Almost half way through our trip now, we allowed ourselves a few luxuries in Egypt, including a five day Nile cruise. Which is fitting, given the luxurious and wealthy ways of life lived by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, whose tombs we were visiting. During the five days, we saw the temples of Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, Kom-Ombo and Philae, as well as a morning trip to Abu Simbel in the far south of the country. Each had their own history with stories of betrayal, worship, revenge, conquests, love and devotion – all depicted carefully with statues, obelisks and heiroglyphics, some over 4000 years old. Here I’ve compiled the photos from the tour into one set, and hopefully it captures the depth of rich history lining the Nile in Egypt.
Battlestar Galactica, Cadbury chocolate, cans of Coke and Cheese & Spices flavoured Doritos. Welcome to Egypt.
As we disembarked from our five day Nile cruise, taking in Luxor, Aswan and everything between, we checked into the Nuba Nile Hotel for two nights before our return to Cairo. There doesn’t seem to be much to Aswan – besides the Philae Temple and the High Dam, it’s just hot, dry and dirty. It’s the last stop before the Nile becomes Lake Nasser, stretching the final 350 kilometres to the border of Sudan in the south. And as we’d seen both the temple and the high dam on the last day of our Nile tour, our time in Aswan is mostly for relaxation, and as the departure point for our visit to Abu Simbel.
At 3.30am today we left the hotel by guarded convoy for a 4 hour trip to Abu Simbel, two temples in excellent condition in the very south of Egypt. Here lies the temples for King Ramses II and his wife Queen Nefetari. In the 1960′s these temples were slowly and carefully taken apart and moved to a higher spot sixty metres away, when the Aswan High Dam and the pooling of Lake Nasser threatened to submerge the temples in their original position. When you see the temples, you can understand the reason for such effort and focus in the relocation – they are in fantastic condition. Both temples are carved into the rock face, the larger temple fronted by four 20 metre tall statues, two on either side of the entrance. Both temples go deep into the rock with more statues within, numerous rooms and deeply carved, colourfully painted hieroglyphics. But perhaps the most spectacular part of these temples is that twice a year, the morning sun strikes perfectly through the front entrance, and lights all the way through to the sacrifice table in the back room. Yet another outstanding example of imaginative and awe-inspiring construction surviving almost 4000 years.
Our return from Abu Simbel was after lunch and to escape the heat, we returned to the hotel for – you guessed it – more tv shows, chocolate and soft drinks. You might ask why were not out and about, enjoying the foreign places, the food, the traditions and the experience. And we did the same thing yesterday – stayed indoors and did nothing except sleep, eat, and watch a tv show from 2003. But truth be told, we’re both tired. The heat really is suffocating, the air is thick, the streets are frantic and disorganised. The locals call out, offering tours, food, water, or just yelling and whistling. I have no doubt they mean well – but their curiosity is sometimes exhausting.
For lots of places, it’s more than the sights, the people or the climate – it’s a feeling. And sadly I don’t get a great feeling from Egypt so far. I thought maybe it was just Aswan, but it has been a feeling of slight discomfort, exhaustion and frustration for two weeks now in Egypt. Maybe it’s the heat? But Thailand was maybe hotter, and at least Egypt is a dry heat. It’s not the food – I love falafels! The sights are magnificent, some of the oldest in the world. But there are many of them, so maybe I’m templed out. The hotels might have something to do with it – in Cairo, Luxor and now Aswan, the rooms have been old, tired and unwelcoming – the buildings decrepit and maybe even slightly haunting. Being cut off might also add to the feeling – 5 days without the internet on the cruise was fine, but it’s now dangling like a carrot in the hotel. There is a wifi signal, but we’re unconvincingly told ‘no password – broken’. But fortunately we return to Cairo on Saturday, back to Hotel Isis. There the signal is weak but works, the hotel slightly scary but the people are welcoming. And there is some suitable falafel nearby. So overall, I’m looking forward to the return to Cairo. Four days later, London! And hopefully this feeling will pass.
Today we took a day trip from our hotel out into the desert – the Sahara Desert, no less. We were joined by an American woman, her Moroccan husband and her son, a typical 15 year old American boy, except for the fact they all live in Cairo so this boy knows more about the middle east than most Americans will in their entire lives. At 11am, our driver arrived to collect us in a sandy Toyota Landcruiser- he was introduced as Desert Fox.
For the next 8 hours we drove through the Sahara Desert. That in itself doesn’t sound very interesting, does it. But that’s all it was – driving, sometimes at very high speeds, over sand that reached for miles and miles in front of us and behind us. It didn’t take long to get lost, to forget which direction we’d just come from – there were no trees or buildings or shadows to act as landmarks, or to guide us in the right direction.
You can picture the photos – all blue skies and white sand. Sand dunes mostly all look the same. Some big, some small, and in the middle of the day, when there are no shadows, there isn’t much contrast for the camera to pick up. Your eyes can pick up a bit, but that won’t translate here. But maybe you can imagine being shrunk, like in the terribly lame cult-classic Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and being dropped into a 4 litre tub of Paul’s Extra Creamy Vanilla Ice Cream. A brand new tub, with the perfect ripples of frozen cream on top, waiting to be scooped up. Even the blue tub that it used to come in fits perfectly as the colour of the sky. That’s what I felt like today – a tiny human speck on a tub of creamy, silky ice cream.
I know it sounds like a ridiculous analogy. Maybe I’ve got heat stroke or, given I was in the desert, I was just hallucinating and seeing ice cream mirages. But saying there was blue skies and white sand just doesn’t cut it. It was more like this; endless tidal waves of buttermilk coloured sand, in two shades – a matte version and a silk version. The matte sand was the base coat, the sand that had settled hard, into ridges and ripples from the wind. The silk sand was softer, creamier and lighter, falling over the sand dunes like a piece of silk thrown over a sewing table. The two shades of sand together gave just enough contrast to the dunes for the eye to see – without it this very slight visual aid, we would no doubt have ploughed over the edge of one of the massive waves head first into a valley ten metres below.
We did that anyway, though. Desert Fox got more adventurous as the afternoon went on, and the final dip of the roller-coaster was massive. The car surfed down the maybe 20 metre high wave of sand, while Desert Fox laughed and the five of us squealing in delight and fear. Mostly delight, but still – an edge of uncertainty that the old Landcruiser wasn’t going to make it. But we were never in any danger – if there is one thing Toyota commercials have taught me, then it’s that these cards are made for these off road adventures. And that thought seems fitting, seeing as it felt like the whole day could have been the making of a Toyota Landcruiser commercial.
In the afternoon we visited hot and cold oases, and by sunset we were sipping Siwan tea next to a fire atop a sand dune. The sun set quickly, and offered only a quick rainbow of colours in the clear sky, with no clouds to give it context. The temperature began to drop and by 7pm, we were whisked back into the car and sped back to the town for a dinner at the hotel.
I was surprisingly tired from the days adventures, which seems odd because I physically did very little. And it wasn’t overly hot, either. But I suppose I did taboggan down a sand dune, walk up and down a few dunes, and did a lot of star jumps for photos as well – all very exhausting stuff! Oh, and I did a few cartwheels too, so I can tick that off the bucket list. I have done a cartwheel in the Sahara Desert – check!
We first heard of Siwa in a travel magazine onboard an airplane. It was immediately appealing – a desert oasis, as far west of Cairo as you could be, bordering on Libya. Blue skies, endless soft sand of the Sahara Desert, hot and cold springs in the middle of nowhere, and isolation you’d have difficulty matching these days. And it wasn’t just a mirage – all of this, just 9 hours by night bus from Cairo. The bus is horrendous… but Siwa is surreal.
The heat was smothering as we stepped out of Cairo Airport and made our way to Isis Hotel. Thick, enveloping and dry – with a nice hot breeze to match. It felt as though someone was holding a giant hair dryer to my face as I wound down the window, but any breeze was better than no breeze at all.
We had a restful afternoon after our flight from Jordan, and made ourselves at home in the hotel with the air-conditioning pumping. We used the time to make some plans for the next few days, and decided that tomorrow would be the best bet for the pyramids. We are only in Cairo for a few days over the 18 days in Egypt, and decided against maybe better judgement to kick off proceedings at 4am the next day for a sunrise tour of some of Egypt’s most famous sights – Giza, Dahshur and Saqqara pyramids.
The morning was tough – a 4am wake up after only 5 hours sleep – and the light from the city outside was exactly as I’d left it when I went to bed. We sipped tea and had eggs on toast before heading out at 5am for Giza, about 40 minutes away. Our driver, Ali, would be driving us to all sights we wished to visit, but would be ‘outsourcing’ the first part – a camel or horse ride to view the famous pyramids of Giza at sunrise. As he waited back at the car, no doubt catching a few more z’s, we negotiated a price for two camels to take us to see the pyramids. Negotiating with Egyptians appears to be difficult, but even more so this morning with such little sleep and with the sun rising quickly as we haggled. Eventually we settled on a price and set off slowly for the hills to see the sunrise.
We caught glimpses of the pyramids as we rode but the eventual view was pretty amazing. We were a few hundred metres away, as the gates didn’t open until 8am, but you could still get a sense of how huge these pyramids are. Thousands of years old and in better condition than buildings much younger around the world. Built without the technical equipment we have today, and mostly just built as tombs for kings, queens and important society figures. You’d expect with each pyramid built, the next king or queen would demand theirs be bigger, but this isn’t the case. Often they would just try to make theirs stand out in a different way – stepped finish, smooth finish, location, or even the angle of the pyramid itself. In one case, King Chephren of the fourth dynasty asked for a big lump of rock to be removed from in front of his pyramid site, so people would have a clearly view. However he was convinced to make something of the rock and instead it was turned into the sphinx!
After our camel ride we set off for Dahshur, or the bent pyramid. It is further out than the others, but we made it with 5 minutes to spare before the gates opened and were the first ones to arrive. The owner of this pyramid feared that the angle was too steep as it was being built, and decided half way up to make a change. Thus the bent pyramid of Dahshur came about. Next to it, about 1500 metres away, is the Red pyramid, so called because from a distance it looks red. Original stuff, you could say.
Next came Saqqara and the museum of Imhotep. Imhotep was a scientist, doctor and engineer, perhaps the pioneer of pyramid building all those years ago. The museum was amazing – small, but filled with artefacts that are anywhere between 4500 – 2000 years old. Bronze figures, medical devices, jewellery and hair pieces – all in pristine condition. Imhotep has his own museum here at Saqqara because through his work over the years building pyramids for kings and their queens. But as Ali tells us, perhaps the most important point is that he was bald, which was considered a sign of supreme intelligence at the time. If only that were the case now, Shane Warne could have saved himself the hassle…
Finally we made it back to Giza to see the pyramids up close. As the hours ticked over though, the temperature guage had been creeping up rather quickly and even before lunch we were tired, dehydrated and desperate for cool air. I was feeling rather faint so I stuck to the air-conditioned car as much as possible, and Ali was a real star in driving us as close as he could to all the sights. By 3pm we had pretty much peaked with the pyramids and the sphinx at the end and decided to retire for the afternoon. The management at Isis Hotel were kind enough to offer us a cool room to relax and shower before our night bus that evening – that’s right, we seemed to have forgotten that we were spending 10 hours on a bus that night to get to Siwa, an oasis in the north west of Egypt. Suddenly, the 4am start that day didn’t seem like the best idea.
Overall the pyramids were pretty amazing… but maybe not as amazing as I had expected. I could also blame the heat, which really was suffocating. I could also blame general soreness from weeks of travel. You’d think the thick, hot air of Cairo might have acted like a sauna for our weary muscles but apparently not. Then there was the lack of sleep – and that’s something that never fails to affect me. Perhaps we’ll make it back to the pyramids before we leave Egypt, to see them at sunset, away from the crowds and the hot lunchtime haze. But if not, that’ll be ok too – there is plenty more to Egypt than the pyramids!
I had high expectations of the pyramids, and felt a bit of pressure to come away with at least a few photos without crowds of tourists and clouds of pollution smothering the view. Given the recent unrest in the area, there were a lot less tourists than usual for this time of year. But unfortunately the day was still hazy, with high temperatures and a thick, suffocating wind blowing. These photos don’t show the blue-grey sky or the dull yellow sand, but after a bit of work in post-production I feel the gold and cream tinge cuts through the smog and captures just how dry and hot the area can be.
Our last stop in Jordan. We had three days in Madaba, but almost all of these photos were taken in the last twelve hours. I think I must have been photoed-out after the time in Amman, Petra and Wadi Rum. But Madaba was colourful, warm and welcoming, from start to finish. And clearly it had lots to offer – floating in the Dead Sea, relaxing by the pool at Mariam Hotel, a Middle Eastern music festival, a surprise glimpse of the World Rally Championships, an almost free camel ride and one of our best Jordanian feasts at Haret Jdoudna – all in one place.
Now I try to capture 8 days in Jordan in a succinct blog entry, including all our adventures, mishaps and experiences. From Amman to Wadi Rum, the deep blue of the Dead Sea to the bright red of the sunset on the Monastery, from the lowest lake in the world to the high peaks of Petra, and all the sights in between. What an overwhelming surprise Jordan has been.
We knew it would be a packed week, but I had no idea we could fit so much in. From our early morning arrival on Friday 8th April, we gave ourselves only 3 hours rest before we went out to explore. In that one afternoon and evening we covered most of Amman, from the cheapest and best falafel around, the views of the citadel looking over the city, and the panorama of sandblasted yellow and white Lego block houses of Amman. We met some locals, smelled the sweet shisha, and enjoyed the cool sunset from Rainbow Street.
On Saturday we shared a cab with a determined French man to Umm Quays, Ajloun and Jerash. I’d never heard of the first two, but was keen to see the ruins of Jerash to the north of Amman. We filled our day in these spots by taking photos and enjoying the warm but dry sun – a welcome change from the sweltering humidity of Asia. It is so much easier to walk around in hot dry heat than hot wet heat, I know that for sure! By 6pm we were back in Amman and back to Hashem’s Restaurant for the best falafel in town – for only 4JD.
Sunday came quickly after a quiet night in and we were up early again for a public bus to Petra. This was the big goal of our trip to Jordan – to see the Treasury in Petra, perhaps best known as the backdrop for the Indiana Jones movies. Over two thousand years old and taking years and years to carve, the temple and tomb facades of Petra were truly a breathtaking sight. By 5pm we were alone but for 4 other people, able to absorb the magnificent Treasury as it was bathed in the last of the afternoon sun. I’ve written a separate account of Petra in an earlier blog, so I won’t gush much more here, but it was absolutely spectacular.
By Monday we were itching to see the rest of Petra, as the day before covered only half what we had expected. Preparing to walk the same way as before, through the narrow, mysterious Siq, we were stopped by locals offering a horseback ride over the top to the Monastery. We haggled them down from 70JD to 40JD, and set off. For the next 2 hours our horses negotiated rocks, rubble and sand as we went around, up and over the top of the mountains, eventually stopping at a point with a clear view back to our hotel, kilometres away. We left the horses here while we scrambled down one side of the mountain, across narrow paths, and at times sliding on bums as it felt safest. Ten minutes later and we were told to keep our voices low, close our eyes, and hold hands, as our guide lead us up to a ledge above the Treasury. We opened our eyes and had to quickly remember to keep the ‘WOW’s’ to a minimum – being in this spot could get our guide in trouble with the police below, apparently. For the second time in 24 hours, we could see the Treasury with no one in it – but this time, there were hundreds of tourists below, unaware that we were peering over their shoulders.
The rest of the day was long but fulfilling. We crossed over to the High Place of Sacrifice for 360 degree views of the endless valleys below. I still haven’t found out how big Petra is, but the next day, I followed the view of the mountains from a bus window for more than 30 minutes before they disappeared – so I assume it’s pretty big! After lunch we found ourselves following closely in the footsteps of an Australian man with his local guide that we had met back where we left our horses. The guy from Melbourne quickly invited us to share his guide while we walked with them, and we discovered that Mohammed is not just any guide. It turns out Mohammed is a location director for movies and productions in Jordan, most notably responsible for the multiple Oscar award winning Hurt Locker in 2009. He rattled off more movies he had worked on, and sights he could recommend for us in Petra and Wadi Rum, and invited us to add him as a friend on Facebook. We took his card and promised to get in touch, before parting ways later in the afternoon as we headed to the Monastery.
We took donkeys to the top of the Monastery for the ‘best view in Petra.’ They weren’t wrong – the view was astounding. Another panoramic view but with the late afternoon shadows deepening the lines of the endless valleys, and the rich reds coming through in the last of the sun. Tired and overwhelmed, we trekked back down and made our way to our hotel, with our last 2JD put to use on a cab back up the hill to the hotel in Wadi Musa.
Tuesday would have been an ideal day for a sleep in, but it was not to be. We had booked a 6.30am bus to Wadi Rum, but by 6.45am it had not arrived. The day before we had asked three separate times to book the bus for us, but it turns out that three is not the magic number. It had not been done. No worries though – our knight in a shining pick-up showed up, and offered to catch us up to the bus some 25 kilometres away. We had no choice so we said yes, and over the next 15 minutes we gripped each other as our driver took racing lines at 140km/hr through s-bends on the edge of cliffs. No railings, no concerns that he was going to be caught speeding, and probably the most concerning was that he was on the wrong side of the road going around blind corners most of the time. But we made it, made not safe and sound, but at least awake. Our bus was waiting and we jumped on board, and settled in for the 1 hour ride to Wadi Rum.
Wadi Rum reminds me of Mars. No, I haven’t been to Mars before… after all, women are from Venus, right? But Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon, could easily pass as another planet. In fact it has passed as Mars a number of times before, for movies – Red Planet and Mission to Mars, to name a couple. Here we had arranged for a night under the stars, and we were joined by five others and our hotelier, Walid. Maybe not a hotelier, as we were sleeping in tents. Does that make him a tentier, maybe? Who knows. But first we were given a jeep tour of Lawrence of Arabia’s one time home. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s house and spring, and burnt red sand dunes. We wrapped our scarves tightly around our heads as sand whipped through the deserts in every direction. We saw rainbows of yellow sand, green shrubs, orange and red mountains and bright blue skies. Every corner looked like a movie set, complete with mini sand tornadoes and wild camels creating silhouettes on the horizon. You haven’t been to Wadi Rum until you’ve got a photo of a camel on the horizon with a cloud behind it, I say!
By night we sipped tea and stared at the stars, before setting off again early on Wednesday morning for Petra again. There we picked up our hire car and set off for Madaba along the Dead Sea Highway. A brief stop at Dana on the way was fruitful, as we met a couple from the morning’s bus ride there. Turns out I had forgotten my jumper on the bus and of all people to collect it, this couple grabbed it and hoped to catch us again. Which was very lucky, as the nights in Jordan had been surprisingly cool and I’d been layering up to 4 or 5 times to keep warm. That layer would have been missed! A few hours later after a flat tyre and our first glimpse of the Dead Sea, we were checked into our hotel in Madaba for our last three nights in Jordan.
Thursday we made the most of our hire car and went to the Dead Sea. We were stopped three times along the way, for very different reasons. The first was a passport check point, because of how close we were to the Israel border. The second stop was for a camel ride with a local boy named Ahmed. That was very random – he waved us down, got his camel to sit, and offered us both a ride. He tried to charge 20JD for the service but we weren’t having any of that, and gave him 6JD instead. The third stop was to make way for some rally cars. Ok, not just any rally cars – the World Rally Championship was being hosted here for the next three days. Monkey got out and took photos for 10 minutes, no doubt revelling in the opportunity to see the real life rally characters that he’s raced against in Playstation. Then onwards to the Dead Sea, where we did as tourists do – we giggled and posed as our legs were lifted out from under us and we bobbed up and down in the salty water. Of course we also covered ourselves in the Dead Sea mud, and enlisted the helpful lifeguard to take our photos while we dried the mud in the sun.
It was only once we’d had another dip, had a shower and scrubbed off the mud that Monkey, being the muppet that he is, realised his iPhone had been in his pocket the whole time. You might call that a Major Monkey Mishap. We let it dry, tried the blow dryer technique, but unfortunately the phone died at the Dead Sea. We traipsed back to Madaba and had a quiet night, but spoiled ourselves with a delicious feast of warm pita bread, spicy beef sausages, lemon and garlic chicken wings and kebab and chicken shawarmas for dinner at Haret Jdoudna, reportedly the best restaurant in Madaba. I can’t compare it to anywhere but it was a delicious end to a crazy day.
Friday was our last full day in Madaba and I think we used it well. We lay by the pool for a few hours, with regular attempts to access the internet seeming futile by lunch time. A late breakfast had us full until 4pm so we headed into town for a quick look at the Greek Orthodox church containing the famous mosaic map of Jerusalem before an early dinner. It wasn’t long before the crowds and loud music outside interrupted our dinner – Madaba Tourism Agency was putting on a Middle Eastern Music Festival for us! They gave us front row seats for the action – singers and dancers from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Syria all there to show off their local song and dance talents as the sun went down. If I were to be honest, a lot of it sounded the same – but they each brought their own flair to the table with bagpipes, oboes and mesmerising dancers.
And Saturday… well, I’m finishing this entry now from our hotel in Cairo! On the 18th floor, with a view to Cairo Tower and the Egyptian Museum. Apparently Tahrir Square is about 10minutes walk away, but given the recent unrest, and not wanting to concern our families and friends, we’ll won’t be walking in that direction needlessly. For now we take a break in the airconditioned comfort of our room and work out how we’ll be spending the next 18 days in Egypt!
There you have it – my week in Jordan. I was succinct as I could be but this may still be my longest blog entry yet. There was so much to see and do in Jordan, but I’m glad we fit it all in. My view of Jordan has changed dramatically over the past week and I would earnestly encourage my friends and family to visit – the temperatures in April were sublime, the people were friendly and always incredibly welcoming, and the sights were almost always breathtaking. Unfortunately there is only one downside, and that is that we’ve found Jordan to be far more expensive than we planned. When we mentioned this to some locals, they laughed and agreed – it’s like some sneaky secret of theirs, to entice tourists here and then surprise them with hefty price tags. We blew our budget by almost double, maybe more. But it was just one week, and one fabulous week at that, so we’ll survive!
Until next time…
Welcome to Mars. Or at least, Mars as the makers of the movie Red Planet would have you believe. Wadi Rum, in the far south of Jordan between Petra and Aqaba, feels like another planet. A desert spanning kilometres, with mammoth mountains every shade of red, orange and yellow towering up into the electric blue sky. Follow in T.E. Lawrence’s footsteps by day and explore by jeep, camel or rock climb, and take shelter from the desert winds when you can. By night, sleep under the stars or cosy up in a local Bedouin tent. Your time in the Valley of the Moon will be out of this world.