Egypt: Travel Tips - Travel and Survival in the Desert
Travelers and the nature
For those travelers staying
in well regulated accommodation in good hotels, the realities of the desert can be disguised for as long as electricity and
pure water supplies are sustained. Much of the information in the following section can thus be ignored, though not with total
impunity. Trips into the desert even by the most careful of tour operators carry
some of the hazards and a knowledge of good practice might be as helpful on the
beach or tourist bus as for the full-blooded desert voyager.
There is a contemporary
belief that the problems of living and traveling in deserts have been solved. Much improved technology in transport together
with apparent ease of access to desert areascomfortable ideas. The very simplicity of the problems of deserts, lack of water
and high temperatures, make them easy to underestimate. In reality, deserts have
not changed and problems still arise when traveling in them, albeit with less
regularity than twenty or so years ago. One aspect of the desert remains unchanged - mistakes and misfortune can to easily
Desert topography is
varied. Excellent books such as Allan JA & Warren A (1993) Deserts: a conservation atlas, Mitchell Beazley, show the origins and constant development of desert scenery. Desert and semi-desert is the largest
single surface area and so has an importance for travelers rarely met with elsewhere. Its principal features and their effects
on transport are best understood before they are met on the ground. The great ergs or sandseas compromise mobile dunes and
shifting surface sands over vast areas. Small mobile barkhams, which are crescent shaped, can often be driven round on firm
terrain but the larger transverse and longitudinal dunes can form large surfaces
with thick ridges of soft sand. They constantly change their shape as the wind works across them. While not impossible, they
can be crossed only slowly and with difficulty. The major sand seas such as those
a Calanscio, Murzuq, and Brak should be treated as no-go areas for all but fully equipped and locally supported expeditions.
Similar conclusions apply
to the extensive outcrops of rocky desert as exemplified by the Jabal As-Sawda in Libya. The wadi beds which penetrate much of the Sahara,
serirs and gravel plains all-terrain vehicles.
The main characteristic
of the desert is its aridity. Aridity is calculable and those navigating deserts are advised to understand the term so that
the element of risk can be appraised and managed with safety. CW
index shows water deficiency relative to water need for a given area. There is a gradient from N to S throughout the region, of rising temperatures, diminishing rainfall, and worsening aridity.
Aridity of the desert
is thus very variable, ranging from the Mediterranean sub-tropical fringe to a semi-arid belt to the S and a fully arid desert
interior. In basic terms, the further S you are the more dangerous the environment. Do not assume that conditions on the coast
properly prepare you for the deep S. The Sahara is also very varied in its topography, climate
and natural difficulties posed for the traveler. Rapid transition from rough stone terrain to sand sea to salt flat has to
be expected and catered for.
For practical purposes,
aridity here means lack of moisture and very high temperatures. The world's highest temperatures are experienced in the Sahara, over 55^C. Averages in the southern desert run in summer at more than 50^C in the shade at midday.
In full sun very much higher figures are reached. High temperatures are not the only difficulty. Each day has a large range
of temperature, often of more than 20^C, with nights being
intensely cold, sometimes
below freezing. In winter, air temperatures can be very low despite the heat
of the sun and temperatures drop very rapidly either when the sun goes down or when there is movement from sunlight to shade,
say in a deep gorge or a cave. Increasing aridity means greater difficulty in water availability.
Scientists define the
problem in terms of water deficits. The region as a whole and the deep Sahara in particular are very serious water deficit areas.
Surface waters are lacking almost everywhere except in the case of the Nile in
Egypt and Sudan.
Underground water is scarce and often available only at great depths. Occasional natural seepages of water give rise to oases and/or palmeries. They are, however, rare. Since water is the key to sustaining life in deserts,
travelers have always to assume that they must be self-sufficient or navigate from one known water source to another.
Isolation is another
feature of the Sahara. Travelers' tales tend to make light of the matter, hinting that Bedouin
Arabs will emerge from the dunes even in the most obscure corner of the desert. This is probably true of the semi-desert and
some inland wadi basins but not a correct assumption on which to build a journey in the greater part of the Sahara.
numbers in the desert
are very low, only one person per 20 km sq. in Al-Kufrah in SE
Libya, for example, and most of these are concentrated in small oasis centers. Black top road systems are gradually
being extended into and through the Sahara but they represent a few straggling lines across
areas for the most part without fixed and maintained highways. The very fact that oil exploration has been so intense in the
Sahara has meant that the surface of the desert is criss-crossed with innumerable tracks,
making identification of all routes other than black top roads extremelydifficult. Once off the main roads, travelers can
part from their escorts and find no fixed topography to get them back on course. Vanishing individuals and vehicles in the
Sahara are too frequent to be a joke. To offset this problem read on.
The most acute difficulty
with off-road emergencies is finding the means of raising assistance because of isolation. Normal preventative action is to ensure that your travel program is known in advance by some individual or an institution to whom regular check-in is made from points on the
route. Failure to contact should automatically raise the alarm. Two vehicles are essential and often obviate the worst
problems of break-down and the matter of isolation. Radio communication from
your vehicle is an expensive but useful aid if things go wrong.
Bear in mind the enormous
distances involved in bringing help even where the location of an incident in
the desert is known. Heavy rescue equipment and/or paramedical assistance will
probably be 500km or more distant.
for the rescuers is often not instantly available, assuming that local telecommunication systems work and local administrators
see fit to help.
Living with the climate
Living with desert environments
is not difficult but it does take discipline and adherence to sensible routines at all times. It is an observed fact that
health problems in hot and isolated locations take on a greater seriousness for
those involved than they would in temperate climates. It is still common practice with Western oil companies and other commercial organizations regularly engaged at desert sites to fly ill or injured persons
home as a first measure in the knowledge that most will recover more rapidly without the psychological and environmental pressures of a desert site. Most health risks in the desert are avoidable. The rules, evolved over many years, are simple and easy to follow:
1. Allow time to acclimatize to full desert conditions. Conserve your energy at first rather than acting
as if you were still in a temperate climatic regime. Most people take a week or more to adjust to heat conditions in the deep
2. Stay out of direct
sunlight whenever possible, especially once the sun is high. Whenever you can, do what the locals do, move from shade to shade.
3. Wear clothes to protect
your skin from the sun, particularly your head and neck. Use a high Sun Protection Factor (SPA) cream, preferably as high as SPF15 (94%) to minimize the effects of Ultraviolet-B.
Footwear is a matter of choice though many of those from the temperature parts of the world will find strong, light
but well ventilated boots ideal for keeping sand, sun, venomous livestock, and thorns off the feet. Slip on boots are best
of all since they are convenient if visiting Arab encampments/housing/religious
sites, where shoes are not worn.
4. Drink good quality
water regularly and fully. It is estimated that 10-15 litters per day are needed by a healthy person to avoid water deficiency
in desert conditions, even if there is no actual feeling of thirst. The majority
of ailments arising in the desert relate to water deficiency and so it is worth the small effort of regular drinking of water. Too much alcoholic drink has the opposite effect in most cases and is not,
unfortunately, a substitute for water!
5. Be prepared for cold nights by having some warm clothes to hand.
6. Stay in your quarters or vehicle if there is a sand storm.
7. Refrain from eating dubious foods. Deserts and stomach upsets have a
habit of going hand in hand --'gyppy-tummy' and "Tripoli-trots" give a taste of the problem! Choose hot cooked meals
in preference to cold meats and tired salads. Peel all fruit and uncooked fresh
vegetables. Do not eat 'native' milk-based items or drink untreated water unless you are absolutely sure of its good quality.
8. Sleep off the ground
if you can. There are very few natural dangers in the desert but scorpions, spiders,
and snakes are found (but are rarely fatal) and are best avoided.
Transport and common
sense in the desert
The key to safe travel
in desert regions is reliable and well equipped transport. Most travelers will
simply use local bus and taxi services. For the motorist, motorcyclist, or pedal cyclist there are ground rules which, if followed, will help to reduce risks. In normal circumstances travelers will remain
on black top roads and for this need only a well prepared 2WD vehicle. Choose
a machine which is known for its reliability and for which spares
can be easily obtained. Across much of the region only Peugeot and Mercedes are found adequate spares and servicing facilities.
If you have a different type of car/truck, make sure that you take spares with you or
have the means of getting spares sent out. Bear in mind that transport of
spares to and from Libya and Sudan
might be tediously long.
everywhere available though diesel is equally well distributed except in the
smallest of southern settlements. 4WD transport is useful even for the traveler who normally remains on the black top highways.
Emergencies, diversions, and unscheduled visits to off the road sites become
less of a problem with all-terrain vehicles. Off the road, 4WD is essential, normally with two vehicles traveling together.
A great variety of 4WD vehicles are in use in the region, with Toyota
and Land Rover probably found most widely.
All vehicles going into
the S areas of North Africa should have basic equipment
1. Full tool kit, vehicle maintenance handbook, and supplementary tools
such as clamps, files, wire, spare parts kit supplied by car manufacturer, jump leads.
2. Spare tire/s, battery
driven tire pump, tire levers, tire repair kit, hydraulic jack,
jack handle extension, base plate for jack.
3. Spare fuel can/s, spare water container/s, cool bags. For those going off the black top roads other items
to include are:
4. Foot tire pump, heavy
duty hydraulic or air jack, power winch, sand channels, safety rockets, comprehensive
first aid kit, radio-telephone where permitted.
5. Emergency rations
kit/s, matches, Benghazi burner.
6. Maps, compasses, latest road information, long term weather forecast, guides to navigation by sun and
Driving in the desert
is an acquired skill. Basic rules are simple but crucial.
1. If you can get a local
guide who perhaps wants a lift to your precise destination, use him.
2. Set out early in the
morning after first light, rest during the heat of the day, and use the cool of the evening for further travel.
3. Never attempt to travel
at night or when there is a sandstorm brewing or in progress.
4. Always travel with at least two vehicles which should remain in close
Other general hints include not speeding across open flat desert in case the going changes without warning
and your vehicle beds deeply into soft sand or a gully. Well maintained corrugated
road surfaces can be taken modest pace by rocky surfaces should be treated with great care to prevent undue wear on tires. Sand seas are a challenge for drivers but need a cautious approach--ensure that your
navigation lines are clear so that weaving between dunes does not disorientate
the navigator. Especially in windy conditions, sight lines can vanish, leaving crews with little knowledge of where they are.
Cresting dunes from dip slope to scarp needs care that the vehicle does not either bog down or overturn. Keep off salt flats
after rain and floods especially in the winter and spring when water tables can rise and make the going hazardous in soft
mud. Even when on marked and maintained tracks beware of approaching traffic.
The desert tends to expose
the slightest flaw in personnel and vehicles.
are therefore to be expected and planned for. There is no better security than
making the schedule of your journey known in advance to friends or embassy/consulate officials who will actively check on
your arrival at stated points. Breakdowns and multiple punctures are the most
frequent problem. On the highway the likelihood is always that a passing motorist will give assistance, or a lift to the nearest
post or village. In these
situations it is best simply remain with your vehicle until help arrives making
sure that you are clear of the road and that you are protected from other traffic by a warning triangle and/or rocks on the road to rear and front.
Off the road, breakdowns,
punctures, and bogging down in soft sand are the main difficulties. If you have left your travel program at your last stop you will already have a fall back position in case of severe problems. If you cannot
make a repair or extricate yourself, remain with your vehicle in all circumstances. Unless you can clearly see a settlement
(not a mirage) stay where you are with water, food, and shelter. The second vehicle can be used to search for help but only
after defining the precise location of the incident. In the case of getting lost,
halt, conserve fuelwhile you attempt to get a bearing on either the topography or the planets/stars and work out a traverse to bring you back to a known line such as a highway, mountain ridge
or coastline. If that fails, take up as prominent a position as possible for
being spotted from the air. Build a fire to use if and when you hear air activity in you vicinity. Attempt to find a local source of water by digging in the nearest wadi bed, collecting dew from the air at night.
If you have fuel to spare it can be used with great care both as a means of attracting attention and a way of boiling untreated
water. A Benghazi burner, two crude metal cones welded together to give a water jacket and space for a fire in the center can achieve this
latter purpose. As ever in this region, be patient and conserve energy.
Travel Tips - What to Wear
is a conservative country and visitors should respect this attitude.
No topless or nude bathing
On the practical side,
leave your synthetics at home as they will prove to be too hot in
summer and not warm enough in winter - bring materials that breathe.
It is advisable to wear cotton in summer as the heat can be like a
furnace. In winter wear layers that can be taken off during the heat of the day and put back on for cool evenings.
Wear loose and flowing
garments, which are not only modest, but practical in a hot climate.
Have you ever wondered why the Bedouin wear layers of flowing robes?
Why they cover their heads and the back of their necks?
Centuries of living in
desert climates have taught them that loose garments keep one cooler
and layered garments allow wind to enter and
circulate, creating a
natural ventilation system. Protecting the head and neck from loss
of moisture prevents heat stroke.
Bring comfortable shoes.
You will be doing a lot of walking and temple floors are far from
even. In summer, wear a hat to protect yourself from
the heat of the Egyptian
What to Bring
Above all travel light.
Get wheels for your luggage and leave heavy items at home. If you
dont bring a camera you will be sorry. Sunglasses are a must as
the sun is very strong in Egypt.
The Egyptian Traveler's
is a sophisticated and modern country, and most anything that you need may be purchased in Egypt.
But providing that you do not wish to purchase such things as shoes
in Egypt, and that other items may be difficult to find, or very expensive, we have compiled a
checklist of some of
the more important items you may wish to carry with you. This list
may seem rudimentary for the seasoned traveler,
but for many making a
first time trip to Egypt, it may prevent
Contending with Sun and
Hats and other covering:
Large brimmed hats that provide not only a head covering but also
a certain amount of shade will come in very
handy in the hot Egyptian
sun. In addition, women will be more acceptable when touring old
churches and mosques if they are wearing
some sort of head covering.
In addition, scarves or other apparel should be taken along to cover
shoulders and arms, and again, or not
only important for visiting
religious sites, but also to keep the sun off during treks. In very
hot weather, a cloth hat or scarf that can be soaked will also help
keep your head cool.
"Squeeze Breeze": this
is a water bottle with a sprayer and a battery-operated fan attached,
which is available in such stores as Wal-Mart in the US. This item literally keeps you from hitting the deck in
the 104F heat on the West Bank, late one morning. If you can find something like this among
the beach toys this summer, pick it up.
Sun block: While sun
blocks may be purchased in Egypt, you
might prefer to bring your own favorite brand, but do bring it.
often, and I wish to
emphasis, very often, seen tourists with painful sunburns after
a days worth of sightseeing.
Sunglasses: Another item
that may be purchased in Egypt are sunglasses, but again, many people will prefer to bring their own.
There will be many times
that tourists find themselves in a blaring, sand and desert landscape
and there is nothing better than a good pair of sunglasses, with
the highest UV rating you can find.
Canteen or water holder:
Staying hydrated will mean the difference between a comfortable
tour and one that might end with trouble. Most
people quickly learn
to carry a water bottle with them, and bottled water is easily accessible.
However, lugging around a water bottle
in your hand can be tiresome.
It is much better to bring along either a canteen, or some other
utensil that will allow you to carry the water bottle on your waist
or around your shoulder. Fanny packs or backpacks with holders for
water bottles, and for women, even a shoulder bag type of purse
will make this more convenient.
Very good, comfortable
walking shoes: This is probably one of the first things most people
will tell you to bring to Egypt. Most
tourists will be doing a considerable amount of walking, and shoes
should not be just comfortable, but comfortable to walk long distances. Unlike leather shoes for mountain walks and such, it is
also preferable for walking
shoes to be breathable and perhaps made of a lightweight nylon or
similar fabric. "Tennis shoes" or other
sporting type of shoes
are good for this. Also, keep in mind that there are a lot of steps
Power Adapters: Power
Adapters come in two different varieties. Some electronic equipment
have switches to allow you to change the power
input type. For these,
a simple wall adapter is all that is required. However, other electronic
devices do not have such switches and in this case, you not only
need a wall adapter, but
also a power converter.
Egypt uses 220 volt and plugs are two
AC/DC Adapter1600 W AC
50 W AC Converter
Plug without conversion
Medication: Of course,
bring your prescription medicine. It will usually be available in
Egyptian drug stores, but it may be called a different name. There
is no problem with bringing prescription medication into Egypt. However, it is also more convenient to bring
your favorite non-prescription medications along. Though you may
find such medication in Egypt, such as heart burn medication and pain capsules, you may have problems finding your favorite brands.
In addition, many tourists
who are a part of an organized tour will be staying in large hotels,
which may lack a complete inventory of
such medication, and
trekking out to find a variety of over the counter medications may
be inconvenient. Dont forget your Imodium.
While no one wants to
get Tuts Trot or Mummys Tummy, it may be handy to have some Imodium
or other anti-diarrheic with you. The
most common bottled water
brand, Baraka, contains a little magnesium and therefore may act
as a mild laxative. Another brand to try is
Siwa bottled water.
Camera: Most people are
not going to forget to bring their cameras on an Egyptian tour.
However, a couple of things should be pointed
out. First, while you
may take pictures as you like from the outside of most monuments,
many require that you do not use a flash when
taking pictures inside.
If you intend to take pictures inside tombs, for example, you will
need to bring high-speed film. Most people use
ASA 800 film, which they
push to 1600. For the most part, this requires a good 35 mm SLR
camera. In addition, monuments in Egypt
are truly monumental,
and tourists will often be disappointed with regular lenses. If
possible, a good wide-angle lens will be nice to
bring along. A video
camera will also provide you with nice souvenir footage of your
trip, however, keep in mind that filming inside many
of the museums, monuments
and tombs is prohibited.
Travel Alarm: Sure, most
hotels will give you a wakeup call, but for many, don't count on
it. A travel alarm is perhaps less important on
an organized tour, as
you will have people taking care of you. But particularly for the
independent traveler, a travel alarm will come in very handy. It
will help make sure that you wake up when you wish in Egypt. But I have often used mine to make sure that
I could grab some sleep in airports along the way, and still catch
Guide Books: Do invest
in an Egyptian Guide book, such as the "Lonely Planet" or "Rough
Guide" or any number of other good guides.
While you may be on a
guided tour, such a book will give you time to orient yourself both
before and after the actual tours to various
locations. In addition,
foreign printed guidebooks may be somewhat more expensive in Egypt, even though they are available. You may
also wish to look around
once in Egypt for other guidebooks.
An Extra Bag: A bag,
preferably soft, which can be crunched up and carried into Egypt in another bag will be handy for most people.
bag will then be used
to carry back souvenirs. Alternatively, many business people or
guests of Egyptians often bring presents into Egypt,
and once emptied, the bag is used to bring souvenirs back.
Again, bags may be easily
purchased in Egypt, but are likely to
be less expensive if you buy it at home and bring it to Egypt.
Sewing Kits: Some of
the larger hotels, as well as some of the better-equipped smaller
hotels (the Longchamps) may supply a sewing
kit in your room. But
don't count on this. Most Egyptian tours are relatively long, and
it is not unusual to loose a button here or there climbing through
tombs and pyramids.
There are good suitable beers and wines in Egypt
that are highly affordable, and it is not necessary to bring
in such items unless
you have a very acute taste for a particular brand. In fact, I consider
Egyptian beer excellent, and wish that I
could buy it in the states.
However, harder alcoholic beverages such as whiskies and bourbons
are maybe extremely difficult to find, and extremely expensive when
you do. You may bring in up to two litters of liquor, and you may
buy additional liquor at a reasonable price
at the tax-free shop
prior to leaving the airport. To give you an indication of why you
should do this, it is not uncommon to pay as
much or more than $13.00
for a single shot of Jack Daniels, a well-known US bourbon.
smoke, and cigarettes are not expensive in Egypt.
However, you will find only a limited variety of cigarettes for
the most part. For example, Marlboro Lights are readily
available, but not 100s.
In fact, not very many "long" cigarettes are. Further, while you
can purchase "American" cigarettes for a price in some of the better
hotels, usually you are getting an Egyptian manufactured cigarette
that is somewhat harsher then the "American" variety. Just because
you are buying Marlboro does not make it the same Marlboro that
you would by in the US, for example.
Finally, bring along
a humor and a good attitude. For many, and even those who have done
extensive traveling in the US or Europe, Egypt
will be very different.
You will often find attitudes more "laid back", time less important
and even some of the Egyptians selling
their wares or their
services at tourism sites annoying. Egypt
is a place where you learn to let the smaller problems you might
encounter roll off your shoulders, and simply enjoy this, the oldest
of all civilizations.