FRIDAY 18 OCTOBER – SUNDAY 20 OCTOBER There isn’t a lot to do in Farafra. On our first day, a funny little guy called Saad (the owner of the eponymous restaurant) took us for a drive to fetch his camels. We drove his truck back to town while he rode his camels, then we spent the rest of the day propped up in the shade swatting flies.
And Saturday was the same: a few hours of pleasant cool from dawn until about 10 a.m. then baking heat (this is winter!!) until around 4 p.m. when the sun dips swiftly towards the horizon casting cool shadows over the town and the surrounding desert. As darkness falls, the people venture outside: the men sitting in small groups talking, clusters of children squawking and playing, and weary tourists making their way up the hill to Saad’s Restaurant for the nightly ritual of food, cold drinks and backgammon. There are several interesting locals to be found at Saad’s at night. A friendly school teacher, a man from Cairo who lives here for the peace and quiet, and a tall thin man who everyone calls Dr Socks because he sells socks, gloves, vests and scarves when he’s not working at the local hospital.
And thus we spent our time in Farafra. On Sunday morning I went for an early walk out into the desert where I sat up on an eroding pinnacle of sandstone and watched the sun ease itself over the horizon ready for another day’s travel across the great blue dome of the sky. Later on we packed our gear and settled down to await the bus to Dhakla1.
A Swiss guy rode into town on a bicycle at 11 and I spent an enjoyable hour talking to him about his many adventures in Asia and the Middle East. The bus launched into town at ten to four and, as usual, everyone in town turned up to watch. Four more white folks got off and we got on, found a seat each and settled in for the 4 hour journey to Dhakla Oasis.
The sun had begun to lose its we set off out across the desert, stopping every now and then to pick up and sit down passengers. A few miles beyond Farafra there is a large development going on around a supply of subterranean water. Canals are being built and sand is being subdivided and irrigated and the beginnings of a new Oasis planted. But it will be a long time before the desert is made to bloom in that flat, baked landscape.
The bus jolted on as darkness fell and about 7:30 we pulled into the town of Mut, the main town of Dhakla Oasis. The resthouse in the centre of town was full so we set off to walk the 1 km to the Government Resthouse. When we got there we were greeted by a balding man with glasses and a smile just a little too wide to be genuine.
“Do you have a room for two people,” I asked
“How did you get here?” was his reply.
“By bus from Farafra,” I said, sensing an officious air behind the glasses.
“Let me see the tickets,” he said, holding out his hand. I gave him the tickets and he studied them with elaborate deliberation.
“There is only one ticket here,” the smile said. Patiently, I leaned over and sorted the pieces of paper into piles. He seemed pleased and handed the tickets to one of the several men lounging around in the foyer.
“How many nights?” he asked.
“Just tonight,” I said.
“But, you know, there are many things to see in Dakhla,” said one of the other men.
“Perhaps we will stay tomorrow as well,” I said. “But for now we will just pay for one night.”
The room rate was E£1-83 each with E£4-30 “Government Tax” added. The balding man began talking with the other men in the room. An old man came in and paid E£2 for a room and had his details recorded in the register. The bald man continued to talk. Time passed. I begin to stare at him.
He paused in his argument and said “passports,” then carried on talking while he opened them and studied them, again with great, almost exaggerated deliberation. Then he stood up and left the room. We sat and waited, determined not to get riled up. After about 5 minutes the man returned.
“There is a problem,” he said.
“Is there?” I replied sarcastically. Sarcasm is lost on Arabs and he continued. “The other people in the room have gone out and taken the key.”
“No problem,” I said. “We will just leave our gear here and go for something to eat. Perhaps you could record our details in the register.”
The bald man began to copy things out of our passports, stopping to talk to the others in the room and to ask questions.
“What is your nationality?”
“It’s written in the front of the passport.”
“What is your place of birth?”
“Again, it is in the passport.”
Eventually, these pointless formalities were completed and we left our packs in the corner then set off back into town to get some food. We ate at a place called the Desert Paradise Restaurant owned by a man called Abdul (what else!) who pestered us with details of all the little jobs that he could do for us.
After our meal, we walked back to the Resthouse and went up to our room – tiny, humid, four beds crammed in – which we were sharing with an older German couple. The man had the same personality as The Terminator. Surprisingly, there were no mozzies in the room and we spent a reasonably comfortable, if hot, night.
1I mis-spelled the name Dakhla in my diary.