A Travellerspoint blog

In The Red

"Let's meet somewhere in the middle", said Dan clearly missing his dear old mum (and some time off work) after four long months. And to be honest I was looking forward to some quality time with my eldest, not to mention a bit of r & r somewhere hotter than Essex.

That was where the problems began. Donning a burka and having to convince everyone that I was in fact “his mother” so as not to get us both beheaded, was not a prospect I relished, so Saudi (Dan’s current workplace) was out. Even Bahrain, where he was living and commuting from, didn’t really appeal – too “ex-pat” and not enough “culture” for my liking, although it offered plenty of “schmoozing” and “boozing” by all accounts.

Dan’s idea of meeting “somewhere in the middle” turned out to be Sri Lanka or Kerala which he proudly informed me were “only a cheap £200 flight away”. For him, maybe, but a 12 hour flight and £700 plus for me! Europe was “too cold’ for his exacting standards, demanding temperatures at least in the “30s”. My skills and patience as a travel agent were sorely tested and Dan turned out to be “the client from hell”. Hell - actually worth considering …I had heard that Satan is offering free nights at the moment and the temperature would be close to Dan’s requirements!

Anyway, I felt that I really needed a holiday by the time we settled on Egypt. Thinking I was being diplomatic by suggesting a week at the Red Sea (diving and sunbathing for Dan) followed by a few days in Luxor (culture for me), I was then presented with the task of costing up and arranging all our flights. This was no mean feat when Dan was flying from Bahrain to Egypt but then wanted to return to London with me, then had to get up to Edinburgh for the weekend for a wedding – returning to Saudi the following week. Phileas Fogg would have been challenged! Ignoring Dan’s added requirements that we “only use a decent airline where he could use his air miles”, hotels included in his loyalty card portfolio, and that the total cost should be kept within his very conservative budget – oh – and “don’t forget to book the diving”… we came very close to continuing our relationship via Skype.

So after my final itinerary was “approved”, I found myself starting to look forward to our little adventure.

I must say that I didn’t feel very adventurous at all, squashed on my Thomas Cook Airways flight from Gatwick to Hurghada with the package tour hordes. Screaming kids and suburban couples heading off for their fortnight of sun, sand, sea and salmonella, were not my favourite travel companions, but I did admire their bravery in their choice of destination. Obviously the chance of some half decent weather at unbeatable prices was enough to take their minds off the perceived security risks of visiting one of the most volatile areas in the world.

Having done my homework, I had pre-arranged a taxi transfer along with “visa assistance”, which meant there was a nice man waiting for me in arrivals with a sign bearing my name. He whisked me to the front of the Thomas Cook queue and smoothly circumvented the general melee of people trying to pay US25 to a man for the honour plastering a huge stamp over an entire page of their passports. His name was Mohammed (of course) and he turned out to have quite a sense of humour. Especially when he dropped me off at the “wrong” Hilton!

I’m guessing it might have been his brother or uncle who then kindly picked me up and transported me all the way across the other side of town to the “right” Hilton, after passing several armed checkpoints and having the car swept for bombs on entering the hotel!

I was finally re-united with my lovely son, but the howling wind outside drowned out our greetings as we struggled to close the patio door. The weather had apparently turned very unseasonal – just our luck and our planned dive trip arranged for the following day was looking less enticing by the minute.

Nervously eating our sumptuous buffet breakfast the next morning, and praying that we wouldn’t be re-living it later on the boat, we looked out at the near horizontal palm trees around the pool. Luckily, the wind seemed to subside slightly as we too subsided at the first dive site, after becoming acquainted with our fellow sub-mariners. Dan had decided to take the “Advanced” Open water course, so was down for 5 dives over 2 days, 4 of which were specialised. As the “specialist skills” didn’t include “apres-dive” drinking, “managing not to pop up to the surface like a champagne cork when your tank becomes empty” and “getting in and out of a wetsuit a size too small on a boat going up and down like a see saw” – I decided I’d probably fail that particular qualification.

We did see some nice corals, a big clam, some parrot fish and a large sea snake so I was happy. Dan tried out is new underwater camera and I’ve decided that I’m much more photogenic underwater than above it! Maybe I should get all my photos air-brushed a shade of bluey-green.

The following day, I decided to try and find a sun-trap on the boat and read my book, whilst Dan competed his Certificate by trying his hand at a wreck dive, a deep dive, a navigational dive and a photographic dive. So now he can find his way to The Titanic AND take some nice souvenir snaps, should the occasion (or the ship come to that) ever arise.

I must admit, that by this time, I was looking forward to a rest day by the pool, and we made ourselves comfortable in the large double cabanas, having bravely fought off the advancing Red Army using only our bags, towels and sense of resolve. It used to be the Germans and the British who battled over the sunbeds, but we have both been usurped by the Russians who seem to have invaded large parts of the Red Sea (they probably like the sound of it). In fact, they are fast becoming the new “holiday yobs” of Europe, putting us and the Krauts in the shade (quite literally). Those all-inclusive all-you-can-eat meals must seem incredible when you’re used to queuing 2 days for half a sausage and a stale loaf of bread, and many of the guests seemed to be stocking up for several months.

The diving had tired us both out so we didn’t partake of the evening entertainment – although Dan was almost conscripted by the animation team to be a contestant in the “Mr Hilton Hurghada” competition. I think he would have stood a good chance with his good looks and charm. Plus he would have been the only contestant whose “ambitions” didn’t include invading the Ukraine or getting completely legless on cheap vodka by the end of the evening. We managed to defect to the safety of our room to get ready for the next stage of our adventure.

Where are all the fish???

Where are all the fish???


The Reef

The Reef


Dan "Sheik-ing it all about"

Dan "Sheik-ing it all about"


Dan throws in the towel

Dan throws in the towel


Our little oasis

Our little oasis


Selfie time!

Selfie time!

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Death (of Tourism) on The Nile

Feeling like visiting royalty (especially as Dan insisted on wearing his ghutra (Saudi headdress) as a sun-hat, we were waved through the numerous check-points on the 4 hour taxi journey to Luxor. Apart from the half-built railway line that followed the road and the occasional car (and tank!) it could have been the turn of the century – the 20th century! The donkey and cart still seems the most popular form of transport. The strangest thing was that not one house or building was completely finished or had a roof– they all have support rods sticking out of the tops. They've even invented interesting ways of using these – as make-shift washing lines, TV aerials, flag poles, and even strung over with reeds to make a temporary spare room. Dan, "the font of all knowledge" informs me it’s because they have to pay housing tax once a house is “finished” so they therefore leave the roof off! Interesting – and good job the pharaohs didn’t have that problem, otherwise the pyramids would have looked very odd indeed!

We soon left behind the endless desert and small towns and villages and followed the banks of the Nile into the centre of Luxor. The car weaved between a strange mix of once majestic European Colonial buildings looking terribly run-down or even in crumbling ruins, mixed with cheap modern apartment blocks. The exception was the historic Winter Palace Hotel with it’s sweeping staircases leading up to the grand entrance. Horse and carriages competed in vain with the conventional taxis along The Corniche, the avenue which swept along what must have once been a wonderful Promenade alongside the Nile. The almost total absence of “tourists” soon became apparent, although the streets were busy. Row upon row of Cruise Ships were lined up along the banks, all looking severely decrepit and in need of several coats of paint – and most were totally deserted. The most spectacular and incongruous sight however, was the huge monoliths of the Luxor Temple and an incredible avenue of sphinxes just protruding out of the dust amongst the buildings. These 3000 year-old monuments took your breath away with their magnitude and significance.

Pulling up to our hotel, the wonderfully decadent Steigenberger Nile Palace, we felt a little out of place in our jeans, t-shirts and back-packs. I imagined how it must have been back in Egypt’s heyday in the 20s and 30s when white suits and panama hats were “de rigueur” and the luggage justified its own car. Now I think we would have been welcomed whatever we wore – the hotel was less than 10% occupied and we almost had the incredible pool area to ourselves – the Russians obviously hadn’t made it this far. The hotel is designed to look like a Sphynx – the main body of the hotel lying back with 2 “legs” containing a restaurant and a bar laid out in front surrounding the pool and looking out onto the Nile. The main part of the hotel encompasses a courtyard – almost Mediterranean in style, with flowers and bougainvillea trailing from the balconies and birds flying between the floors. Although we wished we had splashed out an extra tenner a night for a Nile view room, our spacious balcony overlooked this central atrium and was delightfully peaceful to sit out on after a long, hard morning of sightseeing.

Feeling refreshed after a beer or two by the pool, we decided to catch the night time sound and light show at the Karnak temple, the other major site on the East Bank. After fending off a barrage of horse and cart drivers, taxi drivers, wannabee tour guides and finally being duped by a tout who seemed genuine but ended up leading us to his friend’s souvenir shop (we wondered why he was so keen to educate us on the manufacturing process involved in producing papyrus!). We decided that it was too exhausting to try and walk anywhere (not because of the heat, but the constant hassling wore you down).

When the hotel doorman hailed us a cab from the dozens parked outside, the driver – oddly named Mr.Fish treated us like his “catch of the day”. Reeling us in, hook, line and sinker he managed to con us into using his friend as a “guide” no doubt getting a backhander for doing so. He also managed to just “be there” every time we exited the hotel or a temple! However, we did feel a bit sorry for him when he explained that he had been waiting outside our hotel for TWO DAYS For a fare!

The sound and light show was rather too “theatrical” for my liking, but the temples did take on a special ambience at night, and it felt as though Indiana Jones was about to come running out behind one of the huge pillars chased by the pharaoh’s mummy (and possibly his daddy too!). Talking of the pharaoh’s mummy – well to be precise his step-mummy – we were fascinated to learn that pharaoh Tuthmosis III had disliked his stepmother – the great female cross-dressing “king” Hatshepsut – so much that most of her statues and images had been defaced and he built a high wall to cover up an obelisk she had erected. Now there was a boy in need of therapy – or should that be pharaoh-py??? It is a story worth reading up on with more drama and intrigue than an Eastender’s omnibus: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/hatshepsut_01.shtml

The site was no less impressive the following morning in the daylight and it was heartening to see a few more tourists exploring the temple complex. They were still uncovering smaller temples and tombs on the outskirts of the main temple and the scale of Karnak – it is the largest temple complex ever built by man and over a time period of some 1300 years – is incredible. It has featured in several movies including The Spy Who Loved Me, Battlestar Gallactica as well as countless computer games such as Lara Croft and The Sims. Their building techniques tend to make Stonehenge, which was completed around the same time as work started on Karnak, look rather primitive to say the least.

We ventured out of the hotel most evenings, working our way down the top 5 recommended restaurants on Trip Adviser. Dan insisted he wanted authentic “Egyptian” food, and we were amused to find that his No. 1 choice was owned by the very hospitable Laura from Lancashire and served a reasonable veggie shepherds pie and decent roast dinner! We eventually gave up on our quest and settled for a great wood-fired pizza and finally an Indian on our last night! Maybe Egyptians just don’t eat anymore.

We were still being trawled by the ubiquitous Mr Fish, who offered Dan 20,000 camels PLUS a chicken for his mother! I could tell that he was almost tempted by this offer, as he asked if the chicken came KFC style and included fries!

The following morning was one of the most unforgettable of the trip. As a treat, we had booked a sunrise hot air balloon trip for the princely sum of €32 and did wonder if for this price we’d be handed a bunch of helium balloons and a guide book. We tried hard not to dwell too much on the balloon disaster in Luxor two years previously, where the gas canister exploded mid-air, killing or severely maiming all 21 passengers. Of course (!) safety standards had improved since then, and our company, Sinbad balloons, surely had a back-up plan in the shape of a flying carpet.

Our pilot did fill us with confidence as he filled the balloon with hot air – a good start. As we seamlessly lifted off the ground we took in the glorious views of the sun rising over the Nile. Sadly the wind didn’t blow us over the Valley of the Kings and Queens as I had hoped but the memory of that morning will go down as one of those “pinch me, am I really here doing this” moments. And all the more special for sharing it with a loved one.

We sailed silently over shepherds herding their flocks and farmers in their carts on the way to market soaking up the early morning rays, and had a relatively smooth landing in a wheat field.

We completed our sightseeing that afternoon with a tour of the Luxor Temple and museum. Walking down “Sphinx Alley” which originally paved the way between the two complexes of Luxor and Karnak, it was incredible to think that around 1350 sphinxes originally lined the route. Remnants of around 850 are still visible and some were recently unearthed after the rundown tower blocks which had been built on top of them were demolished. It was also quite sad to see these majestic statues surrounded in part by what looked like the local rubbish dump.

Walking back towards the Luxor Temple, the entrance was originally framed by a pair or large obelisks. The French decided to pinch one back in 1833 and it now stands in the Place de la Concorde, leaving the other looking quite disproportionate. At least us Brits didn’t go about nicking valuable and historic artefacts from our Colonial cousins!

The French certainly left their mark on both temples. In a disastrous example of an “it seemed like a good idea at the time” moment, French excavators in 1899, decided to allow the Nile’s waters to flood through the Karnak complex to wash away the salt filled soil which was slowly eroding the stones. This resulted in 11 of the great columns losing their foundations and falling over – oops! It wasn’t all bad news; on the plus side, almost 800 granite statues and over 17,000 bronze effigies were unearthed once the site was drained.

The Luxor Temple didn’t escape the impact of those naughty French, and graffiti dating back to the early 1800s can be found scratched into the sacred columns. Even the Romans had the decorators in, turning part of the interior into a Coptic church, along with Christian friezes and Roman columns. In fact the temple grounds have been in continuous use as a place of worship for over 3000 years, as we discovered when we confused the mosque with the entrance booth when trying to find our way in! We thought it was odd when they asked us to take our shoes off.

Following in the footsteps of those ancient Egyptians we just had time for on last session of “sun worshipping” by the pool. That evening we sailed off into the sunset aboard our own private Felucca and had an early night in readiness for a long day of travelling ahead.

Flying out of an impressively clean and modern – but almost completely deserted - airport the next morning we stole a last glimpse of the sun reflecting off the Nile and hoped that the tourists – and the trade – would soon return to Luxor. It truly is one of the wonders of the world. A quick stop in Cairo – sadly no sign of the pyramids amid the smog – we arrived back to Heathrow. I bid Dan a fond farewell as he swapped shishas and falafel for bagpipes and haggis, and headed north of the border.

As adventures go Egypt was undoubtedly memorable for many reasons. But I was left wanting more and hope that one day it is safe enough to return and explore more of the incredible ancient sites that this troubled region of the world is blessed with.

Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphics


He's armless

He's armless


The Pharoe and his Mummy

The Pharoe and his Mummy


Up up and away

Up up and away


Sphinx Alley

Sphinx Alley


Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple


Slow Boat To Cairo

Slow Boat To Cairo


Obelisk

Obelisk


View from the pool

View from the pool


Luxor Lions

Luxor Lions


Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings


99 Red balloons

99 Red balloons


Fishing party

Fishing party


Sails in the sunset

Sails in the sunset


Sunset felucca

Sunset felucca


Sunrise

Sunrise

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

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