The White Desert
The famous and dramatic gleaming chalk landscape of the Farafra Depression is one of the most astounding natural wonders of Egypt. The strange rock formations that rise above the white surface of the desert are known as inselbergs (from the German for 'island mountain'). Here at Farafra, they form a 20km long series of free-standing formations in front of the northern escarpment. They are also found on other planets and the ones in the White Desert of Farafra have been studied closely to promote greater understanding of the surface of Mars. Here on Earth they are formed when a plateau begins to break down leaving the harder rock still standing while the softer parts erode. The rock layers were deposited when the desert was underwater and marine fauna which died settled at the bottom of the ocean forming sedimentary rocks. Viewing the sparkling white landscape covered with almost supernatural shapes spectacularly lit at dawn, midday and especially sunset it is hard to believe the humble origins of this dramatic and impressive scenery.
The outer parts of the White Desert nearest to the road are known as the Old Desert because these were the areas accessible without 4WD. Almost as soon as you enter the White Desert Park you are surrounded by gleaming white mushroom shapes. Then you reach the tenacious 300 year old acacia tree known as Santa. After leaving Santa you reach the area called White House and then are into the so-called New Desert only easily accessible since the introduction of 4WD. In the near future the New Valley authorities intend to mark roads using stones as markers and will penalise drivers who leave the designated routes.
Spending a night in the White Desert is a magical experience. Sitting by a fire smoking a sheesha (water-pipe), getting a lesson on how to navigate by the stars or simply sitting in silence staring in wonder at the clear unpolluted night sky glittering with a multitude of stars is an unforgettable way to spend time. At dawn when the new light hides the stars it also reveals shapes and shadows that will be gone as soon as the sun gets higher. Every time of day reveals a different desert to you.
Almost exactly half way between the Nile and Farafra Oasis, a marker by the road indicates you have reached the rarely visited, spectacular Djarra (or Garra) cave. Entry is by a narrow opening that does not allow you to walk upright and gives no indication of the delights about to be revealed. The shaft leads to a steep but soft sandy slope that deposits you in the cave itself. Accumulated sand underfoot provides a deep, powdery carpet to walk on. This same sand has evened out the surface of the floor of the cave so that your attention is inevitably drawn upwards. Impressive displays of stalactites hang down from the ancient ceiling. There are also columns formed where stalactites hanging down have met rising stalagmites. The fact that there are also vast formations under your feet is obscured by the sand covering. It can take 1000s of years for a formation to grow just one centimetre. Normally the hanging formations are wet and appear to be dripping slightly as they are still in the process of forming. Here in Djarra they are dry and fully formed. This only serves to reinforce the impression of just how old this cave really is.
Soaring above you the roof resembles the domed ceiling of a cathedral or mosque with unique and complex patterns of hanging limestone formed by steadily dripping water which has long since vanished from this arid cave. You could easily while away a day tracing the patterns and trying to find descriptions for each formation.
At the entrance hangs a visitors' book that anyone who has seen this remote, unspoilt sight can feel proud to add their name to. First discovered in 1874 by Gerhard Rohlfs, who crossed the Sahara twice in search of the legendary city of Timbuktoo, the cave was then 'lost' again before being brought back to light in the late 1980s. Since then it has remained an awe-inspiring image, reducing those who are lucky enough to see it to silence.
In ancient times, Farafra was called To-ihw or the Land of the Cow (referring to the goddess Hathor). The old village of Qasr El-Farafra was based around a 120-room mud-brick fort (qasr) from which it got its name. The villagers used the fort when they were under attack from outside tribes. The fort collapsed in 1958, but the remains of Qasr El-Farafra have narrow alleys and houses of sun-dried bricks with wooden doors.
The modern village is a lovely slow-moving place, with quiet dusty streets and traditionally decorated homes. They are sometimes decorated by the local artist, Badr, with landscapes, birds, animals and verses of the Qur’an. The Bedouins live in one-storey houses, mostly painted blue (believed to ward off the evil eye). Usually, one house is divided into many sections, occupied by more than one family, with the sections linked through open air corridors.
The palm gardens on the edge of town are lush and green. They are a beautiful and peaceful place to go walking. They are tended by the original families of the oasis, and are full of date palms, olive trees and orange groves.
On Thursday mornings the local market sells vegetables, fruit, clothes and household goods. Brightly-clothed women with traditional jewellery and tattoos come to buy and sell. Farafrans are very religious, and on Thursday nights there is sometimes a Sufi zikr at the shrine of the local saint.
There are no Pharaonic sites to visit in Farafra. Visiting the museum, the palm plantations, nearby hot springs and swimming in the pool at Badawiya Hotel Farafra will keep you entertained. The surrounding desert landscapes are the greatest attraction of this region for most travellers.
Badr Abdel-Moghni was the first oasis artist to exhibit his work in galleries in Cairo and around the world. A native of Farafra, he built the museum himself in the style of a traditional Farafran home. The museum is full of his sculptures, sand paintings, oils and watercolours. Badr’s art depicts the desert life of the people of Farafra, and is a moving illustration of how things used to be. There is also a garden at the museum filled with surreal sculptures. There is an entrance fee.
Farafra has the best and most attractive hot springs of any oasis. Bir Sitta (Well Six) and Bir Sabba (Well Seven) are steaming hot springs 5 km out of town. The water is 38 degrees and ideal for bathing. Locals usually visit during the day, while tourists come for sunset or a moonlit soak. The water is fed into the springs by a pipe and it is just deep enough to swim. About 7 km out of town, Bir Itnayn w’Ishrin (Well 22) is even deeper and surrounded by lush farmland. Relaxing in a sulphurous hot spring is the perfect way to finish off a desert safari.
Abu Noss Lake
About 15 km north of Farafra, this lake is an attractive outing and home to plenty of birdlife. The rocky bottom stops the deep water getting too murky and a cool dip is wonderful in the summer heat. It’s also a nice place for sunset, with the background of white desert mountains and green vegetation contrasting with the blue waters. Nearby is the farm where Badawiya's camels rest when they are not out in the desert.
At Ain Besai, located about 12km south-west of Qasr el-Farafra there is a Roman cemetery, remains of two mudbrick structures, a small ruined and uninscribed limestone chapel and some undecorated rock-cut tombs can be seen here.