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… 



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;)

The grand old Duke of York/had 7,000 men…

Today, I trotted around shamelessly trying to get in a photo op with the Duke of York, Prince Andrew. Well, what else would you do on a Saturday afternoon. I even had my own papp, ok, so I begged him to get the snap and hopefully he’ll send through. In the meantime, here’s my official blurb on today:

The Duke of York, HRH Prince Andrew, today signaled the UK’s resolve to continue its involvement in Afghanistan.

Speaking today at the 67th commemoration of the defining WWII battle of El Alamein on Egypt’s Mediterranean, HRH the Duke of York said the youth of the soldiers whose names are engraved on the cemetery’s tombstones is a reminder of those British troops currently serving in Afghanistan.

“However, I do not expect war can be eliminated from the human race,” he added. “If nothing else, history teaches us that … appeasement can be as dangerous as warmongering. We must accept that one day, we might have to go to war.”

The speech was held at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein, which has more than 7000 tombstones commemorating the lives of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers as well as other Allied nationalities. There are also German, Italian and Libyan war memorials in the area, where more than 80,000 soldiers died on the Western Desert front, including the 13-day attack from 23 October 1942, which saw one in six Allied and one in three Axis troops killed in action.

In a separate event 20km along the coast, organisers of an Egyptian group aimed at removing landmines from Egypt’s north coast say the region still has around 16.7 million unexploded devices dating from WWII, including shells and mortars, aircraft-dropped bombs, rounds of machine guns and small weapons, as well as anti-vehicle and anti-tank mines.

The UN-sponsored de-mining group says the civilian casualties and deaths as a result of these mines numbers ‘in the thousands,’ and estimates it will cost US$250 million to clear the remaining unexploded devices from the region. It is currently lobbying for assistance from the countries who laid the bombs to clean up the region.

All quiet on the North African front…

All quiet…until tomorrow, when I visit the former North African front of World War II, the village of El Alamein on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast,130km west of Alexandria.

Here was fought what Winston Churchill described as one of the defining battles of that war, on 22 – 26 October 1942.

It is estimated 80,000 soldiers have died in the area from 1940 to 1942, with the 1000km-long battlefield of the Western Desert stretching from Alexandria into Libya, control of the Suez Canal the plum reward. Just out of interest for Aussie readers, there are 22,000 graves in the cemeteries at Turkey’s war site, Gallipoli, also on Mediterranean shores, of which 9,000 are of identified burials with grave marker.

Each year, there is a commemoration service held at the El Alamein site run by one of the three countries who have substantial war cemeteries there: Britain (with 7,240 Commonwealth headstones), Germany and Italy. This year, it’s Britain’s turn, and Prince Andrew is expected to turn up.

If you’re interested in following it further, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a very good online search engine, its Debt of Honour register, where you can search by surname, nationality, year of death.

Horsing about in the desert – from Giza to Sakkara

Pink, Princess and Apple (To’faa): it sounds like picnic of Barbie dolls rather than three horses heading out for the 35km round trek between Giza and Sakkara pyramids – from one of the world’s most touristy sites to its lesser known cousin. In fact, dating from 2650BC, Sakkara is the world’s oldest stone monument.

Unlike bygone days when most Egyptians can tell you how they scrambled all over the pyramids as school children, both sites are heavily policed now (Sakkara far less – the lack of infrastructure has preserved its peace somewhat) so you can’t physically start at one and finish at the other as the boundaries prevent you from doing so. But you can come close…

The horses were snippety and cross while being saddled, fidgeting when we mounted, To’faa tried to bite Princess, who in turn had her hoof ready to give someone, anyone, a kick. Pink just twitched a lot blinking her long lashes, which were black on one eye and white on the other, lending her a curiously random look – like you don’t know what she’ll do next. All very Clockwork Orange.

We headed off at 6.30am, when the massive ball of red sun was still rising at Cairo was still warming up to its frantic pace.

Unfortunately, the route’s not all scenic. We had to cross a rock quarry with its busy trucks, cross and recross beneath massive electricity towers and pick our way through a mountain of rubbish in between stretches of empty desert. I left Pink her head to find the best route, and she took advantage of my lack of direction, interpreting it as I didn’t care if she walked the whole route.

The city of Giza, which sits alongside the city of Cairo, ends abruptly at the desert where the Pyramids begin. When you fly over it, it’s like someone’s drawn a line and said: sand here, palmtrees there. So our route skirted the edge of the greenery at times, or climbed into the barren desert, marked only by ancient ruins and electricity poles.

We stopped for tea in the Sakkara Country Club, watching enviously as a British woman on a mobile phone passed, iPod strapped to her bicep and clad in tight brown jodhpurs. She was astride a spectacular strutting bay gelding. Every inch of the pair gleamed and they really had a connection. “Pink, you could look like that,” I told her, to bolster her spirits. Pink looked at me like I was crazy.

There are said to be around 90 pyramids around Egypt, including the 20-odd pyramids here in Giza, Sakkara, which has 11 major pyramids alone.

There is one collection of step pyramids that isn’t hemmed in by fences, the pyramids of Abu Sir, according to a man in a gellibaya who it seems was sleeping on a wooden platform in the desert, morphing out of nowhere to chat and hold our horses.

I pushed Pink up the hill onto the first of the sites and, while I admired the architecture, I’m embarassed to admit that she crapped on its ancient stones.

The four crumbling pyramids of Abu Sir are between Giza and Sakkara, and date from 2494-2345BC, in the fifth dynasty, when Memphis was the capital of Egypt. My guidebook tells me the city was chosen as the symbolical point where the Nile Delta met the valley, unifying Upper and Lower Egypt.

From our vantage point up on the desert plateau above, you could never tell Memphis was such a grand city – donkeys towing massive loads compete for road space with enormous lorries, minibuses packed to the gills and the canal that runs down here is clogged with mountains of garbage, which doesn’t seem to deter keen fishermen and intrepid boys seeking respite from the summer heat.

We had a little photo shoot on our pyramid – it would take a return visit with guidebook in hand to work out where we were – and admired the three peaks of the Sakkara pyramids on the next hill, and turned our horses home.

We met a couple of old men watering four camels by a small stream, then saw later they had set up camp in the desert and were brewing tea. True Bedouins.

Pink was eager to get home so we galloped in our last breath of freedom. Our horses were taken by little boys who really should have been in school and I watched them hose Pink down: they put a finger over the nozzle to make the spray hard, and she stuck her face in the hose, letting it blast down the long white blaze on her nose.

The ride out to the Country Club took about two hours each way, and the ache kicked in even as we were driving home. Would I do it again? Tomorrow.

Cruising the Nile on the cheap

Hi all, here’s a story I had published in Australia’s Sun Herald newspaper recently about cruising the Nile in Cairo. Enjoy!

October 4, 2009

Exploring the Nile in downtown Cairo comes with volume control.

WHAT Cheap Nile cruises in Cairo.

WHERE The Nile River, runs through downtown Cairo.

HOW MUCH From 4 Egyptian pounds (about $1) for a 20-minute spin or 50 pounds for an hour in style.

WHY GO Feluccas have been trawling the Nile for millennia. In Cairo, there are two main types – the long, low, motorised boats and the more elegant sailboats.

Motorised feluccas operate mostly from sunset into the night. They can accommodate up to 20 people for a quick-and-dirty 20-minute spin up the Nile for less than a dollar and depart when the boat is full.

You can’t miss these boats; they’re the little floating discos with pink, fluoro lights and loud music.

This is definitely a local scene: the outboard motor is whiffy, the PA plays tinny Arab pop cranked up to 10 and unless you hire the entire boat for yourself, you’ll find yourself squished up against plenty of happy Egyptian tourists. In short, it’s Cairo in a microcosm: loud, smoky and up for a laugh.

You’ll skim past ramshackle houseboats, riverside clubs and the big, evocatively named dinner-cruise ships moored alongside the riverbank – Omar El Khayam, Nile City, Le Pacha 1901. Departure points for motorised feluccas include the promenade near Qasr el-Nil bridge in the suburb of Gezira.

Option two, on a sailboat felucca, is infinitely more relaxing – a quiet hour spent cruising the Nile will set you back about 50 pounds, with the price including the entire boat, which can hold up to 20 people and the captain. The best time is to head out before sunset, armed with a few beers or a bottle of wine.

They sail between University (Al-Gamma) Bridge and Galaa Bridge, near Doqqi. The best launching spot is Dok Dok on the Corniche el-Nil, opposite the Grand Hyatt or Four Seasons Nile Plaza.

You’ll spot Dok Dok himself – at 89 years old, the grand doyen of feluccas – taking tea with his many sons on the pier. A taxi will cost you just a few pounds from downtown, but make sure they don’t take you to the Four Seasons Giza.

FREE STUFF On the motorised boats, free entertainment comes in the form of a crackling tape player but if you’re lucky, the captain’s children might get up and do a surprisingly good belly dance or the traditional boys’ dance. No, you won’t see the pyramids but you will see 187-metre Cairo Tower, a phallic column built in 1961 allegedly with US money sent as a bribe to win Egypt over during the Cold War. As night falls, the sparkling tower changes from pink to puce to aquamarine. You can also see the Cairo Opera House. Forget swimming: the current is ferocious and you could get bilharzia.

ADDED BONUS The sailboats are much slower and steadier than their motorised mates, so you can photograph the Opera House and Cairo Tower. Leave half an hour before dusk for some great skyline shots of Africa’s most populous city.


Source: The Sun-Herald

The post-feast hangover hanging over Cairo

Well Ramadan has ended, and so has Eid el-Fitr, the three day ‘small’ feast that follows. It’s back to work, though the first day was a lot quieter than a normal working day in Cairo. It’s as though a collective hangover has dropped onto the city.

The first night of the feast was celebrated by a shopathon of epic proportions (it’s the time to buy new clothes, and yes, I obliged), followed by three days of peace. The traffic was so quiet, I could hear the birds in the trees, normally muted by the belting of a million car horns. Where were all the people? We found them…

Last night, we went to the Pyramids, to ride. It was pandemonium here, people. We went to our usual stable (it’s called NB, in case you’re asking) but to get to the stable, our cars had to dodge between horses of every shape, size and colour being led by small boys, dragged along by the handful to be saddled up for the armies of young guys that were pouring into Giza at midnight. Occasionally a few camels lurched slowly in front of the headlights, to add to the fray.

Hundreds of boys on rented nags barrelled out into the desert in packs of 10 to 20 at a time, riding as though their lives depended on it. Fearless, stupid. Choose your words. To the sides of the packs were the stable boys on ponies or donkeys, employed to holler and crack whips to keep the horses running.

Normally horseriding up here is most popular during the full moon, when the desert is lit up. But it was just after the crescent moon (Ramadan ends at the sighting of the crescent moon), so the desert was quite dark, and rang with shouts and whooping as everyone yelled out to keep sight of their mates.

I had a near miss and Karim’s horse reared at an oncoming horse and fell on its side. I asked what happened to him. “He reared and the next minute, I was standing beside him,” he said, still surprised at his own fortune, and we saw at least one riderless horse fleeing down the path, saddle and reins dangling. Dangerous? Yes. Crazy? Yes. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

Flesh and modesty in the name of religion

There are a suspiciously large amount of semi-naked men walking around Cairo airport as I am on my way to Nairobi. They are clad only in sparkling towels and shawls.

Obviously, it’s time for the Haj – the revered pilgrimage to Mecca that should be undertaken by Muslims at least once in the lifetime.

The surly customs guards have melted, wordlessly pushing them through the customs queues while we look on.

Otherwise, there are plenty of people pulling down their swine-flu face masks to drag on a last cigarette before they board their late-night flights to Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.

Cruise control

Like many other countries, Egypt can’t see why a motorbike or scooter should cope with just one or two people (even if the cost of petrol is, by our standards, incredibly skimpy, at just LE2, or about 22c/litre).

Newborn babies balanced on women’s laps as they ride side-saddle is common, while six is the highest count I’ve seen on a small Vespa, children hanging via the foot pegs and the will of God.

But tonight in Cairo, I saw two guys on a scooter, and the one on the back had his laptop open and was surfing the net as they cruised down the cool night streets. A blend of first-meets-third world, surely it takes geekdom to a whole new level?

Pilfering the petrodollar

You know I’ve mentioned before that Cairo’s full of Gulf Arabs at the moment, who will enjoy Egypt’s ‘cooler’ weather (it’s all relative) until just before Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, which starts on 21 August and continues until 19 September.

Apparently the rush of new movies and theatre is another drawcard for the influx of Gulfies, as such luxuries were banned in Saudi Arabia until recently.

Sure as an obvious foreigner I have the occasional moan about being treated as a wallet with legs (and chest) and subsequently charged double or triple the going rate, but the Gulf Arabs say they cop it far worse.

“[Egyptians] see my face, and they see a barrel of oil,” one Saudi banker was quoted as saying in an article in The National, a newspaper out of Abu Dhabi.

To help protect their petrodollars, Egyptian Tourism has established a phone hotline so foreign tourists can complain about being ripped off by hotels. Maybe they need another one for the camel touts and the papayrus ‘museums’…

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.

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