Egypt is regarded by many overlanders as The One To Avoid – stories of customs taking eight hours, bribery, exorbitant carnets, thieving guides and touts that won’t let up.
But there’s Another Egypt.
If you look at a map you’ll see a narrow strip of green ribbon to the east, and a huge square of beige to the west. The green ribbon is the Nile Valley. The beige blob is the freedom and superlative beauty of the Sahara.
Egypt, in some ways, is the Nile. Memphis (the first capital), Roman Babylon and modern Cairo were all built at the base of a fertile triangle (the Nile Delta). The temples of Luxor and Karnak were built downstream, to take advantage of the arable land for their swelling populations. To the east, in ancient times, there was nothingness. For centuries only the Bedouin moved in the open desert beyond the Nile.
That all changed at the end of the 19th century. The fashion for Egyptology brought many adventurers to the Nile. Then, with the 1920s, came the car; and the torch of exploration passed to Ralph Bagnold and his friends, Britons living in Egypt who felt the call of the biggest wilderness in the world.
It was Bagnold who invented the desert driver’s solutions of sand ladders and depressurising tyres, who first crossed the Great Sand Sea, and who made a scientific study of dunes. Up until he died, he was a consultant for NASA regarding deserts on Mars.
So, what are the practicalities of unearthing the hidden side of this fascinating country?
Yes – the rumours are right. Getting in is a pain. Egypt has minimal unemployment, because every school-leaver is guaranteed a job. Border crossings at Sollum (Libya) and Nuweiba (Jordan) are staffed with gangs of officials, each with one certain job. Stamping carnets; stamping visas; checking chassis numbers; checking engine numbers; raising barriers – each job is done by a different guy in his own office and you have to trog between them to get all the paperwork dealt with. This attitude permeates the whole country.
The only way to cope with this is to keep smiling and be gentle. If you can find a trustworthy local who can help (and I say this having lived there for many years – they are rare!) then recruit him. There is a joke that Egypt is run by IBM – not the computing giant but the Arabic words Insh’allah, Bukra, Mumpkin. It translates as ‘God Willing, Tomorrow, Maybe’.
Every request you make, every appointment you arrange, every commitment you believe you’ve been given by an Egyptian will be qualified by ‘Insh’allah’ – God Willing (see you tomorrow – insh’allah. The car will be ready – insh’allah).
Frustrated expats will tell you this is a cop-out; that your Egyptian pal has no intention of co-operating. This is often true, but some Muslims genuinely do feel that Allah controls their lives, and that one should not attempt to impose one’s own requirements on the Divine Scheme.
It is also a fact, though, that there are many Egyptians who seek your company either just for the hard currency, or for the kudos of being seen socialising with a European. Sounds wildly arrogant, but it’s
none the less true.
It’s certainly true that you are on ‘African Time’ in Egypt. We, in business-minded Britain, try to stick to timetables and commitments. Africa is different, and Egypt is the least-motivated of the whole lot. It’s potentially the most frustrating place you will ever drive through. But it can also be the most rewarding.
Egypt is divided, from an off-road point of view, into three areas; the Nile Valley, the central desert and the deep desert.
Off-roading in the Nile Valley can be limited, but has some real gems like Wadi Degla, near the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, and across the river from Luxor. The deep desert has areas such as the Gilf Kebir (made famous in The English Patient, Uweinat, Siwa and the mountains east of the Nile.
They’re wonderful destinations, but beset with bureaucracy – one needs permits for the areas to the west, and army escorts for the areas to the south.
The boundaries for the accessible central desert are, to the east, the Nile; but to the west it is the Oasis Road, looping out from Cairo to the oases of Bahareya, Farafra, Kharga and Dakhla, and then back to the Nile Valley. It encloses a mass of open desert, hundreds of square miles.
For those travelling independently (by far the best way) this central desert is the most satisfying region. Head out through Cairo traffic towards the Pyramids.
Cairo traffic is probably the most intimidating in the world. Traffic lights are purely decorative (when they work), traffic cops are usually asleep, and the other vehicles on the road seem to declare war as soon as they move. The right of way goes to the loudest horn and the biggest bullbar.
Land Rovers are at a natural advantage here – a bombed-up overland Defender moves through Cairene traffic like a lion in long grass – even in the ratpit of rush-hour, the local nutters think twice.
Anyway. Head out towards the Pyramids. Ignore the piles of rubbish and dead horses floating in the canal as you head towards the most famous landmark in the world, and stop for a beer at the Mena House hotel, haunt of the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS. Then crack on.
Be very wary of the desert directly south-west of the Pyramids. There are military complexes here – a friend was arrested for straying into a restricted area.
Take the Bahareya road, and the city gradually drops away. Once you get an hour out of Cairo you can examine your options. Carrying on for five hours on the tarmac brings you to Bahareya and Farafra oases, Siwa, the Black and White deserts
– and police checkpoints.
Equally, trundle along the road for a few miles, turn off into the desert, and you’re suddenly free.
To the north, freedom is short-lived – after a few miles you come to Wadi Natrun, and the ancient Christian monasteries, then eventually Alexandria.
If you veer north-west you come to the dangers of the Qattara Depression and the minefields surrounding the El Alamein battlefield. These minefields are still live and, though maps exist, their actual locations move, as the dunes shift in the winds. People still die.
Your best option is south. Cross the railway, drop down the huge Gebel Qatrani escarpment – and explore.
If you’re still fairly close to Cairo, at the bottom of the thousand-foot escarpment you will come out into the huge Fayoum oasis, with ancient temples, cities and also curious Egyptians who will pester you.
Do note that the escarpment will take you a day to descend, as it’s composed of three ‘steps’, each one with several false trails. If you descend the wrong one, you’ll end up stranded in soft sand – and you can’t easily go back up again. Plan: get out and recce on foot!
Fayoum city itself is a place to be wary: there are Islamic Fundamentalist groups there. I have never had any issues, but you should seek Embassy advice if you have any concerns. The UK Embassy in Cairo is a friendly set-up, but they’re understaffed and overworked, and won’t have much sympathy for travellers who get themselves in a stew.
The Gebel Qatrani desert is a huge, open space – I used to head out there for some peace. This is the start of the open Sahara.
Head a little more west than Fayoum and that’s where the fun begins – there’s a horizon there that has no end – follow it!
The central plateau has a lot going for it: Pharaonic ruins, unexcavated, ripe for exploration; wartime remains, vehicles, aircraft and graves; prehistoric sites and fossils; Stone Age villages.
And then, of course, there’s the peace and the solitude of the Sahara, a seemingly endless, beautiful wilderness.
Sinai is another place ripe for exploration – especially the canyons to the east behind Dahab and Sharm. However, a consideration here is the number of Arab-Israeli battlefields. The Mitla Pass was the site of the biggest tank battle in history and
it’s easy to stray into minefields.
The Sinai Bedouin are a good lot, in general, though wily and ever-ready to make a quick buck – ask for reputable guides.
The best overlanding of my life has been in the huge interior of the Egyptian Sahara – and the most frustrating times of my life have been spent waiting on unfulfilled promises and wading through cretinous Egyptian bureaucracy.
Travelling Egypt independently is neither for the novice nor the fainthearted – but the rewards of experiencing the largest open space on the planet are vast.
The full story can be found in the Spring 2009 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.