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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 02:01:02

Egypt 2011: 5 - The Western Desert, Bahariya Oasis & Home

Thursday, December 15, 2011

After a decent breakfast in the hotel Mohannad, the guide for the desert tour met us. Our gear was loaded with the help of our driver Abu-Zeid and we headed along the embankment road on our way out of Cairo. There were two 4 X 4 vehicles, Mohannad driving a Jeep and Abu-Zeid driving the Toyota we were in. The only problem with this arrangement was that Mohannad, who speaks excellent English, drove by himself while we rode with Abu-Zeid, a delightful man who spoke no English and could tell us nothing about what we were seeing or answer any questions.

We were disappointed we would not drive through Tahrir Square where the well-publicized demonstrations are, as we had forgotten to take photos when there previously, but today our route is in the opposite direction.

The first part of the drive was down river, past islands containing old palaces or modern hotels. Once on the elevated expressway the road passed between apartment buildings at about the 4th floor level, then crossed a stretch of open desert followed shortly by 6 October City. There is a huge amusement park area just before the city called Dreamland, with new hotels including Hilton and Sheraton. Upscale shopping malls and housing, then thousands and thousands of new apartment buildings about 8 stories high followed. The amount of new construction is incredible, but a lot of buildings appear unoccupied.

Eventually we were in open, flat desert where there are miles of fancy entrances to subdivisions with few or no houses. We stopped for gas, which is only about 33 US cents per litre, and then at a dirty cafeteria with even dirtier bathrooms. There were a number of oil tank trucks on the road, a small refinery, drill rigs operating and signs to many oil well sites. There is also a major iron ore find near Bahariya Oasis and a new railway that paralleled the road to haul ore to the Cairo area.

After a few photo stops and one stop to register with the police in the area we arrived in Bahariya Oasis town. Lunch was at Abu-Zeid's home, where we met his family. They served a delicious Egyptian hot lunch. Adrian was very interested to see the inside of an Egyptian family home, and to eat sitting on cushions on carpet on the floor as is customary.

We visited a small museum with a collection of mummies, found in a series of underground tombs nearby. They were in remarkably good condition, many still wearing their gold death masks. There were about 10 of them - two were young children. A partly restored burial chamber was interesting - the end chamber had well preserved life size wall paintings of various gods.

A visit to the town centre didn't offer much - this is not a major tourist town. Marilynn hoped to buy tablecloths and other items, but had no luck in finding them. Instead we bought chocolate to supplement our snack supply!

Our hotel is very interesting - one story, built of stone much like an ancient fort or palace. The huge room has three beds. No beer here - only one restaurant in town is permitted to sell beer, and the premises are the only place it can be consumed. Dinner was in the hotel with our guide Mohammed, who has the room next to ours.

When I turned the bed down (something I learned to do with hotel beds years ago) I found that mice had been nesting in both my bed and Adrian's. Marilynn's bed had been moved in at our request and was not affected. When we mentioned the mouse poop and urine the hotel owner, who speaks English quite well, he was horrified and quickly had the bedding changed. I guess the room hadn't been rented for some time and no one checked under the covers before we arrived.

The night was freezing cold, but with a double layer of heavy blankets we were warm enough. A portable electric heater in the room had little effect other than in the immediate area surrounding it, but it worked well for drying cloths. Adrian is keen on camping tomorrow night -- but Marilynn and I would have voted for the hotel!

Friday, December 16, 2011

After a leisurely breakfast we headed out of the oasis on reasonable paved road. The route crossed varying types of desert - flat, hilly or with steep cliffs to flat topped mesas and then the black desert, where volcanic black gravel covers the sand. It is about 200 kilometres to the next major oasis town, Falafira. We will camp in the White Desert National Park about 25 km before that.

The White Desert began with sections of white ground and hills. Gradually larger and larger white mounds began to appear. We turned onto a sandy track into a landscape of huge, fantastic wind sculptured shapes rising out of the sand. We weaved through these phenomenal forms, which are up to ten meters high. Some have huge balls of chalk suspended on a skinny base, not unlike a mushroom, some are rounded hills, others carved into jagged shapes resembling animals or people.

Further along the highway we stopped at a spring where two cement troughs held water. A few minutes after we arrived we spotted a dozen camels headed out of the desert. Marilynn was over the moon when they surrounded us to drink at the spring. Camera shutters were clicking at machine gun speed!

Returning to the highway we continued until once more we turned into the desert. The driver threaded through incredible chalk shapes for some time before reaching a flat area of sand surrounded by hundreds of amazing outcroppings. Here Mohannad and Abu-Zeid established our camp - a larger tent for the three of us and smaller ones for each of them. Portable tables and chairs were set in the sand and lunch was prepared. Adrian wasted no time in rolling around in the sand and was well covered by the time we ate.

Before taking a drive across the desert we explored the immediate area of our camp, shooting dozens of photos as one astonishing shape followed another. On the drive we saw thousands of these shapes jutting out of the flat sand plain.

Back at camp there was lots of time for Marilynn to take photos and for Adrian to roll down slopes of sand and build a castle from blocks of chalk. He also collected pieces of very heavy black metallic material that Mohannad says are bits of a meteorite. One of Adrian's favourite things was following desert fox tracks in the sand to try to find their lair.

Dinner was steaks and shish kebabs cooked over an open fire, accompanied by delicious potato salad made by Mohannad. He and Abu-Zeid are accomplished camp chefs - the dinner was fabulous. Once we had eaten our fill we sat in front of the hot fire talking, and enjoying the warmth against the freezing night temperatures.

Mohannad spotted a fox circling around the camp. We shone flashlights on it, but it continued to circle, maintaining a respectable distance. Mohannad took a bit of leftover meat and threw it a short distance away. The fox crept up took the meat and ran off. It returned a little while later, venturing closer to pick up food, then retreating to eat, but this time still in sight. Bit by bit it came closer, and was eventually joined by two other foxes competing for food. By the end of the night they took food from the hands of both Mohannad and Adrian. It was an exciting end to a great day.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In spite of being in a sleeping bag it was a bitterly cold night. During the night I ventured out to relieve myself, but it was necessary to get fully dressed to do so. When I crawled back into the sleeping bag it was with cloths on. By 4:30 AM I was awake and by 5 got up, did the morning routine and got onto the computer at the camp table. It was necessary to walk around a bit now and then to get the circulation going, as it was dark and freezing cold.

There was a half moon that illuminated the desert, reflecting off the ghostly white monstrous shapes that surrounded the camp. The silence was absolute - my ears started ringing as I strained to hear any sound at all. The stars in the sky were diamond bright - the entire sky seems illuminated with masses of stars seldom seen by the naked eye. As the sun rose I was joined by a couple of crows that hopped around the campsite. Gradually the eastern horizon lightened and became more colourful, with bright orange, purple, and yellow colours. By 7 AM the camp started to stir, with Adrian being the first to peek out of the tent. It was time to thaw my freezing fingers!

The campfire was started again by Abu-Zeid, who Mohanned is convinced must be a pyromaniac because of his mastery at creating and maintaining a hot fire. A superb hot breakfast was cooked over the coals. Eventually camp was packed up and we returned to Bahariya Oasis with a short stop to have a close look at the black desert and to see a rock arch at Crystal Mountain.

Lunch was at the restaurant that had beer, a welcome treat. We drove part way up a hill then hiked to where the British had a fort to block the territorial ambitions of the Libyan ruler of the time. There isn't much left of the fort, but the view was great. Back at the hotel Adrian and I tried the muddy indoor hot spring pool the hotel has, but a better option would have been the open air public pool next to the hotel where fresh water from the springs rush through, keeping the water clean. The hotel swimming pool was freezing cold - I'm surprised they didn't divert water from the hot spring to have a warm pool.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Another leisurely breakfast before the long drive back to Cairo, stopping at the same roadside cafeteria along the way. We had hoped to go through Tahrir Square on the way to the hotel to get some photos, but Mohanned phoned his wife whose office overlooks the square and found out things had heated up again with mobs taking over the area, so we avoided it. We said goodbye to Mohannad and Abu-Zeid when they dropped us off at the Novotel Hotel at the Cairo Airport. . Dinner at the hotel was not great.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The hotel shuttle took us to airport where the British Airways flight to London was on time. An Egyptian waiting for the same flight told us rioters in Tahrir Square had burned the Science and Technology building, built in the time of Napoleon, destroying a museum, library and research information. It seems that with elections underway and Mubarak gone these riots are controlled by hoodlums and troublemakers. It should not cause anyone to put off a trip to Egypt, though -- it is easy to find out when there is trouble in the square and simply avoid it. As you have read, we found only friendly welcoming people everywhere else.

The 5-hour flight on BA was comfortable with good food and the multi-choice video and audio system kept us entertained. A 7-½ hour wait was scheduled in London between flights, but a BA service representative moved us to a flight 5 hours earlier. The difference in service and comfort during the 2 hours flight to Madrid on BA as opposed to Iberia was remarkable - horrible food is sold on Iberia at high prices and the seating is cramped. BA included food and drinks (including beer), was more comfortable and the staff more pleasant.

We took a taxi to the Aparthotel Convención Baraias, near the airport, where we had a comfortable suite with a separate bedroom and sofa bed in the living room at a lower cost than a standard hotel room. Drinks and a super dinner of lamb chops was enjoyed at a nearby pub/restaurant. It was open early for food, something difficult to find in Madrid.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The hotel shuttle took us to the airport, where the Iberia flight was delayed over an hour due to mechanical problems. When I last flew this route on Iberia I was in business class where food, service, seats and so on were great. In economy they can't come close to British Airways. The service was poor, food mediocre, virtually no entertainment, which didn't matter, as most headset plugs didn't work anyhow.

I asked for a glass of water during the flight, was told no problem, but never did get it. Service is infrequent and only when scheduled. It is possible to go to the galley and ask, however. They are in the process of merging with British Airways -- I wonder if BA will lower their standards to Iberia's, or if Iberia will be required to improve their standards. One thing they have in common - lots of strikes. Iberia is slated to go on strike December 29.

We arrived in San Jose about an hour and a half late, where Adrian's family picked him up. The trip and program turned out to be perfect for him - he was a tired but very happy young traveller!