Deciding to go to the Siwa Oasis in the Egypt’s Western Desert immediately complicated our itinerary. Internet bus and train schedules offered conflicting information, and including Siwa added another thousand kilometers to our already high-mileage three week trip.
But, I was already seduced. The Lonely Planet had a slim section on Siwa, but it promised a languid pace, hot springs, olive and date groves and a true immersion into the desert landscape. Choosing the oasis meant we would have to scratch Aswan, Abu Simbel and Dahab and speed our days through the Nile delta, but Kim was as convinced as I was. It was going to be the most memorable part of Egypt, and save for the Red Sea, the only place we would consider revisiting.
Of course there was underlying anxiety about having made a poor decision. The hotel owner in Cairo where we collapsed for two nights in sheesha-heavy air, insisted that all oases were the same. We could have the identical experience at Bahareya and travel by private 4×4 (which he could arrange) in four hours. Why were we opting for a nine hour overnight bus with great uncertainty about how we would cross back to Luxor? His package sounded reliable, but, the isolation of Siwa beckoned.
Our bodies were as heavy as cement from the Toronto—Vienna—Cairo legs. Having to sit for another 10 hours in a bus was less than appealing. We were saturated with sweat, crampy from dodgy street shawarma and eager to unpack our bags for a few nights. The glacial interior of the West Delta Bus was almost unbearable after feeling the fondue temperatures of Egypt by day.
The bus that was supposed to be 9 hours turned into 12, and four different buses by trip’s end. We randomly stopped throughout the night so the driver could sip mint tea here and there while passengers moaned and exited the bus to warm up. We ate stale chips and salty peanuts from all-night vendors and patiently waited. And waited.
We had Googled the Al-Babinshal several times in our early summer research. The pictures sucked us in like quicksand. Attached to the 13th-century fortress of Shali, architects had grafted the mudbrick hotel onto the front of the fort. With exposed palm log support beams and traditional wood-shuttered windows, it looked like a place that we could end our travels and just live in, indefinitely.
Bleary-eyed, rumpled, with gut-rot, agitated hamstrings and furry teeth, we arrived in Siwa. Resistance was futile, to anything. Mohammed, introduced his very able donkey Ali Baba and insisted on dropping us off at our hotel, despite it only being a minute walk away. The careta (donkey cart) taxi fare to the fortress was the equivalent of 50 cents Canadian.
The sun cast a golden liquid hue on the fluid movement of donkeys, men in white cotton galabyas walking with purpose and horse-drawn carriages hauling figs and the occasional young camel. Dovecotes (mudbrick pigeon houses) were busy with incoming and outgoing traffic. Olives were spread out on tarps in front of kershef (a material derived from chunks of local lake salt, mixed with rock and clay) homes, curing under the same sun. A few skittish dogs picked around the half-cut oil drums full of still-smoking charcoal used to barbeque whole chickens.
The air was thick with morning fires, the sweet smoke of sheesha pipes and humidity. This kind of tranquility was nearly startling. After two days in Cairo, our senses were inflamed from the congestion of horns and diesel.
Mohammed was persistent, but in a gentle way that was agreeable and led to us being picked up by donkey later that afternoon to travel to the hot springs for sunset. Delirious at 9 am, we could only think in terms of coffee, something other than stale chips to eat, a shower and being able to lie horizontal for a few blessed hours. He nodded reassuringly and promised to be back at 3pm.
At Al-Babenshal we were immediately ushered to our rooms, with permission to do a formal check-in after we found some rest. Walking through the lobby, the space opened up into an open-air lounge of welcoming chairs piled with Martha Stewart amount of pillows. The hotel quickly diverged into a series of stairways and tunnels and adobe-style entrances. Our eyes grew wider in that shared look that communicated, “this was the best decision we’ve ever made. Do you want to stay forever?”
The room(s) were larger than my entire downtown Toronto apartment. The fact that the King size mattress felt like we were sleeping on a sidewalk was easily overlooked. And the pillows—they were like sacks of cement too, but really, with the desert heat and jet lag, this is all dismissed in minutes.
The staff asked if we were ready for breakfast, and it was ready before we were. Buttery omelettes, warm pita bread, guava and banana fruit salad in a thin yogurt, fresh goat’s cheese, homemade fig and fruit-dense apricot jams were set at our table in the open-air dining area. The bodum coffee was robust, hot and rivalled my favourite Toronto indie haunts. We chugged the sweet and sour kapow of a homemade lime juice and without asking, had full glasses placed in front of us.
This was already the best time I’d had in life. I wanted to weep at the beauty at all. The stretch of the Great Sand Sea, one of the world’s largest dune fields, from Libya’s border to the Mediterranean coast, transplants your soul. The quiet is nearly discomforting at first. The stars—they appeared in such massive clusters and galaxies, it was as though a Hubble telescope had been inserted into my pupils.
We stayed for three nights, spoiled by the staff who brought us just-chipped ice for our in-room gin and moonshine drinks (Siwa is completely dry, stock up in Cairo!). They waited quietly on the stairs of the rooftop terrace, eager to bring us more pita bread, and to politely triple-check that we were enjoying our camel stew.
They let us use the reception computer to fire off emails back home and were genuinely concerned that we had an outstanding experience.
It was incredibly romantic, beyond our expectations and just the beginning of our travels in Egypt. The bar was set unattainably high in the Siwa Oasis with the spoils of Al Babenshal, and it couldn’t be matched on the rest of our days. If you go? Bank on not wanting to leave.
From Cairo—there is a train that runs between Cairo and Marsa Martruh, reducing the travel time by bus in half, but it is seasonal. It was no longer servicing Marsa in September 2011 though, due to the Revolution. The West Delta Bus Company has an overnight bus (35 Egyptian pounds) that departs from the central market square. With tourism at an all-time low, the frequency of these bus trips has changed (with schedules changing daily according to ridership). It is best to visit the station, preferably with a local who can translate for you. All bus numbers and info are in Arabic, and the station recommends buying your ticket a day in advance.
Booking at Al Babenshal Hotel
The hotel doesn’t have its own website, so bookings must be made through expedia.ca
Rates range from $64—112 Canadian per night, including breakfast and wi-fi access.
What to Do In Siwa?
Sandboarding, sunrise at Birket Siwa (Lake Siwa), sunset at Fatnas Island, the hot and cold springs, Cleopatra’s Bath, Gebel al-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead), therapeutic sand baths in the dunes, Temple of the Oracle, camel safaris, camping under the stars in the White Desert, breathe.