Along the Nile
..a narrow green strip of arable fields of the Nile Valley
Cruising the Nile. Egypt. Luxor to Aswan.
May 17th - May 24th 2010
We pass a memorable landmark today, with this, our 100th blog, sitting on the Nile - watching the scenery float by.
Agatha Christie may have painted a worrying picture of cruising on the Nile, but it's not quite all doom and gloom.
Iceland might still be sending clouds of volcanic ash over Europe creating chaos in the air, but fears of flight delays melted away just two hours before our flight booking-in time. So, it's not all gloom and doom.
England scored a resounding win over the Aussies in the World Twenty20 cup cricket final the night before our departure, and we did eventually negotiate our way off the jam-packed M25 onto minor roads to reach our overnight hotel at Gatwick before they pulled down the shutters. So, it's not all doom and gloom.
It’s a four and a half hour flight from London to Luxor by sardine-tin, but with Janice in the window seat we were able to enjoy endless views of oatmeal desert and arid peaks as we approached our destination, Luxor. Directly below us lonely souls tended their crops alongside their
Hundreds of cruisers ply this route.
donkeys and camels in the narrow green strip of arable fields of the Nile valley.
83 million people live in Egypt along the Nile’s green belt, more than 20 million of them in the north in Cairo, but we'll not be meeting any of them on this trip. We're off to savour the delights, or otherwise, of a Nile Cruise; just seven days of immersion in that most ancient of cultures, heading up river from Luxor, southwards to Aswan, the upper region - and back again, northwards, to the lower region. Got that? Yes - the river runs south to north for more than 900 miles - it’s the second longest river in the World. Agatha doubtless made this same trip courtesy of Thomas Cook in her day. This indeed was where that icon of tour operators started, and today there are hundreds of Nile Cruisers plying this route, satisfying Egypt’s lust for tourist money. Welcome then, to this, the Land of the Pharaohs.
It's hot here. God, it's hot here. The searing heat hit us the moment we set foot on this ancient land at Luxor airport. It was 48°C when we arrived at Karnak on our
..as the sun creeps serenely above the tops of the minarets.
first excursion around 11.30 the following morning I recall, and a little later than we would have wished. It can be refreshingly cool here from dawn till ten or so at this time of the year, but as the sun creeps serenely above the tops of the minarets the temperature rises and by eleven it's almost unbearable without a breeze off the water. Even that tantalising zephyr can seem akin to 'walking in a fan oven', as Janice suggested on numerous occasions - time for me to break out the white legs and the neatly pressed shorts, both hidden away from public view since last summer and my old straw hat that’s seen better days.
A motley crew of around seventy passengers joined us on our boat, The Fleurette - the smaller the boat the better, we’re told. We enjoyed great company at our table; two lively sisters from Wales, two glamorous babes from Enfield, and David and Margaret from Dorset. There's to be a Traditional cultural evening later in the week. Joanna Lumley, my brother Michael and other less famous people warned us about this strange tradition; dressing up in fancy Egyptian costumes and playing the fool. It's
- a forest of gigantic columns looming skywards.
not really our scene, but let's wait and see. We don't need to dress up to make fools of ourselves.
If our Mediterranean travels have taught us anything it's the rule of thumb, 'two C's', which are guaranteed to ultimately hit boredom level: Churches and Cathedrals. Before the week was out, we had learned the Egyptian version of this rule, 'the two T's' - for Temples and Tombs. By day three it was getting difficult to remember one from the other, and by day four it was almost impossible.
Our week of Temple visits was set between the most spectacular book-ends of Karnak and Abu Simbel, both mind-blowing beyond words in their sheer scale. It is a few years since we were in Pompeii, parading around in our togas amongst the ruins the Romans left behind when disaster struck (we'll not dwell on Volcanoes for fear of tempting Iceland to send mountains of dust over the UK and thus avoid paying us back for helping to bail out their bank). What Pompeii gives us by its sheer scale of urban structure, fine art, and intimate detail of everyday life in Roman times, Egypt’s treasures counter; with great buildings,
colossal figures and artefacts, all bound by the earliest record of the alphabet, writing as much of the World knows it today, and startling evidence of the lives of kings and pharaohs, much of it dating back beyond 3000BC. Pompeii, much more recent in historical terms, was buried when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Much of Egypt’s history was buried under sand. It is the wondrous quality of the art, colour and craftsmanship evidenced here in such wonderful condition after all those years and the great stories it reveals that has left us breathless, shaking our heads in disbelief. The history revealed in these scenes and hieroglyphics predates a few of our daily newspapers, with scenes of battle, violence, leaders, priests, love and sex!
The Temples of Karnak will be remembered for the colossal figures of Amun and Ramses II, a forest of gigantic columns looming skywards, the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes and of course, the sweltering heat of the day. Our effusive guide, Ahmed, was great with words, and extremely well informed - but short on empathy for those suffering from heat exhaustion. We all survived to tell the tale and coped with the heat better as the days
Flying charter to Egypt
There's not a lot of leg-room on flights from Gatwick!
passed, though over exposure on the sun-deck left one or two suffering from heat-stroke - and doubtless more than one or two from sun-burn! There were also reports of pharaoh’s revenge taking hold and if you’re planning a visit it might be wise to pack the Immodium in your back pocket.
As we sat and watched the scenery float by, it became clear just how Egypt’s economy continues to be reliant on this great river. Fertile soil exists only along these narrow banks, washed and fertilised in the days before the dams, by regular flooding. Date palms, mango plantations and citrus groves continue to flourish with the aid of artificial fertilisers. Just 4% of Egypt is inhabited. The remaining 96% is virtually uninhabited desert.
Up at 5am the following morning, graced by a silver sun and the caress of a cool morning breeze, we crossed the river to the west bank by air-conditioned coach, past simple mud-brick houses, the family camel parked in the shade, donkeys grazing amongst tiny plots of maize, wheat, sugar and cabbage. There were a few ladies about at that time of day, many wearing traditional black dress, here-and-there evidence of brighter garb amongst
the younger set, and across the fields the haze of a mellow mountain backdrop, buff limestone, rocky and barren, where desert meets civilisation. Within minutes we reached the mountains and the Valley of the Kings, an isolated valley beneath high rocky cliffs, a safe haven where pharaohs and kings were laid to rest. Some 62 tombs carved into the rock have been unearthed here now, including those of Ramses IV, Ramses II, Ramses IX, Seti II, Tuthmosis III, and of course, the one we all know, that of Tutankhamen, discovered by Egyptologist Howard Carter. Few tombs are now open to the public, but the scale of excavation, the intricate detail of colour and craftsmanship portraying the lives of Egypt’s past in those we did get to see is almost beyond belief. They are still unearthing new finds and groups of local workers were busy with shovels, wheel barrows and plastic trugs whilst we were there. No pictures, I’m afraid. Photography is not allowed in the Valley any more, quite why we’re not sure.
Nearby, the Valley of the Queens brings further wonders. Strangely, having expected an anti-climax, the tombs of the queens were the highlight of the day; the
colours so brilliant as though painted yesterday, the alabaster carving so delicate, the femininity of the figures, all a perfect delight. There’s an admission charge for everything here of course. ‘Nothing is free in Egypt’, our guide informed us.
Hadrian apparently took time off building his wall up in the north of England to nip home and visit the Colossi of Memnon here on the west bank. We stopped for a quick shufti - as they say in these parts, and thought of Northumberland.
The Arab pest is everywhere, for services mostly uninvited: baksheesh to get in, baksheesh to get out, ‘Take your picture, mister? You take my picture?’ (even the police), lift your bag, toilet paper, run the tap. And then there’s the haggling: hawkers with scarves, jewellery, trinkets, shirts (for a pound or two), market stalls everywhere; postcards, camel bone, pottery, leather, stoneware, alabaster - everywhere the Arab hassle. It’s all quite intimidating for some; though we now treat it as part of the colour of tourism - and set out to enjoy it! They’ll take any money; Egyptian pounds, English, US dollars. We took £100 of Egyptian money with us and we found that quite useful
(it’s available at ATMs in the towns). Our local travel agent gave us 7LE (Egyptian pounds) = £1GB. Locally they offered 8.4LE = £1GB! We settled our bar bill on the boat by card.
I am always tempted to buy local chess-sets as we travel. I have a few. I haggled for a while for a not-too-wonderful set, in the souk one day. His first price, aimed like a pharaoh’s arrow at the wallet of the gullible, was 1,400LE (Egyptian £). My starting offer was 300LE which he finally offered having followed me a hundred yards down the road muttering, ‘How much then? How much you wanna pay? 500 Egyptian? 450? 400? OK, 350. OK, 300. Mister, 300’. It was doubtless still worth only half of that. The haggling was great fun, but I didn’t particularly like the chess set anyway and left him standing in the road muttering something about, ‘......English!’
All seems quite safe here in Egypt. Since the terrorist attacks a few years back, they have beefed up security and today the presence of the Tourism and Antiquities Police is felt everywhere. Every few miles a policeman leans against a sentry-post wall, tourist attractions swarm
with gun touting, white uniformed police, police cars patrol the streets, boats the river, and we pass a smiling armed guard to get back on board. The police and security presence is not in any way intimidating. It’s there for our own good. We were only body searched at the airport, but they didn’t check under my hat. I guess they could see through the holes.
The English built a dam at Aswan during their brief presence in Egypt from 1882 to 1936, with the aim of taming the Nile, to provide more fertile land and protect it from flood and famine, and as a source of hydroelectric power, essential for Egypt’s industrialisation. A further dam, now known as the 'High Dam', 6km to the south, was built with Russian aid and engineering. This dam claimed much of the land of the Nubian people in the south and threatened many of the country's valuable historic treasures. The Philae Temple of Goddess Isis was one of those moved. It was completely dismantled and reconstructed on higher ground over a ten-year period with aid from UNESCO. It was here in Aswan that Agatha Christie penned her classic piece, Death on the
Things are looking up here.
Nile, whilst staying at the Old Cataract Hotel. We took a Felucca ride out to the Botanical Gardens and visited a Nubian Village on land provided by the government where they were re-housed after the dam was built. Now they make their living mainly from tourism it seems, selling scents and spices, cotton and glass, wooden and stone ornaments, leaving behind their past amongst the cataracts; the narrow rocky, reed strewn waters to the south. There are no crocodiles north of the Aswan Dam these days, but they keep a few here to show the tourists - I have to say, in extremely poor conditions. The Nubian people are said to be most beautiful, friendly and passive. There are no records of any crime here, we’re told. Lively lads called to us on the street, ‘Where you from? English? How now, brown cow.’ Oh the delights of travel!
It's a 280 km hike to Abu Simbel, the other amazing bookend of our tour, southwards from Aswan, to within 40 km of the Sudanese border across the barren desert. With little water left in our bottles and the temperature likely to rise by the minute as it does each day
with boring regularity from the moment the sun rises God-like from the sand, we opted to leave our beds at 3am and journey to Abu Simbel with our group by air-conditioned bus. In this climate it’s essential to drink copious quantities of water and, as nothing is free in Egypt, refrigerated water is available on the bus at three 600mm bottles for £1GB. With a bit of haggling on the street, water can eventually end up in your bag for 5LE for 2 x litre bottles, about 60p. (They craftily convert the English pound at £1GB = 10LE when it suits them) Our bus joined a long queue of busses carrying tourists of many nationalities on the outskirts of Aswan to be escorted by armed guards and police on the narrow tarmac road for the three-hour journey south across the desert. This is not the rolling windswept dunes of the Sahara or Arizona one might expect, but vast swathes of table flat sand with occasional knolls like barnacles sprinkled with black pepper shale, shallow mountains shimmering on the horizon, a flashing mirage in a distant gulley (a first for us), a tiny agricultural settlement amidst a green oasis some 70
km from Abu Simblel, and a never ending string of electricity pylons.
That long journey was little sacrifice for the awesome experience awaiting us. The Great Temple of Ramses II, was carved out of the rock-face on the west bank of the Nile using hand tools back in the distant past, between 1274 and 1244 BC as a warning to those entering his kingdom along the Nile from the south. Threatened by the waters of the new dam, the temple was removed from its mountain with assistance from UNESCO in the 1970’s and set to rest on higher ground where they built a new mountain around it! Four colossal statues some 20 metres high dominate the entrance to the temple - Mount Rushmore style with a vengeance! Awesome.
Janice switched on the TV early on Sunday morning to check on news of the Icelandic dust cloud. Chelsea were playing Stoke in glorious sunshine! Surely that was not in England. Many of the kids were seen wearing Rooney, Drogba and Chelsea shirts around town and doubtless there were many young Egyptian eyes fixed firmly to the screen that morning.
Yes, we did go to the ball, dressed in
Up, up and away!
A few brave members of our group.
appropriate garb for fun and frolics; candle-lit dinner, a handful of merrymakers wrapping toilet paper around their partners, a selection of attractive ladies plucked from the audience to excite us all with their belly-dancing antics, and the cabaret of hypnotic whirling dervishes in splendid spiralling colour topped off an entertaining evening.
There is only so much one can pack in on a one week holiday. We opted out of the sunset Quad-bike excursion into the desert and the mid-day sunstroke trip to that other T, Dendera Temple (we were Templed out as we previously anticipated by then) and chose instead the tempting cooler option - up again at 5am to take the balloon ride over the City of Luxor! Now there's an Egyptian swan song, one final fling before we left for home; the lion's roar of searing burners, twenty faces filled with anticipation, gently rising, moving south, out beyond the Valley of Kings; lifeless bodies asleep on rooftops, scurrying groups of hens and geese, the distant call of a braying donkey, goatherds tending tiny flocks, fields of sugar-cane standing tall, farmers tilling fertile fields their hand-tools standing the test of time, families waving from below, children calling, ‘Hello,
Farewell old friend!
hello,’ and finally a gentle landing beside the road. ‘Can we do it again, please, mummy?’
Egypt’s history has been touched by Persia, Greece, Rome, Arabia, Turkey and Britain over the years. It has a feel of its very own, colourful, vibrant, still relatively poor, but at peace with its mainly Muslim faith. We should have liked more time here; more time to see the Egypt of today as well as the Egypt of yesterday. Our travels by motorhome take us into the inner sanctum of the countries we visit, to see and feel the momentum of life beyond the tourist. It's never quite the same when someone else is at the wheel.
My straw hat finally died. After many years of faithful service the now brittle crown defied further stitching and my old friend was consigned ceremoniously to the placid waters of the Nile - heading off towards Cairo and Alexandria, watched with sad eyes. A fitting end.
David and Janice
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