EGYPT 3 - THE SIWA OASIS
'The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty to think, feel and do just as one pleases.'
It was time to think about returning to Alexandria to see if we had been lucky in obtaining our visas for Libya but first as promised, we rang Natalija and Mark whom we had met before in Cairo whilst shopping at Carrefour and then again on our way to Sinai. They very kindly invited us for lunch and we arrived at their beautiful home a bit later than intended, after making the embarrassing mistake of setting our GPS with the wrong Carrefour and fighting our way through traffic, people, donkey carts and tok toks amongst tiny back streets, in completely the wrong direction! Hello also to Sebastian, Lara and Louisa, their children, who were so excited about the two, lovely kittens that had just been added to the family and who were finding their way around the house, skidding on the marble floors and being discouraged to sharpen their claws on the sofas! Lunch progressed into dinner and a wonderfully comfortable room for the night. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality and the laughs we had after reading Mark's memoirs of being an overland truck driver! We hope you will keep in touch.
We reached the Libyan Embassy today in Alexandria with about 20 minutes to spare, after tackling the early morning traffic through Cairo, picking up the desert road and then the long drive to the coast. We filled in more forms, handed over 75 Egyptian pounds each to the same helpful man that we had dealt with before and were then asked to call back in the afternoon. This we did and were handed our visas at the entrance desk. We discovered we had been given a transit visa for 1 month and without the need for a guide, we couldn't believe our luck! We were wished an enjoyable time in their country by smiling staff and left feeling incredibly lucky after the stories that we had heard from other overlanders receiving only a few days for a transit visa and having to have an expensive guide!
We drove back to our favourite hotel on the waterfront, leaving Moby in the car park with the same guard as before. The banks were closed so we walked to a branch of Thomas Cook where we changed our last travellers cheques for dollars and then obtained some Libyan dinars almost next door. It was then time for a pizza and fresh fruit juice and to reflect on our very successful day!
We left Alexandria today and took the road along the north coast, having decided to make our first stop at the coastal town of Mersa Matrouh.
The road followed a flat landscape with glimpses of the Mediterranean on our right, a vivid, iridescent turquoise that faded to a deep, sapphire blue. We had hoped to be able to drive down to the beach. Some years ago that may have been possible but now the whole length of this stretch of coastline was a mass of development, resorts, holiday homes, villas and flats, many of course with beautiful sea views. All private property however, surrounded by large walls with a grand entrance gate and with plenty of security. Very disappointing!
We drove through El Alamein and the many war cemeteries and arrived at Mersa Matrouh, which looked very much like a ghost town, with many buildings along the sea front boarded up and closed until the summer season, when it becomes a popular holiday destination with Egyptians. We drove to the end of the town looking for camping but not to be heard of, so we stopped at the Riviera Beach Chalets with rooms that included a fully fitted and equipped kitchen and an outside eating area. Everything was very clean and it was really nice to 'stay indoors' and cook our own meal and not have to find a restaurant.
We left Mersa Matrouh this morning, the sea still an inviting turquoise but the town looking quite different, being market day, full of people and colourful market stalls amongst the more modern shops and buildings.
A long journey south today of approx. 300 kilometres into the Western Desert to visit the Siwa Oasis, also known as The City of a Million Palm Trees and the most westerly of the other four oases that we visited earlier; Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahariya.
I have always wanted to visit Siwa, those tempting lines on the map that take you to the edge of the Great Sand Sea and the Libyan Desert. Siwa is famous for its dates as well as for its olives and olive oil. Many of the little shops in the main square had their shelves full of jars of large, yellow and black olives, bottles of olive oil and boxes of dates, as well as incenses and small bottles of medicinal plant oils.
Our first impression of the town of Siwa was of new, brick and cement- rendered buildings amongst the old mud brick, with the crumbling ruins of the ancient fortress and city of Shali rising in jagged peaks above the main square, along with a large and imposing mosque. Tourists had obviously helped to bring about many changes over the years. We noticed the odd coach and tour operators with their 4x4 Toyotas for trips into the desert and many donkey carts or 'carusas' which were the main form of transport for the locals apart from bicycles. Siwans still keep to their own culture and costume and being a special merge of Egyptians, Berber and Sudanese, they speak their own dialect. The young girls wore long dresses over trousers and covered their hair with scarves leaving only their faces and hands exposed, whereas older women dressed traditionally, completely cloaked, many with black scarves that covered their entire faces. Married women wore the 'tarfottet', a blue, cotton sheet, beautifully embroidered with green, yellow and orange, silk threads.
We enquired about camping at Shali Lodge tucked up a quiet, sand track where low, palm branches swept across the Land Rover and donkey carts padded silently, except for the creak of wood and the occasional 'thwack' of the driver's sticks to keep their animals at a steady pace. We met Ali at the Lodge who spoke excellent English and who had worked with National Geographic during filming in Siwa for the 'Discovery' programme on BBC TV. A film crew were apparently due again in the next few days. He had so much information to share about the oasis that we hoped to be able to talk with him again later. He arranged for someone to take us to the camping area at the edge of the desert, overlooking a huge salt lake, a beautiful position but deserted and the ablution block was filthy and full of flies. They also wanted 100 Egyptian pounds per night. For only 50 pounds more, we had discovered some very nice rooms to rent opposite Shali Lodge, set amongst the palm trees and with a little restaurant. This turned out to be an excellent choice with good, cheap, local food that included delicious, date pancakes. We would definitely recommend it!
We climbed up crumbling pathways amongst the ruins of the ancient, fortified city of Shali, built in the 12th century as a defence against hostile neighbouring tribes. Constructed of stone and kharsif, (a salt impregnated mud which dries like cement), the dwellings had once been roofed with wood from the abundance of palm trees. Standing at the top we looked out across these ragged ruins of the city, from which the present town of Siwa has emerged, encircled by thousands of palm trees and then beyond, to vast salt lakes and mountains and finally to the desert. The view was amazing, to imagine how this must have been centuries ago, was even more so!
We took a little donkey cart with a local boy, jerking along the sandy roads in time to the donkey's short, trotting steps, to visit The Temple of the Oracle, which dated back to the time of King Amasis in the 26th Dynasty. In 331BC Alexander The Great consulted the Siwan Oracle, which confirmed that he was indeed the Son of God Zeus Amun. Alexander consequently expressed the wish to be buried in Siwa but to this day, there is still speculation about where he was actually buried.
From there we continued past the remains of the Amun Temple in the Aghormy Village. We stopped to watch an elderly man making the base of a large basket by weaving soaked, palm fronds and using a long needle made from bone.
Siwa has many natural springs that help to irrigate the land as well as being wonderful places for swimming. Not far from the Amun Temple was Cleopatra's hot spring. This has been and still is, a popular gathering place for a groom and his friends on the eve before his wedding. Tradition meant that they would bathe, dance and sing loudly, to let the village know that there would be a wedding the following day. These days, the bride would shower at a neighbour's house (as most houses now had running water) and not in her own home, as she would fear the work of magic!
Our interesting 2 hours with the little donkey cart for 75 Egyptian pounds were almost up by the time we had returned through the date palm gardens and back to the main square.
In the late afternoon we drove out on to the desert road that led to the edge of The Great Sand Sea and struggled to the top of an enormous, orange dune, walking along the sharp knife-edge that fell steeply away on its shadowed side. Beyond this, dunes stretched away to the horizon, nothing but sand and sky and silence!
These outermost dunes were only a few kilometres from Siwa's cultivated edge. It wasn't until 1874, that the extent of just how far this sand sea stretched to the south was discovered. An expedition with many camels carrying water and supplies set out from Dakhla Oasis in the Western Desert and headed west into an unknown landscape. It was not long however, before they met an 'ocean' of waterless sand dunes over 100 metres high. Supplies were not enough to continue on this route and so the expedition turned northwest and followed the dunes towards Siwa, losing many camels on the way.
We were going to begin driving north today, back to Mersa Matrouh but first we took a short detour to the Jebel El Mawta or Mountain of the Dead, where the hills were honeycombed with numerous, ancient tombs, many of which had been reused by the Romans. Three of these needed a guide as they contained ancient, Egyptian paintings, mummified bodies or skeletal remains.
We were back in Matrouh by early evening and returned to our same room at Riviera Beach Chalets. Still the only guests, we showed the local guy in reception our photos of Siwa, as he had never been there.
We took the road for Saloum and the Libyan border today, stopping for water at a little shop where all the delightful family came out to see us, including the children. One of the men went across the road for some hot, freshly baked Arabic bread when we enquired about a bakery. Just another example of the kindness that we have experienced from these people.
We have so enjoyed the many places that we have visited in Egypt. It has felt an incredibly safe country to travel in. Yes, police presence and the army have been very strong throughout the country and we have had to stop at numerous checkpoints. However, we have always experienced smiling, polite and welcoming officials and with tourism such big business, who can blame them for taking such precautions after the bombs of previous years that targeted tourist areas.
It has been a country with so much to offer, from the Great Temples of Abu Simbel and Karnak, the amazing desert landscapes, the oases and Bedouin hospitality of the Western Desert, the relaxed waterfront town of Alexandria, the noise, chaotic traffic but contagious atmosphere of Cairo, the beautiful and awe-inspiring Siwa Oasis and of course Sinai, with its rugged mountains, desert and wonderful coastline. We have experienced many more highlights to include in our journey and would love to return to the Western Desert to see more and to visit Ragab, Alaa and his family again.
We left Egypt by following the road to the top of a steep escarpment where the vast, gravel plain would eventually succumb to the desert and where far below, the Mediterranean sparkled and white crested waves rolled to the shore.
We handed in our Egyptian license and number plates to the Traffic Police but had to pay 17 Egyptian pounds for being 9 days overdue. "Well, you have such a beautiful country," we said. "There is so much to see!" This was quite true but although it brought forth appreciative smiles and lots of thanks, it didn't work for us to not pay the fine! Another 22 Egyptian pounds to be paid for the Carnet that was also overdue, Egypt being the first country in our trip where an entry and an exit date had been stamped in it when we arrived and so we had not realised that there was a time limit. Our visas had of course also expired but that fortunately did not seem to matter!