Black Rocks and Regrets
We went to Asyut by plane, leaving home at 6.00am.
Asyut is hardly the heart of the Universe. In fact, our boarding passes for the flight listed the boarding gate as DUM. It was a large and comfortable jet, but only half full.
Our car met us there as the driver had come up the day before. We left Asyut and headed west.
We then drove straight into the desert and towards Kharga Oasis.
Have you ever seen anything so wonderful and stunning that it burns its way into your memory?
The desert was pink and salmon and silver. The area is hot in Summer - and I am not talking about a wimpy 30 degrees centigrade, but about up near fifty centigrade and sometimes even over. Wind whistles though here, and as it goes it picks up sand and carries it in a firm grasp, blasting across the rocky forms in the desert. The rocks are polished - a shape hard satiny sheen in a pale mauve-violet, and oddly faceted like beaten copper.
Occasionally we would sweep around a corner and see marvelous things - round black rocks, nestled in smallish rings as if just ready for a giant game of marbles. I think these were concretions as once explained to me by a geologist. Think of the bottom of a long ago sea. Imagine mud settled and silt falling gently to the bottom, enshrining dead fish and shells and things that become fossils. As the animals rot the gases form in the trapped layers, forcing bubbles in the silt which just do not quite escape. They slide sideways through the mud, forming bigger and bigger bubbles until you have large round pockets of gas in the soft mud. The silt hardens with the bubble trapped, but slowly very fine silt seeps into its space as it disperses into the surrounding hard mud. The finer silt sets harder, and in this case, darker. As the sea dries up the layers form over the concretions, but now it is just chalk and salt and sand. As the deserts form, over the centuries the surface weathers and blows away, allowing the perfectly round concretions to emerge and sit isolated in the sand.
There was one spectacular moment. Around the corner we came, and nestled in the wake of a huge rocky curved mesa was a sea of concretions - nestled tightly together and stretching back perhaps three hundred metres, almost as far as we could see. They were a dull matte black, they looked like perfect spheres, and at least half a metre wide, maybe even bigger. All around was gleaming violet rock and rippled banks of sand and it was absolutely glorious. It looked as if some incredible bird had just left the nest and flown.
And do I have a photo?
No. We had a police chase car behind, and an escort car in front and Bob pointed out that in these conditions it was really awkward to stop. I didn't much care about awkward, but when moving at speed on desert highways by the time you have spent two minutes quietly muttering it is a long way back. I thought there would be others so I didn't push it too hard. By twenty kilometres further I was prepared to accept ten concretions, not hundreds. There was not one more. The desert flattened out to pancake-like flat, with occasional humps and flat topped projections. While a toilet stop showed that these had cascades of fossilised shells under the hard flat crust they were nothing like as spectacular as the beds of concretions. I wanted to stick my bottom lip out and sulk but decided to make the best of it with only an occasional mutter. But - if you ever go from Asyut to Kharga look to the left and be ready to stop.
Five hours later we reached Dakhla.
We were to stay at the Canadian dig house - an archaeological base used by many different dig teams working int he area. I was surprised by Dakhla. My only other experience of a large depression (geological) is the Bahariya depression that cradles the Black Desert and the oasis of Bawiti and Qasr in the Western Desert. It is poor and might have once been a charming town, but the mud brick dwellings that sat easily in the surroundings of date palms and sand have largely been cleared in favour of quarried white stone with dark mortar which is somehow ugly and unforgiving in an already stark landscape.
Once in Wadi Dana in Jordan I commented on the sadness of the fact that the man I spoke to had moved his family from an old stone house with a gentle dome on top, and into something made from concrete bricks. He explained that the mortar was made from straw and mud and donkey dung, and that insects and rodents worked their way through it over time. The second time his mother had a snake in the kitchen that have followed the mice into the house was the limit!
I thought the old house was beautiful and said so. I thought the new house was a lot less so and while I did not say so I guess my voice implied it.
"Do you mean", he said quietly, "that we should be uncomfortable so that you can think we are charming?"
The worst of it was - that was exactly what I did mean.
Dakhla is modern and well-kept as a town, but there is still a surprising lot of mud brick and traditional housing around. Even the graveyards were really beautiful. I have a lot more to say about the trip but I don't want people falling asleep over over-long text, so will finish with some photos of graves looking across to the Escarpment that borders the depression.
More in a day or so!