With more than a dozen fertile hamlets sprinkled along the Western Desert circuit road, Dakhla lives up to most visitors’ romantic expectations of oasis life. Lush palm groves and orchards support traditional villages, where imposing, ancient mud-brick forts still stand guard over the townships and allude to their less tranquil past.
As the closest of the oases to the Nile Valley, Al-Kharga used to have the unenviable role as a place of banishment for mischievous Nile Valley citizens. Its remote location, punishing summer heat and destructive winds meant that the oasis was synonymous with misery and exile.
The bustling city of Al-Kharga is the largest town in the Western Desert and also the poster-child of the government’s efforts to modernise the oases. The town's wide, bare boulevards rimmed by drab concrete housing blocks are definitely not what most travellers conjure up when they picture an oasis idyll.
At the centre of the oasis lies the town of Mut, named after the god Amun's consort, settled since Pharaonic times. Now a modern Egyptian town of squat block concrete buildings, it has decent facilities and makes the most convenient base for travellers. You will, however, have a richer experience of Dakhla by staying in or around Al-Qasr.
Take one look at Bawiti’s dusty, unappealing main road, and you’ll wonder why you came. You have to scratch beneath the surface of this town to find its charms. Stroll through its fertile palm groves, soak in one of the many hot springs or explore its quiet back streets, where you’ll meet truly friendly, hospitable people.
The only real town in Farafra Oasis, Qasr al-Farafra remains a barely developed speck on the Western Desert circuit. The town’s tumbledown Roman fortress was originally built to guard this part of the desert caravan route, though these days all it has to show for it is a mound of rubble.
Blink and you might just miss dusty Farafra, the least populated and most remote of the Western Desert’s oases. Its exposed location made it prone to frequent attacks by Libyans and Bedouin tribes, many of whom eventually settled in the oasis and now make up much of the population.
While there are some antiquities outside Bawiti that are arguably worth seeing, the main attractions are the natural ones, including immense palm gardens, many fed by springs ideal for a night-time soak. Further afield lies wild desert scenery; the Black Desert, Gebel Dist and Gebel Maghrafa can be seen on a day trip or overnight safari.
The most popular monuments near Al-Kharga lie along the good asphalt road that stretches south to Baris, but there are a few intriguing, harder-to-reach destinations north of town; though less visited, they are hands-down the best day or overnight trips you can make around the oasis.
For a captivating glance into life during medieval times, pay a visit to the Islamic village of Balat, 35km east of Mut. Built during the era of the Mamluks and Turks on a site that dates back to the Old Kingdom, charismatic winding lanes weave through low-slung corridors past Gaudí-like moulded benches.
Qasr al-Ghueita & Qasr az-Zayyan
Although you wouldn't guess it from the arid dusty landscape, during antiquity this area, some 18km south of Al-Kharga, was the centre of a fertile agricultural community renowned for its grapes and winemaking. Settlement here has been dated back to the Middle Kingdom period when it was known as Perousekh.