Monday, September 19, 2011

Walking like an Egyptian

Egypt is one of those places you see on the Discovery channel and you read about in Wilbur Smith novels, but nothing can actually describe the country with its rich history. After given the opportunity of a lifetime to go and see this ancient country I didn’t think twice. I grabbed it with both hands and did some research before hand, but nothing is as good as the real thing, and of course the experience.

Great Pyramids IGreat Pyramids I
Great Pyramids I

Leaving OR Tambo International I had a very funny feeling in my tummy (Not the same one I had when I came back, but more of that later), because I was flying into the unknown. With the other African countries you had a good idea what to expect, but with Egypt it was different. No elephants, no big mountain and no tropical island. At least I was feeling a lot better having Farzanah travelling with me that knew Egypt well and has been there before. The 7 hour flight started at 9 o’clock at night. My longest flight ever because I have only flown for 4 hours before and that was to Kilimanjaro. Some good service, good music, a movie and of course the blanket

& pillow made the flight much easier. Landing in Cairo we were told by the head air stewardess that the temperature outside was 25˚C. In disbelief I had a look at my watch and saw that it wasn’t even 07h00 yet. Then I knew that the hat & sun block that I have packed in would come in handy, but only to discover that I have forgotten about the sun block once I have unpacked at the hotel. At the airport it was the usual administrative work of getting stamps, getting luggage and being checked out by the police from head to toe (Nothing different I am sure for people flying into South Africa). We were greeted by a friendly guide that helped us through it all and before we know we were in an aircon mini bus on our way to the West side of Cairo in an area called Giza. On the way we were greeted with very pale unfinished grey buildings that were later explained to be the local people’s way of sidestepping taxes, that must be paid ones your building is finished. It took about 20min before we passed the Pyramids, which are much closer to

the city than expected. Unfortunately because it was so early we could just see the shapes of the pyramids, because the morning fog and breakfast smoke decided to make us wait for another few hours.

Our hotel where we were booked for the first night was the Movenpick Pyramids Hotel. Now before I go any further I need to get the star ratings of the hotels out of the way. Not like in South Africa where quality is the main measurement of standard in Egypt it’s the number of services that’s being offered. This means that even if you are a below average 2 star hotel but you have a minibar and an air con you will be promoted to a 4 star. Movenpick is a 5 star in Egypt but in South Africa it will be a 3 star. But I must say after the flight the hot shower and the cool air conned room was a blessing. The hotel has all the services and facilities of a 5 star hotel but lacks the special touch and maintenance to make it a 5 star.

After the quick shower we were off to see some other hotels to
take some pictures and report on their quality. We saw the Le Meridian Pyramids hotel which was the closest in Giza to a 5 star with the best rooms having a view of the pyramids, Cataract Pyramids which is more like a 4 star but again was rated a 5 star, Grand Pyramids which were situated at a dodgy part of Giza but had the class and quality of almost making it to a 5 star as per the rating next to the reception counter and there was the Oasis Pyramids hotel that is rated the lowest of the lot but for me the best value for money hotel you can get. The Oasis was clean and very well managed, with friendly staff all around. To be honest, I will rather stay there than in the Movenpick, just because they know how to take the money they make and use it to upgrade and maintain their hotel.

In between the hotel inspections we had the chance of seeing the only standing Ancient Wonder of the world, The Great Pyramids of Giza. Just like the Victoria Falls the size always surprise you no matter how many photos you’ve seen before.

The importance of a good Egyptologist cant be stipulated enough because they can give you the much needed answers to “how? Why? When? Where’s the toilet and Can I take a picture of this man?” We had a good one, which still after all the millions of times telling the story over and over again to tourist, had a passion for Egypt history. Egypt history is unbelievable and spans thousands of years and makes South African history look like the great, great, great, great grandchild of history. Unfortunately words can’t describe the pyramids because even pictures can’t even describe it. After a very exhausting day we were taken back to the hotel where we had a few minutes to wash and get ready for dinner. Dinner is still a blur because sleeping was the only thing on my mind. I am sure not just mine, because even Farzanah was having trouble leaning her head on her arm while we ate our dinner. Finally we were off to our rooms for a well deserve nights rest.

The next morning after a very good breakfast we were off to the east side of Cairo where we visited the Egyptian museum with
our Egyptologist. If you are really interested in history a day in the museum isn’t enough, because there is too much to see. If you are not interested in any history, you will get bored after seeing the second statue of Hatshepsut. But back to people that find it interesting. While visiting the museum we saw all the treasures and other things that was found in Tut Ankh Amons tomb including his golden mask and carriages, there were mummified crocodiles and of course some mummified pharos as well. Not for the faint hearted and will put you off biltong for a while (Not like you will find any in Egypt). After the museum we visited the city hotels of Ramses Hilton which is situated on the bank of the Nile with spectacular views of the city and in keeping with the Hiltons international standards was a real 5 star, Flamenco Zamalek Hotel that’s again rated 5 star but nothing better than a good 3 star and not for people suffering from claustrophobia and then last but not the least my favourite the Shepherd Hotel which whole theme surrounds the more modern history of napoleon. Although the Shepard hotel has some
of the biggest rooms and also a good view of the Nile, it might be to noisy for some although they are busy replacing the windows with soundproof glass. After seeing all the other hotels we were transferred back to the Movenpick where we had enough time to shower and get ready for our much anticipated train trip to Aswan in the South of Egypt.

The train was a surprise and was clean and comfortable, nothing more than what you can expect from a South African overnight train, but please don’t expect the Blue Train or Rovos rail. They have all the facilities you need for an overnight but no showers, but that you can do when arriving in Aswan. Even the food was good and you have somebody that actually comes and makes your bed. Still suffering from the first day the train rocked me asleep in no time.

Waking up the next morning we were passing Luxor and two hours from Aswan. On the way you see the most beautiful contrasting views of the green palm trees and farms with the dry pale desert in the background. These two hours gave me some time to catch

up on some reading. Arriving at Aswan we were greeted by the scorching heat and a friendly guide that helped us to another very welcomed transfer vehicle with aircon. We were transferred to the bank of the Nile where we were taken to the Pyramisa Isis Island Hotel which is on an island in the middle of the Nile with awesome views of the Nile from both sides…and of course the whole hotel was air conned. Here we quickly checked in and went for a quick shower before we went to another island on the Nile, named Elephantine because of the rocks that look like elephants, where the Movenpick Elephantine Hotel was situated. Looking like a big block of cement from far away, we were stunned by the beauty of the inside and the area around the swimming pool looking over the Nile and the town of Aswan. But the best of the hotel was yet to come. The ugly tower of the hotel that you can see miles away and looks like a tower at an airport didn’t seem so ugly when we went up and saw the view from it. With a 360˚ view from the Island over

Aswan, the Nile, The Graves of the nobles and the botanical garden island this was definitely the biggest seller of this hotel. Although you wont be able to dine with a view you will definitely be able to have a sundowner with a fully stocked bar. Unfortunately we were there in the middle of the day so we couldn’t see the sunset but could just imagine it. The hotel was well looked after and although they were still busy with some upgrades this hotel is a 5 star. After the inspection of the hotel we were taken by boat back to our hotel where we had lunch and a rest before we could take a rest till 17h00 when we had a look at the Pyramisa Isis Island Hotel and all its facilities. Again the hotels placement in the middle of the Nile makes it very special as well as all its facilities, but from a South Africans view, I won’t classify it as more than a 4 star. After the inspection we were back to the rooms to change for our night into town. Aswan comes alive at night with people having picnics and kids playing which is impossible

in the midday Upper Egypt sun. The market is a must see and will keep any lady busy for at least 2 hours. We were also taken to a local restaurant to enjoy local cuisine, but I am sure it won’t fall into everyone’s taste. I liked the slimy spinagy like dip where you dipped in your Egyptian bread, but not so much the bitter almond like white stuff. But I still believe that everyone must at least try the local cuisine. After this we went back to the hotel on the boat with the colourful lights reflections of Aswan following us on the water.

The next morning was again an early pick up, before the day got too hot. We were taken to see the High Dam which is the biggest man made reservoir in the world. And being a South African the biggest dam I ever saw was the Gariep dam and believe me against this dam, the Gariep looks like a Koi pond. Although you can take pictures but not videos of the dam you still feel a bit intimidated by the police/army guys walking around thinking that you might be a spy planning to blow up the dam. The High Dam was built with the help of the Russians and is one of the biggest suppliers of electricity in the world. After this we went to the Philae temple that was rebuilt because the water levels that rised when the first dam was build by the English during their occupation of Egypt. A pain staking job that took 8 years to complete and I am sure it would have been even the best Lego builders’ nightmare. I won’t go into much history of the temples but the history of the Philae temple is one filled with romance and violence and will keep any tourist interested. It’s another boat trip on the dam to get to the temple but it gives you some good photo opportunities to take pictures of the temple from far.

After this we where off to the Unfinished Obelisk and the quarry where the Egyptian got some of their stones from, to build the many temples that were build around the Nile. I won’t recommend this to people which are not interested in the history, because for them it will make them think of the unfinished pond building that’s waiting at home when they get back. After battling the early day scorching sun we were transferred to our Nile cruise ship, the Presidential Admiral. This was a big surprise, because from the outside you can’t see the well furnished and well equipped facilities and rooms that are awaiting you inside. If you don’t look at the wonderful views of the Nile through your window you wont even know you are on the Nile, because the room looks much similar than a 4 star hotel on land. At about 13h30 we were off on our cruise leaving Aswan behind. Our first stop was Kom Ombo where we visited the temple shared by the two Gods Sobek and Harories. Here the most interesting part was the mummified crocodiles and the description on the wall of slaves that was taken to the lions den so their arms could be bitten off. Call it sick, but this was so well documented on the wall so that even I could understand. After visiting the temple we were sailing off into the most beautiful sunset on our way to Edfu. Dinners as well as all the other meals were great on the ship as well as the service. Waiters kept all the people entertained with tricks at dinner table. The first night was Bingo but we gave it a skip after seeing all the eager Bingo professionals around the dinner table.

The next morning was again an early breakfast after which we went to see the big temple of Horus in Edfu. Here we were joined by our Egyptologist and transferred by a traditional horse carriage to the temple. For me definitely one of the most beautiful temples and a definite must see. After the visit we were back on the cruise where we enjoyed the rest of the morning in our air-conditioned cabins. Just after lunch we were about to cross the loch which any want-to-be engineer or mechanic will admire. The loch was built to compensate for a 7 meter drop although Farzanah still believes it was a 2 meter drop, but I am sure it was the afternoon sun that was getting to her head. The rest of the afternoon and night we were back to the cabins because of the heat. The swimming pool is also a pleasant place to be in, but shade-less so must not be attempted without the all necessary sun block…which of course I forgot. That night we had another great dinner with some party games afterwards where all the people of ship participated. Great fun for all.

The next morning was again an early morning wake up call to visit both Nile river banks of Luxor, starting with the visit to the world famous Valley of the Kings…or rather valley of the dead kings with its beautiful decorated and very mysterious tombs. Here we had another Egyptologist, but by this time my head couldn’t take any more information. After the Valley of the Kings we visited Hatshepsut temple, which is the best situated temple of them all and looks like the mountain was carved away to make place for it. Beautiful pictures can be taken here with the pale colours of the temple and the mountain and the contrasting turquoise sky in the background. After this we were on our way to the East bank were we passed some of the 30 temples and the Collossi of Memnon on the way. Getting to Luxor we went to the Karnak temple which were decorated and built by different kings with the one trying to out build the other. I will say the winner was Ramses II with the hundred and something pillars that is so big that a hundred people pushing together can stand on one of them. Another highlight here was the obelisk of Hatshepsut. After this we decided to finish off our day with the Luxor temple although I can advise that this temple is much better to see at night that brings it to life. After the Luxor temple we went back to the cruise for lunch and enjoy our time on the ship till late afternoon when we decided to skip the cruise dinner for some KFC and a walk around Luxor. Being a South African the night walks were a pleasant change without worries that you have in South Africa. I also almost sold Farzanah for a few camels, but also had a good laugh for the guy that wanted to buy her with a chicken.

The next morning we were met by our driver for our convoy trip through the desert to the Red Sea. Although the first half of the trip I slept the second half I was kept awake by the views of the awesome desert mountains and the vastness of the country. The ride didn’t feel long at all and before we knew it we were at the Red Sea. Here we had a look at a few resorts. First we went to the Makadi area just south of Hurghada where the first resort was the Serenity Makadi. The resorts situated here are all very big and consist of 400 rooms and more, but is cleverly built around big pools and restaurants. Both the Meridian Makadi and the Serenity was very similar in being big and of high quality. A good sign here was that both were very busy and we saw a lot of happy clients walking around. I can just say that the topless ladies around the pool may be a bit of a shock to conservative South Africans like Farzanah and me. After this we went to Hurghada where we visited the Desert Rose where we had lunch. Although a well placed resort with a nicely build private lagoon, I wont rate it more than a 3 star. After lunch and inspection of the resort we headed north to El Gouna. El Gouna is a mini Venetia with channels separating hotels and villas. A beautiful place that comes to life at night with a very busy nightlife for all. Here we slept at the Arena Inn which is rated as 3 star but were comfortable and well managed. I won’t think twice to send clients here.

The next morning we caught our flight back to Cairo for our last day visiting the historical city of Alexandria. After landing in Cairo we went for a quick meeting with our ground operator discussing the hotels and the whole trip with them. After this we were again met by our first Egyptologist for our visit of Alexandria. Its about 3 hours drive up to Alexandria but a day trip that I will recommend for everyone. This city is the second biggest city in Egypt and played a big part in the Roman/Greek history and also Alexandria has a lot of monuments like the Pompeii tower and of course the new Alexandria library. Not to forget the road taking you along the Mediterranean Sea coast. The day went by quickly as well as the week and before we even knew it we were on our way back to Cairo to wait for our flight back to South Africa. A great farewell was Cairo by night with the hundreds of colourful billboards giving colour to the pale city you see in the day.

The wait at the airport was long and we were tired but it gave us enough time to buy some last minute curios and gifts. I will however suggest that these sorts of things should be bought in Aswan or Luxor because you will get it for much cheaper. Egypt is a trip of a lifetime and the best value for money ever. If you look back and you see what you get for your money you will be amazed. No wonder Wilbur Smith needs 500 page books to describe the country with its rich history, culture and mysteries.

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