The Western Desert is remote, rugged and often extreme. And while a family trip to this 2.8 million square kilometer expanse extending from the Nile west to Libya and from the Mediterranean south to Sudan may not be for everyone it is uniquely rewarding for those that make the journey. Five isolated oases - Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga and Siwa - spot the brown desert green. Archaeological sites from golden mummies to the Oracle of Amun provide insight to life long ago. Linear dunes run uninterrupted for hundreds of kilometers and reach a height of up to 110 meters. This is the Great Sand Sea! Bizarre white chalk formations and inselberg monoliths, the result of thousands of years of mechanical weathering, are a White Desert art show. Seashell fossils and fossilized trees define ancient, even for kids. Yet the realities of a Western Desert expedition are twofold. Exploring the Western Desert requires spending lots of time in a vehicle, getting to the eastern reaches takes the better part of a day. Few companies make the trip in style; a Western Desert safari is truly roughing it.
Apart from Siwa, travel to the desert oases is relatively straightforward. Organized oasis tours are easily arranged and depart from both Cairo and Luxor. The West Delta Bus Company makes the trip from Cairo to Bahariya and on to Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga daily. While there is no bus service from Kharga to Luxor, independent travelers interested in a loop tour can hire a taxi (4 hours) or take the train (9 - 12 hours) between the two. Until the new road from Bahariya is complete, families traveling to Siwa Oasis have two choices: travel north from Cairo to Alexandria and then west along the Mediterranean coast to Marsa Matruh or hire a 4x4 and a driver and navigate the sand covered stretches of old road across the desert. The trip along the sea offers the opportunity to stop on the coast and play in the waves, the desert trek a chance to tour one or more of the five Abandoned Oases found along the route. Either way the trip from Cairo to Siwa takes two days. The White Desert is roughly 40 km (25 miles) north of Farafra and 150 km (93 miles) south of Bahariya. There is no bus service to the area. Siwa Oasis is the departure point for day trips to the Great Sand Sea. Desert safaris to the Gilf Kebir and Great Sand Sea require a bit more planning. Permits, supplies, equipment and experienced guides are a necessity on all Western Desert expeditions.
The best time of year to visit the Western Desert is from October to April. From June to August the average daytime high exceeds 40°C (104°F) making desert expeditions and cultural touring all but unbearable. Late evening and early morning temperatures are significantly lower than the daytime high throughout the year and in December and January can plummet to freezing. The peak tourist season for desert safaris and oasis tours is Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn are the most common ailments affecting travelers to the Western Desert. Getting lost or stuck are the greatest risks of a desert safari. A 4x4 convoy, GPS, satellite phone and experienced guides are a necessity on all multi-day desert expeditions. High factor sunscreen and sufficient bottled water should figure prominently on every traveler's packing list. Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas, including your child's nose, ears, and toes, before you set out and repeat applications throughout the day. Encourage the children to drink regularly.
A permit is required for all desert safaris. Permits for short trips can be obtained locally but military permits for longer expeditions are issued in Cairo only. Independent travelers may want to consult the tourist office in the oases booking a car and driver directly through an individual or local hotel.
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