This morning we drove four hours from Luxor to Aswan. It’s a nice little city next to the Lake Nasser formed by the Aswan High Dam. We stayed in the Philae Hotel which is above the standard of the hostels we usually stay in so we really much enjoyed a little “luxury”.
I went with a few other people for lunch just after arrival. When I returned I found my computer in a hard drive formatting mode and was totally shocked. One of my fellow travellers, I’m sharing a room with, touched my computer and by accident pressed the button which formats the whole hard drive. I’m travelling with a Sony Vario YB2M1E/S and the largest button right next to the keyboard is not the button to switch the notebook on or off but a button called “Assist” which launches a program called Vario Care. And the first available option in Vario Care is to format the hard drive… In my eyes it’s a total failure that it’s so easy to format the hard disk of a notebook which was completely switched off without the need to enter any kind of password. My fellow traveller might have thought that the prominent “Assist” button switches the notebook on and by pressing it she accidentally initiated the formatting of the hard disk. Unfortunately I was not able to cancel the formatting and so all data and installed software was gone forever. I needed to start from the very beginning by re-installing Windows. Since the internet connection in the hotel is quite good, I managed to download and re-install major parts of my software packages during our 2.5 day stay. However, there are still a few remaining problems since for instance Adobe does only allow to download the latest software version but not any previous versions someone might have licensed and registered. I called the Adobe support in the US to request a download link to the software I have purchased this spring but they failed completely to provide it.
Aswan is also the location where most of people I’m travelling with apply for the Sudanese visa. Out of 12 people only four were able to successfully apply for the Sudanese visa either in their home country or during our stay in Cairo. Especially some of the Americans applied for the visa already in April and were not able to receive it until their departure in October. Two days ago Tom, one of our drivers, did already travel by public transport to Aswan to hand in all remaining applications for the Sudanese visa. Daniel, the other driver, was lending him a white shirt to be sufficiently dressed for the embassy visit. In addition to the visa application the Americans also needed a Letter of Authorization which costs an additional 150 USD besides the 100 USD visa fee in Aswan.
We also needed to prepare for the border crossing into Sudan by packing a limited amount of stuff we might need during the next five days. The only open border between Egypt and Sudan is going by ferry from Aswan (Egypt) to Wadi Halfa (Sudan). Both countries seem to try to limit the flow of people between the two countries since in addition to only one border crossing the ferry is only leaving once a week on Mondays. Our truck needed to go on a different boat so that we were asked to drive it to the other boat two days before the departure of the ferry. We might also need to wait for our truck to arrive in Wadi Halfa. Nobody seems to be in a hurry and Tom told us that his last ride on the ferry lasted more than 50 hours although the distance itself can be travelled in just four hours. They also screwed-up his cabin reservations so that people needed to sleep on deck surrounded by locals starring at them and taking pictures of the female travellers. Let’s see what experience we’ll make this time…
In the morning we visited the Valley of the Kings and the Hatshepsut Temple. The valley is home to the tombs of the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom. We visited the tombs of Ramses I, Ramses III and Ramses IV which are all very colorful painted. Most impressive was a ceiling painting in the tomb of Ramses IV showing a woman swallowing the sun. Especially famous is the tomb of Tutankhamun which we did not visit. The reason behind is that this tomb is only famous for being found intact meaning undiscovered by tomb raiders. Nowadays the tomb is empty anyhow since all artifacts are shown in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Therefore, it might not be worse to pay an additional 100 Egyptian Pounds (17 USD) to visit the tomb since Tutankhamun was a very young Pharaoh ruling only for a short period of time resulting in a small tomb without any color. To further limit the impact of tourism to the tombs cameras are not allow inside the valley anymore why I’m also not posting any pictures of the valley.
Hatshepsut was a female Pharaoh whose impressive temple we visited in the late morning (see today’s picture). We saw already many sculptures of Hatshepsut during our journey in Egypt always showing her as a powerful leader with a male appearance such as strong muscles and an artificial beard.
On the way back to the hostel we crossed the river Nile by motor boot and our guide was joking if I want to drive it. I took him by his word and said “Yes” resulting in me driving the motor boat for approx. five minutes. Since I never drove a motor boat before my driving style was quite insecure so I had to hand back the helm.
In the afternoon most of us were chilling out in the hostel getting mentally prepared for the desert adventure in Sudan. Tomorrow we’ll drive down to Aswan were we’ll stay for three nights before crossing by ferry into Sudan. If possible I’ll send another update from Aswan because once I enter Sudan I will most likely have no internet access for two to four weeks.
4am is way too early for me but this is the time you need to get up if you want to see the sun rising out of a hot-air balloon. We’ve made a pretty good deal by paying only 375 Egyptian Pound (62 USD) per person which is the cheapest hot-air balloon ride I’ve ever seen. The four of us who did the ride were picked up at 4:30am. Since there is no bridge connecting the eastern and western bank of the river Nile right in the center of Luxor, we had to take a boat to cross the river. The only other alternative would have been to drive 12 kilometers down the river, cross it on a bridge outside the city and return 12 kilometers on the other side. I’m wondering why they do not build a bridge in the city. Probably they fear that it will have a negative impact on the nearby historic sites or the boat owners fear to lose their business.
At the takeoff point we watched the inflation of several hot-air balloons by a massive fire. As in any other aircraft the pilot explained the safety procedures to us which mainly consisted of the request to not loosen any parts of the balloon and a description how to move your body into the “landing position”. For this position you basically bend down in the basket with your back facing the direction of travel so that you don’t fall on your face.
The basket of our balloon fitted twenty people separated into four compartments. The pilot was standing right in the middle controlling the flow of fire into the balloon. We travelled approx. 100 to 150 meters above the ground watching the sun rise over Luxor and the river Nile. The descent was a bit bumpy. I don’t know what exactly happened but the pilot was not landing at the expected point but in the middle of a sugar cane field. The farmer of the field was obviously surprised such as an UFO landing in the middle of your city. After a while some more locals arrived, pulled their mobile phones out and took pictures of us. We waited approx. one hour until enough locals had arrived to move the basket out of the field to the next dirt road.
In the afternoon we went to visit Karnak temple one of the largest ancient religious sites in the world. Our guide was very much detailed oriented and explained every piece of the temple to us. Interesting to know is that some of the stone engravings were intended to be in 3-D format by repeating the outside shape of the figure several times.
In the evening some of us went by minibus to the downtown area to have dinner at a small restaurant. The chicken and freshly pressed lemon juice was very delicious. During dinner I was betting with Daniel, one of the drivers, that the truck will experience a break down until Nairobi. In case this happens and Daniel is not able to fix the problem within five minutes he’ll need to run three times naked around the truck in the middle of Nairobi allowing me to videotape the show and publish it on the internet. In case of no breakdown over five minutes I’ll pay Daniel 50 USD. Actually, I have experienced a breakdown on any of my previous overland journeys so I’m confident that the truck will experience some kind of breakdown during the next two months.
After dinner I wanted to go to a nightclub but everybody else was tired. One of our guidebooks recommended the visit of an Egyptian nightclub were belly dancing is performed from 12am to 5am. However, Tony the receptionist at our camp was not recommending a visit since according to him those places are somewhat dodgy. In Arabic countries it’s also not advisable that women go on their own…
The drive from the Dakhla Oasis to Luxor lasted 9.5 hours. During the drive I was reading the book “Feuchtgebiete” / “Wetlands” (see the travel library I posted on Oct 5th). I really don’t understand how someone can write a whole book on his arsehole and this piece of junk literature becomes a bestselling book in Germany. The only aspect I liked about the book was that it indirectly discusses the excessive hygienic and moral standards of some people. Especially it describes how several experiments to loosen up these standards did actually not hurt anybody.
We arrived at 4:30pm at the Rezeiky Camp, a lovely backpacker’s hostel in Luxor. The best features are a pool, excellent food, very friendly staff and WiFi all over the camp (40 Egyptian Pounds / 3 USD per day). I’m sharing a tiny room with an American and a Canadian woman and we arrange very well with ach other. After a refreshing swim we had a group dinner consisting of several Egyptian specialties such as Falafel, Kofta and onion soup.
Besides us there is only one other guest in the hostel: Lorenzo, a Dutch guy, travelling on a motorbike from his hometown in The Netherlands to Cape Town. He has originally planned to finish his journey in Cape Town by the end of December but due to the circumstances in Syria he had to take an alternative route across the Mediterranean Sea leading to a significant delay of his journey. Lorenzo also plans to take the same route into Sudan as we do so we might run into him again on the ferry crossing from Aswan (Egypt) into Wadi Halfa (Sudan).
Luxor, also known as the ancient city of Thebes, very much reminds me of Rome since lots of historic stone is lying around the city. Some of the major attractions like Karnak and Luxor Temple are just in walking distance to our hostel. The river Nile is impressive as well. A few meters to both sides of the river you can find a green lush stripe before the desert starts over again.
I got up at 5:45am since me and Pierre, a fellow traveler from France, were up on cooking duty. This involves preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole group. Breakfast was pretty straight forward. We had a massive pot of yoghurt and were chopping some fruit to go inside. Pierre was heating up water for coffee and tea and at 6am we had a delicious breakfast in the middle of the White Desert. After putting down our tents and cooking equipment we were ready to leave at 7am.
Today’s destination was the Dakhla Oasis. We stopped at the way to get some diesel at a tiny petrol station. Since it was quite crowded our drivers Tom and Daniel had to fight with the locals loudly on who is next to get some diesel. In the meanwhile the locals got their mobile phones out and took pictures of us female travelers. I’m really wondering what they going to do with the pictures… At these occasions I’m happy to not travel alone and to be in male companionship. The guys keep all the dirt away from us. Back in the Bahariya Oasis our fellow traveler Marek was approached by a local guy asking him what he needs to do to get some sexual interaction with the female travelers on our truck. We also got several massages offered…
We arrived at the Dakhla Oasis at about lunch time. In the afternoon some of us went to visit a nearby castle or on camel ride. I was not so fancy on riding on animals in +38 degree Celsius in the shadow and decided to take a bath in a hot spring instead.
Tonight I also started to take Malaria prophylaxis in the form of a Lariam pill. Malaria prophylaxis needs to be taken 1-2 weeks before entering the Malaria zone. Lariam is especially known for its heavy side effects but I took it already some years back and experienced no side effects on my own body. So I hope that it will also be the case this time. The big advantage is that Lariam only needs to be taken once a week and is therefore much cheaper on long-term travels than Malarone which needs to be taken daily.
Breakfast was at 8am and some of us left with a Jeep to shortly visit the local sights. There were four of them: museum of the Golden Mummies, two tombs, a ruin of an ancient house and the Temple of Alexander. Most impressive were the first two. The mummies were really different from the ones I’ve seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. They were fully wrapped and their faces were painted with gold color. However, I liked the ones in Cairo more since you could really see their bodies. The tombs were very interesting as well. We went approx. 10 meter down into them. They were colorful painted and told the story of their owners.
While four of us visited the sights, others went to a hot spring close to our campsite and had a relaxing bath. We started driving at 10:30am and headed into the White Desert located in the Farafra Depression were we arrived around lunch time. The White Desert is pretty amazing since it consists of diverse formations of chalk rock which give it its white color. One of these formations is called “Mushrooms” since the rocks are formed in this shape. We took two hours to drive around the White Desert and looking at all kinds of white rock.
In the late afternoon we put up our bush camp in the middle of the desert. Bush camp means camping without any facilities such as showers, toilets, etc. If you need to go to the bathroom you basically need to find a rock to hide behind. You also need to consider the direction in which the wind is blowing if you do not want to become wet from your own pee. There are also useful tools such as a small shovel which you should use to dig a toiletry hole which you close afterwards to avoid others stepping into your excrement. However, if you walk away from the camp with a shovel in your hand everybody knows what you are planning to do. Using the bathroom while travelling on the road needs also little organization since there are no facilities in the middle of the desert. Whenever our truck stops, it is decided which side of the road is the men’s bathroom and which the women’s one. For the women it is even more challenging since there are no bushes in the desert behind which you can hide…
Last night I went to bed pretty late because I met two Egyptian guys I was chatting with until 3am at night. One was a computer engineer and the other one a saddle maker. We talked about their jobs and how large global companies affect their local businesses. The computer engineer stated that it’s very hard to gain buyers for his companies CRM software since most large Egyptian companies prefer to buy software from large multinational IT companies. He was showing me what he has programmed so far and I gave him a few tips what to improve from a functional perspective to make the software more valuable for his customers. Later on we entered a discussion on Arabic culture in which also the saddle maker got involved. Basically they stated that it’s really essential in their culture to have money in order to have friends. At first I couldn’t believe this since true friendship should not depend on money and I personally do not care how much money my friends make. However, they stated that in their culture it’s much more common to invite friends involving to spend a significant amount of money to serve them and to give or lend money to family members and friends. That’s why they consider it very hard to gain friendships with only little money.
In the morning we got up early and started driving at 8am since we wanted to avoid the heavy morning traffic. We decided not to travel on the direct route between Cairo and Luxor but to head towards the Western Desert which has five oases. Bahariya is the first oasis in which we stayed overnight. We arrived around 3pm and five of us joint a tour of a local operator which took us in the surrounding Black Desert. We visited the ruins of an old Greek house, enjoyed driving over sand dunes and tasted the water of the saltiest lake I have seen so far. The water was so salty that the beach more or less consisted of salt crystals (see picture below). At the end of the day we wanted to take a swim in one of the local hot springs which is not as fancy as you might imagine from a modern spa but just a little basic pool with a tube pushing hot water inside. Unfortunately the water was so hot that our bodies would have been boiled within seconds so we could only dip our hands and feet inside the water.
While being at the hot spring, one of the American women took off her money belt so that it doesn’t get wet. After a while she detected that her money belt including her passport and all her money was gone and guessed that it was fallen into the water. We tried to find it which was not so easy since it was already dark and the water was flowing in a little channel out of the pool into the fields of the local farmers. So I and another woman went back to our camp to get some more people and flashlights to search for the money belt. Luckily we found it since branches of a bush were hanging into the water and avoided the money belt from flowing into the fields.
Dinner was great. We cooked Spaghetti Bolognese with sheep meat since pork is not available in Arabic countries. The passport was drying out quickly and we were happy that everything turned out so well. We also took some time to put our money and passports into a safe which is hidden in the truck. Interesting to know is that we don’t call it safe but gave it another name so that local people do not get alerted when we talk about it. We also only put things into the safe or get them out while moving on the road. The safe is a quite important thing since each of us is carrying a significant amount of money in US dollar cash since in remote areas it’s impossible to draw money from your bank account or exchange traveler checks. Personally I only travel with US dollar cash and credit cards.
The Egyptian pyramids are one of the world’s most known and visited sights. Today we went on a day tour from Cairo to discover them. Our visit started at the Saqquara pyramids (shown on today’s picture) which are the oldest stone buildings in the world. It is really hard to imagine how they actually were build more than 3.000 years ago. Quite a number of people must have spent their lifetime just to build one of those tombs. At Saqquara you can visit a number of non-royal tombs which I actually found much more interesting than the royal ones since the walls of the tombs are painted and you can learn a lot about the former life of the owner from these paintings.
Next we went to Memphis were we visited the ruins of this ancient capital. Most impressive was the giant statue of Ramses II. In the afternoon we visited the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx which is an amazing but quite touristy place. I went with Marek, a fellow traveler from Poland / Canada, into the Great Pyramid. It costs an additional 100 Egyptian Pounds (17 USD) to go inside but it’s not actually worth it. You walk up a long wooden stair and end up in the small room with an empty tomb. There are no paintings on the walls and nothing really special to see.
Tomorrow we will get up early and leave the civilization of Cairo to head off to South Egypt. Next night we will be camping in an oasis so it might take a couple of days until I update this blog the next time…
Today I’ve spent five hours in the Egyptian Museum which is located in 5-10 minutes walking distance from our hostel. The first three hours we’ve spent with our Egyptian guide Sonja who has a very deep knowledge in ancient Egyptian history and seems to know the story behind every piece in the collection. The museum is indeed very interesting and you should definitely not miss it whenever you are in Cairo. There are a number of pieces which are as old as 5.000 years and it is very impressive to see which construction and artistic skills the people had already during this time. It is also very interesting to experience that there was a very strong focus on the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed that their second life would even be better than their first one and did lots of work to prepare dead bodies for their second live.
The collection also holds a number of pieces from King Tutankhamun whose tomb was found mostly intact while most of the others got destroyed by tomb raiders. Lastly, the exhibition shows a number of royal mummies which costs another 100 Egyptian Pounds (17 USD) to see but it definitely worth it. I have already seen other mummies, e.g. in die Andes but nothing like this. Some of the mummies are very well preserved and it feels very strange but fascinating to see the bodies of people who died ages ago.
In the evening I went with two other fellow travelers to the huge market of Cairo. The market is divided into different sections such as a shopping area for the locals which I found most interesting but also a touristy section with cheap tourist souvenirs from China.
The taxi ride to the market and back showed us once again how crowded Cairo, the largest city in Africa, is. Crossing one of the large intersections can be dangerous since cars never stop and you somehow need to sneak through them on a 5-7 lane street while everything is continuously moving.
When we were back at the hotel there was a demonstration right in front of the hotel of which you can see a picture below.
This morning at 10:30am the Dragoman pre-departure meeting took place where I’ve met my fellow travelers. During the first part of the tour from Cairo (Egypt) to Khartoum (Sudan) we will be travelling in a group of 10 people. There will be approx. 8 more people joining in Gondar (Ethiopia) and in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). The ages of my fellow travelers reach from an American student who just finished university to a retired banker from the UK. His name is Chris and you also might want to follow his blog called The whingeing Banker. In general the group is quite “old” since the trip from Cairo to Nairobi is not so fancy and popular among very young people in their 20ties such as Southern Africa or the Cusco area in Peru. Probably it is because of the lack of partying locations in the middle of the Sudanese desert. Most of my fellow travelers are quite experienced and have done extensive travels before. There is for instance a Polish guy on my tour who has the mission to travel to all countries of the world. He is now living in Canada and working as a real estate agent. He was even on the phone today because some of his clients called him while traveling.
During the pre-departure meeting I’ve learned that the previous tour from Istanbul to Cairo was cancelled due to the conditions in Syria. The drivers Tom from Australia and Daniel from Ecuador were driving the truck all the way down to Cairo without any passengers. They told that driving through Syria was pretty scary and they did it in one day. Regarding Sudan they said that we will be fine since we are not going to the conflict areas in the West and South and the places we will be going are very peaceful and quite.
Tom, our tour leader, also handed us out an itinerary. Interesting to notice is that the part in Egypt is pretty much planed and we will be mostly travel civilized and stay in hostels but as soon as we hit into Sudan it will be only bush camping and travel on a more flexible route which will change with the local circumstances. Bush camping means no facilities such as a shower, toilet and so. We all will start smelling interestingly at some point in time.
The remaining group meeting was pretty straight forward: showing of passports, showing of the health insurance and the related emergency number and paying the kitty money amounting 470 USD. The kitty is a joint fund which will pay for hostels, entries to sights included in the tour and purchasing food on local markets to prepare meals while camping. The kitty payment will fluctuate as local prices do. So in the end we might get either a refund of unused money or we need to through in additional money if needed.
The rest of the day I was hanging around in the area of the hotel. In the evening we went out for a group dinner were we got to know each other a bit better. We will be spending 2.5 months together so we need to go along well. Actually about half of the people on the tour to Nairobi will continue the tour all the way down to Cape Town.
Now we hang out at the hotel lobby where there is free WiFi. My room mate just came down and told me that she has just killed the third cockroach in our room…