'The dunes are changed by the wind, but the desert never changes.' - Paulo Coelho
From the ship, I see a mountain range just behind the port town of Safaga and before long we are on our bus and driving towards them. Safaga is in the Eastern Desert and before we even leave town, we realise that the whole town is built on sand. Housing apartment blocks are cut into the desert whilst spare blocks of sand wait for new developments to start. I cannot imagine looking out my back door to see nothing more than a pile of sand. I’m think I’m too partial to green gardens.
We leave Safaga behind us and between the road and the Red Sea are vast sand dunes, many of which are currently being developed into hotels and resorts. There is probably some forward planning and hope that more cruise ships will arrive in this port in time to come. Being on the popular Red Sea is also an advantage and I think that Safaga is probably an untapped resource in regard to tourism. Hurghada, which is a popular tourist town is a short distance up the road.
We head east of Safaga towards the desert. The hills that I saw from the balcony of the ship are now right beside the road. Huge desolate and unvegetated hills are golden under the early morning sun, turning to pink then to beige as the light changes. As we climb higher into the mountains, the horizon is filled a series of mountain ranges; layers of mountains, one in front of the other range in colours from brown to grey. Just by the road, rocks erupt from the ground, shades of beige to dark brown provide some interesting features. It’s hard to believe that a single rocky hill could be so interesting; shaped by constant wind, crevasses provide unusual shapes, hidey holes, and if I look carefully, old craggy faces. Vegetation is sparse – very sparse. Just a few saltbush-type plants grow in furrows cut by infrequent flash flooding. The most succulent of plants are in the shady side, the side that may retain more moisture than the rest of the landscape.
We are stopped several times by police at checkpoints. Bureaucracy abounds here as details of the bus are taken at each checkpoint; our tour guide says that it is for our safety and security. Speed bumps on the road ensure that we travel at a reasonable rate and can stop at the checkpoints.
Two hours into the road trip, we arrive in New Qena City, or next to it. The city is to our right and quite a distance from the road. Huge developments of high rise flats punctuate the skyline; block after block of completed blocks of flats and many, many more unfinished blocks. Tall spires in the distance indicate that mosques are already built here. Our tour guide tells us that the Egyptian Government is building cities away from the large urban areas like Cairo to disperse the population. But what do people do out here? Where do they get their water supply? Or are Egyptians also working from home like the rest of the world after adjusting to live after COVID?
Some questions are answered as a short time later we pass through what is presumably 'old' Quena City.
It’s as if a curtain is lifted, one moment we are driving through desert, the next we are looking at vast fertile fields in which people are working, reaping ripened crops with hand-held tools, and loading their produce onto donkey carts. The desert is behind us now as we arrive in the fertile and rich Nile River Valley. Canals are filled with precious water; redirected from the Nile, which is the main source of water in Egypt. For as far as the eye can see, there are bright green ripened crops of all types, corn, wheat, grasses, bananas and more.
During ancient times and through to the twentieth century, when the Aswan Dam was built, the Nile River flooded every single year, bringing with it the rich silts and minerals from its source. Crops, perhaps more than enough to feed a population of over 100m are grown in this lush, beautiful area.
I see little evidence of mechanisation. There are few tractors, perhaps except in more affluent areas. The workers outside my bus window are in the fields with their families. Children may have been released from school already for the holidays to help their families in the fields. Here, there would be few if any women working in the fields with the men. It is unusual to women at all. Sometimes I see them waiting at the bus stop with their children, hands full of shopping in plastic bags, which, I’m surprised to see that they are in abundance. For almost as long as we travel through the sandy desert, we drive through this rich, vast agricultural zone.
One makes observations whilst travelling by bus through these countries and one that I will take away from this is trip is that here in Egypt, there is a huge number of empty apartment buildings, abandoned buildings in different stages of construction and complete towns with few people living in them. We see many poor people, but we do not see homeless people. Does Egypt have more houses than people to live in them? I cannot seem to get a satisfactory answer to that, but perhaps it is because people are suspicious of foreigners asking nosy questions.
We make a turn just before arriving in Luxor and find ourselves back into the desert. Sand dunes beside the road will shortly expose their secrets as we have almost reached our destination. But not before seeing a huge archaeological dig on one side of the road. It’s a recently found town, which is currently being excavated. This country may be 85% desert, but I do wonder what exactly is under all that sand?
We will soon find out.