Egypt experience with Kingsley Holgate

7 March 2008

So what the hell do I know about Egypt? Honest answer? Sweet bugger all. Beyond the blinding obvious facts I gleaned from a childhood dominated by years of listening to stories from the Illustrated Children’s Bible. The somewhat one-sided view portrayed the Egyptians as misogynistic task masters, only too eager to resort to the whip in order to get their way.

Cleopatra, their legendary Queen, obviously hogged the limited historical limelight on offer in my adolescent mind, while the macabre world of decaying mummies, the so-called curse of the Pharaohs and tomb-raiding Egyptologists soon became firm favourites. Woven into this fantastically distant view of this Biblical culture, a few known facts stood their lonely ground …

Everyone knew of the Pyramids of Giza, the annual flooding of the fertile Nile, the valley of the Ancient Kings and how the Sphinx lost its nose (Obelix broke it off during his capers in the story “Asterix & Cleopatra” of course). Plus, there are the markets spreading along the narrow alleyways of Cairo, the ancient library at Alexandria and the cobalt ocean unfolding from Sheik al Shamaar.

More recent history positions Egypt as the leading economic powerhouse in North Africa, and an unrivalled tourism destination here upon the vast Mother Continent. And, oh yes, when it comes to football, few teams have found it possible to beat the Might Pharaohs in the last decade or two. And that is about it; rather pathetic, I have to concede, but then this trip has been sprung on me rather suddenly.

The mission, courtesy of those adventurous spirits at Land Rover is short and simple. Fly to Cairo, commandeer a Land Rover from a local dealership and trip up the coast until you locate Kingsley Holgate’s expedition. Sounds simple, but then this is Africa and every knows that Papa King does as Papa King wants, so I have an inkling this may yet turn out to be an extremely interesting trip.

Fitting, I suppose, as right now my personal life has also taken a few interesting, or should I say shocking, turns. Approximately 8 months ago, Cathy decided she did not love me anymore and said she wanted a divorce. This rocked my world to its core and brought the very foundation of my life crashing down around me. For three months I tried to fight the inevitability of her indifference, but soon realized the futility of this.

The time had come to rebuild my life and this must rate as one of the toughest tasks I ever had to face up to.

On the outside, I maintained a stoically philosophical outlook on life, but in my heart and mind and soul, the tempests raged. One anchor tethered me within these oceans of havoc, and this was the unflinching, unquestioning and absolute love of Beth and Robert. Having my two children in my life meant I never, ever felt alone and in time the sadness faded away slowly but surely, replaced by the exhilaration of a life less structured, less routine.

I started dating again, for the first time in more than a decade, allowing myself to consider romantic options with a woman other than my wife. Sure, I had the occasional base level flirt or six, but the wall was nearly impenetrable and I utterly believed I would grow old with Cathy. But who knew?

The long and the short of it is that someone new has staked a claim in my heart, filling up the empty spaces where my children’s love cannot reach. She’s the Quiet American. Or Roald Dahl’s Jennifer Honey, and in the month or so since I’ve met her, she has brought a beautiful sense of peace and tranquility into a life which will, I hope, shed this silly sense of soap opera of the past year or so.

The flight from Cape Town to Jozi allows me opportunity to muse in writing, but I know the pace will pick up as soon as I meet Lesley, the Land Rover PR girl, and the rest of the expedition crew. Fortunately we are flying business Class to Cairo, and the rare luxury bodes well for a good night’s sleep, I’m sure.

8 March 2008

Or not, as it turns out. The flight, delayed by about an hour, finally took off around 23h00 and by the time we worked our way through the various entrees, meals and (non-alcoholic) drinks, it was just about midnight. Which left a lousy 5 hours of sleep before we had to face breakfast and the staccato barrage of Cairo’s immigration brigade. Fortunately we had Marko Naguib on hand to guide us through the process and by 07h00 we had navigated the chaos Egyptians call traffic to our hotel.

The Misaram? is as good as it gets when you travel in Africa. All lofty marble entrance halls, deferential concierges, Hercule Poireux décor and suites the size of Liechtenstein. I swear I could lose a troop of silverback gorillas in the place and not spot them for weeks.
But hell man, we’re in Cairo, so we best shake ass and get to see some of the sights. Right at the top of the list are the pyramids and the sphinx, arguably the most famous landmarks on the African continent. The drive there has got to be part of the experience, with the traffic crush threatening to spontaneously combust at any moment.

But all the mythology and fantasy and hype leading up to your first view of this wonder of the world prove too much for me. The Giza pyramids are not out there in some virgin segment of sweltering desert, but seem to rather be fighting a losing battle upon this city of 22 million people encroaching on them. So I wander around Cheops and the lesser spires, battling to survive the urban creep fast-forwarding ever onward.

Commercialism is to be expected, but the sheer mentality of conveyor belt tourism strips the experience of just about all spiritual value as far as I am concerned. The over-priced camel rides, hordes of Samsung wielding Chinese and the phalanx of buses disgorging a never-ending stream of asylum seekers – that is just not what floats my boat.

And yet. And yet. This is one thing you have to do in your life. You have to stare at Cheops and wrack your brain in an effort to comprehend how a 100,000 Egyptians (not slaves, apparently) managed to jigsaw 2,300,000 million stone blocks, each weighing more than 2.5 tonnes, into a perfect pyramid more than 136 m high. Plus, there are those unexpected everyday delights of boisterous kids playing football and the unsolicited generosity of a camel handler by the name of Ali-Ahmed Ben Agraib. He wanders over while I am checking out a low angle and offers a freed ride, no conditions attached. I don’t trust him (for the obvious reasons) having heard so many stories about people being fleeced by Egyptians.

Once again, I’m proven wrong and Ali obligingly poses for pix, kisses his camel and dispenses free advice “and if you can send me a picture, you are a good man” he says, writing his name and “The Pyramids” on a piece of paper. “They all know me here”, he laughs, thrusting it into my hand before leading his camels off into the rock strewn wasteland.

The rest of the day is interesting, if a little commercialized. We get the olfactory treatment at a perfumery, go gaudily artistic at a papyrus museum and then tuck into tourism fare at a restaurant overlooking Giza. Marko convinces us to go to a mainstream bazaar rather than the market, but it is overpriced and way too tame.
By popular vote, we decide to detour to the market via the City of the Dead, Cairo’s biggest cemetery. The alleys are eerily quiet, with only the occasional cur slinking off into the shadows. We reach the market at sunset and it is an utter and absolute contrast, vibrantly and chaotically alive with people of all shapes, sizes and cultures. Arabic and African merchants from Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Iran and a host of other nations tout their wares alongside the many Egyptians. The stalls brim with a veritable treasure trove of trinkets straight from the pages of “a 1001 Nights” with hieroglyphic T-shirts and hand-stitched shoes in pride of place next to life-sized, stuffed tigers, ornate metal lamps, hookah pipes, mother-of-pearl snuff boxes and any number of unashamedly kitsch objets ‘d art.
I am too busy taking pix to really hook into the whole haggling thing and just let the colours and textures and scents wash over me. It is the Old Testament gaudily repackaged for the New Millennium and it is blowing my brain like a big block of hashish. We end off the day on a boat restaurant on the River Nile, sinking Sakkara Gold Lager while sucking on a hookah pipe loaded with cherry tobacco. I’m not a smoker at all, but it so much part of the culture that it would be a shame to abstain.

9 March 2008

We decide to get a taxi to sherpa us out of the rabbit warren maze that is Cairo and I sit with Gold Tooth Man in his 1973 Mercedes 200. He chats non-stop, mostly in Egyptian, leaving me to nod knowingly every so often. It takes us nearly an hour and a half to grind our way through the traffic, but it is smooth cruising once we hit the Alexandria highway. Kingsley’s directions are, as always, rather vague : “Go to The Cornish and then look out for Qait Bay Castle. It has a big Egyptian flag flying from the tower.”
Against the odds, Rory navigates the Arabic signboards and haphazard traffic and we make it to the old castle in fine form. The Holgate crew is still in a meeting with the governor of Alexandria though, so we take the opportunity to wander around the old fortress. It is an exceptional example of what I assume to be Moorish architecture, with stables, an undersea walkway, old prison cells and an area where the garrison was stationed. Originally, the building was a lighthouse and the Sultan Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr Qaitbay (one of the Mamelukes sultans) constructed the present structure to protect the port from attacks by Ottoman Turks. (The lighthouse that first stood here was built by Ptolemy II, but earthquakes destroyed it in the 14th century.

I get invited to a Muslin girl’s birthday part and have my picture taken with all of them, but do manage to sneak away before an angry father or brother invokes the Shariah on my head. I rejoin the others just as Kingsley arrives, larger than life and brimming with bonhomie. After dispensing a series of bearhugs and backslaps, we get whisked off to some harbour restaurant for a meal and the requisite cold ones.

Kingsley’s plan is to take us to the Allied War Memorial El Alamein and we arrive just after sunset for Kingsley and Mashozi to lay flowers on the grave of one of the unknown allied soldiers. It is a moving experience to wander amidst the simple grave markers, where Dlaminis, Littles, Pretoriusses and Solomons lie shoulder to shoulder upon the edge of the Western Desert.

That night we sleep in a totally empty hotel reminiscent of a blend between a school hostel and a socialist hotel, but the rooms are clean and the staff seem to magically appear from the silent desert to serve us food and drink. I sneak off before the Captain Morgan reaches full flow and bunker down for eight glorious hours of uninterrupted sleep.

10 March 2008

I wake up at 07h00 and draw the curtains to find the Mediterranean Ocean right on the hotel doorstep. Somehow I assumed we were still way out on the arid plains of the Sahara, obviously not twigging on to the fact that this is after all “The Outside Edge” expedition, with Kingsley and his crew tracing the coastline of the continent.
The deserted beach and cobalt blue water prove way too enticing for me and I make the call to skip breakfast in lieu of a wake-up swim. At first the water is a bit chilly, but I soon warm up as I strike out into the zone beyond the waves. After half an hour of wave play I head back to the beach, fortunate enough to still grab a bagel and some cheese before we pile back into the Landys.
First up on the gawk list this morning is the Italian War Memorial, a stylized and soaring edifice capturing the stylish nature of this romantic nation. The German Memorial, on the other hand, is typically Teutonic, but no less haunting, with an open-air quadrant surrounded by sarcophagi. The Egyptian caretaker at the latter memorial speaks excellent English and manages to give us great insight into the war in general and the Germans’ part in proceedings in particular.

Our final World War II stop is at the el Alamein Museum and by now I feel a touch battle-weary. It’s music to my ears to hear we’re heading back via Alexandria, this time to Rashied, the town where the famous Rosetta stone was discovered by a French soldier in 1791. This allowed historians to crack the hieroglyphic code and thus translate and make sense of all the information transcribed by the ancient Egyptians.

Rashied, or Rosetta, is situated right within the heart of the vast and spreading Nile River Delta though and to reach it we have to backtrack via the streets of Alexandria once more. We follow the historic coastal Cornish, with the sweeping facades of once grand apartments towering above the sparkling Mediterranean Ocean. The architecture must have been immaculate in another age and it is not difficult to imagine this romantic era.

Our most interesting encounter of the day is on the outskirts of Alexandria when we meander into a tiny rural outpost to grab some images of the dovecote towers. The Egyptian family to whom the property belongs flock from every nook and cranny to check out our infidel expedition, and after the required Salama Aleikums we are summoned to tea in no uncertain terms. A colourful carpet is laid out on the ground and soon small glasses of tea are doing the rounds. The people of Egypt are incredibly hospitable and despite our total lack of Arabic, we have consistently been invited into people’s homes and hearts.

After dozens of cups of tea and inspecting the rather smelly interior of the mud towers with their hundreds of nesting holes, there is a backslapping exchange of gifts before we eventually continue on our way.

It is completely dark by the time we roll into Rashied but we manage to ascertain that there is an establishment masquerading as an hotel here on the banks of the Nile. Now the El Nile is certainly not the worst hotel I’ve stayed in in Africa, but it is sure to not make it on to a shortlist of the continent’s most romantic getaways. A burly rat scampers down a side alley as I carry my bag in and the bathroom is a scatological disaster zone. To their credit, two youngsters soon rock up to clean the mess, the pizzeria next door does passable takeaways and our host even manages to procure us a dozen or so dodgy Arabic beers.

11 March 2008

A hard, lumpy mattress and the 04h30 howling of the muezzin from a minaret opposite my hotel window do not even put as much as a dent in my slumbers but I suspect the stiff Captain Morgans doled out by Kingsley may have something to do with this. I’m slightly hung-over but unscathed from bedbugs or mozzies, so decide to take a quick wander along the banks of the Nile before breakfast. The light is gorgeous with gaily painted boats in sky blues and sea greens drifting on the tide. Intricately painted designs mimicking hieroglyphic symbols are emblazoned upon the prows and sterns, turning the boats into veritable works of art.

Breakfast is rather surreal, with a spread of salads, eggs, cheese and flatbreads set out upon plastic tables in a small warehouse. We have also been joined by a man in a brown leather jacket, a certain Mister Ashraf and it soon becomes clear that his brief is to not let us out of his sight. In a county where most tourists are of the package type variety I can sort of understand his concern. After all, there have been several incidents during the past decade or so where Westerners have been abducted or killed in Egypt, which is probably why the Tourism police are slightly on edge.

And Mr Ashraf is quite friendly, in a quiet assassin sort of way. At least he speaks English, so we are able to explain to him that we want to shoot and film a sequence for the “Africa : The Outside Edge” production at the mouth of the Nile (or shall I say, one of the mouths of the Nile).

We soon set off (with a police escort in tow) heading through stands of date palms and past paddy fields lush with Lucerne, rice, courgettes and cauliflowers. Litchi and mango trees line the roads while water buffalo and cattle stand tethered in the shade. Tiny white donkeys struggle to haul their gaily painted carts, often heaped to twice the height of the cart with feed or produce. It is the Old Testament all over again, except for the 1960s cars and trucks careening up and down the narrow roads.

We’re given 5 minutes to get the shot up where the Nile flows into the Med, and we have the whole thing tight as a tiger when Murphy rears his ugly head. The hard sand surfacing gives way under Annelie’s car and she sinks right down to her axle into a sludgy, muddy crude oil gunk. Mister Ashraf does not want this kind of crap going down on his beat and goes into a flat spin. “Mister jack”, he says, “this is not good” before shouting menacingly into his cellphone.

Ross does not look too concerned (I’m sure he has been through situations much worse than this) and sets about digging and winching the vehicle out. It takes a good hour before we finally have the Landy back on solid ground and we quickly grab the necessary photos and video before following the grumpy police escort out of there.

Our next stop is an ancient fort, more than 252 years old, also right on the river’s edge. It is here that the Rosetta Stone was uncovered over 200 years ago, and this is the main reason tourists traipse to Rashied. We descend into the dank cellar where it was discovered but to me the panorama across the Nile from high fortress walls is way more memorable.

Afterwards, our Mister Ashraf takes us for a guided walk through the local market, and this is a truly memorable experience. Knife sharpeners, tripe sellers, cobblers, cauliflower hawkers, seamstresses and crafters of all colours and creeds hustle and hassle and haggle in a razzmatazz of unchecked energy. A toothless barber uses a rolled piece of string to extract an old man’s beard, a young butcher flashes a dangerous grin as he slashes into a swinging side of beef, the Cauliflower Man proudly hoists his prize vegetable in the air for a photograph, and every kid in sight unpacks a huge grin and shouts “Welcome!”.

Mister Ashraf even takes us into the three centuries-plus mosque and we stealth through the pillared interior while Muslim disciples trip on their faith fantastic. We eventually set off on our trek to Port Said around mid-afternoon, escorted to the urban edge by mister Ashraf and his gun-toting associates.

And then we’re on our own again cruising along a narrow spit of land as we head due east. The road to Port said follows an isthmus as thin as a papyrus stalk, with the Mediterranean on the one side and the delta on the other. After an hour or so, we spot some felucca masts towering over the reeds and detour into a tiny village on the water’s edge. Our arrival as usual is greeted at first with a blend of trepidation and suspicion and thereafter with utter delight. Kids pour from low parapeted houses, some with soccer balls, and flock around the vehicles, flashing smiles and shouting every footballer’s name they know.

About 6 boats lie moored along a reed channel, their felucca rigs festooned against the blue expanse of the sky. Young boys clamber up and down the masts, agile as arboreal apes, slipping knots and reefing sails and all the while the local fishermen exhort us to join them on a night-fishing expedition. I clamber onto one of the terrapin-shaped hulls to check out the front-rigged keel; these little craft must flit like skipping stones across the water under full sail. Below deck the cramped quarters are strewn with mattresses and ragged blankets with a Quoran in pride of place on one of the beds.

When we eventually leave, a phalanx of kids cavort alongside us until we zigzag out of sight and back onto the main tarmac strip to Port Said. There’s a little surprise waiting for us though – our friend Mr Ashraf must have radioed ahead to alert the authorities and we are immediately back under police escort. For the next two hours we are passed like a hot potato between escorts, with the leading policeman seeming of an ever increasing rank.

By the time we reach the bling-bling downtown of Port Said, it is well near 22h00 and everybody is knackered. We manage to find an hotel and pacify our tourist police escort that all is under control. A few beers and a late supper see us to bed and a well-deserved slumber.

12 March 2008

Today is our day to explore the Suez Canal, but it is proving a difficult task to get away from our tourist police escort. In fact, four of them are waiting in the lobby as we step out of the lift, so we decide to split up and stroll down to the beginning of the Suez Canal just down the street from our hotel.

We’ve barely arrived at the canal side when this tiny character arrives. He’s 5 foot of slicked back hair, brilliantined beard, Lucky Strike voice and Texan accent and could step in for a small-time Tarantino mobster without missing a beat. “Y’all from |America? Germany” What can I get you guys: Booze? Cigarettes: pussy? You name it, buddy and I’ve got it”.

Our diminutive mobster goes by the same Said (“just like in the port, all right”) and his mode of transportation is an old bicycle on the brink of falling apart. Not that this bothers him too much. We spot him pedaling through the early morning traffic half an hour later, a case of Egyptian Stella perched precariously on his carrier. “Yeah, your Boss Man ordered these”, he drawls, then once more runs through the range illicit contraband he’d be able to supply if we so much as snapped a finger.

We say Sayonara to Said as well as his eponymous city and set of along the Suez Canal. This is a seminal moment for Kingsley and the expedition crew of “Africa : The Outside Edge” as they are turning the noses of the three Land Rovers south on the homeward leg of their journey. We also seem free of our minders at last and decide to sneak a look at the gargantuan canal.

It proves to be a near impossible task though, with a massive security presence foiling our every approach. We get shouted at, threatened in Arabic and generally stuffed about, so when we eventually see a big suspension bridge near the town of Ismailia, we deicide this is probably our best bet. But things do not go quite as planned. Bridge security shouts so vehemently at Mashozi and King that the Big Man loses his rag for once and drives off.

This, of course, leaves our military man in an absolutely apoplectic fit of rage and within seconds our Landys are surrounded by guards demanding passports, mobile phones, mother’s maiden name and a complete sexual history for the past 36 months. (Or whatever it might have been they were shouting in Arabic.)

Ross eventually manages to calm down the situation and we catch up with Kingsley near the apex of the impressive Mubarak Peace Bridge. This is the perfect shot, the verdant patchwork of the fertile Nile Delta on one side flanked on the other side by the desolation of the Sinai Desert. Bisecting the landscape is the shimmering, cobalt blue waterway of Suez, with a dozen or more super tankers gliding soundlessly through this utterly surreal tableau.
We decide to shoot first and apologise later, and I grab a few shots before the police come screaming up once more. While Papa King runs interference, Ross and I sneak in a few more shots but it is obvious that we’ve milked our luck as far as the cow will allow. We’re escorted off the bridge and sent on our way, fortunately with great shots in the can and happy smiles all round.

Our next stop beyond Imailia is the town of Suez itself, and it is as if we’re tripping through the demilitarized zone. Watch towers, bunkers, road blocks, barbed wire, soldiers armed with automatic weapons, you name it and its there. We reach port Suez despite a few minor “misunderstandings” with our escorts, following the roads to where the canal (the country’s second biggest money earner) reaches the harbour.

It is an otherworldly sight to see these super-ships cruising past, nearly close enough to touch. The light is perfect and the images out of this world. Kingsley eventually gathers his troops as the sun sputters and dies beyond the harbour’s industrial skyline and we set off in search of accommodation for the night.

All the hotels in town are full (or maybe they just don’t feel like having infidels staying at their establishment) and when we run a blank at a gaily decorated little shithole by the name of the Arafat hotel, a unanimous call is made to head towards the Red Sea.
Resorts are plentiful on this built-up section of coastline and, because it is very early in the season, we’re soon sorted. More than sorted, actually, because our two villas are less than 200 m from the ocean, with massive pools, a restaurant, jet-skis, belly dancers et al laid on. This is an awesome spot and I could easily kick back here for a week at least. As it is the final evening, the crew is in a big time party mood and it does not take long before celebrations are in full swing. I eventually manage to sneak off in the early hours of the morning, but the damage is done and there is no doubt I will be waking up with a blinder of a hangover.

13 & 14 March 2008

And so it is. I wander down to the beach with Grant and Stephen at 08h00, but not even a mile-long swim in the rather chilly Red Sea can completely clear my head. The breakfast is brilliant though and a couple of oily omelet’s and half a dozen pancakes with chocolate sauce go some way to setting me up for the 2 hour return journey to El Qahira (aka Cairo). We set up a few more shots with the Land Rovers in the towering desert mountains and along the turquoise coast, and chug into the traffic crush of Egypt’s capital. More than 22 million people live here and apparently there are up to 4 million vehicles on the roads at any one time. We find our way to the totally swanky Sofitel Hotel, where we sit on a wooden deck café floating on the Nile while eating kofta and sipping mineral water and fruit juices. Definitely been a hard night …

Last item on our agenda is the “Sound and Light Show” at the pyramid, but I have to admit this does not hold much attraction for me. Sort of Cheapening an Historic Treasure 101” if you get my drift. But I suppose it is a fitting way to say goodbye to the good, the bad and the gaudy that make up this exhilarating nation that goes by the name Egypt.