Siwa, Egypt - I hadn't heard of Siwa before I went to Egypt. In fact, I'd been travelling in Egypt for a while before I planned a trip to this oasis in the western desert. Close to the Libyan border and 300 kilometres from the nearest settlement, Siwa's main attraction for me was its remoteness. Driving into the western desert with a group of fellow travellers in a small rented van, it was amazing to think that some 2,300 years ago Alexander the Great had followed this route to consult the most famous oracle of the ancient world.
Travelling by camel from Alexandria, it took him and his entourage eight days to reach Siwa. Our little van only took two days, including an overnight stop in Marsa Matruh to pick up the necessary travel permits.
Arriving in Siwa, tired and dusty, we checked into the Cleopatra Hotel. I'd be lying if I said the hotel was luxurious, but it was cheap and the rooms had en-suite bathrooms. The dangling bare light bulb and precariously spinning ceiling fan added atmosphere.
The easiest way to get around Siwa is on a bicycle. If you don't require more than one gear or a helmet, you can hire a rickety old bike very cheaply and easily. Be prepared to lose it, though. It won't have been stolen, just "borrowed" and left at another location. If this happens, you simply "borrow" another to replace it. I guess it all shakes out in the end, as no one would ever cycle out of Siwa through the desert.
One of the first things we noticed as we rode around the sandy lanes was that although there are very few tourists in Siwa, the locals barely batted an eyelid when they saw us. At times, it was as though we didn't exist. The exception, as in the rest of Egypt, was the children, who would wave madly at us.
Siwa is steeped in history. Not only is this where Alexander consulted the oracle, but Cleopatra also bathed here in the numerous natural springs.
One of the strangest, almost disturbing sites, is Gebel al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead. In pharaonic times, nobles were buried here and the whole mountain was a catacomb of tombs. Bombed during the second world war, the mountain is now scattered with human bones.
Forming an impressive backdrop to the town is the 13th-century mud-brick fortress of Shali. The buildings originally rose to four or five storeys, but three days of rain in 1926 dissolved them to their now ruined state. The view from the top of the lush canopy of trees and salt lakes giving way to ever rolling sand dunes is equally impressive.
The perfect end to a long day of exploring this oasis is to head out to Fatima's Island to watch the sunset over the salt lake. With a cold beer in hand, we concluded it really was worth the long dusty journey to get here.