Do you remember doing your school assignment on Egypt and promising yourself that one day, you’d visit that mysterious, exotic land? Cath Graham discovers why now is the time to do it.
The pyramids and Sphinx are still beckoning travellers from all over the globe, but following the 2010 revolution, in which President Mubarak was removed from power, the tourist numbers have dwindled and you can now enjoy visiting the splendid sites throughout Egypt with far less competition from other tourists.
I have lived in Cairo myself and escorted group tours to Egypt for 25 years, and Jordan for 12 years. The number of tourists have also reduced considerably in Jordan, once again showing that now is an ideal time to visit.
Things are starting to look positive, though, and there’s a definite feeling of anticipation that the tables are turning and the tourists are coming back, borne out by encouraging hotel occupancy figures in the ranging from 70 to 80 per cent, instead of in the 30 to 40 per cent range. So, get in quickly while you can still get more out of every experience, by visiting the sites in seclusion.
Highlights of Egypt and Jordan
I recently escorted a private group tour through Egypt and Jordan. On completion, I asked my group what their highlights were out of the whole 32 days. Not surprisingly, not one of them had just one highlight. The list from the nine of them included: finally seeing the pyramids, visiting Abu Simbel, Karnak and Abydos temples, hot air ballooning near the Valley of the Kings then visiting Tutankhamun’s tomb, swimming in the Red Sea, exploring the Egyptian Museum, staying at The Old Cataract and Luxor Palace Hotels, cruising down the Nile, climbing Mount Sinai for sunrise on top of the world, camel-riding through the streets and around the pyramids, visiting Petra, camping in Wadi Rum, swimming in the Dead Sea, and driving through the traffic in Cairo with local friends of mine, dodging in and out of the infamous Cairo melee that often sees seven vehicles abreast on four-lane roads!
Imagining yourself back in the time of the Pharaohs is easy here… the colours and carvings on the temple walls seem as recent as the coolness of the bottles of water in our hands.
Dreams come true
I watched the expressions of my small group on their first day in Cairo as we sped along the ring road from Cairo airport to Giza, home of the pyramids. Nothing quite captures the joy of a childhood dream come true as your first glimpse of the pyramids as you drive towards them. They stand impenetrably against the modern world that has tried and failed to encompass them. They are huge – bigger than you ever imagined – and they sit silently on the outskirts of Giza province, holding the secrets of thousands of years within their enormous walls. They truly are a mystery of the human race, yet one that you can touch, feel, clamber inside of and experience with all your senses.
Areas that have been closed to tourists for many years are now open, such as El Minya province, between Cairo and Luxor. The superb temples of Abydos and Dendera both lie in this area. My group and I wandered through these two temples with no other foreigners in sight and this added to the mysticism of them both; they are perhaps the most colourful, well preserved temples in all of Egypt. Imagining yourself back in the time of the Pharaohs is easy here… the colours and carvings on the temple walls seem as recent as the coolness of the bottles of water in our hands.
Images courtesy of Michael Sailland.
Rich in history and nature
Stepping inside the walls of both the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan (where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile) and the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor are experiences you cannot begin to describe. The opulence of both, the feeling that you are a part of a bygone era, the separation from the hustle and bustle outside makes you feel as if you are a part of the history of Egypt, be it the relatively recent history. It was a lovely feeling of a night when we got to walk into some beautifully appointed luxury accommodation and enjoyed the contrast of antiquities by day and modern comfort at night.
The hot air balloons gathered in the pre-dawn desert on the western bank of the Nile River at Luxor. With only 20 people per balloon, we all boarded and were given our safety instructions, before gently and quickly taking off on our air-borne adventure. The roar of the flames is deafening, followed by silence as we drift over locals’ homes, with views beyond to Hatshepsut’s temple, various noble tombs and the desert beyond. Sunrise cast a golden glow over the vista in every direction as our captain pointed out relevant points of interest and ensured we all saw them as we glided across the area, watching locals wake up on their rooftop beds and start their day.
Once we’d landed, gently and expertly, on a deserted paddock, we were whisked off to the Valley of the Kings, where we were back among the other tourists, although only a fraction of the numbers from pre-revolution days. This meant that we didn’t have to queue up to enter the ancient tombs and could spend a bit of time in silent reverie inside each, including that of Tutankhamun, hungrily trying to imprint the beautifully coloured artworks onto our memories.
Cruising down the Nile
The Nile cruise is possibly one of the most relaxing experiences you’ll have anywhere. There are four- or seven-day options, sailing between Luxor and Aswan and visiting temples dating back thousands of years. Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Isis are all special in their own way, and are all easily accessible from the luxury of your Nile cruiser. The guides used to have to raise their voices to a gentle yell to be heard over each other amid the hordes of tourists. Now, it’s far more civilised. There’s still a healthy number of tourists at each temple, but nowhere near as many as there used to be, so again, you have more time to wander at leisure and take in the ambience of each temple.
No temple benefits quite as much from these reduced tourist numbers as the enormous and remote temples of Ramses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel. These two temples, dating back 3300 years and accessed by bus, plane or hydrofoil from Aswan, are well worth the time spent getting to them, even though you only spend about two hours at the site. Due to the building of the Aswan High Dam, these two temples, along with numerous others, were condemned to be submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser once the dam was completed. UNESCO and a team of international engineers from numerous countries joined forces to cut and relocate both temples, completed in 1968 after four years of work. Funnily enough, even with the modern technology of the day, the temples were not aligned the way they had been designed and built. The beam of sunlight that enters the portal and shines on the statues at the far end of the temple twice a year – on Ramses II’s birthday and his coronation day – are now delayed 24 hours on each occasion.
Images courtesy of Cath Graham.
The township of Sharm-el-Sheikh
In a completely separate region of Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula, lies the over-the-top township of Sharm-el-Sheikh, from where you can access scuba diving and snorkelling at one of the top sites in the world: Ras Mohammed. Sharm-el-Sheikh itself is like a mini Las Vegas , all flashing neon lights and a plethora of eating and drinking establishments and casinos. It’s also the set-off point for the drive to Gebel Musa (Mountain of Moses), also known as Mount Sinai. This is where Moses is believed to have received the 10 Commandments.
Regardless of whether you believe that story or not, there’s a very real and overwhelming sense of accomplishment when you hike up the mountain in the dark, starting at 1am and reaching the top for sunrise on top of the world. The lack of light and pollution in the middle of the desert means the skies are like a bright blanket of stars overhead, with amazing visibility; on the hike up we counted nine falling stars.
Likewise, the skies over Wadi Rum in Jordan are also a real lesson in astronomy, with more stars than you’ll see for most of your lifetime. Spending a night in a Bedouin meditation camp, eating local food (and drinking Moët if you like, as we did), is a great way to experience the isolation of this scenically blessed area, made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. Sleep under the stars if you prefer, or in your private tent, and awaken to a day of 4WD adventures throughout this nature reserve that rivals our own Kimberley region for stark beauty.
Further north from Wadi Rum, we ticked another bucket-list item off: walking through the 1.2-kilometre-long Siq. We came face-to-face with the Treasury building, made famous in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and dating back to 312 BC. But that’s not the only site to behold in Petra. The entire ancient township goes on for another five kilometres or so, with walking and hiking trails running off in all directions, visiting such uniquely named places as The High Place of Sacrifice, or the seemingly impossible Monastery carved into the top of a mountain-side 2.5 kilometres from the main road.
Even further north again we swam in the Dead Sea , feeling like pieces of pasta in oily, salty water. It’s such an unusual feeling. As you walk into the water, you can feel the pressure building against your legs, then you lean back slowly and suddenly you are lying down and finding it hard to get your feet under yourself again. We floated on the water like leaves on a puddle, the modern resort-style park on our Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, and the mountains of the Palestinian and Israeli banks on the other side all visible through the haze of evaporation created by the dwindling Dead Sea.
Image above and feature image courtesy of Michael Sailland.