I spent two weeks in Siwa Oasis, and whenever I wasn’t exploring the Mountains of the Dead, crunching my way along the salt-encrusted verges of the western lake, or roaming the narrow alleys of the village, I was made welcome by the elderly linguist. Although I was not allowed to attend the poetic recitations, he very kindly took me with him all around the village where he made an incongruous picture, dressed in his jacket and tie, towing a retinue of 20 or 30 Siwan urchins in his wake. Everywhere we went, the Siwans waved and called him by name.
Although there were still things to see in Siwa, the desert stretched away before me, promising deeper mysteries and greater excitement, and as I was still young enough to believe those sorts of promises, I repacked my belongings and planned the next leg of my journey. Planning so far had been easy. Using a map, I had estimated the distance between Marsah Matruh and Siwa at 180 miles. Sixty miles seemed a reasonable daily goal, so I bought breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days, and then I doubled that amount of food. For water, I estimated my daily requirement, and then I tripled it. Back in 1988, nobody worried a whole lot about dehydration; certainly, nobody walked around their office building clutching a water bottle all day long, so in those dark ages, a triple ration of three days’ worth of water was not a huge amount, even though, at eight pounds to the gallon, I definitely felt the weight.
The system worked fine on the ride to Siwa, although that leg of the trip had not been without its hardships. I had heard that nights in the desert were cold – as cold as the days were hot – but it is a strange characteristic of Cretan summers, the third of which I had just spent happily, that they are so warm and pleasant that they render one incapable of believing that Cretan winters can be miserable, cold, and wet. Thus, I am ashamed to admit, I was completely unprepared for the knifelike wind that rose every evening as soon as the sun had dropped below the horizon, and the bitter cold it carried into the pitiful shelter of my tent.
The wind was punishing in two ways. Not only did it convey the cold straight to the marrow of my bones, despite the fact that they were encased in every stitch of clothing that I owned and swaddled in a sleeping bag, but it also rattled my tent unceasingly, with a loud and urgent shaking that prevented me from sleeping and which, I was certain, masked the approach of Ali Babba and all his 40 thieves, no matter how noisily they crept up on me. This took a fair amount of getting used to.
The days were more pleasant. As I was riding in the fall, temperatures were not as punishing as they might have been at the height of summer. I had no way of measuring, but I doubt that it was ever hotter than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, I was riding a newly paved road, and it was easy to make good time, even on a bicycle that bore the weight of all my earthly possessions. I made my 60 miles a day without difficulty, which allowed me plenty of time to make camp before night fell and the wind began.
Leaving Siwa, though, there was no road. Actually, there was a stubby beginning of a road, which extended about half a mile beyond the perimeter of the oasis, upon which labored in a desultory manner, eight or ten Egyptians, who seemed, if they were in any way descended from the builders of the Pyramids, to embody convincing arguments against the theory of evolution. They barred my path with threatening gestures and indicated that, until I took their photograph, they would not let me pass. I owned two cameras at that time, a magnificent 1960’s era Contaflex 35mm SLR, with a bewildering assortment of lenses, and simple point-and-shoot, in which, for circumstances such as these, I never kept any film. I arrayed the dusty road workers before their decrepit Mercedes truck in order of their height and took their picture. I reversed their order and photographed them again. Then I posed them in order of age and snapped another frame. I had them mount the truck and wave at me from the cab, after which I shot them all standing on the bed of the truck. I was working up to some nice semi-nude shots when they finally got tired of the whole business and let me go.
While that unpleasant image lingers in you imaginations, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my friend Ben, who presented me with the Contaflex and a quick lesson on photography prior to my first visit to Egypt, in 1987. That camera and all its lenses served me without fail, until my reluctant surrender to digital photography many years later.
As the highway men resumed their tasks, I resumed mine, setting my sights southeast, toward the 400 mile-distant oasis of Baharia, the path toward which, while it was not paved, was still discernible, and when unclear, was at least marked by telephone poles, many of which tilted drunkenly in the undulating dunes. This was my first look at real desert, as I had expected it to look. The 180 miles from the coast to Siwa was certainly desert, but it was alternately scrubby and rocky, and seemed more like Arizona than Sahara. This though – the endless waves of sand that stretched before me – this was real desert, and it was an awesome, frightening sight.
It was also a difficult surface to ride on. It was usually solid enough that my tires didn’t sink in, but once in a while, and without any warning, I would roll into a soft spot, my front wheel would bog down, and the bike would try to pitch me over the handlebars. I did not enjoy that. I already had as much weight as possible over the rear wheels, with light stuff like clothes, tent, and sleeping bag in the front panniers. It finally occurred to me to lower my tire pressure enough to broaden the contact patch with the sand, and that constituted a significant improvement. Sometimes the sand make a disconcerting, almost musical sound, as it compacted beneath my tires.