Security – Egyptian Style

1 06 2009

Hatshepsut

The town was deserted.

We wound our way through the silent pre-dawn streets, the only movement coming from the occasional stray dog and the swirl of sand on asphalt. The streets were softly illuminated by yellow lights, but the businesses, offices, homes, sidestreets and alleyways were pitchblack and as abandoned as the set of an “End of the World” movie.

We turned a corner and found a police roadblock beyond which sat a long line of motorcoaches parked three deep on a flood-lit street. A heavily-armed officer waved us forward, pulled back a spiked barrier and ushered us beside the other vehicles. A shortwhile later, with an armoured car at the front, a truck filled with paramilitary police at the back, and a few outriders racing up and down the side, our convoy headed off into the dark desert beyond the city limits.

No, it wasn’t Baghdad, it was Hurghada, Egypt…a country that takes its tourism security very seriously.

The first sign of Egypt’s intense security came on arrival at our budget hotel when we navigated a metal detector just to enter the hot and fetid foyer. As we presented our bags, the genial guard waved us through without so much as a glance. Clearly, foreign tourists weren’t of much concern. Over the coming weeks, such measures – and more guns than you would find at an NRA garage sale – became the norm.

In November 1997, a group of terrorists attacked tourists gathered at the Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings. By the time the assault had ended, 63 people had died. Although Egypt had tight security before, the attack catapulted their security to some of the tightest in the world.

Large hotels are surrounded by tank traps and armoured cars topped with heavy machine-guns. Police sit in concrete pill boxes and cautiously wave vehicles towards their checkpoints. All hotels – even budget properties that lack computers or televisions – have their own guards and airport-style metal detectors. Tourist sites have police in abundance as well as less conspicuous plain clothes guards.

But it is when travelling away from the cities that the security measures become particularly evident.

We were heading from Hurghada into the Sinai and onto Dahab on the Red Sea. Although a considerable distance, our 3am start was due to the convoy’s timetable not any desire to beat rush hour! All tourist travel between major centres is made in heavily guarded convoys, whether from Hurghada to Cairo, Aswan to Abu Simbel or elsewhere.

With lights flashing, our convoy set off into Hurghada’s desolate streets before venturing into the Sahara. At each town we passed, the local police were out in force with their cars and heavy weaponry – or in some smaller instances, their donkeys and old carbine rifles – and blocked off all intersections as our parade raced through. In remote areas, isolated police stations resembled Beau Geste forts with gun towers, sand-bags and machine gun nests. Although the security was impressive, it was hard to know whether these efforts did a better job of protecting us…or simply drawing more attention.

After several hours, the main convoy turned for Cairo while we headed for the Suez Canal and Sinai beyond. We watched them race away along the desert highway while we continued alone into the neighbouring hills of the supposedly secure peninsula.

As is usually the case, our visit ended without incident and the only indication of any potential trouble was the intense security itself. Given its location and history, Egypt will likely never be as safe as Bermuda, but for those with even a hint of adventure-lust coursing through their veins, there’s no denying that the odd convoy or occasional tank trap adds a certain Indiana Jones spice.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: E is for Egypt

12 02 2009

philaetemple

                     “Needs a bit of work, but has potential…”              (Philae, Egypt)

 

I always like to save the best for last. Whether it’s a box of Smarties or the biggest and heaviest Christmas present, half the fun is working your way up to your favourite. So, when my two week tour of Egypt started with the pyramids I thought it would be all downhill from there. I could not have been more wrong and not only did each site surpass the previous one, but the entire country exceeded my already very high expectations!

 

Egypt seems to offer more history than the rest of the world combined. After a few days, a temple merely dating back a thousand years feels as modern as Frank Gehry’s latest creation and the vivid colours painted on a ceiling look fresher than a Cairo bus shelter.

 

Cairo is an enormous, bustling city that sprawls around the lower Nile. Apart from the glorious if somewhat faded Egyptian Museum and its awe-inspiring King Tutankhamun room, and the equally magnificent pyramids of Giza, Cairo offers wonderful markets and enough restaurants to sate a pharaoh. There are dinner cruises on the Nile, casinos and 5-star hotels – or hostels at barely $1 a night. Not only is Cairo the starting point for any Egyptian adventure, but it is also a great destination in its own right.

 

A short flight or sleeper-train ride south lies Aswan. Flanked by the rolling sands of the Sahara and the palm-fringed great expanse of the Nile, Aswan has the feel of an elegant frontier town. The Old Cataract Hotel is the setting for Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” and a great spot for afternoon tea (when it reopens from its current renovations!), while further up river sits the tranquil site of Philae. Aswan can be the base to explore Nubian villages, to see the great Aswan High Dam or to head further south towards the Sudanese border and the truly incredible Abu Simbel on the shores of Lake Nasser. Day trips are offered by bus (leaving in the very early hours for a lengthy trek across the Sahara, returning late afternoon) or by air.

 

Egypt can be navigated by land or air, but perhaps the most romantic method is by water: the Nile. There are many cruise boats operating between Aswan and Luxor. Some offer all the facilities of a 5-star hotel including swimming pools and gourmet food while others are better suited to the budget-conscious. For the truly intrepid, try living on the deck of a traditional felucca, sailing by day zig-zagging from bank-to-bank and sleeping moored to the shore at night. Feluccas offer no luxuries – or even facilities! – but provide a lifetime of memories.

 

Edfu and Luxor keep the excitement levels high with Kom Ombo and the Temple of Karnak. An early start by boat across the Nile and then by taxi, bus or even donkey for those so inclined, takes travellers to the Valley of the Kings – home to King Tut’s tomb and those of the other pharoahs. Although the treasure now sits in museums, the thrill of visiting the tombs first re-opened by Howard Carter and his team almost a century ago is every bit as exciting as seeing the glittering gold and jewels.

 

If the desert calls you to escape the beaten path, head west to the wilderness that surrounds Siwa Oasis. Siwa town is a maze of tunnel-like alleys and sun-dried brick houses, completely untouched by time and by tourist masses. Return via the Mediterranean coast and the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria which may no longer have a lighthouse, but does have European feel with North African flavour.

 

Across the Suez Canal sits the Sinai: a rugged chunk of desert that screams out to adventure-seekers. Whether trekking with the Bedouin and sleeping in oases, or climbing Mount Sinai at dusk or dawn, the Sinai is an adventure paradise. Once you’re ready to clean the sand from your ears, head to the Red Sea for snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming…or just relaxing on a carpet of cushions with a sheesha pipe and some dates.

 

Egypt can be as economical or expensive as you wish, as adventurous or luxurious. The food will tempt and please, the history will marvel and awe, the desert will challenge and the coastline will refresh and rejuvenate. Egypt is truly one of the world’s great destinations.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Beware The Midday Sun

10 09 2008

“Where’s the surf, man?”                  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Although I wouldn’t spurn the opportunity to live somewhere perpetually warm and sunny, I really do enjoy the change of seasons. After a long sticky summer, those first, fresh, softly-lit autumnal mornings are a most welcome change. I am still as excited as ever by the first flakes of snow that drift past the window and instantly dissolve on the pane, and by the annual novelty of the inaugural major storm. By spring, I enthusiastically embrace the rejuvenating rains that wash away the grey of late winter, but it is those first days of summer when the early morning is brighter than winter’s noon that are most exciting of all.

 

Whether bitterly cold or furiously hot, weather conditions are always a challenge but it is intense heat that is often the most dangerous for travellers.

 

The greatest heat I have ever experienced was in Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Although still morning, even in the shade the thermometer read 52 celsius, but it was also intensely humid due to the close proximity of Lake Nasser. The sun was relentless, the air turgid and difficult to ingest and the water in our bottles was soon as warm as tea. In Namibia, my deodorant stick melted into an oozing cream while in the Zambezi Valley, the small thermometer clipped onto my backpack exploded, sending microscopic spheres of mercury throughout my tent.   

 

Heat and sunstroke can not only spoil a holiday but they can also take lives. We all know to wear hats and light clothing and drink plenty of fluids, but sometimes we get distracted, especially on vacation. When surrounded by wondrous sights and enthralled by new experiences, it’s far too easy to forget to drink or to linger too long in the sun and end up thoroughly lobstered…even if you’re a medical professional.

 

I was once in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe on an overland truck. My fellow travellers were a mixed group from 8 different countries ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s and included artists, veterinarians, accountants, students and retirees. Late one afternoon, I found an Australian nurse in our group sprawled on a Thermarest mattress in the shade of our vehicle surrounded by several other travellers. She was a sickly white and looked extremely ill. Every few moments she strained to roll over and dry retch on the ground. Her speech was barely audible and the others were desperately trying to coax her to drink water, but each time the bottle reached her lips, she convulsed with sickness.

 

A recent medical graduate among us returned to the truck. He instructed the others to run a cold bath in the shower block. He prepared a makeshift ‘electrolyte’ of water, salt and sugar to replenish the minerals lost during the day. The woman was carried to the bath and cold, wet cloths were placed on her head. Drop by drop, the doctor managed to get her to drink his concoction and over the course of the night, she recovered.

 

The whole group was rather subdued by the experience. We all believed we were taking the proper precautions to avoid following in her footsteps but also admitted to occasionally being a little lax, especially on eventful days. The fact that it was the nurse in our group who’d been felled was particularly sobering.

 

Our travelling companion fully recovered, but her bout had deprived her of enjoying 4 or 5 days of her trip. Had it not been for her new friends and the good fortune of having a doctor on our truck, it could have been infinitely worse.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan