The Hidden Valley And The New White DesertThough relatively few safari outfits run trips there – or even know the area from experience rather than mere hearsay – the western reaches of the Farafra depression are no less fascinating than the White Desert.
The Hidden Valley
(Wadi al-Ubayyid) behind the Qus Abu Said Plateau looks superficially similar but is more geologically diverse, with volcanic massifs as well as chalk yardangs.
The northerly route into the valley passes the well of Bir Bednui; a 20-metre-high pinnacle called Al-Qabur (“The Chisel”); and humped monoliths known as Hummocks. In the 1990s, Italian archaeologists found the remains of a prehistoric village beside a long-vanished lake, leading to the discovery of the Al-Ubayyid Cave 50m up a cliff-face.
Its three chambers contain rock art, with engravings of gazelles and cattle, and the blown-outlines of human hands. The cave is officially off-limits but some safaris visit it nonetheless.
Further west stands the Infidel Rock, an anthropomorphic rock formation that locals believe marks the last known location of the fabled Lost Army of Cambyses. Sphinx Valley is a locality where almost every yardang calls to mind (and might even have inspired) the famous monument near the Giza Pyramids. The plain beyond is dominated by huge chalk inselbergs, or isolated hills, prompting local safari operators to dub this the New White Desert.
Until a decade ago the New White Desert was off-limits due to the proximity of Ain Della (“Spring of the Shade”), which has played an epic part in the history of the Western Desert as the last waterhole before the Great Sand Sea.
Used by raiders and smugglers since antiquity, explorers in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Long Range Desert Group in World War II, it now has a garrison of Egyptian Border Guards. This elite force pursues smugglers using jeeps (rather than camels, as in the days of the Frontier Camel Corps), roaming up to 200km into the Great Sand Sea on four-day patrols. The spring-water is sweet to drink and allows the soldiers the luxury of showers at their barracks in the middle of nowhere.