Another unbelievable day – in fact the best so far and one of the best of my life.
I was woken at about 4.50am by the amplified wail of the call to prayer from a nearby minaret. I’d just been dozing anyway – not much sleep as bed bugs had me scratching for ages. That incredible unearthly singing was a fantastic accompaniment to getting up before dawn; everything else still and quiet.
We got ready, had breakfast, and then in the lobby met Mamdoh, our guide and soon-to-be good friend. Walked down to the waterfront, very few people about, and just missed the ferry which crosses the Nile; just about all locals and a very old boat but much better to do things the local way.
On the other side we were met by some kids waiting with our donkeys, affectionately called Whiskey and Hashish. The kids wanted baksheesh of course. Donkey riding ain’t as easy as I thought! A slow walk is fine, but once a trot or canter starts you bounce around and it’s hard to stay in the saddle. I swapped donkeys with Mamdoh but that didn’t help. Then, on our way to the Colossi of Memnon on a tar road, my donkey stumbled and went skidding on knees and nose. C and I felt terrible for the poor fella. As I said as we climbed the cliffs, please God, don’t bring me back as an Egyptian donkey!
After trotting along for a while we came to the Colossi, standing serene and alone in a field by the side of the road. An incredible sight despite their poor condition. After a brief stop we went on, and came to a village with the ruins of the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III in the distance and cliffs dominating the view to the west. Here we waited for a while, kids trying to sell us figurines, trying to sooth our donkey, while Mamdoh got our tickets.
With the tickets we set off, and began climbing the barren cliffs. The desolation of these hills is incredible – completely bare of plant life and dotted with decaying ruins. We edged along the top of sheer cliffs, passing the ancient ruins of the tomb worker’s city and the temple of Deir el-Medina. One slip of the donkey at some points and we would be history. Occasionally a man or two would try to sell us a bit of sculpture but “la, shokran” was our standard reply.
After a memorable ride over the crest of the hills we began to descend into the Valley of the Kings. A short way down we left Mamdoh and the donkeys with some other guides and walked the rest of the way to the bottom of the valley. The site is well sign posted, with a lined gravel path leading to the various tombs. Lots of tourists about, mostly in tour groups (poor fools).
Our first tomb was that of Ramses III, known as the Tomb of the Harpists. (Unfortunately Tutankhamen’s tomb is closed for restoration). I can’t describe the elation I felt descending the richly-decorated corridor into the side of the valley. The experience was enriched by the paperback that I’d bought, as I read the guide out loud as we passed through the tombs, learning wonderful details about the tomb and its decoration, and seeing things we otherwise would have missed.
The richness of the wall paintings was incredible, and often the colours are still bright. The torch I’d brought revealed the collapsing rooms, barred to the public, at the end of this tomb. In one room four pillars braced the ceiling and a sloping corridor led through the middle, leading further in and down.
The next tomb was that of Amenhotep II, and easily the most beautiful we saw. We waited at the top of the stairs leading down as a seemingly endless line of sweaty tourists emerged, then descended through rough corridors to a chamber that was a deep pit, spanned by a bridge. This lead to a false, rough burial chamber, to the left of which we descended to the real burial place, beautifully decorated and supported by six pillars.
The paintings were simple, black lined and very modern and restrained, the rich blue ceiling painted with stars. At the end in a sunken section was a beautiful sandstone sarcophagus. The heat was incredible and sweat dripped off my nose, but we spent ten minutes gazing at the beautiful carvings.
Needed a drink and no water left, so had to walk about 500m down the road to the cafe/restaurant (!), whose speaker was blaring a song by the Flowers (Icehouse) as we approached! By the time we got there we had an inkling of what it must be like to be wandering in the desert with no water.
Back at the tombs we went to that of Ramses IX, similar in plan but more beautiful than Ramses II’s. Fantastic wall paintings of bizarre demons, snakes and men, constellations on the ceiling, wonderful figures of the Pharoah and various gods.
Shell-shocked, and about 1 1/2 hours later, we climbed back up the hill to where Mamdoh was waiting and climbed on our donkeys again. Treked on the edges of the cliffs and over the ridge where we stopped at the top of a cliff overlooking the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (Deir el Bahri), smaller and in worse condition than I’d imagined but still spectacular. Then a long slow ride back down the ridge to the valley of the Nile floor and to the mortuary temple of Ramses III. Left Mamdoh again and begain wandering through the well-preserved ruins. Unfortunately my 50-70mm lens stuffed up from this point (dust, probably), and I had to make do with my closeup lens, which is frustrating for such huge spaces. Tall columns and colonnades, seated statues, a huge pylon covered with reliefs. At the last hall, a jumble of thick column stumps, an Egyptian took us up some stairs to the remains of the roof where we looked down on the hall and at the ruins around (50p and a cigarette baksheesh, and of course he offered us hashish).
We rode slowly, with the occasional canter, back through the village to the river. Mamdoh took us to his uncle Ali’s restaurant by the water, where we sat and had cokes and waited for the ferry. Just a covered, three sided shack with tables, but cool and friendly.
Oh yes, C. organised to go riding tomorrow morning for an hour with Mamdoh. He’s a great bloke and very trustworthy. I said to him “so, will you be C’s guide tomorrow, I trust you” and he said “if any man talk to her, I kill him”, with a throat-slitting gesture!
He showed us the restaurant’s visitors book which was filled with glowing reports of the food and company, and we promised to come back in the evening. We sat together over a few cokes, joked about the painful saddle sore I had on my bum and relaxed for a bit.
Back on the local ferry, which is only 25p one way. On the way a group of young Egyptians started talking to us and one, Amir, said he would like to write to me in Australia. He and his friends were excited; after I got his address they wanted photos of us, and we took some of them.
We’re starting to get a real insight into the friendliness of the Egyptian people. Eventually we all said bye for now, Amir calling out “I await your letter!”
We went back to a hotel porch for a salad lunch – I was aching all over and could hardly sit down – and then went back to the Oasis hotel. We have permanent smiles on our faces now and say “salaam” if we meet anyone’s eyes and “la, shokran” politely to taxi and carriage offers. We seem to be getting hassled less and less as a result. I keep noticing how rude, in attitude, dress style and communication, other tourists are – how patronising they are to the Egyptians.
After a shower we walked back down to the river and along Luxor Temple to the entrance, just after dark. The temple was the most impressive I’ve seen, and it was especially beautiful when lit up – the fine reliefs on the walls were accentuated by the lights. We wandered among the statues and columns, reading details from the Luxor book as we went.
Dinner was next, so we boarded the local ferry over to the west bank where Mamdoh was waiting for us, and enjoyed a delicious, filling meal at Ali’s Africa Restaurant. Ali is a tall, good looking Egyptian with a big, ready smile, and his waiter Achmed is talkative and likes to fool you with a joke. We ate our meal, washed down with kirkaday, a refreshing red-cordial-type drink made from the fuchsia plant.
It’s much quieter and more peaceful on the west bank, and as we sat our outside table smoking cigarettes we looked out over the Nile at the lights on the other side. We both wrote glowing reports in the visitors’ book, and left feeling full and happy – we’re both really glad we’re getting to know the Egyptians and making friends.
A memorable day.