cart. At the front of the cart, I balanced beside him on the wooden plank seat while he steered the donkey, and chatted with his wife and three daughters who were loaded into the cart behind us with our provisions for the long day.
While the people of Siwa depend on and are devoted to their date and olive gardens, they also enjoy escapes to the desert, especially if they have, as my neighbor does, a small garden fed by a natural spring at the oasis edge. This safari day was spent swimming in a pool he had built around the spring, eating watermelon and grapes in the shade of a large shelter made of palm leaves, and climbing the sand dunes with the daughters and their cousins.
While this sounds like a relaxed day, sliding around on sand dunes in the heat is physically demanding. Traveling through the deep colors of sunsets in the Egyptian deserts is mesmerizing and calming. Happy and rejuvenated by the contrasts of the desert, we were all nodding towards sleep as the donkey cart rocked us back home through the shadows of the palm gardens.
In Sinai, my safaris have been with Bedouin, mostly to attend special events such as a Bedouin wedding or the major camel race held in a wadi each January (that’s another story, but it is a camel race with one difference – your jeep and a hundred or more trucks and jeeps full of Bedouin race along with the camels). The race starts early in the morning, so camping overnight is essential. Most Bedouin never seem comfortable in a city, but become completely themselves once they travel beyond it.
Desert nights in January are a bone-chilling experience. The contrast of the roasting heat of summer days with the tingling cold of winter nights is hard to comprehend unless you have felt both extremes. This is when you are really glad to experience another joy of safari – food and drinks prepared on an open fire.
A desert safari cleanses your mind and stretches your senses.
Somehow along the way, the Bedouin manage to find enough twigs and small bits of wood to cook a hot meal and bake bread in the glowing coals, accompanied by sweet, strong tea. There is something about a desert dinner, simple as the ingredients may be, that makes it taste like a feast. The desert air stimulates your appetite, and I always feel that in such an arid place every morsel of food or drink is a blessing. Paradise in the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) is described as a garden, and as those religions originated in deserts not far from Egypt, the vision of Paradise as a garden is easy to understand.
A desert safari cleanses your mind and stretches your senses. It heightens your craving for all that is precious in the desert – shade and cool water on a scorching day, hot food and a warm blanket on an icy night.
Though my description dwells on the sparse, raw nature of the safari in Egypt, I treasure these experiences. The desert lures me back again and again, my soul craves it. I doubt I will ever tire of it, or of knowing that all trace of my presence will be erased by the next day, except for the memory of the dunes at sunset that I will carry back to the city.