Quadbikes and Sandy Camel Toes
The Sinai desert in the southern tip of Egypt stretches before us in the evening light, rolling red dunes sweeping up towards the azure sky.
The scent of gasoline mixes with the heady scent of burnt sand as we rev our quad bikes and launch out into the dusty waves.
Traditional Egyptian cotton headscarves swathe our heads in an effort to keep the tiny sand grains from stinging our faces as we race in convoy through the barren hills. Our guide coached us in the art of tying the checked scarves securely in the proper custom and now the ends fly behind me in the breeze of our ride.
Threading our way between the dusty mounds is exhilarating; the vaulted blue sky rises above us the land seems endless as the town we have left becomes obscured by the rising hills.
Stunted, bleached white trees and scrubs struggle to eke out a survival amongst the rocky bases of the hills, caravans of camels with their Bedouin herders pause in their ponderous traipse to stare as we whizz by.
As far as ways of experiencing the baking desert go, this is certainly one to try; the speed of the four-wheeled bikes keeps you pleasantly cool even in the sweltering 38 degree summer heat. If you pick the right tour agency there is even a break at a Bedouin tent for chilled water (I’m not sure how they do it either) and a lovely chat with some loitering camels. Oh we’ll get this out the way early, camels smell.
One of the owners urged us to feed the camels from a stack of torn up cardboard he had beside the Bedouin tent, where we lounged in the shade on patterned cushions. Though I’m not sure about the nutritional value of reconstituted paper, the camel certainly appreciated this apparent ‘treat’, folding its velvety lips around the morsel, jaw working left to right.
Back on our quads we headed back out into the blistering heat. With a friendly wave from the camel-owning ‘café’ vendors we were off again.
As a way of experiencing true desert conditions quad biking through the landscape is both a relatively cheap and extremely exhilarating mode of doing it. If you’re looking to splurge you can even add camel rides, Bedouin feasts, shisha pipes and stargazing to the itinerary for a small increase in price.
We had decided to go the whole way and so our ever-enthusiastic guide led us deeper into the uninhabited terrain. Except it isn’t uninhabited, the Bedouin live here in the sliding sands, and remnants of some of their simple breezeblock buildings lay enveloped in sand along our route. Herders recognizable by their white robes and wound head scarves dot the landscape with their goat and camel wards, though what they can find to graze on is anyone’s guess; perhaps there is a healthy growth of boxes?
At last we reached our destination; another patch of sand not much different from the last 2 hours’ worth except this one is home to a large group of Bedouin-chic bedecked camels and their immaculately white-robed handlers.
Camel riding is something else altogether. Camels are big. And extraordinarily cumbersome and awkward. Having said that, there is something genuinely endearing about these ungainly dromedaries with their easy-going attitude.
Mounting a camel has a very simple set of steps. Firstly you must cajole the animal into lying down in the sand (this could take a while as they are pretty relaxed creatures, in no rush anywhere). Next, clamber aboard tucking securely into the woven saddle. Next try and convince the animal to stand (again, good luck) and cling on for dear life as the camel lurches in a massive upwards push to its feet. Ta-Da! Staying on board relies on adjusting to the odd rolling gait as the long legged dromedary lumbers through the yielding sand. Top tip, roll with it
After a thankfully short ride we scramble down from the patient reclining camels, say thank you to the long-suffering beasts (answered by a good natured grumble) and head to dinner. The evening’s meal is put on in a small Bedouin camp in a courtyard at the base of a rocky outcrop. Lounging under hand woven roofs on patchwork cushions, traditional tea is poured from silver pots into dainty glasses and colourful shisha pipes are set on low tables, their pungent smoke wafting through the dusky air.
Starlight and Dogs
As we feast on cucumber salads and spiced meat, the local Sheikh arrives bizarrely in a white 4×4 to talk with the enrobed men. They sit beside the fire, their loud voices booming animatedly through the encampment as they chat and laugh amongst themselves, faces aglow in the shadowy light.
Traditional dancers in long robes leap and twirl in the middle of the open air area, music reverberating from the surrounding hillsides as the night sky darkens and the smouldering sun drops abruptly below the shadowy hill-line.
We finish the meal gathered around the fire learning how to cook the unleavened, crepe-y bread that is a staple of the Bedouin diets. A large upturned steel bowl suspended over the fire acts as the bread stone. The thin dough is pulled and stretched out into a thin layer which is tossed over the stone to cook until it is rescued (by hardy, practiced fingers) and rolled up to keep it hot. The tribesmen laugh as we inexpertly pull holes in the dough and proudly nibble on our misshaped, slightly charred attempts.
Finally we walk out into the dark sand and stand gazing at the vibrant and crystalline stars in a dazzling arc above our heads in wide-mouthed wonder as our guide describes the constellations and their stories. Wild dogs creep along the dunes in snuffling search of scraps as we take turns in the single telescope to gawk at the glowing balls in the pitch black.
And that was how my favourite night in Egypt ended; stargazing in the desert, the still warm sands cocooning our small party in the comforting dark, keeping at bay the chill of the night.