I’m a journalist, travel writer, editor and copywriter based in Melbourne, Australia. I write pacy travel features, edit edifying websites and fashion flamboyant copy. My articles and photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, from inflight to interior design: I’ve visited every continent, and have lived in three. Want to work together? Drop me a line… 

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Spire of spite: Cairo Tower

Today, we went to the Cairo Tower for breakfast. We took the lift to the 25th floor, to the top of the 187-foot tower. The city coughed and spat way down below: the Great Pyramid of Cheops is 50m lower.

Cairo would be the last to call itself an early riser, and Saturday mornings are still the time to catch a quick lie-in for many people (though interestingly, the unfortunate kids who go to government schools have to go to school SIX DAYS A WEEK), so there were just six of us on the platform at 11am. No great loss, it was heavily clouded with a grey cloud we reckon was a mix of fog and pollution cloaking the Nile and making the city shrink. I like this photo because, amazingly, you can see a glimpse of blue sky. Which just goes to show what hangs over Cairo. Breathe deeply, people.

A photographer approached us brandishing a camera cheaper than mine, so we waived him away. But he told us within 20 minutes, it should clear. Twenty minutes later and Cairo was but a concept. The river was barely visible and it wasn’t until we’d struggled through the shaky SkyGarden menu that the cloud lifted and suddenly three little triangles appeared on the horizon, and the Pyramids did a quick nod, before pulling the curtain again.

According to Wiki, the Great Pyramid held the record as world’s highest building until 1311, before being bounced by England’s Lincoln church.

According to my fab Wallpaper guide, the tower was built by the then-president Nasser with money America had ‘donated’ to him to buy his support in the region. To snub his wanna-be benefactors, he threw the money at a completely meaningless structure and it earned amongst bitter Americans the sobriequet Nasser’s Prrrr(is this a family blog?)ick. Hey, I just read this: don’t shoot the messenger.

Obviously, the altitude got to us and we went all touristy: we stood on the revolving restaurant, compared similar towers from Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Sydney, and chatted to a pharaoh on the viewing platform.

In a quick analysis of the hyrogliphcs that make up my name, offered by the slightly embarrassed pharoah, I travel a lot, am mysterious and sarcastic. Two out of three…

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Cairo Tower costs LE70 foriegners/ LE20 Egyptians. There is a LE30 minimum charge in the SkyGarden cafe, which has charming service, but flaccid cappuccinos and stodgy – but ENORMOUS club sandwiches – no, no oriental food here, ma’am. (Confusingly for Australians, Egyptians refer to their food as ‘oriental’. Yet not a beef’n’black bean in sight…)

The revolving restaurant opens at noon, and we reckon it’s just the place to pull up a table in the afternoon, fill it with mezze (samousek, kobeba, baba ganoug and if you’re so inclined, a few beers or a glass of wine) and watch the sun set over Cairo.

And there’s also a cute looking cafe, Villa Zamalek, at the foot of the tower, which serves shisha (untested, sorry). Because you’re not going into the tower, you don’t have to pay the admission fee.


The art of Egyptian bus travel

I was stuck on a bus travelling from the Mediterranean town of Marsa Matrouh back to Cairo, watching the nerdy, diminuitive, slapstick actor, Mohamed Henedy, who despite (or perhaps because of) appearing no more than five feet tall with a baby face, feels the need to shout his way through every movie. Napoleonic complex, if ever I saw one.  Having said that, he’s a prolific little bugger, his new movie, Prince of the Sea, is out now, and he has 12,600 fans on Facebook.

In the bus movie, he’s got thick glasses and a comb-over, and is teaching a few young boys a lesson for staring at his girl (who is inevitably tall and beautiful) and whips off his slippers to give them a good hiding.

He’s also making them slap their faces, which women do when they’re screaming with angst at, say, the death of a loved one; amply demonstrated in the following movie where the naughty Lebanese actress Haifa flashes her knickers and gets slapped around a lot: if you were looking for women’s rights in Egyptian cinema, you’d have to be looking hard.

Bus travel in Egypt is cheap – US$10 will get you across half the vast country, but it’s not necessarily fast, thanks to the revered tea stop. It’s a test of patience, however, I’m becoming Egyptian in at one aspect: stuffing my face with sugar at hourly intervals while on the road.

The chemically-enhanced taste of Twinkies sponge and fake cream (do you remember the ads for them in Archie magazines???) have worn out their welcome with me, and I never got into the hard stuff, the solid sugar hit of basbousa, but Egypt is a biscuit culture and I’m a culture vulture. When in Rome. Or Egypt, in this case. 

Of course, there must be tea at every break, even in the middle of the night in grim roadside cafes full of hard-faced microbus drivers, their vans piled twice their height with everything from sofas to antique wheelchairs and, in this one’s case, a wheelbarrow hanging off the front. 

Who knows how they manage to achieve such death-defying speeds: I heard that one hit a camel that was sleeping on the warm road on the stretch out to Siwa last week.


Reasons why not to drink in Egypt

Surely this pic is enough?

Snapped in a shopfront in Downtown Cairo, Fenilad Fodka and imitation Johnny Walker whisky, though my favourite is still the ‘Johnny Walking’ brand.

They’re marked at 40% alcohol, but there’s some watering going on here.

Makes abstinence in Egypt that much easier, don’t you think?


Christmas in Cairo

It just doesn’t feel like Christmas here in Cairo.

No matter how many plump plaster-cast reindeers and glitzy gold Christmas trees in the mall.

No matter how many boys selling Santa hats (including a frightening,’Silence-of-the-Lambs’-style with an eyeless, flayed rubber Santa face hanging below the fringe.

No matter how many times Nile FM can play Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’.

It’s not surprising considering Egypt’s Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

My one and only work Christmas party was put off till 15 January, however, we made a good fist of it, helped by the fact Christmas Eve is on a Thursday, the Arabic equivalent of a Friday night. So we crashed the Christmas party at the pumping bar, After Eight (reached by walking off the street, through a kiosk selling chocolates and chips then down an alleyway that has actually been cleaned up).

The entertainment was a band, two DJs and they also threw in a beautiful belly dancer who had a gorgeous smile but was lacking in the whole hip movement area. The first DJ belted out a fistful of fun Arabic pop, but the second went into deep, heavy dance that lost the holiday bonhomie as well as the dance crowds.

There was no fowl on the Christmas table (Fee objects) and no pork either (Egypt objects, and has killed all its pigs in a frenzy over swine flu). Thank god, there is always smoked salmon…


What you didn’t know about Jordan..


The Dead Sea is 400 meters below sea level, the lowest point on earth.

Jordanian wine is actually very palatable.

Cheap labour comes from Egyptians.

In winter, racing camels are rugged up with a poncho with a hole cut out for the hump to slip through.

Jordan is actually the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, ruled by King Abdullah.

King Abdullah II’s father looked like Sean Connery and his son like Harry Potter. The king’s mother is Scottish.

Lawrence of Arabia lived in Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan..

A donkey can set you back US$500.

The Dead Sea is oily.

Quick biblical facts on events in Jordan:

Jesus was baptised.

John the Baptist was decapitated.

Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and still stands.

Moses died.

Salome danced the dance of the Seven Veils in front of King Herod.

And finallly, if you were looking for it, Jordan is the site of the original Sin City, Sodom & Gomorrah.


The plight of the pigeon

The first time I looked up, properly looked up, in medieval Cairo, I noticed weird wooden towers built on the top of apartment blocks. “What are they?” I asked the old man showing me the view from a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead. “Hammams”, he said. “Bathrooms?” I thought. How weird! People climb up those rickety little ladders to go to the toilet? “Hammans?” I asked, just to be sure. Yes, yes, he nodded. “Hammams.” What I later discover in the great game that is learning Egyptian is that a hammam is a bathroom, but a hammam…is also a pigeon. Something to do with more or less ‘m’ pronunciation. Yes, winged rats despised by the Anglo world, scourge of European monuments. Yet all over Egypt, these little boxes on stilts are where one of Egypt’s great delicacies are nurtured. In the evenings, you can hear a whistling as the owners call their beloved flocks home. “They’re very intelligent,” someone tells me. A first I’ve heard that, but then I’m not a pigeon fancier. The best restaurants in Cairo are said to include Farahat in the medieval part of the city, Gamilaya, as well as upmarket Nasr City. I’ve eaten pigeon in the alleyways of Khan al-Khalili, where a boy rushes up to you, asks you, “How many?” then rushes off again to grab the required number of pigeons, salad, bread and a peppery, watery pigeon broth and slaps it all on the table without any ceremony or cutlery. It’s oily and messy, the little bodies stuffed with fireek, or crushed wheat (think bulgar, Aussies). In comparison, I ate pigeon at a friend’s home. His wife is obviously the mistress of pigeon cooking – she stuffed hers with rice, which sits just beneath the skin. Less oily, less messy, infinitely more tasty. “Eat like you’re at home,” she said as she dropped two platters of pigeons on the table. “With both your hands, your feet…whatever.” Then I learned what is considered the pièce de résistance amongst this breed of pigeon fanciers. A quick tap on the head and voila, pigeon brains. I have only one word to describe them. Small. But then, what do you need a brain for if you’re a pigeon? Thinks: eat. Thinks: procreate. Thinks: eat. Sounds like utopia. If only the accommodation was better. Still, city views are good…


The night before Eid

The streets are filled with sheep and the occasional cow in the last days before Eid, the Feast of the Sacrifice. The sheep have been set into makeshift pens and are guarded day and night by a shepherd. They are going for LE1500, or about A$300 each. That means there’s a whole lotta cash messing up the roads here in Cairo

However, it seems that not theft, but small children are the issue most concerning the shepherds. Kids are hanging delightedly around the sheep, trying to wrestle their long horns and ride them the minute the shepherds’ backs are turned. The guys have big sticks they wave at the kids, who fall back slippery as eels, then resettle around the pens, totally uncatchable, laughing and jeering.

It makes logistical sense, but it’s also a bit grim that the sheep are living outside the butchers, snacking cheerfully from wooden troughs. Above them hang the carcasses of their peers but being sheep, they don’t seem to have made the connection. Or perhaps they’re in denial.

Today, Egyptians fasted on the last day before Eid, then the sacrificing begins after prayers at sunrise tomorrow morning.

I took pix down the street last night, got mobbed by about 20 kids, and the old market women who kill the rabbits and pigeons for a living were shouting in the street, “Our cow’s getting photographed by Australia!” I also snapped two happy bakers with one of the huge mountains of bread on the street that tomorrow will become part of fattah, the traditional Egyptian dish of rice, fried bread and meat that I’ve eaten slathered with garlicky mayonnaise.

For the four-day holiday, I’m skipping out to the desert oasis of Siwa with a bunch of friends-to-be, 50km shy of the Libyan border, on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Land of sand dunes, palm gardens, hot water springs and those weirdly giant plastic date palms that are actually mobile phone towers. Kul sanaa wento tayebeen (Best wishes to all)!


The tonic of life

“Here’s your G&T,” says my current visitor, Andrew. Surely one of the nicer sentences in the English language.

Tonic is a soft drink regarded with an evil eye here in Cairo as the locals are sure the only reason we foreigners want to drink it is to dilute our gin. So it’s not so easy to find. The foreign supermarkets sell it, but you’ll never find it in the Egyptian chains or in the fridges at the little kiosks at every street corner, which sell everything from water to phone cards, chocolates and cigarettes. All the essentials. I learned the lesson about tonic after I rolled into a little supermarket nearby and asked for tonic.

“Noooooo-ooo,” replied Ahmed behind the counter, waving his head like a bull with a fly in his ear. “We never sell tonic. Because you will mix it with alkoool.”

Ethical consumerism, it appears, is not yet dead.

My grandmother, who firmly swore by a diet of tonic water and natural yoghurt while travelling in foreign climes, would surely have turned in her grave.


Egypt morphs into the Gold Coast

For those of us on the other side of the world, it’s easy to forget Egypt is on the Mediterranean. Countries such as Italy and France have already cashed in on that claim to fame. But the north coast of Egypt is hundreds of kilometres of big, blue Mediterranean sea.

Mind you, it also has 80 million people wanting to swim in that same sea (and it’s a sobering reminder when you’re in the water with 200 or so other people that peeing in the water isn’t exactly a novel idea), so a little snobbery goes a long way.

On a weekend pootle along the coast, we drove west from Alexandria to Marina, half way between Alex and the famed blue waters of Marsa Mattruh, where the sea is cleaner and the action less hectic than in the cities closer to Cairo.

In the private enclave that is Marina, the bling is real, girls wander through cafes in shorts and singlets thrown over the top of their bikinis, guys are in their Billabongs and t-shirts, kids run wild on sugar and trikes.
It could be anywhere in the western world. Just the shisha pipes in the pool and a lack of alcohol make the difference. And the Remembering Allah billboards on driving into Marina. Leading into the hedonistic beachside paradise, the series ran as such: “Remembering Allah,” then “Remember…His door is always open,” followed by the ominous “Remember… He is always watching you” to the downright scary “Remember…you could meet Him now!”

Marina’s landmark is the massive Porto Marina, a clutch of towers that have been painted red-and-yellow stripes, amongst other colours. It erupts like a giant pimple from the desert, but once you’re inside, it lures you into its thriving outdoor café scene, and there’s even a fake Venice built inside, complete with canals and gondolas that were busy churning up the waterway. Yes, really.

The whole complex is built on a series of man-made lagoons and islands; Australians, think Gold Coast. In fact, when the jet boat, jetskis and parasailers zoomed past, I was taken back to Broadbeach in a flash. Aside from the hideous building, Marina is a series of tasteful villas built along the waters’ edge and it’s all so deliciously clean and shiny, and correspondingly expensive.

If you thought you’d nip in for a look, beware: Marina is a gated community which means you’d have to be hitchhiking with a member to get in there (or a friend of a friend who’s borrowed a card…).

It’s all very weird and challenges my principles of equality. But if you were the elite and money but a boring concept your accountant deals with, you’d love it – my neighbour and good mate Hosny Mubarak (aka The President), as well as the big guns in the military and anyone who’s vaguely noteworthy, all decamp here during the summer.

Check out: Tahiti beach and pool, a chic, up-market beach resort, and Studio Misr for traditional Egyptian food with gargantuan portions. The chicken fatta is exceptional, both in Puerto Marina. Zalabia (sweet dough balls soaked in rosewater honey) from Patiserrie Hamama in 6 October. Dental suicide, but worth it.


McArabia: would you like dogma with that?


Far be it from me to plug a multinational food chain, but … rules were made to be broken. Let me phrase it this way: if there was no other option to eat in Egypt except at a McDonalds, you could do far worse.

Stop gasping people – I’m talking about the McArabia. Hurrah, McDonalds has forgone its cultural imperialism for one moment and come up with a passable alternative.

The McArabia is tasty flat bread with beef or chicken kofta, fresh lettuce, tomato and tahina inside. We have tried both and thoroughly rate the beef out of the two. At around LE25 (about A$5), it’s not cheap but it’s damned tasty.

They haven’t gone so far as to serve it up with the Ko’ran or a glow-in-the-dark plastic mosque alarm clock (yes, they are out there), but instead the standard fries and a drink.


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