No single name should really be applied to the vast area of desert that runs all the way from the Mediterranean coast of Egypt to the Sudanese border some 1,000km (600 miles) to the south. This massive area of sand and rock, in fact, contains many different deserts with different names, and topography that varies from smooth, windblown flats of sand to massive rocky escarpments to sinuous dunes of golden sand. Far from being empty wastelands, these deserts are rich in wildlife and contain several towns, some of which have been inhabited since Pharaonic times. Long ignored by all but the most adventurous tourists, the western desert is now becoming increasingly popular as facilities improve and word gets around about spectacular landscapes, hot springs, palm trees, and unexplored ruins.

One of the more surprising facts about this desert is just how much water it contains. Vast underwater aquifers fed by the North African water table well up into the dozen or so major depressions in the desert between the Nile Valley and the border with Libya. The most northerly of these, the Qattara Depression, comes within 80km (50 miles) of the Mediterranean coast near Al Alamein; it's also the deepest -- at one point it's more than 130m (427 ft.) below sea level, which makes it the lowest point in Africa. The depression formed an impenetrable barrier to Rommel's tanks on their eastward thrust in World War II, preventing them from outflanking the Allies' 1942 defensive lines and setting up one of the biggest and most dramatic confrontations of that war. Interestingly, there have been proposals since at least the 1920s to cut a trench to the sea to allow water to flow into the Qattara Depression in order to take advantage of the drop in level to generate electricity.

To the southwest of Qattara lies the Siwa Depression, walled to the west by the massive dunes of the Great Sand Sea and containing, incredibly, a wide, shimmering lake that perfectly reflects the bleak outlines of the mountains around it. Famous throughout antiquity as the site of the Oracle of Amun, Siwa has been visited by a remarkable range of celebrities including Alexander the Great and, more recently, Prince Charles.

Siwa is one of my favorite places in Egypt. Until recently very isolated, it now has several excellent hotels, stunning desert scenery and ruins, and -- somewhat strangely -- some of the best dining in the country.

A little farther south and well to the east of Siwa, the Bahareya Oasis contains a couple of towns. Bawaty, the main town of Bahareya, is connected to Cairo by a paved road and to Siwa by a track that is passable with a 4WD. South of Bahareya, and connected by a paved road, is the more sparsely populated Farafra Oasis.

Between Bahareya and Farafra lie the Black and the White deserts, two of the most spectacular desert topographies in the world. The Black Desert is marked by conical black mountains that rear out of the sand and provide an incredible view across the desert in all directions. The nearby White Desert, meanwhile, contains great chunks of white rock that have been carved by the wind into surreal, organic shapes. An overnight jeep safari into either of these deserts is an experience of a lifetime. Remains of Roman and Pharaonic sites also dot the area, as do hot springs where you can bathe at night amongst the palm trees.

From Farafra, the road continues to Dakhla Oasis, which is cradled by a relatively large depression in the desert and backed by a massive escarpment that looks from below like a range of mountains looming to the north. In fact, the top of this cliff marks the level of the desert, and its height above the little towns of the oasis is the depth at which they lie below their surroundings. Here the ancient town of Qasr, the numerous Roman ruins, as well as the gardens nestled into patches between the sand, can easily absorb a couple of days of wandering before setting out to see what lies beyond the edges of the settlements. To the east of Dakhla lies Kharga, the provincial capital, and then on to Luxor on the Nile in Upper Egypt.