SUNDAY 3rd NOVEMBER – CAIRO AIRPORT. Chaos! The only way to describe the scene at Cairo Airport. CHAOS. The sort of chaos that makes a mockery of security procedures. The sort of chaos that epitomizes the chaotic and mind-bogglingly stupid systems of a chaotic and mind-bogglingly stupid country.
Getting to the airport was a simple matter. We walked up to Midan Tahir where a tout grabbed us and popped us into a brand new minibus which took us all the way for one Egyptian pound each. We were just putting on our packs after getting out of the van when the dirty brown tendrils of a sandstorm began to drift in on the rising wind. By the time we had dashed into the shelter of the arrivals hall, a howling gale was lashing rain and sand across the airport, pummelling the trees and sending pieces of debris racing past.
The storm was short-lived, however, and after sheltering for 10 minutes we were able to walk along to the departure hall. We hung around in there for a couple of hours watching with amazement the total shambles going on around us as sloppily-dressed guards smoking cigarettes tried to control the crowds of package tourists surging through the x-ray area.
Nicky and Melissa left us at 3:00Pm to check in for their 5:00Om flight to Athens and we settled down on the nasty yellow plastic chairs and waited…
Boarding the aircraft was a speedy affair and by the time the call came to board we had teamed up with four other Kiwis and an Australian.
SATURDAY We beat a hasty retreat from the filthy, overpriced slum which is the Hotel des Rosas and ensconced ourselves in the Oxford Pensionne across the road: a far cleaner, brighter and more opulent place which was far cheaper (E£6 each) and was complete with wall graffiti and an assortment of friendly cats.
Linda and I treated ourselves to a surprisingly tasty meal at KFC then spent an hour browsing in the second hand book stalls around Ezlekia Gardens. The collection of books was amazing with everything from Mills and Boon romances and primate endo morphology to Erazmus, Butler and Dickens. The prices were, however, grossly inflated especially as many of the books were obviously cast-offs from western schools.
We dined well at the Falafel Gardens in the evening then spent a sleepless night as Cairo’s taxis played the Let’s-See-Who-Can-Honk-The-Loudest game.
FRIDAY 1st NOVEMBER – RETURN TO CAIRO In the heat of the day we trudged down to the bus station, stopping on the way to buy a rotisserie chicken which we devoured sitting on the ground in the shade of a breezeblock wall.
The usual bunch of rag-bag kids gathered around us while we ate and began to give cheek and throw things at us and so Nicky sauntered over and slapped one of them around the head. The kid fled screaming and then a few minutes later a hail of rocks flew over the wall at us. I thundered off after the little cunts and could have caught both of them if they hadn’t collapsed, streaming, in the middle of the street. So I left them to the locals to sort out.
The bus arrived late and was packed to the gunwales with old men and women dressed in white [Hajjis en route to Mecca]. The luggage compartment was full and the aisles and back seats were stuffed with baggage and strange pink quilts. Nicky and I sat up on the luggage in the back while Linda and Melissa squeezed into seats further up the bus. I relieved the boredom of the journey by listening to a Guns ‘n’ Roses tape lent to me by Nicky and watching the light recede from the western sky behind a jagged range of mountains.
Around 9:00 PM we drove into the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The lights of a line of huge ships could be seen waiting out in the Gulf of Suez for their turn to enter the canal and the air was heavy with the cloying smell of hydrocarbons from the numerous oilfields, refineries and storage facilities. In places, gas flaring off from roadside wells lit the desert for miles around with a flat orange light.
The bus reached Ramses Square in Cairo at 11:00 PM and we got a taxi up to Maidan Talab Haab for E£4. We checked into the Hotel des Rosas (a better name for which would have been the Hotel des Cockroaches) and the four of us slept in the same room – Linda and I on the floor.
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.
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.