Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The White Desert.

A vast expanse of desolation and beauty, 500 miles from Cairo. Blistering under the desert sun and dotted with bizarre chalk-white formations, this surreal landscape is truly a sight to behold.

The closest I will ever get to seeing said desert, is through the window of an Upper Egypt Company bus.

We rose at 5:00am for our journey which would take twelve hours, including a three hour breakdown in the middle of the desert and, after our new bus arrived, an hour in the sweltering heat while the men performed their Friday afternoon prayer. Our plan was to spend an evening in the Farafra Oasis, do a two or three day camping tour of the White Desert, then continue southbound to Luxor, another two day journey away.

Our visit to the ATM in the Cairo bus terminal proved unsuccessful, when the machine was out of cash. The bank we stopped near en route was closed, with no ATM access. You know where this is going. We spent the rest of the ride praying that the hotel (which was also the tour operator) would accept a credit card for our adventures, leaving us enough cash to move on afterward.

We arrived, exhausted, sweaty and starving, to learn that of course they do not accept credit cards. Nor does anybody else in town. Our back-up traveler's checks were also useless. American dollars? Yes! We scurried to pull out the four tattered $20s that have lived in the soles of our shoes for eight months awaiting a moment such as this. The guy scrutinized them disdainfully before declaring they were "broken" and unacceptable. Sweet.

We had just enough Egyptian pounds on us for one night's accommodation and another day of travel. So we were posed with two options (neither of which made any trip whatsoever to the White Desert possible - what idiots we are):
#1 - Have a rest, then continue on in the morning to the next town, five hours away, where we would have access to money. We may miss the sight we came to see, but we'd be on the right path to Luxor (where ATM's a plenty). Of course, if the single available bank was closed or our cards weren't accepted or any number of things that may or may not make sense occurred, we'd be five hours deeper into the desert with absolutely NO spendable currency.
#2 - Suck it up and, with our tails between our legs, go back to Cairo.

Reluctantly, and with Reece's encouragement, I agreed to count our losses and go back the way we came. I was absolutely devastated. The ride out was pretty hellish, and I was fairly certain we would not put ourselves through it again to come all the way back another time. So, there I was, a few miles from a sight I've looked forward to the entire trip, unable to see it.

We opted to catch the 10:30pm bus that night so we could wake up back home, the whole ordeal stealing less than 24 hours from our time in Egypt. We treated ourselves to a decent dinner at the hotel (as all other restaurants were a few miles away and we were pretty much at the end of our rope). Low and behold, the overnight bus arrived full, so we were forced to spend the last few pounds we had to stay the night. We slept, fingers crossed, that the morning bus could accommodate us.

And, it could. Standing room only. A-mazing. We had no choice but to get on board, and luckily some seats opened up halfway through the ride.

Moral of the story - While staying with family and being treated to all the conveniences of home, it's easy to get incredibly lazy. Oh, right, we are traveling around the world. Thank you, White Desert, for the reminder. We will resume our usual responsible backpacking habits and never leave town with empty pockets again. Duh.


  1. That is a crazy story. OMG you've guys have gone through so many bus "breakdown" scenarios. Such tests...I'm sorry you didnt get to see the White Desert. WOW, what an adventure.