Sailing down Egypt’s Nile

Egypt 2004

Following in my grandfather’s footsteps

My grandfather grew up in the royal palace in Alexandria, Egypt so this trip was very poignant for me. Gordon, my grandfather, died at the age of 95 in 1991 and was an Olympic medal winner (Antwerp Games) and a decorated soldier. But it was his stories of growing up in Egypt that I remember the most.

My great grandfather was an Admiral and naval adviser to the King of Egypt – Abbas II. He was also honoured with the title of Pasha in 1912. The family moved into the Royal Palace and my grandfather (we called him Pop) and his sister Nora became playmates of the Prince Aziz and Princess Amina of Egypt.

Pop once told me how he would sail on the Nile in the royal ‘Falucca’ with Nora and the prince and princess. They would float around on the river playing as children do, and look up at the towering grey warships to see hundreds of navy sailors who had rushed to the edge to salute the tiny royal yacht beneath them. 

So you can imagine my eagerness to get to Egypt and follow in his footsteps. 

I also have a cousin on my father’s side who is an egyptologist who has also filled my head with amazing Indiana Jones stories about finding temples and ancient Egyptian graffiti.

Pension Roma

First day in Egypt. We arrived at about 4am and were completely exhausted. Taken by taxi to our hotel. We are staying at the Pension Roma in the heart of Cairo. The hotel is on the fourth floor of this really old building and is serviced by an antiquated, lift with the doors that shut and someone drives it. If you accidentally lean against the doors, the lift stops. Pretty dodgy so I opted for the stairs most of the time. I didn’t fancy getting stuck in the lift in the heat of Cairo.

My room is sparten but very comfy and very Egyptian sort of Indiana Jones style. It has a single bed, desk, wardrobe, coffee table, two chairs, a sink with ac curtain that draws around it and a dressing table. Quite a lot of furniture for such a wee room! I have this amazing wee private balcony with Greek-like columns that overlooks the busy Cairo streets and the rooftops of distant apartments. I saw a woman dressed in full black dress and head scarf sewing on top of her own rooftop and a man with a tiny lamp, making shoes in a cramped office across the streets.

Crazy Cairo

Cairo is nuts but amazing! It’s packed with people and honking cars, dust and filth but warm and exciting. Lots of energy and noise and smiling Egyptians who think that we are the most amazing things since sliced bread.

We spent the first day having a delicious breakfast – continental style – and then went managed to brave the crowds and head to the Egyptian Museum. It was an amazing museum filled with mummies etc. I zoomed around but was very tired and wanted to be out on the streets in the thick of things.

Sat outside for a while and ate my Mars Bar and then wandered down to the Nile which was so polluted and crowded with fellucas and tourist boats. I got harassed the whole way – ‘want a felluca? Taxi” Baksheesh? Got back to the hotel and slept for three hours. Woke up absolutely famished and so we went to a restaurant down the road where I completely pigged out on the most beautiful food ever – falafel, fava beans, hummus, eggplants and pita bread all for only NZ$6!! Bargain and so delicious!!

I absolutely adore Egypt. Can’t wait to go South and to Aswan and Luxor. We met an Australian archaeology student who collects rocks, who told us that Luxor is really crowded and quite full on.

Energy, poverty, Meuzzin

The poverty here has blown me away not to mention the smog and traffic. We’ve seen some pretty shocking sights – mostly beggars and young kids wanting Baksheesh. I love the prayer times – the whole of Cairo is filled with this haunting chanting through loud speakers all down the streets and in alleyways. Basically most of Cairo shuts down while they attend to their prayers. Cairo has so much energy – there are people in the streets talking and shouting, it’s exciting and everyone is so friendly.

One of the weird things about Egypt is that you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet as the sewerage system is so antiquated. So you have to put it in a basket next to the toilet and it’s emptied on a daily basis.

Dust turns to Mud

There was a huge lightening and thunder storm during the night – it was really spectacular and extremely exciting to be in an ancient land like Cairo, in an old hotel with a huge lightening storm raving above.

It was raining when we woke up and very muggy.. . . The dust of Cairo had turned to mud and we had to dredge our way to the railway station and try not to slide over on our faces. We got completely covered in mud. We arrived at the station which was so hard to find and spent about half an hour haggling with train attendants and tourist police trying to find a train to Luxor. But everything was sold out because of the holidays. We eventually found a train that was leaving that night but it was an Egyptian train, not a tourist train which upset the local police as they thought we should be on a tourist train, but we said we would be fine.

But it also meant that we would have to see the pyramids that afternoon before our train left. We raced back to the hotel, packed up our belongings, checked out and then caught a taxi to the pyramids. There was a massive dust storm at the pyramids so it was pretty hard to see anything.

The Pyramids

We seemed to just suddenly arrive after a short drive through Cairo and a small town and bam, there they were on the outskirts of the city. It was kind of a bit of a let down to arrive so suddenly. . . I thought we might have driven through desert for a while past camels and bedouins. The pyramids loomed out of the desert but weren’t as big as I thought they would be or as magnificent. The place was filled with tourists and touts all wanting to sell tickets for camel rides, souvenirs, cameras etc. A group of young Egyptian girls latched themselves on to me and followed me around the desert. One of them was really pushy and was trying to get me to give her my number, take a photo etc. I was a bit weary at first thinking they were pickpockets but I realise they were actually just fascinated with me because I was foreigner.

We decided to climb down into one of the pyramids. It was amazing. You had to bend over double and gingerly walk down these steep stone steps in a chute, into the depths of the chamber. It was brain numbing to think we had tons of stone and earth above us but also incredibly hot. Certainly not a place for the claustrophobics. There wasn’t a great deal to see once you reached the centre of the pyramid as there was just a couple of simple burial chambers. It was cool to see the sphinx in real life.

Kushari Heaven….

On the way home we stopped at a Kushari café and gorged ourselves on Kushari – the most divine Egyptian ‘takeaway’ I have ever had. It’s basically pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and tomato goop accompanied by vinegar and oil or chilli. Yum, yum and all only 75c for a huge bowl. We ended up buying a whole lot more to take on the train with us. I was in heaven. The food in Egypt it just so divine. I felt sad leaving Cairo and my wee hotel – Roma Pension – and almost contemplated staying in Cairo on my own. But then I didn’t want to miss Luxor and the Nile Cruise.

Wrong train

The train trip to Luxor was hilarious – well, the attempt to get the train at least. We were told to go to a particular platform to catch our train but when we got there no one could tell us if we were in the right place. I even had a chat in French to an Egyptian man about whether we were on the right platform and he insisted we were. So a train arrives a bit early than our predicted train and somehow we decided it was the train to luxor so we started to climb aboard. Then there was a stampede to get on and I just about had the life crushed out of me.

We get on the train, find our seats and discover people sitting in them and a large stereo on one seat. Lee moves the stereo, sits down like a Buddha and refuses to move. The poor Egyptians are trying to tell us we are on the wrong train and Lee is shouting at them saying “who are you? Are you the train conductor, are you an official? No! Do you work here? No! Well then don’t talk to me. I’m not moving until I speak to someone in charge.”

. . . So I fight my way back through the crowds and dirt and race off the train to find a guard who does, actually, confirm that we are indeed on the wrong train. How embarrassing! So I race back onto the train and drag Lee and Will off. They are like “are you sure? Are you sure?” Yes!!!! But you had to laugh. I got the giggles.

The trip on our proper train was long and we tried to sleep the whole way. I ate all my kushari, biscuits and tea within the first half hour  and tried to read. We left at 7.30pm and the trip lasted ten hours. We shared our cabin with three well dressed Arab men – one who was dressed in absolute full black turban, dress etc. He looked pretty cool – with a well worn face, dark blue eyes – he seemed very regal. It wasn’t the most comfortable train but not too bad either. . . bit grubby. The train stopped in the middle of nowhere several times and we also passed small towns with mosques and towers which were all lit up like xmas trees.

Twenty camels and half a cat

We arrived in Luxor at 5am. Apart from a handful of touts, it was actually really quiet and peaceful after the hustle and bustle of Cairo. It’s much more traditional that Cairo with small dusty streets, raised footpaths and tiny shops. We found a hotel called Fontana near the station and ended up waking up the night manager who was asleep by the door. The hotel was ok but no as comfortable or as clean as Pension Roma but I didn’t want to spend another four hours wandering around Luxor looking for somewhere to stay like we had done in Italy.

We slept for a few hours and then wandered in the heat down to the Nile to look for a boat. Ah luxor! It’s amazing! Lots of people everywhere trying to sell you sliver, scarves, rides on buggies and horses or taxis. It’s noisy but not as desperate as Cairo – kind of like a small town in a way. The sellers are so funny. They kept telling William he was lucky to have two wives (me and Lee). So from then on, Lee and Will started trying to sell me on the streets. The best offer they got was 20 camels and half a cat . . .

Beau Soleil down the Nile

The Nile was amazing. There was a promenade with all these huge cruise boats lined up in rows of about five or six. You could actually walk through one boat on to the next. We looked through about four or five until we came across a guy called Mohammad who, after much meetings with the manager, conversations about money, drinking of hibiscus tea, polite conversation and lots of laughing, we managed to get on board a five star deluxe boat called Beau Soleil. It’s French obviously but is three stories high with a lounge bar, marble entrance, restaurant, jacuzzi and swimming pool. Bit cold for swimming this time of year but very cool. There was a poolside bar and floor to ceiling windows in the cabins and main entrance.

We weren’t able to check into the boat until the next day so, after several hours, we went ashore to a local restaurant for dinner. We also came across a place we call Tourist Alley which is an alley filled with sellers and tiny shops that you have to walk through to get to the main part of Luxor. I bought some sandals from the alley and also met a seller and taught him how to say “kia ora bro”. We wandered during the markets where there were huge traffic jams in the streets with rows of horses, carriages and carts carrying tourists. One woman in Arab dress actually got knocked over by a carriage and crashed into a stall of vegetables.

I smoked my first sheesha pipe (apple flavoured) at a small café on the side of the street.  I felt like I was going to pass out. It was very strong and tasted like camel dung. We eventually got back to the hotel in Luxor. After haggling with the hotel manager over getting a plug, I had a bath, washed some clothes and crashed. I had a very weird sleep – the bed clothes were so itchy and the room was so sparse.

Luxor smells like camel and horse dung 

I was still half asleep when I stepped out of the hotel and onto the street in the sunlight (yay, our first day of clear skies!) and into the bustle of Luxor. There were donkeys, horses and carts everywhere, chickens in cages, little goats, dead carcasses including whole heads of bulls being cut up for fresh meat, touts and sellers everywhere, children and dogs. We walked into the market and found some material, cotton and ribbon to make a skirt with. There weren’t as many tourists in the market this time – mind you, it felt so early. Luxor smells earthy and musty mixed with camel and horse dung.

We got back to the hotel and Mohammad picked us up and took us to the Beau Soleil. We checked into our room (we have to sleep three to a room – one double bed and a small single bed for me tucked in by the wardrobe.) We had a nap and then went down to the restaurant for a buffet lunch.

Karnak Temple with Moh’sul

After lunch our guide, Moh’sul Abdul came and met us. He took us to the nearby Karnak Temple which was completely mind-blowing. We wandered around looking at the hieroglyphics, huge pillars, statues etc. There was a sacred lake filled with flying swallows which ducked and dived all over the place catching bugs. Even a lone kingfisher made a brief visit. The lake had rows of steps leading into the water where the priests used to purify themselves before entering the temple. One local tried to charge me baksheesh for holding a rope back to let me through – get real.

There were armed guards all over Egypt, even outside McDonalds, in small guard houses on stilts in Luxor and in all of the tourist convoys. In fact we had to go everywhere in convoy because tourists had been killed at the Hatchepsut temple in the 90s when armed snipers shot 50 of them as they walked, row by row, into the temple.

I also discovered that Luxor is the old home of the royal family before they were sent into exile so this must be where my grandfather was born and grew up. The palace is now a hotel. It’s amazing to think that Pop grew up in Egypt. I feel somewhat humbled to be here. The hotel was right near the Nile so I assumed that when Pop was a boy, this was where he played with the Prince and Princess of Egypt.

Armed convoy to Horace

We sailed through the night as we slept so unfortunately didn’t see a thing as it was so dark. We had breakfast and then waited for absolute ages for Moh’sel to turn up. We were actually parked right on the edge of a huge sand dune that led up to the temple and there were guards everywhere. We were taken in an armed convoy to the temple of Horace in Esna. We had to stop at several checkpoints on the way. The temple was amazing – apparently the most well preserved in Egypt.

Moh’sel gave us a tour of Horuce and then took us to the Valley of the Kings which was incredible. We went to the Valley in the west bank which was filled with amazing tombs, fantastic ancient artwork and sarcophagi. We also climbed an amazing huge ladder which lead to a closed tomb but were told off by local security police. It’s interesting that Moh’sel chose to disappear at that point and we couldn’t find him afterwards. The only shame about the valley is that it was so packed with tourists that you could hardly move. However I did have a chat to an archeologist who was digging outside one of the tombs and also had my photo taken with heaps of Egyptian boys.


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