Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Eygpt’ Category

Ma’a Salama Egypt

Posted by jamesandpolls on April 4, 2010

Happy Easter to all!

I am writing this in Aswan, which marks the end of our month in Egypt, Arabia, and the start of something new – Sudan. The last two weeks have been fascinating and we are both very pleased that we have spent this long in Egypt, which has allowed us to really get under its skin.

After our last blog entry we headed to the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor. We got up early and crossed the Nile on the public ferry. Once across we found a bicycle rental shop and rented two very rickety bicycles, which were probably older than Tutankhamen himself and made our way past the plethora of other temples and tombs up towards the Valley of the Kings (VoTK).  For those amateur Egypt enthusiasts Luxor is the modern name for Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt for most of the time and as a result has the highest density of ancient sites to visit. The West Bank is literally littered with 2-4,000 year old monuments to Gods, Pharoes, Nobles, Queens etc . .

4000 year old Hieroglyphics

The VoTK is about 8 km from the Nile and Polls and I both felt pleased that we had decided to drive to Cape Town as supposed to cycling. Sweaty and sore we arrived in the very airless and oppressively hot valley that is the site for about 30 separate tombs. To make sure that they are not overcrowded you are only allowed to visit three on any one visit which is actually plenty as one tomb pretty much looks like any other (there I said it).  They are incredible though. The effort that went into the making and concealing of the tombs was incredible and to see the hieroglyphics in the tombs depicting great feats and conquered lands was a real spectacle. The story of Tutankhamen makes his temple the most popular in the VoTK. Although a great story it is by no means the most spectacular tomb and is often overcrowded so Polls and I stuck to the tombs that were the furthest away from the entrance to the valley and therefore the most empty.

The Temple of Hatsheput

On our way back to Luxor we stopped at another temple (Hatsheput) which looked like it was built yesterday, certainly more modern than many of the Russian haircuts that were being sported along with a spattering of beer bellies and bikinis (some with both) courtesy of the Hurghada tour buses that coincided with our visit.

Weary after the cycling and temple/tomb visits we retired to the pool in our campsite for a well earned break where luckily we bumped into an ex REME mechanic who took a look at PAX, who has been leaking engine oil, and gave him the all clear, at least till Nairobi.

We left Luxor and headed North East across the Eastern desert to the Red Sea. Passing the concrete monstrosity that is Hurghada we arrived at our destination, Al Gouna, where we were going to stay with a friend, Bex, for 4 nights. Al Gouna is a closed, purpose built resort town with 10 or so 5* hotels and anything else you might want for a luxury holiday. It was quite a culture shock. Road verges were green and manicured, men at every junction act as pointless traffic signallers, supermarkets are stocked with Western produce, yachts grace the waterfront and the air has a strong smell of money.

Chilling out in El Gouna

If you listen hard you can hear the private jets from Cairo bringing the Egyptian elite to this seashore paradise. It was SO different to the rest of our Egyptian experience – affluent not effluence, that it took us a few days to get used to.On our first night there the ex President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf was at the next table enjoying his steak frites and glass of Chardonnay, but probably not as much as we were. We would both like to thank everyone in El Gouna for their hospitality, Bex let us treat her home like ours, and others (Edward and Bex in particular) who allowed us to enjoy the opportunity to the maximum, something our rather meagre budget would not have allowed. Thank you so much!

So with clothes washed, roof tent cleaned and PAX looking sparkling we ventured out into the Egypt that we love but had forgotten.  We spent the next two nights on the Red Sea Coast, camping right next to the sea, and buying fish to BBQ each night, before heading back across the Eastern Desert to Aswan, which marks the end of our Egypt adventure.

Dive boats heading out to sea - Marsa Alam, Red sea coast

Aswan is a great place. Nubian in its historical origin there is a much more relaxed vibe here. With fewer tourists the locals are nicer and less pushy and the lack of campsites means that we are enjoying a couple of nights in a bed. (and enjoying the roof top pool that this hotel has!). Luckily, when we arrived we went straight to see the ‘ferry guy’ who, as it turned out, had forgotten that I had called in Luxor and had not written our names down. We got the last place on the car barge, something we feel extra lucky about as 6 other vehicles who arrived after us and did not book will have to wait for another week before they can get the next ferry to Sudan.  Instead of hanging around in Aswan we took a felucca for 2 days and two nights on The Nile, which was fantastic.

Slightly more relaxed than the Sydney -Hobart..

There is not much else to do other than watch the bank drift slowly by reading a book and enjoying the feasts that out skipper, Captain Jack Sparrow, cooked up for us three times a day.We had a great group of people from all corners of the world and had a good laugh.

Felucca Sunset

We have now been back in Aswan for two days (which is enforced so that we can do all the necessary paperwork to get the ferry which we board tomorrow). As the temperature soars into the mid 30s we have had time to reflect on our Egyptian experience. There is no doubt that the remnants of the ancient Egyptians are a marvel, it is incredible that they had the time, money, energy and inclination to build such edifices to themselves and their gods and one wonders if they might have survived as an empire had they built more ‘useful’ monuments such as defences or irrigation/sanitation systems or something with a financial return.

Nubian man by the Nile

The Egyptian people are great, welcoming, warm and friendly but remember that they are fighting to make a living in this overcrowded country. They certainly don’t let you forget as they ask for baksheesh or tips at every opportunity.

Feluccas on the Nile, Aswan

This is also the end of Arabia and it marks a distinct shift in the feel of our journey. We have enjoyed the region and the peoples but are relishing a change. We enter Sudan in exciting times. The elections, the first for over 20 years, are due to take place next week and in a country which has been dogged by civil war, where ethnic and political rifts are the norm, who knows what will be thrown in our path.

P.s – we were in the Egypt Daily News last weekend –  for the article click here

Posted in Eygpt | 2 Comments »

Land of the Pharaohs

Posted by jamesandpolls on March 23, 2010

As we sat in Aqaba we contemplated the next step.  During our research we had gathered many conflicting reports about driving through Egypt. The border was, almost without exception, considered to be the worst; laboured, long, expensive and the permanent possibility that you wont get anything done without giving some baksheesh to one or all of the customs officials. We had also heard that the country itself was so geared up to tourists that it was impossible to get under the skin, get away from the touts and the hasslers selling fake Papyrus, alabaster pyramids etc. . We had also heard that compared to other Arabic nations the Egyptians were downright unfriendly. . .

Dahab relaxation

So it was some trepidation that we embarked on the Aqaba – Nueiba ferry (thus avoiding Israel). It did not get off to a great start as I had my first driving accident- whilst squeezing through a gap to get into the ‘car x-ray’ machine our sandladders hooked around a truck’s wing mirror and cracked it. There was a lt of very loud honking and waving from the driver. After parking in the X ray machine I made to go back to the driver to come to some arrangement but was waved in the other direction by an official and could not get to the driver. . and never saw him again. So. Public apology. Sorry to the driver of the white truck in Aquaba with a cracked wing mirror, I owe you.

The ferry was pretty uneventful. It was grotty and three hours late, but better than we expected on both counts. As we trundled off the ferry and got lost in the terminal we geared ourselves up for the nightmare which . . .never happened! It was expensive and pretty laborious with many dusty ledgers being signed and photocopies being made and 10EP (Egyption Pounds) being handed out for this and that but there did not seem to be too much ripping off and after 2 hours we were proud owners of a new set of Egyption number plates which now adorn PAX  (now VAAS) and a Egyption drivers licence that I am sure does not say James Townsend-Rose (Rose Townsend probably), but who cares, we were off.

Hard Core Snorkelers

Dahab was our first stop where we spent a chilled four days on the beach. It was a balmy 30 degrees and we took the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the amazing snorkling and atmosphere of this little divers haven. It was also our first taste of package Russian tourism (emerging Russian middle class, cheap flights to Egypt, heat, diving, mullets, outrageously small bikinis, tattoos and beer guts – more of this later). The reefs were the best and the water the clearest we have ever seen and it was a great break to really relax.

We then headed inland into the Sinai peninsula and to St Katherine’s Monastry and Mt. Sinai. Crossing the barren desert of inland Sinai we felt a bit sorry for Moses and his Israelites who wondered here for 40 years after crossing the Red Sea, it is rocky and incredibly dry, a really harsh environment which even the most hardy Bedouin try and avoid. We camped near the base of Sinai and to avoid the Sharm tourists who come by the tour buses to watch the sun set. We decided to climb this mountain for sunrise. Moses must have been pretty fit as well as hardy as the climb is no easy feat. It is about 2,200 metres high with a killer set of 750 rocky steps at the summit. It was well worth it though as we watched the sun go down with only 10 or so others over the Sinai mountains. We particularly enjoyed one woman who had decided to climb the mountain in a leather leotard and wedges, she must have come up the easy route!

Summit of Mt Sinai at sunset

The next day we visited St Katherine’s monastery where a clipping from the burning bush now thrives (a kind of rose bush we thought – not what you might expect). The monastery was closed but a little backhander to the guy on the door and we were in for a quick private tour and a photo beneath the bush. There is also a well from which couples can drink to ensure a long and happy marriage . . .the well was not offering up water when we were there so no heavenly help for our marriage I am afraid, we both touched it though so are hoping that will count.

Under the Burning Bush!

From Sinai we trotted onto Cairo and as we exited from the Suez tunnel we were officially in Africa (again). No sea between us and Cape Town! Coming into Cairo was a hair raising experience. The traffic, the waving the shouting and the beeping was a complete contrasts to the miles of deserted desert roads we had been on. There must be a Syrian School of Driving, Cutting Up and Honking near Cairo.  In all this chaos we were met with the most awesome sight, the sun setting behind the Pyramids of Giza (no exaggeration for poetic effect) and as we got closer (we were camping about 2km away from the Pyramids) this scene only became more magnified. It was the first time, for me at least, that I felt we have really driven a long way. . to the Pyramids! It was also surreal to see something that you have such a clear picture of in your minds eye for real, right in front of you.

Cairo is a huge city, 20 million people, and they all live on top of each other. It is like an ant colony, from dawn till dusk millions of people scurrying around in very close confinement on roads, buses, taxis, motorbikes, donkeys, the Nile, trains, all shopping, shouting, driving, honking. . it’s a madhouse. Just outside and I mean just are the three Pyramids of Giza. Closed in on three sides by the suburbs of Giza (which which is basically Giza) and one side left open to the desert (invariably the side you see as the backdrop in the photos) it is at first hard to get a feel for the pyramids. Your attention is dragged away from these marvels of architecture and building by the touts and the hasslers, the children saying hello and the same word that everyone in the whole Middle East has been saying ‘Welcome to Egypt.’ The Russian bikini clad women and mullet sporting men, the fat Europeans on camels and donkeys and tour buses by the dozen. It is, in fact, tourism at its worst (to cap it off one of the best views of the Pyramids is from KFC or Pizza Hut just near the entrance to the area). As we have now figured out though is that the majority of tour companies have such a tight schedule and the majority of tourists are of the lazy variety so that if you deviate from the main path just a tiny bit you can find what you are looking for.

Smiley security guard at the pyramids

To that end we avoided the largest Pyramid (Cheops) and instead walked about 1km out to the desert to the smallest one (Mycerinus). Here we were almost by ourselves and we had a magical hour wandering around this and the middle sized Pyramid (Chephren). They really are amazing. I cannot forget the Sphinx, which guards the Pyramids. The Sphinx is smaller than you think and slightly less impressive then you imagine it to be not helped by the fact that because it is very close to the entrance it is surrounded three deep by tourists vying for the best camera shot. Tourist tip no.2: If you go to the Pyramids go to the smallest and look back at eth other two and miss all the hassle and crowds. Brilliant.

Our second cultural trip was to the Egyptian museum. Since 1835 there has been a bad on the removal of Egyptian antiquities from the country (not always successful) so there is a HUGE amount of stuff in the museum. It is stuffed into all corners and piled up outside. There is also so much stuff in the basement of the museum that it has sunk into the floor and they have had to start excavating it to re find the stuff. As a result it is a bit like a kid in a candy shop – wide eyed and not sure where to look first. A whole museum could be made out of 5% of the stuff on display and it would probably be better for it. It was incredible though, mostly items from burial chambers in Luxor and of course Tutenkamhun’s as well. No cameras I am afraid so no pictures. We also went into the mummy room which weird but great as Polls and I have both recently read a book on Ramses II who we then saw as a mummy including hair, eyelashes and nails intact (felt like we knew him)

A felucca on the Nile in Cairo

In the Lonely Planet guide books there is a section on scams which one might encounter and as you might imagine this section in the Egypt edition is larger than most. It was incredibly funny then when a man, almost word for word, followed one of these scams outside the Egyptian museum. We almost felt like finishing off the scam for him but instead went along with it to humour him looking surprised when he said that the museum was closed at the moment and politely refused his very kind offer of tea in the ‘Government’ Bazaar.

Camping in the White Desert

After 4 days in Cairo we had had enough of the smog, noise and the mass of humanity and with our Sudanese and Ethiopian visas in our passports and a full fridge courtesy of Carrefour we headed West into the Libyan (Western) Desert. This was a 1000km route that would take us in a wide loop out to the West of Egypt through the desert to re join the Nile at Luxor. It consisted of four nights in Oases en route all with hot and cold springs but the real joy was the desert in between. I think you either like deserts or find them samish and boring and we definitely like them. There is a variety of colour, rock and sand along the way and plenty of off road driving to keep us amused. We got stuck a lot but managed to get ourselves out each time, which was a relief after out first nightmare in Wadi Rum. We camped under the stars with no one else around and enjoyed the serenity after the 24/7 hustle and bustle of Cairo.

Egypt has conscription and all males must spend one or two years in the Army after school, depending on their job. They either guard the Suez canal, presumably from the ever impending Israeli attack or stick them out on a checkpoint. On our 1000km desert leg we went through probably 20 or 30 police checkpoints. We would be 200 km form the nearest human habitation and yet out of the dusty desert mirage their would emerge a concrete building and two or three policeman who stopped our car and took our particulars. These were written in a book which, when full, I am sure occupies the same dusty vault that the ledgers from the border are consigned too.  They were fastidious in their approach and never once just waved us through. They asked:
1. Nationality.
2.Where you come from.
3. Where you going?
4. How many are you?
Further conversation revolved around how many children we had (less then the seven that they had) how much Polls was worth (her stock went up from 200 to 2 million camels on the round trip -worth remembering if I find myself in a tight spot later in life). They also invariably asked for a pen a biscuit, Nescafe or water or something else that we managed to not give them. They were always friendly and it was a bit of fun for them as they must have seen a maximum of 10 cars a day in the remote ones and they stay there for the whole of their military career (apparently better then guarding the canal to which the Generals have taken a WW1 trench warfare approach). They also wrote down where we planned to stay the night, this we made up picking a hotel from the LP at random as we camped. Again they wrote this down in their little book. What was very funny was that if they did not know the hotel we mentioned we would move down the list and say the next one. We sometimes went through 5 or 6 hotels until they recognised a hotel, which was then put in the book. This was fine, if a little pointless until the ultimate oases where after reeling off hotel no 3 from the LP the police said that they would escort us to it for safety. We had to chase them up, say that we had changed our mind and named a campsite which they didn’t know but they were intent on escorting us so followed us as we tried in vain to find a campsite. There was then a slight L&H sketch of a big Landrover in downtown Al Kharga being followed by a police car, lost.  Eventually we found the campsite where it became evident that no tourist could move in this town without an escort even though there was no security threat, there had never been a security problem and if there was there is no better way to attract attention to a foreigner than a wailing police car in front of it. We decided to walk into town to find some lunch and as we left the compound the police car pulled up and said he would take us and wait while we had our lunch. Three policemen then guarded us while we had a very nice ‘chicken ‘n’ rice’ at a local restaurant before acting as our chauffeurs home, a service they were happy to do for a Pepsi each (although I think they were expecting more).

Our first big sand dune near Al Kharga Oasis

We left Al Kharga, our last oases, again with a Police escort lighting and sounding our arrival, and headed to Luxor where we are now. It is great to be back on the Nile, back in greenery after the sands of the desert and we have had a wonderful day exploring the Temple of Karnak (except perhaps the 2 zillion other tourists) and tomorrow we are heading over to the West Bank to explore the Valley of the Kings, Nobles and Workers. The Nile is still pretty big, twice as wide as the Thames in London, and carries all types of craft from big luxury Nile cruises to ferry boats and feluccas (mainly for the tourists). It is a fantastic sight bordered by lush palms and Nile rushes on the banks. I think we will save the felucca trip for Aswan. We contacted the ferry company today as well and are booked on the ferry from Aswan to Sudan on the 5th April. No competition for the company make it a pretty expensive affair but there is no other way as they have not opened a road crossing between Egypt and Sudan yet! Egypt has been great so far and we are looking forward to the next two weeks, seeing a mate on the Red Sea Coast before heading south to Sudan.

Ramses II (our friend) at Karnak Temple

Well done for reading this far! Just a little further if you are interested. We though rather than just writing a diary on the blog we would give a little insight into different aspects of life on the road each time we write, sleeping, cooking, security, navigating, entertainment etc. . For our first week we thought we would write about what we eat.  A subject that is close to both our hearts.

Eating

We have tried to eat cheaply and healthily throughout, though not always successfully on either count (yes we did sit and enjoy the view, the AC and the food at KFC in Giza!). We have really enjoyed the food since Turkey, and have had countless kebabs – but it is far cheaper to cook ourselves so here is an idea of a typical day:

Every morning starts off with a good old English cup of tea (this habit hasn’t been left at home) made in the jet boil for speed puposes! For breakfast most of the time we eat porridge as its cheap and fills us up for the day. If we are driving we usually have coffees on the move – we have a travel kettle, pretty lethal pouring, could be interesting when the roads get bumpy..Lunch usually consists of bread (pitta, bought locally)and vache qui rit, as there aren’t too many other options to fill a sandwich, together with tomatoes and cucumber or whatever we can find at food stalls.

Another cup of tea in the afternoon with some biscuits – our current favourites are date rolls, or we delve into the box of army rations and have either a ‘not for civvies’ Yorkie bar or some boiled sweets. At sun down we have a beer of there’s one in the fridge or a coke to celebrate the day.

For the first few weeks of the trip we had ratatoille most nights for supper with either pasta or rice – we have now branched out and even cooked a Thai green curry the other night after a trip to Carrefour in Cairo.  Most meals are vegitarian as the meat look pretty grim here although we did have our first barbeque in the White desert. Looking forward to the delights Sudan has to offer!

Desert BBQ

Posted in Eygpt | 7 Comments »