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Siwa: Unearthing the Magic of the Isolated Oasis

Hot springs and sand dunes and salt lakes, oh my! Follow Farah Hosny as she heads to Siwa Shali Resort and unearths the captivating beauty that is Siwa.

Until last weekend, the extent of my knowledge about Siwa was in terms of high school houses - you know, like Hogwarts. Except in Hogwarts, Griffindor, Slytherin, and the rest competed in things like Quidditch cups while, at my high school, we competed in slightly more run-of-the-mill sports days and very nerdtastic library quizzes. Siwa was always the losing house. It was full of scrawny geeks and they never one a single tug of war. If you were assigned to Siwa, you’d basically been relegated to a high school existence of endless sucking. But it turns out the real Siwa - one of Egypt's most isolated, far-flung desert settlements that many of us have preconceived notions and very little actual knowledge about - is a freaking winner at life, as we discovered last weekend at the Siwa Shali Resort.

We head out of Cairo at the ungodly hour of 6 AM, and 10 hours and a sandstorm later, we arrive at the Siwa Shali Resort. The resort is a quaint maize of sandy-hued one-storey buildings, palm trees sprouting whimsically everywhere, and a river running lazily through the center of the entire thing – think the Shire but in a desert setting. It's the most picturesque escape from the city possible - it was even featured in the November 2012 issue of The Times as one of 20 Great Desert Escapes.

Built in 2004, the hotel is a combination of eco-friendly and, y’know, normal human existence, carefully infusing elements from the surrounding nature while maintaining your ability to not live like a caveman. The exteriors are all made of a unique mixture of sand, salt, and water, which occurs naturally in the nearby salt lakes, and gives the architecture an aesthetic similarity to old Siwan houses. Slices of palm tree stems abound, stretching out as beams lined in rows above your head or serving as backs of benches. Throws and tapestries are all genuine Siwan, created by locals who have carefully woven and threaded the cosy pieces that adorn the windows. 

Blending seamlessly into their environment, Siwa Shali Resort straddles the line between eco-tourism and normal human comforts. Because, yeah, pure eco-lodges are all fine and dandy until you need to charge your fucking cell phone because your boss just sent an email asking where that report was that she'd asked for and your phone just died. Also because you’re having Instagram withdrawal symptoms. How ever will you document your #Zen #PeacefulDesert experience sans your phone? How will people KNOW how in nature you are? But, I digress.

We sleep early the first night and wake up the next day to find that the hotel has arranged for us to experience one of their signature day trips (plus some other things that strayed from the typical tourist traps of the area). A 4x4 Toyota is waiting to take us out on Siwa’s notorious dunes, and throughout the day we discover the unusual wonder that is the desert city. Siwa is a study in contrasts. Its topography and geology are an absurd amalgamation that is stranger than fiction; among the boundless volumes and endless stretches of sand that comprise the desert arise three entirely divergent bodies of water in the form of freshwater oases, sulphurous hot springs, and salt lakes - some only a few kilometres apart, all risen from the same ground.

Taking on the dunes in a 4x4 in the Western Desert's Great Sea of Sand

In the Western desert, which borders with Libya, you are faced with infinite stretches of sand, dipping and rising in waves around you. We take on the dunes with our 4x4 and 3am Ali, our Siwan tour guide for the day from Siwa Shali Resort – whose head cover is cooler than I’ll ever be – maneuvers the car seamlessly through the sinking sands.

At one point he pulls the car to the edge of a dune where before us lies a 150-metre nearly-vertical drop. I think: what a nice man, he wants to show us the view from up here! Except he begins to propel the vehicle forward, about to take on the drop. It’s reminiscent of that moment when you’re at the top of a roller coaster where the contraption is teetering on the brink before it takes the plunge. Except that’s on rails; the game is rigged. This is a car and the ever-shifting sands of the desert; the outcome isn’t fixed. Of course, he flashes a toothless smile and we plummet to what I am certain is my impending death. It’s not. Because he knows what he’s doing. And, as if to prove it, he does this a handful more times on different dunes, prompting near heart attacks each time.

The freshwater lake of Bir Wahed from a distance.

As we continue on our drive we arrive at Bir Wahed, which is comprised of two entirely juxtaposing bodies of water. Emerging from the overwhelming volumes of sand is the first: a freshwater spring that peacefully – randomly - exists in the midst of this great sea of sand, surrounded by reeds and tumbleweed that fling upwards from the ground around the lake. It’s basically Instagram porn.

The freshwater oasis in the middle of the Great Sea of Sand in the Western Desert

The other body of water is a sulphurous hot spring, which Siwa’s deserts are a literal hotbed for. Imbued with sulfur, these have therapeutic value. According to our guide from the hotel, in the late 60s, Abdel Nasser invited Russia to come and drill for oil in the desert – they didn’t discover any; instead they uncovered hot and cold water gushing forth from beneath the earth, only kilometres apart. In warmer months, people come from all around to indulge in the unusual experience that is swimming in cool freshwater desert oases followed by a dip in a steaming hot spring.

The hot springs in Siwa that are part of Bir Wahed were discovered accidentally when Russia was drilling for oil in the desert.

The Mediterranean Sea used to cover the entire Western Desert – that’s why a large section of it is now named the Great Sea of Sand. As we drive on, we can see where the evidence remains of its existence - where excerpts of the land are entirely in a powdery white and you can see the ridges and grooves of seashells embedded in the floor, which at one point used to be the seabed.

A little while away from the Siwa Shali Resort, we drive over to the secluded hypersaline salt lakes of Siwa. Stunning shallow lakes stretch before us, a pale milky blue because the lake bed is entirely comprised of white salt crystals. The water here is so salty it rivals the Dead Sea’s salt content, but few are even aware of this water's existence. In fact, Siwa is a major exporter of salt, not only to the rest of Egypt but to much of southern Europe as well.

The salt content of the saline lakes of Siwa rivals that of the Dead Sea in Jordan - they are so salty that the bottom of the lake is largely comprised of crystallized salt. 

We head back to the hotel and, after dinner - a traditional Siwan khalta rice that would put teta to shame – and being exhausted from the day, we laugh in the face of activities other than wine-drinking - because that’s always a good activity. But the instant we are told that Siwa Shali Resort is home to its own hot spring, sleeping is no longer an option. Crack wouldn’t have gotten us that alert that fast.

Siwa Shali Resort has its own hot spring on the grounds, at the far edge of the hotel's property.

We toss on our swimsuits, which - thank you, Lord above - we somehow brought along for absolutely no reason. Though Siwa’s lands boast hot springs scattered throughout, it is infinitely strange - and also particularly epic - that your hotel has its own natural hot spring within its confines, and a short walk from your room. Secluded and at the back of the property, we soak in the heated, stone-encased pool until we are sure the sulphurous properties had effectively healed the many, many years of damage we had inflicted on our bodies.

The next day, we pack up to leave Siwa Shali Resort – realising in the process our stupidity for not having arranged to stay longer. We’d barely scratched the surface of things to see and explore in the admittedly secluded town. We had yet to see Cleopatra's bath and the old town, so we knew another visit was clearly in order. But the crew at the resort had taken us to some of the most stunning natural discoveries in the area, making sure we got to unearth some of the magic floating around in Siwa. Also, even if we’d gone nowhere, we had our own hot spring goddamit.

You can check out Siwa Shali Resort’s Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @siwashaliresort.

Photography by Farah Hosny.