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Egypt off-road

Laddism in the Cradle of Civilisation

When Jim and I clear the sandy crest at thirty miles an hour, we find Wahed sitting on his quad bike pointing at the sand. Much as we’d rather leave him sitting there, something makes us pull up. Only when the dust settles do we see what lies beyond. Oblivion. Our guide, meanwhile, blind to the horror on our faces, is still pointing out rock fragments scattered in the caster sugar sand.

Ten yards behind him, a two-hundred-foot cliff plunges to the desert floor, and he’s pointing at rocks.

I recall seeing similar formations this morning, but those were in thirty feet of salt water a mile out in the Red Sea. Yet here they are again, ten miles inland and several hundred feet up a desert mountain. Fragments of coral. Fossilised coral from around the time when the Arabian Peninsula was torn from mainland Africa, forming the Red Sea.

Which makes it about twenty million years old.

Egypt, I’m slowly learning, does that to you. It wraps the visitor in a timeline of such historic dimensions that no amount of blinkered laddism can escape it.

Even if I am trying very hard.

Three hours in the open desert on motorcycle-engined four-wheeled nutter machines with tyres like singed marshmallows adds up to speechless idiot grins. Wahed does his best to reel our spirits in, but this kind of fun brings out the big kids in us, inspires mischief of almost embarrassing proportions.

We are getting the hang of these strange mechanical beasts with thumb throttles and non-existent brakes, and while Wahed has no trouble out-riding us, even he has problems being in more than one place at a time. So we slip the leash, ride off on opposed tangents towards tall hills, steep dunes, 45-degree sand-and-rock slopes that have us whooping with selfish delight. It may be one of the most historic places on the planet, but that doesn’t mean a man can’t have fun.

A couple of days later, and again my conscience is almost bothering me. I say almost, because nothing dampens the buzz of piloting a two-ton four-wheel-drive jeep through the visual feast of the eastern Sahara.

In Arabic, ‘Sahr’ means ‘desert’, making this the Desert Desert. The urban madness of Africa’s largest city may be just beyond the horizon, but here I can sense a landscape of unimaginable dimensions. At three million square miles, it is the largest desert on Earth, over 900 miles edge to edge. From here, the Sahara stretches far into West Africa.

Which makes it the perfect playground for Pan Arab Tours, a Cairo company touting a range of wilderness driving experiences; from today’s half-day jaunt on the desert fringe to a full-on two-week expedition into the Saharan interior.

The venue may be the Cradle of Civilisation, but the name of the game is escapist, laddish fun. We slip and slide two growling 4WDs through a landscape straight from the desert ordeal four-reeler; shimmering horizon-muddling plains haul us between scale-defying, eroded fortress mountain ranges. Surface conditions vary from pedestrian to perilous. English Patient drift sand, or ‘erg’, presents the greatest challenge to traction, but the loose gravel/pebbles combination called ‘areg’ and flinty baking rock or ‘hamada’ are no less tough on the nerves.

Not that there is any real pressure here, for we are in good hands. Pan-Arab’s Hamdi is a wry, laconic character whose familiarity with the terrain is re-assuringly complete. Adventure and fun, yes. Danger and discomfort — not on your life. Even if we’re not allowed to use the air-con.

Then the timelines catch up with us again. Hamdi pulls up amid a wind-hewn sand plain next to a stark contrast in ages and origins. Beside an unexploded artillery shell lies a fossilised tree fragment, all that remains of dense savannah vegetation that once carpeted the now arid landscape.

Only an hour from the pyramids of Giza, it’s no real surprise that signs of ancient man should be just around the next sand dune. What does surprise is the way ancient history lies unprotected in the middle of the desert.

Dima City was once a major trading post serving camel caravans carrying gold and precious minerals on transcontinental treks from central and southern Africa. Today, what remains of Dima still protrudes from the desert, irregular and askew like oversized tombstones, towering mud-brick walls with gaping holes where once were windows and doorways.

Dima died out long ago, and now perfect oscillating sand drifts fill its every nook and niche. Hamdi picks up a shard of unglazed pottery, part of a small jug, flawless circular handle still attached. This opens our eyes to hundreds of pottery fragments poking from the sands like litter from a beach. Forty miles from Cairo and a mere 2000 years old, Dima City is too remote, and by Egyptian standards, much too modern to merit serious archaeological exploration. In its heyday it was visited by travellers from throughout the continent; today it hosts the occasional tourist at play in a jeep.

Our last stop is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long long time — a real-life desert oasis. You know the Boy’s Own vision of the desert oasis as a small, clear pond protected by large boulders, cool in the shade of sloping palms? Fayoum Oasis is nothing like that. Totally bare of vegetation, it’s of lake-sized proportions, wave patterns and all. But as a picnic venue, it’s difficult to beat.

Ninety minutes of following Hamdi across the desert separate us and the highway, but almost immediately we find ourselves alone. Before we have to time to worry, an ancient motorcycle carrying two wiry men putters out of the heat haze. Twenty-odd miles from the nearest road. We converse in sign language. They’ve seen Hamdi, point us in the right direction, and water from our ample stocks is received with nods of gratitude.

We bid them farewell — and set off in a four-wheel drift in search of Hamdi’s tracks. Laddism resumed.