The Black and White Desert in Egypt are two of the most beautiful hidden gems in the country. The best of it: They are located just several hours away from Cairo
While most visitors traveling to Egypt have a long list of places to visit: The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Red Sea, the city of Luxor or the ruins of Abu Simbel. I wanted to explore the more untouched beauty of the country and get a glimpse of the vast Sahara. Luckily, the White and Black Desert were perfect getaways from Cairo, that I could explore when booking a tour.
Don’t get me wrong, I also visited the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and some other “must-see” spots in the city, but after spending 6 days walking around masses of tourists and telling street vendors that I don’t need another replica of the pyramids for my collection, I was really excited of a change of pace and get closer to nature.
The most unusual section of the Sahara
Located in the Farafra depression, a small section of Egypt’s vast Western Desert, the White Desert is located about 370 km south-west of Cairo. This area is known for having some of the rarest landscapes and geological formations in the whole country. Here, the landscapes vary from green oasis with palm trees and hot springs, to strange dormant volcanos surrounded by sand and mountains made of crystals.
I visited the White Desert after finding a tour operator on social media looking for two more people to join. I never heard about this place before, but after a quick google search, I realized this could probably be the most beautiful natural landscape of Egypt.
Since I also wanted to stay overnight in the Sahara, this was a great chance to fulfill that. Overnight tours from Cairo are quite uncommon and even though I knew by the reviews that it was going to be a bumpy and uncomfortable long ride, I really wanted this adventure.
Note: Some tours offer single day trips to the White Desert. However, take into consideration that a day trip to this part of the Sahara means covering more than 700 km in a single day. You will end up spending most of the time inside a crowded vehicle and the journey to this magical spot will not be the same. Besides, the highlight of my visit to the White Desert was staying overnight and sleeping under the stars.
What to see when visiting the Farafra depression
After waking up at 5 am and meeting my group at Cairo’s main bus station, I was ready to get on the road. First, we took an organized minivan from Cairo to the Bahariya Oasis, a relatively popular stop for travelers driving from Siwa to Cairo and vice versa. After a 6-hour ride, this was our first stop to get a snack, relax our legs and if we were in the mood, jump into the 40°C hot water at the hot spring located in the oasis.
Just like most oasis in Egypt, the Bahariya Oasis was formed after a depression of the landscape reached the water table and natural springs emerged. Overtime, date palms, small ponds and green vegetation formed a green dot in the middle of nothingness.
Once our 4×4 vehicles arrived, our group of 11 people was crammed into two Toyota Land Cruisers with barely any space for our bags. Including the guide and the drivers, we were 7 people in one vehicle – it was not a comfy ride at all.
After a homemade lunch prepared by the drivers at a house further south from the Oasis, we headed to the first key spot in our journey.
Arriving at the Black Desert is like stepping into a different planet. From postcard perfect golden dunes surrounding us, we arrived in a landscape full of black powder-covered hills. It is one of the strangest desert landscapes on earth and a place that leaves your mouth open.
The Black Desert of Egypt dunes were at some point regular sand dunes. But millions of years ago they were covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions that happened in this region.
Most of the hills are easy to climb and perfect to get a panoramic view of this vast surreal landscape. However, our guide took us to the “English Mountain”, the highest point in the Black Desert and the most popular spot for tourists to go up and marvel the view.
Crystal Mountain and the Agabat Valley
Our next stop was the Crystal Mountain at the Agabat Valley, an area located just 30 km away from the Black Desert. Even though it is not far away from the volcanic hills of the Black Desert, Agabat looks completely different. Here, giant white and gold limestone boulders decorate a mostly flat landscape, where travelers can explore for days in a vehicle and discover unique fauna and flora from the region – I even heard that some multi-day tours offer a deeper expedition to this part of the Western Desert.
While driving around the Agabat Valley, our driver pointed out the mountain we were about to climb to get the full view. It was going to be the Crystal Mountain, a small rocky hill built out of colorless crystals and giant columnar-shaped stalagmites.
This was a very special moment, as the idea of standing on top of a mountain made from crystals is quite surreal.
From the Crystal Mountain to the White Desert we still had to drive 30-50 minutes. Even though we would have preferred to see the White Desert for first time in daylight and at its full splendor, the twilight from the Agabat Valley looked magical.
However, anytime is a good time to visit the White Desert. This marvel of nature is made up of calcium rock formations that have been shaped by hundreds of years of sandstorms. Some even call it an “outdoor museum of contemporary art”. Here, it is common to see figures such as a sphinx, a person lying on the sand, a mushroom, a camel, or a chicken.
The White Desert has not been made for tourism development at all. There are no tourist facilities, vendors trying to sell you something you do not need or even bathrooms to use. There is not a single ticket control to the natural park, and we only have one rule. Everything we take to the desert; we must bring it back to Cairo.
You are really in the middle of the nature. Visiting the White Desert is a unique experience that everyone visiting Egypt should at least live once.
Staying overnight in the White Desert
The highlight of doing a tour to the Black and White Desert of Egypt is by far the opportunity to spend the full night in the middle of it. After arriving at late at night and finding a spot far away from other vehicles. We parked in a flat area surrounded by giant limestone boulders and dunes. Here, our drivers and tour guide set up a very simple camp with some chairs, a fire and rugs to keep warm.
At the camp, facilities were basic, our walls where the two vehicles we arrived in and we slept at the floor next to each other under the stars.
It is a relatively unpleasant night. However, the beauty of opening your eyes and marveling a starry sky or simply wander around in the middle of the night and seeing familiar shapes under the moonlight is something I considered priceless.
Note: The White Desert is very cold. Temperatures can drop up to 30 degrees at night and a proper jacket would be necessary to spend the night comfortably.
Can you visit the Black and White Desert on a tour?
Even though tours are not allowed to visit the White and Black Desert anymore, several operators, including large companies like Viator and Trip Advisor, still offer overnight visits to this surrealist place.
Usually, companies work with a local Bedouin that know the road perfectly and has contacts at the military checkpoints located between Cairo and the White Desert.
My 2-day/1-night tour to the White Desert cost around 80-90 EUR, but after doing some research on the internet, most companies are charging over 150 EUR for an overnight stay at the White Desert. I guess you will have to figure out if you prefer to book straight in Cairo for a cheaper price, or some weeks ahead while paying a very high commision.
Private and more comfortable tours should be possible too. I’m sure there are local tour operators offering this kind of option to clients. However, this was a nice experience to be shared and if I was traveling again with only one or two more friends, I would still take the opportunity of traveling with a group and spend the night sharing stories next to the fire and singing under the stars.
Note: There is also some information online about the danger of visiting the White Desert. Well, it is true that rebel groups are hidden in this part of Egypt. However, there are several checkpoints on the highway and to me it seemed everything very safe and comfortable. I also read that these rebel groups are located closer to the Lybian border and they never get to the White Desert.
Visiting the White Desert was by far my highlight when visiting Egypt. It has natural landscapes like anywhere else I’ve seen before and a tour to this part of the world meant being in the wilderness and surrounded by nature.
As I said my BBC Travel report about this unqiue place: “The White Desert makes you forget for a moment, that the Pyramids are the country’s biggest attraction”.
What to bring on a tour to the White and Black Desert in Egypt?
- Hiking shoes
- Long hiking pants
- Warm clothes (Jacket, beanie, gloves)
- Sleeping bag (In case your tour operator does not provide it)
- Toilet Paper
- Power bank (there is not a single spot with electricity during the whole tour)
- Water … lots of water
- Snacks (Energy bars, fruits, chocolates)