18 March 2007
SUNDAY MARCH 4th I was so excited I couldn't sleep and was up before my alarm call at 5am. It was dark outside and I was soon packed ready with a rucksack, sun cream, hat, water bottle & camera. I was first into the breakfast room and managed a cup of tea, the hotel had arranged for brekfast bags to take with us, each one containing bread, jam, a hard boiled egg, cucumber and tomato and some fruit juice. By 6am the group was assembled and ready and walking the short distance t the riverbank - we all had some nerves about the donkeys being unsafe and the mood was subdued as we crossed the Nile to the West Bank in the 'EXPLORE!' motorboat. The sun was still slowing rising, and in the sky we could see hot air balloons. The sunrise was really atmospheric making the temple stand out and adding a warm glow to the river and early morning activity all around. Once on dry land, we walked again down the street where our donkeys were waiting. They were much smaller than I expected and looked a bit feeble but well cared for. The saddles were thick & padded and brightly coloured. We learned that 'Oosh' would make them slow down and ' Yalla' would make them go faster! Once mounted, we rode for about 90 minutes along the irrigation channels past mudbrick homes on our left with locals working the strips of lush crops on our right. I saw 'Hoopoos' and Kingfishers and wanted to take photos of everything but my camera was in my bagpack. The dust track we rode was shared with motorbikes, trucks & donkey wagons and a few children watching us with fascination. Soon we turned onto a main road then joined a newish road which took us up a hill past the home of Howard Carter and into the Valley entrance. I think most of us had used 'Oosh' quite a lot on the way up but it was fun! After sliding off, each donkey galloped away to their shed like a mini stampede. The VOK entrance has been modernised this year to accommodate coaches and in future the visiting times will be regulated. For now, were able to pass through the new visitor centre (rather empty) and onto a small train to the centre of the tombs area. For me, this spoiled the romance and mystery of the valley and I felt like I was at a Disney park. Once in the 'hub' of the tombs, the atmosphere is more appropriate thankfully. The tombs are close together and marked with large information boards and singposts help you find each one. Around you are the towering walls of the valley with footpaths snaking all over, looking up it is easy to imagine yourself back in the 19th century digging for the entrances with the hot sun beating down! After a brief talk on the valley and some advice on which tombs to visit, we were free to wander. At this time it was around 9am and the crowds were building. There are over 60 tombs in the valley, but only 12 were open that day, and I chose Rameses III, IV, and IX. I had also chosen to visit the Tomb of Tutankhamun for an extra cost and it was the first place I headed for before the crowds. THE TOMB OF TUTANKHAMUN The history of the discovery is fascinating - Howard Carter excavated across Egypt for over 12 years. He dug in the valley in earnest from 1917 sponsored by Lord Carnarvon. By 1922 Carnarvon concluded there was nothing to be found and withdrew his funding. Carter however pursuaded him to attemp a final dig and paid for the attempt himself. He found the tomb entrance at the end of November - just weeks before the digging license ran out. The pharaoh died suddenly as a young man so his tomb wasn't ready. Instead he was buried in a tomb being prepared for his Priest 'Ay'. So, it's smaller than the others and despite what the guides tell you, it is well worth the effort of a visit! Just a few other people were visiting the tomb, so I took steep entrance alone - it made me feel like Howard Carter! Inside the walls are bare until you turn to the burial chamber which is painted with murals in amazing colour, almost gold in their appearance. Standing on a raised platform you can look down into the open sarcophagus at the body of Tutankhamun lying in a golden coffin... I stood for many minutes taking it all in and was alone apart from an Egyptian man standing watch. It was an amazing experience. As I emerged, another Egyptian man took my photo using my own camera which he had taken off me earlier. He looked old enough to have been there when Tutankhamun was buried! He nevertheless was pleasant and I paid him some 'Baksheesh' for his trouble - I think he has worked out that this little gesture earns him tips! RAMESES III, IV, IX The tombs of Rameses are incredible for their vivid colours and the volume of hieroglyphs and reliefs painted on the walls of each tomb. My knowledge was lacking and I felt that my visit was spoiled by not being able to read the images on the walls, or understand the meaning of the murals depicting each Pharaoh in various forms, alongside the ancient Gods. I made a decision right there to learn more about it! I was also amazed at the sheer size and depth of the tombs - some reaching so deep into the valley that it's impossible to imagine the work required using basic tools over 3000 years ago. We're not able to take photos inside so I can't share any images. The experience of these tombs was amazing, but I was frustrated by the massive number of people pressing their way inside forcing you to shuffle along and not allowing time to just soak up the atmosphere. If I make the trip again I would make sure to visit earlier in the day! LEAVING THE VALLEY to HATSHEPSUT TEMPLE With the sun getting hotter around mid-morning a group of us led by Wael left on foot up a steep footpath leaving the valley tombs below - The view was stunning! We stood for a while to absorb the scene before continuing East over the rim of the mountain and down into the next valley with Luxor ahead of us in the haze and the incredible Temple of Queen Hatshepsut emerging below us against the backdrop of the rockface. After an hour of slow walking and views we were down at ground level to meet our guide and the rest of the group for a tour of the Temple. Built by Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri over 3,400 years ago this was her Mortuary temple. She was the only female Pharaoh and reigned strongly for 20 years. A lot of reconstruction work has been done here since the 1960's by a community of Polish workers who had their own village visible nearby. Many of the statues and columns are replicas but the overall impression is amazing. This was the location of the terrorist shootings in 1996 so the site of an armed guard was reassuring. COLLOSUS OF MEMNON Before lunch we collected our donkeys from their stable shed near the temple and remounted for another bumpy journey back to the riverbank. The return journey took us past the Polish village and down into a mudhut village which we understand is going to be flattened to excavate tombs which lie beneath. We trotted past the Collosus of Memnon statues which stand at 18m guarding the entrance to a long since disappeard mortuary temple for Amenhotep III and soon we were in a busy side street mingling with taxis, buses, schoolchildren and passing shops to the amusement of the shop keepers standing with cigarettes in the doorway. It was a bit humiliating, but part of the 'Egypt' experience! Our donkeys did us all proud and I was sad to say goodbye - mine did linger for a photo before runnng off to his shed. We had lunch at Nile Valley restaurant overlooking the river then took our boat back to the East Bank and our hotel. With a free afternoon I lay by the pool for a while then went to my room for some sleep. Our group dinner that night was the last with Wael and we gave him a card to say goodbye. He was brilliant as our tour leader and I missed him over the next 2 weeks - I think we all did!
MONDAY MARCH 5th Yet another early morning up at 5am! We were to catch a train at 7am bound for Aswan and say goodbye not only to Luxor (just for 6 days) but also to Wael who dropped us at the platform with hugs and handshakes all round. Our group had split, some going home and some going onto the cruise ship Doma. We were 8 people on the platform hoping to meet our train as arranged which carried on board 12 other travellers newly arrived in Cairo 24 hours previously and our Week 2 tour leader called Taso. The train was late! We waited until 9.30am and watched various trains coming and going. Nothing like the British system of flags, whistles and announcements, this was a casual arrival with tea served on the platform and trains leaving just as casually with passengers jogging to jump aboard at the last minute. I was suffering from 'Gyppy tummy' and not very relaxed! My fears were doubled after finally boarding our train when I discovered the most filthy, disgusting loo on the train itself. Enough said, it was truly foul. Taso came to say hello once the train has got moving again. We had 3 hours to Aswan so it was snoozing or reading or watching the scenery. The Train follows the Nile and offered fascinating views of mud villages, river bank and small towns along the route. It became drier to the East and continued to be mountainous. Apart from the loo episode, the journey passed swiftly and on arrival at Aswan we lugged our bags down and up stairs to the street outside. Taxis took our bags and we walked to our hotel 'Cleopatra'. It felt a little wierd to be in a group wth strangers and a new tour leader after building such a strong bond in week one. Our hotel was near to the main Souk street, with a pleasant lobby. The rooms were disappointing though, and for the first time I shared a twin. the rooftop pool was also of a poor standard but in the heat it was a pleasant way to cool down. I skipped lunch and had apple juice to settle my stomach before joining the optional trip to the Aswam Dam and Philae Temple. 12 people squashed into 2 taxis which sped us along fast roads out of Aswan's dusty donkey streets towards the Dam. We first passed over the original dam built by the British and spotted Philae Temple in the distance. We carried on without stopping the newer High Dam. Built by President Nasser to protect the Nile valley from the annual river floods, it has created a massive lake named after him. The Dam enables Egypt to generate electricity which it also exports abroad. The view of the lake gave you an inckling of it's overall size - some 500m long. The photo shows the NILE flowing north from the wall of the Dam. PHILAE TEMPLE The creation of the Lake threatened to submerge some of the ancient Egyptian temples. Philae Temple is very well preserved and dates from 300BC built during the Greco/Roman period and dedicated to ISIS with a shrine to Hathor. It was flooded for some time in its original location and later moved in the 1970's as part of a UNESCO project stone by stone to higher ground on an island nearby. The approach is via motorboats and felt to me a bit like being in the Mediterranean. The Temple is strking and in the setting sun the shadows on the stone carvings and hieroglyphs was wonderful. A roman gateway up from the lake built by Hadrian made me realise just how OLD these Egyptian temples are. In Britain we tend to measure everything by our roman heritage and yet this is 'modern' in Egyptian terms. Cleopatras Needle in London originated here and was donated to Great Britain by Egypt in recognition of help from the Royal Navy in recovering stones from the water. By sunset we were heading back in the boats to our taxis and back to the hotel. Again I skipped supper and stayed in the hotel. I was glad to take an early night as we had aanother early start for ABU SIMBEL. TUESDAY MARCH 6th ABU SIMBEL Alarm at 3.30am to catch our bus at 4.30am and join the tourist convoy to Abu Simbel, some 300 miles further south near the Sudan border in the region known as Nubia. The hotel provided breakfast boxes - same ingredients as in Luxor and I took one despite wanting to stay off food. On the bus I tried to sleep a little but by 6am I was awake and groggy surrounded by people eating from their boxes. I couldn't face it, so wathed the scenery instead. Sunrise was casting blue light on the desert on both sides, no more mountains or greenery to look at. As we got closer to Sudan, the road blocks increased and convoys of trucks were waiting roadside for permission to continue across the border. At 7am we arrived in the small town of Abu Simbel. Lake Nasser nearby is the only feature of the desert but the town hs a modern hospital and otherwise looked charming. The buses park in one large carpark and the hundreds of tourists swarm into the temple visitor centre past a dozen shops trading in souvenirs, cola, fanta, sprite, crisps & icecreams. Abu Simbel was also moved to higher ground to avoid the lake water and a small exhibition tries to convey the enormity of this project. The approach to the temple is via the back of a large dome of gravel which was built from nothing as a new backdrop to the temples. The path rounds to the front with Lake Nasser stretching before you into the distance. The first view of the enormous statues of Rameses II is breathtaking. Our guide (who was bonkers and believed in the Alien theory) shared some tales of Rameses II and showed us what to look for inside the temple which is dedictaed to his war triumphs against the Hyksos in the Battle of Qadesh and his growing egotism which led to him declaring himself a god. The second temple is dedicated to Rameses II's favourite wife Nefertari. However, he had to include statues of himself here too - such was the size of his ego! At the foot of the main temple you are dwarfed by the statues and early graffiti from the explorers is cleary visible from a time when the sand covered the temple making it possible to carve into the stone some 15m above the present entrance. Inside the statues continue and the walls are just awe inspring in their detail and scale. Deep inside the temple is a shrine to the sun god Ra - amazingly the sunrise strikes the exact spot twice a year in spring and autumn. The temple of Nefertari is similar but on a smaller scale with impressive carvings and murals. No photos are allowed inside, but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. An amazing morning and well worth the long trip. We arrived back in Aswan early afternoon and I rested for the remainder of the day. With my 'Aswan Diet' going well and my clothes loosening I opted again for a 'no food' day to avoid any further gyppy tummy. THE UNFINISHED OBELISK I opted out of the Nubian Village visit and along with Jan and Tim went in search of the Unfinished Obelisk which lies in a granite quarry in Aswan. Tim had a map and we walked confidently for 3 miles and still couldn't find it. When we asked directions and eventually arrived we were 4 minutes late! Disheartened we walked back to the hotel via some very dodgy backstreets! After a refreshing drink on the riverbank we then braved the souk together and I bought hibiscus tea and a galabaya in white cotton. Starting to feel hungry again, around 6pm I ate in the hotel with a few others and managed an omelette. Another early night to pack my bags ready for the sailing expedition the following day. WEDNESDAY MARCH 7th Feeling rough again - not sure the omelette was a good idea - I skipped breakfast and the optional camel trek to a local monastery. Several others had also not gone so after dropping our bags at the Feluccas we had a free morning. It as agreed that we couldn't let the Obelisk beat us so hailed a taxi to take us there at 8.30am. This time it was open and packed with tourists! The quarry was used by the Ancient Egyptians to build their granite temples and statues, floating the blocks down the Nile. the unfinished obelisk remains here as it developed a crack in the stone making it useless. It would have been the largest obelisk in Egypt but instead lies here unfinished as a clue to the methods used by the ancients. We had a triumphant photo taken before leaving to join the others at our Feluccas.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 7th to SATURDAY MARCH 10th. After the Unfinished Obelisk expedition, we had an hour before boarding our Feluccas for the 3 day sail down the Nile towards Edfu. I spent a very pleasant tme in a restaurant called 'Aswan Moon' floating on the Nile opposite Elephantine Island taking in the scenery and chatting with some of the Explore Group over cold d rinks and Mint Tea (Chai be Na Na). Aswan is similar to Luxor in that it is next to the Nile with a Corniche walkway, a Souk and plenty of small shops. The Nile here has several islands between the banks, Elephantine Island and Kitchener Island, the scenery across the river is dominated by a big sandy rise with an ancient monument on its crest. A more modern eyesore is the Movenpick hotel on one of these islands which looks more like an industrial water tower. The population here is more mixed and Nubians with their striking features, darker skin and bright smiles are noticable amongst the Egyptian faces. By 10am the Camel trekkers had returned via a small motorboat and met us at the Aswan Moon. We then walked along the Corniche to our waiting Felucca sail boats. The Felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat used for many centuries. The deck was spanned with wooden planks under which we stored our heavy luggage, keeping a daysack with us for water, suncream and reading books etc. Above the planks we had soft mattresses covered with a large sheet where we could all spread out and laze around shaded from the sun by a canopy. It was really quite nice! Between the group of 20 travellers we shared 3 boats. Each boat had a crew of 2 men - all Nubians with a sense of humour! Our boat (I forgot the name of it) was captained by Hamada and his second in command called Islan ( I think). Between them they very casually and without fuss sailed the boat perfectly, whilst making us hot tea or settling down to play chess with each other - keeping a foot on the tiller and a glance at the sails! Our first brief stop after setting sail was to a small island nearby for the Police to check the paperwork for all three boats before allowing us to continue. This didn't take long and we were soon making good progress on the river in convoy, zig zagging from one bank to the other into the wind, but with the Nile current in our favour. The initial buzz and excitement of leaving the dusty shores for water lasted for a few hours as we had plenty to look at - passing ships, bridges, wildlife on the shore, the sailing itself, the rush of the water along the hull of the boat, waving passengers from their cruise liners and the scenery on land. Aswan faded into the distance and around lunchtime the three boats moored onto a sandy bank with tall dunes for a rest, toilet stop and food. This was our first experience of 'Freestyle' toileting and I had no problem with it, but it was tricky to find a secluded spot as there wasn't much cover and the sand was boiling hot! Meals for the whole group took place on the largest felucca with food laid out in the middle in a help yourself buffet. A typical lunch comprised pitta bread, chopped salad veg, fetta cheese, some fruit and a hot drink. Dinner was hot pasta or rice & potatoes with a meat dish followed by oranges. A full afternoon of sailing brought us at dusk to our first camping spot. The wind had dropped so we had to drift to the bank for over an hour and it was dark when we arrived. Supper was followed by a large fire on the bank and Nubian music and dancing. It was a lot of fun! Our tour leader had the task of constructing our toilet on the bank. This was a loo complete with lid over a dug out hole surrounded by a low level tent. It wasn't very glamorous! The loo travelled with us tied to the boat which looked hilarious! Sleeping on the Felucca was fine, warm and comfortable, broken only by the rocking of the water as the large cruisers went by through the night heading south to Aswan. The next few days passed by in a similar pattern. Awake at dawn, coffee and biscuits made by Islan. An early morning exploration of the river bank, a group breakfast of bread, jam, eggs, fruit and hot drinks. Morning sailing, A Temple visit followed by lunch, then more sailing, setting up camp, supper, fire, music and dancing. Each of our stops has it's own memory. The First night - stray dogs running around on the bank and our first 'environmental toilet' Second Day - Kom Ombu Temple - meaning ' Land of Gold' this amazingly well preserved Greco/Roman temple was built around 300BC for 2 gods - Sobek (crocodile god) and Horus. Each having hieroglyphs and reliefs on separate sides of the temple. we were also plagued here by local kids selling jewellery! Later that day we also passed the EXPLORE Cruise boat DOMA going South and waved at our week one buddies from our Feluccas! Second night - A very noisy buffalo who was less than pleased to see us! Third day - Swimming in the Nile - a chance to wash my hair too! Another very unhappy buffalo which tried to get inside one of the boats on arrival! there were some very sweet donkeys as well though. Saturday morning - visit to Edfu Temple. One of the best preserved and imposing temples. Scenery - wonderful Nile scenes through the day, and sunrise & sunset. Dramatic views of the mountains, palm trees, crops on the riverbank, donkeys, kids, farmers and locals waving from the shore. The wildlife was wonderful too. I saw lots of Kingfishers which are larger than British ones with black and white feathers and they hover above the water. The nests in the dry mud of the river bank were visible all the way along the Nile. At dusk I heard the sound of Egrets, frogs, moorhens and other birds. Through the night you could make out the distant sound of the Mezzuin callng to prayer. Overall it was a very special experience. On Saturday morning we left our overnight camp and drifted together a very short distance to the edge of Edfu. Our luggage came of each boat and we said thank you and goodbye to the crews. Mini buses took us along bumpy tracks through tiny village streets to the centre of Edfu - a busy town and a hub for the cruise ships. We visited the large and impressive EDFU Temple - built in the Ptolomeic period and dedicated to Horus. With just 45 minutes here I took time walking the outside walls which carry huge carvings over 15m high. It was busy with tourists and not so easy to appreciate the quiet areas. If I ever return to Egypt this is one temple I'll try to visit again. There is so much to see here, and I'd like to be able to understand the story behind some of the murals and carvings. Inside the temple were shrines decorated with hieroglyphs lit by orange spotlights for maximum effect. It was however, the best temple we had visited thus far (better still to come) Before coming to Egypt I had not fully understood that each temple and monument would have been colourful. I was aware of the carvings, hieroglyphs and obelisks, but in ancient times, these would have been brightly painted in Red, Blue, Green, Gold. In places around the temples today you can see traces of this colour. The original effect must have been stunning. BACK TO LUXOR AGAIN ! Mid Morning we left Edfu in our mini buses to join the Police convoy north to Luxor. This relatively short journey brought us back to our Hotel Emilio in the bustling and dusty Luxor by lunchtime. The peace of the river shattered by the noise and crowded streets! The aroma of dirt, sewerage, spices, horses and car fumes was quite pungent! It was good to be back here and I was looking forward to free time over the weekend to explore Luxor Temple, the museum, Winter Palace and my hot air balloon ride!
SATURDAY MARCH 10th - LUXOR the foursome of myself, Jan, alan and Dereck headed ino the Souk at Luxor to buy some gifts and souvenirs. The traders are a bit of a pest and notorious for their pushy tactics - the only ay to cope is to smile or ignore them completely but keep walking. I had inmind to buy some scarves and at the very end of the Souk we found a small stall and were told 'no hassle' by the owner - although this wasn't strictly true ias it turned out, but I did buy some nice scarves and paid an acceptable price. Emerging from the Souk, the impressive site of Luxor Temple faced us with the Nile and Wst bank behind. Feeling thirsty after our haggling ordeal, we wandered along the road to find the Winter Palace Hotel for a 'posh' drink. the hotel is a landmark of Luxor, famous for being the winter lodge for King Farouk and also the preferred hotel for Lord Carnarvon and other foreign visitors over the last 120 years or so. The pale yellow building has an imposing stone stairway off the street and was crying out for a photograph! Not being guests at the hotel and looking a little shabby we weren't expecting to be allowed inside, but hoped for some tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile. However, once through the tall revolving wooden doors into the tranquility and air conditioned lobby we were met by a porter who looked us up and down and eventually agreed to let us take a look inside the hotel for a few minutes. It's pretty smart, but not unaffordable - it still has that colonial atmosphere of restrained elegance. Jan and I took our chance to use the very posh loos (luxury after the river bank!) and then we all enjoyed a cold drink on the terrace outside. It was a brief moment of luxurious respite before rejoining our 'no frills' (but fun) adventure with Explore. Our next stop was Luxor Museum. A pleasant walk along the Corniche (ignoring the endless heckles to take a Felucca, taxi or Calesh) brought us to this very modern museum mid afternoon. Fully air conditioned and beautifully laid out with superb lighting, this place was far superior to the Cairo Museum, but lacked some of the treasures of Cairo. However, there were some amazing examples of statues, wall decorations (incredibly intricacy of the painting) and 2 mummies: Ahmose and Rameses I. Inside a smaller wing are a dozen statues which were recently dug from Luxor Temple and found in almost perfect condition. Outside the museum it was almost dusk and we were all a bit tired and flagged down a Calesh to take us back to our hotel. He promised 'a good price' and then demanded the equivalent of £8 for a trip of less than a mile! I argued that not even a London Cabby would charge that much! We gave him more than it deserved but not that much. At least his horse was reasonably well cared for. Later, we had a very nice group dinner by the river and then walked back through the Souk again and bought yet more scarves! then an early night in advance of my Balloon Ride! SUNDAY MARCH 11th Another 5am alarm call - for my Balloon ride! Still dark outside I met Mike, Tim and Dereck in the lobby and were soon collected in a minibus and taken to the motorboat. Abord the boat we were one of around 20 other people all on the balloon. The crew provided hot drinks and we listened to a briefing from the pilot - a very nice man who proudly wore his Blue Peter badge! (he took them up in 2005 for the BBC). Once across the river, the buses took us to the launch sight, not far from the Hatshepsut temple close to the village of Gurna which is going to be flattened for excavation of tombs underneath. This was to be my first ever balloon ride so was quite nervous but excited. I have a little fear of heights, but didn't worry too much. I was one of the last to get into the enormous basket which involved using holes for your feet and clambering over. The basket was oblong and sectioned to prevent tipping and our pilot had the middle with his gas canisters and burners. All around us there were balloons taking off, some already high in the sky. The dawn was rising and despite some haze it was a good sky. Very quickly we lifted off the ground, without any real motion and within 10 seconds we were quite high. At this point my stomach turned and I thought I'd made a mistake - but it wore off and I really enjoyed the feeling of drifting and looking around at the sites below us. The burners were incredibly hot and at times and really uncomfortable so I ducked to avoid the blast of heat. Our height reach 2000ft and it certainly felt high! We were above the other balloons with spectacular views across the Nile, Valley of the Kings and out into the mountains of the west. It was strikng how the green land abruptly stops and becomes desert, showing the importance of the Nile waters. I was able to pick out many of the sites we'd already visited on our tour, and took loads and loads of photos and short films. We found the house that Howard Carter occupied during his excavations - surrounded by trees near to the road we had ridden on donkeys the week before. Hatshepsut temple looked amazing from this high up, and the path of our valley walk looked far steeper and higher than I remembered! After 40 minutes floating over the tombs and temples of the west bank the pilot headed us towards the Nile and dropped low over some farms and mud houses. The sounds of cars, donkeys, farmers below drifted up towards us, and kids waved. We gained height again for a short while before coming down slowly to hover just 2m above the ground. The pilot skilfully used the burners and airflow to position the balloon in the perfect landing spot which was so smooth that I hardly noticed. A crew of men grabbed the basket and brought us gently to earth. To celebrate we had a traditional dance and a song from the crew, followed by certificates and a tshirt.