ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Great Sand Sea

GREAT SAND SEA, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.02.

With an area of approximately 72,000 square metres stretching across western Egypt and eastern Libya, the sand dunes of the Great Sand Sea offer visitors an opportunity to experience a sandy Sahara. Sand seas only cover a minor part of the world’s largest hot desert. The majority of the Sahara is in fact rocky and barren. The remote Siwa Oasis is a popular base to explore the Egyptian side of the Great Sand Sea. Getting out to the vast sea of sand requires a 4×4 vehicle. Most tourists would join a local tour for either an overnight stay in the desert or a half day visit that ends with watching the sunset from the dunes. I opted for an overnight tour. After all, it was such a romantic concept to sleep under the Milky Way in the open Sahara. I shared the 4×4 desert tour with a young American couple. Our 4×4 spent sped out the oasis and spent much of the afternoon doing “roller-coaster” runs up and down the sand dunes. To enjoy the full excitement, the driver told us to sit on top of the 4×4.

After some chill out time on the dunes, we were dropped off at a campsite right by a small artificial pool. After a simple meal, we got to choose to either stay inside a simple stone shelter for the night, or spread out our provided rug and sheets nearby to claim an open spot on the sand. I slept a bit and woke up at around 2am. As soon as I opened my eyes, the imposing Milky Way was right over my head. Until my other stargazing experiences in the Atacama during my 2013 South American journey, the starry sky that night over the Great Sand Sea was probably the most beautiful that I have ever seen.

Doing a desert tour in the Sahara was like a dream came true for me.
Low light in the afternoon over the Great Sand Sea offered me a delightful moment for photography.
The afternoon desert scenery was as romantic as anyone could have hoped for.
After several rounds of roller-coaster runs on the dunes, our 4×4 had a flat tire.
The driver immediately stopped the vehicle and changed the tire on the spot.
Probably caused by the wind, the wavy pattern of the sand worked perfectly with the low afternoon light.
The wavy pattern appeared more obvious at certain spots in the desert.
At one point, we walked to the top of a sand dune and did some sand tobogganing.
Ridge of a sand dune in late afternoon.
Ridge of a sand dune in late afternoon.
Sunset over the desert
Beautiful sand pattern
Our campsite was close to some large sand dunes.
Probably because of the water, more vegetation could be found near our campsite.
Not until early morning that I could notice the patches of salt on the ground near our campsite.
Our campsite was centered at a small pool.
Overview of our campsite.

FARAWAY OASIS IN THE GREAT SAND SEA , Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.05.31.

In the midst of the Great Sand Sea in the Western Desert 560km west of Cairo, Siwa Oasis is one of the most remote destinations and a town deepest in the mighty Sahara that tourists may reach in Egypt. Only 50km away from the Libyan border, Siwa lies in a natural depression about 19m below sea level. Occupied mostly by a group of Berber people who have developed their own culture and distinct dialect Siwi, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements. Until a tarmac road was built in 1984 to Marsa Matruh at the Mediterranean Coast, Siwa was only accessible by camels. Despite its remoteness, Siwa has long been a famous place in times of antiquity when a Greek oracle temple dedicated to the Egyptian sun god Amun was established in about 700 BC. In 331 BC, a celebrated conqueror from Macedon set sail from his newly founded Egyptian city by the Mediterranean Coast to Mersa Matruh, and then marched inland into the desert to reach the remote oracle. His visit has forever put Siwa on the map of history. This military genius is commonly known as Alexander the Great.

Home to spectacular landscapes, ancient ruins and distinct oasis culture, Siwa has been considered as an alternative destination in Egypt away from the popular Nile region and Red Sea resorts. For me, the simple idea of venturing out to the far end of the Western Desert in Egypt was tempting enough. Before the emergence of smartphones, Instagram and even Facebook, Siwa was not a well known tourist destination back in 2006. I learnt about Siwa Oasis from Lonely Planet guidebook. Given the anticipated impact of speedy globalization, I feared that the remote Oasis would turn into a resort town in a few years’ time. Thus I decided to pick Siwa as the last stop of my 2006 Middle East trip.

My journey to Siwa began with a 2.5 hour train ride from Cairo Ramses Station to Alexandria.
From Alexandria, it was another 10 hour bus ride to Siwa with a brief stop at Marsa Matruh.
Upon arrival, I checked in at one of the several simple guest houses in town centre.
Entering the heart of the oasis town via its main road for the first time, I was amazed by the ruined mud fortress, Shali Ghadi, in the middle of Siwa.
Most buildings in Siwa are constructed with local mud and palm logs.
Donkey and horse carts are quite common in Siwa.
There is enough water in Siwa to sustain donkeys and horses.
Local mud bricks and palm logs are the main construction material in Siwa. Erosion from rain and wind would gradually wear down the structures.
My visit was in early summer, and it was extremely hot in Siwa during the day.
As a famous oasis in the Great Sand Sea, palm tree groves are never far away in Siwa.
Donkey cart is the local taxi in Siwa.
During the hottest hours, the town appeared to be empty except occasional kids playing in the streets.
The mud houses in Siwa appear like coming straight out from a movie set.
Cats are everywhere in Egypt, even at the remote desert oasis.
All locals I met in Siwa were very friendly.
While appearing quite empty, Siwa Oasis actually has a population of about 33,000. The whole town is filled with houses.
Many houses in Siwa are covered with plaster over the mud and salt bricks.
In some occasions, text are painted onto the outer walls of houses.
The rough texture of the buildings in Siwa is actually quite photogenic.
Siwa is a great place to stroll around and get lost in. Many tourists, including me, would hire a bike for attractions outside of Siwa.