In September 2009 I had the great pleasure of going on an Imaginative Traveller tour of Egypt.
I kept a journal of my time there, and planned on turning it to a travel blog on my return from Egypt back to London. I never ended up getting around to it, and it was only a few weeks ago (16 months after the tour) that I rediscovered my journal after having completely forgotten about it. Reading through my entries brought back so many incredible memories, so I’ve dedicated the last couple of weeks to typing out my writings and creating this blog. Rather than focus on the historical facts associated with the country, I’ve tried instead to detail the interesting, unique and often humorous activities, sights, people & emotions I experienced during my time there. It’s turned out to be the longest piece I’ve ever written – over 13,000 words with 53 photos, more than double the longest essay I ever wrote at uni!
It’s ironic that over the past few days we’ve heard about the political unrest and the violent (but understandable) protests tainting the streets of Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and other such Egyptian cities. I therefore wish for this blog entry to not only inspire you to want to travel to the fine shores of Egypt, but to also bring to mind the fact that, behind what you see on the news, Egypt is a glorious, vibrant, safe and happy country to explore.
I wish the Egyptians all the best for a peaceful resolution to the current situation, and I hope you enjoy reading this post. Feel free to leave a comment at the end if you do like it – it took me ages to compile and I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂
12th September 2009. Cairo
Well, here I am in Cairo. Months of anticipation have finally culminated with me stepping foot off British soil, onto a plane, and then onto the grounds of Africa five hours later, making this the third continent I have now visited. The plane ride was straightforward and not too long. I sat next to a girl from Lismore who was also on a two week tour of Egypt, but with a different travel company. I watched a very interesting documentary thanks to the in-flight entertainment about Britain as seen from the air. I read through my Egyptian guidebook and made note of some interesting places I wouldn’t mind visiting, and for our meal we had a beef sausage breakfast with egg, tomato and potato, fruit salad, blueberry flapjack, a loaf of bread, and pineapple juice. I specifically shared the details of my meal because it seems people often have a strange fascination with airplane food.
I was sitting in the middle seats of the plane, so I didn’t have much of a view of the outside, but the plane turned sharply about 10 minutes before we landed and I caught a glimpse of the landscape. Barren, plain, dusty, hazy desert was all I could see. I commented to my Lismore friend about how foreign it looked, which she completely agreed with, and we marvelled at the scenery until the plane levelled out again and continued with its descent.
On stepping out of the plane I was greeted with the sudden ferocity of the heat, mixed with the breezy coolness of the airport airconditioning. That initial jolt of warmth was enough to make me realise I was a world away from the overcast skies of England, and now in the harsh, unforgiving desert climate of the Middle East’s largest city. Walking down the giant airport “carriageway” I looked into the distance and all I could see outside the boundaries of the landing field was desert, followed by more desert, greeting the sky at an ambiguous, grey, cloudy horizon.
After a brief period of confusion at the bank (I asked for change for my Egyptian notes but they refused to give it to me), passport control (I filled out the wrong form and had to fill another one) and baggage claim (I stood at the wrong carousel and wondered why my bag wasn’t appearing), I was greeted by a friendly Imaginative Traveller agent who welcomed me to Egypt and directed me to our driver who would proceed to take me to my hotel. Immediately upon leaving the airport, I realised that not only was I faced with a change of climate, but a change of culture as well. All the street signs were written in Arabic, locals were walking casually across the motorway without regard for the seemingly endless traffic, and my driver in particular was doing a terrible job at keeping within the confines of the lanes. Looking around me I realised that very few people were following the road rules as I knew them; it was clearly a case of every man for himself.
My guide left the van about half way through the journey and I continued on with the driver who, in very broken English, and also with a few indecipherable Arabic words, pointed out to me the train station, the Egyptian Museum, the Nile, and the tall but thin Cairo Tower.
We exited the main road after crossing the famous river, where we took a more localised street – the traffic situation being even more chaotic than that of the motorway. Finally after about half an hour on the road, we made it to the Indiana Hotel, in the residential Cairo suburb of Dokki.
After checking in, the porter took my bags and showed me to my room. There was a moment of awkwardness where I knew he was expecting a tip, and he realised I wasn’t going to give him one. No thanks to the bank at the airport, the smallest change I had on me was 100 LE (LE = Egyptian pounds) – and that would have bought me an entire meal in a fancy restaurant. Hopefully I’ll have some change by tomorrow – If I see him I’ll give him something.
* (1 LE = approx. 17 Australian cents or 10 British pence)
The hotel room was tidy enough, but quite dingy and a little bit ramshackle. It was a nightmare getting the door open, the airconditioner made a horrible whirring noise, the bathroom door wouldn’t close and the lock on the balcony door fell off. I needed the toilet and discovered there was no paper – I cursed myself about that, due to my blatant disregard for the recommendation that I bring my own toilet paper everywhere I go. New lesson learnt: A4 printer paper is the epitome of discomfort.
I took a shower and could instantly feel the hardness of the water. It was so full of chlorine, and I could smell it on my body for hours following. In keeping with the ramshackle trend, there was no hot water, which I didn’t mind because it wasn’t the type of climate where you require a hot shower anyway. I opened the shower curtain back up again, only to find two rolls of toilet paper patiently hanging high up on the wall opposite the toilet, waiting to be used. Shit! Who hangs toilet paper on the opposite wall of the toilet, for heaven’s sake? I have a feeling this will not be the final instance of my imminent love-hate relationship with the bog roll.
I ventured out to wander the streets, where I’m immediately chased and stopped by a member of hotel staff. I assumed this was for some kind of security breach (there was a metal detector at the entrance of the hotel), but it turns out he just wanted to ask if I required a taxi. After I politely refused and continued on down the street, a man got out of his car and hassled me for about 20 metres, claiming he could take me anywhere for a fraction of the cost of a normal cab, his voice getting louder the quicker I sped up, frantically trying to at least offer me a business card so I could consider calling him later on.
Aah, bring on the bustling streets of suburban Cairo. I ventured towards the end of El Sarray Street and turned left along the main road. I desperately wanted to cross the road to walk beside the river, but the sheer volume of traffic mixed with my lack of confidence didn’t bode well, and I stick to the built-up side of the road. The footpath was quite dusty and dirty, with rubbish littering the streets at regular intervals, barefooted beggars with their babies asking me for money, and noise pollution like never before experienced. Seriously, a car must honk its horn here at least three times per second. It’s like in the movies, and there is absolutely no reason for it. It seems motorists just like honking their horns for the sake of it. I continued on down the main road for 15 minutes or so, taking in the sights & sounds and also noticing a strange but sweet smell of coconut at various locations along the city streets.
I returned to my hotel room, where I decided to keep this journal of my experiences. I will be sure to update it every day, and document as many interesting things as I can. But for now, I must be off to meet with my tour guide and group for the first time, in the reception area. I already know that there are four Australian girls on the tour, so who will the rest of them be? I have only been in Cairo for a mere 3.5 hours and already my senses have fallen into overload. And I love it!
* * *
It was a pretty awkward start to the tour. We met at the dining area near the hotel reception, where we discovered that two American friends on our tour, Todd and Lilly, had been robbed. They had left some valuable items, such as an iPod, a mobile phone and some cash in their room while they were out, and on their return it was nowhere to be seen. Understandably, Todd was absolutely furious that this had happened, however I do feel he took out his anger at the tour group & our guide a little bit more than what he should have. The rest of the tour introduction had a strange atmosphere… it was supposed to have been a happy, excited beginning, but instead it was tense and a little depressing.
Not to worry though, we soon finished our formalities and decided to walk through the local area for some dinner. Todd and Lilly went with Ramzy, our tour guide, to make a report at the police station, while the rest of us (the four Australian girls, Angie, Sarah, Katie and Fiona, and a British couple, Oli and Tracy) wandered down a suburban street, stopping by a supermarket, a chocolatier and finally, Dominoes Pizza for dinner. Such a traditional meal! We figured we’d be gorging our mouths with local cuisine over the coming weeks so we cut ourselves some slack and went for a Western takeaway dinner to break the ice. We took our pizzas back to the hotel where the friendly waiter chatted to us openly about how much he despised his own country, and wrote our names in Arabic on serviettes.
Everyone went back to their rooms after dinner, but I headed out once more to buy a travel adapter so I could charge my phone. There were a few interesting things I noticed on my travels through the streets at 10:15pm. A hell of a lot of shops were open, that’s for sure. Every time I walked past a bank there was a security guard dressed in white and sitting inside a phone booth type of enclosure, keeping an eye on things. There was a surprising amount of people out, mostly middle-aged men, all of whom would have been 100% sober due to religious reasons. The streets had a very social feel to them, and there was laughter, people greeting one another, people sitting in chairs on the actual road itself, people walking in front of cars without any fear of their safety… definitely a completely different scenario compared to anything I’d ever seen before. I felt safe, at ease, and happy amongst the Egyptian Saturday night social scene.
Back at the hotel, where I sit now writing this, my phone is busy sucking up electricity and I am watching Crocodile Dundee II on TV. Who would have thought – of all the movies that could possibly be showing. It even has Arabic subtitles!
Tomorrow at 9am we leave for the Pyramids of Giza. I can’t wait!
13th September 2009. Cairo & Giza
This morning after a breakfast that included sausage, capsicum & tomato stew, cucumber, tomato & feta salad, boiled eggs and sweet bread with jam, we caught the bus with our Egyptologist guide, Sahar, to the site of the pyramids. We were also joined on our tour by another girl, Claire from Ireland, who wasn’t able to make the group meeting the night before.
Once more, along the way to Giza, I marvelled at the insanely busy streets, noting the abundance of white Kombi vans, many with doors and rear bonnets wide open, presumably to aid with air circulation. The local buses were crowded, rackety, old, and God forbid, unairconditioned. I can’t begin to imagine how uncomfortable it would be for a Muslim woman in full headdress & robe to be standing in the aisle of a Cairo bus in the 38 degree heat.
We arrived at Giza where our tour guide purchased the entry tickets for us, and a few of us purchased extra tickets that allowed us into the pyramids themselves. Those who bought the extra Pyramid entry tickets opted for the cheaper 50 LE Pyramid of Khafre (the Second Pyramid), but I paid the more expensive 100 LE to enter the Pyramid of Khufu – more commonly known as the Great Pyramid.
Cameras weren’t allowed within the pyramids so I left mine on the bus, because I didn’t want to be caught by a security guard and have to fork out an extortionate amount of money for him to release me. I headed straight to the entrance of the Great Pyramid, in awe of the sheer size and grandeur of it. You see it in photos and on TV but until you actually see it with your own eyes, you don’t realise its extent.
The entrance was through a small passageway at the north end of the pyramid, and initially the path was tall, wide and fairly level until it narrowed down to a long thin passage that ascended at a steep angle. I crouched down and began climbing up, suddenly aware of the humid, stale air and scorching heat, presumably from the sweat and breath of the other tourists making the pilgrimage. After what seemed like 60 or 70 metres, the passageway opened up and I was able to comfortably walk the remaining distance to the pharaoh’s tomb.
Entering the tomb itself was a very humbling experience. In reality, the room is dimly lit and it’s about 8 metres long by 6 metres wide, with an empty sarcophagus sitting at the western end. However, while standing in this room, it springs to mind that not only are you in the direct centre of one of the seven wonders of the world, but also that Egypt’s greatest pharaoh, Khufu (also known as Cheops), was buried here millennia ago and remained so for approximately 600 years.
Initially the room was occupied by another five or six tourists, but they left, allowing me to have the room to myself for about five minutes. I just stood there, in the middle of the Great Pyramid, taking in the atmosphere and marvelling at the fact that I was actually there.
I exited the pyramid the same way I went in, and collected my camera from the bus. I really wanted a photo of a camel so I approached one of the local camel keepers and asked him how much he would charge me for a photo of the camel? All I wanted was a photo of the camel’s head against the backdrop of the pyramid, but before I knew it, the cunning rascal had manipulated me into actually getting on the camel so he could take a photo of me. I didn’t mind that at all, to be honest, but I knew he was going to drive a hard bargain. He tried to convince me that he had to move the camel further away (hence, taking me for a ride, which would add to the price), but I stuck my foot down and told him to take the photo from where he stood right now. He begrudgingly obliged, before trying once more to move the camel, and it was only when I told him I was late for my bus and threatened to jump off that he lowered the camel so I could disembark. Now the tricky part was, he had my camera, and I had the money. I knew I wasn’t going to get away with 10 or 20 LE so I pulled out my wallet to give him 60 LE, which I thought was a fair price. Unfortunately he happened to see my 200 LE note, so he wanted that instead, and refused to return my camera until I made the handover. In the end I met him half way at 100 LE and prised the camera out of his hands before heading on again towards the northern end of the Great Pyramid. He followed me for a while as I sped off, shouting to me that “the buses are the other way!” I knew I’d been ripped off but I had some comfort in the fact that I lied to him about having to be back on the bus.
All in all, I came to realise that he was actually a nice guy, as all Egyptian people seemed to be – all he was trying to do was make a living to feed his family. Having said that though, I later found out that one of the girls on the tour had the exact same photo taken atop a different camel, and only coughed up 10 LE for it.
Todd was late back to the bus. We left the pyramids and headed towards the Sphinx after making a quick stopover at the lookout where you see all three pyramids from the one viewpoint. The Sphinx was interesting enough to see, although I was more engrossed by the ancient structures, ruins and chambers just outside the Sphinx complex. I wandered around there for half an hour before meeting up with Claire and heading back to the bus. Todd was late back to the bus.
Our next destination was a local papyrus museum where we saw a demonstration of how to make papyrus paper, and was clearly a means of providing a commission to our tour guide. But it was interesting, and there were some lovely paintings on offer. Along with the majority of the group, I declined to make a purchase.
We had lunch at one of the few roadside cafes still open over Ramadan, and I had my first experience of an authentic Egyptian falafel. Oh my god, that was possibly one of the most amazing vegetarian experiences I have ever had in my life. If all vegetable matter tasted like that, there would be no point ever eating meat. And it only cost me 2 LE!
The final major tourist destination of the day was the Egyptian Museum, where Lilly, Oli, Tracy & I opted for a guided tour, followed by 45 minutes of spare time. It’s a crowded museum, in that there’s a hell of a lot of stuff on display, but very little notification on what it actually is. The guide was absolutely fascinating, and she took us to see (among other things) the one & only remaining miniature statue of the Pharaoh Khufu, a supposedly famous painting of a duck, and of course Tutankhamen’s valuables that were found within his burial chamber.
After watching a repeat of Crocodile Dundee II in our hotel room, the majority of the group decided to go to – wait for it – KFC for dinner! I wouldn’t have mentioned that here, if it wasn’t for the uniqueness of this particular restaurant. The cashiers didn’t utter a word to us as we placed our orders, and initially we thought they may have been taking a vow of silence due to religious reasons, or ignoring us because we were tourists. However it turned out that every staff member who worked at the restaurant was deaf. They communicated only by sign language or by pointing to the menu. This was a concept unique to Egypt and it was set up as a community support aid. Needless to say, not only was it the tastiest KFC meal I’d ever eaten, but the service was surprisingly efficient and we all went to bed happy that we’d assisted the community.
On the way back to the hotel, Angie, Sarah, Katie and Fiona stopped by the front of somebody’s apartment to feed a gorgeous litter of kittens that they’d noticed the night before. Cairo appeared full to the brim with cats and kittens – they ruled the streets as much as the men did.
14th September 2009. Cairo to Aswan and the Temple of Philae
You would think the 13 hour overnight journey from Cairo to Aswan would be boring, but it turned out quite the contrary.
The train pulled up at the platform at 8:20pm, and we all took our allocated seats inside the surprisingly comfortable and roomy carriage. We’d barely made a move out of Cairo when Ramzy suggested we head on down to the club car to have a drink and a smoke. We were the first group inside the club car so we got pick of the seats, and I was very impressed with the quality of its outfit. It reminded me of a posh, well-respected gambling room you might see in a movie that was set in Vegas.
The majority of the group hung around for an hour or so, but as time progressed they one-by-one went off back to the carriage to catch some well-deserved rest. Claire and I stayed up and made friends with the other tour groups who had conglomerated into the club car to drink Luxor beer and dodgy French chardonnay. Claire and I opted for said bottle of dodgy wine, and within a matter of moments, a few of the guys next to us burst into song, with everyone in the carriage following suit. I believe it started off with Wonderwall by Oasis, but soon progressed to Mr Jones, Brown Eyed Girl and American Pie.
The only locals on the train were the staff, and our group of roustabouts consisted of plenty of Australians, Claire the Irishwoman, a few Americans including Lilly from our group who had since joined us, an Italian guy and a Spanish guy. Two Aussies, Tyrone from Lismore and Tim from I can’t remember where, just happened to bring guitars with them so we all sat up well into the wee hours of the morning, drinking wine and singing along with all the pub classics. It was the most awesome jam night I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking part in. I finally got back to my seat on the train at 3:15am.
We arrived in Aswan at about 9am, where a bus took us to our hotel room and we discussed the options for the day. Oli, Tracy, Claire and I were about to take an organised bus tour to the High Dam to see Lake Nasser, but we pulled out at the last minute and opted for a taxi instead. It turned out that the bus tour was going to cost us 180 LE each, whereas the taxi was only going to be 100 LE between the four of us. Pretty much the whole group decided to go to the Sound & Light show later that night at the Temple of Philae, and all of us were up for the three hour round trip the following day to Abu Simbel, our southernmost destination.
After a quick rest, the four of us hopped into our taxi for our expedition to the sights of Aswan. On driving through the streets, we found it to be quite a pretty town, considering its location in the middle of the desert. Our first destination was the Unfinished Obelisk which was a part of rock chiselled out of the ground many millennia ago, to be made into a sister obelisk to the one that was already standing in Rome. Unfortunately, after countless hours, days, months of intensely hard work in the desert sun, the team of diggers found a fault in the rock, so the entire project was abandoned and has laid resting there ever since. It was interesting to see, but not a very spectacular attraction, and definitely not fun to walk around in the probably 43 degree heat of the midday sun.
In the bazaar just off to the side of the Obelisk, I was impressed with Claire’s bartering skills, as she had her eyes set on a gorgeous piece of hand painted Egyptian pottery. As yet, I hadn’t purchased anything from a market stall, so it was encouraging to see how a deal such as this one came into place. The bidding started at 600 LE, which to be fair, would be the price you’d pay if you were buying a similar item from a Western store, but in the end the stallholder settled for a grand sum of 250 LE. That’s just about double the weekly wage of a local Egyptian.
We continued on in the taxi, the driver of whom was a little antsy as we had taken so long at the bazaar. We passed the old Aswan dam before paying the 20 LE entry fee to get across to the High Dam. The dam was quite impressive, but it wasn’t until we made an about-face and witnessed the sheer enormity of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake, that I felt a sense of being blown away.
On the way back to the hotel, I was looking out the window of the taxi taking in the scenery, when all of a sudden my whole body became awash with a very eerie feeling of déjà vu. I could see a small lakeside community with a number of sandstone buildings, a harbour with lots of boats and a small set of hills in the distance, and I swear that I had been in this exact same location before. I’d experienced small senses of déjà vu in the past, but this one bowled me over completely. I had enough time to take a photo of the scene that lay before my eyes, and as I pondered the situation over the following half hour, I remembered that I had seen it once before in a dream, which I had maybe four or five months ago. In my dream, the day was overcast & rainy, and I specifically recall exploring the township and then heading towards the lake where I went fishing. I don’t recall much more detail from the dream, but I remain absolutely adamant that it was set in this precise spot by the side of the old Aswan dam. Freaky stuff.
We arrived at the hotel where we paid our driver the princely (but still highly affordable) sum of 150 LE. He was very pleased with his tip, and we were pleased with the money we’d saved by not opting for the bus trip.
The four of us headed down to one of the few restaurants open over Ramadan – we had initially thought of opting for McDonalds, but ironically, the restaurant we chose instead was called Makka. I had a delicious meal of a whole fried chicken & chips with rice & veg, plus an amazing assortment of dips and side dishes that we shared. If we’d have received a meal like this in London it would have been overpriced and tasteless, but here in Egypt it was cheap and full of the most amazing flavours.
Following our meal we headed back to the hotel for some rest, then the group met up in the lobby for a walk around the streets & the bazaar. Claire wasn’t feeling too well after the meal but the rest of us seemed fine. The bazaar was a truly cultural experience, full of colour, smells, flavours, and salespeople out the front of every stall trying to attract our attention. My favourite was simply a guy who yelled out to us, “Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Captain Cook!”
I had my first go at haggling and bought a pair of much-needed sunglasses. The storekeeper initially asked for 350 LE but I got them in the end (after declining his “final price” of 100 LE) for 70 LE. I’m not sure if that was much of a rip off but I was happy with the price and I now had some protection from that fierce yellow ball of light in the sky.
As I returned to the hotel room I found that my chocolate biscuits had made their way out of their packet and had melted all through my bag. It looked as though someone had shat in the bag and shaken it up with extreme diarrhoea-like force. I emptied it into the only waste disposal vessel I could find at the time – the toilet – but I forgot that I had packed my keys into a pocket without a zip. Shit.
After a short one hour rest we met back in the lobby and took the bus to the Temple of Philae. The temple was situated on an island, and we got there thanks to a small boat, which took around 10 minutes in the pitch black of the night. Construction of the temple began around 380 BC, however it was originally built at a different location, and had since been deconstructed and moved to this island to save it from being submerged during the construction of the Aswan dam. We walked up toward the temple where we were greeted with some very ambient lighting scenes and soft music playing in the background. The light & sound show took us on a journey through the temple as we heard the story of its dedication to the goddess Isis, and the constant changing of lighting effects made the experience a whole lot more exciting than what it would have been if we’d visited in the blazing sunlight. We journeyed back to the hotel, and as much as I wanted to experience the now vibrant city streets, I was exhausted so instead headed to the room. There was only a four hour gap with which we could sleep, as we had to be up at 3:30am for our trip to Abu Simbel.
15th September 2009. Abu Simbel, Aswan and the Nubian Village
We arose at 3:30pm and boarded the bus for the three hour journey to Abu Simbel. For security reasons, we went as part of a police convoy, along with countless busloads of other tourists. I slept most of the way, but towards the end of the journey as the sun rose I watched the scenery out the window in awe of the nothingness. Just sand, sand, sand, rocks, more sand, some sand hills (for a change), the horizon and the sky.
There are two enormous rock temples that make up Abu Simbel. Construction began in 1,244 BC, under the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II, as a testimonial to his love for himself and his wife, Queen Nefertari. Similarly to the Temple of Philae, the Abu Simbel temples were originally built at an alternate location, 200 metres away from where they currently stand. Due to the construction of the Aswan Dam and the threat of inundation from Lake Nasser, UNESCO spent four years in the 1960’s deconstructing both temples and reconstructing them on higher ground.
We arrived at Abu Simbel at 7:30am where our guide told us the story and the history behind the great monument. We took copious amounts of photos and entered both the smaller and larger temples; Todd got told off by fellow tourists for illegally taking photos on the inside. We happened to meet up with the same guys we partied with on the train as well; Lilly especially was delighted to once more see a particular guy she’d met who she fancied. I misheard Ramzy’s meeting time – I thought he said to meet at the bus at 9:55 at the latest, but apparently he actually said 9:45, so when myself, Todd & Claire rocked up at five to ten, Ramzy was busy trying to locate us so as not to hold up the police convoy any longer. Oops!
We drove the three hours back from Abu Simbel, the only interesting features of the journey being a rock in the shape of a turtle and the waterlike mirages of the Western Desert.
We had an hour of spare time, during which Todd, Lilly, Claire and I went to McDonalds. Todd had ordered a burger but it was prepared slightly differently to the way he was used to in the US, and he unsuccessfully tried to score free stuff from the manager to make up for the terrible inconvenience.
We met once more at the hotel and ventured out again at 3:30pm. A motorboat took us to a Nubian cafe on the other side & a bit upstream of the Nile, and along the way we were joined by some local boys in a small boat who held onto the side of our boat and sang us nursery rhymes. They were cute and we each tipped them a pound or two.
The Nubian cafe was such a great experience. Half of the group went straight to the cushioned seating area to relax and drink coffee, while Oli, Tracy, Claire and I opted to climb to the top of the nearby sand dune first. I had always wanted to climb a sand dune, and now was the time to fulfil this dream. It was incredibly hot and our feet burned to a crisp during the long, steep trek, but it was so damn worth it for the view from the top of the dune. Below us we could see the Nile, followed by miles of green, fertile ground, Aswan in the distance, and endless desert off until the horizon. We had an awesome time “skiing” with our bare feet back down the sand dune, and rejoined the group at the cafe where we sampled some very tasty Nubian coffee made with ginger & mixed spices. I also noticed a boat by the banks of the river that had the very peculiar name of “Boob”.
Following the cafe we continued up the Nile to a traditional Nubian village, where we walked along a rocky path to a local mudbrick house. A family greeted us and cooked us a meal of korma, chicken pieces, rice, potato salad and pasta, plus ladyfinger bananas for dessert. We drank hibiscus, chatted into the night, and some of the girls had henna tattoos drawn onto their skin by the Nubian women. After using the bathroom – which consisted of a squat bowl, a rubbish bin for toilet paper (not supplied) and a hose, we sat on the roof of the motorboat and made the extremely peaceful journey back to Aswan.
I spent an hour at the internet cafe before walking down the main bazaar to experience Aswan at its prime, when all the locals & tourists come out to shop at night. I happened to hear Todd’s voice from a mile away and followed it until I found him & Claire in the middle of the busy street. The three of us went to a stall where Todd had purchased a miniature lute from the day before. Todd was already well known on the street, and being the loud, outgoing American tourist that he was, he had a habit of hassling the hasslers before they ever had an opportunity to hassle him. He told us later that one of the stallholders had threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave him alone!
We were at the stall for at least an hour. I went through about ten minutes of haggling, which was quite fun, and bought some small artefacts for 30 LE. Todd also bought a few smaller items after some heated bartering, and Claire opted for some more expensive options that began at around the 600 LE mark and ended up selling for 450 LE. The whole process lasted almost an hour, involving many changes, price conversions, frustrations, givings & takings along the way. The stall holder accused us of being unfair for asking for such large reductions and said the three of us were some of the hardest shoppers he’s ever come across – why couldn’t we be like normal Americans who stop haggling when a fair price was agreed upon? In the end though, we were all happy, the stall holder had his money (double the normal salary of a local, mind you), he offered Claire & I a bottle of soft drink as we closed the deal, and after a tip, he took us for a walk down the street to one of his stallholder friends who he knew could offer Claire a good deal for some luggage. Todd has left us by then, and we continued on to the end of the bazaar where we bartered for some luggage and got it for 39 LE.
16th September 2009. The Felluca
We had a fairly late breakfast at the hotel, and got to our felluca around 11am, where we were to sail to Edfu, half-way to our next major destination of Luxor. In charge of our felluca was an older man, Mohammed, and he also had an assistant, a younger guy by the name of Luli. Luli wore a Bob Marley shirt, so for the duration of our time on the felluca, we all called him Bob.
For lunch we stopped for a swim by a large bridge spanning the Nile. While we had stopped, Luli spent a considerable amount of time working high up on the sail of the felluca, which was quite impressive to watch. I recall reading somewhere that it’s unhealthy to swim in the Nile, but we were assured it was ok in this particular section, and we went for a dip anyway. After our swim we made friends with a couple of local Egyptian dogs by the banks of the river who had come to greet us. I made sure to disinfect my hands afterwards.
We cruised further down the Nile for a few more hours, most of us spending the time sleeping or reading, and we eventually moored by the banks of the river for dinner. It was Todd’s birthday a few days beforehand, so we celebrated with wine and a delicious personalised cake that Ramzy had snuck on board without him seeing. Todd was pretty stoked about that. After dinner, some of us played Uno and we took turns plugging our iPods into the dock and sharing our favourite tunes. Quite a lot of the John Butler Trio was played, which made myself and the Australian girls feel a little homesick.
Aside from the mosquitoes and Todd’s snoring, we slept fairly comfortably onnboard the felluca.
17th September 2009. The Felluca
Waking time was around 7am, after which we had breakfast and left the area.
We stopped for a swim around 10am, by a pleasant sandy beach. This particular part of the Nile was rather weedy, and after I’d finished swimming I ventured up the banks of the river where I found an aesthetically pleasing telegraph pole by the edge of the desert.
We continued on and stopped a little further up the river for lunch, which included cheese, salad and mashed potato. We went for another swim, walked to what I think were some farmer shacks, and I made friends with a nearby group of Egyptian cows chewing on some grass.
Later in the afternoon we stopped by a village for some supplies. A group of 20 local kids saw us approaching and ran towards the shore. As we docked and Mohammed sorted out the supplies, the kids all stood there and stared at us in silence. We sat on the felluca and stared right back at them. It was so weird.
As the sun started to set, we docked once more down the river, this time at a popular camping spot that was frequented by a number of fellucas from other travel companies. We had a quick football match (Imaginative Traveller vs Top Deck vs Contiki), and retired to our respective fellucas for dinner once it became too dark to see the ball. Dinner for us included rice, kofta and vegetables. As we were eating we noticed some really strange noises emanating from the banks of the river. We later found that the noises came from an angry donkey who didn’t appreciate being tied up.
A campfire was lit and we sat around it drinking, talking and singing until the embers died down. At one stage Bob Marley, who was normally a quiet & reserved lad, broke into a singalong of “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain” which we all joined in with. Bob knew a few different verses, and much to the delight of our ears, he threw in this one:
We’ll be smokin’ marijuana when she comes,
We’ll be smokin’ marijuana when she comes
We’ll be smokin’ marijuana, smokin’ marijuana
Smokin’ marijuana when she comes
There were no toilets by the side of the Nile, and the rule was that if you needed to relieve yourself, you had to find a spot far away from the camp and bury or burn your toilet paper afterwards. Unfortunately, not many people followed the bury/burn rule. It was pretty gross. You really did have to watch your every step.
Later on in the night after most people had gone to bed, I was talking with Bob Marley by the campfire. He couldn’t speak English very well but he did manage to share with me the reasons why he loved and envied Australian people, in these exact words: “You eat sheep and your wife give you good kissy kissy.”
18th September 2009. The Felluca, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Luxor
We ate breakfast for the final time in our felluca, and returned to the same place where we the crowd of kids met us the day before, which was to be our drop-off point. Some of the girls went behind the nearby banana plants to relieve themselves, and discovered midway through that a creepy old man was watching them.
A bus was waiting for us, and it took us to Kom Ombo temple, built to honour a number of gods around 180 BC. We continued on to the very impressive Edfu temple, of which work began around 230 BC, and was dedicated to the falcon god, Horus. Eventually we arrived in Luxor.
On our way we drove through a number of small desert villages which all appeared quite drab, dirty and inhospitable, but in a strange way, also very charming. This appeared to me to be authentic central-Egyptian life.
Lunch at Luxor was at a restaurant called Amoun, which served some very affordable and tasty food for budget-wise travellers like us. For the afternoon, we took a horse & carriage to Karnack Temple, one of the most impressive temples in the whole country. This is where Cleopatra’s Needle came from (one of three obelisks that were given as gifts to the cities of London, New York and Paris). Part of an obelisk from Karnack Temple also resides in the Sydney Museum. Other attractions here that I found unique and exiting included a giant scarab beetle which is supposed to bring good luck depending on how many times you walk around it, one of the first known drawings of Jesus & Mary, and some ancient and very well preserved graffiti.
The horse & carriage took us back to the hotel, where our driver pestered us for more money even though the price we initially agreed upon already included his tip. We had dinner once more at Amoun, and I had a very quick walk with Claire around the surrounding streets trying to find an ATM. On our way back to the hotel, a man with a wonky eye who ran a papyrus store saw us walking past and asked if we would mind helping him read an English postcard he received from somebody, as he claimed his eyesight was too poor to make out the small writing. We entered the store and Claire started to read what was written, explaining the words he didn’t understand. Before too long however, he began a spiel trying sell us all kinds of things from papyrus to jewellery to a translation of our names into Arabic, and we realised that the postcard was just a clever ploy to get customers into his store. We caught him out because he started reading things to us, which he wouldn’t have been able to read if his eyesight was as dodgy as he made it out to be!
I was too tired to walk through the bazaar so I decided to go to bed. Before bed though, I met up with Todd in the foyer of our hotel, who had made friends with two British priests in town on holidays. The three of them were having a great time telling stories and drinking whisky together, and they invited me for a drink, which I politely declined, but I hung around for long enough to be social. The priests seemed very friendly, perhaps a little too friendly, and it didn’t surprise me the next day when Todd told me how they’d both made the journey as part of a secret homosexual getaway, far from the prying eyes of their home parish.
19th September 2009. The Valley of the Kings and Luxor
Today was our journey to the Valley of the Kings, to see the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
We awoke at 5am, left at 6, and took a boat from Luxor City across to West Bank, where we met the donkeys who would be carrying us to our destination. I called mine Donahue and Tracy called hers Derek. Todd wanted to exchange his donkey for a horse. Interestingly, the donkeys kept exactly the same formation for the whole walk, and trying to race them proved virtually impossible as they refused to overtake one another. My donkey also had a bad case of diarrhoea, and at one stage, poor Sarah who was positioned behind me copped a bit of poo on her face! Not to be outdone, I ended up with it all down my trousers.
We arrived at the spectacular Valley of the Kings, where we visited the tombs of three of the many Pharaoh Ramses that had ruled Egypt in the past, as well as the tomb of the famous Tutankhamen, where we got to see the remnants of his spookily blackened body behind the glass display. It was incredibly hard to believe that the vast array of treasures we saw at the Egyptian museum in Cairo once fit into this cramped room where his body lay for many thousands of years. Unfortunately cameras were not allowed inside the Valley.
After our time at the Valley of the Kings, we took a bus to see the Colossi of Memnon, which are two massive statues erected in 1350 BC and dedicated to Pharaoh Amenhotep III. We took our same donkeys back to West Bank, who again walked in exactly the same formations as they did earlier, albeit much faster this time, presumably because they knew they were going home.
We had lunch again at Amoun and sat by the pool on the roof of our hotel, swimming, sunbaking, reading and relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. The sunset was beautiful, and the eerie but magical sounds of Islamic prayer filled the city below us from the moment the sun disappeared.
The hotel we stayed at had eight levels, however only levels one to five actually consisted of rooms. Levels six, seven and eight could be best described as construction zones that doubled as a place for rubbish to be stored. We were later told the reason behind this was that if a building remained unfinished, the owner was able to evade a hefty property tax that would otherwise have to be paid were the building complete.
Later that night after a quick walk around the boundary of Luxor Temple and the street bazaars, a few of us took a boat to West Bank to an African restaurant for dinner. The meal consisted of noodle soup, battered eggplant, mixed salad, fried rice, chicken, beef, potato & vegetable, plus mango wine and some cake & slice for dessert. It was amazing.
After dinner, Claire and I went walking through the bazaar. Every stall we visited we felt pressured into buying something, but we managed to walk our way out of two stalls before finding one particular stall we liked and felt comfortable in, which sold a large variety of Egyptian paraphernalia. The owner of the stall said he had twelve brothers who helped him out with business. We bought a few items from him and were interested in buying some more, so he took us to his second stall down a backstreet not too far away, hidden behind a locked door. Claire specifically wanted to buy a souvenir coffin with a black mummy inside, so the stallholder sent his brother off to find one while we browsed the contents of his second stall. He then took us to a third stall down another backstreet, where his father and grandfather work, underneath the house he and his whole family reside in. We remained there for about 15 minutes, going through the many artefacts and bartering our way into a sale. I bought two mummies and a small statue for about 170 LE and Claire bought a number of smaller items. The stallholder told us about his life as a salesman on the streets of Luxor, and he said that although the two of us did hard business with him, he knew that we were not hard people, unlike others he had encountered in the past. That was nice to hear. He was a lovely guy himself. His younger brother Akmal walked us back to the hotel and offered along the way to take us on a makeshift tour of Luxor which we politely declined due to the fact that it was pretty late (12:50am). We tipped him 15 LE which he was stoked about, and before bed I went for a short walk down the main street to find a bottle of water.
Back at the hotel I ran into Todd on the top floor, who was admiring the views of the city below. We chatted for a bit and he left for bed, while I stayed up for a little longer. I noticed a small commotion going on at street level, and on further inspection, saw a group of 9 or 10 kids playing, standing and jumping on a row of parked cars. The little shits.
20th September 2009. Luxor to Hurghada
Today we awoke at 7, had breakfast at the hotel and took a bus to the coastal town of Hurghada.
We checked into our hotel, ironically called the Luxor, and I shared my room with Todd, as I had done at the majority of the hotels we’d stayed in so far. It appeared we were the only group of people staying in the whole hotel.
Todd and I went for a walk to the beach, but he wasn’t too keen on paying the small access fee, so he talked me into cutting through a building site just down the road from the official beach entrance. We were almost at the beach when some construction workers saw us and shouted to us in broken English to go back. Todd argued with them and tried to tell them that we were only looking – in the end I left him to continue arguing and went back by myself!
I tried to find an ATM to get some money, but couldn’t for the life of me locate one. I stopped by a mini-mart to buy some water and deodorant, which came to 27 LE at the checkout. I told the shop assistant I’d give him 20 LE for it. He snapped straight back at me as if I was an idiot and said “This is a supermarket, not a bazaar.” Oops.
I returned to the hotel where we took a bus to the harbour and went on a glass-bottom boat tour of a nearby coral reef. We snorkelled for about 45 minutes in one area, then moved on to another shallower area where we spent 15 minutes. It was absolutely stunning, I’d never been snorkelling anywhere as beautiful as this before in my life. We were surrounded by hundreds of fish of all kinds, they were swimming over my arms and through my fingers, with the turquoise sea and the gorgeous coral as my backdrop. Back at the boat I found that Oli had badly cut his finger on a piece of coral and needed some bandaging to stop the incessant bleeding. We returned to the hotel where I discovered just how sunburnt I was, and Claire, Todd and I went down to the beach resort to do some reading and relaxing. We coughed up the money and paid to get in this time. Todd had a great time chatting up two Egyptian sisters who were on holiday from Alexandria. He became particularly friendly with one of the girls, and a number of months later as I was catching up with him on Skype, he told me he had actually returned back to Egypt to meet her again.
After dinner at a Lebanese restaurant and some ice cream from a streetside stall, we all descended upon the Cacao Bar (except for Todd, who we hadn’t seen since we left him talking to the girls at the beach). The bar offered very affordable 10 LE drinks all night. At one stage a group of Buddhist monks (who I believe were under a vow of silence) gathered around the DJ equipment, where one by one, they all took turns at breakdancing to the music.
21st September 2009. Hurghada to Dahab
Our alarm was set for 2am so we could catch the hydrofoil ferry at 4. Todd finally came home just before 2, drunk as a skunk and exclaiming how great a night he’d had and that he got so close to getting lucky. It was his & Lilly’s final day on the tour with us, as they’d booked a slightly different tour and were taking a different way back to Cairo. He passed out on his bed before I had the chance to say goodbye!
The ferry finally arrived at Sharm el Sheik at 10am, where we took a bus through a long & winding granite mountain road to our next destination, the coastal town of Dahab, on the far eastern side of the country. On arrival I went for a quick walk by myself down to the beach, where I realised that only a few kilometres off the coast to the east, I could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia. I returned to our (rather posh) hotel to sleep for a few hours. At 5pm we all went for a group walk and ended up at a beachfront restaurant for dinner. My amazing meal came to 47 LE – well short of the 100 British Pounds (about 20 times the price) that you would expect to pay for a similar meal in England. A resident cat lived at the restaurant, and we were told that no other cat would dare come anywhere near him for fear of being mauled in an attack. The greedy bugger had the whole restaurant and the attention of dozens of tourists all to himself, every night of the week! After dinner we passed around a sheesha pipe and I failed miserably at inhaling the sweet apple-flavoured tobacco.
This was soon followed by some drinks on the balcony of a nearby (and rather trendy) bar, after which we walked back to the hotel, and happened to pass a random camel in the middle of the street. He was very friendly and didn’t mind at all being patted. Apparently they wander down from the desert to the city at night to fossick for food.
22nd September 2009. Dahab and the Red Sea
We woke at 9, and after breakfast which included mouldy tomatoes, we caught a jeep and drove for half an hour down a dirt road to the Blue Hole diving beach. This is one of the most popular snorkelling / diving areas in the whole of the Red Sea. We entered the water through the designated entry point, and slowly made our way up the beach to the exit, marvelling at the massive underwater cliffs of coral and the thousands upon thousands of tropical marine creatures within our view. The colours were so bright and vibrant – so much more than our snorkelling expedition the other day at Hurghada. We left the ocean once we reached the exit point, rested for a little while, then went back in again and snorkelled for even longer.
We had an hour to spare after we returned our snorkelling gear so I went for a small trek by myself up a nearby hill, to see what was on the other side. At the top I was greeted with an incredible view of Blue Hole beach, and I thought the area below me to the north would be the perfect place for a repeat of the near-naked photo I took in the snowy Scottish highlands earlier on in the year – except this time I was in the Middle Eastern desert in the middle of what may as well have been summer.
The jeep took us back to our hotel, and the group went out for dinner once more, this time to a beachside seafood restaurant. We ordered a humongous fish to share between us. We also learnt the hilarious fact that in Egypt, if you ever want to get the attention of the waiter, all you have to do is stand up and yell “Mohammed!” and somebody is bound to arrive at your table and fulfil your request for service. It’s true – it worked for us!
On the way back home I passed the same camel I’d seen the night before, at exactly the same location.
23rd September 2009. Dahab to the Bedouin Village
Claire and I went shopping in the morning after a frustrating debacle trying to get money out of the local ATM’s, and we all met up at the hotel at midday for our next adventure to a Bedouin hut, which really was located in the middle of the desert. We had lunch at the hut, and trekked through the desert and a canyon for a few hours, before we reached the Bedouin camp in the middle of the middle of the desert where we would stay that night.
We played frisbee with the local Bedouin kids, who seemed to really enjoy hanging out with this group of strange white people who didn’t speak their language. We played charades and ate dinner cooked for us by the Bedouins. Most people had an early one and were in bed by 8pm, but Oli, Angie and I stayed up for a little bit longer and chatted while looking at the stars. This was one of the few places I’ve ever been where there was absolutely no light pollution from anywhere nearby, and the sky was as black as black could be.
For our accommodation, we were provided with a mattress which we laid down inside a small hut, exposed to the outside wind and the mosquitoes. Everybody else on the tour remembered to bring a sleeping bag, except for me.
Fuck, I was cold.
24th September 2009. Bedouin Village and camping in the desert
We had a small breakfast at 7am and left for a camel ride through the desert. We had to share camels, so half of us walked while the other half were on camelback, and we swapped at the halfway point. My camel was called Regan. We’d only been atop the animals for a few minutes, when completely out of the blue, Angie’s camel went psycho and decided to storm off ahead into the desert, leaving us all behind. The Bedouins managed to calm the camel down, and somehow she survived without getting thrown off. It sure looked pretty scary.
Our destination was a place called the Closed Canyon, and on our way we were greeted by a stray camel who appeared out of nowhere and decided to tag along for the journey. We also had a five month old baby camel with us, who was on one of her first ever treks away from home base. Her mother was one of the animals getting ridden on.
We walked through the amazing Closed Canyon for about an hour, with the impressive sandstone cliffs reaching up to the sky above us, blocking us in as though we were travelling through a tiny crack in a massive concrete slab. There were some pretty hairy moments trying to squeeze through the bits where the canyon almost came to a close, and we eventually reached the end where we all huddled around for a group photo.
Back at our resting spot where we left the camels, some of us had turns at offering water to the baby. She was so damn cute!
We arrived back at camp for lunch, and left again at 2pm to trek back up to the top of the canyon, stopping a few hours later at a sandy spot underneath a cliff, not too far from the Bedouin hut where we began our desert journey. We were to camp here for the night, in the desert, under the stars. Opposite our camping spot was a mid-sized sandstone hill, and a few of us climbed up to the top to watch the sunset. I thought I’d be all macho and opted to go barefoot, but it didn’t take long before the soles of my feet had been ripped to shreds by the jagged rock edges.
The view and the serenity up the top was just perfect, and we had a great time throwing rocks off the edge trying to see how far away we could get them to land. Unfortunately though, our camp below was in the shade, and for all the people who remained down there knew, the sun had probably set hours ago. Dinner had been prepared and we were called down before we got the chance to see the golden orb of light dip below the horizon.
It was dark by 7pm and there wasn’t much to do aside from talk, play word games, and sleep. I went for a small walk about 300 metres away from the camp, where the rocky cliffs separated & the desert opened up, and sat down and watched the moon. It was such a surreal moment, knowing that I was in a country I’d dreamed about visiting ever since I was young, and that there was barely a soul around me to experience this incredible moment beneath the moonlit Egyptian desert sky.
Once more, I just about froze to death thanks to my foolish failure to bring a sleeping bag.
25th September 2009. St Catherine
The girls all woke up at 6:30am with tick bites over their bodies, and on closer inspection of the sand, we discovered heaps of the tiny grey creatures crawling around underneath our mattresses. The place where we were camping had obviously been a recent camel rest, and the ticks had fallen off and survived in the sand.
After a small breakfast, we returned to the Bedouin hut, said our goodbyes to the locals, and took a bus toward St Catherine. Upon checking into the hotel – which I might add, had a gorgeous view of the mountains from my window – we went to the monastery at the base of Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Here, we became witness to the exact site where Moses apparently saw God arise from the burning bush, and instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Not having studied the bible in the past, I was a little unsure of the significance of what laid before my eyes, but it was still a powerful moment nonetheless.
We stopped by the general store on the way back to the hotel, where some local kids (dressed up in flash clothes and new shoes) tried very hard to beg us for money.
A lovely buffet lunch awaited us at the hotel, and after a few hours sleep, Claire and I went for a wander around the streets of St Catherine. We found an old cemetery, which was unlike any cemetery I’d ever seen before, it had an eeriness to it that I just can’t explain. We walked along a narrow winding path through the gravestones and up towards a mosque at the top of a hill, when we noticed a guy a few hundred metres behind us, walking our way. We didn’t think anything of him, until we reached the mosque and realised he was following us. It was starting to get dark by this time and we didn’t like the idea of confronting a random Egyptian man in the middle of a twilit cemetery, so we took a different route back through the gravestones and exited onto the road. By this stage the guy had caught up with us quite significantly and was yelling something to us in Arabic. I will happily admit at this stage that I was pretty freaked out. Eventually he tried another language and yelled something in English along the lines of “Where are you from, my friends?!” and we heaved a sigh of relief, because “Where are you from, my friends?” is the generic opening line that pretty much all Egyptian stallholders and salespeople use to break the ice to their customers. I don’t think he was an axe-murderer after all – all he probably wanted to do was to sell us Westerners some jewellery. We made our way back into the town and didn’t see him again.
26th September 2009. Mt Sinai to Cairo
Today was the day that we were to climb to the summit of the legendary Mt Sinai, where Moses stood as he received the Ten Commandments from the hands of the Almighty himself.
We awoke at the rather ungodly hour of 1:15am, and left for our walk half an hour later. On arrival at the base of the monastery, we realised we were not taking this pilgrimage alone, but rather with a couple of thousand other people. The journey up the long but moderately graded “camel path” commenced, with Oli, Trace and the Australian girls speeding up ahead, and myself, Claire and Ramzy lagging a bit behind. We were stuck for ages behind a bloke walking a camel, and for the first time on our tour we saw Ramzy get angry, shouting some harsh Arabic words at him, along the lines of “get the fuck out of our way you dickhead!”
After 6km, three hours, and a couple of rest stops at the various huts lining the path, we caught up with the rest of the group and climbed the final 750 steep steps to the summit. Ramzy stayed behind and waited for us at the base of the steps.
We finally reached the summit, and considering the hordes of tourists also making their way up the mountain, we somehow managed to be one of the first groups up there. We found a prime position and sat down on the mountain rocks, patiently waiting for the sky to light up and the first golden rays of the day to appear from behind the mountains in the distance.
Just as the sunrise was about to occur, a very rude and arrogant German tourist pushed Katie and Fiona out of the way and claimed a spot amongst our group all to himself. Needless to say, he didn’t last there for very long.
The sunrise happened at 5:30 am, which was very spectacular, and quite a moving experience. We hung around for 10 minutes afterwards and slowly made our way back down the steps along with the thousands of other pilgrims. Just as we were starting to descend, I got talking to a guy from Indonesia, who was very impressed at my abilities to count from one to ten in Indonesian. The summit of Mount Sinai therefore proved to be the ONE AND ONLY TIME in my entire life (so far) where two years of learning Indonesian at school had actually come into some kind of trivial use.
The group took the camel path back down, but I wanted a bit more of a challenge and opted for the slightly more difficult 3,000 steps. I wasn’t allowed to go by myself in case I got lost or hurt myself, so Ramzy organised for a Bedouin guide to descend the steps with me. I was so freaking glad that I’d chosen to go down the steps, and not up, because it would have taken months to get over the muscle pain caused by an upwards journey. Those steps were long and steep alright.
It may have taken three hours to get up the camel path, but it took less than an hour to get down the 3,000 steps. I tipped the Bedouin, met the rest of the group at the base of the mountain about 10 minutes later, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, and left the dear little village of St Catherine for the seven hour bus trip back to Cairo. The only exciting thing about the bus trip was getting to see the Suez Canal.
We checked into the Indiana Hotel once more – the same hotel we stayed at on our initial arrival into Cairo. It was even worse an experience this time compared with last time, and if you are interested in finding out exactly what happened, you can read the review I left at TripAdvisor.
It was to be our last official night of the tour, and although most of us had an extra few days booked in Cairo, Claire was leaving early the next morning.
We took a taxi late in the afternoon to Al Azhar Park, in the eastern suburbs of the city, to watch the sunset. It was absolutely gorgeous, made all the more amazing thanks to the deep colours formed by the thick cloud of pollution in the air, as well as the stirring sounds of Islamic prayer gracing the city skyline.
Claire had been to this park a few weeks ago before our tour started, and we followed her lead to the nearby legendary Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, as she claimed to remember how to get there. We got lost along the way, but eventually found it after wandering through some dodgy back streets. We sat down as a group one final time and drank juice at El Fishawy cafe (apparently it hasn’t been closed a single day in the past 200 years), before the others decided to return to the hotel, while Claire and I did a small amount of last-minute souvenir shopping at the bazaar. We spent a few hours browsing, bartering and getting lost amid the alleyways, and I had my first (and only) encounter with an aggressive salesman who grabbed my arm and threatened me in Arabic because I declined to buy something he was offering. Once we were done, we took a taxi back to the hotel. Amused by the look of horror on our faces at the crazy nighttime Cairo traffic, the driver pulled up and asked if I wanted to have a go!
(No, but thanks for the offer).
We had KFC for dinner, served to us once more by members of the deaf community, and then decided to go for a quick walk down to the Nile before bed. This involved crossing the very busy road that I refused to cross at the beginning of my journey, and even though it was almost midnight by now, the traffic was still bumper-to-bumper, equally as busy as it was throughout the day. We gauged the traffic for a few minutes and when it felt like the right time, we put our hands out to signal the oncoming cars to stop, somehow managed to dodge them and made it across four lanes safely to the island in the centre of the road. This was only half way. We did it again to the cars driving on the other side, but this time Claire missed the signal and I started walking alone, leaving her behind. I couldn’t turn back for fear of killing myself, and got to the other side with the poor girl terrified in the middle of the road not knowing what to do! Luckily, some kind locals saw what was going on and helped her across. After that hair-raising adventure, we continued on towards the bridge over the Nile, only to find a designated pedestrian crossing a hundred metres down the bloody road.
27th September 2009. Cairo, Saqqara and Dahshur
After saying goodbye to Claire, I got up at 8:30, had yet another Indiana Hotel breakfast, and then said goodbye to Ramzy, who had another tour starting that afternoon. Oli, Tracy and I had decided to take a taxi to see Saqqara (the “Step” Pyramid of Djoser) and Dahshur (the Red Pyramid & Bent Pyramid). The taxi driver could barely speak English, nor did he know how to get to either of the places we wanted to visit, but he stopped and asked locals along the way and managed to find our destinations without any major dramas.
Along the way to Saqqara, we saw a side of Egypt that regular tourists wouldn’t normally get the chance to see. We drove by a small canal, which I believe was a tributary that ran out of the Nile, but the banks of this canal were absolutely filthy and littered with household rubbish, industrial rubbish, oil, cars, sewage – you name it, it was there. Not only this, but people were bathing in the water as well. It was quite shocking for us as Westerners to witness, but I guess the locals just see this as being a normal part of everyday life.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara was quite interesting to see. It was constructed around 2,700 BC and was the first attempt at a Pyramid-like structure in Egypt, obtaining its step-like shape from the six “mastabas” (the flat, rectangular structures) being built on top of each other.
We left Saqqara for Dahshur, where we had the opportunity to explore the Red Pyramid. This structure is the third tallest in all of Egypt, and was built under the reign of Snefuru. It was the first in the world to resemble the shape of a true pyramid that we know of today. Oli & I made the venture inside, and despite the massive sign out the front saying NO PHOTOS, I ignored all cultural respect and took a picture of the tomb in the centre.
The Bent Pyramid was inaccessible to tourists, but the taxi driver took us to a location where we could see it from a distance and take a few snaps. Also built under Snefuru’s reign, the Bent Pyramid was an earlier attempt at constructing such a structure, except it didn’t quite keep the same inclination all the way up.
Driving through a small village on the way back to Cairo, I was amused to see animal carcasses hanging outside the front door of the local butcher.
Back at the hotel I said goodbye to Oli & Trace, had a nap, and was awoken by a phone call from Katie saying her & the girls were about to go for dinner. I must have been dreaming at the time of the call, because there was a weird five seconds after I woke where I had absolutely no idea where in the world I was or what the hell was going on.
We went to Dominoes for dinner and followed the pizza up with some icecream from the local supermarket. On the way back to the hotel we passed a guy in the street who the girls had met earlier called Mohammed, and he took us to his store where he talked us each into buying a sheesha pipe as a souvenir. He was very fond of Australians, and took us to his second store which was full to the brim of Aussie paraphernalia – flags, kangaroos and “Crikey” signs galore!
I said goodbye to Angie, Sarah, Katie and Fiona at the hotel, and tucked in for my final sleep on Egyptian soil. The trip was nearly over.
28th September 2009. Cairo
My plane wasn’t due to leave until late afternoon, so I had the majority of the day to explore the city one last time. I opted to take the metro from nearby Opera station; initially I was a little worried that I might not understand the system, but thankfully the guy who I bought tickets from spoke English and told me how to get to the Coptic Centre in Old Cairo. I was also blown away by the utter cheapness of the metro ticket. It cost two Egyptian pounds for a return trip. That’s just over 30 Australian cents.
I decided to get off a station early, and walk through the streets of suburban Cairo to the Coptic Centre instead. I was glad I did this, because it allowed me to see more of the authentic, residential parts of the city that a tourist wouldn’t normally get the chance to see. The shops, houses and apartments that lined the streets appeared quite ragged and dirty, but I noticed as I got nearer to the museum, my surrounds suddenly appeared significantly cleaner. I got yelled at by some locals for taking a photo of their street.
Eventually I reached the Coptic Centre of Cairo and spent a few hours exploring the numerous churches in the area and looking through the artefacts in the museum. The Hanging Church was particularly impressive – it was built around the third century and remains one of the most famous Christian churches in the city.
I took the metro back to Opera, where I made my way on foot to Cairo Tower. I could see that it wasn’t too far away, but God help me trying to work out which streets to walk to get me there. It took ages. But once I’d found it and made my way up to the top, it was totally worth it. 20km away in the distance, amid the grey polluted haze, I could just make out the soft outline of the Great Pyramid of Giza. I could hardly believe that only 15 days ago, I had stood in the direct centre of that very piece of world-famous architecture.
I collected my luggage from the hotel, took my prearranged van back to the airport, and boarded the plane destined for London. I had just lived though the 17 most thrilling and amazing days of my life, full of the most incredible people, food, architecture, geology and culture, none of which I will ever forget.
Egypt, I love you.
* In memory of Todd Rakes. Thanks for the laughs and the good times, mate!