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 Little Blue by the Red Sea

9 10 2008

From the Adventure Blogger’s blue period.

I have never seen the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman and only once sighted a Flying Object that I couldn’t Identify. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t exist because I’ve also never seen a baby squirrel or pigeon…or a genuine piece of meat in a tin of baked beans and pork. However, there was one enigma whose existence I disputed until I actually spied it with my own eyes.    

 

Many years ago I saw a photograph of the Appalachian Mountains. It was an evocative image likely taken in the late afternoon that featured the summits at the front in a dark navy blue while those behind glided through all the degrees of the blue spectrum to a very pale hue in the distance.  The photo pre-dated the marvels of Photoshop, but I suspected that the photographer had used a blue filter.

 

Over time, I saw many similar images of different ranges of hills and mountains. Some were photos and some were paintings, sometimes in yellows or greens, other times in reds or my original blues. Regardless of the medium or colour, the view always caught my eye and presented a picture of unspoiled wilderness, tranquillity and Mother Nature at its finest.

 

A few years ago I was in Dahab, Egypt on the Red Sea coast. It was late afternoon, the sun was setting and I had dashed out to pick up some postcards before dinner. The streets were quiet and the shadows were lengthening. To my right lay the Red Sea and beyond faintly twinkled the first lights of Saudi Arabia. I continued my walk and crossed a small footbridge beneath which a seasonal stream made its way from the mountains and into the sea.

 

Midway across, I glanced to my left through the opening between the low white buildings and towards the Sinai desert…and stopped dead in my tracks.

 

In the previous days I had come to love the Sinai. The rugged, barren interior was a stark land of jagged peaks, rolling sepia hills and harsh desert. It was the land of the Bedouin and rich with biblical and modern history, intrigue and wild solitude. But as I stood and stared at the view, it was not the yellows, beiges and browns to which I had grown accustomed…but a myriad of blues.

 

The pallet from which it had been painted was the one from which Gainsborough had painted his boy and Picasso had dabbled during his famous period. It was a mixture of navies and royals, periwinkles and cobalts, egg shells and skies. It was the Appalachians and definitely not a mirage, filtered or Photoshopped. I reached for my camera to capture the scene that had so long captured my imagination only to realise I had left it in my room. Instead, I stood and drank it in with my naked eyes, watching the shades change with each moment of sunset.

 

Although I didn’t have a photo of the vista whose existence I had long doubted, it was forever emblazoned on my memory. I would never again question any similar photo or painting…or those abducted by aliens, chased by Sasquatch or stalked by the Yeti who survived with vivid accounts but, curiously in an age of camera phones and pocket point-and-shoots, no decent photos or video.

 

 

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