Charging the Battery

OurJan in Deir Abu Lifa, North of the Fayum

That is how we call it: getting out in the desert, away from the millions in Cairo, away from the traffic, away from the noise, into a different world, a quiet world, without smog and pollution. Fantastic landscapes, open spaces, far views, beautiful rock settings. Yes, the sleeping is rough and when it is windy (many times) you sometimes wonder whether the tent will hold. Sand in the coffee, sand in your hair, and sand everywhere. The bed in Cairo is undoubtedly better, but what about the magnificent night sky with millions of stars. It is the feeling of freedom, the close touch with nature. A campfire in the shelter of some rocks and what about the moonlight undisturbed by neon? We came from the jungle of Borneo, green, wet, but nature at its best. The deserts of Egypt are very much the opposite, yet we feel very much the same because again we have nature at its best. The Sinai, the Eastern Desert or the Western Desert, they are all worth more than a quick look from an air-conditioned car.

We have only seen a small part of all of this and with our children we very much prefer relative short drives. That's why the northern rim of the Fayoum is our favourite. The Fayoum is one of the six large depressions in the Western Desert, but it is the one closest to Cairo and one can get there within two hours of driving (on a Friday). Cassandra Vivian called her book about the oases in the Western Desert the 'islands of the Blest' and they truly are. They break the monotonous flats of the Western Desert in scarps, wadi's and magnificent sequences of rocks exposing themselves and their fossileferous contents as a deep window into the history of the earth, but also into human history.

The Fayoum (from the Coptic word Phion or 'lake') is the triangular shaped oases south of the great lake of Qarun which extends for about 45 km just south of the scarps that form the northern rim of the depression. The present lake is about 44 m below sea level, but in prehistoric to early pharonic times the lake level probably was close to sea level and it extended over a much wider area. Prehistoric to historic sites abound around the old lake. The northern shores of the lake are now a desert 'badland' and a kind of fossil landscape with many remains of human activities and settlements.

Widan El Faras, Noordrand Fayum

These range from stone age campsites to the 'oldest road in the world', an Old Kingdom road from the basalt quarries at Widan El Faras to lake Qarun, the Middle Kingdom Temple of Qasr El Sagha, the Ptolomeic city of Dimeh (founded 300 BC) and the remains of the rock monastery of Deir Abu Lifa (yr 700-900).

The Oldest Road in the World

Rock Monastery

The rocks exposed in the scarp contain one of the most complete faunal assemblages of Tertiary mammals known on the African continent. At least 20 orders of mammals have been found. Included are ancestral "stock" forms upon which were built the important lineages from which later African mammals flourished as well as Aegyptopithecus, the earliest known ancestors of the extinct dryopithecine apes and ultimately of the living great apes and man. The first fossil vertebrate discovery made in the Fayoum was of whales by a German geologist named Georg Schweinfurth in 1879 (he also discovered the temple of Qasr El Sagha). The impressive remains of many whales can be visited in the Eocene rocks back of Wadi Rayan, in an area called Zeuglodon valley by Schweinfurth. The whales that he found are now known as Basilosaurus, which belongs to the group of primitive whales that are ancestral to our modern whales. The badlands are littered with fossils including plenty of impressive shark teeth.


Getting there is not too difficult and the book of Cassandra Vivian is a good starting point. A GPS is handy, but not essential. It tells you exactly where you are and where your next point is, but the desert in between might force you to take a different route. Never go without a compass and a good map. You do need a 4WD and you do need to know how to handle it. The car and tires (including your spare) need to be in good condition. Fill-up at the last petrol station and if your car consumes a lot, you better take a spare can. Never go off the road alone, you need at least one other car accompanying. We found three cars the best. Always remain in sight of each other. Don't do anything that you can't do on foot! Although the northern scarps of the Fayoum depression and Wadi Rayan are close to civilized word, the area is a desert and hostile. Never underestimate nature. Sand dunes transect the area west of the Fayoum (Wadi Rayan). Never attempt to cross these dunes if you have no experience in dune driving. Even the best cars can and do get stuck and although some people enjoy digging and sweating in the hot sun, we generally try to avoid that. Flat pieces of desert often have large parts of soft sand/gravel surface, which are not a problem as long as you keep the momentum going. Look at the car in front and if it disappears in a cloud of sand you know what is coming ahead. Be prepared for digging (have a shovel), sandmats and strong ropes are very helpful. Always take sufficient water (twice what you think you need and if you don't know ask somebody that does), certainly in the hot months from June to October.

If you intend to camp you should have tents that can resist strong winds (big ones are problematic). You need many kinds of pins to anchor your tent, from long wooden in soft sand to strong metal pins in rocky surfaces. Take wood to make a fire and an old pot to cook your water. If the weather is warm one can find a sheltered place and sleep in the open. We have rarely come across dangerous animals, but desert rats, mice and beetles (the scarab) are very common. Children should be careful with picking up rocks, we have taught them first to move the rock with their shoes. If you don't know what it is do not touch it. We have taken some nice photographs of what we thought to be a big spider, but which turned out to be a sun scorpion (harmless). Respect nature and leave only your tracks.

This might sound as a lot of stuff to do, to think about, and to prepare before you go, but it is worth it. The desert is so different from life in Cairo that even a difficult windy night 'charges your battery'.

Jan Schreurs

@Schreurs December 1999