As with many excursions in Egypt, the journey begins with my blearily-eyed group stumbling from our hostel into the car at five in the morning. The anticipation of heading into the unknown, and into the desert for the first time since our arrival in Egypt a couple of months prior, keeps us up for an initial adrenaline-charged half an hour before we inevitably crash. Drifting in and out of sleep, we watch Tahrir Square fade into the outskirts of Giza, which gradually becomes the open desert road.
After what feels like a small eternity, we stop at a green oasis town which seemingly emerges from nowhere after miles of desolate land. Our comfortable transfer car is promptly switched out for what will be our ride for the coming day – an SUV with a suspiciously cracked windscreen. The seven of us pile in and before we know it we reach the Black Desert.
We might as well have landed on Mars. The ground beneath us is rocky, peppered with fragments of black basalt and iron sandstone, and volcano-shaped mounds are spaced out into the distance. Following a slightly treacherous and sweaty climb, we reach the summit of one, and I can confidently say that almost twisting an ankle was worth it. The view is perfectly endless, a world away from the bustle of Cairo or any sign of life at all.
From above, patterns in the scatterings of beige sand and dark rock curve across the landscape. I can’t tell whether we’ve been transported to the Jurassic period or a different planet entirely, but either way, I’ve never seen anything like it.
As we leave the Black Desert, the scenery starts to shift as quickly as it had risen from the barrenness. Black-tipped hills become chalky inclines and steep valleys, and the SUV’s windscreen cracks a little further as our slightly reckless driver hurtles over rock formations and down the dunes which crop up amongst them.
Standing on an outcrop overlooking a vast plain seems to strike the group with an almost existential feeling. “I think our brains weren’t made to compute emptiness like this,” one of my friends pipes up. We all roll our eyes, but perhaps this overly-deep comment has some truth to it. Our sense of distance perception is distorted, and the silence eerily deafening.
We are soon weaving through the White Desert. If the Black Desert is like Mars, then this is the surface of the moon. Towers of chalk are scattered as far as we can see, whittled into strange shapes by the desert winds. The formations famously look like giant mushrooms, with some even resembling rabbits and camels. A member of the group even swears he sees Donald Trump in a distant formation, which is debatable.
Sunset descends whilst we set up camp. Everything becomes even more magical; the chalk shines in pink in the last beams of sun and pastel colours stretch across the sky in an uninterrupted panorama. The campfire soon provides some much-needed warmth and food (the classic but solid combination of chicken, vegetable tagine and rice) as the sun sinks into the horizon.
But the highlight of the trip is still to come. The intense darkness gives the perfect conditions for gazing at galaxies upon galaxies of stars, more than I ever thought possible to see at once. The sky above practically sparkles, and as we drift off to sleep under its glow, I can’t help but think it is an apt end to such a surreal day.
Before I first set foot in Egypt, if you would have asked me what a desert looked like, my response would have been that of the majority of clueless Brits – endless yellow sand dunes with the odd camel wandering around. And that is exactly why my adventure into the Black and White desert will stay with me for a long time.
I never fathomed that an environment so alien yet so stunning could exist on this Earth, let alone just five hours south-west of Cairo. This unique part of the Western Desert seems to be frequently neglected on travel itineraries but I’ve never understood why. Perhaps it’s too far off of the beaten track, far from the tourist resorts of the Red Sea? Or maybe people prefer the rolling dunes and historical spots of Siwa?
Either way, I would go back in a heartbeat.