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An oases road trip

When God designed the oases of Egypt’s western desert, he clearly had a road trip in mind.  Four oases form a perfect touring circuit, beginning with Bahariya south-west of Cairo, and continuing in a counter-clockwise loop, through Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga, before returning once again to the Nile Valley between Assiut and Luxor. A two to three hour drive along a decent road brings the traveler from stop to stop, with plenty to do and see along the way. With precious little traffic on the road, and with great views all around, the trip provides a stern challenge to whomever claims that driving around Egypt can’t be a wonderful experience.

In the past, the problem wasn’t the spectacular scenery along the way, but the transport and accommodation infrastructure that made it all accessible. Until recently, accessing the Western Desert was better left to the most intrepid of travelers. A patchy road with limited services connected oases with spartan accommodation and dining options. Planning for a trip through this part of the country required the tenacity of the hardcore adventurer, equipped with satellite phones, and enough canisters of gasoline crowded onto the roof-rack of your battle-hardened jeep to get you from one island of civilization to the next.

Thankfully, all this has now changed. The first upgrade involved the road. All the oases are now connected by a quality, undivided road that places Bahariya under four hours from Cairo, Farafra another two hours down the road, Dakhla under three hours further on, and finally Kharga another two hours beyond that. From Kharga, it’s a straightforward transfer back to civilization via Assiut or Luxor. Decent services can be found along the way, making the trip accessible to anyone with a tolerably tuned up car. Along the way, you’re bound to pass a slew of adventurous desert rats emerging from multi-week adventures deep in the desert. Just make sure you’re well prepared before joining them. If your car’s not equipped for the exploration you have in mind, it’s easy to hire a jeep in any of the towns you’ll visit.

The first stop on a trip from Cairo is Bahariya, a straightforward 365km drive along the Tariq el-Wahat, which exits Cairo from 6th of October, and quickly leaves all traces of civilization behind. The road for most of the drive parallels an old railway line, and a considerable network of active oil wells. Unfortunately, it’s a sad truth that nearly all of Egypt’s oasis towns are themselves a bit of a disappointment, undistinguished, ragged collections of uninspired block architecture. In many cases, the town itself sits on pristine oasis land, with farmers and millennia old palm groves jostling for space with modern, poorly planned, multi-story apartment blocks. The further from civilization you travel, the less this is true. My favorite of the four oases accessible on this trip are the two most remote, Dakhla and Farafra. Closer to the concentrated population of the Nile Valley, Bahariya and Kharga are considerably less attractive. The town of Siwa, of course, upends this theory nicely by managing to be ugly and remote at the same time, at least within its built-up urban core.

But luckily you’re not on this trip for a lesson in quality town planning or urban architectural design, and there are plenty of glorious sights nearby to reward the traveler who makes it this far. Bahariya is no exception, and it is home to some pleasant hot springs, as well as some impressive Roman and Pharaonic ruins. If you’re looking to stay or eat in Bahariya, Qasr el-Bawity, an island of tranquility set on the oasis’ outskirts, is a good option.

The road between Bahariya and Farafra is one of the highlights of the trip, passing first through the Black Desert, and transitioning suddenly into the vast open-air sculpture garden of the White Desert. The Black Desert, so-named for the black volcanic rock that predominates the area, includes several dormant volcanic peaks which make for an enjoyable climb, providing nice views over the surrounding landscape. The White Desert includes some of the most photographed sites in Egypt, and the eerie wind-sculptured outcroppings that dot the desert make for wonderful photos, especially at sunset and sunrise.

Arriving in remote Farafra, an easy two hour drive from Bahariya if you’re not side-tracked along the way, again you’ll not find much in the town itself to keep you, though there is a pile of rocks claiming to be a ruined fortress. However, the town is small, the smallest of all Egypt’s oasis towns, and its remoteness itself carries a certain appeal. Farafra is the furthest west you’ll travel on the circuit, and the influence of the desert Bedouin, and further afield the Libyans, is on display. Accommodation options are limited. On a recent trip, we stayed in Aquasun Farafra, which was decent, and included a hot spring that made for a pleasant dip. The Al-Badawiya hotel also comes recommended.

The road from Farafra onto Dakhla, while less spectacular than the trip through the white and black deserts, is straightforward and pleasant. Even the regular police checkpoints, that in Cairo prove a nuisance, are somehow part of the fun. The desperately bored guards, eager for any diversion, seem eager to joke and banter. Along the way, the road passes through a few smaller oasis towns, another indication that this entire area is built upon a shared underground hydraulic infrastructure. I am told that the water emerging from the ground in Egypt’s western desert was not recharged locally. Rather, it is one end of a massive interconnected underground oasis system, the spigot of a thousands of mile long pipe if you will, stretching all the way back to Morocco. Water that emerges in Egypt, effervescently hot and mineral tinged, is the result of rainfall that took place hundreds of thousands of years ago in Morocco. Dwelling on this makes pounding of warm mineral water on your skin that much more pleasurable.

Dakhla itself is a misnomer; if you’re trying to drive there, you’ll never arrive. There is no town called Dakhla; instead, it refers to a string of villages dotted along a series of springs, beginning with Qasr in the north, and continuing down to Mut in the south. It’s the most idyllic of all Egypt’s oasis towns, and pleasant views of spring-fed irrigation, and palm-tree-dotted agricultural land, are everywhere on display. The village of Qasr, and the town of Mut, the two most likely destinations of a visitor to the oasis, each boast an old city, with twisty mud-brick lanes and low doorways to discourage invaders on horseback. Dakhla also boasts the best of Egypt’s oases accommodation options. The Desert Lodge overlooking the Qasr fortress is an excellent option for those on an average budget, as is the new and luxurious Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary, reported upon separately in this travel section, for those eager for a luxurious splurge.

Another two hours down the road, Kharga has the mixed blessing of being designated the capital of the New Valley governorate. Along with this comes an excessive dose of boring block architecture, leaving the tranquility of the oasis, in many cases, a distant memory. Furthermore, located along the ancient “Darb el-Arbaeen,” the forty day caravan route between Sudan and Assiut, Kharga has always been the first to be affected by troubles from the outside, and suffers from the occasional security concern. But there are some impressive antiquities around, including some dating from the Persian, Roman and Pharaonic eras, and decent, if unspectacular, food and accommodation options are on offer. Continuing on from Kharga, Assiut and Luxor are easily accessible by decent roads.

Egypt’s large and growing population is packed into a mere 4% of the country’s land. The rest of the country is for the most part an open wilderness of desert that has beckoned adventurers for millennia. Now, more than ever, the pleasures of the desert are accessible to all, not just rugged adventurers sporting sturdy jeeps and GPS devices. Connected by decent transport infrastructure, supported by food and accommodation options that range from good to superb, this winter may be the right time to get in touch with your internal desert explorer.

Details: Recommended accommodation options include in Bahariya (Qasr el Bawity ); in Farafra (Aquasun and badawiya ); in Dakhla (Desert lodge and Al Tarfa lodge).  Egypt Air flies to Assiut, and there are additional weekly flights via Petroleum Air into Dakhla and Kharga. Twice daily buses leave along the circuit from Cairo’s Turgoman Bus Station.

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