I had never really thought about the desert. In my mind it was an endless abyss of bone-colored sand, pocked marked with the occasional brittle-branched shrub. But there I was, two days off the plane from Amsterdam, on a shuttering bus, en route to the Egyptian Sahara. I sat with my face pressed to the glass window, speeding towards the unknown.
Four hours after leaving the Cairo bus station, I was in Bwiti, located in the Bahariya Oasis. Dust plumed around my sneakers as I placed them on terra firma. Around me were the sounds of rural Egyptian life - camels brayed, old all-terrain vehicles sputtered to life, all mingled with the gossipy purr of the Egyptian-Arabic dialect.
It was here, in the bustle of town, I met Samir and Khald, my guides who would show me a world I had never before considered – life in the Sahara Desert.
“Have you ever been to the desert before?” Samir asked.
“No, never.” I replied.
“Do you know what to expect?”
“Not in the slightest,” I answered honestly.
With that, I climbed in the back of their dun-colored SUV, and off we drove. In the rear view mirror, Bwiti grew smaller and the date palms became fewer, until their presence became a distant memory. The further we got from civilization, the more the desert announced itself. She came to us swathed in an impossible array of colored sand: mountains of glittering black, vast fields of lavender, mossy dunes, a burning blush of red-orange. Far from the graveyard of sand I imagined, the Sahara was vivid.
As we drove, we talked about immense Sahara. Both of my guides were born in the Sahara and spoke of it as if it were a beloved friend. In low tones, they explained the impermanence of the landscape we drove through, whose very features were at the whim of the temperamental wind. They told me of a mountain made of pure quartz crystal, whose peaks we could see, a dirty glitter under a blazing sun. They spoke of the sudden riots of rain that drew animals and people alike from their hovels to dance in the downpour.
We drove for hours, twisting through country that looked like it had been lifted from the lens of a NASA satellite. The day grew old around us, and the electric blue sky darkened, the horizon stained shades of pink and orange. We parked the car in the quickly gathering dusk. Ventifacts loomed large, their wind carved shapes casting long, strange shadows on the ground. As the horizon opened its mouth and swallowed the sun, a new face of the desert emerged. Cool and quiet, the world around us seemed to let a sigh of relief from the brutal sun.
Overhead, the night sky was in full pageantry, spangled in stars and crowned by a sliver of moon. The night was still, interrupted only by the chirrups of the bat-eared, Fennec foxes as they hunted beetles under the pale light.