We arrived in Cairo on the 17th of January. We flew Qatar Airways so our flight went from Cochin, India to Doha, Qatar and then to Cairo. Flying time was about 7.5 hours and Cairo is 3.5 hours behind India time. We were met immediately in Cairo by Achmed from On The Go Tours. He is OTG’s local representative in Cairo.
He led us through everything in the airport. First we needed a visa. The process was so simple. Walk up to the bank wicket within security, hand the guy $15 US and he hands you a sticker to put in your passport. Achmed then took our passports up to immigration to get them stamped. Once we had our bags he led us through security and into our waiting van.
It was an hour or so to our hotel. Along the way we caught our first glimpse of the Great Pyramid. Our hotel was in Giza. Achmed also checked us into the hotel and we were good for the night. Our first tour would begin at 7am the next morning.
Our first tour was an add on to our big tour. We decided when we were booking that we also wanted to see Alexandria which was not part of the main tour. However, since our Mediterranean cruise was supposed to come to Alexandria we thought we should add it on. Alexandria is a 3 hour drive from Giza.
We met our tour guide that morning. His name is Mohammed but usually goes by Dino. He says because he is big like a dinosaur. During the drive to Alexandria he gave us tonnes of information. Some of it background history of Alexandria and some of it about Egypt. He is very knowledgeable and both Nic and I thought it was nice to have him to ourselves for a day before the rest of the group arrived.
Alexandria was first built by Alexander the Great. We learned so much Greek, Roman and Ottoman history during our cruise. This was a great way to round that out. Somewhere in the area his tomb is located but it has never been found. He did not die here but his will was to be buried here.
Our first stop in Alexandria was in Old Alexandria. We went to the Roman Catacombs. The catacombs are a series of underground chambers cut out of the rock. Hundreds of square holes are cut out of the wall each intended to hold a sarcophagus. One room is a dining room for the mourners. I cannot remember the exact date that this would have been built but was during the Roman occupation period of Egypt.
Next we went to Pompey’s Pillar. The site is mainly ruins however the centre still has a tall pillar with some smaller sphinxes around it. When I say they are small I only mean that they are smaller than the famous Sphinx at Giza.
After lunch, we went to the location of one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Lighthouse at Alexandria. The lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1500s. A castle was later built here using many of the rocks left behind from the lighthouse.
Our final stop was at the New Library of Alexandria. It was closed but the building is quite spectacular from the outside. It was a UNESCO project to build this. The Lost Library of Alexandria has never been found. It held some 700,000 manuscripts from some of the greatest scholars of all time. I asked Dino to take us to the lost one and he offered to leave me behind to search for it myself!
The first day of the main tour began the next day. Our group Is made up of 4 Australians, 1 American and us. Day 1 was in Cairo visiting the pyramids. Firstly, we went to Saqqara which is the site of the oldest pyramids. The earliest kings believed that the after life was under the ground. The burial chambers were down deep below the pyramid itself. They believed that an underground river like the Nile flowed in the after life. In some of the pyramids they buried boats with the King.
After lunch we went to the Giza pyramids. They are the newer pyramids and they are much bigger. In the later dynasties, there was a fundamental difference in beliefs that caused a different interior construction. They worshipped Ra, the sun god. Now they believed that in the after life your spirit ascends up to the sun. The difference now was that the burial chamber was built higher up in the pyramid to get the king as close to the sun as possible.
We were able to go in the second pyramid. We descended a long shaft that was maybe 4 feet high. Then we had to ascend another shaft up to the burial chamber. About half way in the power went out and the lights went out. With the aid of some cell phone lights from another group we still managed to get to the burial chamber. As we climbed out the lights went back on. You can imagine how spooky it can be in the pitch black in the middle of a pyramid. I was expecting Imhotep to emerge and turn us into mummies. However, according to Dino, Imhotep was not the evil guy as he was portrayed in The Mummy. Besides he would have been at Saqqara not at Giza.
Our final stop for this day was at a papyrus shop. We were taught how papyrus paper is made and shown many pieces of Egyptian art. We were tempted to buy one but resisted for the time being.
The next day was an early start. The original plan for this tour is to take an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, about 950km. However, since On The Go is a UK company they follow the restrictions as set out by the FCO in London. There is one stretch of the route that passes through an area that is still not cleared for travel. As a result, we flew from Cairo to Aswan. It was a 7am flight so our wake up call was at 4am.
In Aswan, our hotel was right on the shore of the Nile. Across the street are the souks. We had about 3 hours on our own before our first sightseeing of the day. Nic and I walked up the street to McDonalds. I was craving a Big Mac. It had been several months since I had one. Then we wandered around the souks for a while. Vendors are dying for business. In the last three years travel has dropped by 70% and in the last six months there has been none. When we tall people we are from Canada they invariably say “Canada Dry, never die.” Many people thank us for coming and ask us to encourage others to come.
In Aswan, our first site was the Aswan High Dam. It was built in the 1960s for electricity generation and to control flooding. It created Nasser Lake. Nasser was the president of Egypt at the time. Building the dam caused a huge raise in the water level of the Nile and 12 temples had to be relocated to higher ground to avoid them being destroyed. You will hear me mention this a few times during our visit to Egypt.
Next we went to the Philae Temple. It was built to worship Isis. It is one of the 12 temples that were relocated. It was moved to higher ground on an island only a few hundred metres from its original location. Amazing to think that over a four year period in the 60s all of these temples were dismantled piece by piece and reconstructed exactly as they were found originally. We took a motorboat to the island.
That night, the group went for a Moroccan meal. Nicola stayed behind because she was exhausted and the next morning would be an early start. The tajines we ate were better than I recall in Morocco.
Day 3 of the main tour started with another early morning. It was actually an add on to the tour. Our wake up call was at 3am and we started a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel. All of the vehicles going there meet at the same point and convoy with a police escort. This is because the road is through empty desert and Abu Simbel is only 50km from the Sudan border.
Abu Simbel is the site of another temple that was painstakingly relocated only a few hundred metres from its original location but about 60m higher. It is a temple built by King Ramses II to represent himself as a god to invaders coming from the south. Four large statues of himself adorn the outside of the temple. It is positioned in such a way that on February 22 and October 22 the sun rises shine through the entrance and illuminate toe statues of four gods inside.
Beside this temple is a smaller temple built by Ramses for his favourite wife Nefertare. He had dozens of wives and about 120 children built Nefertare was his favourite. She was actually Nubian. Nubian people are the people of this area of Aswan and south. They are darker skinned than other Egyptians. You are not permitted to take any pictures inside either temple. That said, the guards are more than willing to accept a bribe for you to take photos. While we were there, the guards all went on break at the same time and we snuck a few photos. One came back and tried to check my photos. I had taken my memory card out though so he found no pictures.
After returning to our hotel, after the three hour return ride from Abu Simbel, we had about half an hour to shower and pack. I felt pretty good. I had six hours sleep before 3am plus I slept at least an hour to an hour and a half each way. We would now board a felucca for a two night Nile cruise. This afternoon we would sail for a couple hours before docking for the night. Tomorrow we would sail all day and then arrive the following morning where we would drive to Luxor.
A felucca is a sail boat with a wide flat deck. The deck is covered in foam mattresses upon which we would all sleep. The deck is covered with material to shelter us from the sun and at night there is material that is lowered to enclose the sides so the deck becomes on large bedroom. We had a second boat travelling with us. It is a motor boat with a kitchen and a bathroom on it. All the meals are included on the cruise but you pay for your drinks.
On our first night, we walked about ten minutes from the boat to a traditional Nubian home. It is an open air compound with rooms built around the outside of the central courtyard. The floors are sand. In one home, an entire family may live together. By this I mean you might have several siblings and their families as well as grandparents. At this home, there was a Dutch couple who had set up their tent in the courtyard. They began a two year trip in December on which they would motorbike around the world. Their first journey is through Europe and then Africa all the way to Cape Town. They are adventurous for sure. They had spent a week in Libya before coming to Egypt and were next heading to Sudan. A couple of weeks ago in the news there was a story about a couple of tourists being murdered in Benghazi. They had avoided Benghazi but I still doubt I would go. They said that Libyans were some of the friendliest people they had met. They were taken into homes to stay for free, given fuel for their bikes for free and escorted along highways for 400 km for free. Just another sign that not everything in these countries is as the media portrays it. Needless to say, we are still not going there.
Wednesday was a full day on the felucca. We set sail after breakfast. In the early afternoon we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we had the opportunity to go swimming. There was a group of kids hanging around the boat being a nuisance so we actually set off away from them. Our host on the boat, Aloofa, through a rope in the water behind the boat that we could hang on to. I jumped off the back of the boat and almost had a heart attack from the cold water (not really… But it was cold). I guess you never really think about Egypt being cold but during the day the temperature is low twenties and maybe ten at night. The water of the Nile is quite cool. I guess it is winter.
Later that day we stopped for the night. It was maybe 4pm or so when we stopped. I started a game of Beans (Bohnanza) and almost everyone played. Once everyone caught on I think they had fun. Eliza was snoozing when we started but woke up part way through the game. I let her take over for me and in the end our combined efforts won the game. I think if we played again it would be a different story now that they have the hang of it. We also played Asshole for a while. I seemed to be either the asshole or vice-asshole a lot. Not sure if that says something about me 😉
After dinner and a couple more rounds of Asshole, the crew of the felucca started a bonfire. We had bought some marshmallows for roasting but I am not sure if it is Egyptian marshmallows or the fruit flavoured marshmallows but they just basically kept melting on the sticks… Not roasting.
On Thursday we were up before 7am. We would pack up and then eat while we crossed the river to our awaiting van. As we crossed the river, I was banging the sand out of my flip flops when I accidentally dropped one in the Nile. I figured it was lost but they turned the boat around. My flip flop sat perfectly floating atop the water. Everyone had a good chuckle at me.
Our destination for the day was Luxor. We had two stops along the way. The first one was Kom Ombo. Kom Ombo is a temple that was dedicated to the crocodile headed god, Sopek. The name Kom Ombo literally means heap of gold. The temple was quite destroyed by flood waters. They actually found mummified crocodiles in the temple that are now on display in a museum on site. These crocs were believed to be manifestations of Sopek but some were actually left their as gifts to the god.
Our second stop, an hour past Kom Ombo was Edfu. The temple at Edfu is one of the best preserved temples. You can actually still find some of the paintings and colour in the hieroglyphics. It was completely buried in the sand until the 1860s. It is dedicated to the god Horus. Horus was the falcon-headed god and son of Osiris. He battled and killed his uncle Seth who had killed his father. The temple is quite impressive. It is so cool having a good guide like Dino who can tell us the story behind each temple.
After Edfu we drove to Luxor and checked into our hotel. There was an optional add-on this night which was visiting the Luxor Temple by night and dinner. Everyone opted for the dinner along with a drive-by the Luxor Temple. Dinner was nice but way too much food. There were four jewellers sitting in the restaurant selling cartouches with you name in them. Nic order a silver pendant and I ordered a ring. Both are silver and cost about $60.