Egyptian civilization is responsible for many of the world’s greatest stone sculptures. But deep in the remote White Desert, some 500 km west of Cairo, stand hundreds of unique sculptures shaped by nature itself. Just nearby, meanwhile, are the aptly-named Black Desert and Crystal Mountain.
Leaving my Cairo hotel just after six in the morning, we arrived in the Bahariya Oasis region shortly before lunchtime. The plan was to see the natural sites around the nearby Farafra Oasis, before spending a quiet night camping in the otherworldly White Desert.
There were about seven visitors in total that day, and we were split up into two groups. After a tasty lunch, it was time to hop in the 4×4 with a local driver. As I’d booked the tour-last minute at my hotel (more below), I wasn’t completely sure what to expect from the excursion.
But I was eager to go and see the magnificent views I’d seen in photographs with my own eyes. Thankfully, the otherworldly scenery around Egypt’s Western Desert did not disappoint.
The Black Desert
Our first stop was the Black Desert. The region is named for its black mounds that almost look like pyramids in disguise. The sand in between them, meanwhile, is littered with countless black igneous rocks.
From where we stopped, we could spot at least a couple dozen of these volcanic cones spread across the horizon. Supposedly, visitors with more time can even go and climb up some of them.
But considering the distance between all the sites we’d be visiting that day, time was not on our side. We only had 20 minutes to take in the views, so I tried to cover as much ground as I could on foot.
The scenery was stunning, but an additional stop elsewhere in the Black Desert would’ve been ideal.
Our next stop was a place called the Cold Spring, which my travel companions and I assumed would be something natural. We first pulled into a lot outside an empty shack, presumably for a bathroom break.
In front of the shack was a concrete pool with water being pumped into it through a rusty pipe. I joked that we’d arrived at the spring, but the driver responded with ‘Yes, this is it.’ It turned out he was serious.
Apparently, longer, multi-day tours of the Western Desert sometimes stop here at the end of the day for guests top hop in and cool off. But as we were only stopping for a gander, it made for an odd ‘attraction,’ especially when compared with the other amazing sights we’d be seeing that day.
Our next stop was Crystal Mountain, which certainly lives up to its name. Deep in the desert and up on a hill are all sorts of calcite crystal formations in various forms and shapes. The hill, meanwhile, provides excellent views of the vast desert.
One of the strangest formations wasn’t a crystal, but a peculiar tentacle-like formation on the side of a large rock. It looked like a stalactite formation you’d see in a cave, but here it was in the middle of the open desert. Clearly, the Western Desert has gone through some major climate change over the years!
Much less obvious but equally interesting were some unique triangle-shaped crystals that I stumbled upon by accident.
Again, the time allowed here was brief. We only had about twenty minutes to walk around, and I left with the feeling that there were plenty more crystals out there to discover.
The Desert Viewpoints
Continuing onward, we were getting ever closer to the fabled White Desert. But first, we stopped at a couple of viewpoints along the way.
The Western Desert is known for its steep and tall dunes, and we were given the chance to go sledding down one. Not wanting to end up with sand-filled pockets, I opted out of the activity.
Instead, I went explored the mysterious rocks around the top of the hill.
The white ‘floor’ of the desert here looks like frozen waves. The chalky limestone dates back millions of years to a time when this was not a desert, but an ocean.
It’s fitting, then, that the rock appears like water from up close. But when taking in the scene from a distance, it looks more like snow. Standing there in the middle of the hot desert, it was a bizarre sight to behold.
Just when we were about to move on, one of the other 4x4s got stuck in the sand at the bottom of the dune and our driver had to go and help him out. After about ten minutes of struggle, the jeep was finally liberated from the desert sand’s grip.
While it thankfully wasn’t necessary, I was relieved to find that even in this remote corner of the world, the 4G signal was running strong.
Our next stop was just a minute or two away. It was a hill overlooking some large rock formations, made even more dramatic by the early evening light.
We were given some time to climb up some steep rocks for an even better vantage point of the shadowy mounds. But after ten minutes, it was time to get back in the jeep. We would soon be arriving at our final destination.
The White Desert
Finally, just as the sun was beginning to set, we made it to the middle of the White Desert. All around us were hundreds of strange rock formations popping out of the ground like mushrooms. But the air was much too dry for mushrooms, or much of anything else, to grow.
We walked around to check out more of these strange natural sculptures that have become synonymous with the White Desert and the Western Desert as a whole. These formations, known as ventifacts, were shaped by countless years of wind and sand erosion.
But daylight was running out. After taking in the views from atop a small hill, it was time to go and find our camping spot.
Before the trip, I imagined that all the desert tourists would be huddled in the same general area. But to my relief, each little group got their own spot in the desert. It would be just me, the two other travelers I was with, and our driver.
Instead of the top-heavy stone sculptures we’d just seen, we were mostly surrounded by ordinary-looking humps. It wasn’t exactly the most scenic part of the White Desert, but we’d at least get to do some more sightseeing the following day.
As our driver was preparing dinner, we climbed up one of the mounds to watch the dramatic sunset.
Shortly after it got dark, dinner was ready. On the menu were vegetable soup, cooked vegetables and rice with chicken. Feeling famished, I was pleased with the large portion sizes.
In fact, by the time we were all full, there was still plenty of food left over. I was puzzled when our driver took it and dumped it all out by a nearby rock! But his goal, he explained, was to attract one of the mysterious desert foxes that inhabit the area.
The girls I was with were determined to stay up and watch out for it. But having got up around 5am that morning, I was ready to call it a night.
After taking in the magnificent views of the starry desert sky, I went over and curled up in the tent provided by the tour company. It was eerily quiet, with the exception of a traditional Bedouin music performance audible from far across the desert.
I woke up a little after six, and it was already starting to get bright out. Thankfully, I hadn’t yet missed the sunrise – my first desert sunrise experience in Egypt.
Out in this remote desert, watching the bright disk of light appear over the horizon was a moving experience. As I watched the sun come up, I could easily understand why the ancient Egyptians had based much of their civilization around sun worship for thousands of years.
After a walk around the area, I returned to our camp where breakfast was almost ready. It consisted of boiled eggs and bread along with some cheese and jam. And thankfully, coffee was provided as well.
The desert fox never showed up the previous night. Nor would we see any gazelles or snakes which also inhabit the region. Not far from our camp, however, was an animal of a different sort.
About ten minutes away on foot was the ‘Bunny’ rock formation, named as such for obvious reasons.
Before heading back, we stopped at one of the White Desert’s most iconic pieces, the ‘Mushroom.’ This particular rock, in fact, was chosen as a symbol for the White Desert National Park when it was established in 2002.
Moving on, we made it back to the Bahariya Oasis office just before 10:00. It was a long journey back to Cairo, and it would be early evening when I’d finally arrive at my hotel.
All in all, the White Desert National Park covers an area of around 3,900 square kilometers. I only caught a small glimpse of it this time, but know that someday I’ll be back.
There are many tours to the Western Desert area that you can book online. In my case, however, I arranged everything through my hotel.
The hotel owner simply asked me, “Hey, do you want to go to the White Desert for a night with everything included for $120?” He stressed that it included all meals, transport and guide fees.
I’d been aware of the White Desert and was considering a visit at some point during my travels. And since $120 seemed like such a good price, I agreed.
I’m not sure what company was arranging the tour. But talking with the other travelers, all of whom were staying at different hotels, we were all paying the same price.
However, after arriving at the company’s main office, we were taken aback when the manager mentioned that we needed to pay an extra 110 EGP for the national park. It seemed suspicious, as we’d all been told by our hotels that $120 USD was the final price.
It’s puzzling why they couldn’t have just raised the total ‘final’ price by $10. 110 EGP is no huge amount, but the sudden announcement put us all on guard. (The manager also tried to sell us water, then later admitted it was free.)
Beyond that, though, everything went smoothly until the end. The next morning, I would’ve appreciated a bit more time in the White Desert, but our driver was in a major rush to get us back in time for the van back to Cairo. Nevertheless, we still ended up waiting in the office for an additional 40 minutes.
I’d already been in Egypt for awhile by this point, so this type of thing wasn’t too surprising.
The tour company manager made it clear that I would be dropped off at my hotel near Tahrir Square, the same place where I’d been picked up the previous day. But once we were near the Egyptian Museum, the driver suddenly told me he wouldn’t drop me off at my hotel, which was right around the corner. He wanted to leave me by the museum instead.
I asked why and he said something about traffic and it being difficult for him to get back home. If you’ve been to the Egyptian Museum, you’ll know that with no traffic lights, it’s at one of the worst intersections in all of Cairo. And I was also carrying a bunch of luggage.
The sudden change made no sense, as it was perfectly reasonable for him to make a quick turn and drop me off on the other side of the street.
I ended up on the phone with the tour manager, who said it’d be difficult for the driver and that I was supposed to be dropped off at the bus station anyway (which was not true). Frustrated more by the dishonesty than with the actual intersection situation, we got into a brief shouting match before the driver agreed to drop me off near the hotel as promised.
Sure enough, dropping me off by my hotel was perfectly simple and straightforward. And I saw the driver easily return to the same roundabout we’d just come from. Sadly, many in the Egyptian tourism industry seem to enjoy making things unnecessarily difficult by going back on basic agreements at the last minute. Despite such a great trip to the desert, I returned to my hotel with a bitter taste in my mouth.
This is not just meant as a rant, but to give you an idea of what to expect should you accept the White Desert tour offered by your hotel. All in all, I’d say it was definitely worth it and would recommend the trip to all nature lovers visiting Egypt.
Note: During my trip to Egypt, visiting the White Desert was technically not allowed due to safety reasons. While there have been no problems there recently, it likely has to do with increased tensions in Libya.
Despite not officially being allowed, tour companies are still taking visitors there as normal, and there are no police checkpoints or anything of that sort. Just keep in mind that if something does happen, your insurance company is unlikely to come to your aid.
If you want easy access to places like Islamic Cairo and the Cairo Museum, staying somewhere within the central part of the city would be ideal. However, many tourists will end up spending more time exploring ancient Egyptian ruins than in central Cairo.
As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying there will save you a lot of time and hassle. On the day you visit Islamic Cairo, you can just call an Uber.
In my case, I began and ended my Egypt travels in the Cairo area. In the beginning I divided my stay between Giza and the village of Abu Sir, focusing my attention on ancient Egyptian ruins.
Later, upon my return to Cairo, I based myself in the city center, not far from Tahrir Square. That way I could even walk to places like al-Muizz. My stay in central Cairo was mostly OK, but my hotel turned out to be surprisingly dirty and I’m not going to recommend it to others.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price.
In Giza, I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s no more than a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.