Egypt,1989: Part Three

Back at the Hilton, we had time to reflect on how much we had enjoyed the cruise. It had seemed too short, and yet it had genuinely been relaxing and enjoyable; so perhaps after all it was just enough.

The next day, we had arranged to make the trip to see the Colossi of Memnon, opposite Luxor. This giant pair of statues is all that remains of the once-grand temple of Amenhotep III, and they are both representations of him, dating from around 1400 BC. They are quite damaged, and the features are worn away. Despite this, they are very impressive, towering sixty feet above the ground, the only things visible for any distance around them. The large bases have carvings in the stone, and one of the statues is known to have been rebuilt during Roman times, after being damaged by constant floods.

It seemed to me that they must have been something very special at the time they were erected, as they still had tremendous power as I gazed at them that morning. That afternoon, we returned to the centre of Luxor for a better look around. It was as dusty and dirty as we remembered though, so we didn’t stay there very long. Besides, we had our trip to Abu Simbel to anticipate.

A taxi collected us the following morning, for the trip to the airport. We had paid extra to fly to Abu Simbel, to avoid the long drive in the heat, and to allow more time at the site. There was little or no procedure at the airport, as it was an internal flight. We just walked across the tarmac to the aircraft, and were met by a pleasant young man, who introduced himself as our guide for the day. There were no flight attendants, no safety briefings, and the pilot and co-pilot sat in a cockpit with no door.

The plane was a relatively modern jet, and there was only a handful of other passengers. After take-off we flew surprisingly low, and soon came in to land. The guide informed us that we were not there yet, just collecting more tourists from other airfields around the area. This happened twice more, before the half-full aircraft gained height, and headed for Abu Simbel, to the south-west.

On the way, we flew over the Aswan Dam, and Lake Nasser. This was purely for touristic enjoyment, and the guide told us when these spectacles would appear, and on which side of the aircraft we should look, to get the best view. As we approached our destination, we moved around to get the first view of the monument, and even from that height, it was duly impressive. A coach awaited our arrival at the airport, and took us the short distance to the site. We were then informed that we would have two hours to explore, before the flight back.

The present site of the statues of Ramesses II is a huge artificial mound, containing a cave-like exhibition within. The statues were moved here to avoid being lost to the floods, after the creation of the dam. Between 1964 and 1968, the blocks were all cut, and individually numbered. They were then moved over 200 metres away from the water, and elevated to almost 70 metres. This is acknowledged as one of the greatest modern feats of engineering. It is hard to comprehend the scale of these huge structures. The four statues of Ramesses II at the entrance are so large, that just one of the toes is bigger than my head. As well as this, there is the Small Temple (not that small…) with six narrower sculptures around the door.

Inside, the wonder continues, with carved columns, and the UNESCO-funded exhibition, showing how the massive feat of engineering to save the site was carried out. Two hours was not really enough to appreciate everything on offer, but it was very busy, with more tourists than we had seen anywhere else previously. I took lots of photos, but made the mistake of over-compensating with the polarising filter, due to the strong sunlight. I was still using film then, and when I got the results back eventually, I was devastated to see that I had almost turned the skies black.

Nonetheless, it was a completely overwhelming experience, and well-worth the additional expense of the flights, (paid in advance in England) which added around £100 to the overall cost of the holiday. We flew back to Luxor and returned to the Hilton, with only one more day left. That evening, we dined well, eating all the most expensive items on the menu, before retiring to the gardens outside, to relax in the cool of the night air.

The following morning over breakfast, we considered the options for our last day. We decided to get a horse-taxi into Luxor, and to visit the temple on our own, taking more time, and unencumbered by even our small tour party. The feeling of having to return to England in December, cold and wet, industrial action overshadowing my job, and Christmas a few days away, was hard to shake off.

We haggled over a few trinkets, bought the last souvenirs, and enjoyed our wander around the impressive monuments for the final time. We returned to the hotel to start packing, leaving out only what we would need for the evening, and the trip home. We did not get away unscathed though. My wife had a bad stomach upset during the night, which resisted all medications, and continued into the following morning.

Hanging around at the airport didn’t help, and the public conveniences left a lot to be desired, as toilet paper had to be purchased from an attendant. Once on the flight home, my wife was further embarrassed by being allotted her own personal toilet, in case she had anything contagious! Even on our return to England, this condition persisted long enough for her to have to see her doctor.

I had to go back to picket duty on a strike, with an unseasonal tan.

But I would go again, do it all again, because it was truly memorable. In less than two weeks, we had stepped back over three thousand years in history, and experienced somewhere totally different to anywhere that either of us had ever been. Despite the political changes in the region, and the fact that the cruises are now more popular than ever, I would urge anyone to visit this fascinating country.

Egypt, 1989: Part Two

The next day, we were collected for the short drive to the dock at Luxor. We had checked out of the hotel, and they had confirmed that we would be back in five days time. There were quite a few cruise ships lined up along the bank. Some were very old, and might have been plying the river at the time of Agatha Christie. One still had paddles at the sides for propulsion, but most were modern. Our boat was somewhere between the two, probably a hangover from the 1950s, with no exterior cabins like the old boats. But it had a large open air covered deck at the rear, ideal for watching the river from.

Our cabin was comfortable enough, with a double bed, private facilities, and a large window, almost at the water-line. Except for the outside spaces, air-conditioning was provided, and there was a comfortable bar and large restaurant. They had even managed to cram in a tiny shop in the reception area. Inside, the feel was suitably old-fashioned, exactly what we had hoped for.

Our bags were whisked away by friendly staff, and we were gathered to be given information about life on board. All meals would be provided, three times a day. Any extras, alcoholic drinks, extra coffee, and other drinks, would have to be paid for, naturally. But we could settle our room bill at the end of the cruise, and add gratuities if we wanted. This meant that we would not have to worry about any spending money all the time we were on board. They even gave an idea of the prices, which all seemed very reasonable. There would be a party on the last night, and we could dress up in fancy dress, with an Egyptian theme of course, if we wanted to. Any gifts or jewellery bought at the shop would have to be paid for separately, as it was a concession.

Excursions would all start early, around 6.30am because of the heat, and breakfast would be served early on those days. As it was between the busy summer season, and the even busier Christmas rush, there were only twenty-four passengers, well under half-full. Luckily, the same amount of staff would be retained, so we could be guaranteed excellent service at all times.

Other than our group of sixteen, there were two small groups of Egyptian holidaymakers from Cairo. I was really happy. Not only did we have the prospect of five great days ahead, we would be spending them on a comparatively empty boat. They also explained that we would travel mostly at night, stopping early, ready to take our trips ashore. When we returned in the late afternoon, we would set off once again, heading for the next place on our itinerary.

Our first day on board would start that afternoon, with the journey to our first port of call, during an early dinner.

Once the boat left Luxor and began its slow journey to Aswan, the real magic happened. Travelling at little more than a walking pace, the feeling of stepping back in time really kicked in. At times, it felt as if the boat was standing still, and the scenery was moving past us, like the old canvas panoramas in early theatrical productions. Across the wide river, traditional feluccas, small sailing boats, carried goods, or fisherman casting nets into the water. The scene appeared unchanged for centuries, with only the modern river cruisers giving any indication of the age. The chugging of our boat engine, and the occasional smell of fuel, were the reminders that we were actually moving south. Otherwise, all was peace.

Sitting on the rear deck, enjoying a cool beer, we gazed at the lush strips of fertile land lining both banks. Devoid of industry, splashes of green in a sandy backdrop made us realise why the Nile was so important to sustaining agriculture along its length. People queued for small ferries, donkeys and camels laden with crops or boxes. It could have been 1920, or even 500 BC. The sight of occasional lorries and cars on riverside roads brought us back to reality, momentarily puncturing the reverie that had set in.

I could have sat there for hours on end (and I often did) watching this scene unfold. I wasn’t reading a book, and only sometimes taking a photograph. Otherwise, I just experienced it. Something I had never seen nor felt anywhere else. During the night, we passed through Esna Lock, a sudden burst of light and noise that jarred with the peace of the day.

When we woke the next morning, we were at Edfu.

Although this is a large town on the west bank, we were only going to see one thing; The Temple Of Edfu, dedicated to the god Horus, the falcon-headed god. This enormous structure was built from 237 BC, and was later buried under centuries of sand, prior to excavation during the 1860s. The building resembles a large fort, with a colonnaded courtyard within. The walls are covered in carved heiroglyphs, depicting various scenes, and a large statue of Horus stands at the entrance. We were told that it was lucky to touch the beak of the falcon head, so of course, we all strained to do this. I can imagine that it must be getting quite worn away by now, if this is still allowed. Like every structure of this type we saw there, it seemed appropriate to wander around on our own, feel the atmosphere, and try to imagine what it must have been like, brightly-painted, and bustling with worshippers and priests.

I have heard other visitors to Egypt describe the experience as visiting lots of temples, each similar to the next, and tiring of looking at columns and sandstone walls. This was not how I saw it. I always felt as if I was privileged to get this small window into a fascinating past, and a civilisation so advanced, at a time when much of the world was undeveloped to any level.

Another peaceful cruise that afternoon, to our next destination, Kom Ombo.

When we woke up, we could see the temple, raised above the river bank, just across from our boat. This temple is dedicated to the crocodile-headed god, Sobek. It was once destroyed by an earthquake, and damaged by Nile floods. It looks somewhat dilapidated, but impressive nonetheless, in a dominant location. Carvings inside show recognisable medical instruments, and there are some fascinating mummified crocodiles on display, once part of the worship rituals. Strange to think that they could have been there since 150 BC. There is also a carved calendar, showing the days of the ancient Egyptian months, which was explained by a guide.

After the tour, we returned to the boat. We were to carry on to Aswan, where we would spend the last two days of our cruise. I was already regretting not choosing the longer cruise option, as I had completely fallen in love with this river, and the amazing sights near its banks.

Aswan is a large city, expanded in modern times and boasting a population approaching 300,000. I had not travelled to Egypt to see large cities. I had come from one of the largest, London, and sought peace and antiquity. There was little of that to be found in this bustling terminus of riverboats, tourists, and crowded markets. However, there were two good reasons to travel here; Elephantine Island, and The Temple of Philae, and we were going to see them both. It was an early start the next morning, for the drive of over sixty miles down to the islands at Philae. On arrival, a serene trip on a small felucca would take our small group to one of the two islands. The Temple buildings had been threatened with flooding after the Aswan Dam was built, and because of this, the temple was moved stone by stone, to its present location.

I remember how peaceful it felt, arriving on the sailing boat, and touring the restored buildings with such a small group. On the return trip to Aswan, we stopped at an ancient quarry, where we could see rejected monoliths and carved statues still partly in the rock they had been carved from. If they cracked, or were damaged during carving, they were simply left in place. That night on the boat, they hosted the ‘theme’ party. We attended, but I have to tell you that we did not really enter into the full spirit of it, as we declined to dress in ancient Egyptian style clothing.

The next morning heralded our last night on board. We were taken across to Elephantine Island by boat, where we  decided to take the steep trip to the Aga Khan mausoleum. Unwisely, as it turned out, we agreed to pay a small fee to both go on the same camel. Jammed into a double saddle with a hard wooden surround, we later suffered badly from being rocked back and forth for a considerable time on the back of the unfortunate animal. Days later, we still had extensive bruising from the pressure of the uncomfortable saddle.

Later that evening, we ventured into the nearest market to the riverside. Aswan is known for fine quality cotton products, and we purchased a tablecloth and napkin set, with the minimum of haggling on that occasion. We watched the sun set behind Elephantine Island, with riverboats and feluccas silhouetted on the water. It was magnificent indeed.

Our last night on the boat was something of an anti-climax though, as we were aching and tired from a long day, and went to bed early.

The next day, we packed after breakfast, and went to the small reception area to settle our room bill. Despite all the extra teas and coffees, numerous beers, and some wine with dinner, our total for the whole cruise was less than £40, around £8 a day. I even got them to check it, as I thought it was not enough. They obviously thought I was complaining, and presented a meticulous drink-by-drink account. When I told them I thought it was too low, they just smiled. It must have seemed a lot of money to them. I added the difference to make it the equivalent of £50, and considered it to be money well spent, including gratuities.

We left the boat reluctantly, and I gazed enviously at the other river cruisers, still conveying tourists. The return trip by coach took just under four hours, including a short lunch break in a rather dubious roadside cafe. The distance from Luxor to Aswan was about 110 miles. It had taken four days on board, less than four hours by road.

Back at the Hilton, we were surprised to get the same room we had left earlier that week. We still had a few days of our holiday left, including the much-anticipated trip to Abu Simbel.

Egypt, 1989: Part One

I have decided to repost my 3-part series from 2014 about a holiday to Egypt in 1989. Parts two and three will follow this one in order.

Please note that many of the places described here have been greatly improved since our visit. Some now have permanent exhibitions, and better access. Some others are closed to tourists for the time being, and may or may not be re-opened. Hotels have been upgraded, and the river boats are generally of a more modern standard.

Egypt was one of those places I had always wanted to see. Old films with Pyramids and Pharaohs fascinated as a youngster, and later exploration in books and TV documentaries left me with a real desire to see this fascinating country. I had just never got around to it. I always felt that if it had lasted for all those thousands of years, it could wait a little bit longer for me to visit. I went to lots of other places instead. Some were changing politically, and needed to be seen as they were prior to that change. Others were cheaper, or just closer, so I took the occasional easy option. But Egypt remained in my mind, as somewhere I always knew that I would get to see. Eventually.

In 1989, I was getting married, for the second time. As the wedding was going to be in late July, we thought carefully about the honeymoon. Travel at this time is not only more expensive, it can also be very hot and uncomfortable. After some consideration, we decided that we would have the ideal honeymoon, in the land that I had always wanted to see. Egypt.

However, we would not be going in July, with temperatures at their highest. We would go in December instead. This time of cold and gloom in the UK is the exact opposite further south in Egypt. Warm sunny days, and calm cooler nights make December the perfect time to see this desert country. It also makes it more expensive, but I had been saving up. We went for a weekend in Amsterdam after the wedding, then returned to normal life, anticipating our ‘real’ honeymoon later that year.

After reading through some travel guides and tourist information (no Internet then) we decided to avoid Cairo. This did mean that we would not see the Pyramids, or the famous museum. On the other hand, it gave us the option of doing different things, including a cruise along the Nile, and a trip to Abu Simbel. We booked with Thomas Cook, and paid for everything, including the excursions. It was an organised holiday, with the chance to go on trips with guides if you wanted to, or do your own thing, if you preferred that. We would fly to Luxor, and spend a few days in the Hilton Hotel by The Nile, before joining our cruiser, for a five-night trip down to Aswan. After the cruise, we would return to the Hilton, and finish the remainder of the holiday there.

In October, with two months to go before the holiday, we began a long strike in the Ambulance Service. As the trip had already been paid for, we decided to still go, and not to let the fact that I wasn’t being paid, or might not have a job to return to, spoil any of our plans. I can’t deny that I was worried though, but that faded away as I sat on the aircraft.

On arrival at Luxor airport, our small group was broken up into those staying at different hotels. We were the only two going to stay at the Hilton, so we were dropped off by minibus with our luggage. Our first impressions of the city were not that good. Half-finished buildings lined the roads, and the whole place seemed to be dusty and run-down. The road leading to the Hilton led nowhere else, and the area around the hotel was studded with industrial buildings, and fenced-off scrub land. Outside the entrance, a group of horse-drawn taxis waited for business; the animals looked to be in a bad way, with all their ribs showing.

Inside the hotel compound, all was luxury. Palm trees, manicured gardens, and a stylish entrance, manned by uniformed youngsters whose only task was to open and close the doors for guests. Staff at the reception treated us like royalty; bags conveyed to our room, checked-in without fuss. The room itself was comfortable but not grand. It had one perfect feature though, a small balcony overlooking the River Nile.

Our deal included breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and all meals on the boat. After a shower and change, we explored the hotel grounds. A huge chess set was laid out, and comfortable furniture surrounded a pool, leading out to the lush gardens bordering the river. It certainly was a glamorous location, at least inside the hotel grounds. The weather was good, warm but not too hot, and the hotel had most things you could want, including a gift shop, cafe, and large restaurant. Dinner was an elegant affair, in an old-fashioned atmosphere. The hotel was not even half-full, so service and food were excellent. There was also the possibility to upgrade to the a-la-carte menu for a very small sum, so we did. We had two days to wait before getting on the river boat, so we resolved to make the most of it. The next morning, we would join the tour to Luxor and Karnak Temples.

We were collected after breakfast, and taken by coach on the short trip via the centre of Luxor. Founded in 1400BC, this city was originally called Thebes. Much of it appeared unchanged on first examination, and even the centre had the feel of a biblical town. Meat hung outside open butcher shops, covered in flies, and the market stalls were busy, with considerable traffic crowding the narrow streets.

Arriving at Luxor Temple, the reason for coming to this country was immediately apparent. The sheer scale and grandeur, the feel of history, of walking in the steps of Ramesses, it was completely overwhelming. Within moments, I was captivated, and knew instinctively that it had been worth all the travelling, and the cost. After listening to the guide for a while, we went off on our own, uninspired by his dry delivery and endless statistics about the height and weight of the columns. Just walking around the complex, looking up at the construction and feeling the atmosphere was more than enough. The main Karnak temple is nearby, along a path lined by what is left of a row of sphinxes that once joined the two main places of worship. The famous Hypostyle Hall, of over 100 ornate columns, and the carved reliefs in the Precinct of Amun Re, are simply breathtaking, and worth the whole trip alone. It was fascinating to imagine them all brightly painted in their heyday, and we could still see traces of some of the colours in the shaded roof areas.

The old town of Luxor didn’t have a great deal to offer. There were some tourist shops of course, as well as numerous market stalls and street sellers, all hawking trinkets and souvenirs. The persistence of some street traders was disconcerting. Outside of any attraction, and on the route back to the main hotels, they would follow you relentlessly, brandishing things in your face, and asking ‘English?’, or ‘German?’, if they went by my wife’s natural light blonde hair. At certain points, the Tourist Police would step in, and the salesmen knew better than to carry on. Although used to bargaining in North Africa, Kenya, and Turkey by then, I was staggered by the ridiculous starting prices stated by any shop or seller there.

Before leaving England, I had promised my friend’s little girl that I would bring her back a toy camel. I had expected to see lots of camels for sale, but I could only find wooden ones, not suitable for a small child. I eventually found a leather-covered stuffed camel in one shop, and went inside to look at it. The shopkeeper pounced immediately, telling me that this was a hand made first-class camel and one of a kind. His opening price was the equivalent of almost £200, which we could only laugh at. When he wouldn’t go below £50, we walked out of the shop. He followed us out, and offered a ‘much better price’. After another thirty minutes, we secured the toy for £8. This was probably still far too much, at least twice what it should have cost, but I was just pleased to get out of there.

We decided to return to the hotel by horse taxi. This involved more protracted negotiations with the driver, until we settled on the fare of around £1, which seemed to be the going rate. When we got back to the hotel, he asked for twice that much. “The rest is for my horse” he told us, indicating the sorry animal pulling the carriage. I decided to make a stand though, otherwise prices would get inflated. I gave him the equivalent of £1 as agreed.

The next day, we had an early start to visit the Valley of The Kings, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This involved crossing the river by small boat, then a minibus trip up to the first site. Other than a parking area, and a large cafe, there is little to indicate the treasures below the rocky barren ground there. We had a guided tour into the tomb of Ramesses ll, which seemed to be little more than a hole in the ground, with steep steps leading down into darkness. The small group and guide were both compulsory at the time, as there were fears of damage done to the site by the sheer volume of tourists. Once on the staircase, we could immediately see the wonderful colours of the preserved paintings and heiroglyphs. It was amazing to think that the man who once occupied this tomb had died in 1213 BC, over three thousand years earlier. Only one small room was accessible, and it contained the large stone sarcophagus that would have originally housed the decorated coffin and the mummified body within. Even given the short time allowed for the visit, the impact of those moments in that cold chamber, surrounded by colour from a bygone era, stays with me to this day.

After an early lunch in the large cafe on the site, we headed off to see the Temple of Hatshepsut. This monumental building, part of which is built into the rock itself, is part of the large area known as the Theban Necropolis. Her temple is magnificently preserved, and an outstanding sight amid the surrounding hills.

Wandering about this complex, marvelling at the reliefs and architecture, I learned a valuable lesson about walking around in the midday sun. Although I hadn’t felt unduly hot, it was very bright, and very warm. I passed out with sunstroke, finding myself suddenly lying on my back, a group of concerned faces looking down at me. Other members of our group, as well as my wife and the guide, got me into the shade. They gave me water to drink, and also poured water over me. I soon felt better, but resolved to wear a cap every day after that. We returned to the hotel that afternoon, and I was fully recovered by the time we got there.

The next day we would be joining our ship, for the five day cruise down to Aswan.

Holidays and Travel: Egypt 1989 (Part Three)

Back at the Hilton, we had time to reflect on how much we had enjoyed the cruise. It had seemed too short, and yet it had genuinely been relaxing and enjoyable; so perhaps after all it was just enough.

The next day, we had arranged to make the trip to see the Colossi of Memnon, opposite Luxor. This giant pair of statues is all that remains of the once-grand temple of Amenhotep III, and they are both representations of him, dating from around 1400 BC. They are quite damaged, and the features are worn away. Despite this, they are very impressive, towering sixty feet above the ground, the only things visible for any distance around them. The large bases have carvings in the stone, and one of the statues is known to have been rebuilt during Roman times, after being damaged by constant floods.

It seemed to me that they must have been something very special at the time they were erected, as they still had tremendous power as I gazed at them that morning. That afternoon, we returned to the centre of Luxor for a better look around. It was as dusty and dirty as we remembered though, so we didn’t hang around very long. Besides, we had our trip to Abu Simbel to anticipate.

A taxi collected us the following morning, for the trip to the airport. We had paid extra to fly to Abu Simbel, to avoid the long drive in the heat, and to allow more time at the site. There was little or no procedure at the airport, as it was an internal flight. We just walked across the tarmac to the aircraft, and were met by a pleasant young man, who introduced himself as our guide for the day. There were no flight attendants, no safety briefings, and the pilot and co-pilot sat in a cockpit with no door. The plane was a relatively modern jet, and besides us, there were only a handful of other passengers. After take-off we flew surprisingly low, and soon came in to land. The guide informed us that we were not there yet, just collecting more tourists from other airfields around the area. This happened twice more, before the half-full aircraft gained height, and headed for Abu Simbel, to the south-west.

On the way, we flew over the Aswan Dam, and Lake Nasser. This was purely for touristic enjoyment, and the guide told us when these spectacles would appear,  and on which side of the aircraft we should look, to get the best view. As we approached our destination, we moved around to get the first view of the monument, and even from that height, it was duly impressive. A coach awaited our arrival at the airport, and took us the short distance to the site. We were then informed that we would have two hours to explore, before the flight back.

The present site of the statues of Ramesses II is a huge artificial mound, containing a cave-like exhibition within. The statues were moved here to avoid being lost to the floods, after the creation of the dam. Between 1964 and 1968, the blocks were all cut, and individually numbered. They were then moved over 200 metres away from the water, and elevated to almost 70 metres. This is acknowledged as one of the greatest modern feats of engineering. It is hard to comprehend the scale of these huge structures. The four statues of Ramesses II at the entrance are so large, that just one of the toes is bigger than my head. As well as this, there is the Small Temple (not that small…) with six narrower sculptures around the door.

Inside, the wonder continues, with carved columns, and the UNESCO-funded exhibition, showing how the massive feat of engineering to save the site was carried out. Two hours was not really enough to appreciate everything on offer, but it was very busy, with more tourists than we had seen anywhere else previously. I took lots of photos, but made the mistake of over-compensating with the polarising filter, due to the strong sunlight. I was still using film then, and when I got the results back eventually, I was devastated to see that I had almost turned the skies black. Nonetheless, it was a completely overwhelming experience, and well-worth the additional expense of the flights, (paid in advance in England)which added around £100 to the overall cost of the holiday. We flew back to Luxor and returned to the Hilton, with only one more day left. That evening, we dined well, eating all the most expensive items on the menu, before retiring to the gardens outside, to relax in the cool of the night air.

The following morning over breakfast, we considered the options for our last day. We decided to get a horse-taxi into Luxor, and to visit the temple on our own, taking more time, unencumbered by a tour party. The feeling of having to return to England in December, cold and wet, industrial action overshadowing my job, and Christmas a few days away, was hard to shake off.

We haggled over a few trinkets, bought the last souvenirs, and enjoyed our wander around the impressive monuments for the final time. We returned to the hotel to start packing, leaving out only what we would need for the evening, and the trip home. We did not get away unscathed though. My wife had a bad stomach upset during the night, which resisted all medications, and continued into the following morning. Hanging around at the airport didn’t help, and the public conveniences left a lot to be desired, as toilet paper had to be purchased from an attendant. Once on the flight home, my wife was further embarrassed by being allotted her own personal toilet, in case she had anything contagious! Even on our return to England, this condition persisted long enough for her to have to see her doctor.

I had to go back to picket duty on a strike, with an unseasonal tan.

But I would go again, do it all again, because it was truly memorable. In less than two weeks, we had stepped back over three thousand years in history, and experienced somewhere totally different to anywhere that either of us had ever been. Despite the political changes in the region, and the fact that the cruises are now more popular than ever, I would urge anyone to visit this fascinating country.

Holidays and Travel: Egypt 1989 (Part One)

Please note that many of the places described here have been greatly improved since our visit. Some now have permanent exhibitions, and better access. Some others are closed to tourists for the time being, and may or may not be re-opened. Hotels have been upgraded, and the river boats are generally of a more modern standard.

Egypt was one of those places I had always wanted to see. Old films with Pyramids and Pharaohs fascinated as a youngster, and later exploration in books and TV documentaries left me with a real desire to see this fascinating country. I had just never got around to it. I always felt that if it had lasted for all those thousands of years, it could wait a little bit longer for me to visit. I went to lots of other places instead. Some were changing politically, and needed to be seen as they were prior to that change. Others were cheaper, or just closer, so I took the occasional easy option. But Egypt remained in my mind, as somewhere I always knew that I would get to see. Eventually.

In 1989, I was getting married, for the second time. As the wedding was going to be in late July, we thought carefully about the honeymoon. Travel at this time is not only more expensive, it can also be very hot and uncomfortable. After some consideration, we decided that we would have the ideal honeymoon, in the land that I had always wanted to see; Egypt. However, we would not be going in July, with temperatures at their highest. We would go in December instead. This time of cold and gloom in the UK is the exact opposite further south in Egypt. Warm sunny days, and calm colder nights make December the perfect time to see this desert country. It also makes it more expensive, but I had been saving up. We went for a weekend in Amsterdam after the wedding, then returned to normal life, anticipating our ‘real’ honeymoon later that year.

After reading through some travel guides and tourist information (no Internet then) we decided to avoid Cairo. This did mean that we would not see the Pyramids, or the famous museum. On the other hand, it gave us the option of doing different things, including a cruise along the Nile, and a trip to Abu Simbel. We booked with Thomas Cook, and paid for everything, including the excursions. It was an organised holiday, with the chance to go on trips with guides if you wanted to, or do your own thing, if you preferred that. We would fly to Luxor, and spend a few days in the Hilton Hotel by The Nile, before joining our cruiser, for a five-night trip down to Aswan. After the cruise, we would return to the Hilton, and finish the remainder of the holiday there. In October, with two months to go before the holiday, we began a long strike in the Ambulance Service. As the trip had already been paid for, we decided to still go, and not to let the fact that I wasn’t being paid, or might not have a job to return to, spoil any of our plans. I can’t deny that I was worried though, but that faded away as I sat on the aircraft.

On arrival at Luxor airport, our small group was broken up into those staying at different hotels. We were the only two going to stay at the Hilton, so we were dropped off by minibus with our luggage. Our first impressions of the city were not that good. Half-finished buildings lined the roads, and the whole place seemed to be dusty and run-down. The road leading to the Hilton led nowhere else, and the area around the hotel was studded with industrial buildings, and fenced-off scrub land. Outside the entrance, a group of horse-drawn taxis waited for business; the animals looked to be in a bad way, with all their ribs showing. Inside the hotel compound, all was luxury. Palm trees, manicured gardens, and a stylish entrance, manned by uniformed youngsters whose only task was to open and close the doors for residents. Inside the cool reception, we were treated like royalty, bags conveyed to our room, checked-in without fuss. The room itself was comfortable but not grand. It had one perfect feature though, a small balcony, overlooking the River Nile.

Our deal included breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and all meals on the boat. After a shower and change, we explored the hotel grounds. A huge chess set was laid out, and comfortable furniture surrounded a pool, leading out to the lush gardens bordering the river. It certainly was a glamorous location, at least inside the hotel grounds. The weather was good, warm but not too hot, and the hotel had most things you could want, including a gift shop, cafe, and large restaurant. Dinner was an elegant affair, in an old-fashioned atmosphere. The hotel was not even half-full, so service and food were excellent. There was also the possibility to upgrade to the a-la-carte menu for a very small sum, so we did. We had two days to wait before getting on the river boat, so we resolved to make the most of it. The next morning, we would join the tour to Luxor and Karnak Temples.

We were collected after breakfast, and taken by coach on the short trip via the centre of Luxor. Founded in 1400BC, this city was originally called Thebes. Much of it appeared unchanged on first examination, and even the centre had the feel of a biblical town. Meat hung outside open butcher shops, covered in flies, and the market stalls were busy, with considerable traffic crowding the narrow streets. Arriving at Luxor Temple, the reason for coming to this country was immediately apparent.  The sheer scale and grandeur, the feel of history, of walking in the steps of Ramesses, it is completely overwhelming. Within moments, I was captivated, and knew instinctively that it had been worth all the travelling, and the cost. After listening to the guide for a while, we went off on our own, uninspired by his dry delivery, and endless statistics about the height and weight of the columns. Just walking around the complex. looking up at the construction, and feeling the atmosphere, was more than enough. The main Karnak temple is nearby, along a path lined by what is left of a row of sphinxes that once joined the two main places of worship. The famous Hypostyle Hall, of over 100 ornate columns, and the carved reliefs in the Precinct of Amun Re, are just simply breathtaking, and worth the whole trip alone. It was fascinating to imagine them all brightly painted in their heyday, and we could still see traces of some of the colours, in the shaded roof areas.

The old town of Luxor didn’t have a great deal to offer. There were some tourist shops of course, as well as numerous market stalls, and street sellers, all hawking trinkets and souvenirs. The persistence of some street traders was disconcerting. Outside of any attraction, and on the route back to the main hotels, they would follow you relentlessly, brandishing things in your face, and asking ‘English?’, or ‘German?’, if they went by my wife’s natural light blonde hair. At certain points, the Tourist Police would step in, and the salesmen knew better than to carry on. Although used to bargaining in North Africa, Kenya, and Turkey by then, I was staggered by the ridiculous starting prices stated by any shop or seller there. Before leaving England, I had promised my friend’s little girl that I would bring her back a camel. I had expected to see lots of camels for sale, but I could only find wooden ones, not suitable for a small child. I eventually found a leather-covered stuffed camel in one shop, and went inside to look at it. The shopkeeper pounced immediately, telling me that this was a hand made first-class camel and one of a kind. His opening price was the equivalent of almost £200, which we could only laugh at. When he wouldn’t go below £50, we walked out of the shop. He followed us out, and offered a ‘much better price’. After another thirty minutes, we secured the toy for £8. This was probably still far too much, at least twice what it should have cost, but I was just pleased to get out of there. We decided to return to the hotel by horse taxi. This involved more protracted negotiations with the driver, until we settled on the fare of around £1, which seemed to be the going rate. When we got back to the hotel, he asked for twice that much. ‘The rest is for my horse’ he told us, indicating the sorry animal pulling the carriage. I decided to make a stand though, otherwise prices would get inflated. I gave him the equivalent of £1 as agreed.

The next day, we had an early start to visit the Valley of The Kings, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This involved crossing the river by small boat, then a minibus trip up to the first site. Other than a parking area, and a large cafe, there is little to indicate the treasures below the rocky barren ground there. We had a guided tour into the tomb of Ramesses ll, which seemed to be little more than a hole in the ground, with steep steps leading down into darkness. The small group and guide were both compulsory at the time, as there were fears of damage done to the site by the sheer volume of tourists. Once on the staircase, we could immediately see the wonderful colours of the preserved paintings and heiroglyphs. It was amazing to think that the man who once occupied this tomb had died in 1213 BC, over three thousand years earlier. Only one small room was accessible, and it contained the large stone sarcophagus that would have originally housed the decorated coffin, and the mummified body within. Even given the short time allowed for the visit, the impact of those moments in that cold chamber, surrounded by colour from a bygone era, stays with me to this day. After an early lunch in the large cafe on the site, we headed off to see the Temple of Hatshepsut. This monumental building, part of which is built into the surrounding rock, is part of the large area known as the Theban Necropolis. Her temple is magnificently preserved, and an outstanding sight amid the surrounding hills.

Wandering about this complex, marvelling at the reliefs and architecture, I learned a valuable lesson about walking around in the midday sun. Although I hadn’t felt unduly hot, it was very bright, and very warm. I passed out with sunstroke, finding myself suddenly lying on my back, a group of concerned faces looking down at me. Other members of our group, as well as my wife, and the guide, got me into the shade. They gave me water to drink, and also poured water over me. I soon felt better, but resolved to wear a cap every day after that. We returned to the hotel that afternoon, and I was fully recovered by the time we got there. The next day, we would be joining our ship, for the five day cruise down to Aswan.  As much as I was excited at this prospect, I was also pleased to have made the decision to travel to Egypt, and I would have been happy with what I had already managed to see, in just three days.

Part two will follow soon.