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.
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.