From Sharm to Cairo for a camel ride…

The highlight of this year’s trip to Egypt was Cairo! What an incredibly long and tiring day! But worth every minute of the tortuous journey. We were picked up at the hotel in Sharm el Sheikh at 1:00 am by a small bus (twenty seater) with 15 others. The only problem was that the little truck had no suspension! Combine this glaring oversight from Toyota with roads that are worse than in South Africa and our day was starting off not too well …

Every couple of hours en route we stopped at police checkpoints. A quick twenty minutes toilet break at dawn and attempting the sad little lunch packet from the hotel. Left and right only desert – not a tree or a blade of grass in sight! Piles of rubble and sand all along the route – like construction sand that had been dumped there, for later use maybe? Battling for roadspace against the ancient trucks (not roadworthy in Europe but given a second lease on life in Africa working even harder than before…). Transporting what looked like sand from one place to who knows…?? Fascinating… We DID pass under the Suez canal though – how often does THAT happen in your life?!! A journey of 7 hours (seven hours!). So we arrived in Cairo, at 8:30 – 9:00 in the morning (at least the mornings are nice – always sunshine), battered and slightly the worse for wear…

Luckily it was friday (part of the weekend in Egypt), so the traffic was relatively lighter than usual. ‘Relatively lighter traffic’ means still chaos though! No lines, no lanes, donkey cars, battered old peugeots and lada’s, scooters, taxi’s smoking away, busses barreling along…. All ignoring the traffic lights and each other and just making their own roads through the congestion! Felt like a meat grinder – until everything ground to a halt! And took ten minutes to get moving again – after a tiny car had extricated itself from a bottleneck at a junction. Navigation by hooter and flashing headlights. Brilliant!

The best part (bonus): splitting into two groups and into another little taxi for the day. The german tourists (a party of ten) went one way, and us, dutch, the other way… Which meant our group was five man strong plus a guide and the driver… Excellent! Small group and some nice laidback young individuals: me and Vix, a young couple from Belgium and a dutch girl from Eindhoven… Felt like the famous five on safari or something…

First stop was the mosque in the old citadel. This was on a hill overlooking part of Cairo – masses of buildings, mostly apartments about four storeys high, dusty, sand-coloured with satellite dishes everywhere. A smog hung over everything, but the sunny weather was great. The mosque was named after the builder: Mohammed Aliy. And no, there’s no relation – but it is the only mosque in Egypt that you can enter as a tourist… Very ornate inside and definite influences from church cathedrals. There was a clock tower outside – donated by the french (in exchange for the obelisk from Egypt that now stands in Paris (you know the one?) …

Back in to the van and merged into the traffic being thankful that the driver was a local. We headed for the museum of antiquities in central Cairo. This building is smaller than it looks in the movies. Older style – also built by the french during their short occupation, maybe somewhere during the twenties? (The french did a lot…). At the entrance we were made to part with our camera’s and cellphones (this to protect the exhibits from flash camera’s apparently). A pity, because inside there are masses of historical artifacts, from enormous carvings and statues to small models of old reed boats and ancient jewellery. A photo or two would have been great. All ancient and genuine, like an archeological dig that had had been put on display (which it was). We kept being reminded that it was all real – no replica’s and all of it about three thousand years old! Incredible! The colours were even genuine and still retained some of their brilliance, most objects not having been restored or enhanced. Naturally the main exhibit was the contents of Tutankhamon’s tomb (the boy-king).

This young man’s tomb is (still) the only one that was not looted by robbers over the centuries. It gives an accurate indication of just how much effort was expended to get themselves into the afterlife. And the boy had style, man! His mask is one of the most beautiful of the pharoahs (personal opinion) and he took THE LOT with him: His entrails and organs sealed in urns, jewellery, beds, walking staffs, chariots, urns of essences, thrones and so on… Everything a king would need to continue his lifestyle, even boomerangs for hunting and his other interests. Naturally his personal servants went with him (one for every day of the year) in the form of small statues. All of it sealed, like a russian doll, in boxes and containers that fitted into each other. His mummified body in three coffins that encapsulated each other. Each more ornate than the next. Texts of hieroglyphics everywhere. And most of it all gold-plated as well… Apparently his was the smallest of the tombs (because he died so young) – but he got a lot done in his short life and it shows the amount of capital and power he had as pharoah. All of it meticulously photographed and documented by the man who found his tomb back in the early twentieth century. Incredible to see and amazing (for want of a better word) how it has all remained so well preserved (after three thousand years!). A lot of it still looked like new….

Time for lunch. On the Nile – as you do…. A floating hotel-cum-restaurant that was singularly uninspiring but for the fact that it was on the Nile river in central Cairo. Lunch was okay… but very brief – because our little band was itching to see the main event – Pyramids. So once more a short journey to the outskirts of the City where the built-up area suddenly dissolved into desert sand. Through the buildings on the way we could make out pyramids on the horizon, slowly getting bigger and bigger. Having been to Luxor and Karnak, we had mental images of the huge structures being surrounded by housing and buildings. As we drove up the small hill we could see, with some relief, that behind the three pyramids was only sand and desert. Surreal experience though. Suddenly you’re there! Half expecting that you would need to enter some sort of parallel dimension or step through a portal… I mean these are the PYRAMIDS!

Naturally, as everywhere in Egypt, the only portal you step through is the metal detector and the pay booth…. And there we were… In the shade of Cheop’s monument! Felt a bit strange, trying to let it all sink in… would take a day or two, or even a couple of weeks. So photo opportunities all round – some how failing to capture the scale of these huge achievements. Even today it would seem to be a herculean effort to build something like this! Can you imagine the man’s vision?! His imagination?! Picturing this grand structure and presenting his idea to his court… How do you come up with something so mind-bogglingly tremendous?!

The camels around the back were the best fun though. We couldn’t refuse a saunter (as camels do…) a short way into the desert in order to capture the three pyramids on film… Nice animals. Always look as is they have not a care in the world or that they are merely tolerating your presence and humans are ‘beneath’ them – which they are… unless your’e sitting on its back. Life looks a little less of a ‘rat-race’ from up there and the slow rocking motion is somehow relaxing. After pausing for a couple of pictures (never manage to do it justice – this country), an old guy rode up on a donkey and offered us an ice cold Coca Cola from one of those little old glass bottles – it even had COKE written in arabic on it. How he managed to get it THAT cold out in the sand at midday, on his donkey, is still a mystery. We happily parted with 5 pounds egyptian, and sat there on our steeds overlooking the pyramids and the city of Cairo beyond… A nice moment… Our ‘driver’ then gave us the reins for a little ‘race’ back to the Pyramid… Good fun! Ever raced a camel? Pleased to say that ‘Casanova’ (beautiful camel – perfect name) and I beat Victoria back to the shade (if only because her camel’s reins were tied to my saddle, but let us not get too pedantic…) Had a good laugh! We’re adopting one – if the council will permit us having one in the backyard here in Holland. Imagine the neighbours when you take it for a walk? A bit bigger than a dog…

The sphinx was also one of those surreal moments. You sort of need to stand there for a while and just stare… Built to protect the pyramids from intruders. Our guide made the comment that it wasn’t very good at its job (looking at the masses of tourists surrounding them). Also apparently the nose was shot off by Napoleon – just for fun… Another of those unsubstantiated claims that permeate Egypt… Although I must commend Táriq for his knowledge, subtle charm and passion for his country… Made the day all the more enjoyable, what with a strangely compelling english accent (learnt in Egypt and sculpted by many a british tourist – sort of Cockney-Geordie (if anything like that exists). The elevation sort of makes you look down on the Sphinx from behind and up to it from the front. The scale and proportions change as you view it from different angles – from the front it looks almost right but from above and behind the head looks too small… strange. Also that it is looking onto the KFC and McDonalds a quarter of a mile away just somehow seems wrong…

Just around the corner, with half an hour to kill, we visited an essence shop. These are apparently the base for all perfumes in its purest form. Interesting how the extracts don’t evaporate (like the urns found in the tombs still had their contents after thousands of years). Naturally we were encouraged to buy something, as everywhere – mobbed by vendors – but we respectfully declined, after a cup of tea, and headed for the museum again for our rendezvous with our little desert bus and the germans. We waited in the gardens in the falling light for about half an hour for them to arrive (the comment was made that germans are renowned for their efficiency, but today were soundly beaten by the dutch) then bid Táriq and his driver ‘má-salaáma’ and headed for the desert ‘highway’ knowing that it was to be another seven hours of torture before we would see our beds again. ‘Highway’ is also a bit of a misnomer – a narrow dual carriageway of patchwork tarmac, sporadic potholes and jarring transitions in the tarmac that seemed to be spaced just far enough apart to jolt you awake just as you got comfortable enough in the cramped seat to close your eyes and nod off…. Extremely irritating and incredibly draining…

Around 11:00/11:30 pm we finally reached the lights of Sharm el Sheikh and were dropped in front of the hotel, feeling slightly nauseous with exhaustion. We made our way to the restaurant which they opened for us after a bitter shouting match between clerk and chef and we had our ‘dinner’ in the gloom of a deserted room, trying to reflect on what had just happened… A midnight ‘rodeo’ drive through the desert, old Cairo, crazy traffic, king Tut’s mask, ancient artifacts in an old museum, the Nile river, Pyramids, the Sphinx and a camel race!

What did you do on your 40th birthday? I rode a camel in the shade of the pyramids in Cairo! As you do….