"From Thebes to Abu Simbel"

with Voyages Jules Verne - August 1999

The author - Roger Bruton
on board M/S Eugenie

A two-part journey; along Lake Nasser aboard the MS Eugenie, and the Nile between Aswan and Luxor on the MS Royale. All prices quoted here are in pounds sterling, unless specified otherwise, and were correct as at 31st August 1999.

M/S Eugenie (left) and Dawn at Abu Simbel

   


Not being an Egyptologist, I have not attempted to describe the sites visited in detail beyond my limited knowledge. I will leave that to the guides and the guide books. This narrative is just meant to describe the journey itself.

Introduction

The Weather

The weather affects everything you do and in Egypt in August it is ferociously hot. South of the Aswan Dam, or on the west bank of the Nile, it is even worse. Visits to some of the Nubian sites involves walking for some distance in temperatures in excess of 45 degrees centigrade. It cannot be over-stressed, how dangerous this can be. The temperature  cannot be imagined without putting your head inside a fan oven. You cannot go anywhere without plenty of water and a sensible head covering. There are in Nubia, no airconditioned coaches to rescue you. The only way there is by boat, or across the desert.

Being offered a lift at Wadi el Seboua! (left) and a temple guardian(!) and carvings at Kalabsha.

      

Health

Do not even THINK about this trip if you are not agile. Egypt could not in your wildest dreams be described as wheelchair-friendly. (In fact, not even the airports are wheelchair-friendly!)

The rear deck of M/S Eugenie (left) and Wadi el Seboua
 

      

This journey revolves around boats. On Lake Nasser, at some of the temples, there is not even a rudimentary jetty. Even getting ashore in Luxor can be like an obstacle course. One plus point is that for the whole journey, you will never have to carry your cases. Judging by the battering our Delsey cases took, a "soft" suitcase is not a good idea. Occupancy....The two boats we were on were both less than one-third full.

Egypt occupies a well-deserved third place in the world's upset-tummy league. It is not really possible, unless you posess a flame-resistant digestive tract, to avoid the "pharoahs revenge"! All that differs from one individual to another is the degree of severity. (Vomitting, however, is one thing that should be watched for and dealt with promptly by a doctor!) Eugenie has a resident doctor who fills one with confidence - and treatment is free (unlike on the MS Royale). But, as was pointed out to me, he is the only medical assistance for 150 miles! The company probably has him there as "insurance".

The People

Egyptians are, generally speaking, a nice, friendly, happy people. You will receive a genuine, smiling, friendly welcome to their country from most citizens, and they seem to have put "Suez" aside.

A fishing boat on lake Nasser, near Abu Simbel

Small children will delight in shouting "Hello!" to you, simply to "play" at speaking English --- don't make the mistake of assuming they are all after "baksheesh" and lose that moment! When you have a small crowd of pretty little girls in their best "party" frocks giggling and shrieking at you, try opening a couple of packets of pencils and handing them around to see the reaction! It will have you chuckling for days! I honestly think that some of these kids assume that Britain is the "land of the pencils"! The children's mothers generally find it amusing as well, and probably appreciate the help in the schooling costs. (Egyptians are not particularly proud of their public education system.) Interestingly, one small child had never seen a pencil before. He assumed it was some kind of ball-point and was surprised to find it did not work in that manner.

Despite being told the standard line about equal rights for women in Egypt, I never saw one woman in uniform or working on the boats. After a while it feels like being in a monastery.

Money and using (or losing) it

Unfortunately, the old phrase "a fool and his money are soon parted" has never been more true than in Egypt. If you do not watch after your money, someone else will! There are more perfectly legal but not exactly ethical ways to separate you from your cash than you can imagine! I was skillfully separated from (to me) a very small amount (1.80 pounds) in a very professional way, which made me more annoyed about my own stupidity than anything else. (But just watch out for Ali in horse-drawn carriage number 5 in Aswan!)

If your purchase involves you using a large denomination note, e.g. buying a LE10 item with a LE50 note, only let go of the 50 when you can see the change, or preferably when it is in your hand. Do not let someone go to "get change". Also do not confuse 50 piastre notes with 50 pound notes - in fact, if you get a 50 piastre note, give it away immediately to save on the confusion. Avoid large denomination notes if you can. Keep ones, fives, tens and twenties in different pockets.

All this is quite ridiculous in some ways because in addition to the money hassles, the aggressive behaviour of shopkeepers probably scares away far more European customers than it attracts. I certainly would have spent more money, had I been allowed to browse in peace. Women without equally aggressive male companions may find the whole situation rather intimidating, even in twos or threes. (I would suggest very loud screaming to attract the Tourist Police if all else fails!)

Due to the hugely inflated initial prices from street vendors, a little ruse/entertainment you might like to try, which we found to work, is as follows...... let the woman in your group (with a male chaperone hovering in the background) do a little haggling to get the price of a required item down to a more sensible level. Let this go on for a few minutes, at which point the woman then realises she has no money with her. With suitable aplomb, enter, stage left, the outraged husband! With a lot of shouting and bawling from "hubbie" at everyone, including the wife, you should then get a further (considerable) percentage off, as well as much amusement, and a story for that evenings dinner table. As the vendors seem to think "we" are "fair game", I don't have any compunction in thinking the same of them!

Unfortunately, due to earlier, gullible, visitors, it is assumed that all foreigners must be completely stupid.

It is not exactly made easy to obtain cash in the first place in Egypt. Finding a functioning cash machine is a challenge, although they do exist, and are (thanks to the fact that they have the ability to work in English) just as easy to use as the one outside your local bank in the west. The one very strange thing is that the keypads are "upside down" - zero at the top! Oh, and don't count on the staff at Thomas Cook in Luxor being particularly helpful. The disdainful expression and the dismissive wave were first
mastered here.

Hire cars

Hire cars???? They exist. But then so do hand grenades. Would you play with one? Drivers in Egypt are gold medal winners in the scare-the-passengers-silly event. And the question about the hooters is not why do they sound them so much, but why do they sometimes stop? It was suggested to us that the "middle class" in Egypt is vanishing. This is most apparent when you look for private cars. They are almost non-existant outside Cairo. Most cars are 25-year-old Peugeot 504 taxis.

Security


Tourist Police

Who are those men with the guns? Most of them are the "Tourist and Antiquities Police" and seem to have been specifically instructed not to speak to tourists. They are in the white uniforms. (There is a theory that those white uniforms are only available in one size - too big.) If you get into a loud argument with street vendors, one will usually appear. The black uniforms are "special forces", and look the part. I don't think I would like to talk to them. They look carnivorous. (Two of them man a motorcycle "combination" outside Luxor police station, which has a heavy calibre machinegun mounted on the sidecar.) The men in the camouflage uniforms are in the Army. (Due to National Service, the "prince" and the "pauper" serve together. There is no telling who those "grunts" are in civilian life!) While on a Nile trip, you will probably only see them at the dams. As well as all these people, you will find that there are armed police guards posted on the boats, who may be in civilian clothes.

To their credit, Egypt seems to be taking the task of protecting its visitors very seriously, and while I could not comment on the ability of any of these men, there is always a substantial presence. Further reassurance comes from the fact that they all seem to know one another. (Strangers would find it difficult to infiltrate.) "Anoraks" may be interested to know that the most common version of the Kalashnikov AK47 in general use is the same as that used by Serb security forces (in 1999).

The tourism figures I was quoted (August 1999) were that 1996 visitors totalled 3.5 million. The 1999 figure is expected to be 500,000. It is therefore easy to see that they are not anxious to lose any more foreign visitors.

Photography

When you are told "no photography" or "no flash", at a tourist attraction, take it seriously! Ignoring these instructions could result in your film being taken out of the camera and strung up at the entrance! Also, as the two Aswan dams are military installations. Don't even think of using a video camera there. The notion of a video camera that can be switched to "still" mode is not even worth trying to explain.

On the plus side, both boats we used had power points in the cabins, that I was able to use to recharge the video camera batteries. Use a "southern Europe" adaptor - 1t's 220 volts..

The Journey

Getting to Gatwick

We found the "Connex" train from Watford Junction to Gatwick to be a pleasant surprise. The journey takes one hour via Kensington-Olympia and Clapham Junction. It was very convenient. Once you are on the train, the next time you see the "outside" world is Aswan.

The Flight

We flew with Monarch - the aircraft was a (wide-bodied) Airbus A330 from Gatwick to Aswan. For a supplement we flew Premium class which is worth every penny; much more leg and hip room. The cabin crew were efficient without the bother of being friendly. Champagne was the only drink charged for in Premium Class and was 12 pounds per half bottle. The lack of foot-rests can be a problem for shorter passengers. Handy hint.....take a large, strong "tupperware" box in your hand luggage, which you can empty out and use as a foot-rest. Five hours (from the UK) is a long flight. Even arriving just after dusk, the heat hits you like a sledgehammer as the plane door opens.

Watch for the "green belt" as you fly along the Nile - it's easily seen against the desert, and gives a graphic illustration of what the Egyptians are up against.

Arrival

There are two queues in the arrivals hall. The first is to have your visa entered in your passport, where your tour-company has arranged it. This is no more than a couple of postage stamps and a few written Arabic words. The second queue is to get your passport examined and a welcome smile.

Premium class also means your bags will be waiting for you on the carousel, in the terminal, but you will still have to wait for everyone else before the transfer to your boat. It's up to you to choose between the air conditioning in "arrivals" and the bus outside.

Don't be surprised on arrival to be asked if you have a video camera. There is a huge import duty on these and the details of it will be entered into your passport to (theoretically) prevent you selling it while in Egypt. (I was not asked to produce the camera on departure.) Needless to say, should your camera be stolen, make a huge fuss and call the police immediately, make a full report, and get a copy of the original report as well as a translation in English.

How valuable is a video camera? The average monthly wage in Egypt is about 30 pounds. Do the math!!! On the other hand, how safe are your possessions? Personally, I did not really feel any need to use the safe deposit boxes on the boats..... but I did!

Lake Nasser

The M/S Eugenie from Aswan to Abu Simbel, is operated by "Belle Epoque" of Cairo. Our excellent guide/tour manager was Khaled. Eugenie is billed as a five-star boat - personally I would award it six or seven stars.


Khaled

If you don't want any souvenirs at all, it is possible to last a week without cash, as the Nile boats operate a "cashless" system. If you want something, all you have to do is sign for it and settle up later with a credit card. But keep track of how much you are spending! Familiarise yourself with the prices on the boat you are on before you start drinking and, more importantly, before you start buying rounds. Expect to pay at least 4 pounds for a scotch!

The on-board shops are not safe-havens from the rip-off merchants. A fellow traveller paid five times more for a piece of clothing than I paid for the same thing "in the market". You can haggle in the shop!

One of the most important things about the Eugenie is the "little touches" that make a journey memorable. On the excursions ashore, for example, we were always at some point met by a waiter from the ship with lemonade. Not much effort involved, but hugely appreciated by the parched passengers.

   
"Room" service (left) and a temple guardian

Another thing to notice is that the engines are not as noisy as on other vessels.

When we were taken to it, Eugenie was moored with two of the other lake cruise boats, miles from the centre of Aswan, east of the high dam, near the railway, and is approached by a path obviously not intended for the purpose. Armed troops and police with machine guns are everywhere.

Cabins on the Eugenie and its sister ship the Kasr Ibrim have private balconies. The other two lake cruisers do not. On Lake Nasser, where there are only four boats and therefore no side-by-side mooring, balconies are a definate plus and are worth having. The top decks have adequate shade and seating,

The rest of the lake Nasser "fleet"; from the left
M/S Kasr Ibrim; M/S Nubian Sea; M/S Prince Abbas

      

The first morning was started at the Kalabsha temple island - the sunrise is well worth the effort of rising before dawn.

Dawn at Aswan(left),  The M/S Eugenie pilot(centre),  Kalabsha
 

      

Gliding almost silently toward Kalabsha, past the High Dam, across the deep blue water of Lake Nasser, under a pink sky, is one of "those" moments, and hugely evocative. Even the nearby fish factory cannot spoil it! (All the fish caught in the lake are processed here before being sold in the Cairo markets. Some of the lake fish are huge. A freshly-caught one-metre Bass was served for dinner one night aboard Eugenie and was delicious.) When considering swimming in the Lake, bear in mind some of its other residents - the crocodiles. A fellow traveller from the USA pointed out that there is also some interesting macro-biology in there!

All the temples visited in upper Egypt (the area around Lake Nasser once known as Nubia) have long been re-sited to escape the rising waters created by the dam.

Also on Kalabsha Island are the temple of Beit el Wali and the Kiosk of Kertassi.

      

Wadi el Seboua - floodlit(left),  and Abu Simbel (exterior and interior)

The sheer size of Lake Nasser is difficult to convey. If it were not for the fact that it is as calm as a mill-pond, it would be like sailing the ocean. At times, parts of the horizon do not include dry land.

Wadi el Seboua, the next stop, is now also the site for another two temples; Dakka and Meharakka. The afternoon visit here was almost unbelievably hot. Luckily we made the visit as late as the light would permit. Circling in the sky was an ominous looking flock of Red Kites. The walk between the temples took about a half hour. Magnificent.

Once back on board, we were later invited to the top deck for cocktails, and were astonished to step onto the deck to find all the temples floodlit. An extraordinary sight made all the more striking by the music played on our boat.

The next day we visited Amada where the temple of Derr and the Tomb of Penout are also located. This was now the western desert in all its fury. The heat was very nearly unbearable.

The Fortress of Kasr Ibrim, which survived the inundation only because it was located on top of a hill, is now a pathetic little island which it is not possible to visit. A shame, as it looked, from a distance, fascinating. The visit was so short I barely had time to photograph it.Archaeologists are still working on the site.

We moored for the night in a "cul de sac" at the side of the lake. Members of the crew congregated in a boat alongside to drink tea and smoke a "hookah". Some French passengers took the opportunity to swim in the lake, despite the warnings.

Abu Simbel

We left at dawn to sail to Abu Simbel. The temples, being so huge, can be seen for miles. Other warnings of their approach are the narrowing of the lake and aircarft swooping in to the airport.

In the late morning there were swarms of tourists that could be seen from the boat, milling around the site. I cannot imagine anything worse than the ordeal of an overland drive to get there. A lot of people also fly or drive here from Aswan for the day. There are hotels in the town.

Arriving by boat is deffinately the way to do it.

Our first vist to the temple was arranged for three o'clock that afternoon. An unfortunate feature of the popularity of Abu Simbel is of course the crowds. The only way of avoiding them is to visit during the heat of the day. What struck me immediately about the interior, after the sweltering heat of  Wadi el Seboua, was the relative coolness. This was only explained later by the air conditioning plants, installed during the reconstruction. Just what was achieved at that time is not apparent from viewing the exterior. Our second visit left me agog! We were taken INside the artificial hill that was constructed to accomodate the temple, and a vast concrete dome now houses the entire structure. From a walkway inside the dome, one can look down on the interior of the temple which was rebuilt like an enormous "constructor set". It is truly astonishing if you are not expecting this. (Sorry for spoiling the surprise!)


Inside Abu Simbel

One may then leave the hill at the front, through a small anonymous doorway to the right of the giant statues af Rameses, or at the back of the hill, on the edge of the town, where the trinket sellers have their stalls at the bus "station". (Mercifully they are not permitted at the front of the temple.)

In the evening, the tempes are floodlit, and the accomanying music makes for an enjoyable visit.

   

Back at the boat, a troup of local performers entertained with singing and dancing. This was not described in any way as being "typical", but I felt it was more Butlins than Nubia. I hope I'm wrong.

      

   
Various views of Abu Simbel (including Rows of "prisoners"???)

Abu Simbel airport is appalling. It does have air conditioning, but nothing else to recommend it. There is one shop selling "cheap" (that does not mean inexpensive!), tacky, overpriced souvenirs. It is not up to the rigours of mass tourism. It seemed like the hordes of tourists were viewed by the local officials as a commodity that had to be moved.

   
Aboard Egyptair over Lake Nasser

The flight to Aswan from Abu Simbel was by Egyptair Airbus A320. As the flight was designated "free seating" and I was first on the plane, having sprinted across the tarmac, we flew First Class! Seats on the right get the best views of the dam. Cruising height is only 14,000 feet for the 25 minute flight.

Aswan

Friday night in Aswan is like a mad-house. Everyone seemed to be getting married. This involves even more hooting from the taxis.

    
Aswan

Getting a drink at the Old Cataract Hotel is like breaking into Fort Knox. It is possible but I'm not going to go into details of how here, as it may result in some of the hotel employees being on the receiving end of some pharaonic smiting! In fact the Hotel "repel boarders" policy is so successful that there were virtually no patrons in the public rooms and bars. We had originally wanted to stay there for one night (room rate £120), but in retrospect, I'm glad we didn't. A very uncharacteristically unfriendly and intimidating mausoleum. I was told by a member of staff that the reason for this new "regime" is the tours which used to blight the place and left without spending a piastre.

M/S Royale - Aswan-Luxor

There is a fridge in the cabin which is one redeeming fact on the MS Royale. After the MS Eugenie, we were very disappointed about the food. Efforts were made to improve it after comments were made to the management, but the two vessels are clearly in different leagues. Someone from the Royale management needs to travel on the Eugenie to fully understand the differences.


M/S Royale

At the tour "kick-off" meeting with Waleed our guide/tour manager, we were told which excursions we would be taken on. This did not match the published itinerary which - luckily - a copy of which I had with me, so that I could "correct" the tour manager. He apparently had a subsequent FAX "duel" with head office and Jules Verne.

Trip to Philae and the High Dam (no videos)

Everything about the Aswan High Dam is awesome, and it is easy to see why it is guarded so carefully. One estimate says that the entire country would be wiped out in eighteen hours, under an unimaginable wall of water, should it fail. But then it is said that nothing short of a nuclear device could achieve this. (If it was my dam I would have a lot more troops there!)

The Russian/Egyptian (lotus shaped) friendship monument is in the 1960s Russian "heroic" style. (You will not always be allowed to visit the top - it depends on the crowds.)

      
Philae and Aswan (far right)

It is very high, and I found it very scary at the top -- only four passengers can be accomodated in the lift to the viewing platform -- no photos are allowed at the top -- and don't tip the lift attendant - he will already have had a "consideration".  The concrete is starting to crumble in places which adds to the feeling of insecurity.

The Nile

One of the major factors in the history of the development of the country, is the fact that shipping can sail upriver, because of the prevailing wind, and float back down again on the current. The first thing you notice on leaving Aswan is the wind. All those beach towels reserving the sun-loungers don't stay for long!

      
The Nile

   
Edfu & Esna
 

The bridge at Edfu should be billed as an entertainment in its own right. It can be frighteningly low. On the sun deck, when the river is high, one needs to be sitting (quite low) for the bridge to miss you as it sweeps overhead at about 15 knots. Failing to sit down would almost certainly be fatal. This also serves to explain the lack of umbrellas (or any other type of shade) on the top deck.

      
   
 

       
 

Luxor

An unavoidable feature of Nile cruising is that when you are moored in Luxor your cabin will almost certainly never see daylight. The reason for this is that you will almost certainly be alongside another boat. I don't think that upper or lower cabins make ay difference here. On arrival at Luxor, we were the outside of six cruisers. Bear this in mind when debating the need for a balcony. During a ships stay it may be moved backwards and forwards a number of times. You may have to walk through five other vessels to get to the quayside. Use a shore landmark to return to.

     
Karnak

When out walking, face the oncoming traffic. Apart from being safer, it makes it more difficult for the taxis to stop and hassle you!

When you use a taxi, to be on the safe side, start with the assumption that the driver is intent on obtaining the entire contents of your wallet. Agree the price before you get in, and have that exact amount in your hand. At your destination, count the notes into his hand. (There are "slight of hand" tricks you would not believe!) Do not agree to any detours to "see the market". At your destination, the driver will probably offer to wait for you and bring you back for the same amount. Unless this is part of a "con", it's a good idea.

One of the most amazing things about the taxis in Egypt is that they are nearly all Peugeot 504s. Twenty-five years ago when I was living in South Africa, this model was billed as the most reliable car in Africa. Seems like the advertising in this case was absolutely true!

The shops at the end of the gang-plank sell bottled water at a fraction of the on-board price.

There is a cash machine at the Bank Misr, just off the Corniche - a ten-minute walk north from the Winter Palace Hotel. It is almost totally concealed by an awning.

Where is the "government cotton goods shop" we were told about?

The light & sound show at Karnak is good. There is an additional 6 pound charge to use a video camera - worth it. Lots of people willing to show you where to stand - ignore them - they will want paying! Just watch where they put everyone else. Try and go to the later of the two showings, as the part where the silence of Luxor is mentioned is almost drowned out by the calls to prayer from the many mosques in the area - still, it gets a laugh.


Dawn balloon flights were taking place over the Valley of the Kings - they were not offered to us.

There are three ways to get to the west bank for the tombs. you can take the public ferry, you can hire a boat to take you, or you can now, as we did, cross on the new bridge, in your air-conditioned coach. The bridge is another military installation, so NO VIDEOS again.

The best time to see the west bank is early morning, due to the heat. The tombs in the Valley of Kings and the valley of Queens are not all open at the same time. There are reasons ranging from good to whim. In fact, some have been so badly damaged by tourism, they may never open again. Suffice it to say that you probably will not be able to plan the tombs you visit. You can however count on temple guards fanning you with bits of cardboard - for a fee! Video is not permitted. Video cameras must be left at the VALLEY entrance -- there is NO "cloakroom" charge. You will however, be given a numbered plastic "ticket" - that is NOT the price. Vendors have packs of postcards for sale which, for £1, are fairly good value. They will take less - but watch for torn cards. There are a number of different "sets".


There is a small "disney" type "train" that takes you from the entrance to the start of the tombs.

There is an extra 8 pound charge to see the interior of Tutankhamun's tomb -- this proved to be the biggest disappointment of the holiday.

   
Hatshepsut temple & Memnon

The interior of Queen Hatshepsut's temple was closed in August 1999. The whole place was a disappointment, as well as being rather eerie after the1997 shootings.

      
Luxor

The Colossi of Memnon warranted a brief photo-stop only.

Monarch Airlines - Airbus A330 - Luxor-Gatwick - Premium class

Luxor airport was not designed to handle 360 passengers on one plane. The "gate" area can not accomodate that number of people and is not a no-smoking area. The flight was slightly late which suited us. The printed entertainment guide did not match what was actually on offer. (There was no guide on the outward flight, so the problem did not arise then.)

Monarch.....are you listening? It is really annoying when a large number of the best seats in Premium class (i.e. window seats) are occupied by crew members, especially when they are getting noticeably more and better attention and service.

Gatwick-Watford

We toyed with various possible permutations of journey, as our arrival was in the early hours, and the buses and trains did not start until about 6am, but eventually decided to pay the airport prices for enough coffee to sustain us until dawn, when we boarded the train back to Watford.

Verdict

I can't wait for my next visit to Egypt having thoroughly enjoyed this one. I would certainly not visit again during this time of year however. I have since been told that tourist numbers were not greatly different in February 1999.

Costs:
Holiday 550 pounds each.
Visa procurement 26 pounds.
Premium Class upgrade 100 pounds.
Rail fare - Watford Junction-Gatwick return £19
Bar bills for the week 75 pounds each (stay off the spirits - ferociously
expensive - keep your duty-free in the cabin.)
Took 200 pounds (LE 1000) in cash for spending.
(In the quiet season it's not worth paying for a cabin upgrade, and if you have
to ask how much the suites are, you can't afford them!)
Carriage/Taxi rides in Aswan/Luxor are never more than three pounds.
Anything can be paid for in Sterling.
N.B. There is NO SUCH THING as Nubian Pounds!
A favourite "scam" is to tell you that "this is a fixed-price" shop, to stop you haggling - tell them you are going next door!

"Things" to take ...........

Binoculars - there's plenty to look at!
torch
some one pound coins
large "tupperware" box
"chinese" parasol (you'll thank me for this!)
pencils
thermometer

All the above photographs were taken from a digital video shot on a Canon-MV10.

Site last updated on January 14th 2000.
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