I’m on a bus heading from Cairo to a town in the White Desert. From there we will hop in a 4×4 with a Bedouin man who will guide us further. I’m part of a small party consisting of a German by way of Lebanon, a Canadian by way of Jordan, and an Iranian (-American) by way of Israel.
The bus is massive but largely empty. The seats are comfortable and recline. Both were unexpected, but super appreciated. There’s one mosquito flying around that no one seems to be able to kill. We just hit a parked car while backing out of our spot, but of course we did. We’re heading out on a six-hour journey to the middle of the Sahara.
As the bus slows in the first town, reacting to traffic, a small boy hops on and starts dropping rolls of mints in everybody’s laps as he walks down the aisle. Then he returns to the front and tells each person, “Pay me,” in Arabic. That’s one way to sell a mint.
I wake up several hours in at a building that I have a hard time believing exists. It’s a small, but bustling restaurant, miles away from any civilization with nothing but stretcing sands in between. As the bus is refueling, we step inside to grab some water and stretch our legs. The place is full of people, all stopping in the middle of some journey to somewhere, eating and drinking. Outside, the desert crawls to the horizon in all directions.
I wake up again and we’re near the end of the road. A small town where we’ll meet Abdul, our Bedouin guide, who will be driving us deeper into nowhere. A full day’s worth of travel and the adventure is just getting started.
We pile into Abdul’s truck and we’re off. No talking, just driving. We whip through a few small villages and stretches of highway, then enter the Black Desert. There we come up to a building settled on a hill where we will be eating lunch.
Abdul prepares a typical lunch for us, vegetables, fruit, fettah, another yoghurt-based spread I didn’t recognize, and some fish. Oh, and potato chips, because of course.
We hop back in the truck, and with a bit of food in our bellies everyone is more talkative. Abdul is pointing things out as we drive down a highway, only to see a few other cars on the road in the next couple days.
Fear of Missing Out?
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As we get deeper into the desert, we pass a couple military checkpoints. At one, they ask us for our passports. Abdul is upset by this, but explains that a week ago several of these guards were killed by Libyans smuggling drugs into Egypt. I’m not really that mad about the passport thing now.
We pull off the road and drive into the desert toward a picturesque dune.
Abdul parks and we all get out. He grabs a sandboard that he had lodged in the back and starts climbing.
I follow, but slowly. You know, for photos.
It’s so beautiful.
So. Effing. Beautiful.
Abdul teaches Garratt the secrets of the Bedouin headwrap.
Then he takes my camera from me. “Jump,” he says. I jump.
Then it’s sandboarding time. I go last, taking photos of the others as Abdul shoves them down the dune one by one. Sitting only — no broken ankles this time. Then it’s my turn.
Down I go. Unfortunately, up I must come back. The sand is hot and I’m incredibly out of cardiovascular shape, despite all the falafel and shisha.
I snap one more photo of the dune (so freaking beautiful) and we hop back in the jeep and venture on. We pass through a few remarkable sites on the way to where we’ll be camping, and Abdul points out different landmarks. My favorite so far is what is obviously an alien space craft masked in limestone.
Then Martin eats the flying saucer.
But what’s funnier to me is my photo of Garratt taking his photo of Martin eating the flying saucer.
All of the rock formations are amazing. There are more than I can count, and they pepper the horizon. I pose with this one, because moon.
We get back in the truck and drive a bit further to yet another breathtaking view before Abdul stops and we all get out.
He’s walking around looking at the ground, then he stoops and picks up a little pointy rock.
“Stone Flower,” he says. “Desert Star.”
Then I realize the ground is covered with the little black stones. Tens of thousands of them, but only one in a hundred or so are stone flowers — like four leaf clovers of the sahara. Apparently the rocks are left over from when this entire desert was an ocean, because that was a thing. Which is crazy.
We get back in the car and drive through another several miles of showstopping sites, rock formations, expanding vistas, all absolutely gorgeous, then come up to “the mushroom and the toad,” which is probably the most famous of the wind carvings (at least if you consult google images). Obviously, I have to take a photo of it.
Okay, maybe two.
We drive about a quarter mile more and Abdul starts setting up camp. There isn’t another human for who-knows-how-many miles.
When Egypt was a more popular [and not a state department forbidden] tourist destination, Abdul says it wasn’t unusual to see 20 – 30 other campsites in the White Desert. But tonight we’re all alone. One of the bittersweet things about the political climate, but I won’t complain (at least not right now).
The sun is falling quickly and I set up my camera to record a timelapse of the sunset. Abdul prepares us a Bedouin barbecue.
We eat and drink tea and talk story around the campfire for a few hours. Several times, Abdul says to us, “You’re lucky.”
“Because you’re here.”
Desert foxes come and go, we feed them scraps and I keep remarking about how adorable they are (something I’ll regret in about fifteen minutes). Aren’t they adorable?!
I hear a crash and go check on my camera. One of the adorable desert foxes chewed through the cable on my timelaps remote and dragged the whole rig to the ground. The camera is fine, but the timelapse remote is donezo. Looks like I won’t be shooting a moonset timelapse after all. DESERT FOXES!
We have an early morning, and we’ve had an incredibly long day, so the rest of the gang calls it a night at 11pm or so.
For me, the adventure is just beginning. The moon is one day shy of full and I have my camera and a desert to myself (even if I can’t shoot the timelapse I had in mind). I set out exploring. I start by taking some long exposure (20 – 25 seconds) shots of the campsite.
Check out that Big Dipper. The downside of the moon being full is it washes out a lot of the minor stars and the Milky Way, but the bonus is that I can easily see as I walk around. I can see for miles.
As I start walking into the desert, it’s hard not to feel like I’m on another planet.
I walk a few miles until I find a perfect shot for a photo series I had in mind. Standing in the middle of dozens of beautiful rock formations, I shoot 10 long exposures, rotating my camera on the tripod ~40 degrees each time, creating a 360 degree nighttime panorama of the White Desert. I’ll need my computer to develop those and stitch them together, so stay tuned for that (sorry!).
It’s hard not to think about how thousands of years ago my evolutionary ancestors likely trekked through this same desert, being guided by the same stars and the same moon. There is no sound other than what I make. Not the slightest hint of a breeze. It’s cool, but not cold. It’s perfect.
I keep walking and find a rock I like and set up for a super tricky selfie. A long exposure from 200 feet away. I set the 10 second timer on my camera, thinking about how great that remote would be right now, hit the shutter release and start sprinting. I hear the shutter open just as I’m plopping down in my spot. Holding as still as I can for thirty seconds, trying to control the breathing from my out-of-shape sprint, I get this photo.
I make a few more overly-complicated selfies, walk for another hour or so admiring the tranquility, then use the stars to find my way back to our campsite, about an hour’s walk from where I took my last photo. I plop down at 3am, staring up at the stars, and fall asleep wondering.
I wake up right before sunrise and am able to capture this.
But that’s about it. We’re packing up and getting ready to head to our next adventure. I pack all my gear into the bag I’ve been living out of. It’s amazing how much experience can fit into such a small package.
We’re in the truck and whipping through the morning light before I know it. After a short while, Abdul stops and tells us all to get in this small cave. It looks like a rock that got popped open like a pistachio shell. He takes my camera, and takes a photo of the four of us: the German, the Iranian, the American, and the Canadian.
And I know I’m lucky. Because I’m here.