The Desert Safari

মন মাঝি's picture
Submitted by monmajhi [Guest] on Fri, 01/06/2012 - 3:51am

One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting, and the Caravan
Draws to the Dawn of Nothing – Oh make haste !
-- Omar Khayyam*

As I lay awake on the ancient sands of the Egyptian desert gazing at the star-studded sky, an ocean of overpowering primordial silence and emptiness descended all around me. My experiment with time and space seems to have reached a critical point.

It was somewhere in the middle of nowhere, after a whole day of driving through the desert, out of the oasis Bahariya in the Western Desert. We camped out at night in a place which one may call – the Extraterrestrial Gallery of Natural Sculptures! A most desolate, out-of-the-world place where emptiness is accentuated by and interspersed with, fifteen to twenty feet high strange rock formations protruding out of the sands, eerily identical to various living objects and real-life events. There was the hen and egg rock, the horse, the nuclear mushroom cloud which one of us dubbed ‘Hiroshima’, and many many more. And none of these were man-made. They were spread all over the place like an abandoned Martian open-air gallery.

The place is approximately 700 km south-west from Cairo, and 150-200 from the oasis Bahariya. Most of it was through desert track though, as it was what they called a ‘Desert Safari’, starting from el-Fayum another 200 km behind Bahariya.

We arrived at Bahariya before noon and checked in to a motel, having begun our journey from Cairo early in the morning. There were six of us in the group – a banker and his wife with two children, a diplomat and her husband, and me. All originally from Bangladesh, and we all knew each other before.

Soon after a hurried lunch, two pre-arranged Bedouin guides arrived in a four-wheeler, well stocked for a desert trip. We ‘boarded’ the landcruiser for a most exhilarating journey.

It’s been a year since and most of the details and impressions have faded away from my memory. So, the story of what happened next is basically based on a fragmentary, rudimentary recollection.

It was dubbed a ‘Desert Safari’. Coming from a chokingly populated, rainy, flood-ridden, humid, small flat green country, the contrast for me couldn’t have been more shocking – or sharper to put it mildly. I had no idea what a desert had in store for a first-timer like me.

Although it was a well-cushioned journey by a modern four-wheel drive, and not on camel back -- the bumps, tilts, the charge to climb up dunes, the rush to descend from enormous slippery slopes and dunes on a highly curvy and ini tially sexy exotic terrain, the consequent gush of adrenaline, stiffening of muscles and the vacuous feeling in the stomach – were nothing but absolutely thrilling and exciting. But above all, the vast, arid, exotic emptiness stretching for hundreds and hundreds of miles as if even beyond the mind could imagine, cutting of all contacts with civilization, and after a while the creeping feeling of a lonely attempt at piercing and negotiating through unending unconscious indefatigable space for eternity with a conscious self, and the resulting friction and sparks – all began to give me, a ‘crowdophile’, goose-bumps and a strange incomprehensible creepy sensation beneath the skin.

I felt like a fish out of water, or perhaps more like the gushing steam let out of a pressure-cooker – out into thin air all of a sudden. I wonder what that steam would have felt like in case it had a mind of its own! Surely like me ! It was ecstatic and transcendental.

Come to think of it, the escaping steam metaphor seems appropriate in more than one way. I too, was escaping from something, hurtling through space and time all the way from Dhaka thousands of miles afar -- to where I wasn’t sure yet . Apparently, it’s Egypt for now. I have been crisscrossing the country for some time : from Alexandria in the north to Abu Simbel in the south, and from Sinai in the east to the Western (Libyan) Desert in the west at present.

The airports, the transit, the clouds- rivers- and mountains, the maddening avalanche-like traffic of modern Cairo and its ancient historical sites, the Citadel of Salah-al Din, the Mukaddim, the pretty girls on the lover’s bridge Kubri Gama on river Nile or the pleasure boats with restaurants and belly-dancers plying there, the men and women in downtown in smart western attire or the poor folks in their traditional abaya garb in the outskirts, the opera, museums and galleries, the backstreet sheesha and coffee shops and the old-men and idlers playing backgammon inside with eternity in their hands, the romantic historicity of Alexandria on the banks of Mediterranean, the biblical attraction of the Red Sea and Sinai, the towering egos in Giza in the shape of Pyramids or as gigantic statues in Abu Simbel carved out of an entire rocky hillside/cliff and the temple inside, the grandeur of the Karnak temple or the hidden ancient desire for immortality and permanence beneath the Valley of the Kings in Luxor – all hurtled past me like luminous stars and planets in dark infinite space. I couldn’t place them or get a bearing, until now.

For some we loved, the lovliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time has prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

Where was I ? Oh yes, speeding through the Western Desert. Looking at the sea of sand and the emptiness outside -- the boundless primeval space through which many great armies and pharaohs and civilizations must have marched by over the millennia in their attempts to master it – remains the same, and unperturbed. The emptiness devoured and conquered them all. The palpable inexorability of that all-encompassing emptiness menacingly pulsating right outside the side-screen, made me feel miniscule and irrelevant and yet, in a strange way, also consoled, relaxed and accepting at the same time. Sitting inside the cocoon of the covered landcruiser, it felt like a journey from emptiness to emptiness struggling to create transient bubbles of meaning and existence in between, as if like a microcosm of Man’s journey in the larger context. The bubbles inevitably burst though, sooner or later.

As we sped through the barren desert, through the vast expanse of emptiness, everything slowly started to fall into place as I made peace with my inevitable part in this grand scheme of emptiness, both physical and existential.

The White Desert : a superb video. Must see !

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.

The deserts of Egypt might be dotted with statements of monumental egotism in the form of towering pyramids, giant statues of god-kings and huge temples, but it seemed to me now that they are really a kind of futile defiance or rebellion against the feeling of puniness of their creators in the face of overpowering ever-encroaching emptiness all around them. It was also perhaps a cry for relevance, permanence and meaning – in the grand scheme of emptiness. A desperate attempt at fixing the problem of transience.

But the problem remains unfixed. The reality and immediacy of their lives, their flesh-and-blood humanity, their loves-passions-hopes and aspirations and all that were really meaningful to them have vanished into the emptiness of the desert. All that remain are naked mummies looking like grotesque charred skeletons, not in the heavens, but under the leering eyes of a ghoulish curiosity of gum-chewing -- camera-clicking – sandal flapping caricatures of irrelevance millennia later -- either in the middle of a desert, inside museum showcases or on a dissecting table under the obscenely invasive scalpels of a new breed of permanence-seekers called ‘archaeologists’.

I don’t think the Pharaohs wanted this for themselves.

What, without asking, hither hurried Whence ?
And, without asking, Whither hurried hence !
Ah, contrite Heav’n endowed us with the Vine
To drug the memory of that insolence !

Somewhere along our route, probably near another oasis called Farafra, we arrived at a place called the ‘Black Desert’, and right after that another part of the larger desert called the ‘White Desert’. As their names suggest, the Black Desert looks totally black from afar (as it is covered with lava and black ash turned into slate from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago), while its next-door neighbor the White Desert totally white as sculptures of chalk stand out into the open sky. It’s a strange sight indeed. We stopped for a while at the all-black ‘Crystal Mountain’, a small hillock in the Black Desert with the crystal shining against the falling sunlight. I climbed on top of another nearby hillock – from the top of which the surrounding landscape as far as the eye could see looked like a lifeless exotic planetary outpost of the Empire in the Star Wars movies.

From the Black and the White Desert holds - we came to the Extraterrestrial Gallery I spoke about at the beginning. As I have mentioned earlier, it is a place of most unearthly beauty. We paused here too for a while, looking around and probably feeling like wide-eyed astronauts or a group of some sort of space-faring art-connoisseurs. After the EG, we moved on deeper into the desert. The night slowly crept on us. It was time for us to turn back. Our plan was to go back to the Extraterrestrial Gallery and camp there for the night.

After driving I don’t know how long, because I lost all sense of time, a chilly apprehension started to creep down my spine. Some of the other members of our group expressed similar feelings. It looked as though our Bedouin driver had lost his way in the desert. If this were to be true, then we are in for real trouble ! I couldn’t notice any road marker, tracks or signs on the desert. It was pitch dark all around us and we didn’t know how far the nearest human habitation was. There were no antennas rising up in the desert apart from some rocks, and no mobile network either. We were all alone in this sea of darkness and emptiness. To start with it was bit of a risky trip with only one four-wheeler and no backup support - but to depend solely on the bedouin’s knowledge and skill of getting us out of a situation should that occur. If this four-wheeler broke down for any reason…our conversation turned to possibilities… the only way out for us seemed to be either to cross the desert on foot ourselves, or stay in the middle of it and let one of the Bedouins to find the nearest settlement on foot. That’s a prospect I found both exciting and chilling at the same time. This is why, I told myself, other groups like us do this kind of desert trip in a caravan, at least with two or three four-wheelers which we saw before we left Bahariya.

But nothing to fear ! Our Bedouins found their way after a lot of turning and twisting in the impenetrable darkness. Perhaps they never lost it. Perhaps it was just my imagination.

In any case, we reached the Extraterrestrial Gallery at the end and the Bedouins started to set up a tent, a spotlight, and prepare for our meal. Everybody dropped like stones for a while on the mat spread outside, after a full day of adventure. I strolled around a bit for a while, and then settled beside a large boulder in the darkness, a hundred yards from rest of the group. I could see them from here, their dust-covered warm faces --laughing, chatting, munching, having fun within the small area lit by the spotlight in the sea of darkness.

It suddenly occurred to me that I have new bubbles here once again. New bubbles to connect to. It will not last, but it’s here nevertheless. So, why waste it ? This seems to be all I have got, one bubble to another with gratitude to the ones that have dissolved or disappeared into the darkness forever and left behind, as I move along the desert. It’s time to move on.


1. All quatrains in this piece are from the Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward Fitzgerald (2nd ed.).

2. This write-up is the precursor / template of the episode-1 of my Morujatra series in Bangla on Sachalayatan. Unpublished until now. In other words, I wrote this (the English version) a year or two before I wrote the first episode of Morujatra - which was not an exact translation of this one either, but a more developed one. There might be some discrepancies between the two versions in terms of information, description, etc - in all such cases the Bangla one is my final version.

3. For pictures, please refer to the Bangla version.

4. Video credit: ebl753

All posts in Bangla : Micro-fiction | Micro horror | Non fiction | Travel


উচ্ছলা's picture

Last para of part (i) beautifully painted the bits 'n pieces of the joyful city right before my eyes! Your words are really really powerful yet soft and pretty. They turn every single post of yours into an amazing artwork হাসি

Thanks a million for this one-of-a-kind post হাসি

মন মাঝি's picture

আপনারে অসংখ্য -ধইন্যাপাতা-


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