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





Just Deserts

21 04 2008

Sinai

Wadi Rum: The dead centre of the Sinai Desert

When I was little and we headed to the beach on holiday, nothing made me happier than a jam and sand sandwich. I can’t say that I actually liked the sand part of the sandwich as I’ve never been partial to the crunch of grit between my teeth, but sand in my food has always been synonymous with a holiday.

 

The sand, of course, was not part of the original culinary design, but had managed to work its way into the picnic basket, past the paper bag and through the plastic wrap, as sand tends to do. In fact, sand tends to work its way into anything and everything as any beach bunny can attest. So imagine living in a desert…a fancy name for a really big beach that’s devoid of water, ice creams, enormous inflatable bananas and magenta thongs.

 

Most people can understand someone with a passion for mountains, or rugged coastlines or even pretty Bambi-luring forests. But deserts are an acquired taste that can’t be truly appreciated until properly experienced.  

 

The Sinai desert stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in eastern Egypt. It is a magnificent desolation of mountains, wadis and much biblical significance and home to the nomadic Bedouin people. I was to spend a few days with the Bedouin, sleeping in their oasis camps and trekking the sands they have called home since time immemorial. 

 

Our 4WD turned off the isolated road that had wound its way through the mountains from the coastal town of Dahab. We stood in the blazing sun and were met by our Bedouin guide in his traditional dress. This was no costume for tourists: his loose wraps and flowing gown were the most sensible thing to wear in such a hostile environment. He checked our water bottles, footwear and headwear. We had been advised to wear a white cotton keffiyeh rather than a baseball cap, as the keffiyeh provided protection while allowing the circulation of air. Once satisfied that we were ready, we set off into the drifting sands. 

 

As we plowed through the fine powder, our calves and leg muscles burned from the effort of taking one step backwards for every two forward. We eventually reached more solid ground and picked up our pace. There are few places in the world that seem untouched by humans, but the Sinai is certainly one. For hour after hour, we found no trace of human presence. We passed the carcasses of camels bleached by the sun, and saw the side-winding trail of snakes. We eventually squeezed through an opening in the rocks and descended into a narrow canyon, sheltered from the sun and deliciously cool. The silence caused our ears to buzz.

   

In late afternoon we reached the Bedouin’s oasis camp. A simple awning had been raised over a sea of carpets and small cushions. Small glasses of tea were brought out for us and we sat and learned about Bedu life. After a traditional dinner we climbed into our sleeping bags and snuggled down against the bitter cold of the desert night, all the while trying not to think of scorpions, cobras and other company.

  

The night was eerily silent save the crackle of the dying campfire. The stars shined brightly enough to read a watch and there was the occasional feather-like caress of the wind on our exposed faces. We packed our small packs and after a light breakfast headed back into the canyons and desert. 

 

By the time we reached the end of our trek and emerged once again at the tarmacked road, we had all gained a great appreciation for the beauty of the stark surroundings, and the hardiness and hospitality of the Bedouin people. We arrived back at Dahab just as the lights began to twinkle across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.  

We all returned home with not only enough memories to last us forever, but enough sand hidden in every nook and cranny to build a small fortress.  

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008