/ 28 November 2008

Nomad’s land

I’m a hopeless dreamer at heart — a sucker for mystery, history and romance. And if all three come wrapped up in heat rather than the pages of a Mills & Boon novel, then the formula is damn near faultless as far as I’m concerned. Which makes Siwa oasis my perfect winter sun destination, as it combines all three elements.

This place has never been easy to get to. The Persian army lost 50 000 men while trying to reach this isolated Saharan oasis in the Great Sand Sea. Admittedly that was in 500BC, but the brutal landscape has changed surprisingly little since then.

Perhaps the biggest change here occurred 20 years ago when a permanent asphalt road connecting Siwa to the outside world was built. That says a lot about the town’s extraordinary isolation. Clinging to the edge of the Qattara Depression, just shy of the Libyan border, it’s enveloped for hundreds of kilometres by the Sahara desert. For centuries only caravans passed through, leaving Siwans in their exceptional seclusion to evolve a distinct identity, cultural heritage and Berber language (Siwi) all their own.

Siwa is still hard to reach by modern standards. A cab from Cairo takes the best part of 10 hours and comes at a price (I paid $400 return) — the bus journey is considerably cheaper but can take even longer. However you travel, the 21st century sprawls inexorably beside the road for the first 150km: giant billboards exhort you to buy anything from hair gel to real estate, lonely advertising­ that seems utterly surreal deep in the desert wastes. After sundown another type of strangeness quickly gripped me; the trance induced by kilometre after endless kilometre of road disappearing into night.

I thought I’d be pleased when I finally arrived at Siwa’s Adrere Amellal eco lodge, but I was surprised by its disturbing magic instead. The moon bathed what appeared to be a ghost town in an eery silver light. Had I not known I was staying here I’d have believed it deserted. Not a single light shone, the windows were black and the heavy silence was unnerving.

A man padded out of the shadows into the moonlight, courteously showed me to my candlelit room and vanished. Knackered, I slugged on a bottle of duty-free vodka, crept into bed and blew the candles out feeling­, it must be said, nonplussed.

Morning was revelatory. My doubts dissolved in dazzling sunshine that revealed a warren of traditional village houses that hugged the base of the high rock face that gave the eco lodge its name. Adrere Amellal is Siwi for White Mountain — although that’s a little inflationary. Mont Blanc it is not. It is, however, a marvellous layer-cake of a cliff that looms above the scattering of buildings below.

Unlike a more traditional hotel, Adrere Amellal doesn’t have a reception or obvious fixed public areas. This flexible environment takes a while to get used to. Some spaces are used in winter, others in summer. Dinner and lunch are moveable feasts that could happen anywhere around the grounds.

I must have looked lost — I certainly didn’t know where I was going. And then a voice called out and asked if I wanted breakfast, and at that moment I fell in love with Adrere Amellal.

I found myself jabbering to a newly hitched gay couple from the United States over a delicious breakfast of local breads, beans and eggs (although the olive jam is an acquired taste). Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for Siwan men to have same-sex marriages until as late as the 1940s, although that’s certainly not the case now. Modern Egypt isn’t particularly well known for its liberal attitude towards homosexuality.

I enthused about my new passion, and judging by the dreamy look in the couple’s eyes, they too had succumbed to Adrere’s charms, although it may be that they were glazed and desperate to escape from the garrulous singleton.

The simple building materials here — kershef, or mud plastered with rock salt — have remained unchanged for centuries. But the traditional techniques of construction were nearly lost forever before they were revived for the construction of Adrere Amellal. The results are spectacular.

Perched beside Lake Siwa, an immense, shimmering salt lake, the buildings are all but invisible from a distance, merging perfectly into the environment like an inverted mirage. Doors and furniture are made from olive wood, and electricity, which they have in town a few kilometres away, has been banned. Using the beeswax candles to light the cell-like loo at night is almost a religious experience.

Geometric blocks of light, shade and architecture create stunning vistas and windows into the oasis. There’s real beauty in the simplicity and crudeness — think Kelly Hoppen meets the Flintstones — and an obsession with salt that borders on bonkers. There are salt tables, salt chairs, salt bedside tables and beds, windows, wall tiles, even an entire building. Of course, this might be a problem if you had a sodium intolerance and it’d be a disaster if it ever rained.

Dr Mounir Neamatalla and his company, the Cairo-based Environmental Quality International (EQI), created the lodge as part of a bigger scheme to preserve both Siwan tradition and the fragile ecosystem. Since 1997 EQI has invested heavily in four local objectives: eco lodging, traditional artisanship, organic agriculture and renewable energy.

The initiatives are already having an impact. Most of the local population are smallholders who haven’t always found the best deals for their produce. EQI champions the use of organic farming methods and pre-purchases their crops at a fair market price as well as providing micro-finance schemes. They’re currently experimenting with a biofeeder to create a natural source of cooking gas and organic fertiliser, and have set up a large olive factory, built from the ubiquitous kershef.

But it’s their work with local women that deserves special mention. Women are all but invisible to outsiders in Siwa; they live in a strictly conservative society, even by Egyptian standards. Gradually EQI is encouraging their economic self-sufficiency and empowerment through a women’s­ artisanship initiative. You can buy their exquisite embroideries in the lodge.

I wanted to see the projects in action, but as a man’s presence would not have been acceptable, I went to see a shepherd and his flock instead, and inadvertently created a stampede by leaving the barn door open. Three dozen animals made a frantic bid for freedom in a hail of dust and grit, and the shepherd spent the next 10 minutes wiping tears from his face — tears of laughter.

Red-faced, I sought sanctuary in the simple luxury of a spring-fed Roman pool — as you do. There aren’t many hotels on the planet that can lay claim to one of these, let alone two. Extraordinary turquoise waters bubble up from the seemingly bottomless wells then trickle into a series of stone cisterns and on into the palm-shaded gardens. It was magical.

So good, in fact, that Alexander the Great might have dipped his toe into one of these pools when he visited­. Not that he’d come to chill out. He had an oracle to consult. And incredibly, the temple that housed Siwa’s Oracle of Amun still exists, along with Cleopatra’s bath, another extraordinary Roman plunge pool; it’s that kind of place. Other royals have come, too — the Prince of Wales, for example.

You’d be right to guess from all this that a holiday here isn’t cheap. The good news is that EQI has two other places to stay that are a fraction of the price and just as beautiful, if not quite as spacious and tranquil. Shali Lodge and Albabenshal Heritage Hotel are both in the old part of Siwa town. Of the two, it was Albabenshal that entranced me. Its 11 rooms, connected by a network of alleys and terraces that overlook the centre of town, are built in the ruins of the Shali Fortress, a 13th-century citadel that remained all but impregnable until 1926. Then the unimaginable happened: three days of rain all but destroyed it. Shali Lodge is simply furnished with palm-frond furniture and colourful Bedouin carpets.

Days at Adrere Amellal drift lazily into one another; it’s part of the magic of the place. I wasn’t there when the hotel was full, but it’s difficult to imagine that it would ever feel cramped or busy. If it did then you’d make for the dunes.

A late-afternoon trip into the shallows of the Great Sand Sea should be compulsory. As the sun begins to dip, the dunes become luminous, looking­ laser-cut, cruel and perfect. We stopped briefly for tea, sandwiched between a roiling sunset and the endless desert. I found the experience quite overpowering, feeling wonderment and a sense of my frailty and inconsequence. My stomach broke the reverie; I wanted supper.

Dinner was in one of the fabulous cubbyholes dotted around the hotel grounds, away from other guests. They create the fantasy that this might be a private house or dinner party. And for me it was; I met a wonderful group of people from Bolivia, Norway, Egypt and the States and we partied late into the night over fierce red wine and some really good vegetarian cuisine (meat dishes are available too).

But EQI’s success is, perversely, double-edged. Others have seen what it is so stylishly doing and have opened less ecologically friendly and socially aware places as a result. Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but it soon plays havoc with local resources.

At present, the long journey from Cairo is still a deterrent to those who don’t truly want to visit, but rumour has it that an airport is planned and the results could be catastrophic; this engaging culture and beautiful, magical oasis would be lost forever. —