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Playa, Petra and Pyramids. III

EGYPT | Wednesday, 4 November 2015 | Views [338]

August 2015:

We were already anxious about travelling to Egypt before we even crossed the border from Eilat in Israel to Taba in Egypt. The Australian government website smarttraveller.com.au which, amongst other things, gives up to date travel advice regarding the safety of travelling to other countries, was advising people to reconsider their need to travel there. The civil unrest and ongoing Sinai Insurgency by militants in the Sinai Peninsula, the very region we would be travelling through, were well publicised in the media. But as I’ve experienced in Mexico, Colombia and Northern Ireland, as well, what is happening on the ground can be very different to what is portrayed on the news. So after reading travel forums online from people who had recently travelled to Egypt and claimed they had had no concerns regarding their safety, and speaking with the tour company, my girlfriend and I decided to book a ‘day tour’ (it ended up being 30 hours) to Cairo and the Pyramids.

The tour was to consist of driving overnight to Cairo, accompanied by a driver and guide. Once there, we would visit museums, see the pyramids of Giza and eat a buffet lunch at a popular restaurant before making the drive back to the Israeli border.

Our contact in Taba helped us through the proceedings of immigration. It all happened very quickly and was a tad confusing as our contact ordered us around.

“Give me your passports! Wait in line here! Go and get this paper stamped! Do you want to change money? Yes? Ok give me your money! Ok. Let’s go! Wait here! Ok. This is your van. This is your driver. Ok. Get in! Have a good time. Good bye.”

It all happened so quickly that when we sat in the van and we started to drive away, we suddenly had time to think about the situation. Here we were just the two of us (there was no one else on the tour) , inside Egypt, late at night, in a van with a guy who we just met, who didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Arabic and we’re just passengers – very vulnerable, easy targets.

To add to that, every now and then someone random off the street jumped in to the front seat and the driver would give them a lift five minutes up the road. I was thinking anyone could have jumped in and kidnapped us. There were a few military road blocks as well. There’s nothing like being alone late at night in the middle of nowhere faced with serious looking men with large machine guns to put you on edge. Thankfully, we passed through no problem. A lot of the time the road was unpaved so the driver drove really slow to protect his van but it just made me more suspicious. After an hour we were finally able to feel at ease.

We passed through a small town. Up ahead I could see someone standing by the side of the road. The van slowed down, eventually stopping next to the man. He opened the back sliding door of the van where we were sitting.

         “Hello. How are you both? My name is Navid. I’m your guide to Cairo and the pyramids.”

Our guide was able to explain to us what was going on, and the itinerary of the tour, and he spoke in very good English, as well. Now we felt much more relaxed. A bit further down the road we stopped at a petrol station where there were a few bus coaches full of Russian tourists. Our guide explained that we would be travelling with them overnight with a police escort until we got to Cairo. Well, that was good to know. Back in the van, we were able to lie down, stretch out and sleep easy as we travelled through Sinai towards the Egypt capital.

At 6am, we stopped at a bus stop for a break about an hour outside of Cairo. Bleary eyed we set off again and the tour started. We quickly realised what a knowledgeable and cool guy Navid was. He pointed out interesting things as we passed by, such as the Suez Canal, and told us interesting information like Egypt is going to build a new capital city.

We arrived in Cairo to a clear, warm sunny morning. The city was a hive of activity with a lot of people and a lot of traffic. Cairo was surprisingly quite clean and green – there were a lot of trees. We killed some time by the side of the Nile River as we waited for the Egyptian Museum to open at 9am.  

The Egyptian Museum is amazing. The large marble columns and stairwells inside made me feel like I was on the set of a movie. The museum houses tens of thousands of ancient Egyptian antiquities many of those important pieces of Egyptian history. I’m not much of a museum person. I get bored very quickly. This is where my impression of our guide, Navid, went from nice guy to really cool guy. In the museum, he didn’t mess around. He took us for a tour through the museum at warped speed, spending no more than 30 seconds at an exhibit, usually a lot less. Navid really knew his stuff, too. He was a qualified tour guide having studied years and learnt various languages, as well as being a certified archaeologist; he did many years research at the pyramids.

He had some strong opinions about Egyptian history, too. He believes King Tutankhamen was killed by his wife so her lover could become king; that Tut was a teenager and never a soldier. They had the best medical experts in that age and he would never have died from an infection to the leg. He was only famous because of the gold mask found in his tomb.

He told us of discovered tombs being opened and the people who entered dying. This prompted many people to say the tombs were cursed and there was black magic. He says, “Bullshit,” or the Arabic equivalent. He says the oils and fragrances left as offerings in the tombs and the oils used to wrap the mummy’s deteriorated over time and became toxic. Inhaling the fumes of these toxins is what would have killed the people entering the tomb.

As a side note: in Israel, possibly Jordan as well, I don’t know, but definitely Cairo, there are cats everywhere just roaming the streets. It was funny in the Egyptian Museum when we entered a room full of statues and there was a cat sitting on the top of one as if it owned it, and everyone else just ignoring it as if the situation was perfectly normal.

After the museum, our tour took us to a papyrus paper museum. We saw how the paper was made and how artists drew the hieroglyphics. One museum staff member tried to sell me and my girlfriend, a couple in love, a hieroglyphic drawing of King Tut and his wife with many Egyptian symbols signifying love.

         “But, Tutankhamen’s wife ended up killing him,” I pointed out for my own amusement.

         “That’s ridiculous. Where did you hear that?” he demanded.

         “At the Egyptian Museum,” I replied, not wanting to cause an argument between him and Navid who was standing on the other side of the room.

Anyway, enough of this museum shit. It was time for the main attraction. Our van driver took us to the city Giza, just 20km south of Cairo. It was only a few years ago that I learnt that the Egyptian pyramids were close to the city. I’d always imagined them to be in the middle of the desert. But as we drove through the dirty streets of Giza we could see the pyramids in the distance rising above the city skyline. 

It was a hot sunny, dry day as one would expect. The pyramids didn’t disappoint. Egypt has two dozen or so pyramids but at this site, the most famous pyramid site, there were about six or seven - two mega large ones, one medium and three smaller ones. I’d always thought the sides of the pyramids were smooth. That was once the case. Casing stones formed a smooth outer surface some of which still remains at the top of The Great Pyramid Of Giza. But the pyramids are huge rocks the height of an average man, one on top of the other creating somewhat of a stair-like structure to the peak of the pyramid. And they were tall. 146.5 metres high.

Entering the pyramids wasn’t available to the public. But when your tour guide used to work at the site anything is possible. Navid was able to gain us entry in to one of the tombs of the medium sized pyramid. It was down a tight narrow passage and into a small, cool room with a bath tub size hole where the mummy once lay. After some panoramic photos of the pyramids we were off to our complimentary buffet lunch. Delicious.

After lunch we dropped by to have a look at the Sphinx just a stone’s throw from the pyramids. This mythical creature of a lion’s body and human head was also a magic moment to see with my own eyes. We stopped by a fragrance museum in the afternoon and succumbed to the sales pitch and bought some frankincense.  

It was now time to settle in for the ten hour journey back to the Israeli border. Our progress was slow as we hit what I thought was afternoon peak hour traffic. But after about 45 minutes of crawling along the highway at a snail’s pace in gridlock, we came up to an accident on the road. As we moved past the obstruction blocking traffic, I got a good look at what was responsible for the traffic jam … a truck had spilt its load of potatoes all over the road and there was a mad rush from nearby residents to grab what potatoes they could to take home for free. Once we passed the truck, traffic opened up and our van driver was able to put the foot down and off we went. The sight was very funny.

Not so funny was what we saw a bit further down the highway. I was just staring out the window when a car travelling in the opposite direction caught my eye. It looked like it was in the middle of doing a donut as it did a sharp bend to the left and smoke came off the screeching tyres. But instead of continuing in a circle it ran straight in to the middle concrete barrier that divided the two ways of traffic, just as we were passing, which gave our driver a bit of a fright. Debris went flying everywhere and I looked back quickly to see the car roll and stop upright on its side. Our tour guide told us accidents happen all the time on Egypt’s roads.

We slept as much as we could on the way back to Eilat. Once again we had a police escort through the Sinai Peninsula. We dropped off our guide, Navid, an hour before we reached the border. He had been excellent and we tipped him handsomely. We eventually presented ourselves at immigration at 4am. We were tired and in a daze. Just as we were looking forward to going to our hotel in Eilat to have a shower and sleep in a bed, immigration kept us for nearly two hours. Because we entered from Egypt they grilled us about how we knew each other, who we knew in Israel, what we did in Egypt. Eventually, they let us enter.

Originally, we told our hotel we’d be arriving at 10pm. It was 6am when we showed up at reception. Check-out was only four hours away. Although, the hotel kindly let us have a late check-out at 12pm. It wasn’t the best hotel room in the world but not having showered or slept in a proper bed for 48 hours, it was good enough for us. 

*Some photos included in photo gallery. 

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