It’s a random Friday evening and we have surprise visitors that are passing through on their way to Amsterdam. While my wife checks the wine, which we keep in an old wooden crate on the landing, I endeavour to make some impromptu dinner. I get some ripe tomatoes from a pot on the porch and reach for the pesto in our completely crammed pantry. Well, let’s hope at least the tipple is more elaborate! However, what I hold in hand isn’t the Italians’ favourite blend of basil, parmesan and pine nuts but a jar of olive jam. It’s made according to a traditional recipe involving generous helpings of rosemary in the picturesque Siwa oasis in Western Egypt. And I am reminded of sunny days and balmy nights between salty springs, towering dunes and quaint palm groves. It’s is easily the most underrated destination in a country otherwise ravaged by mass tourism.
It is spring 2013 and we have just traded the solitude of Namibia for the mayhem of Cairo and find it hard to cope in this gargantuan city. So, on one of the first weekends we check the map, get the old Landrover ready and head out into the desert. Eight hours later we park at the entrance to a lodge with the mysterious name Adrere Amellal – the White Mountain.
It is as if we have arrived at a faraway outpost of human habitation in outer space. Siwa oasis, framed by rugged hills on one and a massive lake on the other side, appears like a mirage after some two hundred kilometres of flat, empty land.
The contrast of various shades of green, blue and cream against the evening sky is so stunning we barely speak and just sit there, engine off. After a while – was it five minutes, was it thirty? – this moment of solace is quietly and most carefully interrupted by a young gentlemen in a long white gown carrying a tray with what we soon find out to be ice-cold hibiscus juice. It’s unlike anything we know, a delicious blend of sweet, fruity, zesty and bitter. I make a mental note to buy hibiscus flowers at the neighbourhood souk when back in the city and ask around for the recipe.
Without really noticing it, we are politely being ushered into our room, no check-in procedure, no disclaimers, no fire exits, no keys, no breakfast time. Just the grand panorama across the lake from our traditional clay house that we will call home for the weekend. Nature is on stage here like nowhere else in Egypt and it puts on a wonderful display. This is not only a remote respite on the doorstep of the great sand sea that stretches South and East from here for hundreds of kilometres, but also one that deliberately keeps out city frills. Accordingly, what’s being served for dinner is grown, collected and raised in the oasis with the only concession being the wine, which comes from the fertile Nile delta, and the chef, who hails from Morocco.
We are already in a state of bliss as we sit down for dinner under the stars with a handful of other guests, most of them from or living in Egypt. We have no idea what time it is. We just feel like a small snack. Plus, we have been told to make our way to the dining area whenever it suits us. And where is that area? Just follow the torches from your room. At first we feel rather uncomfortable with so little guidance and no suggested times in our over-scheduled lives, but we’re equally surprised how easily we adapt. Our mobile phones have run out of battery, so we are not able to check the time anyway. And as there is no electricity we won’t be able to do so until back in Cairo. For once we are cut off from the (social) media stream and oblivious to the turmoil that holds Egypt in thrall. The waiters appear out of nowhere and fill our plates with serving after serving of incredibly flavoursome dishes. Think stuffed zucchini flowers, succulent lamb in a sticky pomegranate sauce with nut-studded whole grain rice, and pumpkin soufflé for desert, all from the orchards and fields around the oasis. We share stories from around the globe with our fellow travellers and all agree that this is something out of this world. We don’t even remember any sweet dreams from that night. We sleep like infants in a cod protected by the desert that keeps all evil at bay.
When we wake up, the sun has already risen high on the horizon, a gentle breeze comes in from the lake. After a simple but simply wonderful breakfast of plain omelettes with soft cheese and sweet olive jam, we head into town, where we accidentally find the very same jam in a small, rustic shop. It also stocks other condiments, flaky salt and Siwan olive oil. We buy three jars, not only because it means being able to take this special Siwan flavour back home, but also because we love how tourism and local life are entwined here.
Sightseeing and souvenir shopping behind us, we head out into the desert with a group of Bedouin guides in their old 4x4s and soon there’s only sand and a complete, perfect silence, which one can sense. Or is it the blood circulating in our eardrums, a sound we hear for the first time in our lives?
Words and Pictures: Bernhard Rohkemper