Egypt: Experience of a lifetime

Bianca Venmans

Bianca Venmans

Egypt was a milestone for me in many ways. It was the 10th country that I have explored and my first time in the continent of Africa. Egypt has always been at the top of my bucket list and without ever having been there, I always felt connected to it somehow. All of my expectations for this vast country were superseded and any fears were quickly forgotten. The country and its people welcomed us with open arms and friendly faces, excited to see us and the prospect of an increase in tourism. Since the revolution in 2011, the country has been struggling to find its feet and rebuild its tourism. It fights negative international media attention warning travellers of unsafe regions and impending terrorist attacks. I believe that all of these negative broadcasts once had their place however are no longer warranted. During our stay in 3 different cities along the Nile, including Cairo where most of the demonstrations took place, we felt completely safe. The Egyptian army ranked #15 in the world and much loved by their people, were everywhere to be seen which originally startled us and made me feel on edge but soon made us feel more comfortable and at peace.

I warn you, this post will make you want to visit Egypt and you should! Don’t let the media confuse you, the only signs remaining of the revolution is the lack of tourists at the major landmarks and temples and I implore you to change that.

Edfu Temple, Egypt

A human EGYPT, Edfu Temple, Egypt

Our trip was completely organised through Encounters Travel which is a UK based company who I can’t fault in any way. The only thing we needed to worry about was the return flights to Cairo and everything else was hassle free! Our Egyptologist tour guide, Waleed was a man full of passion for his country and its ancient history. He imparted his wisdom over the course of the tour, revealing more and more of Egypt’s history, of their Gods and Goddesses and of the people who worshipped them at each temple or landmark, allowing us to slowly piece together an intricate puzzle that would have otherwise been left unfinished. The combination of a stress free tour and amazing tour guide, who showed us more in 9 days then we would have been able to do independently in 9 weeks, helped to make the trip what it was and my opinion may not have been so high without these factors in place.

I have in no way been endorsed by Encounters Travel but feel recognition should be given when it is due and so please check them out if you’re considering a trip in future. They go to plenty of other places and I intend on using them again in the future:

Day 1

We departed London Heathrow at 10:00pm and made a turbulent plane journey to Beirut, Lebanon. Unlike Encounters Travel, we were not as organised and our late flight booking had caused the prices to sky rocket and in turn meant we chose a longer route with less favourable airline companies. I’m almost certain that I lifted off of my seat at one point during the flight. We had a four hour layover in Beirut which allowed us to get some rest before our second, much smoother leg to Cairo. We stepped out of the plane and onto the tarmac in the dry mid of the day. Once through the doors, we were immediately met with Ahmed, who purchased our visas and assisted us through the gates before handing us over to the driver. I can’t recall our driver’s name but we appreciated his attempt at pointing out the sites of Cairo in his broken English all the way to the hotel.

On arrival at the hotel, we were met with Tom who gave us a quick run-down of events. That night, Matt and I went to the sound and light show which projected laser lights onto the front of the pyramids and sphinx, allowing us our first shaded look at the iconic structures. For dinner, Tom took us to a local spot and shouted us to Koshwari, a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, lentils, chickpeas and a tomatoey sauce on top.

Day 2

After our second day in Cairo, I didn’t know how it could get any better (I was proved wrong many times). Our first stop was outside the pyramids, the structures I had waited my lifetime to see. I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of them and I kept thinking of all of the other people who had stood where I was standing and who had seen what I was looking at. I was picturing the Ancient Egyptians who were so much more intelligent than their times to be able to construct such colossal structures. We had plenty of time to gawk and take photos at the main pyramid before being taken to a higher vantage point at which you can see all three pyramids from. Again, we had fun posing for silly photos and taking in the immense landscape. We stopped off in the middle of two pyramids allowing some to enter one of them while others rode camels around. We then continued down to where the sphinx lay in front of the pyramids and walked through a temple to come to a point where I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the head of the sphinx.

Back in the bus, we drove to the Egyptian Museum where Waleed walked us around and showed us the highlights. It would have taken all day to see everything and he tells us that many of the country’s treasures are in archives awaiting the new museum to be finished which will be big enough to house everything. We were delighted to get the chance to see all of the artefacts found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. There was so much gold and everything was so detailed and exquisite. What was interesting was that he hadn’t reigned for very long and his tomb was significantly smaller than many other of the great rulers of Ancient Egypt so with that in mind, imagine what would have been found in another tomb like Rameses II’s by the tomb robbers who had cleared them all out before they could be rediscovered in modern times.

Although exhausted, we still had one more stop to make and that was at a local perfume shop where we were greeted by the owner who served us koshwari and peppermint tea whilst telling us about his perfume. He could produce any scent we requested from a bottle on the shelf, explaining how they made the original perfumes which were sent off and then watered down with spirits and sold at a much higher price across Europe. We were able to purchase our favourite perfumes in their natural form and for a fraction of the price!

Day 3

Our wake up call startled us to life at 1:30am and we hurriedly organised ourselves to be downstairs with everything packed for 2:00am when we hopped on our bus which took us to the airport. We dragged ourselves through the airport like zombies, got on our 4:30am flight, followed by another bus and at 7:00am somehow arrived at our new, flashy hotel in Aswan which had stunning views overlooking the Nile that swept directly past us. Exhausted, we agreed to have a quick nap but not waste the day and be down at the pool which was reached through an underground tunnel by 10:00am for a swim, bake and feed. By 2:00pm we were on a bus again, making a quick stop at Lake Naser which is the largest man-made lake in the world and were shown the dam walls which prevent the Nile from flooding. We continued on to our main destination, Philae Temple which we reached by boat. It had been dismantled from its original location and put together again almost seamlessly. We found out along the way that a lot of temples had to be relocated due to the flooding of the Nile and we were always amazed at how flawless the work was considering the size of these structures that were moved.

Excited, we arrived at Aswan markets which were surprisingly calm and the only underwhelming feature on our tour. Having been to Bali and other intense market settings, we were expecting an onslaught of vicious hagglers all vying for our attention and money. In fact, it was quite peaceful to walk through and more interesting to watch the people go about their usual business. We each took turns haggling as instructed by Waleed and purchased many velvety soft pashmina scarves for a price we couldn’t have made them for ourselves. We then took another boat to a restaurant for a big family dinner of meat, rice and a bolognaise style tomato sauce which followed the breads and dips that seem to be a staple in Egypt.

Day 4

It was another early morning with a 3:00am start in order to join the convoy of tourist buses and police support vehicles to Abu Simbel. We drove along with the Sahara desert only 10km from the roadside though the landscape would have suggested we were already amidst it. We arrived after four hours of attempting to sleep uncomfortably and then made our way to the temples built by Rameses II. Their colossal size was again surprising especially once we learned that these temples too were relocated. I loved learning about the history of Egypt and it was here that Waleed cemented a lot of the things I already knew, allowing it to make more sense and fed my thirst for the knowledge by giving me more.

Rameses II temple was huge, its ceilings so high, its artwork so deep and detailed. It was impressive. It had been built to receive sunlight into the back room (holy of the holies) only twice a year on October 22 and February 22 (there is much more to this, but I could write a whole blog on the information we learned on this trip alone so I will leave it at that). His wife, Nefertari’s temple which was beside Rameses II, was less impressive after walking through his but still amazing.

We made the long trek back to Aswan, boarded our felucca and enjoyed a lunch on board before setting sail for the afternoon. We stopped again for dinner, enjoyed some drinks, card games and conversation and eventually went to bed when we had no light left. The felucca, a boat whose centre is completely covered in mattresses, was surprisingly comfortable and I enjoyed the unity I felt as we all slept together on the same level with only a canvas material between us and the stars.

Day 5

Today was free for us to wake up when we wanted and relax all day. The felucca set sail after breakfast but we weren’t on the water for very long as it became quite windy causing the boat to tip to a frightening angle. I found it exhilarating but our guide’s face showed a different emotion. We docked and once safe on the shore we were able to disembark and sun bake on the sandy cliff. We ate lunch here too, swam in the Nile and took the only chance we’d been given so far on the busy trip, to relax. That afternoon, we continued on before finding somewhere to stop for the night. We ate dinner, played cards and later, the Nubian crew put on a show, creating a bonfire, singing and playing the drums. We danced around the fire with drinks in hand until late that night.

Felucca on the Nile, Egypt

Felucca sailing on the Nile, Egypt

Day 6

This morning following breakfast, we sadly bid farewell to the felucca and its crew of friendly Nubians as we hopped on another bus destined for Luxor. We were to make two stops on the way with about an hour drive between them. The first stop was Komombo Temple and the second stop was Edfu Temple, the most well-preserved temple in Egypt.

As we approached the temple, hundreds of Muslim girls aged in their teens, adorned in bright coloured head scarves and other dazzling garments swarmed towards us with a chatter of gleeful giggles and wide smiles. As tourists ourselves, we were celebrities to these girls visiting from the countryside. They bombarded us with questions of our nationalities and opinions of Egypt. They touched our white skin and grabbed at our fair hair while taking photos, their faces lit up by the wonder and excitement in their eyes. Although an impressive temple dedicated to the God Horus stood before us, we were the true attraction for them. I felt grateful and humble as we walked on. Once we arrived at our five star hotel, we went straight for the pool where we ate lunch, sun baked and swam, making the most of the luxury following the felucca.

That night, we went out to see Luxor Temple where Waleed helped me to make connections in my knowledge of Egypt and the Christian Bible Stories (ie Moses). It’s like having epiphanies I imagine. Everything is already there, I just didn’t have it in the right sequence or didn’t realise they were linked. Afterwards, we went to dinner nearby where we had the restaurant to ourselves again. We ate so much food over the course of five meals which only cost us the equivalent of £5.30! During our meal the power in the restaurant and all surrounding areas went out which caused a little unnecessary panic to rise inside me for the first time on the trip. The restaurant had a generator running within five minutes which powered the lights and allowed us to continue as we were before.

Day 7

Another early rise. After an extensive breakfast, we got a ferry across the Nile to where our bus awaited us and took us to the Valley of the Kings. We visited three temples which took my breath away upon entering them. Never had we seen so much colour and even though we were told so often of the colour that would have adorned all of the temples, you still couldn’t imagine it until we saw it on the walls inside these tombs. We visited the tombs of Rameses III, Rameses VI and Merenptah. Some of us had also paid extra to enter Tutankhamun’s tomb which as I mentioned earlier, was considerably smaller than the others. Due to his unexpected death at an early age, his tomb was not even carved and only had large, simple paintings instead of the detailed designs we had seen in other tombs. Tutankhamun’s mummified body remained inside the tomb and we were able to see just how small he was. Despite being 18 or 19 years old at death, he looked the height of someone no more than 10 and this would have most likely been a deformity caused by an incestual mother and father.

We then went to Al-deir Al-bahari Temple which was the mortuary temple of a Queen who wished to be treated as a man, wearing male clothing, including the false beard. We stopped in at Habu temple and then returned back to the hotel for a swim and lunch. Because we had started early, we had missed all of the lines to enter the tombs and our photos are almost tourist free.

That afternoon, we went to Karnak temple which was huge and still had some mud brick foundations remaining on the sides of the walls. Waleed then took us to a Papyrus store where we were shown how they create the paintings atop of the papyrus plant and some purchased pieces. Lastly, we went to an Irish pub for dinner where Waleed gave us a two hour talk on Islam and the Revolution. As I listened, I scribbled notes in the back of my journal in fear that I wouldn’t take in the onslaught of information he was giving us. His talk along with our personal experiences, changed my perceptive and opinions on many things.

After dinner, we picked up our luggage from the hotel, got on our bus to the airport and caught a late flight back to Cairo, arriving at the hotel at 3:00am.

Day 8

We got to sleep in after our late night and once we were all up and had had breakfast we met with a friend of Waleed’s who is an owner of a jewellery factory and made us custom pieces. He had so many beautiful pieces, it was hard to pick from. Then, Waleed took us to old Cairo. Our bus pulled up outside a group who were in front of the large walls that surround the old town. We emerged from the bus feeling like celebrities as tourists from Egypt’s countryside applauded our white skin and fair hair. They took photos like the paparazzi and waved to us as if we had met before. Over the course of the day, we were approached a number of times with the request for photos so that they too would have evidence of their experiences and be able to look back at the wonders they encountered as we did the same, taking photos of iconic landmarks and beautiful scenery.

Once inside the towering walls, we walked upon the cobblestone streets and entered a serene mosque, covering our hair with scarves and removing our shoes. It was so peaceful inside. We continued our tour of old Cairo and sat, smoking watermelon flavoured shishas and sipping on deliciously sweet mango juice in a local restaurant for some time. It was so nice to slow down at the end of the tour and enjoy each other’s company. We hit the busy end of the town where we walked through markets, haggling with shop owners and collecting souvenirs along the way. These were the sorts of markets I was used to. It was cramped and busy, people were pressuring and pleading and I enjoyed every second of it.

Once out of the markets, we grabbed a lunch of falafels and shwarmas then crossed the manic street where our bus was approaching, without stopping, we climbed into the slowly moving bus in order to not anger the drivers of other vehicles nearby. On board, Waleed began to talk and I felt tears welling for the man who imprinted Egypt onto our heart as he gave one last family thank you speech. We headed back to the hotel where we bid farewell to Waleed with tears threatening to breech. We were sad to leave our tour guide who became our friend and sad to leave this country which for just more than a week became our home.

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