Older than the Pyramids, as sublime as any temple, Egypt’s Western Desert is a vast sweep of elemental beauty. The White Desert's shimmering vista of surreal rock formations and the ripple and swell of the Great Sand Sea's mammoth dunes are simply bewitching.
Within this intense landscape five oases, shaded by palm plantations and blessed by a plethora of natural hot and cold springs, provide a glimpse of rural Egyptian life. Get lost exploring Al Qasr's squiggling narrow lanes in Dakhla. Watch sunset sear across the countryside atop Gebel Al Ingleez in Bahariya. Take a stroll amid Siwa's sprawling date palms. Once you've finished adventuring, kick back and just enjoy the laid-back pace of oasis life.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Western Desert.
Upon first glimpse of the 300-sq-km national park of the White Desert, you’ll feel like Alice through the looking-glass. About 20km northeast of Farafra, on the east side of the road, blinding-white chalk rock spires sprout almost supernaturally from the ground, each frost-coloured lollipop licked into a surreal landscape of familiar and unfamiliar shapes by the dry desert winds.
The change in the desert floor from beige to black, 50km south of Bawiti, signals the beginning of the Black Desert. Formed by the erosion of the mountains, which have spread a layer of black powder and stones over the peaks and plateaus, it looks like a landscape straight out of Hades. The Black Desert is a popular stop-off for tours running out of Bahariya Oasis and is usually combined with a White Desert tour.
Sixty kilometres west of Siwa Town, this stunning salt lake on the edge of the Great Sand Sea is ringed by palm trees. It’s a popular stopover for migratory birds – including flamingos – and gazelles may be seen here too. The lake once reached all the way to Siwa Town, and an ancient boat lies somewhere 7m below the surface.
It may not look like much from afar, but this necropolis is one of the earliest surviving and best-preserved Christian cemeteries in the world. About 1km north of the Temple of Hibis, it’s built on the site of an earlier Egyptian necropolis, with most of the 263 mud-brick chapel-tombs appearing to date from the 4th to the 6th centuries AD.
Central Siwa is dominated by the spectacular organic shapes of the remains of this 13th-century mud-brick fortress. Built from kershef (chunks of salt from the lake just outside town, mixed with rock and plastered in local clay), the labyrinth of huddled buildings was originally four or five storeys high and housed hundreds of people. A path leads over the slumping remnants, past the Old Mosque with its chimney-shaped minaret, to the top for panoramic views.
The Gilf Kebir is a spectacular sandstone plateau 150km north of Gebel Uweinat, rising 300m above the desert floor. The setting feels as remote as a place can be, with a rugged beauty that used to attract the most ardent desert lovers; on the northern side, the plateau disappears into the sands of the Great Sand Sea. It is famous as a setting for Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It was off limits to foreigners at the time of writing.
One of the world’s largest dune fields, the Great Sand Sea straddles Egypt and Libya, stretching more than 800km from its northern edge near the Mediterranean coast south to Gilf Kebir. Covering a colossal 72,000 sq km, it contains some of the largest recorded dunes in the world, including one that is 140km long. It was off limits to foreigners at the time of writing.
A favourite Siwa excursion is the freshwater lake at Bir Wahed, 15km away on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Once over the top of a dune, you come to a hot spring, the size of a large jacuzzi, where sulphurous water bubbles in a pool and runs off to irrigate a garden.
The mountain Gebel Uweinat sits on the border of Egypt, Sudan and Libya. At 1934m, it is the highest point in Egypt. As it name in Arabic implies, there are eight small springs within the mountain, even though the mountain sits in the most inhospitable part of the Western Desert. The oasis was rediscovered by Ahmed Hassanein in 1923. It was off limits to foreigners at the time of writing.