This is less about places I’ve been than places I may never reach – but we all need to dream, sometimes. The Egyptian deserts forming the backdrop for the movie The English Patient (okay, they made the movie in Tunisia) are as inhospitable and as fascinating as anywhere in the Sahara or the Arabian deserts.
In Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, southwest of Cairo, I caught a glimpse of the surreal landforms of the Western Desert. Until then, I had no idea that organised desert safari tours – which only operate for a few months of the year – reach into the magnificent rock art sites, the lost oases and the captivating dunes of this region. There are also relics of the early twentieth-century exploring parties and of Second World War commando patrol exploits.
Jebel Uwaynat (or Uweinat) is indisputably the most remote place in Egypt. Like a tent peg, this desert plateaux anchors Egypt’s borders with Libya and the Sudan. Immediately to its north lies Gilf Kebir (Great Barrier) where the intrepid few can see for themselves the enigmatic Cave of Swimmers.
One evening in Aswan I picked up a reprint of the travel classic, The Lost Oases, recounting the author’s camel expeditions in the 1920s. Egyptian diplomat and royal advisor, Ahmed Hassanein Bey, a former Oxford scholar and sportsman, spent eight months journeying through the trackless desert to rediscover the ‘lost oases’ of the far southwest corner of Egypt. He also met with the mysterious Senussi brotherhood across the border in Italian-occupied Libya. Later, Hassanein would be followed by European explorers and adventurers, including the Hungarian Laszlo Almassy, the eponymous character in The English Patient.