Icebergs or Egypt's White Desert?
Which would you prefer - a snowsuit clad expedition to the freezing waters of the artic or a saunter around the ancient and eerie natural chalk obelisks of Egypt’s White Desert? The answer is so easy for me. My sea legs are more like moulded jellies, so for me, it would be the White Desert every time.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, and each time it took my breath away. It’s so majestic in an out-of-this-world type of way. I’ve travelled widely and seen nothing like it. The columns of chalk rise from the floor like icebergs and spires - forming every imaginable shape from the head of Nefertiti to the grandest of church steeples. It’s like watching clouds and finding images but on an epic scale and everyone sees something else in the stones.
Sahara el Beyda, or the White Desert as it’s known in English, is in the Farafra depression around 370 km south-west of Cairo. The journey from Cairo takes you through some of the country’s large desert zones, far away from the emerald belt of the Nile. My first trip there was with family and we stayed at the International Hot Spring Hotel, which is built around a natural hot spring bath. From there we took day trips to local oasis and deserts. The geology around this area is mind blowing. One minute you’re driving through golden sand dunes, then you are in a scrubby desert with what looks like black lava fragments or coal seams everywhere. You drive on and find sand the colour of the deepest sunset and then suddenly it looks like a snowfall has occurred. The ground is blanketed in white, in what looks like drifts, around these huge chalk monoliths that stretch out as far as the eye can see. Some are as tall as a two-story house. Other’s little more than the size of a dog. All are united by their origins, for this was once the sea floor and countless sandstorms over many thousands of years have sculpted shapes that Henry Moore would have been proud of.
I always think Egypt is a country of extremes, from the greenest of valleys to the arid wastelands of the deserts. From the teaming waters of the Red Sea and Mediterranean to the driest of planes and valleys. Nothing demonstrates that more than this area. It’s like an alien landscape that’s been transplanted into the western desert of Egypt. I could imagine Dune or Star Wars being set there.
We took copious photos, of course, but most have family members so I must respect their privacy but scattered throughout this article are some from that trip.
The second trip I took with my husband, best friends and their two kids. It was a very different trip. We camped in the White Desert and because yours truly is a major mod-con addict; we brought our quad bike—not for the adventure of racing across the desert with the wind in our hair. No. For the convenience, and by convenience, I mean toileting. There was no way I was going to squat down in the desert, which is as flat as a pancake, with my friends and the camp guides as a rapt audience. No sirree. Instead, we got a 4x4 truck and stuck the quad on the back and the truck carried the bike around until we (by we; I mean, mostly me) required a nature call. We’d then unload it and my ever-patient husband would drive me far away from the others and leave me to my business, returning five minutes later to collect me—and yes, he deserves a prize. With that convenience in place, I didn’t mind camping. In fact, it was on this camping trip I encountered the desert fox that those of you who’ve read House of Resurrection will remember. That entire scene is almost an exact duplicate of my own experience.
There is a wild savagery to the area and a gut grabbing beauty and without doubt a trip to the White Desert will remain with you for life as a dear and often recollected memory. Or, if you find yourself writing a book, you’ll include it as one of your primary locations—or is that just me? When I was dreaming up a remote, secure and ancient lair for the Guardians of the Ankh, there was nowhere else it could be—it had to be the White Desert. So, keep your eyes peeled when reading House of Resurrection and you’ll find more than a couple of references and scenes set there because of course, when it came to scouting locations for House of Resurrection, this place was always going to make the cut.
Icebergs may amaze, but the White Desert beats them into slush. Although, as one of my readers commented, your options of visiting icebergs are diminishing as they slowly melt away. So, why not visit both and tell me all about those icebergs, because I’m pretty certain I’ll never quite make it there, not with my jelly legs.