Light shines on Red Centre

Australia’s Red Centre is the dictionary definition of remote – scattered hamlets of humanity, vast cattle stations and long, open drives. Perfect for the baby roadtripper.

No, really.

It’s just a three-hour drive on sealed roads between Uluru and Ayres Rock Resort to Kings Canyon, add on another leg and you’ve hit the heady delights of our favourite outback town, Alice Springs.

If it piques your interest, take a look at my story for BNE magazine  on the Red Centre Way, a classic route for a cruisy long-weekender roadtrip, which can easily stretch out for a week.

Click here to read more.

A different side of Egypt: from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh

So I stuffed photographer and a crate of beer in a red 1975 Landcruiser and we aimed for Libya. Here’s the result…

:Away from the famous sites and Red Sea resorts, stretches of Egypt’s coast are opening up to tourism.

The sky is bright blue, the sand bright white, the sea perfect, and there’s not a soul on the beach. The only other visitors are a couple of young goatherds in fluttering white gowns or djellabas, and football shirts, who pose for me as they lead their blank-eyed charges to freshwater wells. Could this really be the Mediterranean?

Um el donya, the mother of the world, as the Egyptians call their country, has an embarrassment of attractions and sites that the world visits en masse, yet beyond the pyramids and tombs, Cairo and Luxor, glitzy Sharm el-Sheikh and the other diving and cruise hotspots on the Red Sea, there still remain superb areas that tourists are only just beginning to discover.

Click here to read the whole story in today’s Guardian, UK (!!!)

Bedouins and Beyonce

About a month ago, Adam, spotter of weird internet stuff par excellence, sent me a link to a ‘beautiful camel’ competition in Dubai with a question: do they have anything like this in Egypt?

I asked friends who said,”Belle, where are you living? Of course we do!” But they’re not easy to find like those in the Gulf states. A beautiful camel competition, for those of you who are unawares is, obviously, a beauty competition for camels.

Popular in the Arab region, the most fetching animal can haul in a swag of cash. Beautiful goat competitions have sprung up recently too, in a part of the world where displaying your womenfolk in skimpy bikinis to be ogled by other men is considered uncouth.

So I hunted around but found mostly just camel races, with a gathering each May in south Sinai the big event. The exception was the Characters of Egypt gathering. In only its second year, the event gathers tribes from across Egypt to play traditional music, compete in tugs-of-war and other physical feats and yes, to race camels.
As to be expected, it’s organised by a foreigner. The reaction from some Cairenes when I mentioned I was going to head down past Marsa Alam (12 hours by bus, 1:20 hour flight) to hang out with Bedouin tribesmen, was lots of giggling and slight disbelief. However, others were more impressed.

“We saw it on Facebook and thought it’d be a cool thing to go to,” a young, funky banker told me on why she and her friends had made the trek. There were representatives of tribes from Siwa on the Libyan border, the Farafra oasis in the Western Desert, Nubia, north and south Sinai and the local tribes from by the Red Sea or in the nearby mountains, way down here on the Sudanese border.

We spent two days at the camp, learning to tell the difference between the tribes – all wear light-coloured gellibayas, but some, like Al-Bashariya and Al-Ababda, put a black waistcoat over the top, while the North Sinai men wear red-and-white scarves (kufiya) with the black ring (iqal) to hold it down, a sight common in the gulf states, which they’re closest to.

The Nubians were set apart because they’re darker, and now not so nomadic, and also they were the only people to bring women with them. Yeah, they had the girls. And sexy girls, too. Unveiled and all, being presenters for Nubian TV, which was there in force, along with plenty of other media. The older, heavily cloaked traditional Nubian women gave me a quick lesson in zagaroota, the ululating they do when celebrating or dancing and one another painted a henna design around my arm, the tribes discussed the steep rise of hotels on their land, and everyone was dragged up for a dance around the fires at night.

The local tribes brought their camels and caretas (carts) to take people out into the nearby Wadi Gamel, travelling also with their flock of goats and a few tall donkeys who roamed about our tents like grey ghosts in the night.

Amazingly, I met old friends including Gomma, my young guide from Siwa who proved to be an enthusiastic stilt dancer, some of the organisers of the Egyptian 4WD rally I went to in Bahariyya oasis in February, and an old Bedouin remembered giving me a ride in his pick-up in Sharm el Sheik (to prove he knew me, and wasn’t just doing a line, he told me, ‘You said you wouldn’t give me your phone number because your husband will get mad,’ a line I use every day).

The camel from North Sinai won the race pot, LE15,000 (about US$5000) and Siwa won the hotly-contested tug-of-war.

Logistically, it was amazing. Held in the desert in a national park about 60km from the town of Marsa Salam, you could either stay in a nearby five-star hotel or pitch a tent, the admission fee covering three meals a day and however much tea or coffee you could cadge from the kitchen. There were even tents for hire and the media tent had internet that was fast, but sporadic. The tribes also displayed their handcrafts in the ‘giftshop’, a tent selling everything from elaborate musical instruments to cartons of cigarettes (the most popular item).

If you’re here next year, I would absolutely recommend going, so you can get up close and personal with a way of life that’s completely different to many in Egypt.

Marsa Alam is a mess of half-baked construction sites, a ratty bus depot and a flash new airport where, three days after we’d all packed up and gone home, Beyonce flew in to perform in a remote luxury resort. From Bedouins to Beyonce, Egypt once again shows two its many faces. www.charactersofegypt.com

Obsession

I’m starting to think I have a camel obsession. But their lovely, long fluttering eyelashes, their sweet faces and their thick, matted hair just get me. Which is why I’m now lugging a 4kg camel blanket which I bought in Bahariya Oasis.

The Oasis comprises eight villages strung between sand dunes and dry, barren plains, four or five hours by bus from Cairo.

It took an hour to get through donkey- and pyramid-ridden Giza and out of Cairo’s outskirts, then the new cities started, new towns with such optimistic names as Green Valley, which are also part of Cairo’s 20 million-strong population. It was flat. Really flat. The skyline was obscured by dust, which could be pollution as well as desert sand, and the only buildings on this road were oil maintenance sheds, where a lone passenger would depart, to walk into…where? The empty desert?

After pausing for a split second to dump the lone passenger, the bus would then pick up speed again to 140km, sitting in the centre of the road.

At Birawati, the main town of the Bahariya Oasis, we were spat into the waiting arms of a swarm of touts till I found the driver who’d take me and three others out into the White Desert. Ashraf, in his grubby blue tracksuit, pulled up an old Landcruiser stuffed with sleeping bags, mattresses and food to barrel out into the desert. Sometimes it’s ok being able to speak only English. Of the five of us in the van, the Italian, French-Canadian, Egyptian and Spaniard all spoke at least a few words of English, definitely the linga franca.


That night, Ashraf cooked sensational rice, potatoes and tomatoes, and – mysteriously – chicken (um, from where? We were in a hot car for at least three hours) and we had even managed to prise some beer out of a ‘Bedwin’ shop en route.

The floor of the White Desert is paved with blindingly white chalk plains and eruptions of soft chalk, escarpments that have been whittled away by the wind to fantastical shapes. They are fragile and beautiful…and ideal for travellers to climb upon to get early morning shots. We pulled into a camp area, passed a large bus full of what looked suspiciously like Kiwis and Aussies playing cricket, to find a little alcove where Ashraf laid out the kitchen, we made our beds beneath the stars and that night, tried to fall asleep beneath a full moon so bright, it cast shadows across the earth.


The next morning, everyone else in the desert had gone except us. I watched the big, orange sun break like rich egg yolk over the desert, but Ashraf woke only when I whistled to him and nudged the van (he was obviously over sleeping on the ground like us, and had curled up amongst our bags in the 4WD). We waited for him to complete morning prayers then he laid out breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, tea and nescafe, which the Italian stared bleakly at, unable to bring himself to sit down.

After breakfast, Ashraf kicked over the old Landcruiser again (the starter motor is wired to play a chant from the Ko’ran when it is turned over), and we roared off road into the desert…