8th Dec 2012 4:40pm | By Jennifer Carr
Saddling up for a one-humped safari into Egypt’s Saharan wilds, we discover golden mummies and a surreal white lunarscape
It’s not a pretty sight.
The stark landscape of Egypt’s desert burns my retinas, forcing me to squint as I scan the quivering, molten, 40˚C scene before me.
Besides my two friends, our guide and our jeep driver, there’s not a soul around, nor is there a signal that life could survive here – even if it wanted to.
Instead, ochre sands meet dark smatterings of iron ore from the region’s volcanic rock formations. It’s a surreal corner of the earth almost entirely untouched by mankind.
We’re deep in the Western Desert, which makes up two thirds of Egypt’s landmass.
To put that into perspective, we’re driving through a jigsaw piece of the planet that’s roughly the size of Texas.
It’s a place of extremes, holding both the Black Desert, with its dark-tipped dunes, which we’re driving through now, and the surreal chalky White Desert, which we’ll reach later on.
Considering the entire region lacks a single river, I’m flummoxed when we pass a lone tree, which looks to be standing stubbornly in defiance of all odds.
But several hundred metres later all becomes clear as we drive up to an oasis of biblical proportions.
Breathing life into the sandy panorama around us is Bahariya, a 2000sq/km emerald blanket of palm trees which is one of five oases in the Western Desert.
It’s the first one we’ve come across and we’re relieved to escape the pressure cooker of our jeep when we stop in Bawati, its main settlement.
This is a place with serious historic credentials – not least is the fact it’s home to the thrillingly named Valley of the Golden Mummies.
We quickly slug freezing cold cokes to bring our body temperatures down to lukewarm before our tour guide, Nelly, leads us to a simple, unremarkable-looking doorway.
A robed Bedouin appears and pushes it open, gesturing for us to step inside this huge burial site.
The shade is welcome – even if it’s only marginally cooler than the scorching midday heat outside. We tiptoe into the gloom and with some trepidation head over to four caskets inside.
There is absolutely nothing by way of tourist-pandering introduction – no signs, plaques, nothing, just the still figures.
I bend over one of them and a gaping gold death mask stares straight back, with its fine regal features indelibly etched in flawless gold paint that belies a thousand lifetime’s worth of decay.
These four mummies, along with 90 others, have been excavated from a 6.5km strip of desert several miles out of town.
This huge cemetery was discovered in 1996, when a donkey stumbled – literally – on an ancient well, prompting archeologists to conduct a full-scale excavation of the area.