The year 2010 was my annus horribilis. And as December approached it transpired that I was also destined to spend Christmas alone. It seemed to me then, the perfect opportunity to leave my troubles behind and see the land of the pharaohs, a place which had long been on my wishlist. I had done my European dash (for now) and the time was ripe to head for more ‘exotic’ places. On the Go was my tour operator of choice this time.
Day 1: I am picked up at Cairo airport by an On the Go representative and delivered to our hotel. I am keen on popping into central Cairo for a looksee but the On the Go guide tells me getting into the city from where we are is a bit difficult. So I content myself with having a drink by the pool and acquainting myself with some of my fellow travellers. The only activity lined up for tonight is a light show at the pyramids and sphinx. Having seen something similar in The Spy Who Loved Me I am reluctant to go as I recall it being it a bit naff. But in an effort to be sociable, I end up going. The first thing that amazes one about the pyramids is how close they are to the urban areas – literally right up against each other. The show itself was indeed naff and quite chilly in the December air. Afterwards we stop off for a quick dinner at a takeaway shop. Two falafel rolls for the equivalent of 90¢.
Day 2: It’s Christmas morning but it doesn’t feel like it. No one mentions it and there are no Christmassy things anywhere, which is no surprise for a Muslim nation. Our tour guide is Big Mo. The breakfast is the best I’ve had in any hotel. As we leave the hotel it is cool and misty. On the Go has at least 6 different tour groups leaving simultaneously, all with different agendas. Thankfully this does not mean our coach is full. It is probably 67% full, which is comfortable. There is a Santa hat on each seat. At least they made an effort.We get our first taste of Egyptian traffic, which is a little on the mental side.
Our first stop is Saqqara and its step pyramid of Djoser, the earliest large scale stone structure. All in all the perfect introduction to the wonders of Egypt. Lunch today is supplied by Big Mo – Egypt’s national dish – Koshari, which is essentially rice and lentils topped with macaroni and sauce. It sounds and looks ordinary but it did actually taste very good. After lunch we head to Giza and visit the three Pyramids. While some go off on a camel ride I busy myself by exploring the whole complex. As I stand before the Pyramid of Khufu (the largest of the 3) I contemplate how surreal it is to be here on Christmas Day. The place is amazing. We are back in history. I am amazed at how little security there is from stopping people climbing all over these magnificent structures.
Only the smallest (Menkaure) of the 3 pyramids is open to the public. The entrance and tunnel are cramped and there wasn’t much to see. Whilst it’s easy to suggest it wasn’t worth it, I’m glad I’ve at least been inside a pyramid.
As we arrive at the Sphinx, the sun has begun to set. Alas, the Sphinx faces east and its face is in shadow. Due to scheduling issues at Saqqara, we couldn’t come here in the morning. It’s just magnificent to see these amazing structures of a civilisation more than 3,000 years old.
After we leave Giza we spend a little time at a place called the Papyrus Gallery for the usual sales stop then head to the train station to board the sleeper train to Aswan. The cabins are small but functional. A man comes by to turn down my bed and serve me dinner, which is ten times worse than any airline food I’ve had to suffer.
Day 3: Sleeping on the train was a start-stop affair but I got enough sleep. Breakfast arrives, and is a better affair with pastries and tea. Upon approach I get my first glimpses of the Nile resplendent in the morning light, lined by palm trees and playing host to feluccas gently gliding downstream. I get a tingle of excitement. We alight the train at 8:15am and board our next coach. As we await our luggage being loaded onto the bus no fewer than five ambulances fly past, weaving their way through the morning traffic. We will find out later where they were heading.
Our first stop today is the Aswan Dam, on the shores of the massive Lake Nasser. Underwhelming, compared to the other sites in this country. Then we take a short and picturesque boat ride to Agilika Island, to visit the magnificent Temple of Philae. It is truly a target-rich environment for the photographer. My camera works overtime.
We head next to our ‘five-star’, ‘super-deluxe’ Isis Hotel, on an island solely dedicated to this hotel. The reality is a 5 star exterior and a 3 star interior, while the staff rates a lowly 1 star. As we are here in Aswan for another day we take the opportunity to relax by the pool. The poolside service is glacier-slow and the pool water is at best ‘brisk’.
As the shadows grow long a few of us decide to go for a felucca ride. As part of of our tour, we have a 3 night stay on board a felucca included. Those of us smart enough have opted to upgrade to a deluxe Nile cruiser instead. But, a sunset cruise is always welcome. We are told finding a felucca for hire is as easy as taking a boat trip to the other side and ‘they will find you’. Surely enough, as we make our way up to street level we find a man stading in our path. “Felucca?” he asks. “Yes, felucca!” we reply. The look of surprise on his face is priceless. A gentle breeze and the setting sun provide a perfect backdrop for the felucca ride. But I wouldn’t like to be on board for 3 nights.
As I return to my hotel room I settle down to watch the repeating newsfeeds on CNN and BBC. There is news of an horrific road accident in Egypt. Then the word Aswan is mentioned. It appears a bus carrying 37 American tourists on its way to Abu Simbel collided with a truck resulting in 8 deaths. My memory return to the ambulances which I saw this morning. Mo tells us there’s a reason most people fly to Abu Simbel. The roads just aren’t safe enough.
Day 4: The day begins at 4am as we need to catch our flight to Abu Simbel. It’s an optional trip but I believe all of us have opted to do it. It is indeed one of the highlights I had been looking forward to. The site itself is smaller than I imagined but no less magnificent. It is truly one of the more magnificent sights I have ever seen. It only takes half an hour or so to explore both temple here. As I exit the smaller temple a guard beckons me to take a photo, which is forbidden. I oblige, and as I leave he asks for his ‘tip’. I give him 2 Egyptian pounds. He seems happy enough. Back at the entry gate there is an audio-visual exhibition about the engineering feat to move Abu Simbel when they built the Aswan Dam. It is mind blowing and I recommend everyone to read up on this.
We fly back to Aswan and board our luxury cruiser for lunch. It is lovely on board. We lounge on the top deck in the afternoon around the most pointless pool in history. It is ankle deep at every point. Later that night we take in an expedition into the Aswan night markets.
Day 5: The cruiser had set sail overnight and this morning sees us at the shores of Kom Ombo. The day begins very early, as we embark on a visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to both the crocodile god Sobek as well as the falcon god Horus. It’s a beautiful morning and like all Egyptian sites, it is full of wonder.
By 9am we are back on our luxury cruiser, relaxing on the top deck with drinks, enjoying the sun and gentle breeze. The idyllic morning is shattered somewhat by the arrival of some other low-lifes of a certain nationality who seem to think it appropriate to treat the staff like dirt. After lunch it’s time for another expedition, this time to Edfu and the the even more impressive Temple of Horus, one of the best preserved in Egypt. The front façade towers above us and is an amazing sight.
Afterwards it’s back on board for more relaxation. It is truly one of life’s great pleasures cruising down the Nile in the gentle Egyptian breeze, amidst smaller river crafts and palm trees. As the heat of the day increases I retire down to my state room, which is plush, and offers a huge, wall-sized window to watch the world go by. It is really decadent. I couldn’t be more content with my decision to upgrade to the Nile cruiser.
It turns out that other guests on board have also voiced their disapproval of the behaviour of the same group of low-lifes who insist on pushing into line at the buffet table. It’s almost as if they expect the food to run out. The cruise manager has kindly allowed us to dine half an hour earlier than that group which was a wonderful gesture. It has to be said that all the included dinners on this tour so far (apart from the one on the train) have been amazingly lavish, as is tonight’s dinner. It’s Egyptian Night on board and the food is fabulous.