September 2021: Although I had already been to Egypt 3 times, we were so close and Paula has never been there, so it was an easy decision to return. Besides, I love Egypt-the ancient history and what isn’t there to like about mummies, tombs, curses and pyramids? Egypt embodies the childhood sense of adventure that lives within all of us.

In past trips to Egypt, I traveled up the Nile River, obtained an advanced diving certification in the Red Sea, visited the Sinai Peninsula so on this trip, I wanted to visit a new part of Egypt, the ancient oasis town of Siwa in the western desert along the Libyan border. Of course Paula would have to visit the Giza pyramids too.  Since we only had three full days in Egypt, we decided to maximize our time by skipping the hotel stay on the night of our arrival. Instead we slept in the car, while our driver drove all night to Siwa. Sacrificing comfort for travel and adventure was nothing new to Paula and I so this was an easy decision.

About Siwa Oasis

Location of Siwa Oasis-a series of lakes on the edge of the great western sand sea of the Egyptian desert

Siwa Oasis is a fertile area of a series of fresh and salt water lakes bordering the edge of the Great Egyptian Sand Sea in the Western Desert along the Libyan border. It is one of the most remote human settlements in Egypt and has been inhabited for thousands of years since Pharaonic times. Alexander the Great was coronated as Emperor in Siwa, and Cleopatra is said to have visited this oasis town. More recently, World War II battles occurred between the British and Germans there.

Currently, 30,000 people mostly desert Berbers who speak a unique Siwa dialect live in Siwa. The population of Siwa was extremely isolated for many years and only a few decades ago were given electricity and asphalt roads. The Siwa people very conservative and due to the area’s isolation, few tourists make it to Siwa compared to other areas of Egypt. To get to Siwa, we had to fly into Cairo, meet our driver at the airport and drive 11 hours overnight to avoid the traffic and heat of the day. We drove north along the desert to the Mediterranean Coast and then turned inland towards the desert passing through 5 military checkpoints. A few of the checkpoints are very thorough and every personal item will be searched.

 

Long Overnight Drive to Siwa

Our driver and guide met us at the airport. Although Egypt is an easy country to travel independently in, a guide and pre-arranged driver was necessary since we only had three days and our plans were very ambitious. Our first order of business was to obtain a Covid test, which we needed to return home. Our guide had a doctor friend who could meet us in the street and take a PCR test from us in our vehicle. The doctor took our samples without gloves on or a mask and after a few minutes he was off. The price was steep and just about everything about the test was suspect. But in the end a few days later we received our test reports on time and the airlines accepted them. 

After sorting our our testing business, we took a shortcut through Cairo by crossing the City of the Dead.  Even though it was 10pm the traffic in Cairo never sleeps. The City of Dead, is one of the largest necropolis’s in the world. It is miles long with thousands of entombed souls dating back to 900AD. The area is huge and despite it’s name, large populations of the impoverished live side by side with the dead. Many are paid by the families of the dead to look after the tombs. others have moved in because they have no where else to go. The area is incredibly fascinating and many of the tombs are beautiful. There are risks to visiting however as gangs of glue sniffing youths are known to rob outsiders. This was my second time to the City of the Dead and it is one of my favorite places in Cairo. We took our time driving through and our guide requested we lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up to avoid tempting any bandits. 

 

 

City of the Dead Tomb

After leaving the City of the Dead and Cairo, Paula and I fell asleep in the backseat. On occasion I would awake to take a peek outside but there was not much to see aside from an odd camel and the occasional bush. After reaching the Mediterranean we drove 7 hours through the flat featureless desert plains before reaching Siwa. The roads were mostly empty with the exception of the occasional semi-truck traveling from Libya.

Empty Desert Road to Siwa

In my travels, I have discovered that life can exist anywhere even in places where it would seem no life could exist, like the hostile Egyptian desert. But low and behold, when we pulled the car over to urinate in the desert one morning during sunrise, our guide found a chameleon sitting on top of a branch in one of the only bushes for miles in any direction. The chameleon was so blended in with his surroundings, that it took me a few minutes to find him when our guide tried to point him out to me. To the guide’s astonishment, I picked him up and carried him on my shoulder and brought him to the car to surprise Paula, still sleeping. She was not expecting to wake up to the sight of a chameleon in her face, but she did. The little guy was not pleased with me and he hissed and but me rather hard. After a few photos, I decide I ruined enough of his day, and returned him to his bush. 

Chameleon we found in the desert 

Chameleon we found in the desert sun basking on top of Paula’s head

After a while, the barren desert gave way to greenery and date palms. We arrived at Siwa, which is surrounded by dozens of fresh and saltwater lakes scattered here and there along towering sand dunes that extend 500 miles into Libya and the south of Egypt. The first place we visited was the Mountain of the Dead also known as Gebel al-Mawta, a mountain on the edge of town that is the site of hundreds of ancient Egyptian and Greek tombs. Most of them have already been raided by tomb raiders over the centuries, but some I was told likely remain unexplored within the mountain. The caretaker awakened from his sleep when we arrived. As is the case with much of Egypt during Covid, we had the place to ourselves.

Mountain of the Dead

Paula standing on top of Mountain of the Dead

Paula inside of one of the tombs in Mountain of the Dead

Hieroglyphics

Inside one of tombs in Mountain of the Dead

Mountain of the Dead with Siwa oasis in background

After the Mountain of the Dead, we went to the old town-Shali mountain village, which is a mountain full of mostly old abandoned mud brick houses that are centuries old. We sat down at a sleepy breakfast café, watching local life unfold before us, which mostly lacked any appearances of women. We watched donkey carts passing by driven by old men in tunics and motor cycle carts driven by 10 year old boys. The town was far from the hustle and bustle of other urban areas in Egypt. 

Shali Old Town

Young Boy Driving Motorbike

Donkey cart

After working up a sweat hiking among the Shali old town, we set off to Cleopatra’s pool, a freshwater spring that has been used since the beginning of time for swimming and is the possible spot where Cleopatra may have swam during a trip to Siwa. The pool has been reinforced with a new concrete ring, but the base is made of the original ancient stone. The location is within a grove of date palms, and dozens of Siwa boys played in the pool, jumping and splashing about. Paula and I also jumped in, though Paula was very insecure about herself wearing a swimsuit in this deeply conservative place. I had the time of my life swimming, running, and jumping into the pool. Afterwards, we relaxed at a nearby cafe drinking fruit drinks and relaxing on the floor cushions.

Kids playing at Cleaopatra pool

Kids playing at Cleaopatra pool

Pigeon Towers Used by Locals to Raise Pigeons for Food

Salt Pools

Dry Salt bed

At the edge of town, where salt is being mined from the salt pools, you can find some pretty incredible-looking pools to swim in. The water is so thick with salt that it is impossible to drown, and you can effortlessly float on the surface. But do not swallow the water or get it in your eyes, or you will suffer for it. We found a small cluster of pools that opened up in the salt crust and made them our own personal swimming holes. Even though it was a hundred degrees and we had no shelter, we loved swimming in the salt pools. After the miniature pools, we went for a swim in the larger lake-sized ones. Afterward, we headed back to Cleopatra’s pool to wipe off the salt in the freshwater.

Paula and I in the salt pool

Paula in the salt pool

Paula and I in the salt pool

Paula floating in a salt lake

Paula and I floating in a salt lake

Camping in the Desert Sand Dunes

We called around town to find a Berber driver to take us into the desert to visit some of the lakes inside the sand dunes and camp out. The Berber driver finally arrived a few hours late. We bought some groceries and water and set off to this vast land. The drive was not for the squeamish. He sped up and down the dunes at breakneck speeds. The ride felt like a rollercoaster with the dropping stomach sensation as we flew up a dune only for the ground to drop off beneath us, sending us almost freefalling to the bottom of the hundred-foot dunes. On a few occasions, the driver sped up a dune and turned so that we were angled and on the verge of tumbling down the dune sideways. At this point, I requested we slow down. Heavy on my mind was the thought of a few tourists who died when their vehicle crashed a few years prior in these very same sand dunes. 

Paula floating in a salt lake

Dune driving in the Landcruiser with Berber Driver

Dune driving in the Landcruiser with Berber Driver

Lake in the sand dunes

We stopped at a few remote lakes, some freshwater, and others brackish. The lakes were beautiful, isolated in the middle of the sand dunes. We came across evidence of the ancient oceans that once existed here-sea shells bunched along the dunes.

Lake in the sand dunes

Our Berber Driver

Paula running down a sand dune

Oasis lake

Seashells from the ancient ocean in the middle of the Sahara

Drinking Tea by sunset

We tried sand boarding on a dune and drank tea that our Berber driver made for us as we watched the sun set. Then we headed over to a camp where we slept outside under the stars in sleeping bags. 

Sunset

Endless Starry Night sky Over the Great Egyptian Sand Sea

The next morning we woke up and drove into Siwa to check into a hotel and have a shower. After a nap and breakfast, we set off to explore more of Siwa. 

Temple where Alexander the Great was declared Emperor

Paula and I spent most of the day relaxing and walking around town exploring. What I noticed about Siwa is that the people were friendly and genuine. The hello’s we received were real, and there was no expectation of anything in return. No touts bothered us. As we attempted to purchase a carpet, the local sellers barely even noticed we were there. One dealer was too engrossed in his phone call to pay attention to us, so we left. We eventually did purchase a carpet from another shop. The dealer selected a price and didn’t budge from it even when we went only to return an hour later to buy it. We hired a rickshaw driver to take us around the town center for 10 minutes to no specific destination for 50 cents. At one point, I told the driver that he could let us out, and he looked at his phone and said we had 2 minutes left until we got to the agreed-upon 10 minutes. The honesty, innocence of Siwa, and lack of in-your-face commercial tourism found in other parts of Egypt were refreshing.

Old Egyptian Ruins

At night we walked the old city ruins in the dark and set off to bed early. We were due to depart at 3 am for the long drive back to Cairo with the hope to arrive early enough so that Paula could see the Giza Pyramids before they close at 4 pm. We booked a hotel overlooking the pyramids, and we were excited to move on to the last phase of our trip before returning to San Diego.

Paula and I in a duck boat on one of the lakes

Exploring the ruined old city at night

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