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.
After a instant noodle meal, I rested in the tent for a bit and decided to head out with my tripod to test my luck. I put on all the warm clothes I brought with me. At 5200m above sea level, it could get below freezing temperatures and gusty wind even in the summer nights. Luckily the coldness was bearable, at least for a period of half an hour that I stayed outside. I didn’t venture far but just returned to the rocky path behind the Tent Village. At 9pm, the sun was long gone but there was still a tiny bit of twilight light behind Mount Everest. With a tint of lilac colour on the snow-capped summit, Chomolungma (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ 珠穆朗瑪峰) or Mount Everest appeared to be even more mystical than two hours earlier. Fortune was on our side as it was a clear night with the new moon, offering one of the darkest night of the month. It also coupled with the right season that the Milky Way was already high up in the sky at the particular time of the night. If not the frequent interruptions from other travelers who either walked by with strong flashlights or those overly curious ones who urged me to show them my photos and taught them how to photograph the night sky, I could have stay longer to enjoy the peaceful starry night in front of the mighty Mount Everest.
I came out a little late. There were only a few minutes of purple twilight light. Away from any source of light pollution, the sky over Rongphu Valley was filled with stars and shooting stars.
A moment later, the purple light was gone and the tone darkened. The Milky Way appeared to be brighter but the mystical aura faded away.
As I stood silently, other tourists kept on coming with strong flashlights. There were a few similar to me who brought out tripods to try their luck shooting the night sky. Surely they had the same fortune as I did with the perfectly clear sky and magnificent Milky Way.
Without the purple twilight, Mount Everest remained as a recognizable silhouette in the background. The true protagonist of the night sky was undoubtedly the fascinating Milky Way.
After half an hour standing in the wind, I thought it was time to call it a day.
* * *
More blog posts on Tibet 2017:
JOURNEY ABOVE THE CLOUDS, Tibet 2017 (西藏之旅2017)
DAY 1: TOUCHDOWN ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, Lhasa
DAY 1: TRICHANG LABRANG HOTEL (赤江拉讓藏式賓館), Lhasa
DAY 1: KORA AT BARKHOR STREET (八廓街), Lhasa
DAY 2: FIRST GLIMPSE OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 2: KORA OF DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: JOKHANG MONASTERY (大昭寺), Lhasa
DAY 2 : SPINN CAFE (風轉咖啡館), Lhasa
DAY 2: NIGHT VIEW OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: POTALA PALACE (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: SERA MONASTERY (色拉寺), Lhasa
Day 4: KORA OF GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
Day 4: GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
DAY 4: TEA HOUSE AND FAMILY RESTAURANT, Lhasa
DAY 5: ON THE ROAD IN TIBET
DAY 5: MORNING IN SHANNAN (山南)
DAY 5: SAMYE MONASTERY (桑耶寺), Shannan
DAY 5: SAMYE TOWN (桑耶鎮), Shannan
DAY 6: YAMDROK LAKE (羊卓雍錯)
DAY 6: PALCHO MONASTERY (白居寺), Gyantse
DAY 6: WORDO COURTYARD (吾爾朵大宅院), Shigatse
DAY 7: ROAD TO EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: STARRY NIGHT, Everest Base Camp
DAY 8: PANG LA PASS (加烏拉山口), Mount Everest Road
DAY 8: SAKYA MONASTERY (薩迦寺)
DAY 9: TASHI LHUNPO MONASTERY, (扎什倫布寺) Shigatse
DAY 9: ROAD TO NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 9: EVENING AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: SUNRISE AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: LAST DAY IN LHASA, Tibet
EPILOGUE: FACES OF LHASA, Tibet
Once there was a legend…
Before the creation of land there was only the expanse of boundless water, on which a large floating raft carrying all kinds of animals searching for land. Great Hare, the chief among them all, urged the beaver to dive into the water and bring back a particle of earth. The beaver went reluctantly into the deep deep water but after a long time came back exhausted and empty handed. The animals then turned to the otter for the request but it too failed reaching the bottom. The animals fell to despair amid fears of floating in the endless water eternally, then came the small and weak muskrat who was willing to give another go. Off it went for a day and night and finally resurfaced unconsciously with belly up and paws closed. The animals pulled the muskrat onto the raft, and opened its paws one by one. Not until the last paw was opened then they found a single grain of sand. The Great Hare dropped the sand onto the raft and the magic began. On the raft, the sand started to grow larger and become rocks and then mountains and then the entire world where all animals could thrive and find their own food. The first generation of animals lived happily since then and died peacefully. The Great Hare then created humans out from the various animal corpses, such as the elk, bear and fish, each with their own dialect and tribal origin related to the deceased animal.
This version of a cosmogonic legend was passed down orally throughout generations of the Algonquians, the people who dominated pre-colonial Eastern Canada including the Atlantic Coast, Quebec, Ontario and the Great Lakes regions. Their ancestors roamed over these lands since thousand of years ago, leaving vivid evidences of their beliefs with pictographs and petroglyphs discovered throughout the Canadian Shield. The tale combining water, animals and Algonquin pictographs is the story of Bon Echo Provincial Park. With the exact etching dates still unknown, the 250+ pictographs on over 65 cliff surfaces along Mazinaw Lake at Bon Echo Provincial Park is widely recognized as one of the oldest First Nations pictograph sites in the Canadian Shield region. Etched with red ochre (a natural mineral of silica and clay with iron oxide), these pictographs of human, animal and abstract figures were applied onto the cliff surface by people on canoes. Most of these rock art were used in search for helping spirits, or in rituals of shamanism, when the shaman used these pictographs for healing, prophesy and vision quests.
On a Friday evening in early summer 2013, we headed off to Bon Echo Provincial Park after work. After over a decade since Angela first explored the park in a canoe trip, we decided to revisit this beautiful provincial park for its starry sky, pristine lake scenery, and mysterious pictographs on the 100m Mazinaw Rock cliffs. After almost three hours of driving from Toronto, we arrived at Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area south of Bon Echo. Unfortunately half the night sky was covered with clouds. We left disappointingly and headed for our accommodation at Northbrook’s Pine Grove Motel, about 15 minutes drive south of Bon Echo. After midnight, the sky cleared up and we had some fine moments of stargazing outside the motel. Early in the next morning, we drove north on Highway 41 and entered Bon Echo Provincial Park. After a short walk along the shore of Mazinaw Lake, we rented a canoe at Bon Echo Outfitters to explore the lake. We left the small cove at Lower Mazinaw Lake, passed the unique channel The Narrows, and paddled along the cliffs of Mazinaw Rock at Upper Mazinaw Lake looking for the Aboriginal pictographs. At one point, we docked our canoe by the shore and hiked up to the summit of the rock cliff for a birdeye view of the park. After canoeing, we returned to the Narrows where a bench and a lamp post offered a magnificent spot to enjoy the scenery of Mazinaw Rock. We stayed at the Narrows for the rest of the afternoon, braving the cold water with our feet, taking time-lapse photography of the scenery, watching boats coming through the Narrows every twenty minutes or so, listening to the sound of gentle waves and occasional songbirds, and enjoying every tranquil moment of daydreaming under the warm afternoon sun. It was the perfect picture of Ontario landscape, the legendary homeland of Aboriginal Algonquins, and one of the splendid settings of our delightful Canadian memories.
We tried a few times walking into the shallow water in front of the bench at The Narrows as it seemed temptingly clean. Despite less than a foot deep and the warmth of early summer, We couldn’t stand the freezing water for long.
* * *
Read other posts on Parks of Southern Ontario
1.1 Land of Water and Forest, Algonquin Park, Ontario ( 1 of 3)
1.2 A Tale of Rocks and Maples, Algonquin, Ontario ( 2 of 3)
1.3 When Moose Meets Beaver, Algonquin, Ontario, (3/3)
2. Ancient Reef and Escarpment, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
3. Algonquin Legend and Mazinaw Pictographs, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario