Egypt Leg 1: The Desert

We started our Egyptian journey in the Desert.  We were picked up at the Cairo airport by our French connection.  They informed us that the Djed travel agency had contacted the police, telling them what we were planning and identifying where we would be staying: Eden Garden.  Talat, the owner of Eden Garden had to grease a few palms to make it possible for us to visit the desert and we ended up reimbursing him a good amount of extra money for this.  Thanks Djed for all the extra pain and money you cost us!

Why is it “illegal” for tourists to visit the desert?  A few years ago, 12 were killed and 10 injured in the western desert.  The tour was run by a large tourism company which was told not to enter the area.  The local tour companies knew of the activities in the area and were avoiding them.  Since then, the government has banned travel into the desert for tourists.  All the operators in the area are now suffering because a non-local company ignored warnings and got some innocent tourists killed.

Long Drive into the Desert

We started with a long drive into the desert.  We were handed off by our French hosts to a young man and his wife, the sister of Talat, the owner of Eden Garden.  She was in full cover with only her eyes showing.  We were told it would only take four hours, but it took at least two hours longer.  I was thinking we were going to end up in Libya!  We were not sure who these people were or where we were going.  Well, there was no reason to worry.  After the long drive in the dark, we found ourselves at Eden Garden where a warm fire awaited us and shortly there after a wonderful fresh cooked meal.

Welcome to Eden Garden

We are later escorted to our “room”, a lovely stand alone building with attached bathroom.  The hole in the bathroom door where someone must have unlocked the door is interesting.  We sleep under heavy camel hair blankets.

Breakfast

Before heading off into the desert, we have breakfast with Adri, our fellow traveler for the day.  We have fuul, eggs, vegetables, potatoes and the ever present pita bread.  The coffee is what is called Nescafe.  It is just instant coffee packets in water.

 

Black Desert

The black desert is so named because of all the Basalt found on the surface.  It lay in small pieces all over.  Many small mounds can be seen, all of which were once active volcanoes.

Sandboarding

Lunch in the Desert
Four Wheeling over a Sand Dune
Panorama of the Desert

White Desert

The Black Desert with it’s basalt was wonderful, but the White Desert is magical. The white limestone looks like snow on the ground and it shines in the moonlight.

Our Dinner and Sleeping Arrangements in the White Desert

Dinner is cooked up on site with a gas fire for the rice and vegetables with the fire for barbecue.  The night is very cold.  Sitting by the fire keeps our fronts warm while our backs are cold.  We are given camel hair blankets to wrap ourselves in.  There are little barks in the night from all directions.  These are the foxes keeping us under surveillance.

A cozy fire on a cold night in the White Desert

The next day we venture out after breakfast to see some of the interesting formations, then back to Eden Garden.

The Mushroom and the Chicken
The Rabbit

When we get back to Eden Garden, we all get a gift of wool socks hand made by Talat’s family.  They are very warm, comfortable and functional in the desert. Ahead of us lies a 6 hour drive to Giza to catch the overnight train to the second leg of our journey.

Baksheesh

Baksheesh became such a major part of my experience in Egypt, I thought it warranted a blog entry of its own.

Baksheesh – Wikipedia, in Egypt

We started with a budget for this trip that included Baksheesh.  We wanted to make sure we had enough cash on hand to cover this very important aspect of tourism in Egypt.  We also had some requirements for US dollars in cash from some of the people we were patronizing.  So, we withdrew a bunch of cash to bring with us.  We distributed this among the family to carry in money belts so not all would be lost if someone was robbed.  

US dollars is acceptable but not preferred for Baksheesh.  Most of the time, the amount small.  Using foreign currency for tipping in small amounts makes it hard on the Egyptian, since it can be extra effort to get currency converted.  So, we tried to keep cash available in Egyptian Pounds.

Getting enough Egyptian currency was a challenge.  With a conversion rate of 20 Egyptian Pounds to a Dollar, we needed to withdraw bundles of pounds at a time.  The egyptian ATM system limits withdrawals to 3000EL per day.  I had two cards to use so I usually withdrew 6000EL each time.  Misr bank ATMs didn’t work for me.  The Misr network seems to be the largest, so I would hop from bank to bank finding the Misr ATM most of the time.  When I found a Bank of Egypt or other ATM, I could usually withdraw the funds.  The error at Misr was “You have withdrawn your maximum for the day” so I called my bank and made sure there was no fraud.  A max of $300 per day didn’t go far as you will see when you read what kind of baksheesh is required.  And since, the ATMs were hit and miss and many places in Egypt don’t have ATMs at all, keeping enough cash on hand can be a challenge.

After Egypt devalued its currency in November 2016, it went into freefall.  Prices doubled and it’s value against the dollar went from 9 EL for 1 USD to 19 EL for 1 USD.  With a 1 to 20 Dollar to Pound conversion rate, taking 3000 EL per day amounted to only $150.  Using two cards, I was able to get $300 per day. 

Who gets Baksheesh and how much?

Our travel agent publishes a helpful hints document for his clients.  This included a section on tipping.  He recommends specific amounts in USD for different services.  We tried to follow these guidelines even though they seemed a little high.  We questioned why they were tied to USD instead of EL and it seems the USD is more stable relative to the value of the services rendered.

The internet has a lot of advice on Baksheesh amounts.  Unfortunately, the devaluation of the currency was very recent rendering the numbers out of date since they were mostly in Egyptian Pounds.  If we followed them, we’d be giving people half the value they would have received only two months earlier.  We leaned on our guides to help us when we were in doubt.

So here are the recommendations for daily baksheesh (each is per day per person):

Daily Baksheesh Amounts
Service Base Amount Quantity Amount USD Amount EL
Driver $5 to $10 4 $20 to $40 400EL to 800EL
Guide / Egyptologist $10 to $15 4 $40 to $60 800EL to 1200EL
City Manager $5 to $10 4 $20 to $40 400EL to 800EL
Total per Day $20 to $40 4 $80 to $120 1600EL to 2400EL

We used the lower end of this range and found ourselves shelling out up to $80 more per day.  Over 16 days that adds up to over $1200 more dollars or 24000EL!

Other baksheesh

Baksheesh for Other Services
Service Amount
WC 1EL
Boat Ride 20EL
Monument Helper 20EL

So, be sure to bring more than one card for withdrawing Egyptian cash.  Make sure to get it when you can (when ATMs area available and work for your card).  Try to keep lots of smaller bills.  Some ATMs distribute with smaller bills, but I never figured out how to get single Pound coins except in change or by asking my guide to change a 5EL note.

Preparing for Egypt

We’ve had Egypt on the bucket list for a long time.  This fall, Geeta (my wife) decided this would be the year we finally visit.  Preparing for a trip to a place like egypt takes a lot of work and Geeta was up to the task.

Research

Geeta spent many hours on the internet finding information on all aspects of the trip from tips for travelers, to information about the sites, to reviews of travel agencies.  It was several months of many hours per day she put into this.

Shopping

In advance of the trip we needed to have a number of specific items with us.  Here are some of the things we added to our inventory:

  • Money Belts
  • RFID protection sleeves
  • Travel Insurance
  • Wipes
  • Toilet Paper
  • Zip Pants and Tactical Shirts

Things we missed

Warm clothes (it was much colder than we expected for December)

Travel Agent

Geeta worked with several separate travel agents before we decided on one:

Djed – they ran the Dahabiya cruise which was at the center of our itinerary

Hesham’s Recommendation

Others

Desert Operators

Germans

French