There isn’t much to do in Hurgarda except dive or lay on the “beach.” So, that’s what we did! We paid ￡E5 each to lie on the patch of beach owned by the Three Corners Hotel. The water was rather salubrious. In the evening we reserved seat son the bus to Cairo.
LUXOR TO HURGHADA Fayez, our ever-helpful hotel owner, escorted us down to the bus station and saw us safely aboard the 7:00 AM bus bus to Hurghada. We left on time and followed the Ismael Canal north to Qena. The water from the canal enables a large area of land to be farmed and the surrounding country was rich and productive.
The green farmland was left behind as soon as Qena’s many minarets were lost from sight and was replaced by the austere bareness of the Eastern Desert. This part of Egypt is different from the Western Desert. Its heat and glare are much less intense and the landscape is broken in many places by high, jagged peaks of crumbling rock.
The journey to Hurghada took 4½ hours and as we crested a rise the shimmering blue of the Red Sea came into view, stretching away from the burning shore towards the haze of the Sinai.
Hurghada is a dump! Worse than that, it is a half-built dump. We were besieged with offers of hotels when we alighted at the grotty bus station but we had been advised in advance that the Alaska Hotel was the best place to stay so we sought out the owner among the clamouring mob and clambered aboard his dilapidated van for the short ride to the place. Once there, we spent the rest of the day stretched out in the cool rooms.
TOMBS AND TEMPLES We were up at 5:30am and ready to leave at 6. After collecting our hired bikes, Linda, Nicky and I cycled down to the Corniche and caught a ferry across the Nile to the western bank. The three kilometre ride up toward the Valley of the Kings took us through the fertile, irrigated farmland bordering the river where fullahins [peasant farmers] were busy at their work: cutting forage, herding their stock and tilling the earth in the hazy morning sunlight. And ahead of us, bathed in a golden haze of light and shadows, the Temple of Ramses stood like a sentinel guiding us forward.
At the ticket office we tried to wrangle student discounts for the temples and tombs using our YHA cards but they were wise to that scam so we had to pay full price, which still wasn’t a great deal! Our first stop inside the temple complex was the Rammessium, the enormous temple built by the egotistical pharaoh Ramses II in honour of himself. Much of it is in ruins these days (probably much to Ramses’ eternal chagrin but, hey…easy come easy go eh Rammy?) and the huge statue of Ramses himself lies toppled on the sand, its 200 tonne head staring forever at the sky where Ramses no doubt assumed he’d be eternally rubbing shoulders with the Gods. Its state is apparently the fault of the Romans who obviously took a dislike to Ramses and his egotistical pretensions of greatness by lighting fires against the base then pouring water on the heated stone causing it to shatter.
As if that wasn’t enough to erode Ramses’ immortality, 2000 years later the English poet Percy Bysse Shelley wrote Ozymandius, a schathing poem about the great king’s obvious mortality:
I MET A TRAVELLER FROM AN ANCIENT LAND
WHO SAID: TWO VAST AND TRUNKLESS LEGS OF STONE
STAND IN THE DESERT…NEAR THEM ON THE SAND,
HALF SUNK, A SHATTERED VISAGE LIES, WHOSE FROWN
AND WRINKLED LIP, AND SNEER OF COLD COMMAND,
TELL THAT IT’S SCULPTOR WELL THOSE PASSIONS READ
WHICH YET SURVIVE, STAMPED ON THESE LIFELESS THINGS,
THE HAND THAT MOCKED THEM, AND THE HEART THAT FED.
AND ON THE PEDESTAL THESE WORDS APPEAR:
“MY NAME IS OZYMANDIAS, KING OF KINGS;
LOOK UPON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR.”
NOTHING BESIDE REMAINS. ROUND THE DECAY
OF THAT COLOSSAL WRECK, BOUNDLESS AND BARE,
THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS STRETCH FAR AWAY.
After the Ramessium, we cycled up to the Temple of Hatshepsut, a tourist-clogged disappointment, most of which could be seen from the road without paying to get in. Back at the ticket office we bought tickets for two of the Tombs of the Nobles: Sennofer and Rekmine. These small tombs of unknown royal hangers-on were set into the foot of the vast cliff which backdrops the entire Thebes necropolis.
The first tomb, that of Rekmine, featured two adjoining chambers adorned with paintings of giraffes, leopards and humans leading to a long third chamber with a roof slanting up to a height of 10 metres. Next door, so to speak, the tomb of Sennofer, a royal gardener, was accessed via a steep set of stairs hewn into the solid rock and leading steeply down to an ante-chamber decorated with grape vines. The tomb itself featured paintings of Sennofer and his sister in amazingly good condition.
Back out in the fresh air we walked back down to the main road through a cluster of filthy shanties then cycled back to Luxor where we spent the rest of the day asleep in the hotel.
MONDAY 28 OCTOBER – BACK TO LUXOR Dawn. The sun appeared above the horizon of palms and soon it’s warmth began to penetrate the river’s early chill. We set sail at 6:15, warmed up by our first tea of the day, and stopped for breakfast about an hour later. The captain was grumpy, no doubt suffering the after effects of all the hash he had smoked the previous night.
As the heat came into the day we stretched out to sunbathe: reading and resting and watching the ever-changing pattern of life on the river. Snowy white herons stood motionless on the edges of the water watching for fish while native fishermen watched, no less patiently, from their small gaily painted wooden craft. Along the banks of the river oxen and cattle grazed on the coarse grass and floating weeds, and small herds of sheep and goats foraged amongst the rubbish for bits of paper and greener morsels.
We stopped for Cokes on a small sandy beach below a small village with it’s ubiquitous donkeys and squawking children and then, later on, at a small island for a toilet stop. The island was composed of silt left by the river and now being reclaimed by it as the ever-shifting currents swirled by. Lunch consisted of potatoes long past their best with bread long gone stale, washed down with the last of the fresh water and some coffee.
We reached Edfu at 2pm and paid the captain off. He wasn’t too happy not to get any baksheesh [a tip] but we thought fuck him, he doesn’t deserve any after his sullen, unhelpful and drug-fuddled behaviour. Peter and I negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to Luxor for E£30 pounds and so with our packs all tied to the roof of his beaten up Peugeot 504 we headed off down the road leaving the filthy foul-smelling streets of Edfu behind.
An hour later, out in the countryside with fertile farmland on one side and barren rocky mountains on the other, the car got a puncture in one of its tyres. Of course, Egyptian car maintenance being what it is, there was no spare and no jack so the driver had to start flagging down passing cars in order to borrow them. By the time we had gotten a wheel off someone and a couple of jacks off someone else ,we had gathered quite a crowd of onlookers eager to put forward opinions on the state of the tyre. Eventually, after much debate and stuffing around, the wheel was changed and we set off again, arriving in Luxor at 4:30 p.m.
On the way into town we met Fayez from the Nour Home Hotel and he escorted us there and got us ensconced. Once again we had tea at Limpleys.
SUNDAY 27 OCTOBER – AND IT STONED ME!
The day began early at 6 a.m. The sun rose over the palm trees across on the eastern shore of the river and about half an hour later we set sail. We had tea and biscuits to get us awake then we lazed in the early morning sun as all around us the millennium old pattern of life on the great river coasted slowly into another day. Fishermen, singing as they rowed, piloted their tiny craft out to the fishing grounds where they began to beat the water with wooden flails to stun the fish beneath the shining surface.
Along the riverbanks a procession of cows, donkeys, cattle and people – always people – began their daily work. And, as always, the river flowed by neither knowing or caring about the life on its edges and yet supporting that life. We stopped for breakfast at Kom Ombo, the once majestic temple of the Nile kings Sobek and Haroeris: now reduced to yet another tourist dungeon of aggressive souvenir hustlers and mindless tourists.
The captain spent most of the day out of his head on hash. We wouldn’t have minded but the wind was strong and some degree of concentration was required in order to keep the boat from capsizing. But the captain had traded his concentration for a head full of smoke sucked from a smoundering lump of brown resin suspended by a needle between two glasses pressed together.
The day passed languidly as we journeyed north through the heat of the day. We stopped for half an hour at Captain Eden’s village where we endured a horde of grubby, snotty nosed urchins clamoring for pens and bakshish. By mid-afternoon the wind was getting quite strong and we stopped to help fix the mast of a local’s felucca that had broken in the wind. After that, our Captain began to snort heavily on his hashish and it became progressively more and more dangerous as his concentration began to lapse. Several times we were close to capsizing into the choppy water and we were getting pretty annoyed to say the least. There was a lot of traffic on the river and the large ferry boats were too big to maneuver around us so the captain’s habit of sailing straight at them was a bit unnerving as well.
Eventually, though, the wind died down along with our nerves. As darkness fell we opened a bottle of wine and began singing songs and chanting “Chana-fucken-boo” to locate the other falucca. When we finally found them we tied up alongside but they were all so stoned that they wanted nothing to do with us so we left them to their little hazy world and spent an enjoyable evening talking.
SATURDAY – ROLLIN’ ON THE RIVER We were all gathered down at the felucca at 9 a.m. as arranged. We knew that Captain Eden had over-booked the boat and we’re prepared for an argument but in the end it was quite simple. The 6 of us ended up on the felucca Nice and 7 others ended up on another smaller boat captained by the elusive Captain Chanabu! We set sail at about 9:30 and after stopping to register with the Nile police we were away from the tourist hole of Aswan.
The sun was warm and a cool breeze blew steadily south up the river as we tacked back and forth to catch the best air. Life on the river was easy: a sybaritic routine of lying in the sun, eating fruit and drinking tea. We played cards, read, wrote, and listened to tapes alternating between the captain’s Egyptian noise and our collections of Cold Chisel, Th’ Dudes, Jimmy Barnes, and Guns and Roses.
The sun coasted slowly across the azure sky, reaching its zenith then descending inexorably towards the palm-fringed desert. The last rays cast a lovely pink glow upon the river as fishermen set their nets and stock were herded homeward along the banks. As darkness fell, the stars appeared and as evening drew intonight a lovely yellow moon rose from the desert and began it’s climb into the velvet sky.
The passengers on the other felucca went ashore and sat around a small fire in a pretentious huddle getting stoned on blow [hashish] but the six of us were content to talk aboard our boat as the air cooled and the gentle breeze rocked the water of the river to sleep. Eventually, we too succumbed to it’s rhythmic call and apart from the annoying mosquitoes we spent a comfortable and relaxing night.
We spent most of the day in slow motion, resting up ready for the felucca trip. Linda, Peter, Stephanie and I spent all afternoon lounging in opulent luxury at the New Cataract hotel’s pool, a privilege we paid E£10-50 each for but worth every piastre1. We watched another sunset pass on the Nile then wandered down to a restaurant on the corniche for tea, then back to our respective hotels for an early night.
1The Egyptian pound is divided into 100 piastres.
THURSDAY 24 OCTOBER – “WANT FELUCCA…” We spent all day organising a felucca trip. Down on the riverfront we were surrounded by a crowd of boat owners all hissing “want felucca?” We’d had been given the name of a captain (Captain Chanabu) by the manager of the Grand Hotel in Luxor but when we began asking around for him, everybody suddenly became “Captain Chanabu.” It was like the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “I’m Brian [Captain Chanabu]! I’m Brian! I’m Brian and so’s my wife!”
Eventually, we settled on a boat called Nice and it’s Captain Eden and we arranged a price of E£60 each including food. There were only four of us but we were confident we could get a couple more people in time. We also arranged to go for a sunset cruise around Elephantine Island.
We had checked out of the Mena Hotel first thing that morning and moved to a cheaper place, but now we went back down there to see if there had been any replies to the note that we had left on the notice board looking for extra people to join us on our felucca trip down the Nile. Three German girls were interested but they thought the price was too expensive when we told them. However we ran into a couple of Kiwi girls from Alexandra and they were interested so, presto, we had our 6 people.
WEDNESDAY – LUXOR TO ASWAN We left the hotel at 6:30 a.m. and walked up to the bus station where we had a 30-minute wait until the Aswan bus – a crowded, windowless wreck – lurched into the square and we could fight our way on board. The trip to Aswan took about 4 hours, and cost us £E4-50 each.It was an interesting ride with the blue water of the Nile out on our right and the stark, barren desert off to our left beyond the narrow fringe of irrigated and fertile land bordering the river. Soon after we left Luxor, the bus conductor had a blazing row with one of the passengers which looked amusingly like coming to blows until three other passengers stepped in and settled them down.
It was very hot when we got to Aswan and we had a 15 minute walk to find the Mena Hotel where we had arranged to meet two German travellers that we had met on the train to Luxor. The hotel was overpriced for what it was – a small, stuffy room with a tiny window and a small fan – but we couldn’t be bothered looking for somewhere else. After a refreshing shower we set off up the Corniche to the old Cataract Hotel where we knew we could get a cold beer. We also knew that it would be expensive but we didn’t quite expect to pay E£17 pounds for two beers! But still, it was quite salubrious to sit there in the opulent surroundings of the Veranda Bar sipping cold beer and watching the monied tourists parade past.
We had a snack of boiled eggs and bread in the Botanical Gardens overlooking the river then walked back down to our hotel through the souk which is a tourist trap of the first order. We met our German friends, Peter and Stephanie, at 7:30 and went for a meal at a cheap restaurant down by the Nile. The night air was cool and it was very relaxing to sit there and sip coldish beers and talk. Back at the hotel we passed a sweaty, uncomfortable night.
TUESDAY – ASYUT TO LUXOR We left the hotel at 8:30 and walked across the square to the railway station where we bought two one-way tickets to Luxor which cost us E£14- 80 with our “student” discount. After a while and a bit of asking around we got a consensus of opinion that the train left at 12:30 p.m. from platform 3 so we walked across the tracks and sat down there to wait.
After a while we began to attract a crowd of school kids eager to talk to us and ask the usual questions: “where are you from?”, “ what is your name?”, “what is your job?” and so on. We were quite happy to talk to them but after a while a man came along and shooed them away so that he could practice his English. He talked to us for an hour or so and when he left he was replaced by three more English students from the “faculty of education English department.”
Eventually our train rattled into the station and we squeezed the board with a throng pushing, shoving Egyptians. Our seats were taken by a young man with large dark glasses and his wife with their three young children. The woman held out the baby and put on an expression of great despair but we had paid for our fucking seats and we weren’t going to be done out of it by a family of freeloaders so we just stood and waited until the conductor came and ejected them from the train. It turned out that not only had they taken our seats, they had gotten aboard the train without tickets.
The trip to Aswan was painfully slow: the train stopping every 20 minutes or so to pick up little groups of people gathered by the tracks amid the empty vastness of the desert. When we arrived we were besieged by touts offering all manner of treats to come and stay at their particular slimy hotel. One guy, however, hung back from the horde and when we emerged from the station he approached us and offered us a room at the Grand Hotel where we have been planning to stay anyway. It turned out to be a good choice as the staff were very helpful and there was a notice board in the lobby describing all the different bus routes and costs to various places in Egypt.
We had dinner at Limpies Restaurant (a crude ripoff of the British Wimpy chain) then went back to the hotel and boiled up some eggs for the bus trip the next day. It was a very hot night.
The Nile at Aswan.
(Photo: Google Maps)