Travelling to Egypt can be a whirlwind trip of ancient sites and buzzing streets, but once you’ve been, it can be hard to resist the urge to return.
“I want to go to Egypt,” announced my nine-year-old son, Tom. When I asked him why, he replied, “I want to see the Great Pyramid.” This was, I had to reflect, as good a reason as any to visit Egypt. The reason I went to Cairo, some time back now, was as a guest of Nissan for the relaunch of the Patrol 4×4, which involved a desert safari into the Sahara. Cairo was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The first wow came was as our Air Egypt plane dropped low on its approach to the city – all that was visible was a sea of yellow sand. Then suddenly the sprawling outskirts of Cairo were below us, crawling out of the dunes. Bisecting the endless kilometres of habitation was the Nile, a green snake slithering through skyscrapers.
Cairo is the most populated metro area in Africa. It’s a crazy, frenetic city of 16 million people, 600 mosques and some of the most bizarre and innovative driving I’ve ever seen – if a road is blocked by a traffic jam, simply use the pavement. And Cairo never sleeps, with taxis, traders and sidewalk stalls doing a roaring trade throughout the night.
Our hotel, the El Gezirah Sheraton, overlooked the Nile, where quill-sailed feluccas flitted between cruise ships, plying the wide river upstream to Alexandria or south to Luxor. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, the drone of traffic was drowned out by the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer in this ancient City of 1000 Minarets, so-called for its predominantly Islamic architecture.
It was into the mayhem of Cairo morning traffic that our party of journalists was pitched, behind the wheels of brand new Nissan Patrols. To add to our woes, Egyptians, probably to spite British officials of the colonial past, drive on the right-hand side of the road. By luck and perhaps the brute size of our vehicles, our convoy made it through the depressing outskirts of Cairo with its faceless blocks of concrete apartments, mostly half built but all occupied. There followed two memorable days in the desert that left one Nissan wrecked at the bottom of a sand dune somewhere in the Sahara – but that’s another story.
Back in Cairo, we had two days for a whistle stop of the major sights, which naturally included the Great Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of the city. Standing since approximately 2560 BC, the great pyramids have fascinated and mesmerised visitors for thousands of years, and I quickly fell under their ancient and mysterious spell. When you touch those huge blocks of stone, you have to marvel at how the pyramids were built in days before hydraulic cranes and mega trucks.
Of course, in Cairo you can’t even sneeze without someone wanting to charge you for it. Baksheesh is demanded for any service, so just how much you explore inside the pyramids depends on how deep your pockets are. We limited ourselves to an outside exploration of the Giza historical complex, which is fascinating in its entirety.
Keeping a sombre vigil over the Giza plain, as it has some for thousands of years, is the The Sphinx, the 100-metre long, 30-metre high lion-man carved out of the solid bedrock of the underlying plateau. Eroded and collapsing in places, it’s still a wonder of antiquity.
At the Egyptian Museum the next day, I saw my first real mummy. After lunch on a river boat we wiled away the afternoon exploring the narrow alley of the Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar where haggling is the only way to purchase, but they do take credit cards. I left very happy with assorted Sphinx replicas, a leather bag and a Kelim rug rolled up under my arm.
The Cairo stopover had been quick – but not short enough to spare me the Curse of the Pharaohs (the Egyptian equivalent of Delhi Belly), fortunately in a fairly mild form. Stomach troubles aside, this brief encounter with ancient Egypt had me hooked and yearning to find out more. While others slept on the flight back home, I furiously read a borrowed copy of Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval’s historical detective epic Keeper of Genesis. It only made me want to return for a longer trip.
Of course you haven’t really done Egypt until you’ve taken a cruise down the Nile from Luxor via the Valley of the Kings to Aswan. And then there are the spectacular underwater attractions of the Red Sea – a bucket-list destination for all scuba divers. So Tom may just get lucky – I can feel an Egypt trip coming on – just as soon as the country settles down into blissful democracy.
For reasons of safety as well as intricacies of organisation, Egypt is not a good do-it-yourself destination. Reality partner Cosmos offers well-priced tours to Egypt with an upcoming December trip to Cairo, Alexandria and the Mediterranean. Check it out at www.cosmos.com.