Many visitors to Egypt confine themselves to the pharaonic splendours of the Nile Valley. However, it’s surprisingly easy, and undeniably rewarding to venture into Egypt’s White Desert. Only 500 km south west of Cairo, the White Desert is an incredible landscape of chalk monoliths carved into whimsical creatures by the relentless forces of sand and wind. The White Desert seduces visitors with its mesmerizing beauty, and there’s no better way to experience its magic than on a desert safari.
Tourism has suffered greatly since the turmoil of the “Arab Spring”. Egyptians are desperate for visitors and they will greet you with open arms. Go now, and your White Desert adventure will be enhanced by the best choice of guides, competitive pricing and blissfully quiet campsites.
Planning a White Desert Safari
Many tour companies and independent guides offer White Desert safaris. They vary in itinerary, duration, quality and cost. You’ll need to do some homework. The classic White Desert safari is a one or two night camping excursion via 4X4 vehicle. Most tours provide return transportation from Cairo, camping gear and meals. Tours can be customized, and there are specialty excursions available, like hiking or camel treks.
To get the most out of a trip to the White Desert, hire an experienced guide and spend at least a couple of nights camping under the desert stars. Employing a respected Bedouin guide from the Bahariya or Farafra Oases can be an excellent option.
Resources like Lonely Planet Guides and Rough Guides provide recommendations for White Desert tours. It’s useful to supplement these recommendations with searches on Trip Advisor and “Thorn Tree”, Lonely Planet’s on-line travel forum. Narrow it down to a few providers and contact each, asking specific questions about itinerary, cost, food, safety and transportation.
My family had a great experience with local guide Magdy Badrmany who has lived in the Bahariya Oasis his entire life and escorts travelers from around the world to the wonders of his desert backyard. With the lack of tourists following Egypt’s revolution, we were fortunate to witness the desert in its magnificent, isolated solitude.
What to Expect on a White Desert Safari
The piece de resistance of a White Desert tour is exploring an enchanted landscape littered with snow white rock formations resembling giant mushrooms, prehistoric birds, camels and pharaohs. These surreal shapes take on ever changing hues as the desert sun moves across the horizon, and will live in your mind long after the safari is over.
While the park is synonymous with its famous white formations, your off-road adventure will likely include several other wonderful spots. One of my favourites is the Agabat area, meaning “wonders”. Its bizarre inselbergs and white cliffs spring from an endless expanse of sand, and glow golden in the late day sun. A hit with my son, Crystal Mountain is a seemingly insignificant rock outcropping except for openings that reveal brilliant quartz crystals.
Outside the park, closer to Baharyia, lies the eerie Black Desert. In sharp contrast to the White Desert, this landscape is dominated by volcano-shaped mounds, and ridges covered with coal black rubble. Scramble up one of the mounds for a birds eye view of this otherworldly terrain.
The scenery on a White Desert Safari is amazing, but the experience of camping in a place so remote, so quiet, so far from the bustle of modern life is truly extraordinary.
Tucked behind a brightly coloured wind screen, Magdy brewed sweet Bedouin tea as we watched the sun cast long shadows across the limestone-flecked sand. Later we feasted on roasted chicken and herbed potatoes. Much to my son’s delight, Magdy taught us a desert card game; we in turn subjected him to crazy-eights. We laughed, we talked, and we got a glimpse of a fascinating life so far removed from our own. Snuggled under warm camel blankets, we drifted off to sleep under an Egyptian sky ablaze with millions of twinkling stars.