Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
Tokomaru in Egypt
Having failed to reach the Mediterranean in spring 2006, we’re still in the Red Sea, and planning to go through the Suez Canal in May. Meanwhile we’ve been exploring Egypt.
Last autumn Tokomaru2 was moored in Marsa Alam in the south, about level with Luxor, so we decided to cross the Eastern Desert and visit some tombs and temples. We managed to find transport along a road ‘closed to tourists’, between El Quseir on the coast and Qift on the Nile. (We’d been told we would have to join a great convoy of coaches with police escort, a slow journey and a much longer way round.) The drive along the deserted Qift road took only 3 hours, including a stop in the Wadi Hammamat where the pharaohs had their quarries for mining breccia (a kind of rock which they favoured for statues and sarcophagi). There are hieroglyphic inscriptions all over the rocks, thousands of years old; some of the writing apparently laments the hard life of the stone cutters. At Qift we turned south, following an irrigation canal running parallel to the Nile. After the empty desert, all human life was here –villages, donkeys, crops, date palms, and the timeless ‘felaheen’ tilling the fertile plain.
Approaching Luxor we glimpsed the towering temple and an avenue of sphinxes (human-headed) in the midst of a bustling town where normal life goes on in spite of the tourists (funded by tourism). Walking by the Nile one evening we met a government engineer who told us of a plan to make Luxor into a museum, a ‘cleaned up’ theme park for tourists, with modern hotels and good roads, an appalling thought, but there’s certainly a lot of building and road works in progress. (Since we visited Luxor, we’ve read that the people of the village of Gurna, who live on the west bank of the Nile amongst the tombs, have finally, after 60 years of resistance, been moved to New Gurna so that excavations can proceed.) We took the ferry a few times across the Nile to the Theben necropolis, finding that if you went early afternoon (when it’s really hot) you may have a tomb to yourself. Despite our efforts, it was hard to get a handle on 5000 years of history and religious belief and all the associated symbolism of gods and pharaohs. The hieroglyphs and cartouches and amazing pictures all over the walls of the tombs and temples were nonetheless absorbing. The temples, with their massive columns, leviathan proportions and huge statues are overwhelming, especially Karnak, with another avenue of sphinxes (ram-headed) leading to the entrance. Within the temple complex at Luxor there’s a mosque, dwarfed by the pomp and power of the temple, more graceful, on a human scale and much in use of course. Minarets rise up all across the town and during Ramadan were twinkling with fairy lights.
One windy day we went for a sail on a felucca, those graceful Nile boats with lateen sail and no engine. They use the wind, which blows always from the north (as we know!) and the current, which flows always from the south, very skilfully. The ropes and sails are made of cotton and under the Egyptian sun last only two years, but are cheap to replace, (ours last more like ten years). Our skipper told us he depends on tourism to finance his children through university. Not a bad way to earn a living, drifting along the Nile, with pied kingfishers hovering above, herons and egrets stepping along the edge, and always on the river banks the peaceful scene of ‘felaheen’.
Back on Tokomaru, our first attempt to move on up the Red Sea in what was forecast as a three day calm found us fighting gale force winds and steep waves in the middle of the night. So at first light we ran for shelter into the little harbour of El Quseir where we waited a week for the winds to ease. El Quseir, the coastal town at the end of the only road across the desert until recent times, was a historic trading post and one of the most important ports on the Red Sea. In Pharaonic times, they set sail from here to the Land of Punt (possibly Somalia) and later, in Islamic times, pilgrims crossed to Mecca. Now it’s a sleepy town, so far untouched by the mass tourism which has given rise to hundreds of hotels and resorts mushrooming along the coast. There’s a medieval citadel and several mosques and it was nice to experience Eid el-Fitr, the end of Ramadan in this small community. Everyone was out and about in their new clothes celebrating the end of the fast and four or five mosques were in full spate.
After this interlude in El Quseir, we had a pleasant passage (two calm nights at sea) all the way to El Gouna, just north of Hurghada, at the south end of the Gulf of Suez. Here we’re moored up in a sort of purpose-built tourist ‘toy-town’, consisting of resorts and hotels, bars and restaurants, all a bit ‘Disneyland’, and not ‘real Egypt’ at all, though many Egyptians own apartments here and flashy motorboats. Before heading up to the canal (only 140 miles to go now to Suez), we’ve had time to travel some more. A week in Cairo had us hooked, starting with our art deco hotel right in the centre. This part of Cairo was developed in the nineteenth century in imitation of the great boulevards of Paris. Our balcony overlooked facades of Empire architecture, now grimy and crumbling, the extravagant days when Europeans flocked to the gardens and palaces, department stores and coffee houses long gone. Now the streets swarm with traffic and the pavements throng with modestly dressed Cairenes. From here we could walk to Islamic Cairo, another age, another world, and get lost in the famous Khan il Khalili bazaar and walk through muddy medieval lanes past enormous mosques to the city gates in the old walls. ( This part of Cairo is immortalised by the novelist Naquib Mahfouz in his ‘Cairo Trilogy’, set between 1918 and 1942, which also has us hooked). Coptic Cairo, even older, was a metro ride away; dark little churches crammed with icons, founded in pre-Islamic times, huddled together in the narrow lanes of a Christian community. It was November and there were stalls selling Christmas decorations. In the same quarter there’s a lovingly preserved synagogue, Ben Ezra, a relic of Cairo’s Jewish community which has all but disappeared.
From Cairo we made a couple of trips to pyramids, starting with Saqqara and Dahshur, 16 kilometres south of the famous three at Giza, out in the lonely desert sands. At Dahshur there was no one about, just friendly policemen on camels who tried to get us to part with our money by offering the opportunity to sit on their camels, take their photo, have them take a photo of us and so on. We’ve become quite good at dealing with such encounters after weeks in Egypt. They managed to extract only £E1 (10p) from us, ostensibly ‘for the camel’ of course, and they gave our Cairo taxi driver a cup of tea while we pondered the ‘Bent Pyramid’ and the ‘Red Pyramid’. On leaving the site, we got stuck in the sand, and were eventually rescued by some passing Germans in a 4x4. And so to Saqqara, a much bigger affair including, in addition to the ‘Step Pyramid’, a funerary complex and several tombs. We opted for two tombs, the Mastaba of Ti and the Mastaba of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep (father and son). To reach these we had to persuade our driver to take us down a road he insisted was closed and then walk half a mile over the sand. We were not disappointed. The relief drawings all over the walls inside these tombs were astonishing, -exquisite detail of faces, hands, birds, animals, hieroglyphs; a great energy and movement in pictures of people spearing hippos, rowing barques etc, all swarming with life and very different from those at Luxor. Both tombs of course had a ‘guide’ waiting to ambush us, dressed in gellabiyah and turban and determined to show us around. The notes in our ‘Rough Guide’ (without which we wouldn’t have known to go there) were much more helpful, but every tomb must have its picturesque guardian angling for baqsheesh or it would not be Egypt.
Rising early our last morning we caught the Pyramids of Giza (which you can just glimpse through the haze of pollution from the roof of the Hilton Hotel in Cairo) before the crowds. They are indeed hugely impressive up close, and you can wander off into the desert and look back on them looming far off through the dusty haze. Each pyramid has a causeway to where the Nile used to be, thousands of years ago. Walking down the causeway of the Pyramid of Chephren took us to the Sphinx where by now coach loads of people were arriving. The Sphinx rises proud against the sky and the Pyramid of Cheops, us tourists kept at a distance so everyone has a good view.
Finally, in March this year we took a ferry to the Sinai Peninsular and then another ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan. In Petra a chill wind whistled through the mile-long canyon (El Siq) which leads to the ancient city, but the sun shone on the monuments and from the highest point you can see Israel. We stayed in a backpackers’ hostel and there met some Peace Corps guys taking a break from teaching in Armenia, and two Irish women on a break from teaching in Kuwait and an Australian couple from London. We all went together to the Wadi Rum, a vast and beautiful desert landscape in southern Jordan. They were good company. Bedouin guides drove us miles across the sand in a jeep. It had apparently rained in March and there were carpets of purple flowers and flourishing bushes of white broom. At dusk birds flitted around the sheer rock face of the mountains, which rise 1000 feet straight up from the wide flat floor of the wadi. We stayed a night in a camel- (or goat-) hair tent. The Bedouins lit a great fire inside the tent and cooked us a meal. Then they chatted to us about camel racing and such like, played their ancient music, and we drank endless glasses of strong sweet tea in the extraordinary silence of the desert under the stars.
Back in Sinai we had a day to spare with a choice of visiting the famous St Catherine’s Monastery, site of the burning bush, at Mount Sinai, or trekking through the desert to an oasis. Moved as we were by our experience in the Wadi Rum, we chose the trekking. (Also, it was Easter week and St Catherine’s was likely to be crowded with tour buses.) We set off with our guide, Mohammed, to an oasis which looked just like in a picture book, clumps of date palms, dwellings and camels, and an underground spring feeding a big stone water tank. The Bedouin family gave us a meal and tea (and sold us trinkets) and then we trekked off again through the sand as the sun dropped behind jagged mountain peaks.
The ferry back to Hurghada was 'broken' so we took the bus the long way round, 13 hours. It being holidat week, the bus was crowded. Late in the night, we reached the tunnel under the Suez Canal. The bus stopped and everyone had to get off and the baggage was unloaded. Then we had to stand by our bags while security checked them with a bomb detector. It was a silent, rather sinister scene, all the passengers (about 50 young men going home for the holiday) standing nervously in a long line in the dark.
Highlights of our time in El Gouna have been visits of Liz's sons Nick and Tom. Nick came in early March with Elin, but most of their holiday was spent in Hurghada as we had to move out of El Gouna to make way for the Blue Water rally. We had a nice trip out to an anchorage, where Nick spent most of the time trying to get our Yamaha outboard to work. He also made several trips up the mast to remove ancient navigation lights. They were unfortunate to experience the only rain we have seen in all these months in Egypt, which came on the one day they chose to go to the beach! Tom and Caroline are with us now, and we've just come back from anchoring out amongst the reefs. But the Red Sea is not very user-friendly for comfortable cruising and snorkelling. Once those northerly winds get going it's not much fun. So we're back in the marina where Tom has also been up and down the mast to fix new lights, all now working, ready for our passage through the Suez Canal.
We're more or less ready to continue our voyage when we next get a calm spell, so hope to reach the Mediterranean by mid May. That's all for now from Liz and Nick
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