A to Z of Adventure Travel: L is for Luxor

3 04 2009

 tomb-of-tutankhamun-mw

“With a sign that big, I can’t understand why it was so hard for Howard Carter to find it!”

 

Although the Pyramids may get the headlines, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to Luxor.

 

Located in Upper Egypt, Luxor (or Thebes, as it was once known) straddles the Nile and is the starting (or finishing) point for most Nile cruises and home to the fabled Valley of the Kings.

 

Starting on the East Bank, visitors to the Valley of the Kings must first cross the wide expanse of the Nile. Although there is a bridge a few kilometres upstream from the city centre, most visitors prefer a trip through time and instead opt for the ferries that regularly cross the river. Once on the West Bank, transportation to the tombs of the pharaohs range from buses to taxis – although yet again, for the more adventurous there is only one option: a donkey! Dodging traffic and racing along the busy roads before winding in amongst the spartan hills and into the valley itself is a great start to what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable day.

 

While the treasures of the Pharaohs have long since been moved to museums around the world, it is the tombs that concealed that wealth and which were intended to be the Pharaohs’ final resting places that can be visited in the Valley of the Kings. Each tomb has its own entry fee and not all are open on any given day, but it is well worth visiting as many as time and budget permits. Photography is generally not permitted inside the tombs but postcards and books are widely available in the visitor centre and in town.

 

While the Valley of the Kings may not be the hottest place on earth, it certainly feels like it after a day of exploring. The relentless sun bounces mercilessly off the neighbouring hills broiling ill-prepared visitors below. With very little shade available, if not properly equipped with hat, sunscreen and plenty of water, visitors can soon fall victim to a climatically-controlled Curse of the Mummy.

 

While still on the West Bank, don’t miss the Valley of the Queens, the spectacular temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the Worker’s Village and the Colossi of Memnon. With a sharp eye, you may even spot the house that archeologist Howard Carter lived in while searching for King Tut’s treasure.

 

Back on the East Bank, the Temple of Karnak is as grand as anything anywhere else in the country with its vast size, huge monuments and pristine colours while the Luxor Museum is home to treasures that would form pride of place in any institution in the world yet often go overlooked here.

 

Although it may be the Pyramids of Giza or the treasures of King Tutankhamun and Cairo’s National Museum that lure you to Egypt, it may well be Luxor that makes the greatest impression.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





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





Of Turkey, Stuffing, Feta and Feluccas!

13 10 2008

“Did you order a pizza?”                         (Felucca on the Nile, Egypt)

It is believed that one of the first Thanksiving celebrations in North America was made by explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 in gratitude for having survived a long journey in search of a possible Northwest Passage. However, for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, various First Nations had long given thanks for a good harvest and bountiful crops. Today of course, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, turkey, autumn colours, the onset of crisper temperatures…and a mighty feast.

 

Food remains integral to most significant events, family get-togethers, religious festivals or simple celebrations. Whether weddings, birthdays, holidays or marking the end of a fast, there’s nothing like a good spread of food especially when surrounded by friends and family…and sampling new foods is one of the great highlights of any travel.

 

For all the great meals I have had whether in the fine restaurants, jungles, beaches or the bush, it is sometimes the most simple that remain the most memorable. One of those was on a felucca on the Nile in Egypt.

 

We had chosen to spend several days sailing down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. The felucca is a simple wooden sailing vessel that has been used since ancient times to transport goods and people along one of the world’s great rivers. The boats are small and comforts for travellers are spartan with the deck used for reclining, sightseeing, cooking, eating and sleeping. The shade of a canvas awning, occasional breezes and a bucket of river water from the Nile are the only relief from the blistering heat of the Sahara, but the rewards far outweigh any lack of luxury.

 

The feluccas zig-zag across the width of the river to catch the breezes and along the way pass remote Egyptian villages, local fishermen and children playing along the shore. We passed abandoned quarries once excavated by the ancient Egyptians to build their temples and monuments, and rarely-visited archeological sites. At night, we tied ourselves to the bank before settling down on the deck serenaded only by the gentle lapping of water on the wooden hull and the splash of jumping fish.

 

Despite the deprivations, it was idyllic and not one of us would have exchanged our spartan existance for the buffet tables, air conditioning and swimming pools of the luxury cruise ships that churned past at night.

 

It was the food that perhaps most surprised us all. The two crew would busily prepare our meals as we sailed along surrounded by the towering dunes of the desert or the minarets of rural mosques. Amid the heat, a lunch of the freshest feta cheese, mint, tomato, cucumber slices, lemon juice and a hint of olive oil was like manna even for a rabid carnivore and not only sated our hunger but left us feeling utterly refreshed and rejuvenated.

 

After several days with only the occasional dip in the Nile to wash away the cobwebs, we arrived in Luxor. Although once more graced by comfortable beds, hot showers, flush toilets and all the food choices imaginable, all of us were grateful for our wonderful days on the Nile and the simple foods upon which we feasted.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Snail Butter

9 05 2008

pigeon

Luxor, Egypt: ‘And a side order of feathers?’

 

It was nestled quietly on the menu between Cassoulet of Goosnargh duck and Corn fed chicken ‘Bois Boudran’: “Rib eye steak with snail butter”. To most, it went un-noticed, but not me. Although no expert, I do know that butter comes from milk. Milk comes from cows. And goats, and yaks…but snails? I pictured a dairy farmer in some backwoods snail farm, gently and earnestly milking his purebred livestock between deft little fingers. Although an interesting thought, it was not a pleasant one and I opted for bangers and mash instead.

 

There are things I have eaten while travelling that I wouldn’t touch with rubber gloves at home. And not just items that should usually be white, but were served to me in a mysterious green and furry state. I consider exotic cuisine to be a very important part of travel and the more exotic, the better…within reason.

 

In the back streets of Luxor, Egypt, I found pigeon. The little carcass was presented on a bed of couscous like a miniature roast chicken. Sadly, I could barely see the meat for the bones and although it tasted fine, it really wasn’t worth the considerable effort expended. The consolation was that I was at least able to derive evil pleasure from devouring something that had pooped on me once too often!

 

In Australia, I just had to grace my palate with witchetty grubs, the infamous and oh-so mouthwatering fat, wriggling, moth larvae.  Ours were so fresh that we found them while foraging beneath a log, as you do when you’re hungry! The African equivalent is the mopane worm which, when prepared by a master chef, still tastes like dry, gummy, over-cooked bland walnuts.  In Asia, there are crickets and grasshoppers which are especially great if you’re a leg man.

 

Although not particularly appetising, these are all great sources of protein and an important part of local diets. In fact, very little goes to waste in developing countries and I always feel ashamed of our own spoiled and wasteful existence in the first world. Whenever travelling, I try to never leave anything on my plate when I consider that the person serving me probably eats less protein in a week than I have in a single sitting.

 

I was once served two pork chops devoid of all meat. Not wishing to seem ungrateful, I struggled with my blunt knife, valiantly trying to obtain every single last morsel of fat and gristle. Each tiny piece was then diligently chewed 5000 times before being washed down with a mouthful of orange Fanta. My jaws ached by the time I finished. I reclined exhausted and far from replete as the waiter came to collect my plate.

 

“Was it good?” he asked, gesturing to the well-gnawed and impressively bare bones.

 

“Excellent” I lied, with as best a smile as I could manage with numb facial muscles.

 

He looked at me with surprise.

 

“Oh,” he said, “It looked a bit too gristly and fatty to me.” And away he walked with a shrug. 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008