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White rocks an eerie sight

The Egyptian White Desert in Qasr al-Farafra oasis is marked by a solitary tree on a sand dune and one of the thousands of colossal chalk structures that stretch across the desert.
The Egyptian White Desert in Qasr al-Farafra oasis is marked by a solitary tree on a sand dune and one of the thousands of colossal chalk structures that stretch across the desert.
Matti Huuhtanen, Associated Press

FARAFRA, Egypt — In the half-moon light, the large, white rock formations tower above the dark sands in an eerie fluorescent glow, soon after the sun has set in myriad colors over the hot Egyptian desert.

Winds through millennia have "sculpted" the chalk figures — many as high as two-story buildings — into countless surrealistic shapes across the White Desert — mushrooms, animals and humans, or colossuses on hilltops.

Some look like camels, or "ships of the desert," the traditional form of desert transport that is making way for four-wheel drive vehicles. Others are reminiscent of pyramids, appropriate in this ancient land that is home to the pharaonic structures.

During the day, the blinding rocks add to the desert's heat, but they can also provide welcome shade from the scorching rays of the sun in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees.

At dusk, the formations dance in the evening hues. At night, they stand like enchanted moonlit sentinels in the profound silence.

The White Desert, southwest of Cairo, Egypt's capital, is on the northern fringe of the Western Desert that joins the Libyan Desert in the west. Beyond that, the great Sahara stretches for thousands of miles across northern Africa.

Aptly named, the White Desert will surprise travelers who expect endless soft, brown sand dunes. Those too can be found, but much of this desert floor is covered in limestone or hard white chalk. In some areas, the elements have ground it into a fine powder that can hang in the air for days after a windstorm, unlike sand that settles quickly.

A visit to the desert should be well-planned. Whether exploring by camel, four-wheel drive, on foot or off-road bikes, you need tour organizers who know the area well. Venturing alone can be treacherous.

This reporter and a Bedouin guide had to trek more than three hours in the blazing sun after our vehicle broke down, but the local man knew the way to the nearest road and we were able to get help before our water ran out. Some guides advise against going into the desert without a support vehicle besides your own transportation.

Qasr al-Farafra, Egypt's smallest oasis town and one of its least spoiled, 315 miles southwest of Cairo, makes a good base for exploring. The inhabitants, many of them descendants of nomadic Bedouins, hold the desert in deep respect and are among the best tour organizers.

They also provide the necessary clothing and equipment, including protection from potential sandstorms.

Hundreds of visitors have made the trip, as is apparent by numerous tire tracks in the sand, and sadly, the discarded garbage where one least expects it.

The Farafra depression of the White Desert with its many canyons has a unique natural wonder — huge, conical monoliths known as inselbergs — also found on other planets. Scientists have studied them to better understand Mars.

Among other noteworthy sights are Crystal Mountain, a quartz crystal rock with a hole in the middle, and the massive Twin Peaks. In contrast, minute sea shells can be found embedded in the rock, and the desert floor is covered in many places with quartz, pyrites and fossils.

A guide will take you to small tufts of oases where the green vegetation provides respite for the eyes after hours in the glare. His keen eye will lead him to find a stash of firewood from a twig sticking out of the sand.

The wood is needed for a campfire to prepare a hot meal and warm drinks as evening temperatures fall fast below 60 degrees. In the winter months, nighttime lows can dip to freezing.

There is little likelihood of rain, but fog and dew are common, especially during spring and fall. Sandstorms are also possible.

There is not much to do in the desert after you've seen the sights, but sleeping on the soft sand with the moon and stars forming a celestial canopy as the embers of the evening fire gently fade can be a memorable experience for a tourist who wants something more than pool-side hotel luxuries.

To fully appreciate the constellations, plan your trip on a moonless night by checking the lunar calendar. Otherwise, a wake-up call is necessary a few hours before sunrise when the moon has set.

Those who prefer the full moon will find the desert brings out its intense light and magic in an unrivaled way.

After a desert trek, Farafra makes a welcome watering hole with its 100 springs and wells.

Situated on the southwestern desert highway six to seven hours by bus from Cairo, it has an oasis of some 250 acres — the soul and provider for the sun-scorched town of some 5,000 inhabitants.

Wandering among the lush groves interlaced by streams and gushing rivulets seems mirage-like after the hot, arid sands. Tiny, juicy apricots, figs, olives, dates, guavas and mulberries are among its many fruits. Farmers also grow vegetables and other produce on land made arable by the oasis water supply and underground streams.

Much of the oasis is divided by mud walls with wooden doorways, dating back to the Roman era. Farafra, which has sustained many desert attacks, provided a stepping stone to the Nile Valley for neighboring Libyans, who captured it in the 13th century BC. Early signs of Christian housing and Coptic inscriptions also have been found in the town, which 200 years ago had only some 200 inhabitants.

The old fortress, dating back hundreds of years, is almost completely destroyed, although a few of its walls are used for surrounding houses.

A mosque commands the town's central square, from where six dusty streets lead into the maze of mostly low, mud-brick houses. The main street has several cafes, small restaurants, food stores, a bakery, pharmacy, photographers and haberdashery. There is also a post office and barber shop.

On the northeastern entrance to the town, the Badawiya Hotel offers rooms in a domed single-story building in local architectural style among flowering bougainvillea, banana and lemon trees and rose bushes. An outside diwan, a covered enclosure with colorful blankets and cushions for lounging, is a perfect place for a noon siesta. Early mornings and late afternoons are the times to venture out here.

Farafra has few tourist sites, but its simple, serene atmosphere and extremely friendly people are enticing.

Its cultural center point is the art museum built and run by a local, self-taught Bedouin artist who uses one name, Badr, who has exhibited paintings, etchings and other works in Europe.

Urns of different-colored sands dominate the courtyard of the two-story mud building where he works and exhibits. Despite offers from abroad, he says he won't leave the desert.

"Farafra gives me everything; nature, the sand, the stone, the architecture and the people," Badr, 44, said. "The oasis and the desert allow me to be myself and to dream my dreams. I need nothing more."