Although I had spent over a month in Egypt, and had visited a few places on the arid edge of the Nile Valley, I hadn’t gone deep into the desert. Having spent many years living in Central Australia, I was keen to see the country’s dry interior. I had read a little about the Siwa Oasis, and decided to extend my car hire for a few days so I could drive the 300km inland from the coast to have a look around.
Heading inland away from the relatively ‘wetter’ coastal environment (the road heads south-west from near Marsa Matruh, which averages 63mm rainfall per year, whereas Siwa gets 8mm), the sparse scrubby vegetation soon gives way to, well, just sand, rocks and dust.
It was so good to be out in the great wide open, a million miles away from the chaos of the Egyptian mega cities. I stopped the car from time to time to have a little wander around, and to revel in hearing nothing but the wind. As I drove south, the road rose gradually, then plateaued onto an endless plain. An occasional truck passed by, but otherwise I had the road, and the desert, to myself.
There were no towns between the coast and Siwa Oasis, just the occasional cluster of dusty buildings: stores selling truck tyres; what I presumed was oil industry infrastructure; and police/army checkpoints. Egyptian blokes have to do three years military service, and sometimes I wonder if all the checkpoints are there just to give the conscripts something to do. I had been warned by the hire car company that the police required me to have an International Driver’s Licence, so I approached every checkpoint with trepidation. I did have an International Driver’s Licence, but the bloody thing had expired.
I stopped at five checkpoints on the drive between El Alamein and Siwa, with each experience being a little different. In Egypt, every vehicle has a ‘licence’, which is a plastic vehicle registration card. Being reluctant to produce my expired International Driver’s Licence, I promptly handed the car licence over whenever I was stopped and ‘licence’ requested. Sometimes I offered up my Foreign Resident card too (which I received after extending my tourist visa), hoping it would take their minds off my driving permit. I was also asked to produce my passport at two of the checkpoints.
At one of the army checkpoints I was asked for my driver’s licence. My heart sank. I handed over my Australian licence, which thankfully seemed to satisfy the soldier. However at another police checkpoint the cop surveyed my NT licence for a while and then asked for my International Licence too. Game over, I thought. I opened my licence at the photo page (the expiration date being on the front page), and handed it over. After looking through the document, it was handed back and I was waved through. Close call that time. Perhaps he didn’t see the date, or could read Arabic only.
At a couple of the army stops I was asked to pop the boot so the guards could check inside. They were reasonably thorough, and during one of the searches, one young soldier seemed particularly interested in a towel in which I had wrapped my cold goods and a frozen bottle of water. He indicated that he wanted me to unwrap it, and then made a gesture as though he was drinking from a bottle. I assured him I just had water on board, and upon seeing my tub of yoghurt, cheese slices and some salami, he did seem disappointed that there was no beer to confiscate.
After several hours, I reached some breakaway country just north of Siwa. I descended through the mesas and eroding hills, and received my first glimpses of the green expanse of date palms, watered by around 200 natural springs, marking this extraordinary oasis. I had driven five hours in a car, and it was exciting to see the green palms and glimmering silver lakes. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to complete some death-defying overland ride on a camel and then arrive at the safety of the life-giving oasis.
The contrast with the stark, glaring desert could not have been more striking as I navigated through the village streets and palm-lined roads to my hotel. All the staff were asleep when I arrived, sprawled on cushioned benches in the reception area. It was Ramadan after all, and they had probably been up most of the night. It was also a bloody hot day, into the 40s, which was noticeably toastier than on the coast. One of the staff must have sensed my presence, and roused himself sufficiently to call the owner who checked me in. I was, naturally, the only guest.
After the long drive I was keen for a walk, so headed out along a palm-fringed creek towards the Mountain of the Dead. Rising from the plain, the Mountain, which to be honest is really a hill, is honeycombed with tombs from the times of the Greek and Roman occupations of Egypt.
As I climbed the hill, I heard a voice call out behind me, and a local bloke in a white galibaya came struggling up the path. He greeted me breathlessly, and presuming he was the caretaker, I asked him if I needed to buy a ticket. All the historic sites I had visited in Egypt required a ticket, most of which were very reasonably priced. ‘Ticket…’ he panted. ‘Yes, do I need a ticket?’ ‘No ticket.’ ‘Yes, I have no ticket.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Ahh…yes…um…so do I need one?’ ‘Ticket?’ ‘Yes. A ticket.’ ‘No ticket.’ ‘Oh? I don’t need a ticket?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes I do or yes I don’t?’ At this point, his phone rang, and whilst he took the call I smiled and slipped away. I assumed that if I needed a ticket he would chase me up later and we could miscommunicate a little more.
The tombs ranged from simple holes in the ground to larger, more ornate structures. I had the Mountain of the Dead to myself, and really enjoyed exploring and taking in the views in the late afternoon light.
I spent the next few days walking around Siwa Oasis, loving the fact that I was out of the city, not being hassled, and although I was considered a curiosity, not being made to feel unwelcome. I saw only two other tourists during my time in the town.
Siwa boasts a ‘Cleopatra’s Pool’, like quite a few other places in Egypt. Apparently the revered queen bathed at this natural spring, which as a consequence of ‘development’ now forms a roundabout in the middle of the road. There are cafes surrounding the pool, which were all closed up when I was there. I assume they didn’t know I was coming.
I arrived at the Amun Revelation Temple (also known as the Temple of the Oracle of Amun) one morning to find the caretakers asleep on makeshift beds in a one-room building opposite the ruins.
I was reluctant to wake them, so decided to have a look around the temple and buy my ticket on the way back out. After climbing the steps up to the site, I found a locked gate, so headed back down to workers’ hut. One of the blokes stirred, saw me, and said that the site opened on the hour; about ten minutes away. I stood in the shade until the ticket office opened, thinking how tough it would be to have a full-time job during Ramadan.
Amun Revelation Temple
The Temple was an important site in ancient times, with rulers travelling to Siwa to consult its oracle, and to be acknowledged as the sons of the god Amun. There’s not much of the Temple left standing today, but I liked standing in the ruin and imagining the kings (and perhaps Cleopatra too) making their pilgrimage across the desert to this isolated place.
The Siwa Oasis includes several salt lakes, with two of the largest sitting on the east and west side of the town. As a kid I always wanted to try floating in hyper-saline water, like the photos I had seen of people swimming in the Dead Sea. One afternoon I drove out to the eastern Siwa Lake to give it a shot.
Finding a quiet spot with an easy entry, I waded into the cool water of the lake. When I was chest-deep, I pushed forwards and attempted to breast-stroke, which was difficult as my legs immediately bobbed up to the surface.
It was like I was using one of those figure-8 shaped foam leg floats. Front crawl was challenging too, with my feet splashing up and down on the surface. Rolling onto my back, there was no need to use any movement to tread water. Apart from mid-chest to mid-thigh, my whole body floated on the surface. I have to say it was pretty cool, and I was giggling like a kid.
Relaxing in my Siwa Lake armchair
Although I avoided putting my head under the super salty water, I did splash a few drops on my face, and after a while they began to sting. After enjoying the cool solitude of my late afternoon float, I rinsed myself thoroughly with a large bottle of fresh water I had brought for the task.
On my final morning in Siwa I drove just south of the town to Dakrur, and climbed the crumbly hills for a fantastic view. From the top, I really got a sense of where the oasis sits within the expanse of desert.
That afternoon I was keen for another bob in Siwa Lake, but on the way to my swimming spot the wind started to pick up, and then a sandstorm blew in.
Although I was looking forward to another dip, watching the sandstorm approach, and then envelop the town, was an experience.
I really enjoyed my time in Siwa Oasis. The place felt very different to anywhere else I had visited in Egypt, and it was great to be able to get out and explore some of the desert country.
For more on the Siwa Oasis, click here
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