Something in the air
An Egypt holiday means ancient temples and tombs, Nile cruising and an astonishing array of tickets, writes Peter Mandel
GYPT is afloat. I know it is a solid country, not a cruise ship. But here is the thing: to tour a Cairo museum, a dozen temples and a hundred tombs, you have to navigate its tides. I’m talking tides of tickets. Paper, not water. Tickets to get in. Tickets to take a peek. Tickets to leave. Tickets with colour pictures of pyramids. And tickets officially stamped with silver antiquity seals.
I use my first one, a humble orange square, to visit the mummies in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. I am on a tour of Cairo and of the Nile. Dina Omar, our guide, is shuffling an orange stack and dealing tickets to our group like cards. Ragged, ripped-off stubs from the day (or, quite possibly, the year, the decade) before litter the ground and fly about in the hot breeze.
NO camera declares a sign at the museum entrance. NO cell phone. NO food. Inside I move within a mass of people carrying photographic equipment, enjoying snacks and pulling out their phones to photograph the masks and amulets of King Tut. I am tempted to be equally disobedient, but the serious look of so much polished gold makes me vow to behave.
Between the rooms of treasure I keep turning the wrong way and ending up in corners stacked with bits of hieroglyphics, tablets of uncatalogued stone and marble pedestals next to janitors’ mops. It is an exhilarating museum. I am an explorer here. I might discover a new mummy next to a closet for brooms.
There is a flurry of camera snaps and somebody tries out a flash. ‘‘ The guards,’’ whispers our guide, shaking with anger. ‘‘ They must be asleep.’’
During our tour’s three days in Cairo, we discover Egypt is an ancient nation full of people peacefully napping on the job. Bellhops snore in folding chairs beside the doors of hotels. Ticket clickers adeptly drop off in the seconds between their rips and punches. Even carthorses keep their heads relaxed as if in a dream.
Maybe it is the heat. I do not see a single cloud to interrupt it. It is as if the air is waiting, listening for something, before it moves. Shimmers rise from sidewalks and cars are baked to dullness by the sun. This giant city of 17 million is like a modern forest. Every rooftop bristles with groves of satellite dishes, iron rebars and struts. If a building stays unfinished, it’s exempted from tax. So nothing is complete except the minarets of mosques and, of course, the pyramids at Giza on their high plateau.
Approach these wonders on the chalky, gravelly plain and you can see that the most imposing shape, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is more Manhattan than it is Egypt. It is skyscraper-high and smoothly perfect as if a 1930s World’s Fair architect had sketched out the job and shipped 20th-century materials back in time. I hadn’t realised you could climb up inside but into a cave-like opening we go and, painstakingly, ducking heads in the dark, up and up a chimney-narrow passage until we get to the end. ‘‘ This is the King’s Chamber,’’ whispers one of my group. ‘‘ We’re two-thirds of the way to the top.’’
It is a black box. No artefacts at all. No mummies. No view. ‘‘ I get the feeling we’re not alone,’’ adds another of my companions. ‘‘ Alone,’’ says an echo in the room. We are back into the tunnel and sliding and stumbling quickly down. OUR Nile cruise vessel, Sun Boat IV, is waiting for us in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor and to get there we board a turboprop plane with a historic-looking Spirit of St Louis shape. I do a double take at the logo on the fuselage: a drop of oil spurting out the top of a derrick. We’re flying Petroleum Air.
Despite a scary buzzing noise from up near the cockpit (something to do with pressure valves), we land in Luxor on time. Sun Boat IV turns out to be a highstyle hotel that just happens to have engines and a crew so it can putter around.
I look forward to meeting our captain that night over cocktails in the lounge. Is it the smartly dressed blackjacketed guy with a mighty handshake? No, he works the gift shop. Is it the tall man with the military moustache? Wrong again: he mixes martinis in the bar.
Sun Boat IV, it turns out, is piloted by Captain Amal, a short, elderly Egyptian man with a flowing caftan and purple scarf. ‘‘ He grew up on the Nile,’’ explains the ship’s manager, ‘‘ and knows its currents well.’’ I am pleased, especially when I learn that Amal’s brother, Abdul-Amid, is ready with his own caftan and scarf to pitch in, if needed, at the helm.
The days ahead are a blur of Nile temples and tombs. Egyptian remains are so colossal and so intact they seem like something that belongs to the world of movies, sound sets from The Wizard of Oz. A Nile cruise is, in fact, a royal road to visiting Luxor and the Valley of the Kings (which includes the tomb of King Tutankhamun). Though not the most famous, the Temple of Karnak is the largest in Egypt and the size of its columns alone makes you feel like you’re in the Land of the Giants. Abu Simbel is equally startling with its four massive statues of Ramses II looming out of the dry, red rock.
In the Valley of the Kings, the Tomb of Ramses IV is impossible to believe. Since it’s ancient, it should be crumbling. Dust to dust. But somehow the colours are still alive down here under the ground. Blues of the Nile. Yellows of sand. Reds of sun.
The columns in Karnak Temple are as fat as beeches. High as pines. This is the favourite of our guide Omar: the biggest temple on Earth constructed for a single god.
She stares at the column tops, through to the sky.‘‘It once had 80,000 priests. And maybe there was room for more.’’
None of these sights sits alone on its horizon. Every monument comes with its daily parade. There are donkeys pulling carts, strings of postcards for sale, guards with whistles, locals with their palms out itching for Egyptian pounds. A man dispenses slabs of cardboard so you can fan yourself. A kingfisher flashes past, splashing brightness on to shaded stone. Businesses beg you to visit. Everything’s for sale.
A sign shouts: See the Papyrus Institute. A crafts shop nearby boasts: We have Swiss Management. A man representing the Adventure Horse Club cries out for customers along the side of a road. ‘‘ Rides on horse and camel,’’ he yells. ‘‘ Horse and camel.’’ And then, ominously, almost as an aside: ‘‘ Sales of horse.’’ I would be interested in riding, not in buying. But we do not have time.
One afternoon our bus turns a corner at a stand selling Egyptian snacks; the Lion-brand rice chips look good, but I do not have any more coins. When, seconds later, we bounce past the Sphinx Carpet School, I am falling over near the front of the bus, waving and pointing, agitating to stop.
I want to see the rugs that are being schooled. I want to enrol. But we do not slow down. ‘‘ There are other rug stores,’’ says Omar.
So I try to explain. Maybe it’s the sign itself that I like. The brand names. The high-style selling. Not the carpets. The Lion on his bag of rice chips: not what’s inside. I am thinking about this during our last night on board. I will miss Egypt’s billboards, which everyone else in our group ignores. I’ll miss its institutes and its clubs and its broom closet-discovery chunks of stone.
I am alone on the sun deck of the Sun Boat IV where there is no more sun. A sandstorm — a soft one — is beginning to blow. In the dusk it is a blizzard of tiny hieroglyphics swirling down. I am sure I can see shapes as grains of sand reflect the light. And I am certain there is something in with the sand, whirling around. I shade my eyes from the storm and stretch out for it. A gust sweeps past. So I make a lunge. I’ve got it. It’s a scrap of paper. An orange square: Karnak Temple. Admission: 50 Egyptian Pounds.
I picture the paper tides of Cairo. The torn-off stubs of Luxor. The flying tickets of the tombs. This isn’t mine, I think. It belongs to Egypt.
I move to the edge of the deck and lean as far as I can towards land. The storm is whistling, glittering, spinning. I do what I must do. I give it back to the wind. US-based Peter Mandel is the author of children’s books, including BoatsontheRiver and My OceanLiner. Abercrombie & Kent’s eight-day Nile in Style program includes four nights in Cairo and four nights on Sun Boat IV, plus optional extensions, including Abu Simbel. More: (03) 9536 1800 or 1300 851 800; www.abercrombiekent.com.au.
Spend a while on the Nile: Cruise in style aboard Sun Boat IV
Sold down the river: Hawkers offering everything from kaftans to rugs and belly dancing outfits come alongside a cruise boat on the Nile
Pool with a view: The deck on Sun Boat IV