The Lost Oasis, part 3

The Last Oasis

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The situation appears grim; no one is smiling.  The military keeps changing the rules on us every time we turn around.  But András, who grew up in Egypt, isn't surprised and begins working through his Cairo contacts.  Realizing nothing will be resolved today, we get permission to camp in the outlying dunefield. 

Our string of trucks leaves behind the wheat and rice fields being worked by farmers wearing woven hats.  The broad brims and robes gives them a monastic look.  The palm trees here are surprisingly short, making it easier to gather the famous Dakhla dates.  Crossing from oasis to desert happens suddenly, and as soon as we enter the dunes two of our vehicles get stuck.  We pile out and learn a routine we'll come to know well in the days ahead: deflate the tires, dig the sand with our hands, place the heavy-gauge sand channels in front of the tires, and push.  And push again.

That evening we discuss the possibility of continuing without permits.  We could drive back through the oasis, as if we were returning to Cairo, and then veer into the desert farther north.  That might give us ten days before the authorities get serious and mount a search.  We could cover a lot of ground in that time, but it might turn into a cat-and-mouse game with the risk of jail and fines if caught.  “If they want to find you,” Khaled says, “they will find you.”  He advises caution.  So we decide to wait forty-eight hours, and if they don’t issue us permits we will simply disappear for a few days. 

Before turning in, András takes me aside to explain the situation.  Several weeks before, he says, an Italian party entered the Great Sand Sea and rolled their truck crossing a dune.  All five of them died when it caught fire.  And last winter a German party hit a landmine in the Gilf Kebir.  These two incidents have set the military on edge, and the government has kept quiet about them to avoid frightening tourists away from the pyramid circuit.  András doesn’t want the others to know this and risk having the expedition fall apart.
Next morning Khaled checks back with the officials so they won’t think we tried to slip away in the night.  He returns with encouraging news.  Our permits have been approved, but we need to wait for an army officer to accompany us.  An Egyptian “general,” he says, is on his way from Cairo, although the word is he's angry at having to miss Ramadan with his family.  He won’t arrive until late at night, forcing us to postpone our start for another day, but the mood of the group lifts.  One of the drivers offers to watch camp, and we head into town.
Dakhla consists of several villages with the largest taking its name from the Egyptian goddess Mut.  In ancient times this oasis was as remote as a space colony.  Long waterless days separated it from the Nile.  For the Egyptians it was the outer frontier – if not exactly the land of the dead, then the last stop on the way to it.  Thousands of years later it remains Egypt’s western frontier.  No matter what lines are drawn on the maps, the last water marks the true border. 

At an archeological site from the Middle Kingdom, a watchman emerges out of nowhere to sell us tickets with a face value of twenty pounds.  But in Egypt everything is negotiable and we pay five.  He leads us into the excavated tomb of an Egyptian nobleman.  On turning to leave I notice a boat painted above the entryway, surprised to encounter the image in a region where rivers drifted over with sand thousands of years ago.  The paint is well-preserved, the colors cool and aquamarine.  Facing death, the nobleman dreamed of a boat to carry his soul away to the west, far over the sands.

András says petroglyphs of boats turn up regularly in the rock art of the Eastern Desert across the Nile.  Boats also appear on the walls of many homes.  These hajj paintings indicate the occupant has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca by sea.  In Cairo's Egyptian Museum I've seen a wooden boat taken from a pharaoh's tomb.  The model represents the boat used to carry souls to the land of the dead.  Rows of carved oarsmen face forward, all except for a single boatman.  His head is turned to the starboard side, looking straight at you.  This lone face in the crowd must be history's first individual.

At the Hotel Megariz we stop to eat.  The waiter suggests beef and rice, so that is what we order.  What he serves is a bit different – rice with small slices of water buffalo and a pile of pita bread.  One sure sign we're in the desert is the grit in the pita – something no one will notice by the time we return from the far desert.  Next Khaled orders a hubble-bubble, and the waiter sets it up.  An ember is placed on a bowl of honeyed tobacco, and the smoke is filtered through the water to give it a mild, pleasant taste.  “I always wanted to join the army because I like the desert,” says Khaled.  “But I am the only son.  If a family has only one son, the Egyptian army won’t take him.”

           The general sent from Cairo joins us at the hotel earlier than expected.  He turns out to be a young captain, and instead of showing up in uniform he wears a Patriots ball cap and designer jeans.  Captain Mahboob looks as if he’s heading off to summer camp instead of one of the most remote corners of the world where he will escort us through a military zone and its minefields.  “Welcome to Egypt,” he struggles to say, using one of the only English phrases he knows.  Khaled has said this so often when things go wrong, I cringe when I hear it.


The Deep Desert


Next morning we pack up and head south.  Still within sight of Dakhla, we get our first flat.  And then another.  When it happens again, the captain starts to pray – whether from religious obligation or the thought of what he’s gotten himself into, I’m not sure.  He kneels facing Mecca and leans forward until his head touches the ground.  Sand is sticking to his forehead and the tip of his nose when he returns to the truck.  We haven’t left pavement yet, but András isn’t worried.  He has brought spare tires and plenty of inner tubes.
Reaching a point 200 kilometers south of Dakhla, we finally turn off the road into the desert.  The trucks spread out and race across the open sands, everybody whooping.  We won’t see a road again, or even another person, for more than 2,000 kilometers.  Our driver, El Said, swings left and right across the sand in wide arcs as smooth as a skater on ice.  He sings and laughs as the old Bedouin joy surfaces and we pass beyond the reach of towns and armed soldiers.  A great sense of release comes from cutting the tether and leaving behind the whole safety net of civilization and its price.  The moment is intoxicating, wiping out all the difficulties leading to it. 

Pure desert stretches away in all directions to the limits of perception and then keeps going, taking the imagination with it.  Everything flows in soft lines and softer colors as dunes feather onto sand flats in graceful curves.  The sand grains move hypnotically each time the wind stirs, hugging the contours of dunes like a membrane – kinetic, restlessly moving.  Winds have streamlined the outcropping rock and worn slabs of limestone into lace so thin it breaks at a touch. 

In this desert there is no water and no signs of water.  For hundreds of miles in any direction there is not a single spring, waterpocket, or seep.  Thirty to fifty years may pass between rains.  If we are stranded, there is no hope of finding water.  It would take a couple days of walking just to find shade.  After we have gone 150 kilometers from pavement, I figure we have reached the dead line.  From this point on, if the vehicles break down we could not carry enough water to reach the road alive. 

The place we've entered is practically unmapped.  The broad strokes have been roughed in but not the detail.  Where the map says “Flat, featureless desert,” I notice mesas crowding the horizon to the north.  It's tempting to head toward a stretch of country no one has documented, but we continue west.  Soon the distant uplands float in a pale haze and turn liquid when the day heats up. 

Carol Breed and Jack McCauley spent years studying deserts.  The retired geologists know the character of sand, its moods and expressions, how it shifts and settles, how it turns to stone and back again.  They pioneered the use of radar, carried on space shuttle missions, to uncover ancient river systems in the Sahara, and were the first to use satellite tracking technology to navigate in the open desert.  In 1978 they made their first expedition to the Western Desert.  “I was the only woman,” Carol told me before I left Flagstaff.  And then she remembered the other nine expeditions.  “I was always the only woman.” 

McCauley, who mapped Mars, said he could place a photo of Mars taken by the Viking spacecraft next to one from the Western Desert of Egypt without being able to tell the difference between them.  “It’s the closest place to Mars,” he said, “you’ll ever find.”

The first plant appears at noon on the second day and the second plant an hour later.  Both are dead.  Out here the only life you're likely to find is what you bring to it.  On an early expedition, Bill Shaw reported seeing only two plants along a 400-mile stretch.  He felt it his duty as designated botanist to collect both.  Unfortunately, the vehicle had to maintain its momentum to keep from bogging down in the sand.  This forced Shaw to jump out of the moving car, yank the plant up by its roots as the driver kept circling, and jump back in. 

  The first living plant comes into view the next day as we approach Jebel Uweinat in Egypt’s southwest corner.  This desert mountain, rising 6,000 feet, went undiscovered until the 1920s.  A lone tree floats in a mirage of water at the mouth of Karkur Talh, a wadi cutting into the mountain.  The acacia throws a reflection of itself in the shimmer before it, completing the illusion.  Beyond the first tree lies another and then a minefield.  Two trucks get stuck in the sand trying to bypass it, and we push until reaching solid ground. 
Land mines are one of the uncertainties of travel along the Libyan border.  The Egyptians laid several minefields here in the 1970s when war threatened, and the captain carries a photocopy of a hand-drawn map showing their locations.  But a quick look the first night showed András it contained a critical error.  The military confused the names of two key wadis, causing them to plot one of the minefields in the wrong location.  This might explain why at least half a dozen expeditions have hit mines even with a military escort.  They must have been using the same faulty map.  András spread out his map and showed the officer the actual location of the minefields.

Not far up the wadi lies the skeleton of a camel, one of many lost by Tebu tribesmen 70 years ago.  An epic of desert survival took place in 1930 when the Italians conquered the oasis of Kufra far to the northwest in Libya.  About 500 Tebu fled into the desert to escape the machine guns and bombs.  They trekked 200 miles across the sands, running out of water before they reached Uweinat.  To their horror, all the waterholes were dry since no rain had fallen in years.  The ordeal suddenly turned into a nightmare.  Three men set out on foot for Dakhla, more than 300 miles to the north, to get help.  The rest waited.

By chance a British survey team came upon the main group of refugees.  Ten women and children were so close to death they could only crawl, so the Brits repaired an abandoned car to carry them.  The only chance of survival for the others was to reach Dakhla on foot.  They set out on the long, desperate trek only to be overtaken by a dust storm where some became lost.  Word of their plight reached the oasis, and rescue parties headed south to search for survivors.  They eventually saved 300 of the tribesmen who had crossed 420 miles of open desert without water.  A London newspaper called it “a feat of endurance which can have few parallels in the history of desert travel.”

In a land so remote and hyper-arid, we figure the chance of running into a border patrol is slim and make plans to slip into Sudan the next day.  As we set up camp, a few aggressive flies materialize out of nowhere.  András warns us about letting them land. 

“They go for the eyes,” he says, “and as soon as they find something wet lay their eggs.  They aren’t painful, but you know something is there.  They hatch into worms so small you have to wait two or three days for them to get big enough to see and pull out.  I had fourteen of them once.  It’s not much fun sitting in your tent at night trying to pull them out with one hand and holding a torch with the other."  Then he adds, "Yes, coming here has its costs.”  I move my tent to the windiest spot I can find.

Next:  Cave of the Swimmers



Click for past explorations

New World part 1 of 3

New World part 2 of 3

The Lost Oasis part 1

The Lost Oasis part 2