A weekend without electricity at the Zowara ecolodge in Fayoum, Egypt, is a chance to reconnect with nature amid brilliant landscapes.
“If there’s no electricity in the rooms, then could I charge my mobile at the reception?,” I ask Hani Zaki, owner of the Zowara ecolodge, as we speed through Cairo for a day at his environmentally-friendly ecolodge in Fayoum.
The ecolodge’s campground and its half dozen huts overlooking a stretch of the Sahara look charming on Zowara’s Facebook page, with ethnic blankets atop the cozy beds.
But I hadn’t realized there’d be no electricity.
Checking in at the Zowara ecolodge
When we arrive, we rest and have tea with some sandboarders inside one of the round stone huts modeled after Nabataean dwellings. The tables are locally made from date-palm leaves.
Handicrafts and colorful textiles from Fayoum and other desert communities are displayed for sale. Piles of odd rocks and petrified wood gathered by visitors lay in the corner.
This is the reception.
Zowara is one of seven ecolodges in Egypt and follows specific standards of recycling waste, building with local materials, hiring people from the local community and using only renewable energy.
There are solar power lamps throughout the property and candles in the rooms at night.
Not everyone can handle being away from their computers and TVs for a few days. But this way of travel calms your mind and reconnects you with nature like nothing else, Zaki says.
I’m willing to give it a shot.
The day starts with a homemade breakfast of baladi bread, olives, honey and salty fellahi cheese prepared by staff and served in a hut where colorful cushions line the walls.
Adventures in Wadi El Rayan
I later head to Magic Lake for some sandboarding down the dunes, and take a brief hike to get a view of the waters bellow. Because it’s right inside the Wadi El Rayan natural protectorate, Zowara ecolodge is centrally located for hiking, kayaking, cycling, sandboarding and bird watching.
It has also hosted yoga and meditation retreats, attracting teachers with its positive vibes and serene atmosphere.
Wadi El Rayan is known for off-road adventures and geographic wonders.
But less than a decade ago many visitors didn’t know what it had to offer.
Zaki says he’s raising awareness of the regional attractions by working with TV stations and sitting on committees dedicated to safaris and eco tourism. The adventurer has organized Racing the Planet, an eco race in the desert that went through Fayoum, and co-organized Tour D’Afrique, a bicycle race from Cairo to Cape Town.
Zaki has also provided arts and crafts training for locals in nearby villages, and classes on working with tourists.
The ecolodge has huts that accommodate up to three people each. The rooms are small but comfortable with unique local touches and an unpaved sandy floor. The mosquitoes come out at night, so I spray on plenty of bug spray before bed.
Zowara also has a camping area that holds up to 100 people. To promote camping, Zaki lets people with their own tents and equipment stay on the campgrounds for free.
Past the parking lot, there are four camels who take visitors on rides, some donkeys and fields of wheat, corn and olive trees. In the other direction, near where the staff light nightly bonfires, there’s a stretch of sand as wide as an ocean.
Nights at the Zowara ecolodge
In late winter, sunset comes early and the ecolodge descends into darkness with only the faint glow of the solar lamps to illuminate the way to the restrooms. The wild dogs, largely friendly and accustomed to people, wander out into the sand to sleep.
I ask for a couple extra candles and light them in my room. But it’s still too dark to read my novel.
Making a phone call to Cairo means going outside and walking around the parking lot until I get a weak signal.
It seems like it’s going to be a long and dull night. But without the distractions of the Internet and late-night TV, I walk around the bonfire.
I gaze up at the stars – invisible in the orange glow of big cities.
I later nod off and drift into sleep around 10pm, although I’m usually a night owl.
I wake up early the next morning without an alarm clock. I have tea while gazing out into the pale desert sands that stretch beyond the ecolodge’s short barrier wall.
Then I decide to take a quick walk out into the desert to see some nearby ponds of salt water that glimmer in the distance. The Zowara ecolodge staff kindly warn me not to go into the darker tracks of earth.
As I walk, I pick up a few rocks and take some photos. I enjoy the solitude and note how rare it is these days to be out in nature, completely alone.
I come back with muddy shoes and pockets full of rocks that show outlines of petrified wood. The staff were right about the darker brown earth. It’s slippery mud underneath – but sometimes it’s better to learn for yourself.
Zaki and his clients have a point.
The Zowara ecolodge might feel strange at first, but it teaches you to let go – and experience the simpler way humanity lived for most of its existence.