Egypt. Walking like Egyptians!
London to Cape Town - Cape Town to Cairo!
18 th March to 23rd April 2006
Well against all odds we had made it to Aswan, Egypt, it had never been part of our itinerary, but at the end of the day, we were here and survived the two nights on a barely sea worthy old cement barge. We have found that it never really pays to have too fixed a plan, just go where the wind and bureaucracy takes you! Anyway, once some other barges, boats and a ferry at the dock had been manoeuvred out of the way, we were able to disembark. I think there was a great deal of relief, within our group of intrepid sailors, to experience the feel of dry land once more beneath our feet and wheels. The job of getting the vehicles onto the dock was made easier by the slope of the quay and the fact that the crew were eager to start their time ashore, so the barge was positioned and then repositioned so that we could each drive off in turn and no inshallah “banana” ramps to contend with. We said farewell to the crew and gave them a small tip for sparing us from a watery grave!
Now the real fun began, immigration and customs checked our paper work and stamped our passports, no problem there. Next the port authorities wanted to x-ray the entire contents of each vehicle, just in case we were armed terrorists, suicide bombers or cartoonists, of course, we objected strongly to this, questioning their sanity. The chief eventually arrived and on seeing the number of boxes, the amount of dust and the time it would take to empty each vehicle realised we were right and signed us off. By now it was too late to see the police at Aswan town, so we left the cars at the port with Henning and Anna and headed in to town to find a hotel. The Keylany Hotel, strangely no Irish connection, was cheap, very clean, tidy and has a splendid roof terrace on which to enjoy breakfast or a late night romantic encounter………. After the barge it was heaven!
We were all looking forward to having a drink after “alcohol free” Sudan, but despite the fact that most restaurants advertise that they sell beer and wine, it still took a while to track one down that actually did……..!
Early the next morning at the traffic police office we were all disturbed to hear that some malicious bastard had poisoned Henning’s dog the previous evening. Putting a very sombre mood over everyone, Isha was a lovely friendly dog and having survived all the perils of two years in Africa it was a very sad way to go.
Now getting into Egypt is fine, but if you bring a vehicle you automatically open a huge can of worms, involving all manner of strange payments, “brass rubbings” of chassis and engine numbers, pieces of paper all in Arabic to sign, inshallah insurance, an Arabic laminated vehicle registration document and new number plates in Arabic. At one point all the paper work became so mixed up and being entirely in Arabic we didn’t know who was who or what was what…….why it can’t be in Arabic and English or French like in every other country here, it would save so much time and effort but I guess the hustlers would miss out on their ‘backshish’….! In the end, it took two days to get all the paper work finished, fees and hustlers paid, all that was left was to fix our new Egyptian number plates and at last, we could leave the port. Well, almost – now the port officials wanted to charge us a parking fee, at which point I lost it and blocked the entrance with the Grommet and refused to pay, finally they let us go, our principles intact. In every other country it takes just hours not days to cross borders!
The round mud huts of black Africa were now a distant memory left far behind at the border with Ethiopia, and the square mud brick Nubian houses of Sudan have slowly crumbled to the shambles of ancient and modern architecture clamouring for space along the fertile banks of the Nile, that is modern Egypt. Yet you can still see oxen in fields tilling the earth with wooden ploughs and crops harvested by hand with small scythes in much the same way as in the time of the pharaohs, while in an adjacent field modern farming machinery is undertaking the same tasks.
Somehow we managed to escape the “tourist convoy” from Aswan to Luxor and bumped into Henning and Anna in their MAN truck along the way. We were eager to get to Luxor and our meeting with Blanca’s mother, so had left the “accountants” and the “Canadians” back in Aswan. With the good road Grommet was purring along but pinking a little under pressure due to some iffy 80 octane Egyptian fuel. One would think that, as an oil producer, at least the fuel here would be first class, but I suppose in the end one must not forget that this is still Africa!
Well, we made Luxor in good time and booked in to Rezeiky Camping, www.rezeikycamp.com.eg, actually the only camping in town, which we found, without a guide book, its big and spacious with good shade, clean toilets and hot showers and all for a very reasonable price of £4.00, perfect! They even have rooms for a similar price, if camping’s not your thing. Still we’d rather camp than pay $100 plus a night in some soulless hotel down town.
We were not alone, Roland the German motorcyclist, whom we’d met at Wadi Halfa was also here along with Henning and Anna and a phenomenon that I had only read about but never witnessed, “The Rotel Tours rolling hotel.” The idea is simple, take a luxury coach towing a large trailer with multi-story coffin sized bed rooms and fill it with elderly Germans and tour around with it, and apparently they love it! It all seemed very strange to me and some of the clients, well let’s put it this way, the bed rooms must be bigger than they seem……….! If you get my drift!
A consequence of this large group was that we could join them for the buffet, which was absolutely superb and a veritable feast of Egyptian food at exceptional value. Fully satisfied we retired to bed. In the morning we were due to meet Blanca’s mother and a group of 30 Spanish Egyptologists, so we would need to be alert and in particular, I would have to try and get my Spanish neuron back in to some form of working order……..!
In the morning we headed off for The Temple of Karnak. Contrary to the Lonely Planet guide Rezeiky Camping is actually particularly well-situated and within walking distance from all the main sights – the Temples of Karnak, Luxor and the museums and the best bit of all, the hustlers tend to leave you alone once they know where you are staying, if you are not from one of the big budget, “big tip” hotels.
We arrived in good time to meet up with Blanca’s mother and the “group.” Following a very happy reunion, this was the first person from “home” that we had seen since we had left Spain all those many months ago, we set off to explore the Temple. This was my first Egyptian Temple experience and I was truly amazed by the enormity of the place in particular the phenomenal Great Hypostyle Hall. It really made a difference to be in the company of such a learned group and their guide Mohammed was superb, so in addition to the usual tourist bits we were introduced to areas that were of more specific interest and either not known about or missed out by the usual guides. On the strength of our first “temple experience”, we approached Mohammed for a good price so that we could join the Spanish Egyptologists, while on the Luxor leg of their solar eclipse tour.
Blanca’s mother’s arrival also fortunately coincided with a problem with our digital camera, so following a stream of last minute e-mails, we now had a new “toy” to play with and you, our readers can still enjoy the sights of our trip……….
So with the new toy fully charged, we re-joined the group for a late afternoon visit to the Temple of Luxor – the setting sun really makes the engravings and statues come to life. The next morning it was to be a very early start to meet the group and their coach for a trip across the Nile to see the enormous temple complex of Medinat Habu, which in the early morning light, had the air of a “Ridley Scott” film set. Again we were treated to an excellent tour, reaching the parts other tours never reach and providing an indepth guide to the inscriptions and carvings. It was funny when the members of the group all wanted to be photographed on the king’s throne. I found it really incredible that a vast amount of the carvings and inscriptions still retained a lot of their original colours and hues; the temples must have been really spectacular in their day. Next we were off to the Valley of the Kings and once again had a “special” visit, which included a number of tombs that are now closed to the general public. We were allowed plenty of time to take everything in and not just shepherded in and out. I was particularly surprised with the size and the actual state of preservation of the tombs along with the intricacy of detail in the paintings and reliefs. A number of the tombs had obviously been rushed during their build and remain unfinished. For example, the king had died suddenly before the tomb was ready, which allows us a small insight into the process of inscription along with the errors and corrections. I was pleased to see that even in those days there were scribes who couldn’t spell…………!
After a long day at the tombs we were lulled in to a small error of judgment and decided to join the group at their hotel for dinner but were soon brought back down to earth when the bill arrived……… E£ 320 were we normally pay E£ 50 and to make matters worse the food wasn’t that great………still live and learn and Blanca hadn’t seen her mother for well over a year so there was plenty to talk about!
The following day we had a rest while the group went to view a ruin in a far greater depth and was tailored towards the experts as opposed to us mere novices…! In the mean time, after indulging in all this culture, we had been rejoined by the ‘accountants’ and the ‘Canadians’. They had been very lucky and missed the group of 17 motor homes from Holland that had invaded the campsite for a few days.
With the excellent roads in this part of North Africa and the Middle East a vast opportunity has opened up for motorised tourism without the need for 4x4 or specialised vehicles. It’s actually quite surreal to see these convoys of motor homes, full of middle aged Europeans, trundling around through the desert.
Anyway, back to our own tour. Following a day of rest we were back across the Nile with the Spaniards to visit what is possibly my favourite attraction of the area, the Tombs of the Nobles. Here in addition to the usual “book of the dead” inscriptions and so on, which also form the main feature of the tombs of the kings, there are art works concentrating more on the events of the deceased’s everyday life – a visit to the barbers, hunting and fishing scenes, work, festivals and the like. The ceilings of these tombs are often delightfully decorated with leaves, and fruits. Some of the detailing extends so far as to illustrate the diaphanous nature of some of the garments of the day. I have to say I was amazed, spellbound by these images of an ancient civilisation and to have the opportunity to peer through these windows into the past and glimpse life as it might have been.
Before we arrived at the Tombs of the Nobles some members of the group warned us about the local children and how annoying they were, always asking for things, we arrive and what happens next? They are all handing out sweets, money and gifts to all the kids and then, they wonder why the children are irritating when the sweets run out! I was very quick to point out that all these “gifts” are actually detrimental, and that the children will often skip school for the possibility of sweets or a little money and things can turn nasty when they are disappointed, with stone and stick throwing. It also goes towards developing a culture with a loss of pride and self esteem, dependent on begging as we have witnessed all too often in other parts of Africa and in particular, Ethiopia.
All too soon it was time to bid the Blanca’s mother and the group farewell, as they continued with their tour and we with ours, well not quite.
A couple of days of R & R followed and we took some time to check out the Luxor museum which is excellent and beautifully presented, the Cairo museum could learn a thing or two, and the mummification museum. I also had a look at the leaky rear diff on Ivan’s Land Rover. It was now time to move on and check out the Red Sea coast, which is supposed to have some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world. Somehow we got caught in one of these tourist convoys – how can you argue when you are surrounded by armed police and spikes across the road, for our protection apparently, after a short but crazy dash we managed to escape certain death by taking a side road to Al Quseir. Here we picked up the coast road and headed north and found a stunning spot to camp, passed the bleached bones of unfinished resorts stripped of investment, right on the beach. Here we were away from all the hustlers with our own stretch of clear turquoise sea, clean white beach and coral reef. One thing the guidebook forgot to mention was that the sea was a little bit too cold to snorkel without a wetsuit – and also, to watch out for the strong winds! Still it didn’t matter much as we found plenty of life in the rock pools, including a couple of sea snakes, a small moray eel and a couple of octopus, one of which “spat” jets of water at Blanca whenever she got too close, it must have heard about the Spanish love of cooked octopus…..! And of course, we can sleep inside Grommet, but packing up the roof tent in a small hurricane in the middle of the night is no joke, I can tell you. One casualty of this wind was the awning, which pulled all its pegs out of the ground and tried to take off, breaking a plastic joint in the process. Unfortunately the cold, the wind and lack of shade got the better of us and after three days it was time to move on. Just up the coast at Safaga we managed to miss the convoy back to the Nile and Qena, and convince the police that we could go it alone, much to my relief, as it was up hill most of the way. The only fuel I could get was 80 octane and there was a sand storm, so all in all, it was very slow going for poor old Grommet. At Qena the police were quite surprised to see us alone and without an escort. Here was yet another temple to see, Dendara, which is quite spectacular and amazingly retains much of its original inscriptions and details in their original colours and there is even access to the roof with its magnificent views. But this time we couldn’t escape the dreaded “convoy” as the Tourist Police were blocking the entrance. The driver of the lead car asked me “how fast does Grommet go,” I told him 60km/h he asked me to try and go a bit faster, still Grommet wasn’t up to the convoy speed of 120km/h plus and we were very quickly left behind……… I for once wasn’t prepared to risk my life and Blanca’s racing along the tiny roads with a load of crazy macho Egyptians, I’d rather take my chances with the “terrorists!” As it quickly became evident that we couldn’t or weren’t prepared to keep up we ended up as a convoy of one and ended up at Rezeiky Camping once again. Not that I minded, cold beer and great food and I had a small repair to do on the awning.
Then it was time to move on again to the sea, but this time a sea of sand and the Western Desert, the police tried to force us to take an escort but after the turn off into the desert, we managed to convince their captain that it really wasn’t necessary and at last we were alone.
The Egyptian desert is a strange place and seems to be just a vast resource of free building material, sand, aggregate and stone or just a place to dump your building spoil and rubbish. As a result of the problems with the police and the “convoy” and yet another sand storm, we were never quite able to catch up with the “accountants” who had left Luxor just a few hours ahead of us……. We were both quite tired and fed up with the sand storm when we pulled of the road at an oasis after the oddly named town of Bagdad, at a nice little sheltered place behind some dunes near some palms. We had been spotted by a farmer on his tractor who came to check that we were alright and were okay for food and water, which was rather nice. In the UK it would be more a case of, you can’t stop here, go now or I’ll call the police…….
Next morning bright and early we headed off to Mut and Bedouin Camp, on the suggestion of Arthur and Swantje, our German friends. We’d just missed Ivan and Rachel, who’d left that morning. It was very hot when we arrived so after setting up, we decided to try out the hot spring nearby to “cool off” and wash away some of the sand and dust. Now the hot spring was actually very hot at about 42degC and the water has a very high iron content, turning my fingernails, toenails and jewellery a golden colour. Strangely, Blanca decided against taking a dip. This was probably a good thing because shortly after we got there, some locals arrived to wash the baskets that they use to transport pigeons to market. They would have probably been horrified to see Blanca in the water leading possibly to a stoning offence. Anyway I was in the water already so, lent a hand cleaning the baskets, I hope they didn’t have a bird flu problem!
The following morning we headed off on our tour of the hot springs and another Swantje recommendation. This time the spring was in the middle of nowhere and still Blanca couldn’t be tempted but for me, any opportunity to have a hot bath while in the “bush” cannot be missed. After we had finished dinner and retired to bed, a car pulled up…. I assumed curious locals wanting a late night dip and went to sleep. Strangely they were still there at two in the morning and at 7am when we got up. It turned out they were tourist police and had been “on guard” all night but had been too polite to ask whether we actually needed their services, which of course we didn’t!
Next stop on the desert tour is one of the highlights of the area – the White Desert. As you approach the White Desert reserve you cross an area where the gold and black dunes are topped with white, giving the impression of driving through a stormy sea of white crested waves. We turned off in to the White Desert reserve which, rather than being a desert of white sand is actually an area of small chalk hills, which have been rounded off and shaped by the elements and are quite spectacular. When we arrived we were disturbed to hear about a tourist who had left his group to see the sunrise that morning and hadn’t been seen since, we arrived at 11am and they were still searching for him at 4pm that afternoon! It was very hot and for someone unprepared, I wouldn’t like to rate his chances of survival. We were getting “cooked” while sheltering under our awning! It was our intention to stay and chill for a few days because the scenery is just outstanding but again, the guidebook fails to mention the flies that arrived from nowhere, keen to feast on the new half naked tourists. It wasn’t long before, with our Italian-made fly swats in hand, we were surrounded by a growing black patch of corpses, if we were to keep this up in a couple of days the White Desert would be the Black Desert! So the next day we left, driven away by a swarm of flies.
We were nearing Cairo but didn’t want to enter the city at night, so we tried to find somewhere to camp. With the luxury of 4x4, I turned off the road and headed off into the desert, it was just amazing to be in the middle of nowhere. Looking around you could see that it wasn’t always desert as the ground was simply littered with the fossilised remnants of what was a vast forest. And for the first time in Africa there was no fuel for the Kelly kettle, fossilised wood doesn’t burn well, but there was some very dry old camel dung and with a strong wind, soon there was a little furnace going and plenty of hot water for our breakfast coffee.
Cairo – what an insane place! We had hardly arrived in the city and I wanted to leave, the traffic is crazy, I almost crashed in to the back of a car that just stopped right in front of us in the fast lane to gawp at a slow moving heavy load. It’s hard to spot a car with out some form of damage and a considerable amount of damage is the norm! I was quite relieved to make it to the campsite unscathed. I think in order to get a driving licence you simply have to prove that you can drive around for the duration of the test and not have an accident or run anybody over. The joy at arriving at Salma camping was very short lived. It was expensive, situated next to an open sewer so it stank most of the time, the toilets and showers were filthy, full of huge voracious mosquitoes and it was miles and miles from anywhere. It was a good thing the taxis were cheap – well, once you manage to get the local price and not the purchase price! The “accountants,” Ivan and Rachel were already here and in deep discussion with the Libyan Embassy about the visas that we had applied for eight weeks previously. Tom and Jan, the “Canadians”, had struck lucky and had been invited to stay with some local ex-pats, whom we also went to see and spent a couple of very pleasant evenings with. The Libyan visa was swiftly adopting the same structure as the Sudan visa, with tomorrow, tomorrow and where at least the Taitu, in Addis wasn’t too bad or an expensive “shit hole” and was right in the centre of things. So after a lot of soul searching we decided it was time to call it a day, we had successfully achieved London to Cape Town and Cape Town to Cairo, the Libyan visa was going down the toilet fast and the camping was crap. We called Strand Voyages in London and booked ourselves and Grommet on one of the Grimaldi Lines cargo ferries leaving Ashdod, Israel for Portugal on the seventh of May.
We packed up and left Cairo for Suez and the Sinai, as we still wanted to snorkel in the Red Sea. I was amazed to see all the military installations on the way to the tunnel under the Suez Canal but I guess this area is just a little bit sensitive with Israel just around the corner. It was funny the tunnel reminded me of the Blackwall Tunnel back home in London. We arrived at the national park of Ras Muhammad, which is a diver’s heaven and, at $15 including camping for us and the Grommet, is also excellent value. The only problem was two commercial dive centres had taken over two of the three camping spots and the other was full of day trippers, so nowhere to camp but we did find a small cove just for us; the ‘accountants’ and the ‘Canadians’ joined us later. It was spectacular – the enormous variety of brightly coloured fish and the corals just out of this world and literally just off the beach and the sea has such an incredible clarity that I’d never experienced before. When Tom and Jan arrived with some scuba gear, I just had to give it a go. I had wanted to take a dive course but our budget could never quite stretch that far and now I could have a go for free. And I had every confidence in Tom as an instructor as he was an ex South African Navy Seal and if he didn’t know what he was doing nobody would. Once I managed to sort out my buoyancy with the aid of an additional weight, it was awesome to be able to stay underwater and watch the fish, without having to keep on bobbing up to take a breath. My only problem was my ears, I couldn’t seem to be able to get the pressure to equalise, so the deeper I go the more painful they become. Still I would not have missed it for the world, and I’m grateful to Tom for giving me the opportunity. Once I get my ears sorted I’ll have to persuade the Spaniard to let me take a course………… Unfortunately someone grassed us up to the park warden, probably one of the dive centres and we were forced to move and join the Russian and German day-trippers. After a very windy night and following day we decided to move on up the coast, just past the very swish resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and to the old hippy resort of Dahab.
The accountants were already in a room at Bishbishi Garden Village but for us, the camping area was great and we had it all to ourselves except for one night with Tom and Jan who dropped in on their way to Jordan and then like us, to Israel. We had a superb “last supper” together in a local fish restaurant, but after all that snorkelling and diving I wasn’t in the mood for fish, it would be like eating a lion after a safari! It was incredible to snorkel just off the beach in the centre of the village and see such an amazing variety of fish, I even saw a big lion fish less than twenty meters from the shore. All too soon it was time to move on again, Ivan and Rachel were still pursuing a Libyan visa to no avail and we had to cross the border before Blanca’s passport fell below the six month minimum time period required by Israel. We said our goodbyes and headed off up the coast, bush camping 10km from Taba and the border on another beautiful beach; it’s hard to give up the beach in the Red Sea.
The border, in true Egyptian style, was a mess. Again they wanted us to empty the car and have everything x-rayed. They confiscated some of my souvenirs from Angola, some old exploded ammunition cases, and wanted to keep my machete but I wasn’t letting that go, then it was off to the customs and then back to the police and strangely nobody asked for the number plates back, well I suppose they weren’t much use being from Aswan, I see it as an exchange of souvenirs! But unlike Aswan all the border formalities were over and done with in an hour, amazing – somebody should give the guys in the south some lessons in efficiency!
As I write this piece, on the Israeli beach just a kilometre from the Israel-Egypt border we received the terrible news of three bombs in Dahab in an area where, had we still been camping there, we would have been either walking by or eating in one of the great restaurants when the bombs went off. So we would like to offer our condolences to those injured or lost and to the people of the town, which was struggling to recover from last years bombing at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Disembarking in Aswan
Hotel roof Aswan
Us safe in Egypt
Grommet with Egyptian plates
Roland at Chez Blanca
Roland leaving Luxor
The ‘Egyptian family’
Inside a tomb
Detail from a tomb
Mark and the Spaniards
Dame un caramelo
Blanca and her mother
How the other half live…
By the Red Sea
On the beach
What a view!
Road to Bagdad?
Camping at the oasis
Western desert road
The white desert
Camping in the white desert
Moment of reflection
My last offer, 10 camels…
‘Gloom and Doom’
Street café, Cairo
The domestic goddess