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Published on March 1, 2007

Back to the future

It was over 10 years ago that I first set foot in Bahariya Oasis. I was bewildered. And when I stood over the hill on which lay the mud-brick ruins of the old city of Baweiti, looking onto a green horizon of palm gardens that began at my feet, I felt proud of Egypt and proud of belonging to a land where such beauty could be found.

A calming sensation of much kheir (bounty) in the land -- the colour green does that, especially if surrounded by so much yellow -- helps to instil a sense of security about one's very subsistence. Just like in the movies, this oasis offers relief and reassurance, beauty, strength and calm.

In three years, I had made this trip every winter (once in the company of my parents) to sleep under the White Desert stars, after spending the day on rollercoaster rides in a 4x4 that stops only so we can visit the surrounding monuments of nature. And, of course, also for those unequalled walks in the palm groves, by winding rivulets of warm subterranean water.

Then, a hiatus for seven years during which other areas of the country were explored. This winter, it was Bahariya once again.

The first difference to be noted between now and then is the location of departure. The old ticket office and terminal lay, in the past, at the foot of the Mohamed Ali Citadel. When we used to gather in the early morning for the bus, to our right were the outlines of the Sultan Hassan and Al-Refaei mosques and, to our left, the eastern bastions of the Mameluke fort. It was a wonderful place to start a journey. Today, Bahariya buses leave from a very different, albeit appropriate, setting: the newly-constructed Land Exit Terminal in the Torguman area, parallel to Al-Galaa St -- a very nifty, clean and organised port that takes the standard of travel facilities in Egypt up quite a few notches. The bus fare, nevertheless, still costs less than a ticket to Alexandria.

When arranging for travel logistics, I had contacted the Bahariya connection in the persona of our guide and excellent off-road driver, Bakr. My initial impression from the tone and attitude was that the kheir of the people has remained intact since the last visit. I asked if the Beshmo Lodge was still the same and, luckily, received a positive answer, based on which reservations were made. The lodge's personnel, experience has attested, has also continued to be as flexible and welcoming as ever.

At the hour of our arrival, the sky was dark in Bahariya. Although my company, for whom the visit to the oasis was a first, were already absolutely delighted with what they saw, I remained disappointed. The blue of the Bahariya atmosphere is unequalled, the white of its clouds unreal, yet we were received by an oppressively grey, low-hanging sky and I certainly did not enjoy such a welcome.

In agreement with Bakr, the itinerary of our day was all set, and it was decided that we would begin with the mummies. There were, after all, new mummies in perfect condition discovered but recently in the oasis, which should provide a good history lesson for the little ones in our midst. My recollection of the Bahariya Museum had remained focussed, for the last eight years since I last saw it, on the dead fly I had noticed in the glass casing of one of the mummies on display. Yet considering the passing of time, as well as the snazzy bus terminal from whence we departed, I had set my hopes on finding a similar face-lift to the sorry museum etched in my memory. Surprise, surprise -- the very same fly was still to be found in the same casing, as the Bahariya Museum seemed to be the only aspect of the oasis, along with its sand dunes and palm gardens, not to reflect any evolution in 2,920 days and nights.

On a more positive note, though, we did manage this time to visit the rock-cut tomb of Zed Amun Efu Ankh, the overseers of merchants from the 26th Dynasty. Since we were denied entry in the past, being finally allowed to descend the winding staircase of the deep shaft for an encounter of the Ancient Egyptian kind offered a bit of consolation. The children were terribly excited, but we ladies were even gigglier than they as we bent over to squeeze through the narrow passageway leading to the four-columned hall of the burial chambers. Inside, Anubis the jackal stood on the wall in all his majesty clasping an ankh, while Thot held a papyrus scroll rolled up in his hand with poor Zed's deeds all recorded for judgement. The side chambers, later reused for burial by the Romans (whose presence is heavily felt in Bahariya), remained inaccessible. Not that it really mattered since they pale in comparison to the main hall and its antechamber where we spent a good half-hour deciphering the writing on the brightly-coloured walls.

As we climbed out, a beautiful gift awaited: the sky had miraculously cleared to offer the blue dome I so longed to behold. Once by the lake, we were finally able to lay on the sand beneath that blue firmament to watch the clouds float by like cotton candy, and, once more, I rejoiced in the reminder that the earth is round from the sheer clarity of the heavens above.

On our next morning, it was time to prepare for the off- road part of our trip. Our journey would include the Black Desert, the Pyramid Mountain, the dune system of Agabat, and finally the White Desert where we would set up camp for the night. It was on this day that the impact of the elapsed years became truly noticeable. On the previous night, it had been a pleasant surprise to find that Shadia, who had sold me my favourite galabiya in the whole world eight years ago, had now set up her own little business with the help of a Japanese grant for small enterprises. She still has fingers to make Arachne jealous -- her embroidery only having improved with time, while her prices remained extremely reasonable.

But what an unpleasant surprise it was, on the other hand, to realise that the fire wood we used to gather ourselves en route to the White Desert for warmth and light at night is now only available for LE5 a batch. You can no longer hop down the jeep and scrape your fingers collecting the dried branches. You can no longer load it over the roof of the vehicle yourself. You can no longer have fun seeing who will gather the largest amount. You can only purchase the fire wood.

Then, another instance of change hit me in the face. I thought we would open a few cans of tuna for lunch in any sheltered spot on the way in the desert, just like in the old times, then pack up and resume our course. But no, now you stop at a cafeteria for the same cans of tuna, some fruit and a cup of tea. The cafeteria is laid back and clean. For some visitors it may even offer a welcome final stop of civilisation before the camp site. But to this visitor, it was certainly an unwelcome development that interrupted the sense of abandon which takes over with the turn of the jeep's wheels in the sand off the road.

Bakr, a very efficient person, had set the whole camp up in brief moments, while we were in the process of adding layers of clothing as the temperature dropped after sunset. I emerged from behind the vehicle, still calling out to Yassine who adamantly refused to wear his hand-woven hood of camel wool (it does itch a bit, it must be said) before running off to play football with our neighbours in camp. That was when surprise number three hit: our camp site was far more elaborate than I had experienced in the past. There was now a round, low table in the centre, cushions for seats, candles in half-cut plastic bottles, and a whole ambiance to relax in. There is nothing wrong, one might argue, about a camp site being made to offer added comfort and pleasure. Yet this does pose at least one disadvantage: if you become too comfortable, can see too well, and are too warm, you may end up not exploring your surroundings and wasting the full moon that illuminates the desert enough to give you a five-o'clock shadow, opting instead to just sit there until the next morning. Personally, I was not about to let such comfort affect my longing to get up and have a good long walk around, to rediscover the grandeur of the moon-faced White Desert all around.

Once back at the Beshmo Lodge I made a pact with Bakr: future trips for me should stay away from cafeterias and purchased firewood. I want the raw deal, and I insist. Although Bahariya, now more than ever, is back on my top-five-spots list, the desert journey from Bahariya to Dakhla is next on the dream trip agenda, pending the proper circumstances for its realisation. Yassine is now fully ready for adventurous ruggedness, and so am I.

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