We were brought back to earth with a bit of a thump. The tour company that arranged the boat (Djed Tours) are a weak link, and their claim to transfer guests to any hotel in Aswan translates to being dropped off by the side of the road, in the baking heat at the top of steep steps near the public river ferry.
We were staying at The Mango Guesthouse on Elephantine Island ($25 per night), situated in the middle of the Nile in Aswan. The Island is a Nubian village with no motorised transport and a maze of narrow dirt lanes which are the preserve of donkeys, sheep and cats. Not great for wheelie backpacks. We arrived a little tetchy and our mood wasn’t helped when we realised that Djed Travels claim that they had been in touch with the guest house to tell them when to expect us was utter bollocks and everyone appeared to be asleep.
That turned out to be the only bad thing about staying there and we found a real oasis, complete with two lovely dogs, a very peaceful garden, cold beer, great breakfasts and perfect hosts. Puk was a Danish lady who had fallen in love with a local, Ehab, when visiting on holiday, moved to Egypt and built the guest house. For the first time in three weeks we felt like no one had an angle. Everyone wanted to make sure we were relaxed, had everything we wanted and were enjoying ourselves. It was so relaxing, we ditched any plans we had to explore, and sat in the garden, drinking said cold beer and chatted with a lovely young Aussie called Nicky.
Meeting Nicky really brought home to us how challenging Egypt could be. She was in her early 20s, of Persian decent and looked rather local. Wether it was because of this, or despite this, she had been subjected to a constant stream of sexist behaviour during her stay, including being assaulted twice, in the form of groping, once by a cab driver and once by a chef in a 5 star hotel. By the time we met her, she was a little shell shocked and had to really collect herself to venture out. She also admitted to breaking down in tears in the middle of Cairo when she discovered that once again she had been lied to by a local scam artist.
She jumped at the chance of joining us for a day of tours, in the hope of a day off from the constant bollocks. She got a bit of a day off (I dealt with money discussions and tipping) but even with our presence the guide engaged in low level harassment, repeatedly telling her she was beautiful, asking about her relationship status and suggesting he was attractive. Really uncomfortable. I had a chat with him about his behaviour and asked for a new guide for the following day, but I am not sure he got it.
During the three days we were there, we ‘did’ our last temples, visited the Nubian museum and the old dam and high dam, both of which are impressive engineering feats. The Nubian museum is worth a visit. It is modern, well laid out and has good explanations of the interesting artefacts.
The first temple we visited was the Philae Temple, on a small island in the river. It used to be on a different island, until the high dam changed the water level and submerged it along with 70 other temples. Unesco, with the support of about a dozen countries, set about moving them. Moving huge buildings, that had been around for thousands of years.
The biggest of the temples moved by unesco was the last temple we visited, Abel Simbel. It is about 260km south of Aswan, on the banks of of Lake Nasser and, due to a combination of remoteness and dodgy security, means that until recently a tourists only way to get there was by joining a convoy of buses, escorted by armed police, leaving at 4.30 am. Old habits die hard and even though things have improved, most still leave at this ungodly hour.
J and I umed and arred about making the trek: three hours each way through the desert to see another temple. How good could it be??!!
We decided to make the trip, but buck the trend and leave Later, hoping to miss the crush, so we passed through the checkpoints before the desert road at about 11.30. The drive down is interesting enough, transiting through the crapy desert that looks like a build site that I know well and friggin hate, then through some more interesting stuff with strange rock formations, before hitting the shore of Lake Nasser.
Was it worth it? Yup. The temple is incredible. There are two temples, both cut into the mountain, one was Ramses II and the other for his beloved wife, Neferteri His is absolutely massive. It has 4 statues outside, each 20m tall, then is cut into the mountain so precisely that the sun hits the statue at the back twice a year, once on his birthday and once on his festival day.
Ramses II was pretty much the Trump of his day. He made up legends to make himself look good. He wanted to be thought of as a God before he died, so built his temple far away from powerful priests that would resist such an enterprise. But he built some incredible buildings.
Our plan worked and we got to enjoy the place completely on our own…… less our guide, who wasn’t allowed in the actual temples. It was magical, wandering around these beautiful places with not even a guard to watch over us/bother us.
If you do it this way, which I recommend, note that you need to be through the southern police checkpoint by 4pm, to start the drive back north, mostly avoiding nighttime driving. I am not sure why this is, but it is good advice coz even in the desert, Egyptian driving is mental. In most countries, night means headlights, but not Egypt. They use The Force. Forget terrorism, be frightened of driving. Imagine, 140kph through the desert, seeing a dark shape in the distance and not knowing if it’s a car, truck or donkey, if it’s coming towards you or going the same way as you. It’s not that they don’t have headlights, they just don’t like using them (though to be honest, some don’t and few have a full set of lights). Trucks do a very odd thing. They have more lights on them that Blackpool tower but they stay in stealth mode until you are about 200m away, flick the switch and light them selves up….. all still without using their headlights. Proper mental. We had to have a chat with our driver about the whole speed vs illumination trade off. He put on his sidelights and slowed to 120kph. We were very glad to get back to Aswan.
Aswan is a nice, laid back town, with only polite hassling on the whole, and roads you can cross with a high expectation of surviving. It has some great, very cheap local restaurants (3 falafel sandwiches for just over one Aussie Dollar) and one or two very smart international ones.
To celebrate 3 months on the road, we decided to go for dinner at the Old Cataract Hotel, an old palace converted into a hotel on the banks of the river. It is now run by Sofitel and is beautifully done. We enjoyed cocktails as the sunset and a good dinner in the less posh restaurant (I had brought my jacket along so that we could eat in the posh one if we chose) and felt a little less like travellers for a couple of hours. Top tip. The sunset on the terrace is nice but comes at a price (min spend of about $20 per person, which is the cost of one cocktail). The alternative is to get a couple of beers, go on to the west side of Elephantine Island via the maze of dirt roads. Opposite the Aga Khans mausoleum is a outcrop of rocks where you can sit and watch a better sunset, all on your own as the feluccas sail by. I also have to say we felt far more relaxed in the laid back Mango Guesthouse than we did in the rather over attentive and overbearing Old Cataract.
We flew out of Aswan, back to Cairo on Nile Air. Hamada, the lovely helper at the guesthouse, drove us to the airport and I couldn’t have smiled any harder as we drove us, crammed into his rather battered ……… singing Bob Marly classics…… until we realised that J had forgotten her kindle, which lead to phone calls to arrange to get it delivered off the island to the mainland ferry stop, followed by a rather nervous 20 minute trek through the morning traffic, huge relief as J got her paws back on the beloved kindle and then a replay of Bob Marly as we did ‘Trip to the airport: take two’.