Thirty million years ago the sea that once covered Egypt’s Western Desert retreated and revealed a landscape full of limestone and chalk formations, which have been shaped by the sand and wind over time into fantastic white sculptures. And you can camp among them!
A number of companies run tours to Egypt’s White Desert; after much research we went with Loly Gamal at Egypt Western Desert Tours, who I highly recommend. We were picked up at our hotel in Cairo just after dawn (to avoid an impending anti-government protest…) and we began our four-hour drive into nowhere.
Before reaching the White Desert, we passed through the Black Desert, so named due to the volcanic rock and dust coating the area. We took a moment to walk around and then continued on to a spot where the famous chalk formations began.
The second stop was Crystal Mountain, which is a series of crystal formations formed by sub-volcanic activity and pushed to the surface. Or something. I’m not a geologist, I have no idea if any of that makes sense. All I know is that when you find a mountain littered with endless crystals in the middle of a desert, it’s pretty awesome.
Our driver then went completely off road, speeding fearlessly into the untamed terrain. We stopped again for a few moments of stillness, sitting on the sand far from any paved surfaces, let alone the bustle and commotion of Cairo.
Along the way Loly pointed out little black “flowers,” which were (I learned later) “pseudomorphs” made of different minerals. Again: not a geologist. I couldn’t tell you anything about the process through which hematite becomes marcasite and bursts into small black artichokes. But again: awesome.
As the afternoon rolled on we came upon more and more white chalk formations, and before the sun sank too low in the sky Loly took us to our campsite. Loly and our driver used our 4×4 as a rear wall and set up two adjoining walls and a floor, all made of heavy blankets. While we took photos of the incredible sunset, Loly and our driver cooked up a delicious dinner. After eating our fill we sat around the fire and chatted with our hosts.
And that’s when the fennec foxes came out…
Fennec foxes are always in the playoffs when it comes to any Cutest Animal In The World contest. Their enormous ears, soft fur, and worried eyes are their secret weapons. They’re native to North Africa, and the possibility of seeing them in the wild was, for us, one of the main attractions of spending a night in the White Desert.
At first they were just small specks of light on the horizon, as the moonlight reflected off their eyes. Then we heard the skittering of their paws as they darted around the perimeter of our camp, investigating the scene. We stayed quiet and motionless so we wouldn’t scare them away.
Our driver placed an egg in a jar of water and set it out for them. I guess foxes love eggs in jars of water, because their curiosity brought them in closer. The darkness and their quick movements prevented me from getting any great photos, but there we were in the empty desert, sitting in silence, with wild fennec foxes just feet away checking us out by the firelight.
The foxes eventually moved on and we turned in for the night. We covered ourselves with heavy blankets made for camels, which kept us warmer than any sleeping bag I’ve ever had. And with no roof on our campsite, we fell asleep under the stars.
We awoke with the sunrise and our guides brought us coffee as soon as we sat up. Our camp was disassembled as we ate breakfast, and afterwards we ventured further into the White Desert.
The second day revealed some of the more dramatic chalk formations, now that we were deeper into the desert. Many of the formations had names: There was a “chicken” and an “old man’s face” and a “rabbit” and more than a few “mushrooms.” It was like standing on the surface of another planet, but more like a planet out of a sci-fi comic book than anything NASA has ever discovered.
Loly served us a late lunch and then it was another long drive back to Cairo, arriving just in time to catch the sunset at the Pyramids, witness a massive protest in Tahrir Square, and choke on some tear gas. (But that’s another story…)
Loly pleaded with us to encourage others to visit Egypt. As I write this, tourism has still not recovered there since the Arab Spring in 2011. We had originally signed up for a group tour, but it ended up as a private tour by default. Loly told us that usually there would be at least eight other people on the trip with us, and we would’ve seen other campfires from other tour groups in the distance at night.
So if you’ve ever wanted to experience Egypt, there is no time like the present. Book a tour with Loly and you could end up having the whole White Desert to yourself.
Well…you and the foxes.