Alistair Caldicott

Opening Up the Middle East

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Chapter 25 - One Englishman in the Sahara

The next morning, 6am was a more favourable hour to rise than 11:50pm, but I had still overslept and was lapsing into Arabic standards of punctuality. After an hour of police checks, and occasional security escorts on the road out of Luxor, we parted company from the Nile and I had to adjust my eyes from the green growth of the riverbanks to the more purposeful yellow and white of the desert. Yellow waves of sand washed up white rocks into dolloped mounds, which nibbled into the black tarmacked road.

Every so often, we were halted by roadblocks. A typical Egyptian roadblock consisted of at least six underemployed and unsackable soldiers standing around a couple of patriotically painted oil drums, diagonally positioned so the vehicle had to slalom around them. The more sophisticated roadblocks might have a piece of rope attached to a metal pole, which was raised and lowered manually. I don't think the Israelis would have been too impressed. In time, we started to call them "Wahed Ingleezi" stops, because this was always the answer to all the questions the official asked - "One Englishman".

Mohammed, my guide, pointed out to me where tall sugar cane had even been cut back at the edge of the road, to expose any easy ambush spots for Islamic militants. However, I had every reason to feel secure and the omens were sound, since I was travelling into the Sahara with a man named Mohammed, plenty of water, two copies of the Koran and, if things became really desperate, the tour company was wonderfully named Aladdin tours. It was becoming very hard to believe that, just 10,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert was actually a green, fertile plain, which supported many animals and an abundance of life. After a couple of hours of enthralling, but fairly featureless driving through the desert, we stopped at a place named Al Bagawat, a sizeable town, but unmistakably well off the tourist trail.

"I stop here to pray and buy some cigarettes," Mohammed announced to me. On the fringes of this oasis town was a tiny village named Beshandi, which translates as Rich Indian. I saw a mosque, which had been added on top of an old Pharaoh building. The village was dustily hot, and the arrival of a tourist stirred a few residents out from the shady shelter of their mud huts.

Young children had the energy to run. An old man hobbled uneasily, but determinedly, over to try and sell me some very limited wares - a couple of necklaces, a rusty bracelet and a broken trinket. Nothing I wanted, but I left him some money. Mohammed told me a local man here in this poverty-stricken, neglected area would, if he was lucky, expect to earn little more than £2 for working twelve to fifteen hours a day, just so he could support his family. The expression on the old man's face was the typically flat, unresponsive blankness, which real poverty imposes on people.

We continued on to another oasis town at Dhakla. There was something startling about seeing fields of healthy crops prospering in the middle of desert nowhere. Yet dates, grapes, guava, oranges and lemons all did well here. Egypt is actually the world's second largest producer of dates (the largest is Iran), with almost one million tonnes per year. They were picked as either yellow or red in colour, before being left to dry and turn brown in the sun.

However, even the palm trees were being beaten up and pounded into submission by the desert, and a settlement of mud huts was intimidatingly encircled on all sides by the sands of the encroaching Sahara desert. This was my resting point for the night, and I had my very own mud hut. I wandered out into the desert for a sense-whacking feel for the enormity of my surroundings. The sand had been piled and sculpted into sweeping formations, which on closer inspection were occasionally disturbed by various tracks and scurrying insects like giant ants. The flies were a nuisance.

A persistent wind rarely relented as it whipped across the lonely island of buildings, bringing with it handfuls of fine sand. Sand coated the floor of my hut. For novelty value, and the superlative views it offered from the white shutters out towards the empty nothingness of the Great Sand Sea on the way to Libya (300 km away), I had to try out the shower. The water was rather smelly, but enough of it trickled out for me to wash most of the sand off my skin. Mohammed warned me to expect very cold weather at night. When I asked how cold, he replied the temperature could go down as low as 20 degrees centigrade. He had forgotten I was Ingleezi. Over dinner - gritty bread, rice potatoes, couscous, vegetables and fruit - we somehow got onto discussing the Palestinian issue and the impact of the Taba bombings. A large group of French tourists had apparently cancelled their desert trip here within the last few days. Perhaps Egypt's cold peace with Israel might grow a little warmer if the Israeli and Egyptian governments might be bonded by the bloodshed into greater co-operation, I suggested, but the people were not quite the same as the governments.

"Many Americans confuse Egypt with Iraq and do not come here now," Mohammed told me. Look on any map of Egypt, and you will see how very far apart these two countries are. Yet, when your only received images of updated wisdom arrived through news footage, everywhere got lumped under the same banner. In the same way Florida and California are part of the same country, Egypt was like a neighbouring state to Iraq, in the Arab world, therefore equals terrorist threat to some from far away outside the region.

Conspiracy theories were widespread amongst the Egyptian people. American and Israeli leaders might as well be depicted with red horns and tails. Many still believed that Mossad played some role in the 9/11 attacks. In fact, Mossad seem to be involved in every suspicious activity everywhere. The Taba bombings were almost shrugged off as inevitable. They clearly forgot that many ordinary Egyptians were also killed in the same blasts.

The Egyptian army has nearly three million people in it and wields unparalleled power in the country when it came to spending money and shaping opinion. It also seemed a little ironic that the Egyptian press should be so vitriolic and blinkered, when illiteracy should be such a big problem for many Egyptians.

Sometimes in our own countries, where sleaze, scandal and celebrity misdemeanours fill the papers, we perhaps forget how lucky we are to have a media used to shining light into dark corners and exposing injustices wherever it finds them. Imagine if we could export, to countries like Egypt, even half of our own voracity to hold people in powerful positions to account?

"Does life improve or get worse for Egyptians?" I asked Mohammed.

"Stay the same." he answered in a resigned, matter-of-fact manner.

Mohammed told me it rained just once a year here in this part of Sahara. He was lucky enough to be around when it did rain last and managed to capture a few meagre droplets, which were sprinkled down.

"So you want to go for a swim?" he asked me.

Swimming in the Sahara - Midnight in the Oasis

After the Ramadan evening feast, it was time to go swimming in the Sahara, which when Mohammed first suggested it to me, raised my eyebrows with incredulity. But he was serious. Here in them middle of the Sahara desert, you could swim in 40 degree underground spring water.

It was like a big hot outdoor bath, set in the middle of a magnificent nocturnal backdrop of a starlit sky and a full moon. Apparently two underground springs lay adjacent, less than one metre apart from one another. One was very hot, the other was cold for some reason - that was just the amazing natural geography of the Sahara desert.

When I climbed out, my swimming trunks were stained orange from the high iron content in the water, something I had not stopped to consider when I was brushing my teeth in the same water earlier on (there was no mirror in my bathroom). Then I had to endure the embarrassment of locking myself out of my hut, so for the third time of asking, I had to call upon the owner's assistance to twist the key in the lock and let me in. It was a very simple click, push and twist, which I had never mastered, despite a good deal of effort. He slapped me on the shoulder and said "Strong!"…or it might have been "Wrong".

His English wasn't great, but it was far superior to my fumbling key turning exploits. Inside the hut, I looked forward to settling down in my bed, but as I turned the lights on, I realised I was on for a threesome…two huge spiders were perched on the corner of my bed rest. They were both about the size of a small human hand. However, there was very little I could do to remove them completely, apart from aiming a couple of swipes at them with my guidebook until they disappeared out of sight. Somehow, as the desert winds whistled and whipped the mud walls with grains of sand, I just erased them from my memory so I could sleep.

By the morning, nearly everything exposed in my room had been coated by a layer of fine sand and quite a bit of shaking and brushing was undertaken.

A short distance down the road was the small settlement of Al Qasr, another mud village, which dated back to 900 AD. Dominating the skyline was a 21 metre high minaret of an old mosque made entirely out of mud, with wooden poles inserted through the sides to support the structure. Rumour has it that only blind men were allowed to work at the very top so no one would be able to invade the privacy of looking down into people's houses nearby, a very offensive thing to do under Islam.

Next door was another old building, also made entirely from mud, which combined as a law court and madrassa (school), in which young boys could read and learn. We continued on to the next major oasis town of Dhaka (population 25,000), a largely featureless settlement, apart from its natural surroundings.

Donkey carts loaded full with market vegetable patrolled the streets. On its outskirts, I went to inspect some 5,000 years old tombs, which felt a little eerie and weird - looking at a collection of humans bones neatly lined up inside an open hillside cave. I was reluctant to take a photo, for fear of upsetting someone in a higher place somewhere, but Mohammed encouraged me to do so. I felt like a tomb raider.

We sailed on through the Sahara desert, with the Great Sand Sea climbing noticeably to the left of us, rising to 1,000 metres high in places, as it rolled in huge waves on towards the Libyan border. The horizon was distant and hazy. Yellow sand everywhere as far as you could see, dominating, concealing everything. Our white Land Rover felt very small and insignificant in the middle of such ridiculous sandy enormity.

Every now and again, I wanted to get out, set foot on the sand, almost just to pinch myself, in awe of where I was, and take a photo or two. After another one of these stops, one of the crew who was travelling with us, a gentle man with a sweet helium voice, got out to relieve himself. The driver played a cruel, but hilarious, joke on him by revving the engine and accelerating off down the road for 100 metres. The look on his face was a picture, as he desperately tried to run after our vehicle.

But this emphasised to me, how distinctly unappealing it would be to become stranded here in the middle of nowhere. You can become lost in a desert in the same way you can become lost at sea. It all begins to look the same, if you have no landmarks or points of reference.

A few weeks ago, I learnt from the driver, that this area was host to the Pharaohs Rally, a race a bit like the Paris-Dakar rally. Sixty cars from around the world vied with each other to be first back to the pyramids in Cairo, seven days after leaving them in the first place. The driver told me a French motorcyclist, who had previously won the Paris-Dakar race three times, was killed this year after crashing. Of all the nationalities you might least expect to prevail in the desert, a Norwegian would be fairly low on the list, but a Norwegian won the race. It seemed the desert could hold even more dangers than I imagined.

We stopped for lunch, but being the only non-Muslim out of five of us, I opted to give it a miss. If they could fast everyday, it wouldn't do me any harm to do the same, and I think they respected me for doing so. We found another couple of smaller, more natural (rockier and dirtier) oases to swim in. One was a boiling hot 60 degrees, the other a more bearable temperature, so I took the plunge once more. A couple of local men, who looked like shepherds wandered over to say hello.

"Al Hamdu Lellah" (Pleased to meet you!), I offered back in return. Meanwhile, upstream from my own pool, I noticed a little boy had disappeared just out of my sight and he initially looked like he had his pants around his ankles, but I think he was only swimming, rather than sending anything downstream to where I was wallowing. The desert journey continued as we headed on towards the oasis town of Farafra. It must have been rush hour, as we passed at least three or four other vehicles within the space of 45 minutes. We picked up a couple of locals, who wanted a lift down the road to the next village, but the journey was starting to drag on by the middle of a scorching afternoon. You cannot come to the desert and moan about the heat, I reminded myself.

Sitting with my left arm loosely hanging out of the window to extract maximum breeze, I suddenly felt a very unusual wet sensation on my skin. It was black melted tarmac and it had splattered up from the road to decorate my arms. And it solidified quickly. Things were made worse when I did not realise straight away what it was and rested my arm on my leg, thereby imprinting some of it on my leg as well. Combined with the iron red tinges of the oasis water, which had stained my hands and shorts, my body was showing tentative signs of patriotically sporting the colours of the Egyptian national flag - red, black and white. I was walking like an Egyptian.

Farafra was starting to feel far away. Which is not surprising since it was probably the smallest and most untouched of Egypt's oasis towns in the desert. With a population of 15,000, it was 300 km away from the last town, Dhakla. The Egyptian government has been adopting a blooming desert policy and encouraging these oasis towns to develop and ease the population pressures of elsewhere in the country (i.e. the Nile).

Presently, 95% of the people live on 5% of the land space, so cramped Egyptians are now being encouraged to stretch their limbs beyond the confined Nile valley. Eventually, the government was aiming to have people living on 25% of the country's area. So there's still quite a way to go, but the desert land is cheap.

One day a water channel might stretch all the way up from Lake Nasser to Farafra some 340 miles away. Symptomatic of the government ambition at one such desert town in the North near the Libyan border, Mohammed told me, was the building a brand new football stadium for 30,000 people, in spite of the fact that only 20,000 people currently lived there.

In transit across the mighty Sahara Desert, the most challenging stumbling block did not prove to be the inhospitable and hostile terrain of the desert itself. Rather, it was the overbearing bureaucracy of the Egyptian police. On the edge of Farafra, my Egyptian gang and I were all on the receiving end of the most searching "Wahed Ingleezi" stop yet.

I got summoned into the police building to speak to the police chief. He was surrounded by a battalion of unhelpful minor officials, all having trouble keeping busy pushing their pens and paper around.

"Why travel without police?" he asked me in blunt disbelief that I could have come so far on my own without any police accompanying me. An explanation was demanded and my passport was once more exposed to another official's meddling fingers. I was made to write out my own contract on a piece of paper explaining why I did not require the services of the Egyptian police.

"The need for permission is for your own security," he told me unconvincingly.

So I began to scribe away…

"I am Alistair Caldicott from England…blah blah…

I do NOT want to travel with the services of the Egyptian Police in this area, having listened to and respected the advice of the very good chief Police officer of this area. I accept all consequences of the decision I have made.

Signed…Alistair Caldicott from England".

I wanted to sign it, "Wahed Ingleezi", but thought better of it.

This did the trick. He greeted me warmly as I walked out the door, but still looked at me in a detached way, as if I had somehow done something wrong or caused offense. It hardly mattered now because we were only 10 km away from our desert resting spot. Nonetheless, this still allowed time for yet another "Wahed Ingleezi" police stop en route. Out they came with pens and notebooks, in the manner of zealous traffic wardens. Three policeman all wanting to jot down exactly the same useless information.

"Salaam Alaykum."

"Salaam Alaykum."

"Wahed Ingleezi!" we all cried out together in unison.

They got the message. Shortly after the painted oil drum had been wheeled to one side, I heard Mohammed mutter under his breath,

"Son of bitch. I hate this f*cking system!"

A couple of minutes later, just before the last vestiges of sunset, the administrative hassles mattered little, as we entered the White Desert. This was mainly what I had come all this way to see. It sounds silly and looks silly, but right in the middle of a sea of yellow sand, here you will find big blobs of sculpted white "snow".

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