The Lost Oasis, part 2

The night ride to Asyut

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A convoy of a dozen cars and trucks has gathered at military headquarters, and in mid-afternoon we depart.  Soldiers armed with AK-47s ride shotgun in Nissan pickups; others man checkpoints along the way.  Smoke from burning slash hangs in the air as we follow the Nile north toward the fundamentalist strongholds.  Dark and fertile, the fields along the river come alive with farmers who work the land, tilling and planting.  Flocks of pure-white birds, the ones locals call ibis, follow close behind them.  Other men, standing in their punts, fish the shallows in a scene right from the painted walls of a pharaoh’s tomb.

At Qena all vehicles but ours turn off for the safer Red Sea route to the east.  We continue along the Nile, joined by new escorts each time we cross into a different military sector.  As we proceed north, the children no longer wave and shout “Hallo,” but silently watch us pass.  Darkness approaches, and the night ride to Asyut begins. 

Our convoy flies up the road at breakneck speeds with lights out and horns blaring, running donkey carts off the road, dodging stalled cars.  In each town pedestrians jump left and right as we swerve through streets choked with turbaned villagers.  Foot traffic, bike riders, and beat-up trucks compete for space, and everybody behind a wheel is driving like a circus clown.  But no one is smiling.  The lead escort suddenly brakes at a speed bump and switches on a rewired car alarm used as a siren to warn those following.  It comes as no surprise to learn Egypt has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world.

Dust and smoke hang in the air as a man kneels on a prayer rug at a busy intersection, pressing his forehead to the ground, and another leads a donkey loaded with sugarcane.  A boy hugs his bike, standing with mouth open and head swinging from side to side as each truck barrels past.  Men sit silently in open cafes, eying us suspiciously as they sip thick coffee or take a pull on a hubble-bubble.  An Arab in turban and robe braces an old bolt-action rifle in the upper window of a police station, its walls whitewashed and crenulated.  He glances down the barrel toward the street below in a scene right out of Beau Geste

For us the greatest danger is the drive itself.  But the army has some justification for fearing trouble.  Since 1992 the conflict between armed Islamic militants and the security forces, mainly in this district, has claimed the lives of 1,300 people.  This is the home of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, the group responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing and the massacre of tourists at Luxor.  This is also where al-Gihad began its operations.  They are the ones responsible for assassinating Anwar al-Sadat and are suspected of carrying out the recent bombing of the USS Cole. 

After five hours, someone in the back truck demands a pit stop.  We pull off at a deserted gas station, and an armored Mercedes Geländewagen with assault rifles bristling from gunports swerves to the front and slams on its breaks.  A colonel jumps out and angrily demands to know what’s causing the delay.  People from the last truck are already making a beeline for the open stall, forcing the commander to order his men to fan out in a defensive perimeter.  They scan the rooftops, looking worried.  Whatever has been happening in these villages hasn’t made it onto CNN.  Under the watchful eye of the colonel and a soldier armed with an AK-47, I take my turn at the hole, placing my feet on the textured footprints to get a better grip on the wet cement floor.   
On the outskirts of Asyut the soldiers turn back, and we head south into the desert, relieved to be on our own and away from the Nile Valley.  The road follows the route of the Darb al-Arbain, ancient caravan route known as the Forty Days Road.  A hard, brutal journey across the desert.  Slavers would drive 80,000 slaves north from the Sudan in a single caravan and arrive at Asyut with only 20,000 survivors.

We reach El Kharga Hotel at midnight where the presence of three desert-equipped trucks raises the suspicions of the authorities.  Next morning the police demand an explanation from our head driver, Khaled, who tells them we are merely heading for Dakhla, the next oasis.  They appear unconvinced.

Kharga is the largest of a string of oases in the Western Desert, but we see little of it.  From the earliest records it has been a place of exile.  In Roman times Hadrian sent Juvenal here for satirizing the imperial court, and maintaining the tradition, Nasser exiled a newspaper editor here a few decades ago.  Sand dunes on the edge of town have buried some houses, forcing the inhabitants to abandoned the first floor and build a second story to live in.  Before leaving town, we buy 36 cases of water but decide against filling the 90 gerrycans with diesel fuel – a sure tip-off that we intend to make a long-range trip into the deep desert.

At Dakhla, the last oasis 75 miles to the west, we begin fueling and buying last-minute provisions.  Every place we stop, I notice a policeman who casually walks up and jots down our license numbers.  I suspect they’re on to us.  Roof racks packed with bright-red gerrycans are hard to miss.  Heading out of town, the first two trucks slip past the last checkpoint, a military intelligence post, but a soldier dashes out and flags down the three vehicle.  All of us turn back rather than risk a pursuit, and hours of negotiating begin.  Khaled walks over and gives us a weak smile.  “Welcome to Egypt,” he says.

Next:  The last oasis


Click for past explorations

New World part 1 of 3

New World part 2 of 3

The Lost Oasis part 1