The reason you see two different dates for Egypt is because I visited this country twice during my travels. The first one was in 2007 on my East Africa trip. On this trip surprisingly enough I wasn’t on my own. My good friends were with me, Nikos and Chrisavgi. It was my first time in Africa and with everything I had heard on the news, I have to admit that I was worried, if not scared. I landed in Cairo with Nikos. Chrisavgi was already there since she was visiting her parents. Chrisavgi is Greek from Egypt so she spoke Arabic, something that proved to be a life saver.
My first impression of Cairo was that of a huge, chaotic, dirty city which however definitely had a character. It took us a couple of days to explore Cairo with all that history behind it. We went to the magnificent Cairo museum where for a couple of euros the guards can sell you anything from the basement. Of course we didn’t buy anything. A unique experience worth mentioning here is the horse ride we took. We watched the famous sound and light over the pyramids from a distance after a great horse ride in the desert. It was a little difficult to figure out what would be the real price for the ride but with a little help and luck it was fine. After the warm welcome by Chris’s friends and relatives we took the long train ride to Aswan, the last big city on the Nile on the way to Sudan. Of course our purpose was the ancient Pharaoh temples. After our short visit to the really touristic city of Aswan, the plan was to take a felucca (a local small fishing boat) and sail up the Nile all the way to Luxor, to visit the Valley of the Kings and Queens, the last resting place of almost all the Pharaohs.
Here is where the adventure starts. We met Sadat, a local guide that would hook us up with a felucca owner in order to make the arrangements for the two-day trip. After a lot of negotiations we agreed upon the price and arranged to leave the next day. Chris had not mentioned that she understood Arabic and that proved to be the ace up our sleeve. As soon as we sailed the fun started because the money we agreed upon was not enough to buy food. Since it was too late to turn back we gave them something extra for supplies. Further down one part of the sail broke and had to be repaired on the way. The second day we found out that the whole thing was a scam. They couldn’t take us all the way to Luxor because they had no licence to transport tourists. They were nice guys but shrewd. Anyway, at some point they realized that we were completely aware of what was going on so they had to accept our terms. They left us in Comombo, a temple site half way to Luxor, with no money and we wanted to call the police. Although there are a lot of crooks in Egypt the laws are really strict if they get caught. The ride was nice although it was over a day earlier. At the end we were all friends and left them the rest of the food supplies and a small tip.
Comombo was really interesting since it was a little bit out of the touristic route so we had it to ourselves. On the train we travelled third class where you can see the real Egypt. Of course, as I realized later, someone from the secret police was watching our back. In Egypt the government has made clear that the tourists are sacred so they take care of them. Only a few travel third class so they had to make sure we were okay.
Luxor is the number one tourist destination, with great temples right in the heart of the city. A really great site if you overlook the huge busloads of tourists. On the other bank of the river, buried in the desert, are the tombs. The best and most adventurous way to explore them is by bicycle, a hard but unique way. In one day you can visit the best ones if you hurry up a little. I won’t mention which ones are more interesting because for me they all had beauty and magic. At night we had the sound and light experience at the Luxor temples. I absolutely recommend it to get to know the history of Ancient Egypt. That completed our ten-day visit in Egypt and after a night out to see the night life of Cairo we left. I call that the Nile trip.
I went back to Egypt one and a half year later to explore the Sinai Peninsula, Alexandria and the oasis of this vast country. Of course the team joined up and was the same. In the beginning I was on my own, with Voukefalas entering from Jordan to the ghost town of Noewiba. Thanks to Katerina Koch (another Greek overlander who I had never met but spoke with her on the internet) I got hooked up with Mohammed, a tourist police guy who helped me get through the bureaucracy of the Egyptian frontier. Otherwise it’s a nightmare because in Egypt you even need to have new licence plates. In Noewiba the landscape looked deserted so I didn’t stay long and headed to Dahab. It was the paradise for backpackers and hippies in the 70’s. Nowadays it’s commercial but still a traveller’s shelter. I started exploring the underwater beauty of the Red Sea. It was really an unforgettable experience. After a while I picked up Nikos from the airport while Chrisavgi was on the road from Cairo. We stayed quite a long time in Dahab where I camped in the back garden of a local. Diving and partying kept us busy before we started heading out to the Sinai Peninsula after a quick visit to Sharm El Sheikh. Our target was the monastery of Saint Catherine, a Greek monastery that still remains there from the Byzantine times. The monks welcomed us as well as the local community that lives in the nearby village. From there we picked up a young local guide to climb up the biblical Jebel Musa. Moses’ mountain proved to be an astonishing historical experience as well as a great outdoor experience.
All that got us in a great mood and we took off for Alexandria. The long 600km ride was done all at once. Alexandria or Iscendereia, as the Egyptian name is, is different from all the Egyptian cities. It has the Mediterranean feel of loose, relaxed rhythms with really outgoing people. A friend of Chrisavgi showed us around. Except for the majestic new Alexandria library, we visited local hangouts and ate at some great fish taverns (Nikos’ paradise since he loves fish). I tried to get a visa for Libya since the plan was to continue from Egypt to Libya. While I was waiting for an answer and since Chrisavgi had to leave us, we grabbed the opportunity to visit the remote oasis of Siwa.
Nikos and I took the beach road that turns inland straight into the desert. By the way, for the last 300 km there’s no gas station so fill it up before that. When we got there it was night. We were forced to turn back to refill because Nikos insisted to fill up further down and there was nothing further down. I shouldn’t have listened to him. I hope you read this, my friend.
Anyway, in Siwa we found accommodation next to one of the wells where people got water. We camped at a so called restaurant with the local Berber people making us feel really welcome.
The next day we made lots of friends and we were invited to a local bachelor party. When we got there, in the middle of an olive field there were a lot of people. After we met the man in charge, alcohol started flowing into the glasses and some hashish was rolled up in cigarette paper for smoking. As the time went by and everybody was high, the owner of the restaurant and our friend took out an instrument like a harmonica and that was it. Local music from that instrument got everybody singing. The songs were great but unfortunately we couldn’t tape them. Siwa was really revealing and the local Berbers were something to remember.
After five great days we had some bad news about the visa. So we had to turn back to Alexandria and take the road to Israel. We reached the border town of Taba where I found out that Voukefalas had overstayed in Egypt and had to be confiscated for 270 euros. See, in my passport I was allowed to stay for three months but in the car’s carnet was written in Arabic that it was allowed to stay one month only. As if it was ever possible for the car to leave the country by itself. (Where are you, Chrisavgi, now that we need you?) After 24 hours of negotiations and excuses to avoid paying, at the end of course I had to pay since the gentleman at Customs was really stubborn. I could call him many names but since you’re reading this, I have to behave.
That puts an end to my Egyptian story. Egypt is planned for visits as part of an organised tour because otherwise for the independent traveller it’s a nightmare of bureaucracy and chaos. Not to get me wrong though, I really enjoyed my visit. Will I take an organized tour next time? You must be out of your mind. I prefer to go through the nightmare of the travel than put myself on those tourist buses.