Midnight on the Nile

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Aswan, Egypt

A wake-up call at 3am is followed by a rally downstairs of the group and the receipt of a ‘breakfast box’ from the hotel. It contains 3 different types of bread, some jam, a hard-boiled egg and a prima. My body screaming at me at that time in the morning to avoid any kind of food ..

‘You’re not supposed to be awake now..’ it kept saying.

Regardless, we hammered on down the freeway to the airport, shuffled through security and board EgyptAir flight to Luxor. Everyone slept as soon as they sat down. Everyone was irritated by the cabin service. No-one cared for drinks, they just wanted to sleep.

We arrived in Luxor, jumped aboard a bus and flew south on the road to Aswan. Finally out of the chaos and dust of Cairo we could admire the prolific date palms and amazing use of irrigation to produce bright green pastures of sugar-cane. Pollution along the road-side river was another issue, as were the random and irresponsibly placed speed-humps. The change of government meant that local people had the freedom to place their own speed-humps on the road. Crazy I know, but authorities are not interested in doing anything about it.

Aswan is a beautiful, breezy town along the banks of the Nile, with dunes in the distance and broken cataracts, or islands, throughout the river. Our hotel looks out over the great river where the traditional felucca’s, a type of sail-boat, parade and tack through the currents. On the opposite side of the river, there’s a large white sand dune and in front of it, a row of rich, green date palms.

We take in a quick walk through the bazaar, it’s laden with shop-owners desperate for our business. Tourism is slow given the current political situation so the already aggressive sales pitches become clawing and seething. It’s distracting and gives you only glimpses of products out for sale. Too much interest expressed brings about a lengthy pursuit. Still, we take in wonderful arrangements of spice baskets, some beautiful fabrics and carts full of fruit.

Mohammed has arranged a sunset cruise for us so we step down from the port on our hotel into the boat. We motor around the cataracts in the island taking in old fortresses and Christian chapels on the hill. The sun is setting so it illuminates the earth in this dull orange, and splays through the papyrus reeds on the river. The surrounding dunes are shadowed, bringing to prominence the ruins of old relics on their summit. We pull up in a Nubian village, ancient owners of this land; originally from Sudan. They’re in the midst of a dance-party.. not being dancers and shying away, the other option is to pursue the heights of a nearby sand-dune. We take off our shoes and start to run up. Local kids squeal and follow us. It’s like one of the dreams where you’re stuck in quicksand, every step seems to take you further back and it’s a tough task. Eventually we breach the summit and from there, there’s a terrific view of the river, it’s cataracts and the surrounding area. Call to prayer rings out as we sit atop the dune, looking out over desert and the houses of Aswan. The kids start getting cheeky as we descend. Calling us things in Arabic. We kick their faces in.

We take in the last ceremonious sways of the dance party and are soon back on board, motoring up the river to another Nubian village. Nightfall comes as we disembark and are met by Jay-Jay, our Nubian host. He leads us through narrow, winding paths between mud-brick, flat-roofed houses, past kids kicking bottles around the streets to his wonderfully cool, lime-green coloured house. His family owns several feluccas under the company name Jamaica .. . His obsession with Jamaica is palpable as he shows us his wedding photos. He has dreadlocks for the occasion. His surrounding brothers, dressed in white gowns, quite dark and some with dreadlocks as well make them look more like members of The Wailers than Nubians.

Typically though, once the courting’s been done, come the wedding day, the family must cook for the entire village on the second day. This could total over 2 thousand people. And it’s the men’s role to cook.

Not in this instance though, Jay-Jay’s wife brings in some delicious season chicken, some egg-plant and tomato stew, rice and a further pot of veggies.

We have an early start the next day to join a convoy down to the ruins of Abu Simbel, only some 20 kilometers from the Sudanese border. Every bus destined for the ruins meets the police force at 4am in a designated area and they all churn through the desert roads as a convoy. Mohammed explains this is a security precaution, but is perhaps over-reactive. It’s a 3 and a half hour driver with no toilet stops given the nature of travel. I get the first call of nature at 4:50am. I considered all strategies of diversion.. the windows opened, so if bad came to worse I could sacrifice some dignity and use that. But in the end, psychology and some strategic body positioning did the trick.

The two temples at Abu Simbel are remarkable for a few reasons. Most recently, between 1964 and 1968, the temples, in their entirety, including the surrounding mountain side, were carved out and moved upwards to escape the high flood of the dam below. Metrics show us that over 2000 blocks of between 10 and 40 tones were moved. The move is generally considered a fantastic success however the position and angle is now slightly off from the original, meaning that the 4 statues inside the Great Temple of Ramses II are illuminated by the sun one day after his birthdate and coronation date.

This is really of minor concern because the temples are absolutely magnificent on approach. The Great Temple is prefaced by 4 amazing statues of Ramses II seated at 20 meters tall. The temple is a dedication to the gods but also serves as a warning to those who might attack from the south. Entering the temple between the feet of the statues, and looking back up, you feel as if that statues are granting you permission to visit. They’re so imposing and strong and remarkably preserved. The inner sanctum of the temple opens up to high ceilings and columns and a row of statues. There’s amazing hieroglyphics covering the walls, with traces of original colour. Alcoves hide worship rooms that narrow toward the end, decorated in age old carvings of the conquests of Ramses II.

The adjacent Temple of Hathor is fronted by six 10 meter statues of Ramses and his wife Nefertari. It’s a similar story inside with amazingly preserved hieroglyphics and a storyboard of carvings.

Despite the preservation, there’s significant graffiti on the walls and the statues. Most date back to the late 1800’s and perhaps demonstrates a time of little care for preservation.

The convoy leaves on time 2 hours later and we blast through the desert landscape back to Aswan.

The next day after breakfast we all board a felucca, with a broad, mattressed area, shaded by the harsh sun and powered by a magnificent sail. We spend the afternoon tacking across the beautiful Nile, breathing the fresh, cool air off the water and admiring the reedy landscape which evolves to palms on the bank but then shortly collapses into dunes of sand. Our hosts roll out a giant table cloth and we eat cross-legged on the felucca, indulging in conversation with our new travel companions, stopping to swim and find a suitable bush to water.

Nightfall and we grab some beers from the esky. The crew pull up to a river bank and we trudge through the dusty bank for some firewood. The crew pull curtains down around the felucca and again we enjoy some boat-cooked meals from the dual-burner gas rig he has setup toward the bow. It’s Mohammed’s birthday so we’ve arranged for the hotel to bake a cake and have it stowed secretly in the depths of the felucca. After dinner our crew brings out instruments and we sing a hearty Happy Birthday to Mohammed. And then devour
the cake. It gets a bit chilly that night on the felucca but the air is so crisp and fresh and there’s no sound but the quiet lapping of waves against the side of the boat. We’d leave to Luxor by van the next morning but for the moment, I’m quite happy to stay where I am.

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