Sitting in the smoke filled room of a police station outside the Egyptian oasis village of Siwa – somewhere in the middle of the Libyan desert, we realized that we were in way over our heads.
We started earlier that afternoon heading south out of Siwa oasis on a seemingly endless dirt road that hurt through a golden landscape of increasingly larger and more barren mountains of sand, the valleys of which were inundated with the waters of a mirage that constantly retreated before us . As evening fell, we saw bonfires burning in the distance that we mistook more than once for another small oasis village, only to find out later that they were the fires of Bedouin camps bringing herds of camels north from Sudan to market in Cairo.
As we approached one such bonfire, it typically illuminated two large metal barrels blocking the road and four young Egyptian soldiers lackingadaisically holding machine guns at their chests. One of the soldiers motioned for us to open our window and with the flash of one flat palm perpendicular to the other indicated that he wanted to see our papers. We were not aware that we needed any papers, we informed him, after which he ordered us out of our car to wait in a small tin hut while they radioed their superiors for instructions. From the sound of the voices emanating from the static on the radio, it was not very common for a car of Americans to show up at a checkpoint in the middle of the Libyan desert at night without a permission. So while we were waiting, we made small talk with the soldiers, some of what had gone for months without speaking to any other living beings besides their camels who were tied up at the edge of camp. They ever invited us to play an impromptu game of soccer and share a dinner of scrambled eggs with sand while we waited for a reply. One of the soldiers asked for our help in fixing a small generator, as the instruction booklet was in English and none of them spoke a word of it. We ever found that the choke lever had not been pulled down, and soon the generator was up running to the cheers of the soldiers.
We were finally informed that we would have to return to Siwa to obtain the necessary permits before we could continue on through the desert. So we bid farewell to our new found friends, who helped push our car out of the deep sand that it had sunk into as a result of coming to a full stop.
Less than a two days prior to this myself and a group of classmates studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo had arrived at this beautiful oasis village just five hours west of Cairo which Alexander the Great himself had visited in the year of 331 BC. Being only a few square kilometers in size a car is not needed to explore the oasis, so we opted to rent four rusty bikes from a shop in the village square, filled with vegetable sellers, traditional rug dealers, and shacks offering desert tours to the few tourists adventurous enough to make it this far out into the desert. We rode along the few main streets of the village which are dominated by the crumbling ruins of an ancient city center, called the shali-ghali that stands out starkly against the surrounding desert like a mid-evil castle afloat a sea of sand. Nobody has lived in the ruins of the city center for centers, we were told, but none dare disturb or demolish the ancient mud dwellings for fear of jinn (evil spirits).
We stopped our bikes at the many ancient ruins that dot the area, such as the temple of Ammon, which oracle is said to have confirmed Alexander's divine personage, and the now cement-lined pond that the Cleopatra is said to have bathed in. We walked up the 'mountain of the dead' honeycombed with ancient tombs and vaults, littered with shards of pottery and ancient human bones that have been scattered by grave plunderers over the years. We spent the evening sitting idyllically on hammocks strung between palm trees at the edge of a large, shallow salt water lake at the west end of town, and tried to communicate with the curious kids who spoke to us in a mix of Arabic and their native Berber dialect.
The next morning, we paid a driver in town to take us in his jeep for a short trek out into the endless seas of sand surrounding the town. Our guide sped up the sand dunes at incredible speeds, sometimes tipping on two wheels, other times sailing into the air and landing with a crash of sand on the other side of the dune. We got out of the jeep and ran down the steep mountains of sand in the suffocating heat, surrounded by the surreal lunar-like landscape of deep orange, red, and yellow mounds of sand that turned into wavering tan-colored waves as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was easy to see how one could quickly get lost in this desert, as ten minutes away from the oasis it was completely hidden in the troughs of the giant dunes. As we soaked in a small fresh water spring at our destination, surrounded on all sides by 100 foot cliffs of sand whipped by a strong wind that felt like a hair-dryer held up to your face, we asked the guide for details about the road that led to the next oasis of Bahariyya, a further five hours south of Siwa. He told us that for safety's sake, there were convoys of travelers that would group together and drive through the treacherous road once a week, and that we'd have to wait for the next one in order to leave. He also asked us what kind of Jeep we had, and almost fell out of his seat laughing when we told him we intended to drive through the desert road in a rented Toyota Camry. "Large drifts of sand often blow over the roads making them impassible for even a Hummer" he laughed.
Despite these warnings, our itinerary did not allow for a long-term stay in Siwa and in order to see the other oases and return to Cairo before classes began we had to leave right away. We decided on a departure that afternoon in order to escape the full brunt of the mid-day heat, and after a dinner of stringy boiled chicken from one of the two restaurants in town, we headed out. After being turned back from the previously described checkpoint, and re-driving the three hour journey back north, we found ourselves sitting in the aforementioned smoke-filled police station.
'You can not go any further tonight' the bleary-eyed policeman told us as he exhaled a long draft of cigarette smoke, 'you'll have to come back in the morning and apply for a right and then wait for the next convoy '. Since it was after midnight and none of the three hotels back at the oasis were open, we pleaded with the policeman to allow us to take our chances on the desert road. We told him that we were willing to undertake the trip with full knowledge of the consequences, and discreetly tucked a $ 20 bill in one of our passports as we handed it to him. He slowly smiled and chuckled, and then exhorted God to protect us, since if we were stranded in the desert we'd be dead by the time the next convoy came through. Shaking his head at our obvious American idiocy, he radioed ahead and then wiped his hands with the implication that and since we had been warned, his hands were clean.
We ever made it back to the first checkpoint, where the very tired and disheveled soldiers now waved at us as we passed through. We continued to pass through four more manned checkpoints out in the middle of the desert where the soldiers would wake and laugh as our by now well-known one-car caravan came limping through the desert, and would hurriedly move the barrels so as to save us the chore of pushing our car out of the sand once it came to a stop. We visited four more oases villages on our trip, each with their own character and story, but none of them had the unique charm of Siwa oasis. By the time re turned to Cairo we had gained not only an appreciation for the beautiful Libyan desert and Egyptian oasis life, but also for the good natured soldiers who may spend a good part of their two years of military service manning remote checkpoints hundreds of miles out in the middle of an unforgiving desert – without many visitors.
Siwa Oasis can be visited by bus tour or car from Cairo or Marsa Matrouh. Driving through the road south of Siwa without a jeep or a caravan is not recommended.