Wednesday, 23 March 2011


After making it safely through the Gulf of Aden with only 1 sighting of a pirate vessel (which was already being tailed by a warship), we made our way up the Red Sea, past the coastlines of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. We made 3 stops in Egypt over the last 3 days but until a week ago, there was still some debate over whether we would actually be stopping. We are still able to watch the news when satellite coverage permits, so we were fully aware of the revolution in Egypt, and the vote that took place while we were ashore on Saturday. There was a big question mark over our planned trip to Cairo in particular, and indeed our planned excursion on Sunday was altered slightly to avoid Tahrir square, the centre point of the protests last month.

So it was expected but still a little unusual to us, that when we went ashore in Safaga, we boarded a coach and travelled in convoy with 20 other coaches, and had an armed police guard at the front and the rear of the convoy. This has apparently been the norm for a number of years, but I'm not sure if it made us feel more or less safe! It was the same on our final day in Egypt when we had a guard on the coach itself, and heavily armed guards visible at all the major tourist attractions. According to our guide on the 3rd day, following the revolution, a great many police resigned (because they were no longer receiving bribes to supplement their wages), leaving the army to police the streets. Their presence was immediately noticeable, with tanks being positioned on all the roads around the ports we visited and indeed in most built up areas. It was not something I'd seen before.
For our 3 consecutive days in Egypt we docked in Safaga (for trips to the Valley of the Kings), Sharm El Sheik (for trips to the beach!) and Suez (for trips to Cairo and the Pyramids).
Safaga is a small port in the south of the country and could be called "The gateway to The Valley of the Kings". For those who have been following our blog, you may already be smiling in knowledge that this means we had to sit on a coach for a great deal of the day! However, regardless of how you arrive into Egypt, and where you arrive to, there will always be a hefty transfer to see the main sights. There is not much going on in Safaga itself, so many people decided to make the trip.
Our coach convoy took us for 2 hours through the desert and towards the city of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings where a great number of ancient tombs have been discovered, including the most famous, that of Tutankhamun. We visited 3 of the tombs, those of Ramesses I, Ramesses III and Ramesses VI. There is not much to see from the outside, you must walk deep into the hillside, often descending down steps or a steep ramp passage to arrive at the burial chamber. Inside, every inch of wall and ceiling is covered with drawings and carvings, the colours, still the original ones, are very much intact despite being 3000+ years old. It's just a shame that more damage has been caused in the last 30 years by careless tourists and the elements, than has occurred in the previous 35 centuries when the tombs were sealed. You can't take pictures inside the tombs because the flash lights deteriorate the colours - Either that or it takes money from the locals who offer photo books for sale. We bought a book for US$2 from one of the many persistent sellers all around the complex....after he'd followed us for a good 10 minutes. It became funny to us, but it didn't stop him. I'd just like to say that I wasn't the one who opened the conversation or perpetuated it!
Although it sounds mean, we were becoming used to batting away the people trying to sell us something. India and Vietnam were bad, but Egypt was on another level of persistence. It would take the patience of a saint and all day and night to politely refuse the advances of all the people that approached us, called over to us, and generally tried to grab our attention. Unless you've experienced the hassle you get at a tourist attraction in Egypt, what I'm about to say might appear rude or ungrateful but it is a necessary fact of life to get on in these countries. My moment of enlightenment came in Pattaya, Thailand. Katie was swimming in the sea as I sat on the beach. As beach sellers offered me sunglasses, necklaces and fruit, I found that a simple shake of the head was enough to have them pass me by. This wouldn't have worked in Egypt, but the principal was learnt. As our guide in Cairo explained, "No thanks" is the start of a conversation, and "No" is a word that has absolutely no meaning. Saying nothing is the best defence against them, but it's more difficult for a polite Englishman to carry off when someone is trying to attract your attention by standing in front of you and calling to you for the 3rd time. We often had to physically side step around these people whilst completely blanking their questions about where we were from, and whether we liked Egypt, just to allow ourselves to continue enjoying the places we were seeing. Only once did I have to stop dead in my tracks, turn to face the guy, look him in the eye and tell him what I thought of his merchandise. Katie physically moved a young boy out of the way as he tried to sell something to Jean as she was having her picture taken. It's quite sad, and it sounds mean, but believe me any sympathy quickly vanishes and it doesn't take long to reach this level of frustration. The treasures that Egypt has to offer a tourist are amazing, but in a lot of places, it's impossible to spend a quiet moment in contemplation, because it is taken away by these people. I don't know why the tourism authorities don't do something about the problem.
After a lovely lunch in Luxor, we headed to Karnak and to The Temple of Karnak, the largest temple complex in the world. While my knowledge of steep funicular railways might be growing, I'm going to argue with this particular claim. The complex covers an area of 250 acres but (luckily) you can't walk around it all. Building on such a scale is not surprising considering the experience gained from the older pyramids. Our guide for the day, like all other tour guides in Egypt had a BSc in Egyptology and was very knowledgeable about the site. She allowed us time to explore on our own and although it was the end of the day and our appreciation was waining, I embraced the opportunity to get some good abstract photos as the sun was low in the sky and the light was great.
We walked back to the coach at around 5.30pm, through another set of market stalls and hawkers and onto the coach. We were told to be prompt because we had to meet up with the rest of the convoy at 6pm, and a curfew in Luxor after dark meant we would have to spend the night there if we were not already out of the city. I'm not sure how true that was, we couldn't verify it because we made it to the meeting point with time to spare. We arrived back at the ship at around 9.30pm, the latest return from an excursion so far and felt pretty tired and ready for bed.
Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
We'd sailed overnight, in proper cruise fashion, to Sharm El Sheikh; a destination known worldwide as a great place for scuba diving and snorkeling, and essentially a big tourist town. We met up with Trevor and Jean at 8am this morning because after our strenuous day yesterday and the one to come tomorrow, we'd agreed that we would spend the day on the beach in nearby Na'ama Bay, about 5 miles down the road from where we had docked. With snorkels and flip flops packed, we marched across the vast quayside area and found a taxi minibus which we shared with a few fellow passengers going in the same direction. Jean had been here before and knowing the hotels, had kindly pre-booked a day pass for us in the Hilton Fayrouz. It meant we had access to a room and all the resort facilities for the day, it was perfect! We checked in, dumped our bags in the room and headed to the huge private beach. The hotel/resort itself was huge and really nice, a world away from yesterday. It had little one story villas/rooms, swimming pools, open air bars and comfy looking restaurants with meandering pathways connecting them, all ultimately leading to the beach. After we'd settled in, we grabbed our snorkels and headed a little further around the bay to an area which looked promising. While the water was a little colder than we would have liked, once we were accustomed, the reward was amazing. You might remember me trying to describe how each time we've snorkeled, we've had a different experience. This one was just off the beach (actually we walked out on a floating pontoon) but the water was shallow enough to stand in, and deep enough to not risk scraping yourself on the rocks and coral. Before we even entered the water, you could see the bright colours of the fish, but submersed, a new world opened up before us. There were so many brightly coloured fish, large and small, that they couldn't help but come up close to you. For the first time, we even saw a decent size ray settling himself on the sea bed and kicking up a storm of stones and sand. It's difficult to explain how being in the water just a few feet from a ray, is infinitely more involving than seeing one through the glass of an aquarium or a boat. We were always popping our heads above water to enthuse about what we were seeing and then ducking back in to get more of the same. There were also a few jellyfish floating around, and after my experience in Hawaii, and without the attractive suits at The Great Barrier Reef, we used them as the excuse to get out. Instead we stepped gingerly over to the shore and peered down at the wealth of life living in the small tidal pools at the edge of the beach. I've never seen so many pretty shells all in one place. I tried to pick one up, but found that they were already in use! A closer inspection revealed that they were all moving around, tiny little legs poking out to propel themselves in the water. We also found starfish hiding under rocks, the closer and longer you looked, the more became visible. All this in an tiny area, no bigger than the size of a sheet of A3 paper.
Walking back to our area of the beach we stopped off again for a quick dip, and decided it was time for lunch. We used the room to change and walked to the main commercial area along a pedestrian promenade with restaurants and outdoor cafes either side. We found a nice beach side restaurant and had a fairly inexpensive meal. Heading back to the beach after lunch, we had more time to snorkel right in front of where we were sitting but it soon came time to shower, change and grab a taxi back to the port. We joked about spending the next couple of weeks in that resort, we felt very relaxed there, and it didn't appear busy. We didn't get a chance to ask any locals how tourism had been during and after the revolution, but our guide on the 3rd day was very passionate about thanking us for being here and supporting them. We didn't let on that it was really out of our hands, but we were genuinely pleased to feel so welcomed.
Back on board, we sailed away and watched the sun set below the horizon from on deck, it was a great end to the day, although we couldn't party yet because we had to get an early night.
Suez - Pyramids and Cairo
The alarm went off at 3.20am this morning as we had to meet at 4am in the Palladium. It was a bit early for lollipops but after 30 minutes we headed hand in hand to the tender boats, many of the younger passengers including most of the theatre company had their pillows too! This morning, Arcadia had anchored off the coast of Egypt near to the city of Suez. The minority of us who were taking a tour today (only about 250), were tendered, in convoy, to shore and then Arcadia was continuing through the Suez Canal, to meet up with us, 150KM north in Port Said at the Mediterranean end of the canal. A few days previous, those of us who were booked on a tour were given the opportunity to cancel free of charge, because different foreign offices were offering different travel advice regarding travel to Egypt. The Australian advice was not to travel, while the British advice was to the contrary. I think a lot of people cancelled because they didn't want to take the “risk” but we considered it because we didn't realise that by going on a tour we would miss the transit of the Suez Canal. After weighing up the options we still decided that the preference was to see the pyramids. The Suez is not as exciting as the Panama Canal because there are no locks, and nothing other than desert to see either side of the ship. I think it was a good decision in the end, but at 4am as we bobbed around in a cramped tender boat in the dark, I had to keep reminding myself that we were in the middle of experiencing an adventure! The trip ashore would have taken no more than 15 minutes under normal circumstances, but we had to wait for everyone to be ready, and then follow the pilot boat into the harbour. It was a slow process, not helped by the fact that when we arrived at our preferred harbour mooring point, it appeared that the quay was too high too allow us to disembark the small tenders. We moved over to a different side of the harbour and watched the lights of all the waiting coaches, also move to meet us. The first tender finally disembarked and then, unusually, we moored alongside that tender and walked through it to get to a shabby set of crumbling steps to take us up to the quayside. By the time we boarded the coaches it was starting to get light, and just as we watched the sun setting yesterday evening, we watched it rise above the horizon again today - I think that is a first for us. We wondered to ourselves whether this early morning chaos was the result of a disheartened harbour workforce or simply the lack of a decent bribe. Either way, it seems to me that the intelligent, powerful and skillful ancient Egyptians lost their way somewhere down the evolutionary line!
The coach convoy took us 2 hours towards Cairo and Giza where we had breakfast and then drove up to the pyramids of Giza. Despite my earlier reservations, people were very friendly, and similar to our first day, children along our entire route, waved at our bus windows relentlessly. Even the adults did sometimes too. We returned the gesture whenever we could. As we drove along the streets of Giza, the tallest of all the pyramids became visible above the buildings and became more and more impressive as we got closer to it. We parked up right beside it amongst the many other coaches, cars and vans. It was busy but this was deemed a quiet day. With the advice about the local sellers still ringing in our ears the doors of the coach opened, everyone took a deep breath and filed down the steps of safety and into the crowds of waiting vultures. Our ignoring tactics seemed to work mostly, only Trevor needed to use his arm in order to clear a way forward, and I put myself between them and Katie to usher us both along. She has a tendency to hang around at the back which results in getting picked off, in turn requiring a back-track and a rescue operation! :-)
The Pyramids themselves were indeed very impressive, both from the perspective of their sheer size and their accuracy of construction. We were stood right underneath Cheops' pyramid, the tallest of all of them at 146m and about 500 meters away stood Chephren. It looked even taller, but was simply built on higher ground. As a structure that was built 4600 years ago, it remained the tallest man made structure on earth until the likes of the Eiffel Tower came along in the 1800s.
It's amazing that they are still standing, not least because they are so old, but also because of the relatively relaxed attitude that the Egyptians seem to take towards preserving them. Unlike the valley of the kings, Cheops' pyramid is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, yet it's still possible to touch and even climb on the structure. Small signs that say No Climbing are dotted around, but nothing more persuasive. Our next stop was at the Sphinx, still classed as the largest statue in the world and then onto Sakkara. We drove through some horrendous traffic and some even more horrendous scenes of mess. In places, rubbish clogged canals and waterways made Vietnam look clean. Our guide seemed ashamed and tried to explain the problem, but it really did make parts of Cairo look terrible.
It took us 3 hours to reach Port Said where we were to board Arcadia again and it was getting properly cold again. We lined up to go through the normal embarkation process as the cold wind took any remaining heat out of the air. I'm not expecting sympathy, but that was the first time we've felt the cold like that since we left Southampton, and as if we needed it, another reminder that we were getting closer to home again.

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