Thursday, April 06, 2006

On A Camel With No Name

Bahariya, Egypt

Having already explored the world's highest mountains, largest inland swamp, and most extensive jungle, it seemed only natural to have a look at its biggest (?) desert. Bahariya oasis is several hundred kilometers west of Cairo in the edges of the Sahara. We set up our desert base at Ahmed's Safari Camp after a four hour trip from Cairo by taxi. Mr. Ahmed runs a desert safari company out of his simple hotel compound on the edge of the oasis town. After taking lunch, we retired to his constantly busy office to review our safari options. We settled on a four day / three night camel trek into the sands that would take us by way of a smaller oasis. Money handed over and arrangements made, we spent the rest of the afternoon being driven around in an jeep by Mr. Ahmed's son in the company of two young women - one Canadian and one Kiwi. The latter had contracted some kind of dread disease, necessitating a stop at the pharmacy in town after our viewing of the local hot spring, a swim (for me) in the reservoir, and a hilltop sunset.

We met our guide and his two camels early the next morning. Arajit (are-ahh-jit) was pretty much what I expected from a bedouin - shortish, scruffy, mustachioed, comfortably dressed, and an enthusiastic smoker. He did not speak much English, but it mattered little. We substituted improvised (and often absurd) songs for conversation. The camels carried all of our supplies in large plastic bags slung on either side of a long saddle made from pieces of wood, rope, and what looked like a bale of hay. Jason and I both rode on the first day and Jason again on the last. I found travel on camel back to be clumsy, uncomfortable, and boring. I much preferred to be on foot where I could stop and look around without restriction and my legs are not forced into a dangerously akimbo position. I understood Jason's choice to mount up on our last day, though. Walking for miles on sand takes it out of your legs and literally rubs your feet the wrong way.

We spent the first morning making our way out of Bahariya then stopped for lunch in a stone hut on the outskirts of town. After the meal, we rested through the hottest part of the day before setting out again around half two. Sometime about six, we made camp, watched the sun set, prepared dinner, and stared at the stars before passing out in our sleeping bags. The first day established the pattern for the rest of the trip. It was an itinerary pleasingly settled into. We got up with the sun, followed it across the sky, stopped for a bit to nap while it was at its most blazing, then chased it again until it dropped out of sight. Meals were simple but nourishing and there were plenty of restorative cups of tea to urge on weary legs. We made one break from the norm on day 3 when we stopped at a small oasis to take a bath in a hot spring and have lunch in a palm hut. Both the water and the shelter were appreciated after two dusty days on the march.

The scenery in the desert was predictably desolate. We were almost always walking on a carpet of small rocks that covered the sand like a mosaic. The skyline was broken up only by rounded rocky hills. The overwhelming "brown-ness" of it all was interrupted here and there by sudden bits of purple or white. This trek is the only time I have ever wished that I had studied more geology. The stones and rock formations were in places fascinatingly strange. There was also a bit of life to be seen. Grasses and small trees capped the dunes in clumps where there must be subterranean water. Near the plants we found scary silver ants, a small yellow and black bird, and disagreeable mosquitos that bite your head while you are trying to snooze.

At no point were we completely rid of signs of civilization. We could always see electric lights at night and tracks from 4WD trucks in the day, so I was not really surprised at the end of day four to find that we were very close to a paved road. We had arranged for the safari company to pick us up at an agreed point at five in the evening. Come seven, I tried to convince Jason that we should hitch back rather than spend another night in the sand. He had just rejected the idea when our ride finally showed up. The two new arrivals and Arajip set about the complicated task of getting two reluctant camels into a space just big enough for them. This involved a lot of kicking and was part of a larger pattern of abuse. Arajip did not think twice about smacking the camels with sticks, giving them a good kick in the knee, or chucking a rock at them. His methods made me a bit uncomfortable, but what the hell do I know about camels?

At any rate, we were soon back at the camp enjoying a good wash and a civilized meal. The trek was fun, but not something that I will rush to do again. Four days of nearly uninterrupted thinking have given me all kind of fool ideas. Also, my feet hurt.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the Sahara is the world's largest desert.

4/12/2006 5:18 PM gmt


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