We spend lots of time in cities but every so often we like to get a bit off the grid. Al Tarfa definitely qualifies as “off the grid.” Almost precisely in the center of Egypt, well down into the Sahara Desert, Al Tarfa is a desert lodge whose closest town is El-Rashda. And no, no one else has ever heard of El-Rashda either.
To get down here takes a 90-minute flight from Cairo and then a two-and-a-half hour drive across the desert. And then, suddenly out in the middle of nowhere is this charming little lodge, a fabulous place to get away from everything.
This is the sort of place where everyone staying arrives on the same day and leaves on the same day, so our time there – from the flight down on Petroleum Air Services to the drive out and then back up to Cairo three days later – was with four Egyptian women from Cairo who became great friends. Two of them, Iris & Dina, were Coptic (i.e., Christian) Egyptians, sisters about my age who had grown up in Cairo. They both became anesthesiologists and now live in Bethesda, MD; they come back a couple times a year to visit their apparently quite active 84-year-old mother. The other two women, Sally & Dareen, were 30-something friends living in Cairo but whose English – like the older women – was pretty much perfect.
Spending time with these four women was always interesting, often helpful as they translated and explained for us, and often insightful as we could understand contemporary Egypt better through their eyes. Iris & Dina, Christians quite apparently from a privileged family, and Sally & Dareen, secular Muslims with good educations, had different life experiences of course but still helped us understand modern Egypt.
And then there’s the whole ancient Egypt part, the stuff you come to see. Our first excursion was to Al Qasr, an Ottoman oasis town dating from the early 16th century. Now largely abandoned (though there is a nearby town of a few hundred people), the old town consists of a warren of narrow streets between buildings of mud brick that apparently do a remarkable job of keeping this (comparatively) cool in the summer heat. And just how hot does it get? I asked our guide and he said that in the summer it can get to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, the desert. Oh, and dry too – he said it last rained 12 years ago. Since then you might get a little spritz a couple times a year but the last real rain was 12 years ago.
At any rate, the old village made for a lovely little excursion. But there was more, too, ancient Egyptian stuff, old Roman ruins that seem practically new in comparison, a necropolis. It’s a little hard to get your head around this notion of people living in this dry, hot, remote place, but they have for millenia and, because of the dry climate, the ruins are often in surprisingly good shape. And apparently whenever you’re in the desert they arrange for at least one sunset out on the dunes. This one didn’t include sparkling wine as others have, but it was still beautiful and just great fun to walk around in just a remote place with just nothing at all except the sand dunes, a surprising spring-fed pond, and four new friends. And then the excitement of getting stuck in the sand as the sun was setting, not at all sure if we would be able to get the vehicle out. (We did.)
Through it all, the star of the show was Al Tarfa Lodge itself. When we weren’t out exploring ancient ruins you could just hang out in the glorious quiet and read and relax, maybe chat with your new friends. The food was great; we are addicted to this Egyptian dip of a relatively light feta cheese blended with olive oil and then mixed in with a bit of chopped tomato; it’s heavenly. All that just remarkably inexpensive, so all in all it can’t be beat. If you’re ever in Egypt do yourself a favor and head out there. It’s worth the several hours it takes to get there.
From there we flew back to Cairo before heading down to Upper Egypt (yes, Upper Egypt is south of Lower Egypt, as all that is relative to the Nile and the Upper Nile is in southern Egypt) for a week-long cruise.