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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Honesty and Egypt Air

A note I read recently in Egypt Air’s inflight magazine, Horus, about air travel:

“Wear comfortable/casual pants/shoes – sometimes it gets cold and there may not be extra blankets. Plus, they are usually too small to keep you warm…”

Well, at least they’re honest, and the tickets usually cheap.


Sandboards, springs and the Schumacher of Siwa

It’s an obvious fact that once Cairenes are more than 15km past the outskirts of their town, they must tie a scarf on their heads.

Preferably a black-and-white checkered one, and then a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses, which seem to look good only on Arabs. Inevitably, we Caucasians end up looking like bad Tom Cruise wannabes or misguided PLO supporters.

So here’s the picture: 20 Cairenes attempting to sandboard the dunes of the Great Sand Sea, in far western Egypt. Thinking it would be a repeat of the last time I sandboarded – a terrifying face-first rocket down a dune I couldn’t see the bottom of – I opted out. For decorum’s sake, I gave it a hurl one last time, going down seated, but did a fairly spectacular face-plant and filled my ears with sand.

Soon everyone else who went up and down was mummified in a shell of sand glued together with sweat. Despite it being winter, this is still the Libyan Desert, friends, and that means warm days and cold nights in winter. Eyebrows disappeared beneath a layer of caramel sand, and the ever-prepared girls were giving the packets of hand wipes a good working out.

The sand came off in Bir Wahid, a hot water spring in the midst of the sand dunes. All the drivers converge there before sunset to hang out and chat, meaning the spring itself was full of bathers from all over the world, including a convoy of elderly Japanese. While I bobbed in the clean water, I chatted with a French woman, who, it turns out, was the sister-in-law of a lady I met at lunch in Mombasa, Kenya, a few months ago. The world is small and we are all but bit players.

Later that night, our Schumacher of Siwa, Nasr (that’s him here), would drive us out to a Siwi ‘party’ to hang out around the fire and watch the local boys doing their distinctive dance.

Nasr was, by this time, becoming addicted to the sound of our screams, and turned off his headlights to drop the 4WD down the dunes in the darkness.

Scream? We screamed in unison, in harmony and in mild terror. It was music to Nasr’s ears.


Visiting the Oracle

“Who goes to Siwa for three days?” a local asked me.

Well, me. And my 20 new friends. I could see the Siwan local’s point, though. Siwa is an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, just 50km from the Libyan border. To call the road journey there a slog is an understatement: it took us 12 hours with stops to cram chips and juice, tea and dodgy croissants at all-night road stops along the route that heads up toward Alexandria till you turn a sharp left and keep on driving another nine or 10 hours.

We left Cairo on the Thursday night before Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which I wrote about two blogs ago. The holiest of prayers is on the Friday morning, so at first light, we pulled up in front of a crumbling, empty mosque in the middle of nowhere. The adaan had turned the reverb up on the loudspeaker, and while some prayed, the rest of us slept in the bus or, like me, wandered in the cold desert night to stretch our legs and listen to the chill wind.

The second stop for prayers was an hour later, in another roadside mosque near Marsa Matrouh, this time a makeshift affair with screens up for the women to pray in, while the men lined up behind the old building. As we pulled up, we saw dozens of Bedouin families rolling up in trucks or walking across the highway from a cluster of shacks to pray, with an improbable amount of young boys in white gellibayas with black waistcoats over the top, shooting each other with their Eid toys, mostly semi-automatic rifles and machine guns.

By the time we got to our hotel, Siwa Gardens, a hessian sack on a concrete floor would have sufficed. But the spring-fed pool and pretty domed ceilings (natural air-conditioners, they’re cool in summer) made up for it all.

After a swim and shower, we headed out on the town. The oasis comprises the main town, built around the crumbling mudbrick Shali fortress, and a scattering of villages amongst the palm gardens and out along desert tracks. Donkey carts are the main form of transport, though they’re under threat from cheap Chinese motorbikes. The main industries are bottling spring water and growing dates and olives. My guidebook suggests that the town’s Bank of Cairo might be the world’s only bank made from mudbrick. It’s ATM coughed up cash and the clerk spoke good English. What more do you need?

I miss my bike in Australia even more after we hired some sturdy but wonky beasts to explore with. The afternoon passed in a deliciously blurry breeze – skimming on rough tracks through the palm gardens, past hot and cold natural springs and chasing donkey carts loaded with shrouded women and children in bright silks, visiting relatives on the first day of the feast.

At the temple of the Oracle of Amon, we listened for the clues to what Alexander the Great might have whispered to the Oracle before taking Egypt for his own. The Oracle wasn’t telling; she is sleeping in her hilltop fortress as life moves slowly amongst the palms below.


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)!


Egypt-Algeria match fever

Tickets went on sale today for the Egypt v Algeria match on Saturday. Boys have already started selling flags on the streets in the lead-up to the match, and it’s rivaling swine flu as the top story of the day.

This is Egypt’s last chance to get into the 2010 World Cup, and the build-up is intense. Algeria needs to win, draw or even lose by just one goal to qualify, but Egypt needs a three-goal margin to qualify. If they come out two goals ahead, they’ll go into another play-off in Sudan on 18 November.

The match will be held at Cairo Stadium, which holds 80,000 fans, and organisers are upping the security to stop them from bringing in fireworks and…lighters. Um, hello, in a country where smoking is a profession? When we watched the Egypt v Zambia match at the stadium, they even took the poles out of our flags.

Fans on both sides have been slagging each other off online for weeks in what’s been described as a cyber-war that’s downright nasty. They’ve hacked the websites of the major newspapers and even the prez, Hosni Mubarak, isn’t immune, with his own website getting done over.

An Algerian song on YouTube is poking at Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six Day war with Israel (“We are not the ones who sold Palestine to the Jews”) while Egypt slapped back with the gibe, “”We liberated you when France made you slaves/Talk to me in French because your Arabic is so broken.” As you can see, they’re playing nice.

I love the fact the National Heart Institute has issued a warning to heart patients, telling them not to watch the match. Quoting a Swiss study that found a 60 percent rise in heart attacks in the last World Cup, the good doctor has advised Egyptians to exercise, avoid smoking and drinking alcohol and refrain from fast food before watching the match.

Women and girls are being told to stay home (they can’t shout loud enough, anyway), though with a history of rioting at previous games between the two countries, many girls will be happy to steer clear.

If Egypt wins, Cairo will burn and the car horns won’t stop till dawn. If she loses, this will be one sorry city.


Getting piggy

I got a call from a friend today: he was livid. His kids’ expensive school here in Cairo has been closed because of an outbreak of swine flu – a common story, even my bro is enjoying a little paid holiday due to the same at his school in Ukraine.

However, when my Egyptian friend took his kids to hospital to have them checked out, he found people crammed in the hospital, flu or not, all breathing the same ikky, sickky hospital air while they waited their turn.

Yesterday, the Egyptian health minister announced hospitals would no longer test people with suspected swine flu – doctors have been told just to whack the suspects full of Tamiflu and the usual anti-viral medication because it’s cheaper than throat swabs and lab work.

Egypt has reported its sixth death due to swine flu (compared with 4000 or so in the US), so it’s no wonder I get the hairy eye when I get on the metro, as we foreigners are considered the culprits. Like the kids in the photo above, some women are wearing those white face masks beloved of Asian countries (I heard eyewitness reports of a group of Japanese tourists climbing through the pure air of Mt Moses in Sinai wearing white masks), while muniquabbas, women who wear the face veil and gloves, must surely feel insulated and protected.

Egypt loves a good conspiracy theory: is it an American plot? A disease created by cash-hungry multi-national drug companies owned by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense? The work of an anti-pig lobby group? It’s been labeled a pandemic, and there are rumours that 20,000 Egyptians are being infected every day, but the Ministry of Health says there are precisely 1881 cases of swine flu in Egypt. Aaah, nobody takes the government figures seriously. The one good thing about swine flu is the government’s personal hygiene campaign – perhaps Egyptians will stop throwing their used tissues out car windows and on the ground.

(Photo credit: AFP)


Bedouins and Beyonce

About a month ago, Adam, spotter of weird internet stuff par excellence, sent me a link to a ‘beautiful camel’ competition in Dubai with a question: do they have anything like this in Egypt?

I asked friends who said,”Belle, where are you living? Of course we do!” But they’re not easy to find like those in the Gulf states. A beautiful camel competition, for those of you who are unawares is, obviously, a beauty competition for camels.

Popular in the Arab region, the most fetching animal can haul in a swag of cash. Beautiful goat competitions have sprung up recently too, in a part of the world where displaying your womenfolk in skimpy bikinis to be ogled by other men is considered uncouth.

So I hunted around but found mostly just camel races, with a gathering each May in south Sinai the big event. The exception was the Characters of Egypt gathering. In only its second year, the event gathers tribes from across Egypt to play traditional music, compete in tugs-of-war and other physical feats and yes, to race camels.
As to be expected, it’s organised by a foreigner. The reaction from some Cairenes when I mentioned I was going to head down past Marsa Alam (12 hours by bus, 1:20 hour flight) to hang out with Bedouin tribesmen, was lots of giggling and slight disbelief. However, others were more impressed.

“We saw it on Facebook and thought it’d be a cool thing to go to,” a young, funky banker told me on why she and her friends had made the trek. There were representatives of tribes from Siwa on the Libyan border, the Farafra oasis in the Western Desert, Nubia, north and south Sinai and the local tribes from by the Red Sea or in the nearby mountains, way down here on the Sudanese border.

We spent two days at the camp, learning to tell the difference between the tribes – all wear light-coloured gellibayas, but some, like Al-Bashariya and Al-Ababda, put a black waistcoat over the top, while the North Sinai men wear red-and-white scarves (kufiya) with the black ring (iqal) to hold it down, a sight common in the gulf states, which they’re closest to.

The Nubians were set apart because they’re darker, and now not so nomadic, and also they were the only people to bring women with them. Yeah, they had the girls. And sexy girls, too. Unveiled and all, being presenters for Nubian TV, which was there in force, along with plenty of other media. The older, heavily cloaked traditional Nubian women gave me a quick lesson in zagaroota, the ululating they do when celebrating or dancing and one another painted a henna design around my arm, the tribes discussed the steep rise of hotels on their land, and everyone was dragged up for a dance around the fires at night.

The local tribes brought their camels and caretas (carts) to take people out into the nearby Wadi Gamel, travelling also with their flock of goats and a few tall donkeys who roamed about our tents like grey ghosts in the night.

Amazingly, I met old friends including Gomma, my young guide from Siwa who proved to be an enthusiastic stilt dancer, some of the organisers of the Egyptian 4WD rally I went to in Bahariyya oasis in February, and an old Bedouin remembered giving me a ride in his pick-up in Sharm el Sheik (to prove he knew me, and wasn’t just doing a line, he told me, ‘You said you wouldn’t give me your phone number because your husband will get mad,’ a line I use every day).

The camel from North Sinai won the race pot, LE15,000 (about US$5000) and Siwa won the hotly-contested tug-of-war.

Logistically, it was amazing. Held in the desert in a national park about 60km from the town of Marsa Salam, you could either stay in a nearby five-star hotel or pitch a tent, the admission fee covering three meals a day and however much tea or coffee you could cadge from the kitchen. There were even tents for hire and the media tent had internet that was fast, but sporadic. The tribes also displayed their handcrafts in the ‘giftshop’, a tent selling everything from elaborate musical instruments to cartons of cigarettes (the most popular item).

If you’re here next year, I would absolutely recommend going, so you can get up close and personal with a way of life that’s completely different to many in Egypt.

Marsa Alam is a mess of half-baked construction sites, a ratty bus depot and a flash new airport where, three days after we’d all packed up and gone home, Beyonce flew in to perform in a remote luxury resort. From Bedouins to Beyonce, Egypt once again shows two its many faces. www.charactersofegypt.com


Love, acid and lost shoes: notes from Cairo’s dailies…oes:

A snippet from a regular column in The Egyptian Gazette by journalist Hugh Nicol, titled “Red-Handed”, which salubriously details local crimes, very often featuring rather horrific crimes of passion. See below.

“A 23-year old woman called Samar Attiya got her revenge on the lover who refused to marry her by pouring acid on a sensitive part of his body in the early hours of the morning. The young man died of his injuries in hospital.

The deceased 25-year-old Ahmed Moustafa, an accountant from Maadi, was due to get engaged [to another woman] the following day…Two of Ahmed’s friends told police that he’d been intimate with a young woman called Samar, whom he refused to marry. She then asked him to pay for a hymen reconstruction operation, in order to prevent scandal. When he didn’t cooperate, she got in touch with the woman who he was planning to marry and started threatening her. Samar, a 23-year-old nurse from Shubra el-Kheima…admitted killing Ahmed, explaining that she slept with him because he’d promised to marry her.

On the night he died, Samar rang Ahmed and told him she wanted to make love with him just one more time before he got engaged to the other woman. He met her in the early hours of the morning on the Cairo-Helwan Agricultural Road.

She got into his car and they started making out together. Samar got him to lie on the back seat. She then pulled off his trousers and poured the lethal acid…on his chopper.”

Chopper. Hmmm. Other notable stories this week include a teacher from Alexandria charged with beating a tardy student with a stick, breaking two ribs. Notable because last year, another Alex teacher was convicted of beating a student to death.

And the lead story: The Egyptian transport minister has resigned over the rail crash that killed 18 people earlier this week. The crash took place when one train stopped as there was a water buffalo on the track, and a second train rear-ended the first. Three railway workers, who were supposed to be watching the track, have been charged with manslaughter. One survivor reminisced about an injured woman “screaming for her new shoe and asking other wounded passengers to help her find it”.

The daily cartoon is particularly bleak: a man buying a train ticket from the station window is asked for his destination, to which he replies, “The hereafter”. Thanks to everyone who thoughtfully emailed to make sure I wasn’t on the train.


At the feet of gods: Cruising Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel

Hi all, Egypt’s going great guns in the Australian press at the moment. This piece appeared this week in Sydney’s Sun Herald newspaper. Much is drawn from blogs, so don’t yell if you think you’ve read some of it before!

At the feet of gods: Cruising Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel

If you were asked how you’d like to spend a year of your 20s when you’re fit, strong and virile, you probably wouldn’t choose a drowned Nubian desert with no women, no shops, late-night cafes and definitely no all-night rave clubs. Unfortunately for the young Egyptian guy standing in front of me, that’s exactly the hand he’s been dealt.

He’s stuck here in southern Egypt, serving his compulsory military service in a grubby might-have-been-white uniform as part of the police presence at the historical temple complex of Wadi el-Seboua.

We get excited spotting him as he’s one of the few people we see from our cruiser, the MS Kasr Ibrim, as we coast from Aswan to Abu Simbel on the silent waters of Lake Nasser, just north of the Sudanese border.

“No photos, no photos!” he shouts as we attempt to snap the first living thing we’ve seen all day.

But every time he senses a camera, he avoids eye contact and assumes a suspiciously practised pose, gazing out to the water, gun at the ready.

These temple sites are serious one-donkey affairs and accessible only by boat. “In 2009, the lake is considered isolated but in 1300BC, when the Pharaoh Ramses II built these temples, this would have been considered the end of the Earth,” our guide, Safi, says, waggling a long finger. For the policeman, it still is. Aside from travellers in a few luxury cruisers, the only people the young copper sees are the temple guards from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities and some fishermen who double as camel-tour touts.

There’s just the temple and the lake. For him it’s hell but for us spoilt few, it’s two flights downstairs from heaven.

Lake Nasser is the world’s largest artificial lake and is often described as one of the great engineering feats, a statement that, unless you’re an engineer, just makes you want to nod off.

It’s not until you’re on the lake – and concurrently in the midst of the desert – that it sinks in. Lake Nasser is more than 500 kilometres long and up to 30 kilometres wide. Unlike the Lower Nile cruises between Aswan and Luxor, you can barely see the coastline. And what you can see is desert, sans oases. No lush palms, little villages or happy farming scenes.

Occasionally, we spot a tiny shack for fishermen chasing balti and the monstrous Nile perch that can grow to more than 180 centimetres long and tip the scales past 170 kilograms.

Of the handful of cruisers operating on Lake Nasser, our boat, a 1920s art deco extravaganza named after a ruined Nubian fortress, is the best known. Instead of a single cabin with a porthole the size of a pigeon’s eye, I’ve landed a suite with a wraparound sundeck and walls of walnut veneer. There are a few old-fashioned touches, like the built-in radio near the bedhead and the paper hygiene strip wrapped around the toilet a la the Miss Congeniality sash on a beauty queen.

The Kasr Ibrim is usually 60:40 French to Brits, though this time the French have well and truly won and there are but nine native English speakers on board. We’re a small, energetic group, me and the Brits in their 50s and 60s, and are raring to go with Safi, our own hip, lanky guide.

While still moored in Aswan, we take a little boat out to the Temple of Kalabsha, set on a sometimes-island in the lake. We take in the nitty-gritty of the carvings – sure there’s Horus, Isis and all the ancient godly gang but also reliefs of macho Ramses II giving some Nubian soldiers a good hiding, receiving an exotic procession of people bearing leopard skins, shields, fox furs, monkeys, cheetahs and giraffes and, as a full-grown man, being breastfed by goddesses; cue for naughty snickering and talk of Oedipal complexes.

The next morning we set sail, navigating the original channel of the River Nile. Looking over the pilot’s shoulder, I see dark spots on the radar, a drowned landscape submerged in up to 180 metres of water.

We clink glasses as we cross the Tropic of Cancer and stop to explore the temples of Dakka, Amada, Derr and the ancient tomb of Penout, where a bloke wearing a dusty jellabiya waggles a baby crocodile at me. “Five pounds for a photo,” he mutters as I pass.

It might be just a few weeks old but already the Nile crocodile has the 1000-yard stare of a born killer. They’re famously bad-tempered and famously shy of humans (despite having a taste for us) and we spot a grown-up croc languishing on a muddy riverbank giving a few flamingos the eye before sliding into the waters. In their heyday, the temples along the lake’s shores were part of the lands of Nubia, one of those ephemeral concepts of a country where a distinct ethnic group’s traditional lands have been swallowed by surrounding countries or, in this case, a lake.

Poor Nubians – they’ve been beaten by both ends of the stick. Their heritage was first lost to the shifting desert sands, then rediscovered in the early 1800s when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon Abu Simbel, only to be lost once again, along with their villages, to the rising waters of the dammed Nile in the 1970s. It gives a whole new meaning to being between a rock and a hard place.

The government relocated the 800,000-odd villagers, paying them a small compensation, and when the global village realised the proposed Aswan High Dam, built between 1958 and 1971, would also immerse a swag of significant temples, 54 countries rushed in to perform heroic piece-by-piece removals and reconstructions, including the piece de resistance, the relocation of Abu Simbel.

After three days’ easy sailing, we arrive at Abu Simbel, the jewel of Nubia, bang on lunchtime. Our cruiser prowls the waters in front of the temples for a rare view of the 13th-century BC temple, with the megalomaniacal tribute to Ramses II – four 20-metre colossi demanding the attention of our cameras. Forget schlepping through the temple in the heat of the day with the hundreds of tourists who’ve flown down or travelled from Aswan in a convoy of buses, though; later, once the weather cools and the other tourists have gone home, we’ll disembark to explore the temples in relative peace. But for now, we will take lunch with kings and gods.

During the relocation, the temple was sliced into 830 blocks and moved up and away from the lake. Only the faces remained uncut.

The temple was even reconstructed so the sun still falls on Ramses’s face twice a year, on his birthday and his ascension to the throne, as per the original design.

Essentially, Abu Simbel was an enormous public-relations exercise – those entering the kingdom from the south via the Nile would be reminded of the greatness of that land’s ruler by being confronted by massive statues of Ramses. Word has it he was a bit of a cuckoo, stealing earlier kings’ victories by slapping his cartouche everywhere, talking himself up as ruler of the world. Seems he was more a lover than a fighter, fathering almost 100 children.

Beside the great temple of Ramses II is the smaller temple of the mother-goddess Hathor, built for Ramses’s beloved and beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Inside her temple are massive reliefs of the battle of Qadesh in 1275BC, where Ramses shows off, sticking it to the Hittites in a classic case of: “Look at me, Nefertiti!”

Officially, you can’t take photos inside the temple but for an idea of scale, thousands of tourists are snapped beside Ramses’s seated statues at the front of the temple. Little ants, we barely reach the top of his great toes.

We stay at the temples until dusk, then take a seat at his feet for the sound and light show.

“Son of the sun, king of eternal time,” begins the stentorian voice of the storyteller in the darkness.

Clouds of light race across the night sky to grow stronger until they illuminate the temples of Abu Simbel. Lover, fighter, builder, glory hound: Ramses II is showing nightly, proof that fame is the elixir of eternal youth.

GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Cairo via Abu Dhabi. Phone 1800 998 995, see etihadairways.com. EgyptAir flies Cairo-Aswan-Abu Simbel.

SIGHTSEEING

MS Kasr Ibrim sails every Saturday from Aswan to Abu Simbel for four nights-five days and every Wednesday from Abu Simbel for three nights-four days. Winter berths (October-April) are priced from €173 ($278) a person, a night, twin share. Includes all meals, a guide and entrance to all sights. Book through Soleils d’Egypte, phone +202 2644 0150, email contact@soleilsdegypte.com, or Nemonic Concepts, phone (02) 9526 8519, see nemonic.com.au. Also see kasribrim.com.eg

The Abu Simbel Sound and Light Show takes about 35 minutes, see soundandlight.com.eg

FURTHER INFORMATION

See egypt.travel


The prince and I

It’s not quite The King and I – but here’s me and the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, at Alamein’s Commonwealth War Cemetery on Saturday, which was the day the UK remembered its war dead in the World War II battles that took place here.

Ok, I wouldn’t say he’s standing BESIDE me, but you get the picture. I was there with a Californian press photographer, who sidled up to me, muttering “Which one is he?” The answer: the one in the bright red hat. Dead giveaway.

Most non-Commonwealth people thought the rather dashing silver-haired gent beside him was the prince (we think that was one of the ambassadors who attended).

I’m unnaturally proud of the pic, for a Republican, that is;)


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