Journal: Friday 8 December 1995
I dreamed of visiting Egypt, all my life, but it had seemed so faraway and unattainable until my first trip in December 1995.
Then the months of waiting, anticipating, dreading disappointment and the packing and re-packing of my suitcase were over; in the departure lounge at the airport, the waiting still seemed an eternity. At last the plane took off and Christmas card scenes of a snowy English countryside slid below me, a misty winter sky reflecting a pale full moon setting over a gold-washed landscape. A perfect morning to begin an adventure. In five hours the flight over Switzerland’s deep gorges and glittering mountain peaks, the sparkling blue of the Italian coastline, Corfu and the Greek Islands (can there really be so many?) and a short hop across the Mediterranean Sea, brought us to the long empty stretch of African coastline and then Egypt. Egypt at last. I could see nothing but an infinity of deep golden sand patterned with waves, from above, an ancient sea long forgotten, a clear barren emptiness, peppered with giant paw prints of wind-sculpted rock and interspersed with deep dried-up valleys. And I fell in love. Suddenly we were flying along the Nile, a bright silver-blue ribbon of life twisting and turning on its never-ending journey from the Highlands of Africa down to its wide green Delta. Narrow strips of cultivated land on either side of the river were bordered east and west by vast stretches of mountains, linen folds rising to the high flat desert plateau. The foothills, a neat patchwork of tiny brown or green fields and villages of dun-coloured brick and thatch basked in the warm glow of a low sun. The occasional glint of a moving car or truck or a crooked row of telegraph poles would pick out a road alongside the straight line of a canal as we began to descend. In the midst of my reveries the pilot said we would soon be landing, ‘Seats upright and seatbelts fastened please’ and after a sudden acceleration and one or two bumps we were cruising down the runway of Luxor airport past ancient remains, not of huge stone monuments but the burnt-out corpses of Egypt’s martial past. Luxor was a military airport and its sinister bunkers and scattered remains of drab-coloured warplanes were a reminder of the country’s troubled times of a few decades ago.
As the aircraft came to rest in its bay and passengers elbowed each other for access to their belongings in the overhead compartments, I could see a row of ramshackle airport busses waiting to carry this week’s delivery of expectant tourists into the care of their tour guides in the terminal. The airport terminal seemed little more than a large hut in the desert at that time and as I descended the aircraft steps the incredible hot wind of Egypt, even on a December afternoon, was a precursor of excitement I was to feel every time my feet touched Egyptian soil.
How we were crammed into those busses like sardines in a can, clutching the overhead straps and trying to hang on to hand luggage at the same time and all the while the driver seemed to take delight in veering round sharp corners, throwing us all in one direction then the other. The terminal was a free-for-all as passengers scrambled for visas and queued for passport control. Beyond this, men in long robes or overalls were heaving suitcases off a conveyor belt, reluctant to let them go unless a tip was given. Voices shouting in an unfamiliar language, hands grabbing, customs officers with bored expressions waving us on, then I was outside and met by our tour leader. I had booked, with some friends, an ‘Egyptian Experience’, which promised a Nile cruise, a few days in Cairo and a few days in Luxor.
The sun was setting as I boarded the coach and a clear red sky lit our way along the riverside road towards Esna where the cruise boat was waiting. It was a journey of about an hour and my first taste of crazy Egyptian road-craft. The buildings scattered along the road looked dirty, dusty and run-down, small mudbrick dwellings where groups of men sat around meagre bonfires, chewing over the problems of the day just gone with the orange glow of the fire in their faces. Small dark-skinned children ran about or stopped to stare with eyes like saucers as we hurtled by in the coach. Thin tethered donkeys ate mounds of green clover while shaggy brown goats (or were they sheep?) wandered about or just looked on wistfully. It was all so wonderful in my eyes. Our boat was moored at Esna because the lock was closed for repairs which meant that cruise boats couldn’t sail beyond the barrage to Luxor, something, we were told, which happens every year but at unpredictable times. When the coach arrived in Esna we had to wait a while for our boat to be manoeuvred into position but eventually there it was steaming towards us and we were allowed to board, carefully negotiating the precarious roped gang-plank, while the boat’s crew dashed about with our luggage on their heads. I thought the boat beautiful. It was quite small and rather old-fashioned, spotlessly clean, with mahogany panelled walls and a plush red carpeted staircase leading to the upper decks. We were greeted by big smiles of welcome from the reception staff and each of us were given the keys to our cabins. Since then I have seen the many different floating palaces of glass and steel which ply the Nile today, but I am grateful to have had my first Nile cruise on that lovely boat. Dinner was served in the dining room, four beautifully presented courses during which we were waited on like royalty. My friends and I had requested vegetarian meals, something which was virtually unheard of in Egypt and seemed to cause great amusement among the staff. To the waiters ‘No meat’ meant that we would prefer chicken or fish, but I could see that a special effort was being made to accommodate these faddy English.
After dinner I decided to go ashore for a stroll to see the little market town of Esna. To my great surprise there were now seven more cruise boats of assorted shapes and sizes moored alongside us and I had to pass through the doors of each one to reach the riverside. There were many shops still open and the streets were bustling with noise and street-traders, something I wasn’t used to seeing late at night coming from the dark, quiet, English countryside. I was instantly pounced upon by traders, shouting and pushing at each other and calling out to me, insisting I look at every stall, each advertising a better price than his neighbour. All of this was so overwhelming that before very long I didn’t dare to look at anything because I knew it would involve a haggling session – an occupation I’d rather ease into gently. Feeling very tired after a whole day travelling I staggered back to my temporary floating home and collapsed into bed, ecstatically happy to be in Egypt at last.
Since that fateful day ten years ago I have travelled to Egypt many times but my first arrival in a country I now regard as a second home typifies my feelings every time I am there for I have never lost the wonder or the magic of that first visit. I have repeated the Nile cruise three times, finding a new enjoyment with each trip. I have seen much of the countryside, the cities and the ancient monuments, met many fascinating people and my feelings for Egypt have never become jaded but have only deepened over the years. The enduring appeal of the country is not in the way it looks, but in the way it feels. I am not the first to suffer the hypnotic pull of the Nile, called the mother of all rivers, the life-giving gift from the gods. Many other travellers of this land have found, like I have, that Egypt bewitches, it gets under the skin like the fine desert sand that penetrates everything.