The Road to Djara Cave

Originally published in Business Monthly‘s August 2018 issue.

My mobile was ringing for the third time, after all, I was just back from an exhausting camping trip in Sinai and I was beat. The repeated calls, however, could not be ignored and by the fourth, I opened one eye and reached for my phone. Turns out a trip was about to leave for Djara cave and there were a few places left, which we could grab if we acted fast.

I always wanted to go to Djara, but officials kept limiting access given its proximity to trouble spots in the Western Desert. It is one of the few caves discovered in Egypt. It is particularly known for prehistoric carvings of animals from the Neolithic period scattered throughout its crevasses, which according to the German Neanderthal Museum Foundation is uncommon in Africa, as most cave art is found in Europe and Asia.

Adding to its allure, Djara has been rediscovered several times. Its existence was first recorded in 1875 by German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs. According to his travelogue “Three Months in the Libyan Desert,” Rohlfs was led in December 1873 by a local Bedouin to a spacious dripstone cave with magnificent stalactites near a place called “Djara.” No further details were recorded until 1897, when Hugh J.L. Beadnell, a geologist leading a survey of Farafra oasis, stumbled upon the cave by accident on his way to Assuit from the oasis. He noted the presence of stone tools scattered around its entrance, which had disappeared by 1990 when the first official archaeological surveys and test excavation occurred.

A few hours later, we were hustling to make it to the bus station on time. We packed ourselves into a minibus and began our journey south around 1:30 a.m. Google Maps estimates the cave to be 330 kilometers from the heart of Cairo, however, it will also highlight the lack of direct routes.

There are three ways to get to Djara: drive toward the White Desert and off-road southeast for 170 kilometers; drive to Bahariya oasis and then off-road straight south to the cave, however this route passes through areas that often are closed-off; or the route we took, drive 450 kilometers towards Farafra oasis and then off-road east for about 30 kilometers. Local Bedouins have noted the state is extending a new road that will link Farafra to Assuit, passing right by the cave. The new road is expected to be finished by the end of this year.

Given the long drive to Djara, most trip organizers incorporate the excursion into longer trips to the southern oases. Ours, however (EGP 700), was a one-shot deal. We went to the cave and back, which I only recommend if you are comfortable with long rides and sparse bathroom opportunities.

Just as the sun began to rise, our connection to the rest of the world dwindled. We were met by Bedouins in a Land Cruiser, who welcomed us and told our driver to follow them. We abandoned the main asphalt road, turning left into nothing but stretches of grayish sand, the pathway marked by nothing more than rocks on either side of the microbus. Most –if not all– safaris to the cave use four-wheel-drive vehicles with high ground clearance, similar to the Bedouins’ car. A fact that made me a bit anxious, hoping our driver was skilled enough to manage such a bumpy safari with a Toyota microbus.

Sometime about 8 a.m. we arrived at a small granite sign marking the cave’s entrance. As we disembarked, we were met by a cool breeze and absolute serenity. The place was quiet and calm, despite our presence.

The Bedouins were well organized, with one going to the very end of the cave, one standing at the end of the entryway, and one guiding us—offering assistance, if needed—into the cave.

Access to Djara is through a wide hole in the sand, which we could only see when standing right in front of it. The pathway into the cave is through a slightly steep —yet easily manageable— slope. Once we reached its center, we were in awe of the beautiful formations. The cavern consists of one large chamber of significantly varying heights, the highest being 15 meters. In addition, the cave is estimated around 100 meters in diameter.

Djara’s formations date back 55 million years. Scientists believe they were created by rain dissolving Eocene limestone to form stalactites and stalagmites. Accentuating its richness, the cave enjoys some huge formations at its center that were as tall as 6 meters high and 1.5 meters wide. While the cave is known to have several 12,000-year-old carvings of animals, we were barely able to spot one, and only with the assistance of strong flashlights brought in by professional photographers. We are not sure if this was due to the angled entrance limiting the little sunlight available or if they are simply disappearing due to exposure.

Drenched in sweat from the humidity, we climbed out of the cave to meet a beautiful cool breeze and a breakfast spread prepared by the Bedouins. We sat around a boiling pot of Seylaani tea (Bedouin tea), sharing bread, cheese, and stories of our adventures in Egypt’s rich desert.

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