Down through Egypt

I honestly believe nothing can prepare you for the spectacle that awaits you at an Egyptian border post. The utter chaos, pompous looking officials strutting about shouting and ordering minivan drivers to unload people, goods and the cargo piled on their roofs, only to be loaded again several hours later. Trucks and cars being inspected, luggage and trays of food dumped unceremoniously onto conveyor belts of X-ray machines, hordes of people from various ethnicities sitting on the ground babbling, eating, drinking and smoking whilst waiting for their visas and other paperwork. Smelly truck drivers jostle for position, shouting, shoving cargo manifests across desks accompanied by the inevitable ‘baksheesh’, hoping their papers will be handled immediately by the bored-looking clerks.

“Where to start?” is a question many overland travelers must have asked themselves. Same here… so much paperwork to fill out and get stamped, temporary license plates and registration to be purchased, insurance to take care of, import duties, and of course visas. But hey, here is a friendly person willing to take you by the hand: “Please sir come this way, I can help you!” Only to find out there is a price to pay, obviously… here, nothing is free.

To cut a long story short, the Egyptian border bureaucracy took 7 hours to deal with…

To get from the border to Marsah Matruh involves a long and boring drive along the bleak, deserted Mediterranean coastline of Egypt: about as exciting as watching paint dry. The city feels like a big resort for well-off Egyptian families, picnicking on the aptly named Rommel Beach (Dutchies will recognize the pun), emulating a western lifestyle. A city like this would not normally be on our visiting list, but we had good reason to be here: we would regroup with Harry and Elk, our good friends from Germany. They would accompany us as far south as Luxor, through the deserts and along the Nile. Later that night we enjoyed our first alcoholic drinks since Tunisia, and merrily discussed our adventures since parting in the Libyan Desert.

Heading south – Siwa Oasis
The empty landscapes of the North-Western Egyptian plateau, dusty, flat and boundless, extend about 300 kilometers south before the first change in scenery. Many a great battle took place in these barren lands during WWII, between various desert taskforces. How these men navigated in this inhospitable climate, let alone survive, makes you wonder. Travelling here across the (new) lonely and perfectly straight asphalt road makes you lose track of all speed and time, due to the absence of landmarks.
Then the road descends from the plateau through dried-up Wadis (riverbeds). Water must have streamed here, maybe a million years ago. Lower and lower we drove, surprised by the landscape, when suddenly Siwa Oasis appeared around a corner. Breathtaking! A sizable lake surrounded by lush green palms bordered on the north by the rocky edge of the plateau, and on the south by undulating sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The last stop before the ‘Great Sand Sea’ straddling Egypt and Libya.

The captivating oasis of Siwa is probably the most beautiful in Egypt. Isolated and unique, recent archeological finds suggest habitation going back as far as three million years. Fresh water springs and ancient monuments litter its fields of fruit trees and date palms, with crumbling mud-brick houses around an old fortress build of salt blocks at the center of town. Siwa’s isolation throughout history has preserved a unique society, with local Berber language and traditions, separating it from the regular tourist haunts in Egypt.

We took some days at Siwa wandering around, camping at the lakeside and one night nearly in a military shooting range. Luckily, we noticed before we pitched the tent. The most impressive sight for us was the Gebel al-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead), a small hill riddled with rock tombs dating back to the 26th Dynasty. Here we saw our first hieroglyphics, although small and in bad condition, but beautiful nonetheless. Siwa is still in the back of our minds and we will surely return here.

White Desert
With the necessary permits arranged, we proceeded in convoy towards the White Desert. A bone-breaking day later, having crossed many kilometers of rocky and mountainous desert, we arrived, and fell silent. Slightly disbelieving, we stared at this wind eroded, chalk-rock dreamscape.

The White Desert Protectorate consists of 300 square kilometers of chalky rock formations. White spires take on surreal forms, rising as much as thirty meters into the sky. Melody and Harry sat on Fiona’s roof rack as we proceeded at a snails pace through this extra-ordinary landscape, where strange forms, with some imagination resembling animals, rise from the blindingly white sands. For hours, we drove around, wishing we could stay here forever. This magical land should be on the checklist of every desert-lover, with boundless horizons, grand canyons, exciting exploration possibilities, and enough places to ‘disappear’ for a quiet night camping under a million star sky. (Mind you, driving between the white spires area is limited to certain tracks, for protection of the landscape. Outside this area you are free to go where you please.)

At some point during the day, Harry excavated Bavarian sausages and mustard from the ever-cluttered innards of the Mercedes. White sausages in the white desert, with good German mustard… fun, friendship and good living are the keywords of our relationship with Harry and Elk. Perfect travelling partners, we still miss them every day. Slowly it started to dawn on us that we would have to say goodbye soon. But first, Luxor!

Rezeiki Camp
After more than a week in the desert, the four of us were in desperate need of a shower and some basic comforts. Rezeiki Camp provided these, and so much more! An oasis of peace and quiet in the centre of noisy, bustling Luxor, this hotel allows camping in it’s lush garden. Good food, cold drinks and a perfect location (a five-minute walk to the Temple of Karnak) makes Rezeiki Camp Overlanders heaven. We met several couples travelling north, south, or west in their expedition vehicles. None of them driving towards the Middle East and Asia though. Most travelers here are on their way to or back from South Africa.

Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
On the banks of the river Nile, clustered around modern-day Luxor, the remains of Thebes have lain dormant for thousands of years. Now a major tourist attraction, this area plays host to visitors from all walks of life. Whether you have cruised the Nile in luxury, backpacked on rambling local buses or drove a thousand miles across the desert, the result is the same. You will be stunned to silence by the sheer history of your surroundings… and the busloads of tour groups jostling to see it all in as little time as possible. A little careful planning allowed us to see the top locations of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in relative peace.

The temple complex of Karnak is the epicenter of the worship of Amun, the pinnacle of grandiose architecture during the New Kingdom, and probably the largest religious structure ever built. There is no way I can put to words the scale and effect this collection of halls, obelisks and sanctuaries will have on you as a visitor. I will let our pictures speak (or attempt to speak) for themselves.

If you do want to visit this extraordinary site, go as early as possible. We arrived by 06.30, and we could still separate enough from the other tourists to soak up the rich atmosphere, and dream of ancient times in relative peace and quiet. By noon, this was entirely impossible.

Temple of Hatshepsut
On the West bank of the Nile this memorial to Hatshepsut, most famous of Egypt’s female pharaohs, is also best visited early in the morning. This highlights the monumental limestone cliffs, rising 300 meters high, into which the perfectly restored funerary temple is partly cut. Low sunlight is also advisable as this is reputedly one of the hottest places on our planet. Still partly under excavation, and under continuous restoration, not all of the innards of the temple are open to the public.

Spectacularly beautiful, the temple feels almost modern. Too modern for our tastes, but obviously you should visit and make up your own mind. In our humble experience the less-restored Temple of Seti I, at famous Abydos, is more impressive. More about this unique site in our next travel story.

Valley of the Kings
No visit to Egypt is complete without spelunking down into a tomb of a pharaoh. Well, spelunking… more like a Disneyland ride actually. With the amount of visitors to the Valley of the Kings, we were surprised the more famous tombs did not have escalators installed. Melody described it: “This feels like a rollercoaster park. You buy a day pass and then have to pay extra for the special rides. Look, there are even little trains and queuing systems. And we are not even allowed to take pictures.”

This never takes away from the magnificence of the setting though. 63 royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550-1069 BC) are cut deeply into the steep cliffs of the valley. Not being history buffs, we decided to just enjoy the ride and visit several tombs that seemed to be far enough away from the entrance to avoid the inevitable crowds from the tour busses. What a magnificent experience! Scrambling down ladders into the heart of the cliffs, watching the style of the hieroglyphics change during the centuries of burial chamber creation, and feeling the serenity a sarcophagus must provide: hidden away from society by elaborate false chambers to mislead grave robbers. Imagining the painstaking work of building such funerary tombs, the ostentatious wealth required, as well as the human sacrifice, will inspire you with awe and make you wish to do your own discovery. We could not help but wonder if there are any more tombs elaborately hidden in the cliff sides. Just like the thousands of visitors before us. Sometimes we wonder whether we were not born a century to late, when there was so much more of the world unexplored…

We knew beforehand this day would arrive, but as always, it arrived too soon. The time had come to say goodbye, after many days of companionship and laughter. From Luxor onward Harry and Elk would go south, into the Dark Heart of Africa. Our quest for exploration led us towards Asia though. But deep in our hearts we wish we could have shared more of the beautiful vistas, hair-raising roads and cultural experiences with Harry and Elk by our side.