The romance of the open desert, combined with spectacular and varied scenery, is turning the Western Desert of Egypt, virtually unknown 20 years ago outside a small circle of explorers, into a major tourist destination. The Sinai Peninsula, which offers a different, and perhaps even more hostile, environment, is a little behind the curve in this regard, but more and more tourists are reaping the rewards of taking the path a little less traveled.
With the tourists have come two developments. First, the inevitable expansion of outfits offering guiding and safaris is swamping the market with inexperienced guides looking to cash in on the rush. Second, well-organized efforts are being made to organize and train guides, and to clean up and maintain the natural beauty on which the industry is based.
If you've never been in the desert, it's hard to imagine how easily you can get lost or stuck. And with temperatures that can run to 120°F (50°C), you can get into serious trouble. Remember when you book a guide that you're trusting him -- his driving, his navigation, his judgment, and his equipment -- with your life. Apart from this, you're also trusting him to cook decent meals, respect your privacy, and not cut his costs by jamming you in with another group or by neglecting his equipment.
If you have a good company or guide, pricing is going to be pretty much "get what you pay for." A good 4X4 with a guide/driver and some food and bedding should cost around LE600 to LE700 ($109-$127/£56-£65) for 24 hours. The simple fact is that if you're getting a cheaper price, corners are being cut -- maybe on the vehicle (bad idea), maybe on the driver's pay (also a bad idea -- imagine being stuck in the desert with a bad-tempered driver), or on your food (yet another bad idea). Look at it this way: Even the basic Land Cruisers favored by most guides will take three passengers comfortably, and four isn't bad, so at the still safe and comfortable low end of desert safaris, you're looking at around LE150 ($27/£14) for food, lodging, and transport through some of the most difficult, not to mention beautiful, landscape in the world.
The recommendations below may be divided by oases, but by definition these guides all have a scope of expertise that runs well beyond the narrow boundaries of their town or immediate home area. You'll be able to find cheaper guides, but you won't find better.
The Shannon Desert Tribe, Maadi (tel. 010/1778188 or 012/8188; email@example.com), is run by the legendary Amr Shannon, who seems to be laying off desert guiding and heading into early retirement. If you can get him to take you into the desert, however, it's your lucky day. If he's too busy, follow his recommendations on alternatives.
Badawiya Expedition Travel, Maadi (tel. 02/25260994; fax 02/25287273; www.badawiya.com), was originally based in Farafra, where it remains heavily involved in training and development, but it now runs safaris through the Western Desert. Badawiya offers pretty complete packages and can even arrange your visa and pick you up at the airport if you need.
Pan Arab Tours, El Nozha St. (tel. 02/24184409 or 02/24184419; fax 02/22913506), is another big, Cairo-based operator with experience running safaris from the North Coast all the way to the Sudanese border. The same company owns and operates the Desert Lodge in Bahareya, the natural stepping-off point for safaris into the far reaches of the southern desert.
Abdullah Baghri (tel. 01/11180680; firstname.lastname@example.org) is the doyen of Siwa guides and an all-around pleasant and helpful guy who speaks great English. Like Amr Shannon in Cairo, Abdullah is well established with an A-list clientele, so he may not be able help you directly, but his judgment on who can take his place is to be trusted.
Omar Abu Zahara (tel. 010/6118139; fax 046/4600761; email@example.com) is another excellent Siwa guide who not only knows the desert around the depression but is careful and attentive to the needs of his customers. He speaks only very basic English, but he has an assistant and cook who can translate just fine.
White Desert Tours (tel. 02/38472322 or 01/23212179; www.whitedeserttours.com) is run by an Arabic-speaking German transplant to the oasis, Peter Wirth, who also runs the International Health Center (known locally as Peter's Hotel). Peter uses the best local guides to put together excellent safaris that range from simple tours of local sites to more elaborate trips out to Dakhla and beyond. He can also arrange pickup in Cairo.
The diminutive and rather gruff Badri Khozam, Bawiti (tel. 012/7313908; www.desert-safari-home.com), has been running tours and safaris around Bahareya for about as long as anyone can remember. He can be found at his Desert Safari Home. His English is very good.
Mohamed Kosa (tel. 012/2248570) is tall and a little forbidding when you first meet him, but his face splits with one of the widest smiles in the oasis. He is one of the best known and most competent deep-desert guides around, and his basic English is sufficient.
If you're in Farafra, you're probably already hooked up with Badawiya Expedition Travel. If you're not but want to be, just head over to the Badawiya Hotel, and they'll fix you up.
Ahmed Abed (tel. 010/3064733; firstname.lastname@example.org) is a third generation guide who moonlights as an English teacher, so his ability to communicate information about the landscape and animals that you see is unparalleled.
Dakhla is the southernmost of the big oases, and the natural jumping-off point for trips down to the Gilf Kebir. While Pan Arab Tours is the big player in Dakhla Oasis, running the Desert Lodge, there are a couple of other people whom you could consider as well.
Abdel Hamid runs the Dohous Bedouin Camp (tel. 092/7850480; www.dakhlabedouins.com) as a base for desert excursions by jeep or camel. The camels live just behind the camp, so you can even check them out and choose your favorites before making up your mind.
Hatem Mohamed Shafik, who runs the Bir Gebel Hotel and Camp (tel. 092/7726600 or 012/1068227; fax 092/7727122; email@example.com), also organizes local safaris. There's not going to be anything elaborate about the affair, but for a few nights in the desert close to the oasis at a decent price, you'll be in good hands.
Sparsely populated but impressive and ruggedly beautiful, the Sinai Peninsula used to be pretty inaccessible without your own 4X4 and a thick Rolodex of contacts. Fortunately, a couple of companies are making it a lot easier to get out and see this fascinating part of Egypt. Prices tend to be marginally higher on the Sinai than in the Western Desert. Both the companies below are open and upfront about their pricing policies, however, and can be trusted to present you with an honest, take-it-or-leave-it price.
The St. Catherine-based Away Away Sinai (tel. 012/2270443; www.awayaway-sinai.net) doesn't only book guides who have been trained as part of a European Union project to improve the tourist infrastructure, but can arrange transport in the central Sinai and even reserve rooms with the sometimes elusive Jamal at Al Karm Ecolodge.
Desert Divers (tel. 069/3640500; www.desert-divers.com) in Dahab arranges trips that run the gamut from overnights between Dahab and St. Catherine with jeeps to a 2-week trans-Sinai camel trek. Bedouin owned and run, well established, and experienced, this is a company that can access the best of local knowledge while providing excellent service.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.