It didn’t take us long to first get acquainted with the concept of the Egyptian “five minutes” – and Paul and I had only been in Egypt for not much more than five minutes when it happened. After flying through the afternoon and evening we had landed in Cairo at 1am and were trying to get through passport control. The officials were paying particular attention to Paul’s passport, repeatedly flicking through it and holding individual pages up towards the ceiling lights before also passing them under an ultraviolet lamp. All the security features of a legitimate Australian passport were showing, but after some debate and consternation the officials told us to take a seat for “five minutes” alongside some other undesirables while they took both our passports away and went into an adjoining office. One by one the other objectionable characters had their passports returned and were allowed through until it was just Paul and I left. Perhaps Egyptian immigration had found out we had been to a Whitesnake gig at the Hammersmith Apollo in London the night before, and we were to be deemed unfit to enter a country where blond, permed mullets and tight black jeans and t-shirts just aren’t the done thing. But after the “five minutes”, or over half an hour in real terms, the officials reappeared and without further explanation our stamped passports were handed back, and we were allowed through to a deserted arrivals hall where two backpacks sat forlornly on the floor beside a now stationary baggage carousel. Luckily the man assigned the job as our arrival transfer hadn’t given up on us, standing outside all alone holding the card with Paul’s name on it, and we were soon in a mini-van getting our first glimpses of the utter chaos that is Cairo.
After having had two and half months travelling in Europe I was really looking forward to coming to the Middle East and experiencing somewhere out of my comfort zone a bit, and straight away my senses were struggling to take in the passing show of Cairo in the balmy early hours of morning. The streets were clogged with old taxis and trucks with no lights, no windows and little in the way of bodywork – about the only parts in working order were the horns, and they were all permanently honking as if to compensate. Every building we passed looked condemned, crumbling towards complete ruin as if they had just been bombed. When we were on the elevated roadways trundling past open third and fourth floor windows things looked just as decayed inside. Huge billboards in Arabic advertised goods and services I mostly couldn’t comprehend, and of those I could it mostly only by deduction. Endless streets of shops and stalls attracted a happy and noisy crowd of locals of all ages who crammed along footpaths strewn with piles of refuse. Sirens wailed at every intersection and no-one was taking any notice. At almost every street corner we passed a mosque, each intermittently blaring out what I could only guess as sung recitals from the Koran or calls to prayer from huge megaphones. And all the while this whole seething mass of nocturnal activity was bathed in a mustard yellow glow as the street lights illuminated the permanent thick, airborne dust that within a day turned the snot in my nose black. I had never experienced the likes of this before and I loved every bit of it.
After checking into the Happyton Hotel in the heart of non-touristy downtown Cairo, Paul and I were eager to join this vibrant scene on foot and get something to eat. We stayed relatively close to the hotel to make sure we didn’t get completely lost in such a foreign environment, and to help us the corner of busy Emad ad-Din and the narrow laneway the hotel was situated on was clearly marked by a large hoarding for an Egyptian film or soap opera. It displayed faces of four middle aged men with prominent moustaches and a couple of token women, interestingly though with heavy eye make up and no Muslim head coverings, unlike virtually all their female Egyptian counterparts we were passing on the street.
We didn’t have to venture far to find streets filled with plastic tables and chairs and, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan had just started, they were full of people taking advantage of the darkness to eat. Young children played with balloons bought by their parents, older children played with explosive fireworks (I must admit I flinched after the first couple of explosions wondering if a neighbouring building had been bombed), badly limping old men sold newspapers, teenage boys and younger men roamed the streets in affectionate packs, and everywhere else there was space older men of all ages sat around smoking sheeshas, playing dominoes and arguing.
Sitting outside amongst the dust and rubbish I didn’t care much about hygiene, I figured our cotton wool-wrapped Western constitutions were going to pack it in at some point, and if it was to happen on the very first night then so be it. But we were still incredibly amused to see our waiter appear out of the doorway with one hand holding our dishes of lamp chops, salad and bread and the other casually scratching his balls.
At about 3:30am the process of packing up began, the crowds started to thin and Paul and I followed suit, now a little wearily, back into our spartan hotel room for some shut eye. If our first two and a half hours in Egypt were any indication of the coming two and a half weeks then we were about to embark on an unforgettable journey.
Our travelling trio was complete when Paul and I met Hoges in the foyer of the hotel in the morning. He had arrived from Sydney overnight, and being the first time all three of us had been in the same place at the same time for quite a few months there was much blokey gossip to catch up on over a few beers. But before that, and the evening meeting for our Intrepid tour starting the next day, there were sights to see.
Half the vehicles on the road were cabs, so it was never hard to find one to get to our chosen destination. A mixture of Renaults, Peugeots, Fiats and Ladas, but whatever the make they were all black and white and all over thirty years old, and every one which passed us would stop to try and pick us up. Call it friendliness on the part of the drivers, effusive customer service, or just a case of seeing three rich and stupid foreigners fresh off the plane and ready to be taken for a ride. At the end of the 15-20 minute journey the driver first wanted thirty Egyptian pounds and then it went up to forty. At LE40 we were being fleeced and we knew it, but we had no idea what was a more realistic price to pay. Converting the amount back it was only AU$8 between the three of us so it really wasn’t worth arguing about, but what a different story it would turn out to be by the end of the trip when we had a little more local knowledge and confidence.
And so our sightseeing began in Coptic Cairo, or Old Cairo, a collection of Orthodox churches, monasteries, museums and a synagogue built over the site of a second century AD Roman fortress. But we were reminded by the competing calls to prayer blaring from loudspeakers outside the many surrounding mosques that this corner of Cairo built around Christianity and Judaism was, religiously at least, a very isolated pocket and atypical of the country at large. There were no shortage of youths hanging around wanting to be our tour guides, but Paul managed to put most of them off by deciding he really needed to brush his teeth by the entrance of an Orthodox cemetery. Hoges would have put them off even more if he’d decided to change from trousers to shorts then and there due to the rising temperature, but luckily for everyone involved he waited a little longer.
At the Church of St Sergius a great deal was made of its claim that it was built on the site where Mary and Joseph sheltered with the infant Jesus after fleeing King Herod in Judea. But with only Matthew’s gospel recording the family’s flight to Egypt, and no details of where they were during their time there, there can be no way of knowing whether this is a legitimate claim in any way or not. When it comes to the authenticity of religious sites without much Biblical authority on the matter just call me a devout cynic.
We poked around the area for a while, but found things much more interesting after leaving the touristy enclave behind and crossing the metro tracks at Mar Girgis station. A small local market sold bread, fruit, spices, live birds and hunks of meat covered in flies. Donkeys pulled drays of produce passing mangy goats tethered on alleyway dirt heaps, while geese roamed and hens pecked at the ground in the narrow streets around men fixing cars.
After navigating our way through to an incredibly busy multi-lane arterial road, and then crossing it with some difficulty, we had our first real view of the broad, and surprisingly blue, Nile. A Nilometer was situated across from us at Rhoda, on the very bottom tip of a large island. It was designed to measure the yearly floods of the river and therefore the quality of the crops, and was no doubt a pretty ingenious thing to have back in the ninth century. But for what we got out of visiting a glorified hole in the ground we all agreed we’d rather have given the LE6 admission price each as an even bigger tip to a taxi driver.
Once we’d retraced our steps, the re-appearance of the heavily armed Tourist and Antiquities Police standing behind mobile barricades announced we were back in the visitor area of Coptic Cairo. Following some terrible mass slayings of tourists by terrorists in the 1990’s these guys became highly visible in all tourist sites in the country to protect Egypt’s most lucrative industry. For the most part though it looked like a pretty boring job with not a lot to occupy them. One officer was so nonchalant while he walked down the street towards us about thirty metres away that his firearm slipped off his shoulder and dropped to the ground. So while he casually bent down and slung the gun back over his shoulder I couldn’t help but feel that I was in far more risk of accidentally being shot by the very people employed to protect me than I was by terrorists.
After Hoges was railroaded into a shop and didn’t manage to escape without purchasing a souvenir, plus a return taxi ride where the driver at first wanted LE50, we went on the hunt for a late lunch. What we found was Gad, a large kebab-style fast food joint close to the hotel that was to become our Cairo staple. We may have been ignored by the staff inside when we couldn’t work out where or how to order, and we may have been deliberately overcharged for our food on one of our subsequent visits, but out front on the footpath two young guys worked feverishly in tandem to fill small bread rolls filled with beef or chicken. They were simple, delicious, dirt cheap and best consumed then and there on the footpath. We couldn’t get enough of them.
Sated, we sat around in the hotel foyer and spent the rest of the afternoon getting stuck into the first of our soon-to-be customary debriefs over a local Stella Lager or two (not to be confused with Stella Artois – this was much more gassy. It took us a few days to find out the other local beer, Sakara, was much better), until our pre-tour meeting at 7pm on the roof the hotel. There we met our tour leader Kevin and our seven friendly tour mates – all girls. Our Intrepid tour had officially started, and from the moment we stepped outside our hotel to walk to our first dinner the difference was marked. Hoges, Paul and I had walked around for most of the day with a minimum of fuss, but as a group out in the street we were attracting far more attention from the menfolk – they’d come out from every nook and cranny to follow and try to chat up the seven girls. But the couple of girls who had had time to do a bit of sightseeing before now remarked that they noticed they were actually getting less attention since they’d joined up with us. Over the course of the tour the number of marriage proposals received was most impressive.
We had dinner in the street just around the corner from where Paul and I had eaten in the early hours of the morning, and the atmosphere was just as amazing. Then we kicked on to a nearby sheesha bar for our first water pipe smoke of the trip. A mutual friend of ours of Egyptian ancestry had a sheesha back in Sydney, until the glass bottom was shattered in a tragic accident, and the plan was to buy a replacement here for Hoges to courier back (which despite the numbers of sheeshas that were purchased along the way didn’t happen). I must admit I’ve never ever dragged on a cigarette in my entire life but am quite partial to a nice fruit flavoured sheesha, and I was determined that by end of the trip I’d be able to blow smoke rings (which despite all the practice I got also didn’t happen).
So after sitting amongst tables of arguing men, stray kittens timidly prowling the alleys for scraps to eat, and watching doves being expertly slaughtered en masse outside a shop right beside us, we moved on again.
While the girls all went back to the Happyton and called it a night, Kev took the other three of us to the bar in Intrepid’s other hotel, the nearby and far plusher Victoria, to meet a tour leader running another trip. With Hoges and I being Australian Rules Football fans (me of the Bombers and him of the ever suffering Tigers) we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity of meeting a real mongrel of footy, former Western Bulldogs fullback Danny Southern, who had now swapped Footscray and the Western Oval for Pharaohs and the Western Desert.
After a simple metro trip to Giza, getting onto our connecting public minibus was a little trickier – at least the train actually stops to load and unload passengers. Bundling ourselves into the minibus as it moved idly with the traffic flow took a certain amount of nerve, timing and finesse. Luckily it wasn’t yet overcrowded, just to add that extra degree of difficulty by hanging on to the outside of the bus by a single limb as the locals are used to doing. Disembarking was almost as tough, as the minibus was now overcrowded and involved amounts of body contortion and co-ordination rarely seen outside a game of Twister. Having eventually succeeded in this regard the next challenge was to cross a major intersection.
“Big, isn’t it?” Hoges said in understated kind of way as we dodged across the traffic in a real-life version of the old arcade game Frogger.
”Yeah, guess so.” I thought absently as a large 70’s American car rumbled past and I concentrated more on the hope that I wasn’t going end up with my head through its windscreen. It was a pretty big car but not remarkably so, certainly not the size of a Hummer, and I wondered why Hoges even bothered to mention it. But after we got to the other side of the street and I turned my attention back straight ahead I understood what he was really on about. Through the dusty haze, and so close it must have snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking, was the jagged edge of the largest of the pyramids – the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
There are those iconic man-made landmarks which you can look at briefly then tick them off the list, satisfied that you’ve now been there and done that. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, for example. And then there are those which you can’t help but gape at, where every different angle presents a truly imposing picture of its constructed grandeur that you feel privileged to be able to witness. For me the Pyramids are the pre-eminent of the latter. Mostly I think that it’s the mystique of how millions of colossal blocks of stone could have been arranged so precisely, but regardless of that, the sight of the sole surviving ancient Wonder of the World was as overpowering as the tidal wave of mud bricks and satellite dishes of modern Giza threatening to engulf it.
The chaos of the present day runs right up to the very front entrance of the ancient site, where we walked through airport style security and beside us all passing vehicles were checked over by tourist police, presumably for explosives, before we walked back over 4,500 years to the base blocks of the Great Pyramid.
Perhaps the most impressive of the three main pyramids (and until now I had no idea there were also some baby sized Queens Pyramids built around there too) is the Pyramid of Khafre. Although it was the second one to be built and is fractionally smaller than the Great Pyramid, it looks taller and still has some of the smooth outer layer of limestone intact at its very pinnacle.
But the one that has coped the worst with the ravages of time is the Pyramid of Menkaure. That has nothing to do with its shoddy construction and all to do with some bright spark trying to renovate it nearly 1,000 years ago, who then gave up after having caused a bit of a cave-in on one side. It was at the base of this very side of the smallest of the trio that we had the opportunity to go inside. I thought it might be a chance to get out of the blazing sun for a while, but it became apparent pretty quickly while hunched over descending down the tight passage that it was actually getting hotter the deeper we went. Once at the bottom I was a little disappointed that the walls of the chambers were plain and not covered in any hieroglyphics, but there was plenty of that to see in coming days, and what I will remember most of the interior of the pyramid was the stifling temperature. Granted, the body heat of the number of tourists crammed into the small rooms did nothing to make the temperature drop, but this wasn’t even the height of summer. If I was a pharaoh I’d prefer a final resting place that felt a little less proximate to the fiery furnaces of Hell. Maybe somewhere closer to a moon. And as soon as I stooped forward for the cramped ascent back to the surface I got a snapshot of my wish – I spent the whole climb with the bum of a middle-aged woman right in my face.
The final feature we saw up close was the Sphinx – the feline sentry looking towards Giza and guarding the Pyramids, comfortably sitting on all fours but ready to pounce if necessary. Although of course it hasn’t been able to sniff out any marauders for a number of centuries since its rather unscheduled nose job.
Lunch was spent on a restaurant terrace surveying the whole admirable scene, and thereafter we experienced the most memorable of our Cairo traffic adventures. The first came when Kev negotiated the price for a Kombi to take us back to the Happyton downtown. Including the driver there were twelve of us in the van so there wasn’t much space to move around and, like all other Kombis on the road, it had the back flap open to try and stop the engine from over-heating. Despite the noise and frenetic activity going on around us, we were being lulled to sleep by the fumes pouring inside in cabin. I had visions of where my own final resting place would be, in an oppressive sauna looking up at a constant full moon, but thankfully we arrived at the hotel before my two ton eyelids closed forever.
In the whole time we were in Egypt we never saw a collision (discounting seeing parked cars bumped into each other at odd angles), although we did see countless close shaves avoided by mere millimetres. It’s as if each of the millions of Cairo drivers have been through the Holden Precision Driving Team. And then there those bystanders that liked to add a random increase in the degree of difficulty – like fearless young boys getting around for free by standing on the rear bumpers of mini-vans, holding on only by the ladder hanging off the back window. Or, my personal favourite, the guy in a wheelchair plodding along the broken painted line of a main road in the midst of five lanes of traffic all heading in his direction.
And so this leads to the second incident of the afternoon, and it came not too long after the first when we got a few taxis from the hotel to the Islamic Quarter. Kev, Hoges, Paul and I had got the last one for our unpredictable roller coaster ride through the streets. It was nearing dusk so the normal feverish level of activity was cranked a notch higher, with people in a rush to get places to break their fast. After turning right at a packed intersection we came face to face with a mini-bus pulling away from the curb. It stopped just before shunting into the side of our cab, allowing just enough room for two men on a red scooter to whizz through the gap. A split-second either way and the men on the scooter would have smashed into the driver’s seat of the bus, or been crushed between the bus and us. Paul had fortuitously managed to capture the incident on video on his digital camera, so while we were all chuckling away the taxi driver straight away turned around to the back seat, asked for Paul’s camera and then watched a few replays of the near miss while continuing to drive.
Once we were all safely out of the cabs and reassembled, Kev led the way on a walking tour through the alleys of the Islamic Quarter. The pace of life remained no less manic – the time to end the day’s fasting was almost at hand. Every stall selling food became hubs for noisy mobs of people, with each person clamouring to collect bread or vegetables as fast as they could be attained. This unrest went on until the sun had set, the mosques blared the call to prayer and then everything was eerily silent. By this time we were in a section of largely cloth sellers, and quick glances inside each shop revealed a circle of people sitting on the floor silently ploughing into their dinner with much vigour.
After returning to the hotel it seemed like a good idea for us to get some dinner too. And just for once Paul, Hoges and I thought we’d give Gad a break and try somewhere else, settling on a basic looking restaurant run by a couple of old men. Tourists were clearly not the regular clientele and we had some difficulty ordering. We were helped out by another customer sitting at the next table who then introduced himself to us and we got talking. Before long we were soon tucking into bread rolls stuffed with meat and accompanied by extremely spicy pickled vegetables. Although not quite as good as Gad it was still very tasty, and on paying his bill and getting up to go our new friend bade us goodbye, told us that he had paid our bill too, and then was gone out the door before we even had a chance to protest or thank him.
It was then time to bid a temporary farewell to Cairo, but even leaving was an adventure. We headed to Ramses II station and boarded our overnight train to Aswan. With people allowed on the train to say their farewells to the departing passengers, our second class carriage seemed to contain about five times as many people as it could seat, and made finding our places and storing our luggage incredibly difficult. But with the conductor’s whistle blowing all the extras made it off, and as the train pulled out from the platform we were treated to some energetic singing and clapping from a massive group of wedding guests sitting on the ground of the platform, giving the bride and groom on the train alongside a rousing send-off.
It was a long, long night on the train. We played cards for a while and received constant updates from Paul on the state of the toilets he sampled in each carriage. I used to think I had the smallest bladder in the world, but since meeting Paul I now realise I only have the second smallest. Sleep was difficult to come by, with sellers continually wheeling a rattling tea trolley down the aisle, and the man a few rows behind us trying to hack up a lung, collecting a pyramid proportioned pile of used tissues in the process. As the light of the new day dawned and then continued to brighten outside, the train lumbered on, and it seemed like the journey was never going to end. Just after 10am, twelve hours after leaving Cairo, we had arrived in Aswan. After Kev had haggled over the taxis and we had slung our packs unrestrained onto their roof racks, we all soon arrived up a narrow dirt lane not far from the Nile at our hotel and had some time to have a shower, change into some fresh clothes and generally feel human again.
We spent the rest of the day on the Nile. JJ (short for Jamaica Junior), part of a legendary family known amongst backpackers the world over, picked us up in one of his plastic flower-decorated motor boats for a leisurely lunch cruise along the river. Once off the boat on the western bank we each selected a camel, and with much groaning, snorting and belching we were soon up and away. And the camels also made some noises of their own. With the sharpers following us on foot but largely leaving the camels in our control, we formed a train on our way up into the foothills of the desert and stopped at the stone and mud remains of the seventh century St Simeon’s Monastery. With more groaning, snorting and belching the camels sat down and we got to the entrance of the monastery to find that, ahead of a government edict that the prices of all hotels and tourist attractions in Egypt were to double on the 1st November, the expected free admission to get in was no longer free. With no Kev to smooth the way for us we debated amongst ourselves whether we thought the new admission price was worth it, and whether it was just an attempt by the men on the door to rip us off, before deciding against going in and climbing back onto our transports to continue our journey.
I had been on a camel in the desert once before, back in Australia while on a Year 10 school trip to Uluru and Alice Springs, and remembered vividly that things got mighty uncomfortable in the downstairs department once the camel quickened from a walk. And now, eleven years later, that very same feeling returned when our sharpers geed up our dromedaries into their ungainly trot. Once they slowed down again to a comfortable walk and I waited for my potatoes to bruise I had a chance to admire the view. No, not of my swelling spuds, but a view down onto the Nile below and an appreciation of just why it is the lifeblood of the whole country. For a couple of hundred metres on either side of the river the land was irrigated, fertile and densely planted with crops. But beyond that tiny ribbon of green, without any transition, was the desert, stretching across the whole width of North Africa.
On heading back down out of the hills and skirting around the back walls of an outlying district of Aswan, we left the camels and returned to JJ’s boat. Paul was obviously pretty happy with his ride, as when we had all decided that in the interests of fairness and equity we would tip our attendants five pounds each he rather innocently added “Yeah, and I might slip the camel one.”
A little later JJ pulled up at Elephantine Island, a large island in the Nile right across from the middle of Aswan. This was his home, and he took us on a walking tour of his Nubian village. The dirt alleys in between the yellow painted houses were very quiet – until a couple of local kids saw us and we were soon swamped with slightly shy but noisy, excited little critters. They were way too cute, and their innocent enthusiasm totally infectious. Perhaps the most endearing thing was seeing them get so excited about wanting their photos taken that they’d rush up to those with digital cameras and look at the screen on the back before anyone even had the chance to take a photo in the first place.
Then JJ took us into his house, where his extended family with live him. It was by far the grandest house in the village, complete with an air conditioner and painted murals inside. A sister made us all fresh guava and banana drinks, their family unable to partake as the day’s fasting was still a few hours away from ending, while JJ put on a (admittedly, slightly boring) home video of a cousin’s wedding and then told us the wonderful, culturally different and anything-but-boring story of how he met his fiancée.
Finally, we were dropped back onto the eastern side of the river and wandered down to the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile, to watch the sun set over the felucca masts and desert hills. It had been a great day to say the least, but very tiring, and I desperately needed some sleep.
A van came to collect us at 3:30am, and once near the boundary of town we stopped to wait for the fleet of other tourist buses and vans. We were in a great big convoy headed further south for Abu Simbel, only 40km away from the border with Sudan. For security reasons all the buses travelled together with an armed escort vehicle leading the way. In reality I don’t know how useful this was, as the escort seemed to be miles ahead of us and anyone wanting to cause some unrest by taking a pot shot at some tourists had a long procession of dozens and dozens of buses to choose from. The drivers themselves were busy playing their own game, continually overtaking each other along the road like a pursuit cycling team hurtling around a velodrome, sliding back into a single lane only to avoid the occasional oncoming traffic. And bear in mind this was all taking place on a two lane road in the pitch black dark without anyone using their headlights whatsoever.
For the second day in a row we were in transit to witness the night’s slow end. Ever gradually the stars lost their sparkle, the sky lightened and an angry looking sun rose to our left. The blackness of the land around us lifted and the ridges of the endless desert became discernable, and we could now see the regularly spaced road signs with the decreasing distance to ‘Abu Simbel’, ‘Abu Simble’, ‘Abo Simbel’ and a couple of other variations. Just before 7am we reached our destination, and two hours later we’d all be back in our vehicles for the return journey back to Aswan. It was a hell of a long way to travel in one morning, but it was worth it.
The two temples dedicated to Ramses II and his wife Queen Nefertari may well be over 3,200 years old, but part of the mystique lies in the fact that they were long hidden by shifting sands until two hundred years ago. They were then painstakingly moved to make way for Lake Nasser in recent decades. The sentries outside the entrances to both temples, four of a twenty metre tall Ramses outside his and six of a ten metre Neferarti outside hers, were astonishingly imposing. Inside, we got our first major inspection of hieroglyphs along all the walls. It seemed, to me at least, every person, animal and god depicted in the impressive scenes were grasping onto what looked like microphone stands. Perhaps they were all on stage belting out their favourite tunes in a fierce competition to win fleeting public adoration and a chance at a record deal. Maybe American Idol and its numerous international offshoots are not such a recent phenomenon after all.
After the long return journey back to Aswan, a late lunch on the roof of our hotel beckoned, looking down on the crumbling walls of the buildings around us. Then a lazy afternoon debrief by the swimming pool of a posh hotel by the Nile drew the daylight to a close. But, even though the sun had gone down, the day was far from over. There was shopping to be done. Now ordinarily that would excite me about as much as watching underwater hockey, but as a first experience in a Middle Eastern souq it was incredibly good fun.
Jostling amongst the crowds in the narrow alleys lined with stalls selling everything from live poultry, perfumes and spices, to more common touristy bric-a-brac, we boys were each in the hunt for a galabiyya (man dress) to wear. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to scout out my options, but browsing really isn’t a concept that exists in the Middle East. A glance at anything for more than half a second, or even just being within cooee of someone’s stall for that matter, was enough to get accosted. Young or old I was amazed at each salesman’s ability to speak multiple European languages, and their ability to typecast each of us by our nationality as we walked passed was uncanny. The banter was all good natured, but more than once I had a galabiyya put down over the top of my existing clothes before I even had the chance to say “woah, hold on a sec”. After an hour or two walking around the market a few times and getting sledged from the stall-holders I’d already rebuffed, I found a shop I liked. The teenager running it was more friendly and less aggressive than the older men in most of the other shops, and I felt less hassled while trying a couple of different styles on. When I had chosen a formal looking two-piece white galabiyya with blue trim (a particular Nubian style I was told), I was also surprised just how much fun it was to haggle over the price. It was a quite an involved affair, full of mutual theatrics and smiles at his inflated “best prices” and my lower “best offers” until, both smiling, we met somewhere in the middle and shook hands on it.
I cannot over-state at this point just how much difference using a few words of Arabic added to the experience on this trip. Kev had taught and continually reminded us of some useful words and strongly encouraged us to use them as much as we could. Just throwing in a few words here and there continually surprised the locals and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the effort that we made. It was a little embarrassing considering everyone remotely connected with tourism had pretty good English and that they would make such a big deal of our dozen or so Arabic words, but it made our interaction with people infinitely more rewarding. Paul especially embraced the local language, at one point during the trip changing the language setting on his mobile phone. But then because he had no clue what any setup menu items looked like in Arabic he was completely buggered at being able to put it back.
After my initial purchase I decided my new Nubian outfit needed a crowning glory. So after more scouting, rebuffing stallholders, pin-pointing what I wanted and then talking the salesman down from his starting price to only a few Egyptian pounds, my evening’s shopping was complete: I had my Yasser Arafat style tea towel/head-scarf. Considering the Palestinian leader was gravely ill at the time, died shortly after and had his funeral in Cairo only days after our departure, it quickly became an even more treasured accessory to my galabiyya.
After breakfast we packed our bags and walked the couple of blocks back to the Nile where we embarked on one of JJ’s feluccas. The small open-decked sailing boat would be our communal lounge room, dining room, bedroom, concert hall and diving platform for the two night trip down the river to Kom Ombo.
Kitted out in our galabiyyas it was an incredibly chilled day, spent relaxing, reading, eating (the vegetarian meals prepared by our crew Sala, aka Teddy Bear, and Ayup were incredible) and swimming in the river.
It was a fantastic vantage point to watch the Nile activity pass along, from other feluccas to small barges transporting mud bricks, all the way up to the big square cruise ships, carrying the more monied tourists, spewing out clouds of diesel fumes. There was also much to seen along the riverbanks too, with birdlife, livestock and over-excited teenage boys catching sight of seven foreign girls on our felucca.
The boat’s mobile cassette player was on the blink, and Ayup had to do some MacGyver-style imaginative repairs to get the sound system cranking again. Digital music may be phasing out CDs at home, but I was amazed that the fore-runners to CDs were still very much in vogue here. And that was not our only musical accompaniment. In the market the night before Hoges had bought a very cheap rubbaba, which looked like a small, make-shift violin with two strings. Pretty quickly he discarded the bow and plucked the two strings with his fingers, regaling his captive audience during the day with such classics as Smoke on the Water.
Before dark we tied up to a grassy bank alongside another two of JJ’s feluccas and enjoyed dinner. Then the crews got together to put on a Nubian drumming session around the campfire, and we had a fantastic night joining them in singing and dancing, having a couple of beers and a sheesha, before capping it all off with a midnight swim in the Nile under the light of a full moon.
As a living room the felucca’s deck accommodated all eleven of us with a little bit of room in reserve. As a slumber party bedroom it was a bit more squeezy, and being the last one to go to bed I found this out the hard way. But after walking up the plank from the riverbank to the boat and then treading over the uneven line of bodies in the dark I was just able to find enough unreserved space to curl up.
We set off again after our pancake breakfast, spending the morning zigzagging down the Nile under a stronger breeze than that of the day before. Late in the morning we pulled over again, and climbed in the back of small troop trucks for the bumpy and incredibly dusty ride into the town of Daraw. There we were introduced to Mohammed, a sprightly and very entertaining 81 year old with a fascinating life history, including service in the British RAF during the Second World War. He took us to the town’s camel market and explained all about the caravan routes and historical importance of the animals for transport and food to the country. He also had an endearing quality about him where after stating a fact or proposition he would ask a rhetorical “Why?”, wait for us to respond likewise, and then mischievously say “OK, I tell you” like he was about to let us in on some great secret.
While Mohammed was talking to us, the youths working in the enclosures got a little over enthusiastic in showing the camels off. First they unsuccessfully tried to get a young camel to sit down by hitting it with a stick and grabbing its ears and tail. Then they tried to get an adult to sit on its front legs while standing on its back legs so they could show off how to milk it, but it responded by sitting down fully. When the boys then tried to get just the rear legs up the camel stood up completely. With this cycle continuing repeatedly over numerous attempts, the camel became so annoyed that it turned its head to face the boys, a loud rumbling emanated from its digestive system and it proceeded to spew all over them. And I can’t say I blamed it for doing so.
We then had some time to explore the town’s central area on foot and, much to my appreciation, we seemed to be the only tourists there. In fact, it felt like an open air zoo where it was us that were the exhibits. Older school children sang out choruses of “Hello”, younger children crowded around us wanting pens and old men studiously stared at us as we wandered the streets while they argued amongst themselves. The market seemed solely to provide for the town’s people, from the butchers slicing camel meat in the open air amidst the flies, to the bloke selling kitchen sinks. Without the touts hassling us to buy crappy souvenirs I was free to enjoy the experience of getting a more authentic picture of normal Egyptian life, and I loved every minute of it.
Once we were back at the felucca and helped the load huge block of ice and other supplies Sala and Ayup had purchased while we were sightseeing, we were on our way again. But after making such good progress with the wind in the morning, we were able to take things at a more leisurely pace in the afternoon. During one of my swims I found a sand bank in the very middle of the grand breadth of the river that allowed me to stand up in water barely above my knees. A little further on we tied up and Sala jumped in the water to take a bath. While all lathered up with soap he spotted a nearby buffalo tethered to a stake grazing in the shallows, and with an evil glint in his eyes and a huge grin on his face ran towards it. In fright, the buffalo lumbered away from the riverbank but then almost fell on its back as it reached the end of its tether and its neck jerked awkwardly.
Down the river some more we found a good stopping place for the night, though the ground was harder than the night before, and Hoges had to labour more to dig the toilet hole before dark. Evidently this was a common problem for other recent felucca groups too, as the field was strewn with toilet paper lying around that really ought to have been buried. It was an ugly sight, and while searching for wood and palm fronds for the fire, it had me pondering what other damage tourists like us cause to this country. The couple of men we saw sitting around tending the livestock certainly didn’t seem to mind us taking whatever wood we could forage, though when I saw one later smoking a huge spliff it was all the evidence I needed.
Tonight was an earlier night around the campfire, marked by Hoges’ sacrificial burning of his beloved rubbaba. By his own estimate he’d already got his LE5 (AU$1) worth of fun from it, and with the materials it was made from there was no way quarantine officials were going to let him bring it back into Australia. He decided it was best to leave it by the Nile where it had given him two days of musical nirvana. After some final strumming for nostalgia’s sake, he ceremoniously dropped it on the fire. It took a little while for it to catch alight, but when it did, I think Melissa summed up the mood best when she muttered “Thank goodness for that”.
After an early rise we finished our felucca journey and Sala and Ayup dropped us off at Kom Ombo, the first of three ancient temples we’d be visiting for the day.
After having had two very relaxed days away from the crowds I found it very unsettling to be back in the midst of tourist hordes and aggressive hawkers, though it was worth it to check out the temple’s mummified crocodile. Consistent with the return to the tourist trail we were also back in the armed police convoy of buses and mini-vans for the transit time in between temples to Luxor.
The Temple of Horus at Edfu was temple number two, and by this stage I was already templed-out. But then temple number three, Karnak Temple in Luxor, was without doubt the most impressive of the day. It was laid out on a scale massive enough to disperse the huge number of visitors so it didn’t feel crowded to walk around. Our local guide was the most knowledgeable and most interesting to listen to of the whole trip, and I was hoping we would have her again the next day when we went to the Valley of the Kings (sadly, we didn’t). It was also the most impressive place to check out culturally inappropriate dress, the winner going to a rather attractive Russian (we think) girl in a short skirt, bare midriff and tiny, tight, open-buttoned white collared shirt hardly covering a lacy black bra.
Late in the afternoon Hoges, Paul and I got kitted up in our galabiyyas and explored Luxor with the intention of finding a good photo spot for Man Dress Fashion Week. Eventually we found our perfect backdrop, an open room walled-off from the street by brightly coloured hangings of cloth. Inside the room was a long wooden table set for about twenty people, with some of the seats already taken by men eager to break the day’s fast.
They very kindly invited us to eat with them, which would have been a fantastic experience, but regretfully we couldn’t stay as we had previously arranged plans with the rest of the group and, as always, mangy stray cats.
Apart from that happy encounter I really didn’t like Luxor. It felt like it had a more sinister edge to it than Cairo and lacked all the good humour of Aswan. In particular, there were many horses and carriages available to take visitors around town for a price. On the whole the horses looked undernourished and were being whipped excessively by their ill-tempered masters.
The first line in my journal for today reads thus: “Today Troy got a crook gut and sprayed the bowl brown.” Thanks for that, Hoges. Though you weren’t in any better shape yourself. Things had a taken a turn for the worse during the night for both of us, and let’s just say it was rather fortuitous that we had both a private bathroom and the floor’s shared toilet right next to our room. One dunny between the two of us just wouldn’t have been enough.
By the time we left the hotel after breakfast and crossed the Nile to the western bank by small boat I felt much better. I still wasn’t sure the rest of the morning was going to be particularly comfortable though, for slightly different reasons. We climbed onto the donkeys that were to take us to the Valley of the Kings, and after two days of wearing wet dacks on the felucca in between swims, things were a little red raw in my downstairs department.
As we travelled steadily along a road shoulder cutting through verdant irrigated fields, my donkey seemed determined to stay in the lead, speeding up considerably whenever another steed dared try to overtake. After combining at the two statues of the Colossi of Memnon with the rest of our group who had done a morning balloon ride over Luxor, my mount was relegated to second past the post as Paul’s donkey ‘Dangly’ charged off ahead with more staying power than mine could muster as we approached the stark rocky hills further inland. It wasn’t really called ‘Dangly’, but it was the only name that came to mind after I watched its back legs banging into its nutsack with every stride. Perhaps it wasn’t only me who was feeling a little red raw in the downstairs department.
The donkeys were not particularly big beasts, the toes of my shoes could almost touch the ground as we went along, and as the incline greatened I was amazed how strong and sure-footed they were on the slippery terrain riddled with loose rocks. Not even a constant stream of competing French runners and mountain-bikers coming downhill right past us seemed to cause any hesitation. As well as the athletes, we also shared the trail with the peskiest and most aggressive hawkers of the trip, and this took away a lot of the enjoyment of the journey.
From the top of the limestone cliffs we looked directly down on the remains of the Temple of Hatshepsut, and from our vantage point the couple of hundred visitors wandering around it looked like a colony of ants. There we left our donkeys and walked over the final ridge and down into the Valley of the Kings.
The admission price covered entrance into our of choice three of the sixty or so tombs, and we went along with the recommendations given to us of visiting those of Ramses III, Ramses VI and Ramses IX. Descending down into the passageways was another hot and stifling experience, with not much personal space between me and the rest of the pack of visitors. But what an experience it turned out to be. The tomb builders had carved dog-leg turns into the hillside when they were getting too close to pre-existing tombs, giving my exploration of them a sense of the unexpected. But really took my breath away (other than the said hot and stifling conditions) was the vibrancy of the colours of the reliefs on the walls and ceilings of the chambers. I had expected to see more of the same hieroglyphs of pharaohs and gods in profile, carved or painted in earthy tones, which we had already seen in the temples. But instead there were scenes of astronomy, a myriad of stars set against a black or vibrant blue sky, the colours so rich it looked they had been touched up only last night. I was stunned.
I was also beginning to get crook again and, after a necessary visit to a tomb of another kind, I joined Sarah on the seriously sick list. We were all bundled into a mini-van to see the nearby Valley of the Queens, but about the only thing I recall was continually falling asleep on Helen’s shoulder.
A low key way to spend the afternoon was called for, and a few of us were happy to find an Olympic sized public swimming pool to do just that. Before today, I’d never jumped off a ten metre diving tower whilst suffering from a serious case of ‘brown town’. Actually, I’d never previously jumped off a ten metre tower at all, I thought I’d just add that extra bit of information to give my performance a slightly higher degree of difficulty. The judges were unanimous in their praise.
By evening, as we prepared to take the overnight train back to Cairo, I was feeling better again. We were at the train station at Midan al-Mahatta with a little bit of time to spare, so I went on the lookout for a single can of beer each for Hoges, Paul and I for the journey. Up until this point I had kept a fairly unintentional record stretching back a couple of months of not going a single day without a medicinal alcoholic beverage, a period of travelling that had taken me through Ireland, Portugal and Spain, until I had last had a completely dry day somewhere in Russia or Scandinavia. Even in Egypt during Ramadan it was pretty easy as a tourist to find beer in the afternoon or with dinner every day and, now I was feeling less crook, it seemed a shame not to continue the run for at least another day. There were plenty of small shops around the main intersection outside the station selling drinks, but I could find none selling alcohol. Conscious of the time, I was about to give up when a man standing around on the street looked at me and asked, “Stella? Beer?”
At my agreement he walked off away from the station, beckoning me to follow him. I figured I was off to a shop run by his cousin or other distant family member, and he was in it for a bit of baksheesh. But we were walking quite a number of blocks, which drastically limited the time I had to haggle before getting back in time to make the train. Eventually he led me into a darkened shopfront and I was able to ask for three cans of Sakara. The proprietor wanted LE10 (AU$2) each, an exorbitant price that was more than cold ones of the same size had cost us in a hotel bar. For unchilled cans on the street I wanted to pay half that amount at the most and, when I made that known to shopkeeper, with the same lack of humour I had found throughout Luxor he impatiently created a story that the price was so high because I was not buying in bulk, and that non-Muslim commodities became more expensive during Ramadan. I was incredibly annoyed, not so much at being fleeced, but at myself for thinking I could buy something in Egypt in a hurry. With one eye on my watch and the other on the vendor that didn’t seem in the mood to negotiate, I took the cans for LE8 each, telling the man who had escorted me to the shop that he could get his baksheesh off part of the premium price I had already handed over to the shopkeeper. I could easily have walked away empty-handed but I had chosen not to, and as I took off hurriedly back to the station I was surprised at myself for how much I wanted to keep the drinking record going. And it continued on through Egypt until the next chapter of my travels in Turkey.
It was another noisy train journey back to Cairo, the carriage’s aisle a busy highway of hawkers selling sugar cane and other refreshments. One helped himself to the open bag of chips on my seat while I was standing in the aisle playing cards, and consequently I mimicked his countrymen’s hassling calls of ‘baksheesh!’
Instead of some small change, all I got was a cheeky smile. It looks like getting a tip for providing something in Egypt only ever works one way.
The train pulled into Ramses Station at 6:30am and after a brief walk back to the Happyton Hotel we dumped our bags there. We were all assembled in the hotel foyer ready to look around for a place for breakfast, until at the last minute Hoges sprinted back upstairs muttering something about the fact that he “should have been a spray painter.”
The rest of the morning was spent at the Egyptian Museum. My expectations became high once we were outside the front gates as we had to go through the most stringent security precautions of the whole trip. My hopes were not disappointed, after our visits to the temples and tombs seeing some of the treasures taken from them that were now stored in the museum really completed the whole picture. The famous golden masks in the Galleries of Tutankhamen in particular were exceptional, and forking out the supplementary price to get admission to the hushed room containing the carefully preserved Royal Mummies was well worth it. I had imagined just seeing the vague outline of bodies wrapped in white cloth, but the eleven corpses here were so much more life-like than that. It was nothing short of spooky to look at their intricate features – hair, ears, eyelids, noses, teeth, fingers, arms, legs and toes – and remind myself I was looking at pharaohs and queens who been dead for three thousand years. They looked so complete, I swear they still have more original parts intact than Michael Jackson.
After a quick lunch on the run we returned to the Islamic Quarter and the markets of Khan al-Khalili. Here I had a great time haggling over a small chess set, buying some other small souvenirs, evading the over-effusive leather wallet sellers and generally trying to keep my bearings in the medieval labyrinth of alleyways.
Hoges, Mani, Nicole and I then took a tour of the massive Al-Azhar mosque. It was a sprawling complex of varying styles, led by an old man who marked off a few disjointed words of English in each courtyard or room he took us though. After taking a photo of the four of us that suspiciously only got the two girls in the frame, his limited English vocabulary became much more verbose when it came to voicing his displeasure at the baksheesh we gave him. It seems, as the story goes, that during Ramadan the price is also hiked up for non-Muslims to visit a mosque. And I’m sure our extra monetary respect for Allah in this holy month would never have remained tucked away in our guide’s galabiyya. Like hell it wouldn’t.
We left the Islamic Quarter on foot, through sections of the markets typically devoid of other tourists. It was times like these that restored my enthusiasm for being in Egypt, picking me up after becoming sick of being treated like every tout’s next rip-off target. Amongst other things, we passed tables of goats’ heads for sale, tradesmen of wood and metal at work – some watching fuzzy black and white TVs, and stalls openly selling some pretty saucy women’s underwear. The latter surprised me, given the modest coverings that all the local women were wearing out in public.
As dusk approached we hailed a few taxis to go to our next destination. With the day’s fasting almost over, the manic Cairo traffic seemed even more boisterous and unruly than the rest of the day as everyone seemed intent on getting where they needed to be before sunset. It didn’t all go quite to plan as not all of us arrived at the Citadel together. One of the cabs with a few of the girls in it hadn’t looked in great working order, and it had to stop twice to fill the radiator with water. While we were waiting for them we were able to witness another slightly shonky vehicle in action. A hubcap rolled down the slight hill of the busy Salah Salem thoroughfare onto the kerb and then, to a chorus of toots, the car it belonged to reversed back from further down the road and across four lanes of oncoming traffic, before the driver blocked one of the lanes entirely as he got out to collect the hubcap. Watching Cairo traffic never failed to thoroughly entertain me.
That was far from the only entertainment for the night, as we had come to the Citadel for a whirling dervish show. I was impressed before we’d even sat down – the show was completely free. I didn’t think it could get any better than that, but it did. Watching blokes rapidly spinning non-stop for upto half an hour each was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. They showed off their colourful costumes in time to a fantastic traditional band, who themselves sure knew how to play up to the audience.
It had been an incredible day which needed a good debrief back at the hotel, but that was cut short as the day finished in much the same fashion as it had started – Hoges needed to spray paint.
Compared to our previous transport, the mini-bus that took us across the Sinai Peninsula was quite simply luxurious. With plenty of room to stretch out and play cards it was an incredibly relaxing and comfortable journey as we crossed under the Suez Canal. The heavily armed military checkpoints became more and more frequent during the morning as we headed east across the Sinai Desert, with almost no other traffic on the roads save for the occasional old, heavily overloaded Peugeots and Renaults.
When within sight of the border with Israel, close enough for me to get a ‘Welcome to Israel’ text message on my mobile phone, we turned south. Following the Gulf of Aqaba coastline we could see across to the desolate mountainous convergence of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We passed by the town of Taba, where a car bomb had seriously damaged a Hilton Hotel only three and a half weeks earlier, killing thirty one holidaymakers, mostly Israelis. That was reason enough to explain why there was such a big military presence on the roads.
After passing by a couple of other modern resort villages where two other bombs also went off at the same time as the one in Taba, though with far less carnage, we arrived in Dahab and checked into our hotel. At first it looked nicely renovated and well appointed, though not was all as it at first seemed. Looking up from the central courtyard the rooftop balcony railings looked a freshly painted white, though on going up to it there were no railings along the other sides at all, and lumps of concrete and piles of leftover building materials were left lying around. Settling into our room, Paul sat down on one of the beds and with a loud cracking sound ended up a little lower down than he had expected. Lifting up the mattress revealed half the wooden slats were missing. And then there was the small rubbish bin by the toilet. Due to the small pipes laid in Egypt, in every place we stayed in it was expected we would put all used toilet paper in the bin rather than flushing it. We would do our bit for preventing blockages, and the hotel cleaning staff would do their bit by emptying it daily. Here, though, it was not emptied at all during our four night stay. Let’s just say by the end of it, going into the bathroom was not a pleasant experience.
We crossed the road to a waterside cafe/restaurant, and spent the rest of the day lazily reclining on the cushions there, eating, drinking, playing chess and shooing away flies and cats from our food. Background music was played by the likes of Bob Marley and Jack Johnson. The chilled vibe just didn’t feel like Egypt at all, it felt somehow artificial.
Even the food tried to be European, to varying levels of success. The service standards, however, were very much Egyptian. We had to wait hours for our lunch and, later, our dinner. It wasn’t like there were many other people to serve either. It was coming in to the low season, and the bombings had had a further detrimental effect to visitor numbers along the whole Red Sea coast. But the slowness didn’t matter, for the first time on this trip we had nowhere else to go. I think it was pretty safe to say we were all ready for a few slower days to recharge the batteries.
Mani, Melissa, Nicole, Hoges and I had to be up before 7am as the van taking the five of us to Mount Sinai was not running on Egyptian time. Our pre-arranged breakfast, however, certainly was and we had to leave Dahab with empty stomachs.
Through more frequent security stops we went via the Wadi Nasb Pass, to a red valley surrounded by the bases of Mount Sinai and many other similar barren, craggy peaks. Here was St Katherine’s Monastery, a compound of buildings beginning from the fourth century reputedly built on the site of where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Inside, there was even a supposed descendant of the original bush growing, though carefully pruned out of reach so that bright sparks did not take to it with some matches or a cigarette lighter. On going inside, Hoges and I immediately fell foul of the monastery’s dress regulations by wearing shorts, and were given sheets to wrap around our waists to cover our knobbly knees. We may be Christians, but that doesn’t automatically mean we can understand exactly for what reasons our attire was immodest, or who we were offending. That said, I had no real problem in covering up. What really grated was the belligerent way in which the attendants made it known that the baksheesh we offered was not enough. These man-made ‘religious pilgrimage’ sites are a nice little earner for someone.
Back outside, we began our ascent on foot to the summit of Mount Sinai. Ever the athlete, Hoges let it be made known pretty early on that he’d “do a camel for twenty pounds”. And so, the rest of us soon left him behind while he took the easy option for the first half of the climb.
He hadn’t escaped the second half though, which was by far the most challenging, a long set of steps up to Elijah’s Basin and on to the summit. All up, it took me about two hours to get from the monastery to the 2,285m pinnacle, and that included frequent rest stops at the steps. But it left plenty of the afternoon to reflect on the story of the Exodus in a location where what I chose to wear didn’t matter, watching the colours of the desolate landscape change as the sun tracked across the sky. It was stark and wildly beautiful, but an absolute golden cow of a place to be stuck wandering around for forty years.
Just about everyone who has a travelled a bit seems to remember the worst public toilets they’ve ever come across. For me, the clear winner had been the vile conveniences outside Brest Fortress in Belarus two months earlier. Until now. Just under the summit there was a small wooden outhouse from which there was emitting an unholy stench. There was crap around the outside of the bowl, and plenty more, along with liberally used toilet paper, on the floor. Not to mention the odd bits somehow flung onto the walls of the lean-to. Any number of people in need of dropping a number two had lacked the mettle to go inside to ‘damage the Doulton’, as more of the same waste littered the surrounding rocks, fanning out in a wide radius. It’s not just the Ten Commandments that have been deposited here, let me tell you.
We had had the top of the mountain pretty much to ourselves, but as sunset neared, the number of people joining us was growing as steadily as the temperature was dropping. After staying until the sun disappeared behind a distant peak, we set off on our descent back down the steps, and after that the wide camel path was quite easy to keep to in the dark.
I had only had two packets of lime and chilli potato chips to eat all day, and so by the time we all met up at a different Dahab waterside restaurant for a late dinner, I was in desperate need for some sustenance. So much so that I barely noticed my minestrone soup was green and contained thin noodles instead of pasta. We were also treated to a fine display of marketing by some scruffy looking Bedouin girls, whose idea of maximising sales of their hair bands was to yank Janiece’s hair and bark out “they look nice, buy some!” When it became clear that approach wasn’t going to work, one gave us the finger as they finally moved on to bother another table.
There was no chance of missing breakfast today, as Hoges and I wandered over at 1pm. We had signed up for three introductory scuba dives over the next two days with a German dive company based at the front of our hotel, and after breakfast met our instructor Matthias. The Red Sea coast is a pretty accessible place to start diving, and I was amazed at the range of ages, shapes and sizes of other, almost all European, tourists in a similar position to us as paying customers of the many dive companies based here. We started with them in shallow water by the middle of town as Matthias led Hoges and me through the basics. With our natural prowess quickly displayed the three of us then swam out beyond the shallow ledge and down to a depth of about fourteen metres, checking out the coral and fish along the shelf’s edge.
After a relaxing dinner the girls all headed back to the hotel, leaving the boys to continue on to a nightclub. We were immediately drawn to one that was not belting out techno, but rather a more blokey range including Metallica and Steppenwolf, and we danced like no-one was watching. Because no-one was. We were the only four punters in the place.
At around 2am we left the nightclub and started down the promenade toward our hotel. Walking past some other hotel’s deserted swimming pool on the way was far too tempting, and so we stripped down to our dacks and jumped in. Perhaps my morning’s choice of yellow Reg Grundys was not the most enlightened decision – I’ll concede that may have offended some in St Katherine’s Monastery. After about ten minutes a couple of bored hotel security guards came by and cheerfully asked for some baksheesh for using their facilities. We cheerfully declined, got out of the pool and kept walking. Not that we got far. We passed another hotel’s pool, this time with a small slide attached, and were able to swim in this one undisturbed before calling it a night. Quite simply, this is one of the best nights out I have ever had. Great mates, no pre-conceived plans and a couple of pleasant surprises are a dynamite combination.
We bumped into Matthias at breakfast, where I had the most non-English English Breakfast I’ve ever seen. Spam took the place of bacon, and I don’t even know what legume was the substitute for baked beans. I think I was ready for more Egyptian food again.
A local driver then took us south at great speed in an old four wheel drive to Shark Caves, where he spent the rest of the day dozing on the ground in the shade provided by the vehicle. I guess Ramadan is much easier to bear when you do as little as possible during daylight hours. Shark Caves was another busy base for dive companies, and in our first dive of the day Matthias took us down to about twelve metres to a feature called the Golden Blocks. After a long lunch interval our final dive was at Moray’s House. Though we were only down to six metres below the surface, we saw the biggest fish here, including gropers.
It’s hard to sum up in words my first scuba diving experiences. Though I have seen larger numbers and varieties of fish and more exquisite coral (and no rubbish, while I’m at it) snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, I loved the extra freedom that came with diving. Being able to really swim with the fish without the limits of staying on the surface or holding my breath made an enormous difference. I was surprised how quickly we were able to dive more or less independently under Matthias’ supervision, though perhaps the regulations are not as stringent here as they are in Australia or elsewhere. But most of all I loved the serenity of being down at least ten metres, looking up at the sun’s rays filtering down through the surface of the water, with the bubbles from my regulator passing across my field of vision.
After one last dinner soaking in the view across the narrow Gulf of Aqaba as the fullish moon dimly illuminated the outline of the dark crags of Saudi Arabia, Hoges and I stopped by a music shop selling cheap CDs. They were cheap for a reason, the black and white photocopied covers did little to display authenticity, and inside the CDs themselves were normal blanks with the title written on in marker. But the hassle factor by the staff was non-existent, and was it very nice to be able to idly browse in a shop for a change.
We had to depart at 8am so it came as absolutely no surprise that our pre-arranged breakfast failed to materialise, and I left Dahab feeling slightly disgruntled. This seemed to match the mood of the some of the Bedouin kids who descended upon our mini-van when we stopped to look at a couple of desert oases, who had no interest in being given some of our snacks. They wanted currency, and hard currency at that. No Egyptian pounds here, just Euro thanks very much. Unfortunately for them, we were the wrong nationalities.
Also of note along the way back across the Sinai Peninsula were various memorials celebrating Egypt’s victory over Israel in their most recent skirmish for this territory in the 1980’s. But this doesn’t seem to mean much to the Bedouin nomads, whose links are neither Egyptian nor Israeli, and who have reportedly been treated as a marginalised people regardless of which government has controlled their land.
Lunch was in a fantastic seafood restaurant that had opened specially for our group in the city of Suez, and then we had the obligatory look at the canal built to provide a shipping link from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Apart from the narrowness of the channel and the proximity of the cargo ships to each bank, there really wasn’t anything of any interest to see here.
Abdul, our driver, really started putting his foot to the floor between Suez and Cairo. He was hoping to be somewhere in Cairo before sundown to break his fast, but we were not making as much progress as he hoped. We were still outside the city when the sun set, and he quickly pulled up into a service station and bought a bunch of bananas, scoffing them down with understandable gusto.
The familiar surroundings of the Happyton Hotel beckoned. Wearily I put my bags in my recently repainted room and had a shower in the bizarre small bathroom. The shower head, toilet and wash basin were all in the same close proximity, and it was impossible to avoid getting all these wet and flooding the tiny bathroom floor. I was feeling very tired and in need of a shock to wake me up for the final meal of our Intrepid tour. And that’s what I got, as I trod on the end of a coaxial cable that had not been reconnected to the wall mounted TV after the repainting. At first I thought I’d been given an electric shock, but soon after reflected the jolt was probably just from the exposed wire tip of the cable going into the bottom of my foot. In any case it certainly made me more alert.
Dinner was at a very posh restaurant across town and I thought I’d do the world a small favour by ordering two whole, stuffed pigeons. But I soon worked out why eating the winged rodents really hasn’t taken off. There was next to no meat on them, and it had not been for the rice stuffing inside the carcasses I’d have gone without a second meal for the day.
With the tour over, those of us with another day remaining were officially on our own time. Paul and Hoges went off to see the Sakkara pyramid, getting caught up with some con-artists purporting to be ‘government authorities’ in the process, while Nicole and I were interested in taking a day trip to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
The two of us took the 11am train from Ramses Station and had decided to treat ourselves to first class. It was a journey back in time with the carriages’ 1960’s style of decor, and venetian blinds hung from the windows, but it was a comfortable position to sit and watch as life along the edge of the Nile Delta rolled by. The railway tracks had attracted a never-ending stream of rubbish heaps, and many women stood around casually chatting, seemingly unperturbed about the odds of other trains coming right for them. Some of those other third class-only trains were quite a sight, too. They looked more like cattle trucks or prison hulks than commuter trains.
Once our train had pulled up to Masr Station and we were walking along the platform, I fished around in the front of my backpack for my sunglasses. One of my electrical socket converters fell out, and rolled in a wide arc along the platform and then off the edge and underneath the train. A rather nimble elderly man, whether staff or not I don’t know, got back on the train, opened a manhole and then climbed around on the tracks to fetch it for me. It was one of the rare times where I felt that not only was a little baksheesh well deserved, but I had given the man a couple of pounds without him actually asking for it. And not only that, he seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture. I liked Alexandria already.
We walked across busy tram lines towards Carmous through a teeming market area that smelt of urine, and five year olds tried to sell us packets of cigarettes. There didn’t seem to be too many other visitors around, and we were regarded with an air of good humour and enthusiasm. The only disappointment came when we found the second century Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa had closed early due to, you guessed it, Ramadan.
We walked back though where we had come, and along the way became drawn by the skill and speed of some men cooking small pancakes. Nicole was so captivated she took video footage of them at work with her digital camera, and then created quite a stir as they, and others, excitedly crowded around her to watch what she had captured.
I, meanwhile, attracted the attention of the kids walking home from school. Among them, two girls of about eight or nine were carrying their homework, and I could see a worksheet containing five sentences in Arabic, numbered from one to five. Eager to show off my newfound knowledge I pointed at each Arabic number and reeled off their names: “Waahid, igneen”, I had a mental blank at talaata and so skipped over it, “arba, khamsa.”
One of the girls looked at me like I was little bit dim and asked in clear English, “What about three?”
That certainly put me back in my place.
A little further along there was even more action. A police van, siren sounding, pulled up in the middle of the street. A few police jumped out of the back and, with some commotion, made straight for a particular clothing stall and confiscated much of the merchandise. Then, after they jumped back into the van and it moved off, the market was soon operating as if the police had never been.
We kept on going in a northerly direction until we hit the Mediterranean, where the seafront was a buzz of activity of fisherman casting their rods off the concrete retaining walls and into the sea. And, as with seemingly every vocation in this country, nobody operated without robustly exchanging some differences of opinion with their peers.
From there we followed the Corniche westward around the Eastern Harbour to the headland at Fort Qaitby, the site where from the third century BC the famed lighthouse, one of the ancient Wonders of the World, had stood as a navigational aid for ships along this coast until an earthquake destroyed it early in the fourteenth century.
Nicole and I stayed a while here in the district of Anfushi, stopping at a couple of grand mosques and wandering through the streets decorated simply but amply for the upcoming celebrations of the end of Ramadan.
At a restaurant run by a retired famous belly dancer, we dined on a very late lunch of spaghetti and clams and looked across the road to the brightly painted boatsheds facing the Western Harbour. The two of us left close to sunset, as the restaurant was beginning to fill up with happy, middle class families ready to end one of the final days of fasting.
Wandering back along the Corniche, the fishermen had been replaced by young couples sitting along the wall. It seemed more acceptable for young men and women here in Alexandria to be seen courting in public. Elsewhere, all the hand-holding and other public affection we were witness to was exclusively among men.
We continued east along the foreshore to the brand new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. As a reminder of the Great Library, a second ancient Wonder of the World that had put the city on the map, this massive library is a bold piece of modern architecture that looks completely out of place amongst the decaying urban landscape around it. Nicole and I couldn’t analyse it for too long though, as we had to hurry back to the railway station to make the 7pm return train to Cairo. There were a few anxious minutes as we had to sprint the last stretch, but we made it. Barely.
Our last evening was spent standing outside Gad enjoying a final favourite meal, amongst an almost festive crowd of families.
Little kids were put up on the rooves of parked cars by their Dads while they happily munched on their rolls from Gad, and we ruminated over where we could buy a set of saucepans or some socks at this late hour of the night. The answer was right here, on the kerb of a noisy, choked and chaotically busy street in the middle of Cairo. I’d grown extremely fond of this place.
Melissa and Nicole decided to join us as the five of us hailed two taxis to take us to the Marriott Hotel. Like old pros we arranged a price of LE5 for the journey across town with the drivers, and the only non-Arabic word we used was ‘Marriott’. Things had changed so much from the novices on their first day in the country only a few weeks ago. We walked immediately behind the hotel to All Saints Cathedral, where our church in Sydney supported some missionaries working there. Things were pretty quiet but we were able to buy some last minute souvenirs from Tukul Craft, a program providing skills and employment for refugees who had fled north over the border from neighbouring war-torn Sudan.
From there the two girls had to leave for the airport and, while Hoges had another day before returning home, it wasn’t long before Paul and I had to fly out ourselves. We passed our last couple of hours with a final debrief over a beer at the bar in the Marriott. As a long awaited trip together to experience something completely different, Egypt had promised much. But we readily agreed that it had delivered so much more.