The word sahara means desert in Arabic so when you hear the name Sahara el Beyda you could be forgiven that it means one thing – sand, sand and more sand. Yet the sight of Egypt’s Sahara el Beyda belies the traditional way one imagines a desert. Are those icebergs on the horizon?
In fact these formations are made out of chalk rock, their shapes created by the wind and sand whistling through this isolated area, 45 miles from the nearest town of Farafra. Millions of years ago the White Desert was a sea-bed. Layers of rock were formed over time as marine fauna and vegetation died. The ocean dried up and the place became a savannah, home to herds or roaming elephants and giraffes.
Then the climate changed again and the landscape slowly broke down. As aeons passed, the softer parts were eroded away leaving the harder rocks standing. Even so, the elements would change the shape of the remaining rocks, whittling away at them until we have what can be seen today.
Much of the white desert is accessible only by four-wheeled drive or, for the more traditionally minded, the camel. As you progress further in to this blindingly white environment (called the new white desert) the boulders get larger and higher, the shapes a continuous miscellany of whatever the imagination can muster – some see animals, others people – others again see a vast sea upon which icebergs float. It’s an anthropomorphist’s paradise.
It is an amazing sight. Huge lumps of eroded rock seem almost marooned in a sea of sand. The rocks cannot resist the blast of the sand carrying wind forever. The formations stand fast for now but it is unlikely they will do so for much longer. As time goes on they are being unavoidably carved and scored until they will, inevitably turn in to – you guessed it – sand.
Visitors are advised not to get too close to the formations – and certainly not touch them. Millennia of erosion have made a lot of them extremely unstable and an unwitting hand could cause these ancient creations to collapse.
The distance from the capital, Cairo, means that the White Desert is not on the maps of too many tourists and those who visit it get the opportunity to witness the serenity of this environment without being part of a huge throng. A day trip will take around seven hours, with five of those spent driving.
Most people opt to visit over a two day period. The drive from Cairo is a long one but most visitors opt to stay overnight, opting to enjoy the amazing landscapes lit only by the light of the moon and the stars. For those unwilling to brave the desert cold, the nearby town of Farafra offers inexpensive lodging and amazing Bedouin food.
When the sun goes down you realize that you are not on your own. Local desert (Fennec) foxes will approach groups of people – albeit tentatively – looking for a few tasty scraps to eat.
Beautiful, surreal, and almost a different planet altogether, the White Desert will not be around forever. However it is safe to say it will outlast everyone reading this .