The red Toyota Land Cruiser weaves across a plain of extinct black volcanoes at 110 kilometres an hour. The scorched brown earth is peppered with marble-sized gobs of iron pyrite spewed from the mountains at their birth.
Our Bedouin driver and guide, Yaher, should be extolling the virtues of the Black Desert, 360 kilometres southwest of Cairo and one of Egypt's most dramatic landscapes. But the tape deck is blasting out his favourite Arabic love song and he's too busy dancing.
"It is a wedding song!" he shouts over his shoulder happily. He pumps both hands in the air in time with the drums, strings and wailing vocals, seemingly paying little attention to the giant cones and pressure ridges of rippling black rock blurring past our windows.
The lyrics on the next verse are punctuated with AK-47 fire. Yaher's baby-faced cousin and our camp helper, Sayid, turns excitedly from the front passenger seat to look back at my wife, Janine, and me. "Now he talks about the bride!" he explains. He claps in time with the gun play. We smile politely and firmly grip the handlebars above the passenger doors.
Yaher parks at the feet of the highest volcano and we scramble with him to the summit. In the days before mechanized travel, raiders and traders would scan the horizon from here looking for camel caravans approaching from Libya and beyond on the old Levant mercantile routes. Today, it's the starting point for our trip - a four-day off-road journey through Egypt's western oases and some of the most varied desert scenery in the world.
The volcanoes peter out over the next half-hour's drive, gradually replaced by mounds of sand-covered limestone, an area called Agabat, an Arabic word for "obstacle." The mounds are small at first, but Yaher is soon steering between hills nine metres tall, shaped like sugar loaves and muffin tops. It looks like the whole desert is on a low boil, new formations bubbling up from the amber-tinted ground at each turn.
We camp among the hills late in the afternoon, the setting sun turning them successive shades of lemon, gold and then a deep rose. Yaher stakes out a three-walled Bedouin shelter around a low table bordered with cushions and topped with a bowl of pomegranates, dates and bananas. The open side of the shelter faces the campfire. Sayid crouches by the flames, roasting two chickens and carefully pinching salt and cumin into burbling pots of rice and zucchini stew. Foil-wrapped sweet potatoes bake in the embers.
After dinner, we drag the cushions closer to the campfire. Yaher prepares the first of several pots of strong, black Egyptian tea. Sayid disappears and returns with two drums. He hands one to Yaher and they launch into a foot-tapping, call-and-answer Bedouin song that has Janine and me clapping and whooping at its end.
"And now," grins Yaher, holding his drum towards us as we finish our applause, "it is your turn."
"Oh! But we don't drum," Janine tells him, a slight note of panic in her voice.
"It is good," he says, still smiling. "Just singing."
"We only know Newfoundland folk songs," I say desperately.
"It is good," Sayid says. He carefully places some coals from the fire into his hookah pipe, takes a deep drag of apple-spiced tobacco and leans back on his cushion expectantly.
And so, in the cool desert night, we sing to two Bedouins Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor.
Back in the Land Cruiser the next morning, we leave Agabat's rounded hills and dip into a sandy valley of irregular stone monuments. Knife-edged walls, soaring arches and natural obelisks rise 30 metres above taupe dunes.
The dunes grow larger until we're surging over nothing but tawny waves beneath an azure sky. I have no sense of direction here, but Yaher is in his element on the sand. Humming along to each song on the tape deck, he bobs and fishtails with the casual excellence of a master driver, navigating unerringly to our lunch spot at a lonely copse of a dozen palms.
In the afternoon, the sands give way to a high plain of pure limestone called the White Desert. It's covered in a forest of house-sized, chalky monoliths, eroded by wind and sand into a menagerie of fantastic shapes. Some look like giant mushrooms, one looks like a hen sitting beside an egg, another a lion's face, another a kneeling camel. It goes on for kilometres - desert meets Arctic ice pack meets Alice in Wonderland.
"We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but no one knows where," Yaher says.
I know the marble labyrinth is serious business when Yaher turns off the music for the first time on the entire trip as we pull up to it. Throughout this third day, we've been detouring around sporadic patches of grey, jagged marble, sticking out of the sand like tire spikes. But now the whole desert before us seethes with irregular, crisscrossing pressure ridges of the stuff.
Yaher cautiously steers the Land Cruiser onto the serrated marble between two cairns of piled shards. Another pair of cairns lies 100 metres away, delineating a safe path. There are more cairns beyond those.
"This is the most difficult place," Yaher says, squinting out the window. "If you lose the path, you must turn back to the last cairn, or your tires …. phoof," he softly snaps his fingers. It's 25 km of slow, tense driving.
The ruddy Kasr mountain range rears up at the end of the labyrinth, barring the approach to our final destination at the oasis town of Dahkla. Yaher guns it up the single pass, dodging one last massive sand dune at its feet and threading expertly between two towering peaks of rust-coloured stone to make the summit.
Dahkla can wait until tomorrow. We camp near the pass, the red peaks turning a delicate shade of violet as evening falls. No singing tonight - we're comfortable enough in each other's company now that the music isn't necessary. The campfire conversation wanders from the Koran to polar bears.
Yaher is wistful at night's end. "It is sad for you - not to have three more days," he says, scuffing some sand over the dying embers before bed. "There is so much to see."
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