The White Desert is the jewel in Egypt’s tourism crown, but relies on volunteers to stay free of rubbish.
Weird mushroomy rock pinnacles dominate the landscape of the White Desert – one of Egypt’s most popular destinations. For some 20 kilometres (12.5 miles), freestanding white chalk blocks line up like sculptures in a city park. Most visitors become transfixed by their size and alien beauty – until their gaze lowers towards the ground where paper and plastic bags lie buried.
The White Desert is situated in the Western Desert, which covers two-thirds of Egypt. More specifically, it is based in the Farafra Depression. The closest town is Farafra, some 45 kilometres (30 miles) away. It borders to the Bahariya Oasis in the north.
It was formed when a large rock plateau began to break down. Some formations were left standing. They had become hardened at a time when the desert were underwater. Sedimentary rock had formed around dead marine fauna that had sunk to the ocean floor. And so while most of the plateau dissolved into sand, these ‘inselbergs’ – which is German for ‘island mountains’ – stood their ground.
Mass tourism is inevitable for such a special site. It is a problem. Large volumes of rubbish are left in the desert and circulated with the wind. Admirably, a group of volunteers are handling the issue. In late April or early May, the Al-Hayah Development Association, an NGO, and Badawiya Expedition Travel, a Cairo-based tour operator, join forces to arrange the annual White Desert Clean-up.
The expedition has existed for several years. In 2009 they picked up four tonnes of waste. It included plastic bags, paper and cans. This year some 30 people journeyed into the desert and stayed there for five or six days. The volunteers vary from natives to foreigners living in Egypt. Participants pay a fee of EGP 700 – the same as £65 or $100 – which covers transport, food, drink, tents and other equipment. Unlike sloppy tourists, they leave nothing behind.
According to Gamal Taher, of Badawiya Expedition Travel, the problem behind the littering is unregulated tourism. “Many people are not educated but are still doing the same job as us,” he says. “They are not professional travel companies. They wait at the bus stations to take people around the desert, and there they can do whatever they like. There is no control.”
Most organisers spend the nights camping in the desert. The licensed operators, such as Badawiya, take their rubbish home. Unofficial guides are not so careful. “They follow no rules or regulations,” Taher says. “They don’t even have a licence to take tourists around. The problem is that nobody cares. The tourists would like to take the cheapest way.”
The Egyptian government has tightened regulations around the White Desert. The area was made a national park in 2002. In 2009 ticket fees and paths for vehicles were introduced. Yet rules are often broken. Unlicensed guides go off-road and crush fragile chalk pieces. And then there is the littering. “They eat everything in the desert,” adds Taher. “And nobody cares about it. We are trying to stop it, but it takes time. Maybe a couple of years.”
Photos: Enrico Montanari, Ferderic B, Francisco Javier Gil [all via Shutterstock.com].