A Hole in my Bucket List

“Bucket List ….no.8 Egypt,” was the choice for our 70th birthday celebration with two friends. The Nile cruise over, we set off in a comfortable mini-van for the White Desert National Park. We had a driver, a knowledgeable guide and also accompanying us an unsmiling armed guard. Hopefully he would save us from kidnappers. He came to life when dealing with roadblocks on the tarred highway in the desert.

We spent the night at Farafra Oasis, a tranquil Bedouin village surrounded by date and olive groves. It was an unspoilt refuge from the modern world. Early in the morning we travelled 45km north-east to the White Desert National Park, a world of desolation and beauty.

This vast expanse of desert contains a unique landscape of wind-eroded rock formations which take ones breath away. The soft chalk rocks have been carved by generations of wind into fantastic white shapes balancing on yellow sand. This should have been a warning to us of the power of desert storms.

The entrance of the Park was crowded with 4x4s and noisy drivers looking for their clients. We transferred to a 4x4 for the drive to the “Campsite”. The guide pointed out the rock formations, “The Hen”, “The Rabbit”, “The Mushroom”. Cowboy-like the 4x4s raced up and down the dunes, crossing each other forming clouds of white dust. No good cursing them. They came in handy when our driver got stuck in the sand.

Things started to go wrong at the “Campsite”. Was this what the tourist brochures described as “An overnight desert camping experience”? It was a flat open space offering little shelter and no toilets or washing facilities. Not even a spade to dig with when one did find a small outcrop to hide and relieve oneself. One had the feeling of been spied upon from the other campers.

An igloo type tent for two with mats and sleeping bags was set up and a one man tent with one sleeping bag for our two friends. The guide and his friends made a wind break with carpets tied to the 4x4 for their night under the stars.

Our day-packs with our overnight things could not be located. The men looked surprised. Had no one told us that the luggage had gone ahead to the next town?

To our disappointment the planned celebration for the four of us was shared with another couple from England at their campsite. The setting sun threw myriads of colours on the rock formations.

Sitting round a small fire we chatted whilst the cook served up a wonderful grilled chicken, cooked vegetables and fresh bread baked in the sand, Bedouin style. The evening improved when a desert fox appeared from nowhere. It circled around waiting for scraps.

Clutching bottles of water for washing teeth and our faces in the morning we walked back to our tents. The air was crisp and warm and the stars which earlier had seemed close enough to touch had disappeared. By bedtime the night was very dark. The silence was overwhelming.

Suddenly in the middle of the night I woke up terrified. Someone was trying to smother me. I shook my husband awake and sat up to see what was happening. Sand was piling up against the tent which eventually collapsed on top of us, increasing the sense of suffocation. A violent north wind was blowing outside.

Through the mosquito netting we checked the one-man tent. It was just about ready for take-off. Our friends were huddled together with scarves over their faces. The men had wrapped themselves like a cocoon in their blankets and calmly lay sleeping.

The violent wind which lasted till dawn was driving sand everywhere. Clouds of powder- like dust beat onto our faces, leaving our ears, noise and hair covered in it. With our heads now in the sleeping bag we tried to sleep.

These strong unpredictable winds may blow for days I’ve been told, covering everything with huge amounts of dust and sand. Lying there in the wind I thought of Cambyses’ Lost Army. Around 520 BC he sent 50,000 men into the desert to conquer an inland Greek colony. A sand storm buried them for ever. Would we be buried under the sand also?

By sun-rise the storm was over. Coffee was most welcomed for steadying my nerves. One night in the desert was quite enough for me. This was a “Bucket List” experience never to be repeated.

H Leggatt

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