Our arrival into Egypt came quicker than expected. We had only been on the barge from Wadi Halfa for a few hours when we had to dock and show our passports to the officials - not that they did anything with them. After half an hour or so we were off again cruising up Lake Nasser.
That evening just as our vegetable chilli was ready we moored up for the night. Just a few hours up the lake and the water was so much clearer. We couldn't help ourselves and just had to go for a swim.
The next day we were to witness our first Egyptian temple at Abu Simbel. What a glorious sight. We thought that if this is the standard of what Egypt had to offer then we were in for a real treat. Sadly we weren't able to stop because of customs formalities. People who do visit the temple have to do so by plane and/or ship and our first visions of civilisation were aircraft and the numerous gin palaces that drifted by. We were all envious of the latter because of their bars. We had been in a "dry" country for a month and were gagging for a pint.
By Friday 4th the barge was making really good progress northbound but the air temperature was still 45°C. What else was there to do but swing in the hammock and drink cool drinks. Our ice supply had just about melted but the drinks still cool and welcome. Late that afternoon we reached the Temple of Kalabsha just short of Aswan.
Derek had a look around but we refused to pay the entry and photography fees out of principle because they were charging huge fees for their cans of coke. Ripping off the tourists - but being new in a country we were not yet sure of correct prices. That night we all had a giant cook-up with the leftover food. This was the last night on the boat and I would never have thought that spending a few days on a grotty barge could be such fun.
In the morning we moored at Sadd El Ali port - next to the High Dam just before Aswan. Getting off the barge was another matter! Watching the locals trying to position the barge into a gap that it was obviously not meant for was a little worrying but we all safely made it down the uneven ramps and on to land. The customs man had already briefed us on the costs of entry at this point so we were ready for the big payout at the customs buildings. Here the formalities were straightforward and took about two hours. The passports were stamped and we were temporarily relieved of our carnet and permanently relieved of US$301 for road tax (thankfully we were well aware of all the costs). Our chap then took us to the duty free shop in Aswan - a privilege only allowed on the first day of arrival. We bought a litre of gin for US$10 - Gordons too! We wondered what the customs official would get out of this little excursion - he bought a load of fags on Justin's passport! A no-cost backsheesh at least.
The only camping option was out of town but we all opted for hotel as they are ridiculously cheap. It is not worth getting the tent out. We paid EP20 at the Noorhan Hotel for a twin en-suite room with a fan and breakfast for two per night (less than £4) and were ten minutes walk from the riverside bars and right next to the souq action.
Aswan is a beautiful town. Most of the action can be found on two streets - the Cornish and Market Street. The former runs alongside the Nile, the latter is parallel and is home to stalls by the dozen. Many cruise ships run between Aswan and Edfu and we watched them as we delighted in a cold beer or ten at Emys on the riverfront that evening. Oh a beer - we had waited for this moment for what seemed like years. The temperature in Aswan was much cooler than in Sudan and we were in blissful paradise as we relaxed back and watched the river life pass by. We popped next door to the Aswan Moon for dinner as it had a delicious and extensive menu before taking a stroll down Market Street.
Many travellers had told us about Egypt and had hated it saying that they were hassled everywhere they went. We were ready for hassle at the market but got none of it. Instead we were given freebies and welcomed into their country. There were spice stalls with a larger range than that in Zanzibar. The colours galore were breathtaking. This was the first time I had seen indigo dye and the amazing sight of this blue colour will stay with me forever. It was strange walking through this market as we were not the only white people around any more. There were hundreds of European tourists and it felt quite uncomfortable. Where were all the locals and the local goings on we had become so used to and loved so much? I wanted to shout "go away, this is my trip and all you tourists are spoiling it for me". There is a definite difference between being a tourist and being a traveller you see. We are the latter and tourists do not fit in to the picture. It is very selfish but when you have had Africa practically to yourself and where your interactions are almost intimate it is difficult to let go. Then reality strikes and despite the continental boundaries we are not really in Africa any more - Egypt is just an extension of Europe. The locals consider themselves white and shudder at any mention at association with the black population of Africa!
The next morning we had to be at the police station at 9am to continue the formalities. Our customs man greeted us and did all the work for us while we sat around for four hours and just kept handing over the money. Here is the breakdown:
- EP 1022 - road tax for 7 days to 3 months (EP 122 - transit road tax lasting up to 7 days [3 days if enter in the north])
- EP 40 - insurance (to cover yourself if anyone crashes into you)
- EP 30 - hire of Egyptian number plates (50% refund on return of plates - if you are lucky)
- EP 15 - papers of sorts
- EP 5 - photocopies
- EP 10 - license
- EP 40 - unavoidable backsheesh!
The road tax is pretty nasty at $301 but we wanted to see a bit of Egypt, particularly as we'd spent a load on the barge to get here. It's not all bad though as diesel costs 40 piastre per litre - that's 8p so we could fill up the car for around 7 quid. Hurray! (By the end of our visit to Egypt we realised that it was worth every penny).
That evening we could be found at Emys bar sampling more of the local Stella brew.
In the morning Gordon, Dennis and Aaron were off early to join the 8am convoy to Luxor. They were heading home fast and had opted for the transit visa. Their departure left a bit of a void as we had been travelling buddies for so long. Punda no longer had Comet to play with!
That afternoon we visited the Philae Temple. It is a beautiful place dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. It is necessary to get a boat over to the island where the temple is situated and we struggled to get the boat fee down to the correct amount of EP20. If you have a student card then all the sights are half price. We regretted not buying fake ones in Moi Avenue, Nairobi when we had the opportunity. The carvings, known as 'reliefs', on the temple walls were outstanding. They basically tell a story, mainly of giving gifts to the gods. This was the first opportunity of seeing carved hieroglyphics too and I was astonished by their splendour.
That evening we had a couple of sundowners at Emys with some fellow Brits before partaking in the local tradition of scoffing kushari - a mixture of rice, macaroni, chick peas, lentils, onions, lemon sauce and tomato sauce. Delicious and you get a huge bowl full for EP2.
We had planned to leave Aswan in the convoy the next morning but when morning arrived we couldn't be bothered. Instead we took the local ferry over to the West Bank for 10 piastres each (they tried to charge EP1 but failed!). The view of Aswan from here was much better than the sight of some old ruins we had come over to see. After our hectic morning (ha ha) we fancied a beer and strolled on down to Aswan Moon where we bumped into Derek and there we stayed for the next six hours having a delightful time!
In the morning we packed up and joined the convoy. Since the mass shooting of tourists in Luxor a few years back all tourists now have to travel between major towns in a convoy escorted by tourist police. The convoys leave twice a day so there is little inconvenience but they do travel at speeds that do not suit Pundas level of comfort. We like to cruise along at around 80km/hr and have a look around. Not today - Punda goes rallying. In an hour we were at Kom Ombo where we had a brief visit to the Temple of the Crocodile. Later at Edfu, the site of the Temple of Horus, we were given one hour to look around and get back to the convoy.
The temple was fantastic with fine carvings, pillars and general splendour. It is probably the best preserved one in Egypt. An hour was long enough and we were soon back in the convoy to complete our 250 km journey. The Nile is amazing. The river is wide and edged with date palms and other types of greenery. The houses congregate around the waters edge. Moving away from the river the 'life' becomes more sparse and then beyond about 500m you get desert. It is just a channel of life running through Egypt and you can understand its importance all those thousands of years ago. Until this visit I had always thought of the Nile as being a crocodile infested swampy area.
At Luxor there was even more tourist activity and gin palaces. The town is not as pretty as Aswan and there is only one very pricey restaurant along the river. All available riverside space is taken up by cruise ships. The Fontana Hotel provided us with an air conditioned room with breakfast for EP15 per night which was a bargain and that evening we sampled a delicious Egyptian Meze at Jems Restaurant.
The next day was spent reading about Egypt, its history of the gods and the temples. More kushari followed and at 10pm we met our friends Hussein and Mohammed who were taking us to a sheesha bar. Muslims do not drink alcohol (generally) but regularly partake in late night sheesha smoking sessions. I knew sheesha as 'hubbly bubbly' and basically you breathe in the smoke from some sort of smouldering blocks through this long pipe and water arrangement. The water bubbles as you do so. Everyone is at it and they do it for hours and hours and hours. The locals stay up very late. They tend to start work at 10am, have a siesta for around three hours in the afternoon and work until 10pm then they spend around four to five hours in a sheesha bar - every night. Not for me! But it was good to interact with the locals in such a way.
On Friday 11th we were up early for a tour of the Temple of Karnak before the heat became too intense. Mohammed (from last night) had recently become a tour guide and insisted on showing us around. What a magnificent place. It took many years to build (1300) and was extended upon by various pharoes. The pillars in the Temple of Amun have to be seen to be believed. The reliefs were outstanding and you could see some of the colours of the paintwork. The temples must have been awesome when they were originally built.
Hussein and Mohammed invited us to their shop for lunch and a siesta in the afternoon. Doing things the way the locals do things is so much better than going to the tourist places. We had a lovely afternoon with them followed by an evening of a souq tour (not as good as Aswan), a bit of internet work and another session at the sheesha bar.
The next day was to be a cultural adventure and a day of fascination. The first stop was the Valley of the Kings.
This is where pharoes and their belongings were buried deep into the mountain rock. They were supposedly meant to stay here unfound forever but treasure hunters over the centuries found the tombs and looted them (except that of Tutenkhamun). A ticket costs EP20 and you can see three tombs on one ticket. The tombs are all different but generally have a corridor or circular layout, both types going deep into the ground. The tomb of Thutmosis III was high up in the mountain but once through the door you have to go deep in the rock into various chambers until you reach the burial room. There are chambers which used to house the pharoes treasures and all the walls are painted with depictions of the pharoes life and with hieroglyphic messages. Then there is the sarcophagus itself - a huge granite coffin where the mummified pharoe was placed. In Egyptian beliefs the passage from life to death goes through various stages with beliefs at each stage. It is too lengthy to explain here but is well worth finding out about before visiting Egypt.
The second tomb was that of Ramses VI which was a long corridor type with pictorial stories painted on the sides before reaching the sarcophagus at the end of the tunnel. Sadly the looters had smashed the sarcophagus into pieces. The third and most stunning was the tomb of Amenophis III which was of circular layout. Here the paintings were as if they had just been painted and the sarcophagus was intact. We left the tombs just awe-struck. They are thousands of years old and until you see them it is impossible to imagine the skill and intelligence of this ancient civilisation.
By this time it was getting on and by the time we had visited the Temple of Hatshepsut (the only female ruler - used to dress up as a man and wear a beard!) and the Tombs of the Nobles we'd had all we could take for a day. We didn't have enough time to visit the Valley of the Queens but were told varying stories about their state. Apparently the Tomb of Queen Nefertiti is fantastic but a ticket for ten minutes costs EP100.
That evening we had to say goodbye to Hussein and Mohammed. They kept giving us gifts which left us rather embarrassed.
In the morning we joined the convoy to Edfu then split off from them to travel east to Marsa Alam. Hurray we were free from the convoy and could travel through the desert in our own time. There wasn't a great deal to see until we reached the gleaming Red Sea. Oh, the beach...
Just before we reached Marsa Alam we got another puncture. Ho hum, we were getting fed up of these. Fortunately in town there was a puncture repair place who set to work on it pretty quickly. The inner tube had completely burst and bits of the tyre had rubbed off on the inside which left a rough surface. It is necessary to smooth the inside of the tyre before replacing the tube then use some chalk to prevent friction. Now the other rear tyre had had the same problem in Sudan but there was no chalk available when it was repaired so we decided to take the tyre off here and put some chalk inside. At this point there was a lot of activity going on and a limited amount of intelligence. All we wanted was the tube taken out, some chalk sprinkled in and the tube returned and blown up but they decided to check the tube for punctures. Confusion followed with different people doing different things and the next thing...I watched one of them pick up a splinter of wood from the floor and stab the inner tube with it. I couldn't believe it. They had just punctured the tube and I had watched them do it. It was all so fast and it was the last thing I expected to happen. Then they smiled with glee and announced they had found the puncture and had placed the stick in the tube to mark the site. Aagh, it was a brand new tube and had no puncture.
A big hoo haa followed and suddenly no-one spoke any English any more. At this point Andrew sought out the help of Mohammed - the local policeman. Half the town also turned up to see what was going on. It was pretty difficult until Ahmed came along who spoke brilliant English and acted as our interpreter. Eventually they gave us a new inner tube as we refused a patch knowing very well they cannot stand up to the heat.
Ahmed was very useful for the rest of the day. He did not work and had time to show us around and help us with formalities. He also liked tourists and could practise his English on us. He took us to the 'intelligence' office where they photocopied our details and asked us what we were up to. After a brief visit to a tired vegetable shop we were invited to Ahmeds home for dinner...but we provided the dinner! Time spent in someones home is always a fascinating experience as you get to see how they live and what life is really like. Ahmeds family were very welcoming and Zeneb (mama) showed me how to make chapatis. Later that evening we met Samer at the sheesha bar to discuss scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities on the next day.
After a nights camping outside Ahmeds house we made an early start to Alexander the Great Hotel to see Samer and collect the snorkelling gear. We had decided that $150 per day diving was too expensive on this trip and apparently the snorkelling was excellent anyway. Our first snorkelling experience was along the reef at the front of the hotel. Getting into the water was interesting, particularly as it had been a long time since wearing fins. Soon the waves knocked me over and sent my body grating along the coral. Oh no, don't damage the coral! Oh no, the skin! Oh no, the tan! So with cut stinging bits we had about an hour of snorkelling along the reef once we had managed to get in. SPECTACULAR! Our 1993 diving trip to the Red Sea all came flooding back with the sight of thousands of fish and corals. What a superb sight. The reef was pristine.
A few hours of dozing on the hotel sunloungers followed before another snorkel that afternoon. The reef was just teeming with life - magnificent, magnificent, magnificent.
At kilo 14 (14 km south of Marsa Alam) we found a secluded spot and set up camp for the night. There was no-one round. The sea and the desert and the full moon were all ours and it was wonderful. Watching the scene through the tent window was like watching the Discovery channel on TV.
In the morning we were in the water at the earliest opportunity. Entry onto the reef was very easy and we had a wonderful snorkel. Just as we had got into the water an Eagle Ray swam past. I could hardly contain my excitement - they're beautiful. Afterwards as we tucked into our pancakes we decided to stay here for another day as it was so lovely. The afternoons snorkel was made special by the sighting of a white tipped reef shark.
In the morning the temperature of the water was pretty chilly so we decided to pack up and do a final snorkel at the hotel. However, as we were driving off we saw a beautiful bit of reef and decided to snorkel there. This time the lionfish came out to say hello.
Back at the hotel we had a final snorkel before handing back the kit. What a finale - a pod of juvenile dolphins swam passed and a turtle came to visit. Couldn't have been better. Samer had wondered what had happened to us...and his kit. Then he gave us a 50% discount on the kit hire and offered us jobs as dive guides for a few months. That would have been great if we'd had the time to spare but we had to push on. We did agree to promote his company "ActionSports" as we continued our travels. Currently there is only one hotel in Marsa Alam but more are in the process of being built and ActionSports is the only diving operation. Now is the time to come and dive here. The reef is pristine. This is where the best diving in the Red Sea is to be found.
About an hour up the road we made camp beside the sea in a secluded spot and again watched the delights of the moonlit ocean. The following day was extremely leisurely - in fact, so leisurely we didn't move all day and decided to stay for another night. Without snorkelling kit we were restricted to swimming but basking in the shallow lagoons was lovely. On the reef you regularly see Sergeant Major fish which are yellow and black striped and a bit smaller than the size of your hand. In the lagoon there were baby ones, the size of my thumbnail, which swam around us and nibbled at bits of our skin. They attacked freckles thinking they were some sort of food. It was absolutely amazing and nearly as good as having the monkey in Sudan look for mites in my hair. It is these sort of encounters that you remember forever and are so special.
That evening on the radio the BBC World Service reported famine throughout East Africa. Really!
In the morning we realised that we had been in Egypt for almost two weeks and that we needed to get a wriggle on to see the remainder of the sights. We had planned to drive to an area just north of Hurghada to camp for the night but ended up getting caught up in a convoy in Port Safaga. Oh, back in the land of the convoy. After a few hours of keeping up with the convoy the police escort stopped and everyone else carried on. So much for a convoy to Cairo.
North of Hurghada the coastline is horrible. It is all oil platforms and pipelines. It is not possible to bush camp because the pipes run parallel with, and next to, the road. We arrived in Cairo, unescorted, in the middle of the night and it was chaotic. There were cars everywhere dashing past from all directions. Road rules were clearly absent as were signs. Thankfully the GPS helped us out and by 3.30am we reached Salem Camp in the Giza area only to find it shut. Camping outside the gates was the only option.
Once inside the gates the camp is quite nice. They have all the facilities we needed including cold beers and endless water for all our smelly washing. That evening as the sun was setting Andrew suddenly shouted "hey, there's a pyramid". Wow, there indeed was a pyramid right next to our campsite. So surreal...oh...just parked next to one of the seven wonders of the world and hadn't even realised it. Justin and Andrea turned up. It was good to catch up with them but they reported terrible problems trying to get a visa for Libya.
The following day we were on a mission to get our Libyan visa but the visit to the embassy didn't quite go as planned. They wanted a letter of recommendation from the British Embassy. However the British Embassy no longer issue these letters but will give you a photocopied piece of paper saying such a thing for a fee of EP 66. Despite the fact that this piece of paper says nothing of relevance the Libyan Embassy still insists on having one because quite simply "we need a letter of recommendation from your embassy". Then they want a letter from the Egyptian authorities stating that they are happy to have us in their country temporarily. The one month visa with expiry date apparently doesn't count. So we had to travel to the mougamah at Tahrir Square to be passed from counter to counter to counter speaking to people who hadn't a clue what the Libyan Embassy was on about as they do not issue letters. Then by the time we had got a residency stamp in our passports the embassy had shut.
There was nothing else to do but scoff so we tried an Egyptian pancake, splashed out in Sainsburys (hurray, a proper supermarket - the first one since South Africa) and bought a take-away kushari for dinner that night.
Over the next few days not a lot happened. Our daily visits to the Libyan Embassy was fruitless every time. The story changed on a daily basis and we were having problems getting through to the Embassy in Khartoum who had agreed to forward our details to Cairo. Of course, nothing had been forwarded. We were constantly told to telephone back in to hours to speak to Mr Declary who we had previously been dealing with. We were later to discover that Mr Declary was in Libya which explained why he was never in!
That night we met a very friendly overland truck driver who provides his guests with student cards. He gave us a couple of cards too. You'd never guess they were made in Taiwan or wherever. Despite the incorrect date (valid for next year) you would think it was an authentic ISIC card. Chuffed or what!
On the 21st a taxi driver pulled out of a side road and hit Punda directly in the rear passenger door. With these loony drivers it was inevitable. The Egyptians are the worst drivers in the world and all drive in badly dented cars. When you have an accident here there are two options. One is for the driver at fault to pay off the other driver, the other is to involve the police and make a claim on the insurance. As there was a dispute over who's fault it was (!) we took the latter option and spent few hours doing paperwork. The way insurance works here is that you make a claim on your own insurance, not on the policy of the person who caused the accident. A police report may be made against the driver at fault but this is not likely. It is theoretically possible to smash into cars all day, even to write off a car, without it making any difference to your insurance or driving licence. Lunatic policies or what! So that was that. A report was made and we are left with a dent in the door and a practically impossible task of claiming any money off our temporary insurers in Egypt. A one month policy costing GBP7 is not going to pay out GBP300!
That afternoon we cheered ourselves up by visiting the Egyptian Museum. What an experience that was! It was an even better experience for having got in on our student cards at 50% discount. Having visited the temples and tombs in the south we had some understanding of the 19th-21st dynasties which made the excursion around the museum even more rewarding. The ground floor of the museum is set out in chronological order and we dilly-dallied our way around from the very old section to the less old section. Many sarcophagus, statues, engravings etc etc. Then upstairs there are a number of displays including the treasures of Tutenkhamun. This was the highlight and we kept the best until last. Tutenkhamun became king at the age of nine but died unexpectedly at around the age of 19. Apparently his possessions were few in number compared to what the other pharoes had (which we cannot see as they were stolen from the tombs) but Tuts treasures filled a huge room. What treasures - not what I would chose to have in my home given all that gold and alabaster - but they were fantastic. Photos around the room showed the layout of the tomb when it was discovered with all the treasures in place and here we were looking at all those treasures. People talk about how incredible the display is but when you are there you really have to pinch yourself to prove it is true. Then the best is yet to come. Tut was buried wearing the famous death mask. He was placed inside a solid gold coffin with inlaid semi-precious stones. This coffin was laid inside a gold plated coffin which in turn was inside another coffin. The mummified Tut in the outer coffin remain at the burial site in Luxor.
The coffins were concealed inside three golden coloured boxes of increasing size. Apparently when Tuts tomb was found it took 84 days to work out how to open these boxes. You look at the small one and it is amazing, the second is better and the largest one is big enough to be a garage for Punda.
When the dead body is mummified part of the process involves removing the lungs, intestines, liver and stomach. These are then placed inside four separate containers known as coptic jars. These are stored away from the body and in Tuts case were placed in a compartmentalised box which was guarded by various 'gods'.
The most important treasures at the museum are on display in a separate darkened room where the lighting emphasises the beauty of the collection. We were just about to enter the room when the doors were locked and we were told to leave as they were closing. It was 15 minutes earlier than advertised. Everyone was being kicked out of the museum and no-one seemed to care. The Egyptian officials, being Egyptian, will not listen to any argument as they will not have their authority challenged. There is only one sign advertising times of opening and despite it saying closing time was 4.45pm the officials were escorting everyone out at 4.30pm. We weren't happy! We went directly to the director of the museum, stated we weren't happy and managed to wrangle a private viewing of the treasures.
As you walk in you can feel your bottom jaw getting nearer and nearer to the ground. The first thing you see is the death mask made of solid gold and weighing 11kg. It is stunning and you stare at it until your eyes go dry through lack of blinking. This is probably the most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen. I could have stared at it for the rest of the evening.
Moving around the room there are many pieces of jewellery along with the four coptic jars which are miniature versions of the solid gold coffin. Then there were the two coffins. The larger gold plated one was stunning but the solid gold one was breath-taking. Where did all that gold come from and how on earth was it moulded all those thousands of years ago? Then there were all the semi-precious stones set into it. What a fantastic experience.
It is a strange dichotomy though. Part of you feels sad that the tombs have been opened because after all, they are graves. The thought of those greedy looters makes me really angry. In ancient Egyptian mythology when a pharoe is buried with all his belongings it is all part of the process of moving into the next life. Then 20th century beings come along and destroy all of that. On the other hand, the contents of the last known tomb - that of Tut - were carefully removed and with great dignity and pride are displayed for the world to see. If these tombs had not been found and opened we would not have had such treasures to see nor such an understanding of life (and death) at that time. One thing is for sure and that is these visits to the temples, tombs and treasures of this ancient civilisation has been a life enriching experience in a way I would never have envisaged.
The next afternoon we visited the pyramids at Giza. There are many pyramids around Egypt but the ones at Giza are the most famous for their design and size. It is so strange getting to the pyramid site because you drive along a very busy six lane highway which suddenly ends because you reach a pyramid. It gives a new meaning to the comment 'it's just at the end of the road'. Anyway we bought our tickets using our student cards and had a drive around. A look inside the small one wasn't particularly exciting - just a room at the end of tunnel and a man extracting money out of unwary tourists. Us being 'travellers' gave him nothing! The Sphinx and its surroundings were good to see but it was hard to imagine that when these were built the Nile River was very close. Now it is miles away.
In our usual manner by the time we reached the largest pyramid - the tomb of Cheops - we were too late to go inside. Instead we had a look around the 'solar boat' which is thought to be the boat which transported the mummy of Cheops up the Nile to this tomb. We did get to look inside the pyramid the next morning though. Having a student card means that the prices are so cheap that you can return as much as you like and make hardly a dent in your wallet. Apparently only 150 tickets are sold in the morning and 150 in the afternoon. We got the last two morning tickets and entered the long corridor inside the pyramid. What a phenomenal construction. A long perfectly straight channel takes you up to where you can either follow a level channel to the queens burial chamber or go up further to the kings burial chamber. At this time the chambers aren't very spectacular. I didn't see any carvings and the moisture breathed out by the tourists over the years had probably removed what was left of any paintings. The value of going into a pyramid is to appreciate its construction. Massive perfectly carved boulders weighing tons were precisely aligned next to each other. It is mind blowing to think how these were built without the use of modern cranes.
That afternoon we spent some time at Mervats international calling centre (Central Express) trying to contact the Libyan Embassy in Khartoum. Mervat invited us to stay and have an Egyptian lunch with her. One of her colleagues came out with us to buy some drinks. We were amazed to pay EP3.5 for two bottles when we are usually charged EP4 for one!
In the evening we stocked up with food from Sainsburys, stocked up with a couple of spare inner tubes then had a farewell dinner with Justin and Andrea. We had planned to visit Alexandria while they were going to spend a few days on the beach at El Arish near the Israel border.
We weren't sure if we were going to make it to Alexandria as we drove along the desert highway. None of the garages seemed to have diesel. Fortunately Caltex came to the rescue. Just outside Alexandria a car undertook us in a traffic jam, tried to squeeze through a gap that was obviously too small and took off our door mirror. Aaaggghhhh. You feel like jumping up and down on the heads of these people!!!! So he shrugs his shoulders and basically says ' tough luck mate'. So we involve the local traffic policeman who sends off the guy to go and get the EP100 we demanded. Making a report as we had done with the taxi driver would get us nowhere and we'd be left with a damaged car and an eventual bill. To replace the mirror would cost EP300 but we knew we couldn't ask for that as it is six weeks wages so we asked for EP100 (GBP20 - virtually nothing for us). The policeman asked us to reconsider because he thought that was an awful lot of money but we refused. We had only seen two Discoveries in this country - probably because they cost the equivalent of GBP70,000! It is not difficult to imaging how much a new mirror would be so we were sticking to our position on the compensation. Within a few minutes the man had returned with his boss and EP100. All was then settled.
By late afternoon we reached Alexandria and the Mediterranean. What a poignant moment - WE HAD DRIVEN NORTH-SOUTH THROUGH AFRICA!
There are no camping options in Alexandria so we settled on the New Capri Hotel in the centre of town for EP43 for two including breakfast. This place was full of Egyptian tourists - it's where the locals come for their holidays. We were the only Europeans in sight. Following a beer, an ice cream, a chawarma, a drink from the juice bar and a kushari we had a walkabout around the town and along the sea front. For the first time in months the air had a slight chill to it. The first sign of getting nearer to home.
The problem with being in the centre of town is that the noise does not stop. If you leave the balcony window open you cannot sleep for the noise but if you close the door you cannot sleep for the heat. As the next day was Friday most places were closed but we took a fun tram ride at 20 piastres each (5p) along the coast to the fort. After a few minutes at a ridiculous marine life museum (thought it was the hydro-biological museum but it obviously wasn't) where they exhibited what looked like papier mashe fish we visited the fort. This is on the site of what was Pharos Lighthouse - one of the seven wonders of the world. Now the fort is in the process of being renovated and being improved and extended as a museum. There is not a great deal there at the moment but with history of Napoleonic goings-on it shouldn't be long before the exhibit size increases.
The Mursi Al Alam Mosque was just around the corner. It is the largest one in Alexandria and allows non-Muslims to visit. This was the first mosque we had come across where we could go in. The outside was beautifully decorated. There was one problem though about going in - I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The neighbouring cafe came to the rescue and leant me a couple of table cloths which I used as a skirt and shawl. I looked completely ridiculous and all the locals looked at me a bit oddly. However I got a look inside the mosque although not as extensively as Andrew because women are only allowed in certain parts. I wonder if the cafe had beards to hire? The atmosphere inside the mosque was lovely. Some people were praying, some were chatting quietly to friends and others were sitting around reading the Koran. The carpet design was such that it marked out individual spaces - just right for when everyone is lined up praying.
By the time we'd looked around the mosque it was dark and we walked the long way back to the hotel in search of the bar used in 'Ice Cold in Alex'. A visit to a bar here is strange. As Muslim culture does not allow the drinking of alcohol the bars are really seedy affairs. We supped up quickly and moved on. Needless to say, we couldn't find the bar! The town was lively and away from the tourist areas the locals partook in their famous favourite pastime - sheesha.
The next day was just spent passing time, visiting a few cafes, going for a walk, sending some emails. That night the hotel was so noisy (would recommend that people find a hotel away from the centre) that at 4.30am we left. Drivers of lorries that had broken down on the motorway set fire to the spare tyres to illuminate their lorries to prevent someone going into the back of them. You can see burn marks in the road along its entire length. Why don't they just leave their side lights on? Perhaps it's because they don't have any! It was good getting to Cairo before the traffic became too heavy. After a brief visit to Sainsburys for fresh bread we followed the road to Suez and Sinai.
The Libyan Embassy refused our visa application so our only option was to go to Israel. This wasn't a problem as it fitted in well with our plans for the Sinai.
Sinai is a triangular shape of land (point at the bottom) between the main bulk of Egypt and Israel. It was an area of conflict some years ago but now is stable and thriving. We reached it via a tunnel under the Suez Canal and then drove south along the coast of the Gulf of Suez to Sharm El Sheik on the Gulf of Aqaba. The water surrounding Sinai is the Red Sea and a haven for diving, particularly on the Aqaba side where the desert meets water and the reef drops almost vertically to 2000m below sea level.
Sharm is the biggest resort catering almost solely for diving and is a pretty awful place. It is a concrete jungle with expensive hotels, expensive restaurants and posh dive boats serving the relatively rich fly in tourists. The main harbour area is just overflowing with dive boats. We visited Divers World really just for a gander at the goings on then decided that we could afford $47 each to do two dives off a boat the following day. They lent us the kit for free and reduced the price of a camera hire.
Before arriving in Sharm we had checked out Ras Mohammed. It is a nature conservation area which allows camping, diving, walking your dog etc. for a fee! Camping would have been $15 per night and there are no facilities whatsoever so we decided we'd camp in the desert instead. However, after talking to the people in town we discovered that if you go into the reserve after 6.30pm and exit before 8am there is no one at the gate. Ha ha, this we did and had a beautiful night of camping next to the sea in the Reserve for free! It is funny because whenever you meet people who are travelling for a long period of time they are always looking out for the same things, ie. free camping, 50% discounts using student dodgy tickets etc. It becomes a really exciting challenge and a much debated subject, but only providing no individual is at a loss. You also get a great deal of satisfaction from it, particularly as you know you get charged higher prices because you are a tourist, or because you have to pay over $300 for road tax.
Anyway after a lovely nights sleep in the tent surrounded by silence we were ready for a day of diving. It is so easy when you book onto these dive boats. You don't have to carry kit or tanks, just get on the boat and everything is ready for you. Now having been on the trip for almost 17 months and before that spending a couple of years preparing for it we hadn't been diving for almost four years. Oh, a long time. Never mind because we were diving with a group who had just flown in and had had one hours sleep that night! A shallowish warm up dive was planned. A shallowish warm up dive was not quite what happened. Straight in and down to 21 metres which is not far if you have built up over a couple of days but not really a good idea on your first go in ages. With being on a guided dive you are pretty restricted as to what you can do about it and I certainly wasn't going back up. Anyway after 50 minutes we returned to the boat. The dive was quite nice but we were astounded at the state of the corals. First, there weren't many of them and second they didn't seem very well.
Our three hour surface interval was very enjoyable. Sitting in the sun, having a bit of scoff and a doze. Lovely. Then it was time to dive again. This time we went to an area known as 'paradise'. We had dived this site before in 1993 and I was eager to compare the findings. Again a 50 minute dive with a maximum depth of 21 metres. There was more to see on this dive and we snapped away with the camera. The coral was so different though to last time. Perhaps my memory has rosy spectacles but the live coral population seemed only to be around 15-20% of what it was and the fish were practically non-existent. Corals are very susceptible to environmental changes and only live in areas where light, temperature and food supply is constant. Now, I don't think that any of these have changed and the only explanation I can think of as to why the coral population has reduced and why the existing life looks so tired is because of the existence of the boats. There is very little evidence of physical coral damage but the boat diesel must be affecting the corals. There are so many boats it is unbelievable. Having spent a couple of months on a reef conservation project some years ago I was very disappointed by what I saw. These reefs take years and years to heal.
That night we camped in the desert. There are many mountains in Sinai and when the sun sets you get a layered appearance with the colours of the mountains changing gradually from dusky pink to dark grey. A couple of local Bedouins passed by on their camels and greeted us. Lovely - no hassle. The silence here made my ears hurt!
On the 29th we arrived in Dahab and spent most of the day walking along the beach front seeking out a hotel. When we were last here Dahab was a small village and well known as a hippy hang out. This was where you came to lie on mattresses next to the beach and smoke sheesha by candle light. This was where you bought your tie-dye stuff and just hang out for days at a time. Seven years on we were delighted to find that the culture hadn't changed although Dahab was now a town and there are many hotels and eateries. It is a wonderful place. Hang-out cafes with colourful mattresses and cushions now line the beach and a pedestrianised area separates them from the hotels, the more expensive eating houses and the henna tattoo stalls. This is a great place to end your visit to Egypt.
We settled on the Dolphin Camp for EP34 including an all you can eat buffet breakfast. The owner, Magdi made us very welcome and we took photos of the place for his website. Dahab is such a laid back place it is like being on another planet. People come here for one of three reasons - to hang out, to dive, or to do both. On the first night we just walked about, tried some Sahleb - a local custardy drink with nuts of sorts added. It was absolutely lovely laying back on the mattresses with the wind blowing gently, the sound of the sea, the colourful lights along the beach (only about 300m long) and the feeling that you could easily stay here forever.
The next day we did pretty much the same. Just sitting in bars reading a book can never get better than this and quickly this beach-life becomes addictive. Whilst sitting at one of the cafes we looked across the Gulf of Aqaba and realised that the mountains we could see on the other side about 13 km away belonged to Saudi Arabia. Another poignant moment - this was the first country to be seen that wasn't in Africa. The visions of looking at Africa from Gibraltar came back along with the feelings of anticipation at the time. Suddenly we felt sad - the end of Africa was only a few days away.
The next day we did pretty much the same! With one exception. We hired some dive kit from the Nessima Dive Centre and managed to wrangle an unguided night dive. Egyptian authorities are strict on their diving rules (no deeper than 30m, no decompression diving, no diving outside designated areas, no night diving other than in certain areas at certain times with certain people) so we considered ourselves very privileged. Having a diving instructor qualification certainly proved to be useful. So we plonked into the water along the reef near the hotel for a pootle about at around 10m for an hour or so. We really regretted not bringing our dive computers with us. It was a lovely bit of reef but my hired torch had too much of a narrow beam for my liking and only illuminated a small bit of reef at a time. At night the fish that are awake have really big eyes and you feel bad when you directly catch them with the light. Instant blindness! Then there are the day fishies asleep and they lie on their side in the corals, probably snoring. It is so peaceful diving at night and often the sea conditions are calmer than in the day. Even the sea here is laid back!
The 1st September was the day of two excellent dives. Again we went off on our own to dive 'the blue hole' and 'the canyon'. On the first dive we jumped in at the area known as Bells and followed the crack in the rock down to 27m and emerged from the rock face via an arch. Below you is 2000m of increasingly blue darkness. Then we followed the vertical reef in a gradually ascending manner to around 8 metres where there is a spectacular garden. In fact, the whole of this reef here was spectacular. There is a gap in the corals which you swim over to reach the blue hole - a hole of over 100m depth. There is not a massive amount to see around the edges of the hole but it was good to have dived this famous site. It is a strange place to go though - a divers grave yard. Apparently there are a few caves at 95m and there are a few divers who regularly dive to this depth. When we were coming out we saw one man go in with a twin set (don't know what gas but the tanks looked like air tanks - crazy at those depths) and a couple of nitrox cylinders. There was no buddy in sight. Given the number of memorial plaques around the site I think he would have problems finding someone to dive with him. What is at the bottom remains unknown - apart from the bodies in full dive kit!
A three hour lounge about (necessary dive interval) followed before we moved on to the canyon. It is another famous site and is certainly worthy of its reputation. Our dive involved following the reef at around 24m until reaching a crack in the side of the rock. You go into the crack - it is jagged and not very wide but once inside it opens up into a cave and has its floor at 31m. It is not a true cave because there is a hole directly above you or a channel through which you can enter the next compartment known a the 'fishbowl'. We went out through the hole and entered the fishbowl from two other angles. Andrew went in and then a lionfish blocked my way. I wasn't arguing with that so took a different route in. The fish bowl is a domed rock construction with three jagged entries and it is full of glass fish. At 19m you could spend ages there. The dive was fantastic and the reef just lovely. It was healthy and there were fish galore. It is interesting that there is very little boat diving done here.
Saturday followed and Dahab wouldn't let us go. We didn't have to be out of Egypt until midnight on Sunday so we decided to stay for another day. We headed off to the Lagoona where you find all the expensive hotels and the windsurfers for hire. Andrew hired a board and went out to tackle the wind. I just read in the sun because the wind was far too strong for me. That night was our last in Dahab and we treated ourselves to a fish dinner on the seafront.
The next day was very sad indeed. We didn't want to leave. Driving up the coast towards Taba along the Red Sea was so difficult. We had to stop at a cafe for a serious discussion about staying for longer. We had the visas and could stay for another two months working in the dive centres. It would have been easy but then we decided on the sensible option - it really was time to get on home.
Oh the water was beautiful. There were huts on the beach and dolphins swimming around as we drove by. We forced ourselves to push on to the border at Taba where we had to pay to get the carnet stamped and had to pay to check in the number plates. The expected 50% refund for plate rental didn't quite materialise as this is not allowed if you return the plates to a border where you don't collect them apparently. The staff were mostly unfriendly and the duty free prices high but soon we were over the border.
|Captain Happy - They were quite funny in a grumpy sort of way||Skylight in Philae Temple||Temple of Horus at Edfu||Horus standing guard||Pyramid police|
|Jacs with the sphynx and pyramids||Punda posing with the great pyramid||Cheops Pyramid||Colossus||Stupid taxi driver. My fault really I should have honked because they don't look|
|Andrew playing in the wind||Jacs playing on the beach||Top pancake breaky at the Dolphin camp||Relaxing in wonderful Dahab|
There is beer here..it's expensive but it's here.
There are many street vendors selling bread (eshe) filled with felafel, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers and various hot mixtures. They are lovely and should sell for EP0.5 but any price up to four times that amount has been requested.
There are many restaurants selling a variety of international dishes.
The local food is middle eastern and is delicious.
Kushari bars selling macaroni, rice, tomato and onion mixtures are common. They are delicious and very cheap at EP3 for a giant portion.
Sahleb is a thick drink and tastes a bit like custard. It is mixed with coconut, nuts and sultanas and topped with banana - yum, yum
|via cargo ferry from Wadi Halfa||Noorhan Hotel|
|Luxor||via Kom Ombo and Edfu Temples||Fontana|
|Marsa Alam||no convoy!||Beach camping|
|Cairo||Egyptian Museum||Salem Camp|
|Alexandria||Mursi Mosque||New Capri Hotel|
|Sharm El Sheik||avoid if you can!||Ras Mohmmed|
Other travellers told us that the Egyptians were overbearing and a complete nuisance. We have found them to be very friendly and welcoming providing you spend time chatting to them.
Diesel is 8 pence per litre.
Egyptian drivers are the worst in the world. A few driving tips:
- drive down one ways in the wrong direction
- overtake and undertake as you feel like it
- don't turn on car lights becuse it saves electricity (battery later connected to TV)
- ignore all red traffic lights
- you must use your horn at all times and pull out in front of anyone at any time.
Egyptian car insurnce covers you and not the other person as it does in the UK. If someone crashes into you then you claim off your own insurance. It is preferable to negotiate a fee there and then to cover damage costs but be prepared to accept a lot less than the dmage will actually cost to fix in the UK as Egyptian wages are low in comparison.
If you need to extend your visa or obtain a residency stamp in your passport then go to the mougamah on Tahrir Square in Cairo or the passport office in Alexandria. It takes about an hour and costs around GBP2 per person.
Trying to gt a Libyan visa from Cairo is painful. You need a letter of recommendation from your embassy. The UK Embassy no longer issues these recommendations but will give you a photocopy of a note saying that letters are no longer issued. This photocopy costs over GBP10, is completely useless but the Libya Embassy insists on it. You also need a residency stamp in your passport. Then you wait and wait and wait and wait...and then get refused !!
Bring a student card as the sites are half price which can make a significant different to your budget.
Diving in Marsa Alam - Aquasport based at Alexander the Great Resort. See Samer or Jorg. ActionSport@MarsaAlam.com or www.MarsaAlam.com or tel. 00 20 195 100271/2/3.
For diving in Sharm El Shiek - Divers World.
For diving in Dahab - Nessima Dive Centre.
Beware of closing times at famous sites. They often close earlier than advertised, especially if the man in charge decides he has had enough for the day.
Philae Temple N 24° 02' 133 E 032 53' 209 Tyre repair N 24° 05' 082 E 032° 53' 940 Traffic Police N 24° 05' 013 E 032° 54' 511 Noorhan Hotel N 24° 05' 866 E 032° 54' 103 Edfu Temple of Horus N 24° 58' 776 E 032° 52' 391 Marsa Alam Bush camping site + snorkelling N 24° 58' 963 E 034° 56' 825 Excellent snorkelling site N 24° 58' 630 E 034° 56' 631 Alexander the Great Resort (Aquasport) N 25° 13' 868 E 034° 47' 886 Bushcamping site north of Marsa Alam N 25° 22' 924 E 034° 43' 010 Cairo Central Express N 29° 59' 653 E 031° 09' 679 Salem Camp N 29° 58' 206 E 031° 10' 622 Sainsburys N 30° 00' 031 E 031° 10' 259 Libya Embassy N 30° 03' 591 E 031° 13' 149 Mougama - for residency stamp N 30° 02' 679 E 031° 14' 133 Landy Garage N 30° 04' 673 E 031° 00' 058 Sharm El Sheik Divers World N 27° 51' 497 E 034° 16' 822 Ras Mohammed camping area N 27° 47' 339 E 034° 13' 483 Desert camp N 28° 05' 060 E 034° 16' 564