Hundreds of kilometers through the flattest, most desolate landscape I’ve seen, we rode south from Mersa Matrouh, the last city on the Mediterranean coast. This was the final stage of a nine-hour bus ride from Alexandria to the Siwa Oasis. The remote oasis is a depression that stretches 82 x 28 km and contains 310,000 palm trees and 80,000 olive trees. Besides tourism, dates and olive production are the economic mainstays.
Siwa Oasis is different from Egypt’s other oases in the fact that it was never under Pharaonic control and Siwans speak their own language, Siwi, a Berber dialect related to those in Libya.
I had first learned about Siwa from this article in the New York Times and was determined to reach it while I was in Egypt. The Oasis sounds like the perfect escape from urban Alexandria or Cairo, and in some ways it is. But the reality of Siwa town is a dusty, trash-ridden village filled with flies and mosquitoes. The loud musical horns of boy’s bicycles circling on the dirt streets don’t give your ears much retreat either. And my $3 per night mosquito-infested hotel room with florescent light and click-clacking ceiling fan didn’t offer much refuge from the town. The locals, I learned as I wandered the back streets, gave me looks as if to tell me outsiders weren’t welcome in their oasis, or at least not in their neighborhood. But then again, the Siwans have never been regarded as a hospitable people.
I did, however, make the most out of my two days in the oasis by exploring the area by foot and bicycle. The first day I rented a rickety bike for $2 and peddled past the Oracle Temple and the salt lake on my way to Cleopatra’s Bath, a bubbling natural spring that has been enclosed by a stone circular wall. The next day I tried to walk out to the huge dunes at Bir Waheed, but only made it halfway until I ran out of daylight. Still, I saw a peaceful sunset over the endless dunes of the Great Sand Sea. The day before I had foolishly rejected an overnight safari, to sand surf (with a snowboard) at the steepest dunes and swim at two different sprigs, adamant that I could reach the spot on my own without transport, 13 kilometers out of town through soft sand.
Stephen Bugno, October 2007