Sunset on the Sahara

Fri, 26 Apr 2002 11:54:38 +0900

I'm back in Cairo again.

On the 22nd, I took the 8+ hour bus ride from Alexandria to Siwa Oasis.

The next day, I set out to do the local wondering around on foot. Like pretty much everywhere else, local business in the business of moving tourists around are always eager to "help" unfortunate travelers they find walking. In most towns these are taxi drivers or maybe caleches (stylish horse drawn carriages). In Siwa, the entrepreneurs are young boys driving donkey carts. Motorized transportation is limited.

They move all manner of things via donkey cart. People, produce, building materials. What is curious is that the carts are actually a rather recent phenomenon. Historically, Siwans rode on the donkey’s backs. Only after WWII did they start using carts. I'm told that the availability of cheap wheels from abandoned tanks started the trend.

Siwa is one of those relaxing and none too exciting places. Every tree is a palm tree and they are everywhere. In a way, they define the oasis. At the edge of the Great Sand Sea, the palm trees abruptly stop as if reaching the edge of a vast beach.

On the first day, I mostly did two things: I visited the Temple of the Oracle of Amun and I failed to visit Fantis Island.

The Oracle temple is visually not much. 'Not much more than a small room. It's recognizable as a temple but not much more than that. It's location, however, atop an escarpment commands a wonderful view of the area.

Fantis Island would have to wait. As small as Siwa is, it still is not easy to find the outlying attractions. Streets are unlabeled. Maps are incomplete and instructions in guide books just plain wrong.

Next day was a half-day "safari" into the Sand Sea. This involved taking a jeep through the dune fields to visit a cold lake and a hot spring. Travel seemed reckless at times as the driver struggled to prevent the jeep from getting stuck. Sharp turns on dune faces, high speeds going down so that we could roll up.

The cold lake at Bir Waddi is a large, clear blue pond with lush reeds growing at the sides surrounded by sand dunes. It is very clean and swimable but also very cold.

A dune or two further is hot spring. It didn't look so nice. Lots of algae and the water comes out of a pipe.

A couple of French guys who were with me opted to camp for the night near the hot spring. I went back to Siwa. On the return, I watched the sun sink below the dunes of the Sand Sea.

Next day, I actually made it to Fantis Island with some help from the hotel manager. Fantis Island is an interesting caricature. It is an island. There is sand and palm trees in abundance. However, the salt lake is only inches deep at most. Sort of paradise meets the moon. Nice sunset though.

Sunlight nearly gone but with a full moon to guide by, I pedaled my rented bicycle back toward Siwa Town. Along the way, I passed donkey carts and local bicycles, crossed sand in the road, and parts of road that were merely sand.

A couple of hours later, I said goodbye to Siva as I boarded the bus for Alexandria.