“You don’t trust me?”
It’s an hour before sunset in the dunes of the Sahara, near the oasis of Siwa in western Egypt, and our turbaned, galabia-clad driver, Abdallah Baghi, is careering our Land Rover up and down the mountains of sand, riding them like a big-wave surfer. There are three of us in the back of the car, and judging by Baghi’s sly smile, he’s happiest when he can hear all of us yelping in terror; at one point he hurtles over a peak so steep that the car’s underside slams into the crest, threatening to leave us teetering at the top, cartoon-style.
It helps, slightly, to learn that Baghi moonlights as a respected local official (Siwa’s superintendent of schools) and that he has accidentally flipped the car “only” once, with no resulting harm to his passengers. Still, “sometimes people get a little bit scared,” Baghi says, before steering us toward a flatter stretch where the dunes have shifted to expose a curiously jagged patch of ground, pocked with what looks like tiny white stones. When we get out to walk around, we see that the stones are actually prehistoric ocean fossils: hundreds of sand dollars and oyster shells, remnants of the era when this part of Africa was completely underwater. While we’re still contemplating our discovery of a virgin fossil field millions of years old, Baghi drives us to a high ridge, where we watch the sun drop behind the dunes as he quietly takes out his handmade hatchet, along with a few olive tree branches, and builds a small bonfire. It’s time for tea, brewed in an elegant iron pot with locally grown mint leaves.
Just another afternoon at the oasis of Siwa, in a remote part of Egypt that offers exhilaration and edification in equal measure. Few Americans have heard of Siwa, let alone considered a trip there, but in recent years the oasis has been luring a new wave of in-the-know travelers, including Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Christian Louboutin and others craving its unique mix of ecologically sound adventure and haute-rustic style. The fact that the only way to get to Siwa is by driving nine hours from Cairo—or by hopping a private jet—has so far kept most tour buses away. But the news that a local military airport might soon open to commercial flights has some residents fretting that the place’s timeless charms are now marked with an imminent expiration date.
Our visit begins unpromisingly, with the monotonous daylong journey on the featureless road from Cairo. It’s the kind of drive that reminds me why desert road trips rarely live up to their majestic reputations. (I find myself rooting for a major sandstorm, just to ease the boredom, and the wish is granted: For an hour or so our car is pelted with blindingly thick clouds of dust that clear up only occasionally to reveal an oil rig or a wayward camel.) After nightfall we finally pull up to our hotel, Adrère Amellal, which is reputed to be the most luxurious eco-resort in Egypt. At first we wonder if we’ve taken a wrong turn. Yes, the porters greeting us are decked out in chic white robes, and they lead us up a winding pathway lined with artfully placed hurricane lanterns, but after they deposit our bags near the fire pit that apparently doubles as a reception area, they seem as confused as we are about what to do next. Eventually we figure out that we’re supposed to take a look around and choose our own rooms, which isn’t easy because the lodge, true to its eco-conscious mandate, has no electricity and nary a flashlight; the whole place is lit with torches and candles.