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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Egypt Part 1 - Aswan, Abu Simbel, Felucca on the Nile, Kom-Ombo & Edfu Temples.

Well...this one’s going to be a bit of an epic. Have many other stories of Biblical proportions come out of Egypt before?  We were here from 11th November up until 10th December and were kept busy the whole time. I think this one may have to come in 4 or 5 parts. You'd better get your reading glasses on and find yourself a comfy chair...

The morning the boat sailed into Aswan from Wadi Halfa was a beautifully clear and sunny one. As the ferry docked, there was the usual hustle and jostle as people all seemed to be in a hurry to get out (despite there being about two more queues to get through after this one. I love Africa and most of the things about it...but if there’s one thing that this trip has taught me, it’s that Africans could get places a lot quicker if they formed orderly queues.) All us boys took the necessary precautions and got shoulders primed for barging and simultaneoulsy keeping the other bargers at bay. I was getting “The People’s Elbow” ready to deliver some blows when a guy carrying a massive tv on his shoulders carved a way through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. We all scurried along in single file behind him.

Sunrise in Aswan and most of our crew are still catching z's.

First call to prayer of the day.
Homeless & Kimbo (aka Posh & Becks)

Thar she blows!!!

Back on dry land we all gave a cheer as we caught a glimpse of Roxy on her barge before making our way through customs and passport control. Outside we were met by armies of cab drivers and money exchangers that wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Cab guy #1 “Taxi?”

Me: “No, thanks.”

2 metres later...

Cab guy # 2 “Taxi?”

Me: “No, thanks.”

Cab guy #3: (stood right next to Cab guy #2) “Taxi?”

Me: “???Look! I just said no to him, who’s stood right next to you – why would I suddenly say yes to you.”

(It would have been funny if I did say "Oh, yeah, alright then." to that last guy in a humble, everyday Englishman, Eric Idle kind of way.)

We had an excuse to barge through them quickly as Marjane had sorted out transport for us to get to our hotel whilst he sorted the various bits and pieces and papers for Roxy. We pulled up at “Hathor Hotel” in the central part of Aswan and were instantly impressed. Rooms and room buddies were allocated (I was sharing with Rob D and Yoich) before we went on to explore the hotel and the town. 

Amazingly, the hotel had a pool on the roof terrace (which was about 6 storeys up) so Homeless, Kimbo and I wasted no time in getting wet. What a view it was up there too. I could have spent all day just watching the feluccas tacking up river into the wind as the others zoomed down in a straight line with the wind behind them...but we had a town to go explore.

View of the Nile from our room in the Hathor Hotel.

Roof terrace and pool!

The Nile view from the roof terrace - Movenpick hotel on the far bank.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Oh, sh1t. I wish I had stayed in the pool: the whiff of the traditional tourist crowd hit us like a wet Nile perch to the face. Coaches everywhere; bad tattoos on sunburnt and crinkly skin; ill-fitting Umbro shorts; t-shirts from previous package holidays (think “Isle of Majorca” with the intended double entendre) and caps with “humourous” slogans on them. Given the cultural and historical nature of the destination (as opposed to a clubbing scene), the Blue Rinse Brigade put out a solid contingent too... 

As if that wasn’t enough, the locals drove us crazy with their incessant pestering to buy this and that, to go on such and such an excursion or to come inside their shop. (“Looking costs nothing, my friend” was a popular line.) In fairness, it wasn’t THAT bad and most of us took it all in our stride...but this was only our first day in Egypt. 

The next day was ours for doing more exploring of the souqs, more bartering for local curios, more chilling out, more emailing or more blogging. That night we got comfy in our REAL beds with proper clean pillows, bedsheets and mattresses...but not too comfy as we had to be up and ready by 3am so a minibus could take us about 250km or so back down to the temples at Abu Simbel – we’d seen the light show from the ferry on our way to Aswan, but now we were to see it up close and in the daylight.

I hate mornings at the best of times but 3am was painful. Then there was the waiting around which we’ve grown accustomed to on this trip whenever we do excursions...never trust local transport! After about a half hour wait we finally got on the minibus, and joined a convoy of coaches filled with Vera Lynn’s fan club and Hilda Ogden look-a-likes. The convoy was the Egyptian authorities’ way of showing that they are taking measures to safeguard against terrorism attacks which have taken many lives and threatened Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry in recent years. Once all the vehicles' underbellies had been checked for explosives, we were on the road...

We arrived at Abu Simbel at about 7am and immediately took off to do some exploring as we were told by our driver that we only had 2 hours.  I was pretty grumpy and just kind of loitering around pretending I was interested when all I could think about was my bed. I soon snapped out of this when I got to the actual temples. The first and most famous of the temples was the iconic “Great Temple” (dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun the three Egyptian deities at that time). It was an unbelievable looking monument on an impressive scale. You can only wonder how the Ancient Egyptians managed to accomplish such feats... (I’m sure any amateur Egyptologist could probably tell me). The second temple (“The Small Temple” or, more appealingly “The temple of Hathor and Nefertari” ) was just as captivating, but on a smaller scale.

What was even more impressive was the painstaking project undertaken in the 60’s to move these two temples brick-by brick to a new location in a man-made mountain only 200 metres away. The reason? The construction of the Aswan High Dam

From one architectural feat to another: the Aswan High Dam was built to manage the annual Nile floods and help sustain surrounding farmlands. The lake that was formed as a consequence (Lake Nasser) would have put the Abu Simbel temples about 65 metres underwater had they stayed in their original site. 

The project to relocate the Temples took about 4 years to complete and cost about $40 million dollars. But the thousands of visitors the site gets every day of the year must be going at least some way to pay for it. I’m sure the Egyptian Tourist Authority are very glad this project was approved all those years ago. As am I...I thoroughly recommend this place, early morning visits are advised to avoid the heat and the crowds (just make sure you get some quality sleep beforehand).

(No photography allowed inside the temples by the you'll see from the below. Apparently it used to be just flash photography disallowed but they've recently got stricter - some of our guys tried a few sneaky internal shots but were quickly shutdown by the man...fight the power.)

"The Great Temple” - dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun.

Jules, Ish & Jen aka The Bangles.

I'm awesome.

God-damn you Le Caros...ruin (no pun intended) it for all of us.

“The Small Temple” aka “The temple of Hathor and Nefertari

We all slept for most of the journey back and tried our best to muster some party energy – it was Son’s 30th today and we’d planned to dress-up as Arabs and get stinking drunk like most good Arabs do... Oh, right. Yeah. The whole Muslim thing.

We spent the afternoon hunting for this season’s most popular Arab street fashion (like keffiyehs and jellabiyas) and we also made a mission for beer which was surprisingly hard to find (even though it’s legal). Eventually we got lucky at a small newsagent/cornershop type store where the owner had – no word of a lie – a secret compartment for beers in his fridge. I think the going rate after a good bit of haggling was about 12 Egyptian pounds per beer but we got him down to 10 since we were buying 30 of them.

That night we all became Sheikhs and characters from Arabian/1,001 Nights and headed for the roof terrace. On a side note, I actually stole a copy of this legendary book from the “library” at the Ashanti Guesthouse back in Cape Town (sorry Ashanti!) and Berbs has been reading it recently, narrating some of the more interesting snippets aloud from the seat behind me on drive days on the truck. There are all the famous stories in there like Sinbad, Alladin, Ali Baba & The Forty Thieves and there are some lesser-known ones that are just as entertaining too. For this evening’s Arabian soiree, I took the name of “Abu Hassan” - the protagonist in a hilariously unfortunate short story (honestly, read it here. It's awesome.). Some people believed the name was apt for me.

On the roof we had some take-away pizza (which Son had organised for her own birthday), a few drinks, a few group shots and forced some vodka watermelon down the birthday girl before the early morning start caught up with us. Thankfully, as I got up from talking with the likes of Sheikh Felafel and Sheikh Nbake, I didn’t suffer the same misfortune as the fabled Mr Hassan (you have to read the story to get that).

Japanese Sheikh-Away.

Queen Nefertitties and Sheikh Ya Booty.

Ejits in Egypt. CW from L: Spence, Kyle, Gab, Berbs, Hendrik, Kenj, Saffer Rob, Rob D, Ish, Jen, Jules, Pat, Yoich, Alli, Ronaldo, Son, AK, Kay & Kimbo.

Birthday girl drinking the vodka watermelon.

The next day was another for exploring but by now we were all worn out with the constant fending off of people selling things we weren’t interested in and the draining process of bartering with people selling things we WERE interested in. Like most people, I actually enjoy a good, friendly barter but when it’s everyday over anything as trivial as a can of coke or chocolate bar, it gets tiresome quickly. When you don’t barter, you can’t help but feel like you paid way above what you should have. 

When it gets too much, there’s always a good “coffee and a sheesh” waiting to be had. I have a sheesha pipe (i.e. hubbly bubbly/hookah/nagile) at home (bought in Dubai airport a few years ago) and use it occasionally, but Sudan kicked it all off again for me on this trip... and it’s part of the Arab culture I really enjoy: The laidback, ”watch-the-world-go-by” kind of mellow attitude that accompanies the sheesha and the sheesha dens is unbeatable. If you’ve got company, you can put the world to rights over a good sheesha and Turkish-style coffee. All of this to the soothing sound of the water bubbling in the water jar at its base. When not blogging, I can be found on the end of a sheesha pipe with the usual cohorts: Skommelers Episodes 1 and 2, Son and Berbs. If it’s at a bush-camp we use the truck sheesha (bought towards the start of the trip in Rabat, Morocco) where Gabs, Marjane, Homeless and Kimbo normally join in too. Good times.

The healing power of sheesha...I spotted this cool cat on the way into Edfu.
The morning of November 15th arrived and it was time for us to hop on to a felucca for two and a half days. We said goodbye to Yoichi, Gabarone, Marjane, Berber and Skommel Brothers Episodes 1 and 2 as they were taking Roxy on the road to Luxor where we’d be meeting them at the end of our felucca trip.

After the usual unnecessary hanging around for the trip to start (as the boat owner and skipper babbled on about something with each other and with neighbouring boat owners) we finally set sail up the Nile. We had the skipper and the deck-hand/chef. All meals were included and the covered deck was made up of mattresses which were assembled together to look like one giant mattress. This area acted as our super-comfy seats by day and beds by night. No touts. No other tourists (except for on the occasional other boat that past too far away to care about). No worries. It was great. 

Lying down and taking it all in.

This was my view for the best part of two days.

Me and my ginger beard could get used to this.

Feluccas tacking against the wind.

Give me a felucca over one of these cruisers any day.

At about mid-day we picked up Kay (who had started a felucca trip the day before with the added perk of spending a night in a Nubian village) and not long afterwards we stopped off on a small beach for lunch. It’s fair to say that that afternoon the only energy any of us spent was in getting a beer (we stocked up the Esky beforehand!) or raising our heads slightly if somebody spotted something of note.

Kenj (aka Hawaiian Brian) goes for a lunch-time swim.

The captain, the deck-hand and the lady they look after.

The gang enjoying lunch on the felucca.

Paddy & Ish playing a heated game of scrabble as Homeless raises a beer.

Jen & Jules (they're lesbians! - Ish said to put that in).
Sailing under a low bridge.

Yep - that's the bridge we just went under.

The Kenj - looking somehwere between P.I.M.P. and George The Hofmeister Bear.

Paddy & Homeless - shooting the breeze, in the breeze.

The first night we moored up on the shores of an island and Abdullah (the captain) took everybody off to have food in a local village whislt Son and I stayed behind with the deck-hand. We’d been kind of jaded by the number of ‘cultural village trips’ we’d been on throughout the Trans: Most of them have turned out to be badly organised, thinly-veiled and drawn-out attempts of getting yet more money out of tourists. For every honest “community” trip like the orphanage and education projects Laraldo and co. took part in back in Uganda or the village dinner in Malawi, there are countless others like the pygmy trip at Lake Bunyonyi (also Uganda) and the voodoo tour in Benin which prove to be disappointing and anticlimactic or just a waste of time, energy and money. Besides, it was too relaxing just chilling out on the felucca under the moonlight, listening to the river lapping against the sides and letting the deck-hand (I forgot his name) tell us stories of his experiences in the Egyptian army and his countless conquests with foreigners as a result of his job on the boat.

A few hours later, the guys returned from the village (reports suggest we didn’t miss out on much) and, after making sure “the snorers” (Kay, Kenj and Pat) were grouped in a corner,  we clambered into our sleeping bags only to be lulled to sleep by the ever-so-subtle rocking of the boat on the river’s current.

The next morning we rose with the sun (it would have been poor form not to, considering the display she put on for us) and bathed in the Nile...Homeless and me jumped in from the side of the felucca (well, the deck-hand pushed me in). I won’t bore you with how relaxing the rest of the day was (we did nothing but lie down, talk crap, go for the occasional swim, drink beer and eat amazing food cooked up by the deck-hand with minimal supplies and resources). There was a very cool stop half-way through the morning where most of us relived our diving experiments from Lake Bunyonyi – "The Penguin" never fails to be a crowd-pleaser! This swim stop doubled-up as a toilet stop (Number ones only, please!!! If you get what I mean.)

We did all of this in spite of every guidebook telling you not to because of bilharzia in the area... When we were reunited with ‘The Fam’ (passengers from the west coast leg of the trip) in Bahir Dar (Ethiopia) they broke the news to us that Neal and Squirt had been treated for bilharzia when they reached Cape Town...this surprised us as coming down the west they avoided swimming most of the time whilst the rest of us jumped right in. With this in mind, (plus the blood in my urine a few weeks earlier in Sudan), I figured I already had bilharzia so a little swim in the Nile wouldn’t hurt.

if we don't get Bilharzia, we might get his lesser-known brother, Martin Harzia.

Me & Kay

As the sun set, the boat moored up in the shelter of a sandbar and me and Homeless had one last swim for the day before a candlelit dinner for 15 on the felucca. All meals were included in the trip fee and not once did the chef fail to impress us. Tonight was no different. After a dessert of fresh fruit we entertained ourselves with numerous games (e.g. Allison and Spence knew a game – no doubt from their teaching – where you count to 20 randomly as a group without saying the same number as anybody else or saying more than one number) and riddles (e.g. the usual “it was a man standing on an ice block” suicide) to keep us occupied. Somebody also suggested “would you rather?” where you pose two situations (usually obscene or debauched) and get an insight into people’s characters from their responses. This went down a very rapid downward spiral into depravity. For example: “to have loved and had your heartbroken or... to have never loved at all” was an early one (no doubt from one of the girls) and in the later stages we had “the best-looking partner you could ask for, but sexually abstinent or...a minging slut” (you can put money on that one coming from one of us fellas).

After a sound night’s sleep and quick swim to wake up, we had a short boat ride to where our minibus was waiting for us and, after waving goodbye to Kay (who enjoyed the trip so much she decided to stay on for the return journey to Aswan), we shot off to Luxor via the towns of Kom Ombo and Edfu for some temple viewing.

We reached Kom Ombo after an hour or so and most of us chose to just wonder around the outside of the actual site of the “Temples of Sobek and Haroeris” rather than pay the 30 Egyptian pounds to go in. Ok, I know that’s only about 5 USD at today’s rate, but I think we were a little put out that the fee wasn’t included in the felucca trip (given that it was “marketed” to us as part of the package). Besides, we could see a lot of the temple from the outside and the site wasn’t a massive one. After monument overkill in Ethiopia and Sudan, I was starting to choose my ancient religious sites wisely.  

These two little dudes were calling me Ali Baba because of my beard.

The temple at Kom-Ombo from outside the walls.

After 30mins wondering around here we had another couple of hours drive before pulling up at Edfu. We all knew instantly that we’d be happy forking out for this one (entrance fee was 50 Egyptian Pounds or 8.53 USD at time of writing). The site was huge and our driver had only given us an hour to walk around it and take it in. I have to admit at this point I was disappointed in myself for not going into the temples at Kom Ombo and more disappointed in myself for being so ignorant when it comes to Egyptian history. We can’t expect to know everything about everything but how did I not know more about such a rich and fascinating cultural past? I’m not going to even try and steal some factoids from Wikipedia to insert here and pretend I knew what all this awe-inspiring architecture was about.

The Temple of Horus at Edfu.

Homeless & Kimbo heading into the main temple.

Hieroglyphics at the gate of the temple.

Homeless doing what Homeless does best.

The "barque" in the sanctuary at the centre of the temple.

Watch out for lil' scrotes like this when going inside the temple - they seem innocent enough but they're everywhere there's a pocket to picked.

Despite the tight anti-terrorism measures, Abu Simbel had blown me away and now the sheer size and scale of Edfu was doing the same. I spent ages pondering the chambers, statues and hieroglyphics of the main temple and vowed to perhaps study Egyptology when I got home (aka buy “The Ancient Egyptians for Dummies” from Amazon when I get home...erm, shouldn’t that be “The Ancient Egyptians for Mummies”?). I took so long in there that I had to scamper back (with my camera bouncing around my neck) thinking I might have missed the bus.

We pulled into Rezeiky Camp in Luxor late in the afternoon and met the others who were waiting for us. My dependable sheesha comrades (The Skommel Brothers) already had the pipe going which gave me a good distraction and reason to avoid eye contact with our minibus driver: he must have hung around our camp for about 15 minutes demanding a tip from anybody who’d listen for just doing his job. Tips for doing nothing must be an Egyptian custom as throughout the whole month there, everybody was asking for them regardless of what job they did and how much they’d already been paid officially. Joking (and bitterness) apart, I guess it’s just a sad side-effect of the country’s heavy dependence on tourism over the best part of a century. Like giving sweets and money to village children or feeding animals when on safari, the short-term impact of the tourist seems like harmless, altruistic help, but the long-term effect can be depressing.

Egypt thus far had me polarized: the constant hassles from touts and con-artists were exhausting. Sometimes I wondered if I was just a walking, talking dollar sign. All of us found it frustrating. On the other hand, the felucca sailing was yet another one of my ever-expanding list of trip highlights (so much so that I’d recommend anybody thinking of doing one does it for more nights than just the two – I could have spent a week on it). Additionally, the temples I’d been to were incredible and I was looking forward to seeing more in Luxor...