We left later than intended. Loading always seems to take longer than intended.
Over the service station wall as we filled with the last diesel that would come from a bowser we could see a really spectacular mesa ringing the oasis.
Dahkla is an unexpectedly prosperous little town - unexpected at least after the comparative poverty of Bahariya with its nasty white stone 'brick' buildings overtaking the lovely old mud brick, and the abject dust and poverty of Farafra. The Oasis Hotel had been pretty - built up a hill with domes on the square accommodation blocks, and the lighting at night was entrancing - perhaps more so than the harsh light of day.
We traveled north, then swung off the road and out into the desert. We were hoping to find Djedefre's Water Mountain - a cache for supplies and water discovered by Carlo Bergman and published in 2003. It was ringed with mystery. A similar site - Abu Ballus pottery trail - had been found earlier as evidence that Pharaonic Egypt DID stray away from the Nile. Documentary evidence of large groups of men sent after pigments and something - imhet - which is not identified today - are interesting and backed up by the large caches of water jars in pottery on the Abu Ballus site. Unfortunately most of the pottery has since been destroyed, and the area turned into a desert rubbish site after many generations of less than scrupulous campers, and we have decided not to go there.
The Water mountain has the mystery of the recently discovered. Many people claim to have the correct GPS location for it, and Alberto Siliotti, writer of the Egyptian Pocket Guides and many marvelous maps, is with us as the trailing car and has a set of 'accurate' location notes. His wife Yvonne is a Geologist and has worked with Ancient Egyptian use of pigments - so an interesting companion.
We started driving over loose sharp gibbers. This is slow going. Moving fast might puncture tyres. The gibbers form a thick and crunchy crust like a cream brulee. Break through and you sink to the axles in soft sand.
It is an odd area. There are rings of sharp rock that stick up through the sand, and look, perhaps because of their regularity, man-made. They obviously are not as there are just too many, and they go on for far too long. Sometimes it is just the very tips of pointed rocks in small circles, at other times they are high, wide and effusive, with black slabs seeming to fall over each other in haste to get out of the ground. Photography is near impossible in the jerking lurching process, and with a late start, and a long way to travel, everyone is concerned about our slow progress.
Driving was hard and erratic. Soft sand stretches meant a need for speed, with occasional dragging sensations as one side of the car dropped into a softer stretch of sand and slewed us briefly sideways. Then abrupt slowing as we hit more sharp stone. Through all of it there is a remorseless wind blowing, spinning sand in fog-like waves against the sides of the car.
I am in a car with Jean Daniel and Marita. Marita is in the front as she is easily carsick, and I am wondering how long she can hold out in progress like this. They are delightful - Swiss, and the most delightful of possible companions, both erudite and intelligent and with that marvelous ability to converse on all topics with ease.
We have a poor quality photocopy of an image of the water mountain - but no-one pointed out that the desert, by this time, is littered with identical shapes.
As we move west long crackles of white chalk - or is it gypsum? - appear in the rock and threading through the layers. As the wind blew, and the two leading cars, Mahmoud's and Alberto's, kick up clouds of sand, the fine white powder hanging in the air long after the sand has settled, leaving the cars trailing long plumes like jets.
We all pull up in front of an obvious tomb of unknown age. Probably old as there has been little or no travel in this area - there is no water nearby and nowhere to travel from! It is a lonely grave, but very beautiful.
The tracks of the cars are deep here in soft sand, and layer in beige and white and honey and rose, and sometimes a clear buttery yellow.
We found the Water Mountain. Somehow I suspect many of us thought it would not happen. It was one dark squat hill among many, but marked very distinctly by a festive white archaeologist's tent - which I avoided in the photo. Note the clearly cut away area which creates the terrace halfway up! There were deep-cut caches too for water or water in vessels.
I loved the painting of Djedefre smiting his enemies - the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt seemed to spend a lot of time doing just that.
Cartouche and hieroglyphs
Alberto at the site on the terrace
Lunch was being prepared for us while we walked, and we came back to the cars to find tuna salad - rough chopped and crunchy with red onion and mayonnaise - and fresh brown bread, hard yellow cheese, tomato and cucumber in tahini, and a bit of the eggplant left from the day before. Guavas followed. The smell in the car seems to get stronger each day and I am starting to think I will be glad when we finish them.
As we leave the Water Mountain Alberto is stuck in the sand. That is no big deal. However, as we dig and push it becomes obvious that his four wheel drive was not working - the car can only operate in two wheel drive. This is potentially a problem as we venture into more difficult driving conditions.
Late in the evening as the sun is starting to drop and the light becoming richer and golden we reach the first sand dunes. Mahmoud as lead driver pulls onto the sharp crest at the top and sinks to his axles. He signals Alberto in - and Alberto does not even get to the top of the crest before sinking. One by one the other cars all line up - ours included - and all bogged in very deep soft sand.
There is a funny thing about sand dunes. Sitting in a car on top of them - and I have realised you always sit for a few seconds at the top - they look UNBELIEVABLY steep. They look as if the car will just roll end over end if you dare to drop the front wheels down onto that slope. Sitting there and looking at it I felt all my old fear of heights well up and choke me. I got out and walked down - there was no rush as it would take time to get the cars free.
From the bottom it was just a gentle slope - but I NEVER got over that moment of sheer terror at the top - and the clutch bars above the windows have been named the "O Shit! bars' for good reason.
We lost eggs with the first descent
So our nice young army officer, Mohamed, carried the rest, sliding down the slope.
We set up camp in the wind - a wind that fought our attempts to put up our tents. First the cars are pulled into a three-sides-of-a-square formation.
Then the frames and main shelters go up.
Dinner was vegetable soup followed by grilled chicken and rice with vermicelli.