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Egypt: Travel Tips - Travel and Survival in the Desert


Travelers and the nature of deserts


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 be fatal.

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

Thornthwaite's aridity 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. Population


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.

Specialist transport 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 Sahara.


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.

Petrol/benzene/gas is 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 as follows:


 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 stars.

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  visual contact.


 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.

Emergency situations 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 control

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.


Egypt: Travel Tips - What to Wear


Egypt is a conservative country and visitors should respect this attitude.

No topless or nude bathing is permitted.

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 sun.


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 Survival Kit


Egypt 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 problems.


Contending with Sun and Heat


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. We have

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.


Other Needs

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 in Egypt.


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 prong rounded.


AC/DC Adapter1600 W AC Converter

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 my flight.


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. The

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.


Alcoholic Beverages: 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.


Cigarette: Egyptians 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.