Where: Western Egypt on borders of Libya, near Siwa
Best season: Late autumn (October) or spring (March – May)
Best sights: Natural chalk towers in the White Desert
Remember to bring: Local guide, good sunglasses and light cotton clothes
Watch out for: Safety – some of the desert is dangerous and out of bounds
Where it’s at
The Western Desert covers two thirds of Egypt and is one of the most arid regions in the world. Hardly any rain falls here and if you’re looking for the classic Sahara sand dunes and atmospheric oases, making a trek to explore this vast empty quarter of Egypt will be an unforgettable experience.
Planning your trek
While the whole area was once a lush tropical forest, sources of water are rare, and the oases are the only refuge for the nomadic tribes here. Heading west out of Cairo, Siwa is a large oasis not far from the Libyan border. Trekking to the south of Egypt from here, away from the Nile delta, makes an interesting alternative way to get around the country, although the harsh conditions here make it imperative that careful preparations are made.
As a traveller, joining an organized tour isn’t difficult and is a wise choice to make the experience safe and comfortable. For about $80 US per person per day, you can get a seat in a convoy heading out of Siwa towards Luxor. The price includes drinking water, food, accommodation, transportation, and the expertise of people who have survived here for centuries. Before you agree to leave, carefully check the vehicles condition, whether there is adequate water for each person, etc. Sunglasses and light cotton clothing are essential to protect eyesight from the harsh glare and the intense heat.
The best months to make a trek is in the late fall (October/November) after the summer season where temperatures can pass 50C) and in the spring (March to May), where daytime highs are in the low 30’s. The winter months are often too cold at night to enjoy the experience: with overnight temperatures as low as 2C are common, warm gear like jackets, sleeping bags and other cold weather gear are absolutely essential.
Things to see and do
Along your journey you will visit some of Egypt’s most interesting and rarely visited sites, including the 1800 year old Coptic tombs in Bagawat that offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Christian Egyptians that predate the Islamic religion prevalent today. You can tip a local resident to open the doors to see the frescoes painted on the ceiling of the tombs here that depict scenes from the Bible and Christian mythology.
Other sites include the White Desert, a 16 mile (25 km) stretch situated about 120 miles (200km) south of Bahariyya. The area gets its name from its landscape of huge naturally formed chalk towers carved over centuries by wind and sand, and make an interesting stop along the journey south.
The Black Desert is also an interesting place to visit, marking the location of a small fault that splits the desert.
All around the Western Desert, long sand dunes as long as 400 miles (700 km) can prove impassable for cars. These iconic formations constantly change and make interesting visits, though four-wheel drive vehicles are required to safely navigate the shifting sands. Like the whole of the Western Desert, extreme care must be taken not only with food and water, but security: areas are often off limits and local tourist offices or consulates should be consulted to find out the latest security situation.
Trekking the Western Desert
John O’Carroll’s account of his experiences trekking the Western Desert
A gallery of 77 Photos from a Western Desert Trek
FAQ’s about what to bring on a Desert Trek, answered by Zarzora Expeditions
By Dave Lowe