Encountering Egypt – an abandoned paradise
Egypt hasn’t had the best reputation of late, what with violent uprisings, Tahir Square and terrorist scares. But as PAUL JUDGE found out, this idyllic and incredibly historical nation is on the rise to greatness once more, and for tourists – is the ideal holiday getaway.
CRUISING the Nile, snorkelling the Red Sea, being ripped off at the markets and posing for silly photos in front of the Pyramids are all essential parts of a travellers time in Egypt. The country is driven by tourism. For a year now though, the crowds have stopped and the lifeblood of their economy dried up.
In case you haven’t read a newspaper or watched the news in the past 12 months, Egypt has undergone a political revolution from a military dictatorship to the beginnings of a democratic nation. With the triumph of the people came publicity which didn’t inspire confidence in tourists to visit. With elections looming there, the media portrayal is of a country which is dangerous and unstable. But after a recent visit at the invitation of Encounters Travel I’m convinced there is no reason to take Egypt off your list.
Any trip to Egypt has to include the River Nile. It’s a part of the country’s history. The Pharaohs, the Romans, the Arabs all relied on this massive water line for their livelihood and the Egyptians continue to today.
For our whirlwind trip of Egypt- we get to experience the river in modern surroundings by stepping onto a refurbished Dahabyia in Aswan in Southern Egypt for the first few days. The plush houseboats or ‘hotels on water’ have all the luxuries associated with cruise liners but with a lot less people.
We only have two days on board but experience a taste of the opulence and uniqueness of this accommodation. We take in a spot of lunch on the top deck before retiring to the sun beds for a snooze. After a late afternoon dip, we take in the sunset and some Egyptian beer, my new friend for the next few days.
During one of the blissful days aboard the floating ‘palace’, we set out for the UNESCO World Heritage site of Abu Simbel (pictured above). A three hour drive from Aswan deep into the desert, we were soon staring up at the looming statues which sit over 30 metres high in the rock face.
From luxurious to traditional – we swapped our houseboats for a night on a felucca. The traditional sail boats of the Nubian people glide peacefully along the water in a zigzag motion to catch the wind. Our bed for the night is one huge mattress on deck, shared by 12 of us. The night sky and tranquillity is only broken in the morning by the insane braying of donkeys on the bank. Weary eyed, we suspect some of the crew members are complicit in an early morning prank.
We head on to Luxor, home of the aptly named -Luxor Temple- which we explore at night. Normally there would be thousands of visitors here and we would be lining up for hours but I see only scattered small groups around the stunning site.
For us, the lack of other tourists and visitors is a bonus and it continues throughout the trip with all the Egyptian sights easily accessible. This was evident the very next day at the enormous site of Karnak Temple. Average daily crowds of 12-15,000 people are replaced by under a hundred and it highlights just how much the country’s economy is bleeding.
Before our trip to the empty Karnak, we experience something undeniably special – a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, and fantastic views of Luxor and the surrounding temples. The 3:30am wake-up is well worth it, as we float 3000 feet above the ground and Mohammed our pilot asks us if it’s our first hot air balloon ride. We nod and he replies ‘me too’. I’m beginning to discover the Egyptian sense of humour and how they give the Aussie’s a run for their money in the sarcasm stakes. Well, at least I hope he’s joking about it being his first time…
After a long morning of sight-seeing we are rewarded with an afternoon siesta and some poolside down time at the Steigenberger Nile Palace where we are staying. This amazing hotel overlooks, yes, you guessed it – the Nile. Visitors to Egypt are keen to explore the popular destinations but rest and relaxation rate just as highly.
It’s no more evident than when we fly into Sharm El-Sheikh. East of Cairo and entrance to the Red Sea, this part of the country is full of plush resorts and all-inclusive packages, but we are headed for the smaller and less developed town of Dahab.
Here we indulge in quad biking, camel riding and snorkelling around the Blue Hole. A large swimming area full of coral and the colourful fishy creatures it attracts, it is also a popular scuba diving spot. In the distance you can see Saudi Arabia. I wave but can’t be sure if they see how much fun we’re having.
At night the restaurants along the bay churn out fresh seafood while the moon reflects off the peaceful water as it quietly hugs the shore. I briefly consider ditching the group and my London life for simpler days in this remote paradise but the hustle and bustle of Cairo calls.
After several days of a slower pace in the quieter areas of Egypt, Cairo hits you with its size and fast pace. The clogged roads and sea of people is almost overwhelming but hypnotic to watch in action. Imagine taking all of Australia and placing it in one city. Don’t even bother imagining, because with a population of 22 million – Cairo is Australia, just in one city.
As we shuffle along the motorway with the constant tooting of horns and creative driving we listen to Sami our guide explain the city and the most recent chapter of Egypt’s turbulent history as we drive past Tahir Square. This square was the setting for the people’s revolution of January 2011. He explains to us the dissatisfaction of living under military rule and how government corruption brought the people to the streets in mainly peaceful protests, which eventually led to the collapse of the government.
He becomes quite emotional as he points out the areas where he camped out all night and what it meant to the people whose only hope was for a taste of democracy. We then spend the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum which is an onslaught of artefacts and pieces from the ancient Egyptian world.
The big draw card is the relics from Tutankhamun, the child Pharaoh. His tomb was the only tomb untouched by vandals and looters when discovered in 1922 and the obscene wealth is on display including the 15kg pure gold face mask. Not bad for a 19 year old.
Our last night is spent indulging in more Egyptian hospitality and we try ‘Kushari’ – a dish of rice and pasta combined with chickpeas and lentils. An odd combination and not something you’ll see on the Atkins Diet but it works all the same.
Last up on our tour is the granddaddy of them all, the Pyramids. No introduction necessary, these are something you have to see when visiting Egypt. We are lucky enough to have a great view of them from our hotel but up close is how they should be viewed. Cue cliche ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ photos plus a few moments to be overawed at their grandeur.
And then the Egyptian adventure is over all bar the flight home. With a week full of memories and a temporary tan (I passed on the obligatory henna tattoo for a longer reminder) I have been taken by this amazing country, its rich history and fantastic people.
Want my advice? Put Egypt back on your travel plans. With the right precautions it’s perfectly safe while the country is making a transition to democracy. This won’t happen overnight, but in the meantime the opportunity to see a country like this is there and you’ll probably be wise to go now while it’s off everyone else’s radar.
The author travelled courtesy of Encounters Travel (tel: 0800 088 6002) and flew with Egypt Air