Siwa: An Egyptian oasis
The crystal-clear waters of Cleopatraâs Bath in the Siwa Oasis. (Michael Benanav/LPI)
Set against a backdrop of jagged sandstone hills, backed by the rolling silica ocean of the Great Sand Sea and carpeted thick with palm groves, Siwa is the archetypal oasis.
Here, an abundance of free-flowing freshwater springs support hundreds of thousands of olive and fruit trees and date palms, which also shade and cool the valley's mudbrick villages as they rest concealed in the greenery.
Siwa's very isolation helped protect a unique society that until today stands apart from mainstream Egyptian culture. Originally settled by Berbers (roaming North African tribes), Siwa was still practically independent only a few hundred years ago.
For centuries the oasis had contact with only the few caravan traders that passed along this way via Qara, Qattara and Kerdassa (near Cairo), and the occasional determined pilgrim seeking the famous Oracle of Amun. Even today local traditions and Siwi, the local Berber language, dominate.
Siwa is less about rushing around any major sights than it is about sitting back with a cup of tea or a sheesha and letting the halcyon days wash over you. The hectares of palm groves invite casual strolling, numerous comfortable and cushioned cafes are perfect for chilling and meeting fellow travellers, and dozens of clear springs practically beg for you to dip your toes.
There is no shortage of active, bubbling springs hidden among Siwa's palm groves. The most famous spring is Cleopatra's Bath, which has crystal-clear natural spring water that gurgles up into a large stone pool, and is a popular bathing spot for locals.
The closest spring to town is Ain al-Arais, a cool, inviting waterhole with a grotto-like bottom, just five minutes' walk from the central market.
There is a similar but slightly more secluded pool at Fatnas Spring, the small island in the salty Birket Siwa (Lake Siwa) accessible across a narrow causeway. Nicknamed "Fantasy Island" for its idyllic setting, the pool is about 6km from Siwa Town, and surrounded by palm trees and lush greenery.
A favourite excursion is the cold freshwater lake at Bir Wahed. Once over the top of a high dune, you come to a hot spring, the size of a large jacuzzi, where sulphurous water bubbles in a pool and runs off to irrigate a garden. Cooling down in the lake, and then watching the sun setting over the dunes while soaking in a hot spring is a surreal experience. This spring sits among the dunes on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, and amazing sunsets are guaranteed.
As increasing numbers of independent travellers discover the tranquil joys of this remote paradise, local inhabitants are ever more mindful of retaining their traditions, making this trip off-the-beaten-track an increasingly more unforgettable experience.