Some­thing in the air

An Egypt hol­i­day means an­cient tem­ples and tombs, Nile cruis­ing and an as­ton­ish­ing ar­ray of tick­ets, writes Peter Mandel

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.aber­crom­

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

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