Sunday, December 19, 2010

Egypt: the Nile cruise.

If ever there's a trip worth doing it's a cruise along the Nile. This week has been a once in a lifetime experience that I'll never forget.
Egypt is a crazy country. It's the country where you don't ask “Why?” because there are apparently no reasons for what goes on.
Most of the population lives along the narrow strips of irrigated land either side of the river. I think the stats are something along the lines of 95% of the population lives on 3% of the land that borders the river. I think it's fair to say that without the Nile there would be no Egypt.

The Cruise boat:
I was originally booked on a boat called the Nile Saray. After negotiating my way through Luxor airport I got on the shuttle coach to where the boats are docked. The road is one that most tourists travel on and is, therefore, in very good condition: well lit and bordered by many-coloured plants (bougainvillea I think). The first thing I noticed was that nobody drives with their lights on (it was dark). Occasionally they'll flash their lights to make sure you know they're there but they never leave them on. Doesn't matter if it's a big coach, a car, a motorcycle (often with 3 or 4 people astride). No-one could explain why this is the case. Don't ask “Why?”.
At the place where all the boats were moored I was directed to the Nile Saray and crossed the gangplank – literally a plank: three feet wide carpeted plank with thin rope to hang on to and a couple of bits of 4 by 2 jamming the plank in position. You get used to them after a while. Anyway, onto the boat to be told I'm supposed to be on the boat next door: Semiramis 1. Back up the gangplank, down another one. This time they said I could stay. Phew!
I was booked into room 103 where I soon discovered that the window didn't open, as I was at water level (steerage!), the shower had no hot water, the fridge didn't work and the power outlets wouldn't hold plugs in place. Great start! Fortunately I was able to upgrade to room 308, two floors up, the next day. Everything worked and the window opened. Cost me an extra few dollars but it was worth it.
The Nile Saray was decorated very garishly, in a cartoonish Egyptian style. The Semiramis is decked out like a 1930s movie set. Poirot would feel right at home!
There were two groups of people on the boat: the English and the Germans. Haha, don't mention the War! In the English group was one Aussie (me), three Irish, two Welsh and three South Africans, plus the English. Most of the group were about my age, retirees for the most part. We had a lot of fun. I've made a couple of new contacts that I'll try to follow up when I get back to Liverpool.
I'd booked fully inclusive: three meals a day and drinks on demand. No other way to travel!

The cruise itself starts in Luxor, where it stays for two nights. Then on, through the Enza lock to Edfu. Then on through Kom Ombi to Aswan for two nights. Then back to Edfu overnight and one more night in Luxor.
Once on board I was able to book daily excursions. Of course I booked them all. Karnak and Luxor temples; Colossi of Memnon, Valley of the Kings and Temple of Hatshepsut; Edfu temple, Kom Ombi temple, Nubian village, Abu Simbel, Karnak light and sound show, Luxor city tour in horse and buggy. And a hot air balloon ride on the last morning. Still can't believe I did that last one! It was a pretty packed itinerary and we were all exhausted at the end of it all. But it was worth it. In between, of course, was time to sit on the sun deck and watch the Nile float by.

The temples are magnificent. All of them. Huge, of course. Edfu and Abu Simbel are the two I saw that are still mostly intact; the rest are missing rooves, wall, etc. But all are incredible to see first hand. Photos just don't do them justice. Abu Simbel (two temples dedicated to Ramses II and his wife Nefertari) was moved when Lake Nasser was created, otherwise it would have been flooded. It took 4 years and a lot of impressive engineering to move. At first they thought to leave it there but soon realised that salt water and sandstone don't mix. One bright spark had the idea of taking tourists to see it via submarine. Wiser heads prevailed. Two concrete domes were built and the temples rebuilt under them. Then the mountains were constructed over the domes. You'd never know they're not in their original place.
The statues of Ramses II are magnificent. 21 metres tall. There are four of them – two either side of the entrance. All are of Ramses sitting on his throne. At his feet are smaller statues of 14 of his favourite children. Ramses II is widely recognised as Egypt's greatest Pharaoh. He reigned for several decades, living till the age of 97. I forget how many wives he had but he had close to 200 children! The inner rooms and chambers are all dedicated to his exploits. There's a small room at the back of the temple with four statues seated on thrones. They are Ramses II, the god Amun (Ra), one other god and, on the left, the god of darkness. Two days a year the sunrise lights the faces of three of the statues; only the god of darkness is not lit up. Originally this happened on Feb 21st and October 21st. Since the temples were moved this now happens on the 22nd of the those months.
The second temple is dedicated to Nefertari, Ramses' favourite wife. The facade statues are not as tall but are still hugely impressive.
Kom Ombi was buried under tons of sand until about 150 years ago. Kom Ombi means City of Gold so the locals were very keen to help with the excavations: no gold though. Must have been rather disappointing. It's mind boggling to think of how much sand it would take to completely bury such a structure. Even more mind boggling to think of the work involved to uncover it again.
There's also a new excavation in Luxor itself: a road has been discovered that connects Karnak and Luxor temples. The road is lined both sides with sphinx: Sphinx Avenue. Shops, homes, two churches and a mosque had to be moved to recover the avenue. Apparently the mosque management refused to move until the mayor of Luxor told them “Move now or I knock it down. Now.” They moved. Cool dude that mayor. This has only happened over the last few months.
The Valley of the Kings was fascinating too. No photos allowed though, not even outside. All cameras had to be left on the bus which made me a bit nervous. We saw three tombs, Ramses 7th, 4th and 3rd. I can see why they don't allow photography as there are still areas of original colour inside the tombs. Flash would fade them too quickly. (Though they should make exception for cameras like mine which don't need flash to take a reasonable picture!) The work that's gone into these tombs is incredible. The walls, and ceilings, are carved and painted from start to finish, telling the story of the Pharaoh's life. Unbelievable.
Edfu had the most complete facade of all the temples; huge carvings into the granite. It's also the only temple we saw with an intact roof. Probably because it was buried under sand for centuries. The ceilings were very smoke blackened though – we were told that's from countless fires lit inside by early Christian (Coptic) groups who took over the temples in days gone by.
Hatshepsut's temple has the most impressive setting: set against the mountainside like it was carved out of it. Over the back of it is the Valley of the Kings. The facade is the most impressive part here; inside is not much to see compared with other temples.

I've seen zillions of photos of these places in History books over the years. Nothing compares to actually seeing them. A photo doesn't convey the scale, the work, the sheer awesomeness of it all.

Two excursions that were completely different were to a Nubian village near Aswan and a buggy ride through Luxor.
To get to the Nubian village we had to walk along the mooring area to get on a much much smaller motor boat to take us across the river. Hahaha, the gangplank here was maybe 9 inches wide and lodged onto the riverside rocks. Thank goodness for the man with the helping hand! So we clambered into the boat and away we went. The ride across the river went the long way round through the First Cataract area. At one stage a couple of young boys, paddling on what looked like old doors, attached themselves alongside and sang songs to us. Once they'd collected a few coins they paddled off.
The village was quite large but we only really saw the main market street, the school and one private home, belonging to relatives of our guide. The Nubian homes are no wealthier looking than the average Egyptian home but they are much cleaner and brightly painted, inside and out. The home we visited had cool Egyptian scenes painted on the whitewashed walls, sand floors, large open living areas on two levels, crocodile heads (over the door and on the walls), live baby crocodiles in a cage. Apparently they are a symbol of luck so the men go down to Lake Nasser and catch them. They're kept till they grow too big, then released back into the Lake. Most of them anyway. The family were very welcoming and offered us home made bread, dips and a very sweet cheese. It's considered rude not to partake.
The buggy ride through parts of Luxor in the evening was an eye-opener. The market streets are just wide enough for the buggies and were very crowded with stalls, shops and shoppers (mostly women). The men do the selling. Other men sit around in coffee shops smoking huge hookahs. We also went through a few of the back streets and that was pretty awful. There's not much lighting which makes it a bit scary. The back streets are full of tiny hovels, most roofless and often without electricity. People sit around in the doorways or out on the street around fires made from anything they can scrounge. There's usually a donkey outside as well and, sometimes a scrawny cow or two. Stray dogs and, especially, cats are everywhere. Children run alongside the buggies begging for money. The buggy drivers chase them away but that doesn't stop them. Sad.

From there we were taken to Karnak temple again for the sound and light show – the temple is lit up and, as we moved through the temple, a recorded history of the temple is broadcast from hidden loudspeakers. It was okay but not the most exciting excursion of the week.

The last morning of the cruise was my most adventurous by far. Up at 4am, onto a shuttle bus to a small boat to take us across the river, then another bus to the hot air balloon field. I still can't believe I signed up for a hot air balloon ride. To say I was nervous is a complete understatement! Climbing into the basket was an adventure in itself! Once in, there not much room to move either. So off we went, up into the sky. I think we reached 2,000 feet high. It really is very peaceful up there. The views across Luxor and the Valley of the Kings were just amazing. Because of the wind direction we didn't go across the Nile itself, which is a pity. But we floated above the Colossi of Memnon, Hatshepsut's temple (which gave us a glimpse into the Valley of the Kings), various other temples and parts of Luxor. We watched the sun come up over the Nile, although extreme haze muted that somewhat. From the air you can clearly see the line where cultivation ends and the desert begins. After an hour (which went by very quickly) we landed in a ploughed field. I don't think the farmer was too pleased. After clambering out of the basket we got back on a bus, crossed the bridge and reboarded the boat in time for breakfast. Incredible trip!

Then it was time to pack and board the coach for the 4 hour trip to Hurghada. More on that later.
The cruise was such an excellent adventure. I loved every minute of it. If you ever get the chance.... do it!



Janet said...

wow, you should be writing for a travel journal!!!

9fragments said...

SEE! Even Janet thinks so.

Great blog, Jules. Makes me happy that it was so good for you and I really am amazed that you went up in the balloon. Incredible trip, indeed.

Sheryl said...