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

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: J is for Jordan

19 03 2009

petra

 

Every time any list emerges of the greatest films ever made, “Lawrence of Arabia” ranks in the top ten. Not only is it a great and stirring story that’s truly worthy of the description “epic,” but it’s also a sweeping advertisement for wandering the Middle East, and especially Jordan.

 

While Jordan’s main cities have modernised, much of the countryside has remained relatively unchanged since the days of T.E. Lawrence – or at least since David Lean shot part of his masterpiece there. The red cliffs of Wadi Rum are still as red and spectacular as ever, and although more developed than a century ago, Aqaba remains a frontier town on the edge of the beautiful waters of the Red Sea.

 

Amman is a busy city that pulses with culture and tradition…as well as international hotels and great restaurants. Not only can visitors lose themselves in the Old City exploring the old souk and King Hussein Mosque, but they can use the country’s capital as their base to visit the nearby Dead Sea, Jerash and the desert castles.

 

The Dead Sea is so buoyant that even I probably couldn’t drown there – unless I was sporting concrete sandals – but unfortunately it’s shrinking at such a rate that some say it will be gone completely by the mid-point of the century. Until then, visitors can bob in its saline waters or cover themselves with the mud from the lowest point of dry land in the world before watching the spectacular sunsets.

 

Venturing further south through the starkly beautiful desert, there is Petra, the “…rose-red city half as old as time.” Arguably one of the most breathtaking man-made structures in the world, photos of its rock-hewn treasury glimpsed through the narrow gorge of the Siq are amongst the most evocative of any travel photos.  A short distance away from the World Heritage Site is Little Petra, a site sadly missed by the majority of travellers.

 

If deserts are your thing, Jordan is definitely for you. Endless sands, rolling dunes, colourful rock formations and rocky plains cover much of this wild country and are littered with remnants of history from Roman ruins to biblical sites and crusader castles. You can visit legendary spots like “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” or Mount Nebo from which Moses saw ‘The Promised Land’. And if you yearn for a bit more activity there are plenty of opportunities to head off on a 4-day trek through the wilds, a jeep safari to Wadi Rum or simply spending a night in a Bedouin camp.

 

When the time comes to wash the sand away from between your toes, how better to do so than snorkelling in the warm, clear waters of the Red Sea before wrapping your head in a white cotton scarf and preteneding to be Lawrence himself!

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan   

Photo by: Jordan Tourism Board





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





Bubble Boy Goes Snorkelling

27 05 2008

Red Sea 1

Self portrait with fingers

It’s not that I’d describe myself as particularly accident prone or especially susceptible to illness, but if there’s a good dose of drama on show, chances are I will be the star attraction.

 

My life at home is rather dull, ordinary and uneventful. But when I travel I tend to attract rare and exotic ailments or have encounters that cause friends to hire me to entertain dinner parties with tales of my international misfortune. Thankfully, nothing major has happened that hasn’t been cured with an IV, a few days in isolation or some indelicate and rather embarrassing questions from a Tropical Disease specialist. But I certainly do provide a source of amusement for my less sensitive friends…and a few doctors.

 

The Red Sea is one of the world’s best snorkelling spots and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to slap on flippers and goggles for the first time ever…even though I can’t swim and am generally afraid of anything deeper than a saucer of milk. The sky was a flawless blue, the water was warm and crystal clear and the mountains of the arid Sinai Peninsula loomed over us to provide a glorious setting for my first aquatic adventure.

 

After strapping on my gear, I waddled over the jagged rocks and slipped into the water. A lifejacket ensured that I neither drowned nor was mistaken for anyone brave or naturally buoyant, and I rolled onto my stomach and kicked my legs with all the grace of a flailing octopus in a bowl of Jello. If the slap-slapping of my flippers on the top of the water wasn’t enough to scare all the fish onto land to begin evolution all over again, I’m sure my hyperventilation through the narrow plastic breathing tube certainly was.

 

I gradually swam further away from the shore. Bit by bit I gained some degree of coordination and confidence and actually began to enjoy myself – until the seabed suddenly dropped away beneath me into a bottomless abyss of murky blue perpetual darkness. My breathing went into overdrive, the rasping sound of panic became deafening and I desperately splattered back towards shore.

 

Despite my abject terror, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. I drifted in the tide just off great cliffs of coral and marvelled at magnificently coloured sealife. It was a world I had never seen before and I was absolutely rapt. My confidence soon returned and I began to really enjoy myself.

 

Red Sea 2

With time almost up, I headed back to the wooden ladder and walkway that led to the shore. I bobbed in the water while others descended to the sea, awaiting my chance to climb out. As the lapping waves pushed me towards the sheer rock, I extended my hands to keep the jagged edges at bay…and suddenly felt the most searing pain in the index finger of my right hand. I yanked back instantly and clambered ashore.

 

Blood streamed from the tip of my finger. I wiped it clear and saw two pin-prick holes, each surrounded by perfect white circles and then angry red circles that grew before my eyes. My efforts at maintaining a steely calm evaporated when an Australian colleague screamed, in utter terror, “It’s a sea snake bite!!! A sea snake…you’re gonna di….”

 

…or something along those lines.

 

Someone ran off to get the divemaster and I was hurriedly raced to a tented shelter and plopped down on a floor of carpets and cushions. Our ebullient tour guide had turned ashen white and knew he’d lost at least one tip.

 

“It’s a sea snake…” the Australian wailed. “They’re the most deadly of al…” she added before I heard a muffled thump and she disappeared.

 

The divemaster poked and prodded my finger before removing a very big and very sharp knife from his dive belt…and thankfully placing it on the carpet. He stepped away and returned with a glass of boiling water and oil, grabbed my finger and plunged it into the glass. He pulled it out and squeezed and pressed and poked, before plunging it in again and again. I couldn’t quite determine which was more painful: the poison making its way up my hand, the utter mangling he was giving my finger or the third degree burn I was getting from the treatment.

 

“It’s a sea urchin,” he said. “two spines. I got the poison out. You’ll be okay.”

 

He sheathed his knife, and swaggered away.

 

I glanced at my mutilated and throbbing finger, removed my lifejacket and headed towards the jeep that had brought us to the dive site. The sun was low and casting long shadows over the sea. There was a cooling breeze and all was tranquil…until I felt the searing pain on the back of my left hand.

 

I spun around just in time to see the driver move his glowing cigarette tip away from my hand.

 

“Sorry” he said sheepishly.

 

 

Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008