Back in February my housemate/best friend Cara went to a Travel Talk expo in South West London where we ended up booking a 9 day trip to Egypt. We chose to go with the Felucca Odyssey tour and added an extra nights accommodation at the end of the trip to recover.
The cheapest flights we could find was with Austrian Airlines, which connected Heathrow to Cairo via Vienna and return.
After some late night packing on the Friday we were up and at the airport by 4.00 – rookie mistake as check in didn’t open till 4.30am and security not till 5.
After about 7 hours in transit, we reached Cairo Airport. Travel Talk supply pre and post airport transfers, so our ‘collector’ gathered us round and took our payments before going and securing us tourist visas, then it was about 30-40 minutes to the hotel.
Our group meeting was at 6pm where we were told that the next day would consist of a trip to the pyramids and a 9 hour bus trip getting in at 2am! We were also split into 2 groups – one on the big bus consisting of around 40 people and our little van of 15.
Once we got the meeting out the way we had a few minutes to freshen up before going to buffet dinner and a belly dancing show (optional extra) on a boat.
Although the band was way too loud for the confined space, the belly dancer was really good and curvy and she was followed by some twirling men.
After fuelling ourselves at breakfast we had an early start of 7am and headed to Saqqara and the step pyramid. The traffic in Cairo is intense! As our guide Adham said, the only way you can drive in Cairo is if you know how a snake moves.
The Step Pyramid was built for the pharaoh Zoser in 2700 BC and is 63m high. Unfortunately in the 13th Century there was a huge earthquake which damaged the pyramid and another in 1992 and the pyramid is still undergoing restoration.
The hieroglyphics in the complex are amazingly in tact and some even retain the original colour. This is a depiction of slaying a beast as an offering.
After spending an hour or so it was back on the bus to the Pyramids of Giza.
From up close the Pyramids of Giza look like a pile of rocks haphazardly dumped on top of each other. You can see at the top of them that they were once covered with a smooth polish of limestone. We had about 20 minutes to explore the outsides of the pyramid – you can get right up and sit on the bottom blocks – if you can jump onto them as they are around 3 -5 feet high!
It was once again back to the bus and up the hill to a plateau where some of our group had camel ride and where all the amazing photos are taken.
I opted out of the camel ride as I had done one back in 2014 in Tunisia and did not enjoy it at all.
Our next visit was to the Sphinx. Some bugger had knocked his poor nose off, but the Sphinx still stands strong after centuries. He is 73m long and just over 20m high and is the oldest monumental sculpture in Egypt.
After a relaxing lunch we headed to Temple Flowers Essences where the walls are covered in handmade perfume bottles. After the rounds of hospitality were given, we sat back and were bombarded with delicious smells. The family run business has been operating since the 1920s and deals in essential oils. Our man asked us to name famous perfumes and he then proceeded to take a jar of the shelf. The aroma is exactly like the high end brands, although alcohol free and longer lasting – and half the price.
The essential oils were selling for a good deal, 6 for the price of 5, so Cara and I went 3 each.
When we finished up at the not-perfumery, we went back to the hotel where our guides Sam and Adham had arranged for those of us who wanted to get local sim cards and for us to pay for our Optionals.
We got a sim card with 3.5gb which set us back LE70 (this is less than £3!!) then it was back to the bus around 5pm for the 9 hour drive down to Luxor. Unfortunately, being new to the country, we actually thought that meant 9 hours. Egyptian time is not like normal time – it’s longer.
The monotony of the drive was relieved when we stopped for a rest break at an military run service station where we waited for the other bus to catch up and for our armed guard to take us onwards. When they finally caught up, it was back on the road and time to get some shut eye.
Unfortunately our 9 hour drive turned into an 11 hour drive so we rocked up to our hotel in Luxor around 4am. Straight to the rooms so we would be up, fed and ready for our 8am departure to the Valley of the Kings.
We started off at the entrance of the Valley of the Kings, which is guarded by two tall, eroded statues.
Continuing on you come to the tourist entrance where they have a 3D replica of the Valley. Unfortunately, you are unable to take photos within the Valley or the tombs.
As soon as you step foot in to the entrance of the tombs you are surrounded by carvings and hieroglyphics. It is noticeably cooler as you walk down the slanted path and eventually come to the burial chamber. The first tomb we went in we were even able to stand inside the granite box where the sarcophagus would have been! (technically you are not supposed to be able to do this, but the promise of a baksheesh – tip – has the helpers offering).
Our Valley of the Kings ticket let us explore 3 different tombs, but with an extra ticket you can gain entry to the tomb of King Tutankhamun which still has his mummy inside.
The next stop on our itinerary was the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Tutmose I and his principal wife. She was the only ‘legitimate blue blood’ of Tutmose I, married her half-brother Tutmose II – making her Queen of Egypt. After his death, Hatshepsut ruled on behalf of her 2 year old step son Tutmose III who was the son of a lesser wife.
When he was 16, Hatshepsut shipped Tutmose III off to the army. Hatshepsut is regarded as one of the most prosperous Pharaohs to reign as she was more interested in securing economic prosperity than conquering foreign lands.
When Tutmose III took the crown after the death of Hatshepsut, he proceeded to desecrate her temple and tried to erase her from history. You can see this from the hieroglyphics that have been defaced around the temple.
After lunch it was back to the bus for the drive to Aswan. The 5 hour trip was only broken up by a rest stop and then me peeing by the side of the road. ALWAYS carry tissues with you, you never know when your bladder will strike!
It was my first foreign-land-outdoor-peeing experience, which luckily was behind a 3 foot wall and Cara shielded me by holding up my cardy.
Arriving around 6pm, we quickly stowed our bags in our rooms and then headed to the river bank for a boat to take us to a local Nubian village for dinner. The Nubians are a darker colour than the Northern Egyptians and are known for being the ‘people of gold’.
Nubian homes are typically large. As we walked up about 15 steps we came into the entry way. From here, the house branched out into bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. As you walk further into the house, past the cage of crocodiles and up more steps you come into a huge gathering area, with another kitchen area attached. This is a traditional area for guests. The floor is covered by sand, the roof is thatched and the walls are covered with murals of the Nubian people and the Nile.
Before dinner we were told a bit about the Nubian culture. Originally from further south in Africa, they have been upended and moved a number of times. There are 3 tribes, all of which speak a different language and can only communicate to each other through Arabic, and efforts are now being made to restore the people to their original land.
Dinner is a buffet affair, and the lady of the house had been slaving over the multiple dishes all afternoon. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling the best, so opted just for a small plate of vegetables.
After dinner the lady of the house offered henna, which some people took part in, while some of us wandered up to the roof top with a cup of tea to enjoy the warm night.
On the way back across the Nile we were treated to an impromptu Nubian party, full with drums, singing and dancing. We were in bed by 11.30 for our super early 4am start to Abu Simbel the next day.
We collected our little breakfast bags from our hotel and got on the bus for the 3 hour journey south to Abu Simbel. I wasn’t hungry and promptly fell asleep for the duration of the trip. Which was good as according to others the scenery was just sand dunes as far as the eye could see.
The first thing that you notice is the massive lake. lake Nasser is the largest man made lake in the world being over 5000km2. Unfortunately the making of this lake caused many issues, such as the Nubian people having to be relocated and the relocation of Abu Simbel temples themselves.
It is believed that Ramesses II built the temples in celebration of his win over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in the 13th century. The story of the battle is quite interesting, after being nearly defeated, Ramesses pushed on alone and when the High Priest sent word that their King was on the battlefield alone, troops came to his rescue. He secured peace with the Hittites by taking one of the princesses as his wife and securing a 20 year Peace Treaty. And then he declared himself ‘Ramesses: the King who Defeated Himself’.
The temple is 30 metres high and 12 metres wide and has 4 (well three and a half) statues of Ramesses as a deity.
Further around from Ramesses temple is the temple that he built for his favourite wife, Nefertari and the goddess Hathor.
It’s amazing that these two magnificent structures were moved 200 metres inland and 65 higher and put back together with only a deviation allowed of plus or minus 5mm.
After we had all done dying in the heat exploring the temples, we got back on the bus and headed to Philae Temple.
To get to Philae Temple we had to take a boat across the old British Dam to Angelica Island. The temple was previously semi-submerged on another island before the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project dismantled and relocated it to Angelica. You can still see the silt marks on the hieroglyphs.
Philae Temple was the early concept for Christian cathedrals and evidence of Coptic Christians can be seen in the crosses they have carved over the ancient hieroglyphs.
it was substantially cooler (but still hot) compared with Abu Simbel but we all jumped at the chance to have a short ‘me time’ and once we had all gathered and had about a million photos taken with locals (we had a lot of blondes in the group) we were on the bus back to Aswan.
Our amazing guide Adham had arranged a couple of hotel rooms for those of us that wanted to wash away the heat of the day and sort our day packs out before we jumped on board our felucca.
The traditional Egyptian felucca is a relatively flat bottomed boat covered with a light mattress and shaded by a canvas roof. You can just get a good hunch scuttle going when you cross front to back.
We all got comfortable as the felucca was our home for the next 2 nights.
Our first night was pretty tame and after a late dinner we were all asleep by 11.
The second night we moored against bit of a bog – there was only one tree to piss behind for all 50 of us, it was definitely a toilet paper graveyard by morning! –
After our dinner of kofta, salad, baba ganoush and bread a bonfire was lit and the Nubian crews serenaded us with traditional songs and a conga.
After a relaxing breakfast while sailing up the Nile we disembarked and had a few hours of driving before hitting Edfu temple. The further north we drove the more bearable the heat became.
Edfu Temple is dedicated to the god Horus and depicts scenes of the conflict between Osiris and his brother Set. The story goes that Osiris was the god of the Nile Valley and Set the god of the desert. Set was a bit jealous and wanted the Valley to himself. To achieve this, he held a big dinner and had a sarcophagus and said whoever could fit perfectly inside it would win something. He had made the dimensions made specifically for Osiris and when Osiris jumped in Set had the coffin nailed shut and carted off. Luckily his wife Isis found out and freed Osiris but then he was once again tricked by Set and this time chopped up into pieces and strewn across the country. It is believed that he was cut into 42 pieces, equating to the 42 provinces of Egypt.
Isis went around and collected all the pieces and put Osiris back together again. Adham did tell us that there was one piece that couldn’t be found though…. 😉
Walking through the main pillars you emerge into an open air courtyard, further on there is a small ‘waiting chamber’ before a shrine room. On either side of the chamber there is a stairway, one spiralling up and the other straight down which represents the God Horus, the Hawk god.
We headed back to Luxor and finally had a few daylight hours to ourselves! Cara had a nap through lunch while I read my kindle and ate one of the pot noodle I had brought from England (the live of a coeliac!)
We met up with the group at 5.45, nipped in to the Irish pub to give our dinner orders, then headed to Luxor temple.
It was great to see the temple at night and out of the scorching heat.
Luxor Temple is connected to Karnak Temple by the 3 kilometre long ‘Sphinx Avenue’.
Luxor differs from other temples as it is not built for a particular deity but for the rejuvenation of kingship.
The site of the Temple is quite sacred as over the centuries many different religions have built their holy buildings. This is evidenced in the current mosque having its original entry about 20 metres from the current ground level. it makes you wonder what else is buried under the sands. And how many people have fallen out the door.
We had dinner at an Irish pub in the street across from our hotel. I think out of the 50 of us, only one person enjoyed their meal.
It was another early rise at 4am, this time for a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. Due to high winds we almost had our balloon ride cancelled, however we waited it out and were able to fly.
Once the balloon was filled with air and the basket was upright some bulky men lifted us up and over the side of the woven basket. There were 4 sections of our basket, each holding 5 people. Our pilot Khaled jumped in and turned up the heat. We had lift off! As the balloon ascended, we could see the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings. The current pushed us over the Nile where we could see Luxor and Karnak Temples and also our hotel.
We drifted for a bit before Khaled found somewhere safe for us to land. We came to an empty bit of land, skimmed the ground a couple of times, went back up, dragged across the ground before finally coming to a stop… on the side of the basket! Khaled did an amazing job getting us all to safety in what was apparently 40km/h!
Once the pilot had made sure we were all safe and alive, he got out his camera for a selfie!
After the excitement of the hot air balloon ride we made our way back to the hotel for a hearty breakfast and to wash away the dust and grime from our crash landing.
Our next excursion was to Karnak Temple.
Karnak Temple is at the other end of the Sphinx Avenue to Luxor Temple and spans quite a big area due to it being on a sacred site all the pharaohs wanted to make their mark. The open air museum is actually the second biggest religious site in the world after Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The temple is crumbling after centuries of misuse, but there are works happening to restore the temple and statues scattered throughout the precinct.
As you walk past the sphinxes keeping guard and through the main entrance you there is a small courtyard which contains entrances to smaller temples. Moving through this you come into the largest Hypostyle Hall in the world, which consists of 134 columns which represent the papyrus flower. Although there is no longer any roof covering, standing there you can imagine how amazing the hall would have been 3000 years ago with the hieroglyphic artwork covering everything from the walls to the ceiling.
Further into the temple is one of the biggest obelisks in the world. Made of a single piece of pink granite it 28.5 metres high and weighs nearly 350 tonnes. It was once part of a pair, with parts of the second obelisk broken around the place.
Wandering around the grounds we saw this lucky scarab beetle on a podium by the Sacred Lake. Legend has it if you walk around anti-clockwise 7 times you will find yourself a husband.
So of course, we all did it! Although I’m not quite in the market for a hubby just yet, I only went around 3 times, fingers crossed for some kisses instead!
After some time exploring on our own, we were all done by 12 and headed to a place that sold papyrus paper paintings.
We were given a demonstration of how the paper is made.
Back in the old days the green outside was flexible and hard to break so it was used to weave baskets, sandals, mats, etc. The pith was cut into slices, soaked for 6 days, laid in between sheets of either animal skin or linen, overlapping and crisscrossed, then pressed between 2 heavy rocks. It was pressed for 6 days for the natural glue to stick the slices together and dry. Today the paper is pressed between a heavy metal press.
I ended up buying a piece as a gift but as I haven’t sent it to the recipient yet I’m not going to post a photo.
Our day ended with another long bus trip back to Cairo.
After a pretty relaxing sleep at our Cairo hotel we made our way to the Egyptian Museum. One thing I did notice with all the tourist hot spots – and even the hotels – is that the Egyptians are heavy on the security! So many x-ray machines!
The Museum is separated into 3 categories, Old, Middle and New Kingdom and you can see the subtle differences as you move from one exhibition to another.
The current museum feels a bit cramped and like the artefacts have been squished in all together. We were told that there are still thousands of pieces in storage. A bigger museum is under construction but it sounds like it has been put on hold many times.
After a bit of a guided tour with Adham, we were free to wander and explore on our own. Cara, Sara and I purchased the extra ticket to see the Mummy exhibition. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take any photos in the exhibit – even to take photos in the museum you need an extra ticket – but it was amazing to see the detail and how much was preserved through mummification.
Interestingly there was a woman who had been mummified who it was thought was found with her mummified baby. It turned out to be her pet baboon!
Afterwards we had a look at the artefacts of King Tut – it seemed like the whole first floor was dedicated to him!
Many people were taking advantageous of the air conditioned building, this guy was even practicing his pen-work.
After the museum, we had lunch then visited a few churches. The first church was quite interesting. It was 2000 years old – you cold definitely smell it! It had that musty old smell – and is the home to the cavern that Mary, Joseph and Jesus hid in for 3 months when Herod went on his massacre killing male babies under 2 years.
Next we went to the Hanging Church – also known as Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. This had a beautiful courtyard filled with greenery.
It is known as the Hanging Church as the nave sits over a passage.
Rounding of our religious afternoon was a trip to the mosque of Mohammad Ali at the Citadel of Cairo. The mosque sits above Cairo and on a clear day you would have a wonderful view of the city. To me, the outside was very reminiscent of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
The inner courtyard is all tiled and quite hot on your bare feet! Making our way into the main praying area there is a roped off section on our right. This is the resting place of Muhammad Ali. This is not the famous boxer but the ‘Founder of Modern Egypt’.
The room is carpeted with burgundy and hanging bulbs pepper the ceiling.
Our next stop is what everyone was looking forward to – the Cairo bazaar!
Anyone who has been into the avenues of a bazaar know the overwhelming feeling you get, people rushing everywhere, the sellers shouting their wares in every language they think you might know, random marriage proposals!
As we unfortunately only had limited time, the group split up to each get what we wanted. Cara and I stuck together, she was after some trinkets and I wanted an ‘I love Egypt’ t-shirt for my homemade quilt.
We enlisted the help of a tween boy who found us what we were after. He was so lovely and chatted away with us until we parted ways. He was stoked with the us$1 I tipped him too, bless.
Cara and I got some trinkets from a small store, and even got a bit of discount by posing for a photos with the guys in there.
Walking down the lanes we were accosted approached by a man who had spent some time in Melbourne. When we said we wanted to see the spices, he took us under his wing and showed us the ‘real bazaar’.
We took a few turns and suddenly we were the only white people in the alley! He took us to his favourite spice shops where we bought a few things, then he took us to his shop. We knew there was a catch! We had hospitality and ended up buying some essence from him before he took us back to our meeting point with the group. The cheeky bastard then wanted a tip on top of the money we spent in his shop!
Cara and I had booked the Pyramid of Giza Light Show. As we had just been to Disneyland Paris a couple of weeks before, we were looking forward to this.
All I can say about it is DO NOT GO. Literally spent the 45 minutes thinking of other things I could have spent my £8 on. We were expecting awesome lights, maybe some fireworks (although found out after that fireworks are banned in Egypt at the moment) and a bit of she-bang. What we got instead was an outdated show which felt like it was from the 1950s. The voice over guy even sounded like the wizard from Wizard of Oz.
After the show we joined the rest of our group who had had dinner together as a last hurrah at our hotel. Then it was time for goodbyes!
Technically our tour finished in the morning but some of our group were flying out at 2am.
Cara and I spent the day in the hotel room, not leaving our beds. Poor Cara had succumbed to food poisoning and I was just being lazy.
We did manage to get out for dinner al fresco at the hotel. The hotel was pretty poor on the service front but we eventually got served. I would have liked to have tried the national delicacy of pigeon, but unfortunately the hotel was out of the gluten free option. No pigeon for me.
We managed to get to breakfast today then made our way to the airport for our 3pm flight. Travel Talk is amazing as it offers free per and post transfers. Unfortunately for us, our plane was delayed on the tarmac as a wheel needed to be changed, which meant that we missed our connecting flight from Vienna to London BY 6 MINUTES! We made our way to the Austrian Airlines help desk where the lady sorted us out with a hotel room each, dinner and breakfast vouchers and a overnight pack.
After getting a take away dinner from the hotel restaurant we made our way up to our rooms and parted ways. Good thing too as Cara was still poorly.
Our new 6am flight had us back in London by 9am and I was back at work by noon – half a day late but got there eventually!
back to reality!
Top Tips for Egypt:
– take pocket tissues, there is no toilet paper in public restrooms and they are good for when you need to go on the side of the road.
– stock up on the sunscreen.
– buy water from little convenience stores rather than from hotels (much cheaper).
– take mosquito repellent.
– get a local sim card if possible – Vodafone do 3.5gb for LE70 (this is less than £3).
– don’t drink the water.
– take Imodium to block you up when needed.
flights £280.75 with Austrian Airlines
Egyptian visa US$25 / £25
Travel Talk tour £249
Spending money – including entrance fees – £212.80 (LE 5000)
post tour accommodation £20
extras (card payments inc fees)
papyrus painting £12.12
last night dinner £12.12