Date palms and a toy gun

At the gateway to the Great Sand Sea, David Wroe is enchanted by a remote Berber oasis that time (almost) forgot.

The long drive south from the Mediterranean coast to Siwa, Egypt's farthest-flung oasis, is bleak but beautiful - at least in the late afternoon. The desert is flat and toasted brown, with sparse tufts of grass that shine pink at sunset. A few dirt roads snake towards distant oilfields but otherwise it is featureless. With each kilometre it becomes harder to imagine there could be anything at the end of the road.

Then the oasis appears on the horizon. Siwa positively sprouts from the desert floor, the most verdant thing you've ever seen. When an Egyptian friend in Cairo told me that visiting Siwa is like travelling back 200 years, I responded with a sceptical nod. Now, as we drive through the date palm forests and see the abandoned mudbrick citadel that still dominates the centre of the town, my only quibble is that my friend might have left off a zero. It looks biblical.

Siwa is deep in the north-western desert near Egypt's border with Libya. The march of modern life was thwarted for decades by Siwa's natural buffer of hundreds of kilometres of desert on all sides. Only when the road was sealed 20 years ago did the world begin to penetrate its defences. The bustling township now has hotels, tourist shops and tour companies running trips to the sand dunes to the south. For the moment, though, Siwa still has enough of its ancient charm to be enchanting.

Until the sealed road was opened from Mersa Matrouh on the coast, you needed a four-wheel-drive or a camel to get here. It's still a nine-hour drive from Cairo but more travellers are making the journey. Donkeys and carts remain the dominant mode of transport in the town.

Siwa is in that peculiar phase where it has one foot in the old world and the other in the new. Modernity's impact has been piecemeal, producing the anachronisms so beloved of photographers. (My companions, both professional photographers, are beside themselves.) At night in the dusty town square, men dressed in traditional crisp white galabiyas sit in polite rows around the teahouses, transfixed in front of televisions showing Hollywood movies.

Tonight it's one of the Lord Of The Rings films, which seems fitting since Siwa has its own Middle-Earthly quality. There is strict adherence to hijab here; local women are a rare sight on the streets and are absent at night, when the streets and square are a wholly male domain.

Tourists go to Siwa for its remarkable history and because it is the northern gateway to the towering sand dunes, aptly named the Great Sand Sea, which form the northern edge of the Sahara. If you were to set out in a four-wheel-drive from Siwa due south, the first town you'd hit is Al Fasher in the Darfur region of Sudan, 1750 kilometres away. But you only have to hire a four-wheel-drive and a driver for a few hours to do a decent tour of the dunes from Siwa, including a swim in the springs - with a choice of hot or cold - that bubble up from the desert floor.

Cleopatra's Bath, a stone pool fed by a natural hot spring, is the best known, though there is no proof she ever bathed here. What is certain is that in February 331BC, Alexander the Great made what was then a 10-day trek from the Nile valley to Siwa to consult the oracle of Ammon, whose reputation among the ancient Greeks was said to rival that of the oracle at Delphi.

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He asked the oracle whether he was indeed the son of the god Ammon, as his mother had told him, and whether he would vanquish the Persians, whom he had already driven out of Egypt. The oracle evidently gave Alexander the answers he wanted, for he is said to have emerged from the temple a pleased king. He went on to sack the Persian capital Persepolis.

The temple of the oracle still stands, though it has no roof and looters long ago smashed holes in the walls. In January 1995, a Greek archaeologist announced she had found Alexander's tomb at Siwa, causing a worldwide stir. She turned out to be wrong and the whereabouts of Alexander's remains are one of the greatest mysteries of archaeology.

The people of Siwa are Berber rather than Arab, with a distinct culture that throws up surprises. For centuries, Siwa had a culture of same-sex marriage among the zaggalas, the class of young men whose job it was to protect the date palm and olive groves. King Fouad put a stop to this after he visited Siwa in 1928 and learned of the practice but it is said to have continued in secret until the 1950s.

On our last day we meet a 19-year-old shop assistant named Mustafa, who invites us home to meet his family. From the outset his mother eyes us with ill-concealed displeasure. We'd interrupted the grandmother's prayers and thrown the place into general disorder. We try some pleasantries and a handful of questions - with Mustafa translating - before, struggling for conversation, I point to a toy gun sitting on top of the little television. Mustafa's mother picks it up and pretends to shoot us.

Curiously, this breaks the ice because she finds our shocked reactions hilarious and we share a moment of laughter, though I doubt we were laughing about the same things.

After the toy gun moment, Mustafa leads us to the home's courtyard, past a tethered goat, to meet his 17-year-old wife, Ansaf.

A curious blend of shyness, coquetry and feistiness, Ansaf is eager to show us her traditional Siwan wedding outfit and begins piling on earrings, necklaces, a sequinned galabiya, black headscarf, tassels, eyeliner and a cape. Finally, she pinches her cheeks to make them rosy.

As a man unrelated to the family, I wander off so Ansaf can continue modelling for my female companions. I bump into Mustafa's father, Mamdouh. He looks about as impressed as his wife but is gracious enough to initiate a conversation through mime. He points to his ring finger, asking if I'm married. I answer yes, indicating one of my companions in the back room - though we are not, strictly speaking, married. I hold up four fingers and say "sanah", meaning years.

He holds his hand, palm down, low to the floor, asking if we have children. "La," I reply. No. His eyes narrow and I can tell he's wondering what kind of man is married four years and can't father a child.

I know that Mamdouh has 14 children by four wives. I rub my fingers together to indicate I can't yet afford children. He offers me a cigarette, which I gratefully accept though I don't smoke.

That night, my companions and I marvel at the innumerable oddities of Siwa. We pore over our encounter with Mustafa's family with a combination of awe, gusto and hilarity. And suspect that back at Mustafa's house, they are probably doing just the same.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Etihad has a fare to Cairo for $1400 via Abu Dhabi. Singapore Airlines flies to Singapore then on to Cairo via Dubai for $1408. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax, which varies with itinerary, carrier, stops and time of payment.) Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

A private car or minibus from Cairo to Siwa takes about nine hours and costs $US300-400 ($630) return. Arrange through a Cairo tour company; we used Detours (detoursegypt.com). It's worth stopping at El Alamein, where Australians fought in World War II. For a cheap option, take a train from Cairo to Alexandria and then a public bus to Siwa. Or take a bus from Cairo to Mersa Matrouh and then change buses for Siwa. Both options take 13-15 hours and cost $US12-15.

Staying there

We stayed at the cheap, clean and functional Cleopatra Hotel, with double rooms for LE40 ($11) and singles for LE20. See cleopatra-siwa.net. At the top end is the luxurious Adrere Amellal eco lodge, with double rooms from $US550 a night all inclusive. See adrereamellal.net.

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