Sahara Safari

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It wasn’t just Bawadi, the secret service lad in purple pants twirling a 9mm automatic with his feet planted on the windscreen that inspired a general sense of adventure.

It was also the huge purple, green and blue bus he was supposed to be protecting from terrorists as it lurched across the Sahara at 130kph overtaking a dawdling police escort van to get six freeloaders to remote Siwa Oasis in time to catch a pretty sunset.

The police van, bristling with Kalashnikovs and seven Egyptian wallopers, faded to the rear as bus driver, Sami, wound up his new 60-seater across a crumbly paved road already 200km into the world’s biggest desert.

The flat, almost lifeless terrain was stony and speckled with stunted saltbush, a few stoic shrubs and an occasional gang of camels. A goatherd and his flock foraged among the sparse offerings before the shrubbery dwindled away altogether.

So did the police escort and Bawadi grew visibly nervous. Sami had outrun them so he pulled up at the only roadhouse on the highway to wait, a long wait as it turned out; the coppers had run out of gas.

I always imagined an oasis was a sort of palm-fringed puddle lurking like a mirage among vast sand dunes so an hour from the Libyan border, Siwa loomed as a riveting surprise.

This was no little green speck in the desert. In a land depression that dipped some 60m below sea level, more than 1,000 underground springs bubbled to the surface into 200 lakes and connected waterholes 85km across surrounded by more than 300,000 date palms, 70,000 olive trees, countless orchards and 20,000 people, mostly Berbers.

Accessible until recently only by lengthy camel caravans, Siwans have maintained this exceptional little community continuously for thousands of years. The same Berber language they use today was spoken here before the dawn of history

Siwa’s star-studded history is recorded back to the Saite Period around 600 BC when a honeycomb of underground tombs known as the Mountain of the Dead was carved out of a nearby hill.

Since then, despite its isolation, Siwa has received some distinguished visitors. Back in the winter of 331BC, 25-year-old Alexander the Great arrived on his way to change the course of world history although his presence made little impact on the course of Siwa’s.

Life went on as steadily as usual until the Romans came in 30BC.  They stayed for 367 years, built lots of hot and cold baths and left. Then Greek historian Herodotus and an entourage turned up in 5BC in a vain attempt to find traces of a Persian Army that had apparently disappeared there.

More distinguished visitors arrived 2015 years later in the golden glow of late afternoon as Sami gunned the big Merc straight at Fatnas Island near Siwa town to just beat the sunset deadline. Fantasy Island, as it is also known, is a lush green haven that “floats’ on the largest reservoir of fresh spring water in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Munching sweet, freshly plucked dates we sat and watched an orange sun drop under the horizon leaving a seamless tapestry of blue, purple and red as a gentle breeze danced across the water stirring the fish beneath and the chanting crickets in the feather duster palms above.

Just on dusk the purple, green and blue bus roared into Siwa sending clouds of dust swirling around the low-set mud-brick buildings, a huge mud-brick fortress and the comfortable Cleopatra Hotel squatting in the shadows of a date palm plantation.

There were no cars in town, only a couple of clapped-out trucks, a few rickety bicycles and lots of carusas (donkey carts). Goats and dogs patrolled the dimly-lit streets. Men sat outside mud-brick shops, smoked apple and honey flavoured tobacco in shishas (water pipes) and sipped mint tea or karkadi, a Ribena-tasting drink made from hibiscus flowers.

Few women were visible. In this ancient, supposedly alcohol-free and staunchly religious culture most women stayed home after dark. Even in daylight, many remained completely covered as men in traditional jelabbiyas and skullcaps chauffeured them on donkey carts to shop.

There was plenty for them to buy. Woollen carpets, silver Siwan jewellery made from old melted down coins, embroidered clothing, hand-pressed olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables and possibly the best dried dates in the country.

Abu Bakr ran the East West Restaurant just off the town square with its swept dirt floor, laminex tables and excellent Egyptian food including his specialty meshui, lamb roasted with aromatic herbs and fresh vine leaves.

Abu invited the freeloaders to his date palm plantation outside town where he had spread blankets on the sand, built a campfire, ferried prepared food from the restaurant and hired his mates, the Siwa Band, who performed at local weddings, parties, anything really, and occasionally for visitors.

Suleiman was blowing up a storm on a nasal-sounding flute called a naai while Mahmoud sang traditional Siwan songs to the drumbeats of Ibrahim and another Mahmoud.

Grilled chicken, salads, flat bread, tahini dips, eggplant dips, shak-shouka, an egg-based thing and salq, a pleasant green vegetable dip were all I can remember because it was about then that Suleiman passed around a bottle of arrack he had home-distilled from Abu’s dates.

As the moon rose high above the date palms, another band member lit up the biggest joint I’d ever seen and passed it around, first to other band members, then to the freeloaders who, one by one, began to ease ourselves closer to the sand.

It was midnight at the oasis and the sensuous rhythm of drums, the arrack, the dynamite dope and the sparkling Sahara stars had even Bawadi gyrating low under a limbo stick with his 9mm still stuck in his purple pants. The Siwan Band jammed early into the morning before disappearing into the suddenly dark and eerie Saharan silence.

“EL SLAH KHURAN MIN EL NAWM!!!”

With the help of scratchy loudspeakers, muezzins began Siwa’s religious reveille around 5 o’clock next morning setting off a cacophony of crowing roosters, braying donkeys, screaming camels and brawling dogs waking the town to draw the faithful to worship. The words translated roughly as “praying is better than sleeping”.

I stumbled into town to witness daybreak in a desert oasis. After morning prayers, an old bloke in blue overalls wobbled a rickety bicycle around the streets switching off streetlights one by one. Shops opened slowly and their owners sipped sweetened mint tea and squinted at the morning sun.

I joined a queue at a food cart. In a metre-wide tub, a serious man who said his name was Baghi had 32 felafels swirling in the boiling oil. They quickly sold out. He flipped in a second lot at about two per second.

Men escorted their wives into town scuttling along the dusty streets on rattling carusas while other women walked alone or with others, many anonymously covered from crown to foot.

Younger women, probably influenced by the advent of television in Siwa, opted for a less customary look, although jeans and western style dresses were still almost unheard of.

As the morning sun struck Shali it turned the old mud-brick fortress a rich burnt gold. A wizened old zaggalah (farm worker) with a hand-made rake across one shoulder, joined the multitude heading for the date plantations clutching the simple lunch his ancestors did – two rounds of flat bread and a container of fuul (bean soup).

I sat on a rock in the town square and ate freshly fried felafel before I joined a four-wheel-drive tour deep into the desert. All this, our driver-guide Ali explained, was once under the ocean. Hot and cold springs gushed out of the desert in a surreal landscape while great calciferous outcrops and mesas full of fossilised fishbones thrust high out of the sand.

In the shimmering haze distant saltbush resembled grazing animals. There was nothing but sand and sky and an occasional desert fox attacking an occasional lizard and an occasional vulture zooming in to claim the scraps. I once saw a crow.

Ali was keen to impress the freeloaders with his driving skills. He piloted the vehicle over the dunes like a rally driver, gunning up to a wind-carved crest and letting the truck slither unassisted down the other side triggering avalanches that kept threatening to bury us.

It all came unstuck when he roared up a monster, lost steering in the soft sand and tipped the truck on its side, teetering on a steep downward slope. The crisis took half an hour to resolve. Ali dug out one side and eased the vehicle around until it faced downhill again, slipped it into gear and stabbed the accelerator.

On more level ground we visited Cleopatra’s Bath, a stone pool fed by a natural hot spring where the Egyptian queen herself is said to have swum on her visit to Siwa to consult the resident Oracle at the Temple of Amun, a dubious claim at best. Oddly ice-cold by day and warm at night the spring was still a favourite swimming hole with locals and tourists.

We roared up a dusty road above the local military camp just north of Siwa town to Gabal El-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead, a hill riddled with hundreds of catacombs and small tombs from the 26th Dynasty.

Most of them had been robbed repeatedly over the centuries. Many had been re-used by the Romans to bury their dead and later, Italian soldiers hid in them from the Allies during World War 2.

It was midday at the Oasis. In the Sahara’s scorching sun, women out and about for a little retail therapy cast experienced eyes and fingers over the baskets, carpets and textiles on offer as women had done here for thousands of years.

They bought Siwan baskets with carry straps and conical lids, colourfully embroidered clothes, black wedding gowns decorated with shiny buttons, silver beads and seashells, original Siwan jewellery made from melted down silver coins and striped woollen carpets of red, blue and gold.

Unlike their ancestors, they paused to buy freshly made ice cream from a young vendor with a broad, toothy grin pushing a brightly painted cart that would have seemed quite at home at Coney Island.

Locally bottled spring water shared stalls and shops with produce laid out fresh every day including dates, olives, figs, pomegranates, oranges, bananas, okra and grapes.

It was sunset at the oasis and from the heights of the ancient Shali mud-brick fortress, the vista of Siwa Oasis spread out like a 360-degree postcard.

It occurred to me that the vast date plantations, olive farms, fruit groves and the calciferous outcrops standing over the distant desert for millions of years were the same scenes Alexander the Great would have witnessed almost two and a half millennia ago.

I saw the sunlight intensify into solid gold and wash across the great pillows of sand splitting its hues from canary yellow through to blood red. I saw vultures wheeling above unseen meals as muezzins repeated their calls to prayer and I saw Bawadi down in a street cafe sucking a shisha, his feet planted firmly on the table, his 9mm sticking out of his purple pants.

What I didn’t see were terrorists. Perhaps they were simply repelled by those appalling purple pants.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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