The Land of the Pharaohs

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I had been excited about the idea of Egypt. The River Nile enters its final stage after the meandering journey through Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan, and after supplying Egypt with electricity from the dam at Aswan, its by now full and lazy flow irrigates a narrow strip of land all the way through the country to its delta where it meets the Mediterranean. Amazingly 96% of the country is desert. A quarter of the world’s Arabs are Egyptian, the vast majority of whom live by the Nile. From the time of the Pharaohs five thousand years ago, fertility from the Nile River has allowed civilisations develop and flourish. And of course Egypt is the oldest tourist destination in the world, the ancient Greeks and Romans first here to visit the Pyramids at Giza. In more recent times Napoleon and then the British coveted the place, looted its treasures, and then were followed by the tourists, their citizens (Thomas Cook looked after them).

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I suspected there was so much of interest for me. And having put my first few days introduction – a not particularly satisfying time – behind me, I felt I was ready for Egypt. After the drawn out procedure of getting my bike released from Customs, then relaxing and catching my breath - and a few sights - it was time to head north from Aswan. The only way out was the road to Luxor, and the only way to travel that road was by convoy. Over the previous decade there have a number of high profile terrorist attacks on tourists that have severely damaged tourism in Egypt – the largest industry in in the country. The authorities are understandably very sensitive about this, and for easier monitoring and protection, prefer tourists to be bussed around in groups to the more popular sights. Anything off the beaten track needs permission.

The convoy departs twice a day, and early one morning I joined a collection of coaches, mini vans and a few taxis to drive the few hours along the Nile to Luxor. We pulled in after an hour at the ruins of Edfu, (pictured below) my first exposure to the awesome scale of these structures build thousands of years ago.

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I didn’t like this idea of a convoy, though it certainly speeded up the journey time. Local traffic was halted at roadblocks while the convoy swept through. In busy towns and villlages small children were yanked off the road and sqawking chickens flapped off in panic, as we sped through in a cloud of dust. The cruising speed was a little more than mine, so on long open stretches I tended to gradually drop towards the back of the convoy. The police car taking up the rear would be up my tail too close for comfort, so I would deliberately slow down. He’d get the message and back off. This was not comfortable riding but I had no choice. If I’d taken off on my own, I would have been held at one of the many roadblocks until the next convoy came along.

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Luxor has been a tourist mecca since nineteenth century paddle steamers paddled up the Nile bringing visitors to the ruins around the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. Tourism accounts for 85% of the local economy and the place has a reputation as being far worse than Aswan with regards to hassle. I enjoyed it. Or rather, it wasn’t so bad.

Back to budget accomodation meant checking into a backpackers hostel, the Nubian Oasis. No more indulgent air-conditioning for me meant the afternoon temperature, rising to the mid forties, was a little much for my room fan to deal with, with the result that the afternoons passed in Luxor were spent avoiding anything too energetic – by lying under the fan, or, more enjoyably, by the side of a swimming pool I’d found in a campsite on the edge of town.

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So. This is where it all happened, the mecca for Egyptologists over the centuries. Tutenkhamun, Valley of the Kings, Karnak… all these familiar names. I now had a context into which to put them.

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Across the Nile from Luxor, the Theban Necropolis testifies to the same obsession with death and resurrection that produced the Pyramids. Mindful of how these had failed to protect the mummies of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, later rulers opted for concealment, sinking their tombs in the arid Theban Hills… the dead ‘going west’ to meet Osiris as the sun set over the mountains and descended into the underworld.
- Rough Guide to Egypt

Having done a bit of reading up on the history and background, I was now a little better informed about it all. It was a matter of figuring out whether to put the bike on a ferry across the river, what sites to visit, locating them on a map, and how much were the entrance fees. (I had managed to buy an internationally recognised ‘Teacher’s Card’ which theoretically should give me fifty percent off the entrance prices, which could be fairly steep.) In the hostel, a tour was offered which would include the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and the Colossi of Memmon – all with a guide. It was a hot afternoon, and thinking of the air-conditioned minibus, the decision didn’t take me too long. I handed over $25 – all in - and prepared to be looked after!

The Valley of the Kings did it for me. It was here the Briton Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutenkhamun, with a spectacular collection of treasures (some of which I was to see on display in the National Museum, Cairo). Descending down into a few of the tombs, marvelling at the hieroglyphs painted on the walls, colours still visible, touching the stone sarcophagi in underground chambers that had held the actual coffins and mummies, it was as close at I’d been in contact with life four and half thousand years ago.

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Hatshepsut’s Temple (pictured above) is a series of terraces at the head of a rocky valley, mountains on three sides, which commanded a view down to the green flood plains of the Nile. It was here 58 tourists were killed, shot and knifed by fundamentalist extremists in 1997. I looked up at the hills nervously for any sign of ambush.

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Fellow Traveller Again
Emerging from a restaurant after the tour, I was surprised to bump into Kathryn (right, insisting on posing for a picture aboard an evening felucca ride), the English girl I’d spent a very enjoyable week hiking with in the Simien mountains in Ethiopia. It was a small world. (Kathryn had written a book about her last eight years spent travelling solo, and is hoping to get it published. She finances her travels by working as a SCUBA dive instructor in various exotic dive spots around the world.) She had flown into Cairo, and after visiting some of the sites there, had taken a week travelling the “desert oases” route by public transport, in an arc around to Luxor. She seemed pretty worn out, and pleased to see me, having had to fend off continual unwanted attention in her time so far in the country. Because of her gender, Egypt she informed me was proving to be a particular challenge.

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I was looking forward to seeing the temple at Karnak. Despite the coachloads of tourists spilling everywhere, it did not disappoint. I used the word ‘awesome’ to describe my reaction to the size of the temple at Edfu. Karnak was, like, totally awesome. A huge complex added to over centuries by different pharaohs, it was less the size of the site that impressed, it was the scale. Pillars of stone were so wide it takes six men with arms outstretched to span one. And there was a vast hall of them, a forest of massive, ancient stone pillars reaching maybe thirty metres high supporting an invisible canopy of stone slabs. Walking through felt like being in a fantasy movie. It really was unbelievable. (extra pics)

Across to the Red Sea
From Luxor, the main road north following the Nile is closed to foreigners. After four hours sleep – having watched Manchester United beat Chelsea in the Champions League Cup in Moscow, despite Ronaldo missing a stupid, arrogantly taken penalty – and another uncomfortably hot night, it was up at 6.30am for the early morning convoy to Hurgahada on the Red Sea coast. This convoy was larger than the one from Aswan. (Apparently many tourists take a river cruiser or felucca from Aswan to Luxor, but I was also to find out much of the traffic to Luxor was from tourists on a beach holiday on the Red Sea, part of which includes spending a day or two on a tour around the major sites, before being whisked back to their hotel on the beach.)

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When I told one of the police before leaving Luxor my speed would be about 90 kph, 20 kph slower than the coaches swishing along open stretches of road, he urged me up to the front. This seemed to work well and I never found myself being nudged by the bonnet of the tail police car again. About halfway into the four hour journey across the uninhabited desert interior, there was a pitstop. A collection of buildings was set back from a very large area of hardened sand for parking. About thirty coaches and minivans (I can only imagine what it must be like in high season) disgorged their passengers for a little rest, all flocking across to the shade of the conveniently located restaurant/ souvenir tat shop. Cans of Coke were on sale for $3, ten times the price on the street. My bike, pulled up in the shade of a coach, attracted some quizzical looks though only a few curious souls braved the sun to walk over. I answered the usual questions, from a friendly thirty something Austrian in a cowboy sunhat who owned a Suzuki (pretend) cruiser type bike, and an older English guy who used to travel a bit on his old Triumph. Two others drifted over, wandered around the bike, obviously curious, and wandered off again, perhaps too shy.

The Sea
As the coastline on my GPS picture got nearer, I was anticipating a slightly cooler temperature influenced by sea breezes. But as the road curved through the final barrier of barren, inhospitable hills, the temperature actually
increased as we passed through small canyons, heat sinks, where no breeze could reach. The heat radiated from the rock.

And then
there was the sea, a beautiful turquoise against the pale yellow of the rock and sand shore. I turned left – north - and freed myself of the convoy for the last hour or so of the journey. The saline and sandy shore didn’t support any plant life, yet a steady line of holiday developments, ‘villages’, got denser as the road approached Hurghada. The final thirty kilometres into Hurghada was built up on one side of the highway, the desert on the other extending towards a range of rocky hills which had been following the line of the coast. ‘Built up’ in the sense of half built apartment blocks. Much of this stretch was a building site, but I didn’t see any work in progress, or machinery. There were obviously great plans for the future development of Hurghada, that seem to have temporarily stalled for some reason.

A small fishing village twenty years ago, Hurghada now has a population of 150,000 nearly all dependent on the tourist dollar. I had just intended passing the night here, but ended up spending four days. Its main attraction was scuba diving. One of the regrets of my journey up the east coast was I didn’t take advantage of a few possibilities to dive
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– in Mozambique off Tofu which Kathryn reckoned to be some of the best in the world, Zanzibar, and most particularly southern Tanzania where I had the opportunity staying with a marine biologist who ran a dive centre in Mikindani near Mtwara. My thinking at the time was I couldn’t justify the expense (I wasn’t on ‘holiday’!)

The Red Sea has a reputation for scuba diving, and when I was offered a deal of two dives off a boat for $45 for the day all included, I went for it. And wasn’t disappointed. A bit rusty after a gap of eight years, it didn’t take long to get back to speed, and enjoy the incredible coral and sea life underwater. It had been so long I felt like a child marveling at the vivid colours of the tropical fish, and like a seal flopping and frolicking in this three dimensional, weightless world. The only sound was that of my breathing from the tank – slowly in, out. On my back ten metres under I gazed at this picture upside down. The sunlight refracted at the water’s surface, reducing objects on the other side of the boundary between sea and air to obscure, vague shapes (is that shadow our boat?) enclosing us here below in a serene, slow motion universe. The light streamed down, brightly illuminating the blue, highlighting with silver my ascending air bubbles the size of tennis balls, shimmering, shining globules of mercury forced up wobbling through the resisting seawater towards the surface.

It was an aquarium (in fact I think that is what the first site is called). This psychedelic underwater garden displayed a spectacular array of colours. And the fish – electric blues, brilliant yellows, neon pinks, glinting orange - exquisitely decorated with finely outlined strips, dashes and spots of contrasting colour. There were crocodile, clown and lionfish (their ‘don’t approach me’ venomous spines undulating delicately); trigger, angel and parrot; the ugly head of a giant moray eel emerging from its hole; and breathtakingly (maybe the wrong choice of word while diving!) - a large eagleray gliding through the depths on gracious sweeps of its ‘wings’. I stopped fascinated at a large parrotfish puffing at the seabed disturbing clouds of silt, then saw it darting forward to nibble the revealed tidbits. I loved the experience and went a second day. I considered it $90 well spent.

On first arriving here, I had noticed some shop signs in an unfamiliar script and was baffled. Was it perhaps some form of compromise Arabic writing for Egyptians in these parts? Or it could be the script of the Coptic Christians, whose language it is said most closely resembles that of the ancient Egyptians? That would be very quaint. The answer was a lot more market-driven and prosaic than my fanciful guesses. It was Russian, the dominant nationality visiting Hurghada.

I was to encounter my first Russians when I had made the decision to pause a while in Hurghada, and went to the beach. Dying to get into the sea, there seemed little alternative to paying for the privilege of using a hotel’s strip of sand. Strolling through the pool area and negotiating my way past the sun loungers to the shore, I nearly tripped over at the sight of the sunbathing, lithesome beauties from northern climes. Bikinis were of the ‘covering bare essentials’ fashion, some little more than pieces of string. I realised with a start some of the women were sunbathing topless. And not lying on their stomachs! After so long in Africa, particularly after the restrictions of Sudan, it took some adjustment. And Egypt is a seriously Muslim country. I tried not to stare. (Fortunately my sunglasses were a help, although jerking my head away if caught accidentally looking the wrong direction was a bit of a give-away.
They can't see your eyes, I had to remind myself.)

The Most Honest Waiter in Egypt
I had a cheap room downtown in this holiday resort of a town and despite my initial misgivings about Hurghada, I actually enjoyed my few days there. There was diving, swimming and good hearty East European meals at Captain Hum Hum restaurant (and a
seriously rich home-made chocolate and chili drink). All the water needed to sustain this size population comes from desalination plants, drinking water is all bottled sold at a fixed price. (In the minibus ride the twenty kms to my dive centre I asked the driver where did so much water come from to keep all the hotel gardens and public verges so green. He looked at his co-driver and sniggered, "Sewage waste.")

And I came across the most honest waiter in Egypt.
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Leaving a bar after a beer, I handed him what I thought in the darkness was an Egyptian 10 note, telling him to keep the change. He came after me, asking was I new to Egypt. I had given him 100. I was told the next day the bar was owned by Coptic Christians (not, I’m sure, that that has anything to do with it).

St Antony’s Monastery
Departing Ireland on my motorbike (nearly a year and a half ago now!), my first port of call was Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian monastery where my aunt is a nun. An enclosed order – separated by walls from everyday life - they follow the rule of St Benedict in a long tradition of contemplatives over the centuries, attempting to strip away the distractions of everyday life to practice a simpler, more basic existence. In fourth century Egypt, ‘the Desert Fathers’ as they are known were hermits who sought a purer form of practice and set up in caves in the hills (interpreted by some as a reaction against the worldliness of Christianity on becoming a state religion.) St Antony was the first hermit to pursue this path, followed by many others. He is considered the father of Western monasticism.

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So it was with a slight sense of pilgrimage I made the detour to find St Antony’s Monastery. Fifty kilometers from the nearest town, the location is desolate, at the end of a fifteen-kilometre entrance road set at the base of sandy, rocky hills (above). My guide on a tour of the monastery was a Coptic monk dressed in black robe, what looked like a handkerchief tied on his head, and a full black beard. The buildings are of mud, constructed like a village nearly on top of each other separated by narrow alleys.

The ‘keep’, a three-story tower with only one entrance, halfway up, was for the monks’ protection when attacked. We visited the oldest of a few churches in the monastery. The musty interior had very little natural light, and was cool. The walls were painted with icons – not dissimilar to those I saw from the churches in Ethiopia – most of which go back to the thirteenth century, some to the sixth. A small alcove was in fact the original church from the fourth century. Old channels funneled a spring which flowed from the mountain - reputedly 100 cubic metres a day - into a large cistern in a cave, now an empty earth pit. These days the water is pumped up to a holding tank high on stilts, to be gravity fed for the community’s use, and of course irrigation.

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The tour showed a fascinating picture of a self-sufficient life for a small, religious community in the desert. Despite the age of the monastery, the dry climate has meant very little deterioration has occurred. (Restoration work carried out a few years ago by an Italian team – the monastery is a UNESCO recognized site – have left the place, in my eyes, looking slightly like a museum.) (extra pics)

I had asked the monk when I arrived if it was possible to stay overnight, as I understood, like their Western counterparts, guests were accommodated. Written permission was needed from Cairo, but I was coming from the other direction and hoped to persuade them of the genuineness of my situation. After the tour the monk made a few calls to Cairo, with no success. “
I’m very sorry,” he said. He had been told it was possible to camp, but not within a five kilometer radius of the place. (Thanks very much. I can camp an hours walk away in the desert!) It was late afternoon, and I left the monastery in the desert with not the most Christian thoughts in mind.

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Cairo Bound
The previous week, getting ready to leave Aswan the bike packed and ready to go, I met a couple of young Americans, students in Cairo who had just flown in for a day’s fishing. Both had Irish names, hence I think their interest in the bike. TJ Guinness, (“the poor Guinness’s. My grandfather left Ireland to be a missionary in China”) and Matt Collins. Matt had given me his phone number, urging me to give him a call if I needed a bed in Cairo.

It looked like my arrival was going to be at nightfall, so, rather than trying to deal with Cairo at that hour looking for suitable accommodation I gave Matt a call asking if the offer was still available. He assured me it was. Great! I now had a destination, a suburb called Zamalek, an island on the Nile, which I was able to find in my guidebook.

Cairo has a reputation for being hell to drive in. As in “Leave your bike outside the city,” from another biker. Or, from an overland driver, “You’d be mad to ride a bike there. Specially with your panniers. It’s the worst city I’ve driven in!” This along with other warnings, and references I’d come across to spills and accidents, usually involving taxi drivers surprisingly, sounded a bit ominous. I’d managed to handle the bike without problem so far (Nigeria probably the hairiest, although some b*stards in Arusha, the Tanzanian tourist capital, seemed to have in for me), so wasn’t unduly concerned. I thought back to my days driving overland trucks (sorry, as ‘Expedition Leader’), and remembered some of the big cities. The madness of Mumbai in India, always fighting my way through – and that is the only approach, any sign of consideration, politeness or appreciating the picture beyond the bumpers directly in front of you an obvious sign of vulnerability to be exploited immediately by a neighbor - it seems during rush hour!
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(Only way to handle the cacophonous noise and adrenalin needed was to banish any passengers to the back, and put Little Feat on the stereo cranked up LOUD. Get in the mood); some Chinese cities (where the other truck drivers, unlike the rest of Asia, unnervingly don’t give an inch); and various South American capitals I don’t recall being too scary. Oh, and driving articulated trucks through French and Italian cities looking for obscure addresses in the older parts of town – down busy streets designed for ass and cart! - was at times ‘interesting’. How bad could Cairo be?

Cairo Entrance
The last 100 kms to Cairo was on a new concrete six-lane freeway, hardly used. A car approached coming the opposite direction, not too fast granted - in the outside lane of my side of the freeway! He obviously needed to turn off before there was an off-ramp on the other side that suited him. Shaking my head and smiling to myself self-righteously, I saw this as a metaphor for Egypt - it doesn't matter how much is spent on modern infrastructure and faster cars and internet access if attitudes aren't changed. Now the lesson I
should have learned from the incident is simply that Egyptian drivers drive by different road rules!

Which began to seep in as the city got nearer and the traffic busier. I had vaguely hoped this new freeway might continue its route following the Nile, and deposit me handily within striking distance of my destination in the city (“
Ah yes, the next off-ramp is Zamalek. That’s me.”) I was in the outskirts of Cairo. Large factories and cement works, quarries and huge housing estates of tatty, unplastered apartment blocks began to fill any available patch of land. Foolishly I followed a sign indicating ‘Cairo’ and, realizing too late, found myself now away from the relative simplicity and steady progress of the freeway, in the real world of traffic lights, cars jockeying for position, street-hawkers dodging between them, honking horns... and needing directions. I was keen to get to the city before darkness. Oh, and of course it was perfect time to hit Cairo’s rush hour. I was still about forty kms from the city, but things were stacking up for an interesting ride. I was able to use my GPS to at least show me where the Nile was, and reassuringly what direction I was heading in relation to it.

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Lanes seemed merely a suggested direction, ignored by drivers. The traffic was going at a fair pace, weaving in and out and across. I needed two sets of eyes, and couldn’t know what was happening behind me all the time. A few occasions coming at speed out of nowhere a car would zip by inches from my pannier. Others would decide to change course without warning and cut right across me. And everyone was at it, not just a few rogue cowboys. It was not possible to ride safely in passive mode, the only thing to do was be confident, and forge through myself. At intersections or forks in the road, I kept heading north, keeping the Nile on my left. Easier said than done when the roads all wanted to veer off in an easterly direction. I was now riding to the east of the city! Eventually I took an opportunity to turn around and dived into the city’s interior in an attempt to get across to the by now distant Nile.

These congested streets presented different challenges. The primary one was direction – constant junctions presented choices (and little time to consider them!). With a mixture of ‘going with the flow’ and trying to keep heading towards the Nile I gradually made my way across Cairo. Like most cities in Africa, the slightest gap was an invitation, so you had to keep tight. The advantages of two wheels however are also the same as in other cities, able to make quicker progress in the jammed traffic.

Arrival - Landing on my Feet!
Finding a slight space to pull over, I was asking a man for Zamalek. A wizened Egyptian in his late fifties, stringy grey hair under a German 2nd world war-style helmet I’d passed ten minutes earlier on an easy-rider style Shadow, a 250cc Japanese bike, pulled up, heard Zamalek and gestured for me to follow him. He set a brisk pace, weaving through the rush-hour traffic, with me struggling to keep up. After leading me a little further towards my destination he turned back, waving me on. Once I got into the swing of it, it wasn't too difficult to feel part of this stop-start choreograph, a revving, throbbing mass of combustion and movement. Car drivers were less adversaries now, rather 'we're all in this together' (no tolerance for incompetent actors though!) Through accidental luck and shouted barks of “
Zamalek” through drivers windows, I finally found myself crossing the Nile as darkness fell, peeling away from the traffic into a fuel station and phoning Matt. I was within a few minutes of my estimated time of arrival, and a few minutes from his apartment!

I had left Hurghada, 600 kms away, early that morning against a headwind up the Red Sea coast, cut inland through the desert to spend a few hours in St Antony’s monastery where I found no hospitality, and made it through the hectic city of Cairo. Any fleapit would have done after that long day, somewhere to take off my riding gear, have a wash, not have to worry about the security of my bike. But I had struck lucky. Zamalek is a seriously upmarket area, and very European in appearance. Different national flags indicated foreign embassies on every block I passed. Matt, a friendly regular guy, was a Princeton boy I subsequently learned, spending a semester at the American University of Cairo. His father part-owned a bank that did business in Cairo, and had sorted out his son’s accommodation. Not the usual idea one might have of a student's 'digs' but a 21st floor luxury suite in a hotel on the Nile.

The light breeze at this altitude kept the evening temperature pleasant, as I relaxed on the balcony a cold beer in hand, looking over the Nile across the huge spread of Cairo at night, the faint sounds of the city traffic rising from far below. On Matt’s insistence we were going to eat at a good restaurant locally (“Hey man, I’m so impressed with your website, it's my pleasure. Anyway, its on my dad’s credit card.”), with the prospect later of meeting up with some pals to attend an Egyptian wedding. I tried to keep some kind of a rein on the big grin stretched across my face. I had ridden down the west side of Africa as far as I could go to Cape Town, turned around and now had made it up the other side of the continent to Cairo. Was this reception here some kind of little reward?! Sometimes I land on my feet.

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