On Saturday, our third day, we drove out from Bahariya to spend a night camping in the desert. We stopped in the Black Desert, where I climbed a peak to view an amazing scene of extinct volcanoes. We then travelled on to a small oasis where we had lunch and a rest in the midday heat.
In mid afternoon we drove on to a place called Crystal Mountain and then to the White Desert, where we set up camp for the night. Stunning, silent, beautiful starlit night. Marred slightly by obvious signs of human presence; plastic bottles thoughtlessly left in the desert sand. But a great experience to sleep in the desert under the stars. It was hard next day, driving back to Bahariya and then to the noise and pollution of Cairo.
In the end our time in Egypt seemed too short. There is a lot more that we need to know about changes happening in the desert, as much as in the mountains, with our rivers, our forests. People have lived with the desert for millennia. We associate the word “oasis” as a place to rest and recovery, a place of calm amidst the storm. What happens when we deplete the water that sustains our oases, when our personal oases become barren places?
The greatest reward as our journey continues is the increased power we feel in sharing stories from other places and encouraging the people we meet to keep doing the good things they are engaged in.
Before coming to Egypt we had no fixed plan. My principal contact was with Sekem. Before leaving New Zealand I thought perhaps we might spend some time in different parts of the Nile River and Delta. The Nile River is the life blood of Egypt, supporting the vast majority of the population. Instead, after visiting Sekem and meeting Dr Zakaria El-Haddad, I was compelled to travel into the Western Desert.
We spent four days and three nights in the desert. With our relatively limited time we only travelled to Bahariya Oasis, the closest of the oases to Cairo … 360km and a four and a half hour drive. Sekem staff assisted by providing names of people to visit. The journey out into the desert was a totally new experience. It was certainly a powerful contrast to the mountains of Nepal; but in some way there was also a connection, in the grandeur of the landscape and power of nature that both places conveyed.
At Bahariya Oasis we first met Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest from Elysium. Corien is from the Netherlands and moved to Bahariya 10 years ago. She is there is with a mission, working together with Ahmed and her partners in the Netherlands.
“You can learn a lot in the desert, it brings you to the real life. There you can feel your own self … There you are alone with the mountains, the sand, the sun, the moon, the stars. There you can really have the silence … After a visit of, for example, one week in the desert, then your whole system is changed and you can think differently, you can look differently to the rest of you life. And you know how important the desert is for all of us …” Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest
We were very grateful to meet these people who provided a welcome home for us in between our various activities and very kindly took us around Bahariya one afternoon. Elysium is a relatively small initiative at present, but with a clear vision, inspired by the work at Sekem. They have developed a retreat where people can come and stay and experience the quiet and power of the desert environment. On their land they are implementing biodynamic agriculture practices. They also have aims to develop an educational and training facility to help develop sustainable future pathways for people living in the desert.
Life in the desert can’t exist without water. At Bahariya Oasis we learned that there has been relatively little rain in the last 20 years, insufficient to recharge the groundwater that everyone relies on. At the same time there has been increased development and demand for water, promoted through government policies. In many places people are using pumps where they weren’t needed in the past. People are digging deeper to get their water. At the same time it appears that there is a lot of waste from the flood irrigation of date groves, with a lake now formed from the runoff. It became increasingly apparent that the delicate balance in this oasis is tipping towards a situation of future water crises. This provides a challenging situation for Ahmed and Corien in realising their vision for Bahariya.
We also met a date grower, Mr. Raafat Abd elAlim, whose family has supplied Sekem with dates for the last 16 years. As he said, the desert is their home, it is their life. But everything they have depends on water. He talked about the changes with water. For centuries the water has risen naturally from the underground aquifers. But with the expansion of agriculture this is happening less and less, with increased pumping from greater depths. The water is now being mined.
In our short time with Ahmed and Corien we talked about the importance of acting now for the future and working to engage the community. This was a very good exchange, adding to our stories from different places, but also an opportunity to share ideas and encourage them in their work.
We arrived in Egypt last Thursday and discovered that the next two days were the Egyptian weekend. So we spent time getting orientated on Thursday, took a taxi and walked around Islamic Cairo on Friday and visited the Pyramids on Saturday.
On Sunday morning we went to the Sekem complex on the edge of Cairo. They are developing a University on this site. Here I met with Dr Zakaria El-Haddad, Professor of Agricultural Engineering and Executive Manager of the Egyptian Bio Dynamic Association. This was a very good meeting, with Dr El- Haddad recommending that I go (in fact compelling me) to the Western Desert to meet some people there. He talked about the clarity of thinking of people in the desert.
On Monday and Tuesday we went out to the Sekem farm. We arrived at 10.00am and went straight to a group of senior students and staff from the Sekem school. I gave a presentation on climate change and adaptation, including sharing some of the stories and lessons from our journey so far. Later in the day Angela Hofmann, who established the dairy herd at Sekem, suggested that we be at the main entrance to Sekem just before 5pm. She told us to imagine this place as desert, which it was 30 years ago and to reflect on the transformation. What was 70ha of desert has been transformed to an environment with trees, fields, a school, and several Sekem factories. In all there are about 1600 people who pass through the Sekem gates each day, students, teaching staff, Sekem factory workers. It is a remarkable transformation and clear proof of what human beings are capable of with clear vision and a strong will to turn the vision into reality.
Here at Sekem I was talking to people who are already thinking and acting with a long-term future in mind. On Tuesday we filmed interviews with Angela and Gamal, both of whom have been at Sekem for about 20 years. These were both very good interviews that in many ways drew together different threads from the last 12 weeks. The clear lesson from Sekem is that we don’t need crisis to change. Human beings have abundant capacity to develop positive, strong relationships with the natural environment. The choice is ours.