The balloon ride we’d booked on was the lure to drag ourselves out of bed at this ungodly hour, nearly two hours before sunrise.
After coffee in the ship’s bar and a ferry ride in the dark across the Nile to the West Bank of Luxor (quick Egyptology lesson for you: east bank, sunrise, life, temples. West back, sun sets, death, tombs) we got to the balloon launching site, right beside the Ramesseum, one of the main sites in Luxor, which we’d managed to miss completely in our three days in the area.
So instead of standing around watching around 20 ground crew get seven balloons up and running, we nicked off to photograph the Ramses II vanities – the pharoah in a god-like formation, once around 18m high, now the four are headless as time and earthquakes have taken their toll.
We finally got into the last balloon of the morning, a struggle as the wind changed constantly, but ended up taking us across the Nile, a rarity that delighted our pilot. Before us were perhaps a dozen balloons that drifted serenely across the straight-lined canals that run alongside the Nile, skimming mosques’ minarets, past a school that we played havoc with, as every child and their teachers hung out the window in a frenzy of ‘hellos’ to land gently in a field of sugar cane.
The owner of the fields came to greet us on this rare occasion, and welcomed us to his land, even though we had squished some of his young plants. Small boys mobbed us with demands of ‘money’ and ‘baksheesh’ but the consensus was that it would be the pitifully paid ground crew, not the jammy kids, who would get any spare change.
The afternoon saw us back on the Antares, snoozing and lolling on the sun deck.
Brigid delights in the old-fashioned sailor suits, though she laments the straight-leg trousers they wear. “Where are the bell-bottoms?” she wails, debating how they could possibly scrub decks in skinny leg jeans, and during dinner last night, we passed through Esna Lock, the key control on the Nile.
Last night, we jumped ship to another vessel, the MV Antares, reportedly one of the best boats on the Nile, rivalling the Zara, which staff say just has a better marketing budget. It is divine. We will spend four nights sailing Luxor to Aswan, which takes just three hours by road.
The areas around here are quite tightly controlled by police in response to terrorist attacks in the past 10 years, so today, after we sailed up to Qena to visit Dendara, the most spectacular temple yet, we were met by Wa’el, our lacklustre guide, in a brand new, super-red private car with driver. We jumped in the car, a police van with two smiling cops in the back brandishing guns pulled in front of us, and when we looked behind, saw about four tour buses and a horde of minivans full of tourists following behind as we led the convoy to Dendare and Abydos, the other major site near Qena. At all the road blocks through the town (and there were many), the police grinned and waved. May all my future police escorts be so cheerful.
This temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, is my favourite hysterical site in Egypt. It is just beautiful and beautifully preserved. There is a restoration program currently ongoing to clean all the soot from the high ceilings – a legacy of the cooking fires of the Christians who romped into Egypt and lived in the by now abandoned temples from 90AD (give or take a few decades).
Beneath the soot are the original colours of the painted carvings, which cover the stone walls from top to bottom – the azure blue sky up above, the signs of the zodiac and the long eyes and long hair of the beautiful goddess herself. Most of her faces, and there are many in the temple, have been hatefully gouged out. The guidebooks blame the Christians, our Christian guide says that’s just a negative marketing campaign against his religion.
We spent a few hours in there, and the chief custodian, Mamhoud, took me down the warm, secretive crypt. As we walked along the narrow corridor, he tapped the floor, which instead of stone, was alabaster. ‘It’s a door,’ he said in the quiet gloom. ‘There is more below us…’
Luxor, land of temples and tombs, is completely at ease with its tourist population…as long as the tourists buy their dodgy necklaces, suspect pashminas (um, from Peshwar?), faux papyrus or, perhaps, a glow-in-the-dark phosphorus pharoah. If you were Pharonically obsessed, you could even buy a t-shirt (Egyptian cotton, of course), screenprinted with a pic of your face superimposed on a pharoah’s head dress.
The city sits on the east bank of the Nile, where the Karnak and Luxor temples still stand, 2km apart, once linked by the Sphinx-lined road, the Valley of the Sphinx. That royal route was interrupted by Egypt’s most recent Muslim population, who built their houses between the massive sculptures. Most was cleared off to preserve the ruins, though a 13th century mosque still sits in between the two.
For two nights, we slept on the Dahabiya Hadeel, a new riverboat modelled on the elegant boats of the 1920-40s, with its wicker chairs, shady canopies and (very un-1920s) jacuzzi on the deck. The captian, Mustafa, prowled the decks in his sea-green gallibiya, asked mum if she’d consider being wife no. 2 (the current one has seven kids so it’s all a bit of a handful). Mother says no, but they’re quite a fetching pair.
The first day was spent in the Valley of the Kings, and can I say…I was disappointed? Spare me from the hate mail, but the combination of bad guiding, hot day and incessant rushing (if you spend thousands of dollars getting here, why do they rush you?) made for a less than impressive experience. There. I’ve said it.
Of course we missed the train to Luxor. Blame it on the rain. It rains in Cairo around six times a year – just enough to settle the dust and not enough to warrant bringing everything in off the roofs or balconies, which are the city’s junk and rubbish repositories.
The roads, which dip in the middle, filled instantly with mud, the traffic – already bad as it was Friday, the first day of the weekend – went into overdrive. A friend told me he spent five hours in the car yesterday, crossing the city for a business lunch. And my newly-arrived mum and I spent 40 minutes in a taxi doing what could have been walked in 20…
The train was there, we could smell it, taste it, but alas, not touch it, falling in a heap of bags and backpacks seconds after its departure, to be picked up by Ibrahim, the same super-schmoozy tourist policeman who had helped me buy my ticket a few days before.
So imagine his delight in scraping me, mum and our junk off the floor, to give me a dressing down. “What did I tell you about arriving half an hour beforehand?” he asked. “The rain, the rain!” we protested. He shook his head, but after an hour of idle chat, some string-pulling and promises of everlasting, non-marrying friendship, scored us the last two seats on the 12.30am train.
Which is why now, at 9am, we’re having our third cup of tea and watching the harvest from our seats as we trundle slowly toward Luxor and a week on the Nile.
‘Begoon,’ it reads on the menu. I’m getting pretty good at menus, but this one has me stuffed. And stuffed it is. Begoon is the Arabgleeze for ‘pigeon’. (is there a word for Arabic-English, like Spanglish? Let’s make one up!) Yes, the flying rat.
So I order the begoon, sitting in the most touristy midan or plaza, of Cairo. I have taken up residence in the front seat of a café that faces the country’s most holy mosque, Al Hussein (died AD 680), the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Its holiness derives from the tomb inside, which is said to contain Hussein’s head.
As we’re in sight of a mosque, there’s no beer (though they serve a non-alcoholic version, Birrell) and the square is packed with tour buses, tourists more touts than you can poke a sheesha pipe at.
They’re selling shoe shining, Ko’rans translated into a Babel-like number of languages, tacky headdresses supposedly worn by belly dancers, cheap papyrus, leather wallets, fake watches…what do you want? One boy is carrying a standard wooden crate of flat bread on his head. If he can’t sell you the bread (and he’s pedalling to café patrons) he’ll sell you a photo opportunity of him with said picturesque bread on head. Some, like the woman with a sleeping baby, are just out-and-out begging.
The begoon when it arrives, is a taut drum of well-cooked, oily skin containing rice and a few scraplets of meat on the tiny legs. The bones, of which there are many, go to a battalion of waiting cats beneath my chair, the scene of open warfare between a big-headed ginger tom and a black, malevolent creature that hovers just out of ankle’s reach.
So what does pigeon taste like? Chicken. Of course.
In the City of the Dead, Turkish generals sleep under marble slabs, while the children of their former subjects live, breathe, work and play above ground, alongside the tombs. Some of Egypt’s most significant architecture is here, such as the Mosque of Sultan Qaitbey, its walls backing onto slums where flocks of goats and armies of bare-foot children run between the headstones.
The City is just past the fringe of inner-city Cairo, on one of the rolling hills that lead up to endless suburbs of low-income concrete blocks, like those you would have seen in the news which collapsed a couple of months ago, killing 82 people.
Despite it being a cemetery, the main road through it, a (mostly) one-way street, constantly roars with taxis, microbuses, donkeys, school buses. Cafes play the soaps on old tvs, men weld spare car parts together, cats scrounge through rubbish beneath elegant arches and women hang washing out in front of 15th-century mosques, when Egypt was controlled by Mamaluk warlords, then Turkish pashas, and witnessed the rise of of the Albanian mercenary Mohammad Ali.
Tombstones erupt crazily from the dry earth, set in small courtyards with comfortable banquette seats around their walls, where Egyptian families come on Fridays to hang out with the departed, eating, drinking and letting the kids run riot in what the guide books say is a continuation of the Pharonic tradition of living with the dead.
We stepped into one such courtyard, where the earth was wet and turned – a man had been buried there the day before, my impromptu guide told me: the dead city is still well and truly living.
Here’s Sabah, my cleaning lady. She does her washing at my apartment and waits for it to dry, watching TV and drinking tea, apparently. I think she also washes my clothes? I’m not quite sure. But she already calls me ‘habibi’ (equiv: hmmm, darling?), and for that I think she’s fantastic. Or she was in public relations in a previous life.
Weirdness… this morning, a man came to take away my rubbish, and my doorbell just rang and there was an old guy in a blue gelibyya who is cleaning shoes…
I have an apartment *victory dance*! The trawl through Cairo’s dirty streets has been long and arduous, especially when today I got shown the same apartment, TWICE. In fact, I was shown two apartments I had already seen before!
But I had a good feeling about Hamid, one of many people I’ve spoken to on the street, perfecting the phrase, ‘Badawwar ‘ala sha’a lil igar li midduit shahrayn’ (I’m looking for a flat to rent for two months – it was spelt out in my Lonely Planet conversation guide that has become my Ko’ran.)
I don’t have photos. I don’t yet have a contract. I have put down a little deposit in the form of a crisp 100 egyptian pound note, which the owner and the bowab (like a doorman), kissed before pocketing.
The bowab, Ahmed, and I sign contracts at high noon tomorrow. Like most Downtown apartments, it’s HUGE. High ceilings, walls that haven’t seen paint since the Brits left in 1922, a washing machine that could tear you from limb to limb, two enormous bedrooms, a massive reception and a dramatic timber sideboard that was the real reason I took the apartment. There’s a crazy, browning rustic mural of an idyllic country scene on the main wall that is the first thing you see when you open the door.
The price is very good, I have no idea what I’m going to do with two bedrooms. But it has two balconies that were just made for giving speeches to the waiting masses down below on busy Sharif Street.
I will clean it, then I will photograph it for general consideration… Now I’m feeling all scared that I’m going to miss the pension, which suddenly seems so cosy and welcoming.
PS Mum, the lift is also a DISASTER.
I’m starting to think I have a camel obsession. But their lovely, long fluttering eyelashes, their sweet faces and their thick, matted hair just get me. Which is why I’m now lugging a 4kg camel blanket which I bought in Bahariya Oasis.
The Oasis comprises eight villages strung between sand dunes and dry, barren plains, four or five hours by bus from Cairo.
It took an hour to get through donkey- and pyramid-ridden Giza and out of Cairo’s outskirts, then the new cities started, new towns with such optimistic names as Green Valley, which are also part of Cairo’s 20 million-strong population. It was flat. Really flat. The skyline was obscured by dust, which could be pollution as well as desert sand, and the only buildings on this road were oil maintenance sheds, where a lone passenger would depart, to walk into…where? The empty desert?
After pausing for a split second to dump the lone passenger, the bus would then pick up speed again to 140km, sitting in the centre of the road.
At Birawati, the main town of the Bahariya Oasis, we were spat into the waiting arms of a swarm of touts till I found the driver who’d take me and three others out into the White Desert. Ashraf, in his grubby blue tracksuit, pulled up an old Landcruiser stuffed with sleeping bags, mattresses and food to barrel out into the desert. Sometimes it’s ok being able to speak only English. Of the five of us in the van, the Italian, French-Canadian, Egyptian and Spaniard all spoke at least a few words of English, definitely the linga franca.
That night, Ashraf cooked sensational rice, potatoes and tomatoes, and – mysteriously – chicken (um, from where? We were in a hot car for at least three hours) and we had even managed to prise some beer out of a ‘Bedwin’ shop en route.
The floor of the White Desert is paved with blindingly white chalk plains and eruptions of soft chalk, escarpments that have been whittled away by the wind to fantastical shapes. They are fragile and beautiful…and ideal for travellers to climb upon to get early morning shots. We pulled into a camp area, passed a large bus full of what looked suspiciously like Kiwis and Aussies playing cricket, to find a little alcove where Ashraf laid out the kitchen, we made our beds beneath the stars and that night, tried to fall asleep beneath a full moon so bright, it cast shadows across the earth.
The next morning, everyone else in the desert had gone except us. I watched the big, orange sun break like rich egg yolk over the desert, but Ashraf woke only when I whistled to him and nudged the van (he was obviously over sleeping on the ground like us, and had curled up amongst our bags in the 4WD). We waited for him to complete morning prayers then he laid out breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, tea and nescafe, which the Italian stared bleakly at, unable to bring himself to sit down.
After breakfast, Ashraf kicked over the old Landcruiser again (the starter motor is wired to play a chant from the Ko’ran when it is turned over), and we roared off road into the desert…
I don’t gallop, I tell Mido.
Ok, he says soothingly.
We pass through the gate and into the pyramids, and it’s a full five minutes before he whacks my little Arab stallion’s backside, shrieks haaaaaa! And we’re off! Tearing up the soft sand around the back of the Pyramids.
Mido’s the owner of Desert Storm riding school, which he says has 85 horses. He started with three, 20 years ago, the story goes. Despite wearing a gelabiya that he hitches up to reveal bare legs and a little white cap, he’s glued to the saddle.
After the third gallop, I’m starting to get the hang of it. Sugar, my little stallion (I didn’t realise he WAS a stallion till I got off – imagine in Australia!), was off like the clappers at the first chance, had a little tanty when I wouldn’t let him schmooze a fancy mare, and was a great way to circle the Pyramids which we’d done earlier in the day as I did a quid pro quo deal with them for some photos.
Here’s the proof – ok, I’m a long way away but beggars etc… And here’s one of Mido checking his phone…