Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.
This is one of those posts.
The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”
This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.
But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.
Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.
I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.
Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.
1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.
Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm
After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.
The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.
We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.
Peak monsooning the way I missed it.
And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.
Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.
The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.
And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.
We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.
Don’t drop the toilet paper!
And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.
There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.
After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.
Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:
After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.
By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,
The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.
If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.
As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”
But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.
As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.
As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,
Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.
After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.
In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:
Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.
And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:
Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:
Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:
Where is Ji Won in this photo?
Others braved the chill:
The silence here at sunrise was deafening.
How’s your Thursday morning been?
After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.
During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.
After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.
The mushroom and chicken just got served.
And not just by me:
Cue the M.I.A. music:
“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”
After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:
This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.
And this one I just had for lunch today:
At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.
We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:
By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:
Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.
And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.
Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.
But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.
But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.
So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.
It’s time to say goodbye, for real.
But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”
“See you later.”
— AN ENCORE —
The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.
From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .
. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.
We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.
If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .
. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .
. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .
- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Special thanks goes to our Young Pioneer Tours guide Pier-André Doyon for the blogpost title.
240km east of the coast of Somalia and 380km south of the Arabian Peninsula lies a 132 km x 49.7km island called Socotra: a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to countless endemic species and described as “the most alien-looking place on Earth.”
Due to its isolation, Socotra is famous for its unique eco-system found nowhere else on this planet, and most notably being home to the famous Dragon Blood and bottle trees.
However, due to the civil war and humanitarian crisis on the mainland still ongoing at the time of posting, logistical and ethical conundrums have stifled the once booming tourism to Socotra Island. From what used to be hundreds of tourists a week have now trickled down to mere teens.
Therefore we have struggled since 2012 in finding the right time to visit Socotra in a sustainable, ethical manner, without feeling we would overwhelm the islanders with our presence. Now that tourism has been slowly reemerging as of late, we have been steadfastly reassured that our presence as Western visitors will ensure a minimal logistical and environmental footprint given that we would be camping nearly every night.
Furthermore, we have been reminded that arriving in small groups we would both create a steady, sustainable positive impact in improving the welfare of the island, and encourage the Yemenese government to find a way to broker a ceasefire and open its doors back up to the world. One could only hope.
If I learned anything from travel, there is no right and wrong, black or white; so when we were given the option under these circumstances, I decided the only way to find out was to find out.
Currently the only legal way into Socotra for Western tourists is via a once-weekly, frequently delayed, and $1200 USD Yemenia Airways flight every Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 2am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun on the Yemen mainland before its scheduled landing in Socotra at 8:45am.
The return flight from Socotra is also the same once-weekly, frequently delayed Yemenia Airways flight that departs one hour later at 9:45am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun, before finally returning to Cairo sometime that afternoon.
That means if you’re planning a visit to Socotra, prepare to be, for the lack of a better word, “marooned” on the island no less than one week increments as that single weekly flight is your only way in and out of this lost paradise. Furthermore, Socotra Island has been one of the least developed places I have ever spent an entire week in — we camped outside nearly every night, the only 2 hotels on the island have no working internet or laundry (and one of which is infested with bed bugs), and our guides (and one day, even us) had to hunt for our food.
Therefore if you plan a stay here and want to go budget, be prepared to completely detox from social media and the rest of the world (which I think was a good thing), and have your patience tested by everything running on island time (when anything is planned to take an “x” amount of time, they really mean multiply “x” by 2 and add another 20-40 minutes extra)
Big picture wise, I personally enjoyed my experience here as there are far worse places to be stuck in for a week, but I have to admit despite after an eye-opening 4 days, I was beginning to come down with mild island fever after we began to repeat many of our activities, which you’ll be able to discern between the lines through my blogposts below.
Day 1: NYC to Frankfurt to Cairo to Seiyun to Socotra Island —
Hadibo Do Be Dooo…
. . . So after a 6-week hiatus from nearly a year of monthly travels, it’s time to hit the road again. With 85,000 miles I booked the Lufthansa LH 401 flights on business class from JFK to FRA to CAI all for $60 USD. The experience began with the quick obligatory visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at JFK. . . .
. . . After setting off for what I felt was an unnecessary hike, we all soon realized we had made a poorly timed decision as we soon got rained on and a flash flood prevented us from crossing back over to our vehicles. Yikes! . . .
Approaching the gas craters, we first stopped by a desolate village to grab some supplies and drinks for the overnight stay:
The gas crater was accidentally formed in 1971 during the Soviet construction of a gas pipeline. After Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas, the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, creating this 70m wide gas crater.
After odorless gas fumes from the crater led to the asphyxiation and deaths of 2 shepherds who camped out nearby, the Soviets decided to set the entire thing on fire, thus giving its look as “The Gates Of Hell.”
Geologists had hoped the fire would burn up all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning more than 40 years later today.
Given that there are billions of gallons of natural gas in the area, it is believed that the crater will burn for at least another couple of centuries before any thought of this natural phenomenon will go away.
Although the president of Turkmenistan had once made 2 efforts to close the gas crater, it seems that the country has made an about-face; the gas crater has now been prominently featured it as the front page of an international tourism marketing push.
Linger here as the sun begins to set and just take it all in.
It gets better later at night when you see the glow from afar.
And if you’re feeling a little cold, move a little closer so the heat from the craters can keep you warm throughout the night:
We had a DIY dinner where we prepared and cooked some shashliks by open fire.
And if you can camp out here overnight like we did, you can say that you survived a night at the gates of hell. Har har.
After a few hours of sleep we woke up at 7am for a quick and perfunctory breakfast:
Then we took one last look at the craters in the morning light:
…before heading back to Ashgabat.
If you’re keen on geological oddities, there are 2 other but less impressive gas craters in the vicinity:
- At time of posting in Darvaza, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a few hours swimming in the beautiful water holes of Wadi Shab, Talal and the gang continued south towards Sharqiya Sands. Also popularly known as Wahiba Sands named after the local Bani Wahiba tribe there, it boasts sand dunes up to 100 meters high and 170 km long:
When we got here in the later afternoon, Talal immediately took us dune bashing, which is when our 4×4 simulates itself as a roller coaster on the dunes. I unfortunately took this video after all the craziness happened, so I did my best by adding in some appropriately cheesy music:
We then parked our 4×4 and sat on top of a dune ridge to admire the sunset:
Afterwards we headed into the nearby town of Bidiya where we sat on a carpted floor outside and had a traditional Omani/Yemenese dinner.
After dinner, we found a new café that just opened to enjoy some outdoor shisha while watching the England vs. Nigeria football match:
We then retired back to the middle of the desert for outdoor camping underneath the stars. Because of Ramadan, it seemed like we may have well been the only tourists out there that night:
After spending 3 spirited days in the wettest part of Australia (Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef), the group got up early at 4:30am to catch our 6:50am flight to what probably is the driest part of Australia: Uluru.
The 3 hour flight from Cairns to Uluru was uneventful as we landed at AYQ airport at 09:05am local time. However, we happened to get in during a total communications system outage; no wifi or cell signal was coming in and out due to a failed tower (or satellite) which happens here once in a blue moon.
After all, we are in the middle of nowhere — this is Outback country where the closest semblance of civilization is Alice Springs at 500km (or a 5-6 hour drive) away.
While most of the group hopped on the free shuttle service from the airport to Outback Pioneer Resort to freshen up, Bryce, Donna, Taylan and I opted to take an optional 30min helicopter flight from the airport at 10am over Uluru and Kata Tjuta for $210 USD per person.
They can fit at most 3 people at a time (the 4th seat is for the pilot), so we went on 2 separate trips.
Our first approach was that over Uluru:
Uluru has been renowned as a symbol of Australia, famous as its iconic domed monolith rock rising from the middle of a desert 348m above the plain (862.5m above sea level), 5km below the desert plain and measuring 3.6 x 2.4 km at the surface with a circumference of 9.4km. The rock can go through dramatic color changes with its normal sandstone hue changing from blue/violet at sunset to flaming red at sunrise.
Most importantly, Uluru holds special significant to the Anangu Aborigines who considers Uluru their ancestral home filled with stories responsible for their very existence, as well as the space under Uluru containing the very energy source for their dreams.
After 5-10 minutes circling Uluru, we then headed 36km west of Uluru towards Kata Tjuta, a collection of 36 variously-sized rock domes may have once been part of a monolith that surpassed Uluru in size, but then eroded to the several separate rock formations we have today. It too holds special significance for the Anangu Aborigines that live here.
After the helicopter ride, the 4 of us then were picked up by our charming guide Kurt of The Rock Tours, who then reunited us with the rest of the group hanging out at Outback Pioneer. We then drove off towards Kata Tjuta for our obligatory hikes through the Valley of the Wind.
No joke, by the time we began our hike at 2pm, it was 46ºC (aka 110ºF) outside with multiple warning on our park tickets, our park maps, and posted signs that all hiking after 11am would be off-limits if temperatures were above 36ºC.
However, that didn’t deter Kurt from making sure we wouldn’t miss out. Armed with countless litres of water, we set off on our 30-40min hike around Kata Tjuta.
We then recharged back in our air conditioned van for 20-30min before setting off again for our 30min hike towards Walpa Gorge.
By now we were all suffering from what probably felt like first degree burns, so we ended our hikes for the day and recovered at the National Park Culture Centre. Built in 1995 to mark the 10th anniversary of Handover (when the Australian government formally handed Aboriginal land back to its rightful owners, and when Ayers Rock dropped its colonial name to became Uluru), the centre hosts and translates the aboriginal creation stories and articles about the history of the Pitjantjara. There are also shops here where you can buy local art and souvenirs. Photos of the cultural centre are prohibited.
After about an hour at the centre, we then drove to the sunset viewing point where we took as many photos to our heart’s content.
Photo Credit: Sampson Lau
Kurt also cooked us up a delightful meal of noodles and meat as we waited for the sunset.
You’ll know when the sun begins to set as the rock begins to change its color.
After sunset we drove outside the park to Yulara, where we got our swags and sleeping bags to camp outside under the stars for the night.
We then got in our well-deserved sleep, being woken up by Kurt at 4:30am to get our last glimpses of the stars at night and to head out for breakfast as the sun began to rise over Uluru.
It was at this point Kurt realized he dropped some of our backpacks on the way to the sunrise viewing point (doh!), so some of us hopped back in the bus to retrace our steps only to find our bags waiting for us back in the middle of our campgrounds.
What made this experience even more hilarious was that someone’s 11 year old daughter had slept through the whole thing and was still passed out in the back of the bus by the time we got our bags — we had inadvertently kidnapped someone!
We quickly drove back with out bags to the viewing point, returned the daughter to her mother without asking for any ransom (it appeared the mother didn’t even care at all, hahaha), and took whatever photos we could of the last few minutes of sunrise.
Once the sun rose over the horizon, our group began a base walk around Uluru for an hour, split into two 30-40min increments. The surprising part was the amount of greenery and vegetation around Uluru, growing in an area that otherwise has been widely believed to be a totally barren and lifeless desert.
By the rock are various sacred watering holes crucial to the survival of the aboriginal people as well as the local wildlife and flora.
We also visited some of the sacred caves that the aboriginal men and women have used to pass on their knowledge to future generations.
We hiked a bit more around Uluru before Kurt decided it was finally time for our group to head back to the airport and catch our 11am Jet Star flight to Melbourne. Thanks Captain Kurt!
- At time of posting in Uluru, Australia, it was 46 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, brutally hot