My husband and I stood in a forest of giant chalk formations glowing like translucent pearl in the full moon. There were hundreds around us, colossal mushrooms which formed a silent sea which extended to the horizons. It was one of those moments in life when you feel blessed, completely at peace and yet inconsequential, like dots in a universe, vast and eternal.
It was the last day of an Egypt trip- a tick box for many touristic lists, symbolized by the Pyramids, Abu Simbel and the luxurious Nile cruise. We had managed to squeeze in the White Desert at the end. A further brainwave of planning and we decided to return from Luxor to Cairo driving through the vast desert lands for two days and spending a night camping in the White Desert.
We left Dhakla oasis early in the morning on a hardy but well-worn 4x4 loaded high on its roof with tents, blankets and enough food to feed an army. When we protested our small appetites, our good natured Bedouin driver, Ali, simply huffed that if we went hungry it would not be his fault. We had attracted a huge amount of attentions at Dhakla. A police van followed us around whenever we left the boundary walls of our resort. We were escorted to lunch and dinner. Not sure we were trusted, but we were certainly safe and guarded.
Lunch was at El- Farafra oasis. The highlight of the stop was the unforgettable Badr museum. Badr Abdel Moghny is a self-trained local artist whose work showcases traditional oasis life. His admirers are spread worldwide, and yet here we were walking into an unlocked private home packed with treasures that many collectors would have paid a pretty sum for. Paintings, sculptures, desert scenes in various forms were spread around two storeys of the hard mud baked desert house. Outside the courtyard was strewn with larger statues, their eyes focussed on a blazing horizon. The man himself was enjoying a leisurely afternoon Turkish coffee with friends, so an autograph remained an unfulfilled wish.
We attracted interest at the local cafe where we had coffee and pitta bread sandwiches. ‘Do you have security, it is not very safe out there!’ some local men commented. It was 2014, Arab Spring was still in the air and touristic crowds were thin. The deserts and oases of west Egypt were rare inroads at the best of times. At this point, we would possibly be local gossip for weeks.
On the road again and this time the desert started in earnest. Within half an hour, chalk formations were making sporadic appearances, white giants in various shapes spurting from yellow sand. Within two hours we had entered the White Desert. The 4x4, left the tarmac to lurch into a forest of white mushrooms.
As the 4x4 trawled through the myriad of shapes, we lapsed into silence. It was a fairyland, worlds away from the Egypt of temples that we had seen for a week.
Man’s scale of sculpture appeared puny in comparison. ‘Look mama- a Robinhood,’ my daughter pointed excitedly. The reverie broken we looked with different eyes and Nature’s fun sculpting emerged. A white sphinx here, an elephant there, a face on the horizon….we let our imagination run riot.
The colours changed with the movement of the Sun. Yellow with the Sun high in the sky, slowly turning golden as it dipped towards the West. By the time we reached the famous ‘mushroom and chicken formation’ (big mushroom, baby chicken), the colours were richly burnished.
We then turned to search for a camp site. We found one near a small hill, the foot of which was covered with a wavy chalk sheet which gave the illusion of waves on a beach. It was like camping on a sea side, the waves promising to break but frozen in pose.
We scampered up the hill, covered with chalk dust, to watch sunset. The sea turned into red gold copper. The giant mushrooms were shaded in artist’s shades of pink and red. A pair of ravens silhouetted against the darkening sky flew home.
When we slid down the chalky slope, Ali and our guide Samir had already set up kitchen, unloaded the food and started a campfire. Sizzling chicken, aish, brown rice, soup and vegetables were spread out for us, right in the thick of colossal mushrooms which were now truly white in starlight.
It was in the early hours of the morning that I was gently shaken from slumber. ‘Come out and have a look,’ said my husband. Leaving the blankets with some reluctance, I crawled out of the tent into a fairyland of moonlit glow.
The forest of mushrooms stood like sentinels in silver armour. The ‘White’ desert had come to life.