Monday, October 09, 2006

Aswan to Cairo, Egypt . . . "Looking is for free!"

Ever since reading Asterix and Cleopatra as a child I have wanted to visit Egypt. When we arrived, I couldn’t wait to see ancient temples, tombs, pyramids and the sphinx. Phil, who had been to Egypt before, was slightly more interested at first in getting a drink. After braving an alcohol free Sudan he could almost smell the beer as we crossed the border into Egypt.

Imagine our horror to find that mere days after our arrival in Egypt the month long fast of Ramadan began. During Ramadan all healthy adult Muslims are required to abstain from all food, drink, gum chewing, any kind of tobacco use, and any kind of sexual contact between dawn and sunset for 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon during this month. . . We soon found that the restaurants that usually served alcohol were not doing so during Ramadan.

We decided to make the most of it and Phil suggested that we also fast. I lasted until breakfast the following day when I couldn’t stop myself from having eggs on toast. Phil, whose will power (where food is concerned) is far superior to mine, lasted until mid-afternoon when he had to have a Coke. He quickly descended the slippery slope and desperately searched for the few places that still served alcohol in the Egyptian towns we visited. Unfortunately, he was rarely successful and has – although he may deny it – developed a taste for ‘Birrel’ a non-alcoholic beer which is apparently “not too bad”.

On the positive side, the lack of alcohol made it easier to get up at the crack of dawn, or before when Phil could talk me into it, and visit the many tourist attractions. We started in Aswan. The highlight was Abu Simbel where we saw the Great Temple of Ramses II, carved out of a mountain on the bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244BC. After Aswan we went to Luxor and saw more temples and also visited the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

After Sudan, one thing that struck us immediately in these tourist ‘hot spots’ were the huge number of other tourists and the number of locals whose whole existence appeared to be focused around separating the tourists from their tourist dollars. It was almost impossible to walk a few steps without being called into a shop (‘looking is for free', 'come in-no hassle shop’, 'enjoy your eyes'), asked to buy some papyrus, offered a felucca ride on the Nile or a ride in a horse-drawn carriage around the corner. ‘Polite refusal’ was our tactic and it nearly always worked.

It was a bit of relief when we left all that and arrived in Cairo- where you are still asked to ‘look for free’ when visiting the Khan al-Khalili market or the pyramids, but when you are simply walking around town people have got far better things to do than harass random tourists.

Visiting the pyramids and the sphinx in Giza, Cairo was definitely a highlight for me. Our exploration of Giza was made even better by the discovery of a small budget hotel overlooking the pyramids and a few hundred metres from the sphinx. It looked like a flea pit from the outside but on the inside it was remarkably flea–free and I would go far as to say quite pleasant. So we were lucky enough to wake up next to the pyramids one morning for a very small fee.

Although Cairo was technically the end of our trip, we found ourselves with a few days to kill before our flight to London. We decided to head off to Siwa via Alexandria. Siwa is a desert oasis west of Cairo. It bills itself as the ‘world’s first tourist destination’. While the same claim is made far more convincingly in relation to the pyramids at Giza, there is no doubt that Siwa has been receiving visitors for thousands of years- Alexander the Great visited Siwa in 331BC for a consultation with the Oracle of Amun. Not sure what the news was, but Alexander died in India shortly after this.

Siwa is a cute little town - a real oasis . . . clean fresh water springs, date palms, olive trees and orchards in the middle of the desert - with an interesting history and temple ruins. However, as the ruins could also be accurately described as primarily rubble, we spent most of our time riding around Siwa and surrounding villages on hired bicycles to the various natural springs for a swim. Well, Phil swam and I watched. The springs are also used by male locals to bathe and we were warned they would be quite horrified if a woman hopped in. After a couple of days of that we were ready to leave Siwa.

We’re now back in Cairo – our final destination – and we’ll be flying to London on Wednesday night.

It has been quite a trip. We have zigzagged up the continent for exactly ten months – four months longer than planned – and have traveled about 35,000 km in trains, sail boats, buses, trucks, ferries, bikes, canoes, kayaks and carts.

After we arrived in Cape Town, despite almost being turned away at the ticket counter in London, we've managed to:

- cross the border on foot into Lesotho
- fend off queries about my sex life
- brave numerous trips in combis/minibuses
- survive the slow but tortuous change from South African wine to cask wine to Ethiopian wine to no wine
- fall off a horse (me)
- fall of a cliff (me)
- see the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia
- entertain a good offer (20-30 cows) to buy me
- learn to escape from crocodile attack (your best line of defence is to stab the crocodile in its eyes with anything sharp that you have)
- look for the ‘big 5’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) in Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania
- climb Africa’s highest mountain (well, almost – don’t mention it to Phil – he is still upset)
- run aground in a ferry in Lake Malawi
- celebrate Phil’s 40th
- see Victoria Falls
- sail up the coast of Mozambique
- relax in Zanzibar
- survive 12 hours in the back of a truck sitting on a pile of coconuts
- almost get lost at the Ugandan border (Phil)
- see some gorillas
- attend a Bull Jumping Ceremony in Ethiopia
- safely escape a burning train in Sudan

. . . and make it to Cairo.

I hope you have enjoyed following our trip on this site and looking at Phil’s Cape Town to Cairo Photos

He should have the photos from Sudan and Egypt up in about a week.

We will be in London in a few days. After a few weeks there we’ll be heading back to Australia for Christmas via a couple of destinations to be determined . . .

Please keep in touch with us via email and we’ll give you our details when we finally settle somewhere next year.