Armed with his Kevlar riding suit and his home-made rehydration solution, Jay Kannaiyan rides his bike through the shimmering Egyptian sands
The first morning rays tore through the mesh of my one-man tent, hot and blazing. Soon the Egyptian Sahara would shimmer in the scorching sun. It was time to pack up the camp I had set up at the base of a large limestone outcrop in a place known as the White Desert. This part of the Sahara, a day’s drive from Cairo, was filled with large, exposed white rocks that the sand-borne wind had carved into psychedelic Aeolian shapes. It is astonishing to see what art nature can create.
I had a highly capable motorcycle and topquality gear and I was slowly meandering back to India solo after a decade in the US along a route that made its way through South America, Europe and Africa.
Back at the White Desert, as I fired up my petrol stove to make my staple oatmeal breakfast, I noticed small animal footprints around the camp. I realised they belonged to a desert fox that had come to inspect the camp for food scraps at night. It was intriguing to realise that while the desert might seem inhospitable and lifeless to a city dweller, there was actually a thriving ecosystem of plants and animals among its sands.
Some of this was evident in the grand structures of ancient Egypt that I had seen in Cairo. In the pyramids and tombs, I had come across hieroglyphs of plants and animals – even gods with animal heads. Not so dissimilar to Indian culture.
India and Egypt, while seeming like distant cultures, actually shared a well-recorded past of their ancient civilisations — and there are connections between the cultures even in modern times. In this faraway land, my brown skin allowed me to blend in. And more than just appearance, there is a similarity in food, particularly in the staple known as kosheri in Egypt. It’s a combination of rice, lentils, pasta, crispy onions and tomato sauce. It’s said that British soldiers during the Second World War brought over the concept of khichdi from India, where cooking lentils with rice is comfort food.
Egypt has always been at the crossroads of culture, and the vast desert has played a large part in that. The Sahara was the final frontier for cultures further south reaching the Mediterranean, and for cultures to the north to gain access to the East.
Leaving the White Desert, I traversed along the Oasis Route as the mercury climbed past 50°C. More than the rays of the sun, it was the radiant heat coming from the desert that felt stifling. The dry heat of the desert was intense. Even though it was hot under my Kevlar mesh riding suit, I preferred the slight warmth of the suit compared to the burning of my exposed skin to the sun. I stopped frequently to hydrate, downing my homemade rehydration solution – 1 tbsp sugar, ½ tbsp salt and some concentrated lime juice in 1 litre of water. Water on its own does not cut it in this heat, as a bit of salt is necessary for the body to absorb the water. Out in the desert, it takes more than just water to survive. Passing through the oases of Farafra and Dakhla, I reached Kharga, the biggest oasis in Egypt. Kharga and the other oases have been focal points for caravan routes since time immemorial, and along the way, the Romans set up shop here, leaving behind a trail of forts out in the Libyan desert, west of the Nile river. Like breadcrumbs dropped to mark a route, these ruins were once formidable structures built to protect the Darb el-Arbain caravan route that originated in Dafur, Sudan, and passed through oases along the way, through Kharga, ending further north in Asyut on the Nile.
Trudging through the sand, protected from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and dark glasses, I came upon the Roman fort at Ain El Labakha. It’s a grand structure among the featureless desert, and even with three sides crumbled, it had an imposing aura about it. I could imagine how it must have looked in its heyday about 2,000 years ago to a caravan emerging from the shimmering heat.
I ventured further east until I reached the Nile, and Egypt’s most impressive city, Luxor. The architectural remains of Thebes in and around the city will remain imprinted in my memory for ever. This ancient city gained prominence for the luxurious lifestyle of its rulers and acted as the centre of ancient Egyptian politics, culture and religion.
On the west bank of the Nile lies the sprawling Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, located beneath the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari. Hatshepsut was a rare female pharaoh and was considered very successful during her reign (1503 BC to 1482 BC).
The temple, known as Djeser-Djeseru (the Holy of Holies), rises up with its grand columns set on multiple terraces, giving the feeling of a stairway to heaven.
Crossing the Nile on a felucca, a small boat powered by a sail, I followed the line of uncovered sphinxes that starts at Luxor temple at the river’s edge and leads to Karnak temple. The Sphinx Alley connects these two grand temples and was used by the ancients for a yearly procession depicting the marriage of their prominent gods, Amun and Mut. Egyptologists guess there were about 1,350 sphinxes lining this road, which are slowly being uncovered.
Dodging donkey-driven carts and honking traffic, I arrived at the Karnak temple complex, considered the holiest place in ancient Egypt. Construction began in the Middle Kingdom (2000 BC) and continued till the Ptolemaic period (300 BC). The grandest feature in the temple complex is the Great Hypostyle Hall – a 50,000 sq ft hall with 134 giant pillars, resembling a massive papyrus marsh. It’s mind-boggling to even think about how this giant monument was set up, that, too, in 1290 BC. Pharaoh Seti I commissioned and set about building this “temple of millions of years”. I sat at the base of one pillar and, as I looked up, my own insignificance dawned on me. It was just the peace here that ruled.
However, wish as I did that I could sit there for an eternity, the rest of Africa beckoned. Swinging a leg over my motorcycle, I fired up the throttle and rode off into the desert.