Desert road trip in Egypt
When you are looking for a desert road trip, Egypt is the place to be. Four oases form a perfect touring circuit, beginning with Bahariya south-west of Cairo, and continuing in a counter-clockwise loop, through Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga, before returning once again to the Nile Valley between Assiut and Luxor. A sixteen hour drive along a decent road brings the traveler from stop to stop, with plenty to do and see along the way. With precious little traffic on the road, and with great views all around, the trip provides a wonderful experience.
In the past, Egypt had a very poor road infrastructure that made this part of the desert inaccessible. A patchy road with limited services connected the oases. Planning for a trip through this part of the country required you to have the tenacity of an Indiana Jones type hardcore adventurer, equipped with enough canisters of gasoline crowded onto the roof-rack of your battle-hardened jeep to get you from one island of civilization to the next. Over the years, all this has now changed. All the oases are now connected by a decent, undivided road that places Bahariya under four hours from Cairo, Farafra another three hours down the road, Dakhla under three hours further on, and finally Kharga another two hours beyond that. From Kharga, it’s a straightforward transfer back to civilization via Assiut. Decent services can be found along the way, making the trip accessible to anyone with a good rental car. Along the way, you’re bound to pass a slew of adventurous desert rats emerging from multi-week adventures deep in the desert. Just make sure you’re well prepared before joining them. If your car is not equipped for the exploration you have in mind, it’s easy to hire a jeep in any of the towns you’ll visit.
Cairo-Bahariya: 192mi (310km)
The first stop on a trip from Cairo is Bahariya, a straightforward 365km drive along the Tariq el-Wahat, which exits Cairo, and quickly leaves all traces of civilization behind. The road for most of the drive parallels an old railway line, and a considerable network of active oil wells. Just before you reach the oasis, you’ll pass by the Abou Moharrag dunes.
Abou Moharrag dunes (Photo by redadanaf)
Bahariya is a special kind of oasis. It is home to some pleasant hot and cold springs, as well as some impressive Roman and Pharaonic ruins. From the nearby Black mountain you’ll get a spectacular view over the oases. Bahariya is also an interesting place for archeologists. In the beginning of the 20th century there was a German scientist who found four new species of dinosaurs here. Throughout the years 234 mummies were also found in and around the oases. In 1996 the Valley of the golden mummies was discovered. Archeologists hope to find here another 10.000 mummies, making this oasis one of the richest historical sites in Egypt. If you’re looking to stay or eat in Bahariya, Qasr el-Bawity, an island of tranquility set on the oasis’ outskirts is a good option.
This place is also known as “Toyota-village”. Several rental companies and local guides offer jeep exploration trips into the desert around Bahariya with their (mostly Toyota) 4x4’s.
Bahariya-Farafra: 146mi (236km)
The road between Bahariya and Farafra is one of the highlights of the trip, passing first through the Black Desert, and transitioning suddenly into the vast open-air sculpture garden of the White Desert. The Black Desert, so-named for the black volcanic rock that predominates the area, includes several dormant volcanic peaks which make for an enjoyable climb, providing nice views over the surrounding landscape. This landscape is so atypical, that it makes you feel like you are not on earth but on another planet.
Road to Farafra oasis trough the Black Desert (Photo by Yasser El-Rasoul)
The Black Desert
Coming out of the Black desert the landscape suddenly changes. The black peaks make place for white, eerie wind-sculptured outcroppings that dot the desert. These chalky rock formations, sprouting almost supernaturally from the ground offer one of the strangest views you’ve ever seen.
White Desert (Photo by urbietorbi)
As you get further into the 300-sq-km White Desert Protectorate, you'll notice that the surreal shapes start to take on familiar forms; chickens, ostriches, camels, hawks and other uncanny shapes abound. They are best viewed at sunrise or sunset, when the sun turns them hues of pink and orange, Salvador Dali-like, or under a full moon which gives the landscape a ghostly, arctic, appearance. The sand around the outcroppings is littered with quartz and different varieties of deep black iron pyrites, as well as small fossils.
White Desert (Photo by urbietorbi)
Arriving in remote Farafra, an easy three hour drive from Bahariya if you’re not side-tracked along the way, you’ll not find much in the town itself to keep you there, though there is a pile of rocks claiming to be a ruined fortress. However, the town is small, the smallest of all Egypt’s oases towns, and its remoteness itself carries a certain appeal. Farafra is the furthest west you’ll travel on the circuit, and the influence of the desert Bedouin, is on display.
Farafra-Dakhla: 198mi (319km)
The road from Farafra onto Dakhla, while less spectacular than the trip through the white and black deserts, is straightforward and pleasant. Even the regular police checkpoints are somehow part of the fun. The desperately bored guards, eager for any diversion, seem eager to joke and banter. Along the way, the road passes through a few smaller oases towns, another indication that this entire area is built upon a shared underground hydraulic infrastructure. The water emerging from the ground in Egypt’s western desert is one end of a massive interconnected underground oases system, the spigot of a thousands of mile long pipe if you will, stretching all the way back to Morocco. Water that emerges in Egypt, effervescently hot and mineral tinged is the result of rainfall that took place hundreds of thousands of years ago in Morocco.
The road from Farafra onto Dakhla (Photo by Zema)
Dakhla itself is a misnomer; if you’re trying to drive there, you’ll never arrive. There is no town called Dakhla; instead, it refers to a string of villages dotted along a series of springs, beginning with Qasr in the north, and continuing down to Mut in the south. It’s the most idyllic of all Egypt’s oases towns, and pleasant views of spring-fed irrigation, and palm-tree-dotted agricultural land, are everywhere on display. The village of Qasr, and the town of Mut, the two most likely destinations of a visitor to the oases, each boast an old city, with twisty mud-brick lanes and low doorways to discourage invaders on horseback. Dakhla also boasts the best of Egypt’s oases accommodation options. The Desert Lodge overlooking the Qasr fortress is an excellent option.
Dakhla (Photo by Ahmad Hegab)
Dakhla-Kharga-Assiut: 246mi (396km)
Another two hours down the road, Kharga has the mixed blessing of being designated the capital of the New Valley governorate. Along with this comes an excessive dose of boring block architecture, leaving the tranquility of the oases, in many cases, a distant memory. But there are some impressive antiquities around, including some dating from the Persian, Roman and Pharaonic eras. Continuing on from Kharga, Assiut and Luxor are easily accessible by decent roads.
Temple ruins in Kharga (Photo by SL&LS)
Road trip tips
Egypt’s large and growing population is packed into a mere 4% of the country’s land along the river Nile. The rest of the country is for the most part an open wilderness of desert that has beckoned adventurers for millennia. Following the oases route we cover a distance of 780mi (1.260km). We advise you to stay overnight in Bahariya and Dakhla, cutting the trip in three pieces to give you and your car some rest. These villages have also the best hotel facilities. Be sure to take a jerrycan with additional fuel and some bottles of water with you, it's not pleasant to get stuck in the middle of the desert.