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Desert Escape in Egypt

Venture out of Cairo on a Private Safari

Desert in Egypt
These unusual formations in the White Desert are the result of rain and wind eroding chalk cliffs.

Midway through an around-the-world trip, an old friend invited my husband and me to Cairo. News from home warned of anti-American sentiments throughout the Middle East, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up—how often would we have an Arabic-speaking friend offer to host us while in Egypt?

Over the next few days, we explored Cairo’s bustling shopping districts, mosques, and museums. Traffic was heavy and the air quality challenged these hardy New Yorkers. Where could we find some peace and quiet?

A brief Internet search led us to Khalifa Expeditions and a personal 2-day desert safari package—a perfect escape for a couple looking for some romance and serenity after the hustle and clamor of Cairo. Khalid Khalifa and his wife Rose-Marie run the operation. He is Egyptian and she is Swiss. He is dark with striking hazel eyes and exudes silent confidence. She is white-blond and fair skinned with a penchant for flamboyant prints in her clothing. He excels at operations and logistics and she performs guide duties, waxing poetic about the desert. They met years ago when she was a tourist. She fell in love with the landscape, as well as with Khalid, and now calls Egypt home.

To get to Khailfa Expedition’s base in the Baharya Oasis, about 265 km southwest of Cairo, required a 5-hour bus ride. We were the only Westerners aboard the bus. All the other female riders were swathed in layers of black fabric; even their hands were covered in black rayon gloves. For most of the drive their eyes were the only feature revealed. The air conditioning on board was spotty at best, but the women never complained.

A few hours into the drive, the bus stopped for the Muslim call to prayer. The men disembarked to face Mecca; the women and children stayed in the shade of the bus. As soon as the men departed, we got a glimpse at the women as they took off their layers of clothing and began to converse freely.

When we arrived to Baharya around noon, sweaty and stiff, Khalid met us and drove us to his home in a Land Cruiser. A feast of fresh fruit, cool drinks, and refreshing salads elevated our moods. After lunch, the truck was packed with supplies. Kalifa Expeditions was extremely well equipped to meet the demands of the soaring temperatures—105 degrees at peak heat. Rose-Marie, made sure we finished two liters of water a day.

Several of the drives took hours, but time seemed irrelevant. The desert was a geological sculpture garden. I was mesmerized by the endless miles of rock formations jutting out of the sand. The White Desert (Sahra-al-Beida) appeared to have icebergs floating in the sand. The forceful winds have created stunning chalk formations—some towering 200 feet above the sand floor. These enormous white craters made for dramatic photos against the cloudless blue sky.

I was acutely aware of the absence of something on all of our walks: footprints. No evidence of others was ever apparent, making us feel like we were truly discovering Egypt for ourselves. Rose-Marie gave us plenty of breathing room to enjoy the vistas. Unlike on many guided tours, we receive no condescending commentary or claustrophobic monitoring.

Our tent was situated several meters from the campsite—affording us a wonderfully intimate “open-air suite.” As a city girl, I was amazed at the light generated from the heavens. David and I barely had to whisper to one another to be heard in the stark silence of the desert.

The next morning we rose with the sun. We began our day with a trek through the prehistoric Black Desert. Charcoal-colored basalt canyons and cliffs dotted the landscape—remnants from the extinct volcanoes and lava flows that created the Black Desert.

As the afternoon heat descended, we left the desert to head to the next portion of our adventure—a 2-hour camel ride. Rose-Marie, an inspired environmentalist, breeds her own camels. She has trained a gentle and obedient herd that responds to voice commands. With no whips and no kicking, the animals gently plodded their way along the trail through the lush green oasis bordered by rosy-beige desert.

For More Info

Khalifa Tours, www.khalifaexp.com, Baharya Oasis, Egypt; Tel./fax: 011-020-28-47-32-60. $60-$100 for a 2-day, 1-night safari; includes food and lodging.
Bring: Long pants and a sweater (tempe-ratures in the desert dip at night), sun-screen, a good hat, hiking boots, and jeans.
Getting There: The Upper Egypt Bus Company provides transportation to the desert from Cairo ($4 each way).

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