Perched in the far south of Egypt, Aswan is a world away from anywhere outside the Sinai. It sits on the East side of the river Nile and due to the dam further down the road the Nile has swelled creating islands that have now of course been built on. One of which is actually where our resort is.
It’s not a large place and easy to navigate on foot. Essentially you have a long road called the Corniche, it runs parallel to the Nile and has a North end and a South end. The walk between the two is about 20 minutes – we know because when we got ditched off the train we made our way to the Corniche and then walked south to the jetty where our boat leaves from to our hotel.
On the West Bank of the Nile is desert, a massive sand dune steals the light and runs down the length of the Nile, and it it’s end is tombs dug into the rock. It looks like something straight out of an Indian Jones movie and the second I saw it, I knew I wanted to go there.
At the start of the day I made a plan of what we would do in Aswan, there are an awful lot of sights, all dotted around the place, and some up to 25km away. Usually tour groups head South to the dam and then mooch around the sights down there. The reason is that it holds such significance to Egyptian life. Since much of Egypt is dependent on the river Nile, when it was determined a dam would be built it essentially wiped out everything south of Aswan due to drought. And also submerged many villages and ancient monuments. One such monument was a temple that for years would attract people to look down through the clear water and see amazing temple submerged beneath them. Once home to Egyptians of thousands of years ago, now home to the inhabitants of the Nile, fish and such like. UNESCO eventually got a grip and divers dismantled it and then rebuilt it on higher ground. But not everything is submerged in water, there are a whole host of things to see and do and you could linger here for some time without getting bored. And when you have done everything, and seen everything – You could just sail along the Nile on a felucca watching the sunset in arguably one of the most picturesque sunsets in the world.
I digress, so I wrote a list of things to do on the back of a couple of post it notes. I decided which I wanted to do the most, which Jack would enjoy the most and the sort of price I could expect to pay. So to give me a starting point for bargaining.
I had intended to leave the hotel early to get as much out of the day as possible, but Jack had fitted right into Nubile life and had slowed to an almost stop. Which fitted with me to be honest, Jack had decided it was time to slow down, and I agreed. And so we had breakfast, hopped on a boat and made our way to the Corniche. We jumped in a servee and headed up to the North end. – A servee is basically some bloke who owns a minibus and flies around town charging everyone a fixed rate of 50ps (half an Egyptian quid so 5 English pence) it’s always a cramped affair and I’m told, a sure fire way for a white woman to get touched up. No one touched us up and we hopped off at the public boat across to the West Bank. The price for the crossing is LE£1 but you try and get it for that price. In the end I had to pay LE£5 but believe me that took some hard core bargaining skills. And don’t expect any help from the locals, all Nubile people live a simple life, they see you as a rich tourist and believe it is your duty to pump money into their fledgling local economy and in many ways I do agree, still it pisses me off. And on the subject of what pisses me off, I have noticed this time in Egypt there is a whole generation of kids looking for a kick in the head. I don’t know what it is, but there are some hardcore knob heads around. And they are all around 15 – 17 years old. I am convinced as part of coming of age they are looking for a slap.
Anyway, the boat showed the first time I had seen segregation in Egypt. The front half was all men, and the rear half all women. Still, we sat with the women since it was the only space on the massively overcrowded boat and no one said a word.
The crossing took around five minutes and suddenly we was in the desert. Operation get money from tourists went into full force and we literally waded through the hassle, purchased a ticket for Tombs of Nobles for LE£30 (Jack was free as usual) and set about making our way up.
Now, anyone that has ever walked up a sand dune will know just how hard it is. Seriously, and Jack told me all about it on the climb up to the tombs. Several times. But when we eventually made it and was looking to chill out and enjoy the view for a minute a couple of blokes appeared with dollar signs in their eyes. I thought it was suspicious that we appeared to have the place to ourselves. But what ensued was perhaps the snidest scam I’ve ever come across.
So what happens at every Egyptian site, In fact every site around the world, is that some local will instantly attach themselves to you, they will begin to point things out, or show you the way. They are trying to make a living and though some may be very knowledgable there are inevitably many who aren’t. Nevertheless, I am the sort of person who doesn’t want a guide, I don’t want to know every intricate detail, I just want to experience and feel the place, to wonder, imagine, to be alone. So me and Jack arrived at the top of this massive sand dune and this guy attached himself to us. I tried telling him countless times I wasn’t interested but he was having none of it, he insisted guides were mandatory, it wasn’t a choice I had. The he held out a rope with a key on the end of it and told me that it was the key to the tombs, and I had come to the tombs, this was proof they couldn’t be visited without him. I mean come on, seriously! in the end he got the message, put a curse on us and off we went exploring. Jack was the leader and we roamed around the place, not seeing a single door by the way.
But it was a very dangerous place, in the tombs were holes that just appeared out of no where and were very very deep. Jack has had enough of falling down holes and so we took great care, and after around an hour I remembered I’d seen a mausoleum further up on top of the mountain. There was no path and no one around and so we made our way up, best we could. It took a while, but the views from the top were breathtaking. We was atop a sand dune hundreds of feet high, looking down was thousands of years old tombs, then the Nile, then a panoramic view of palm fringed Aswan. It really was a gorgeous view. Jack had spotted a place on the sand dune that “looked comfy” and so we made our way there. It was about a 20 degree angle and so one wrong step would have created a sand-alanche and we’d have gotten seriously injured. But as it happened we were ok, and we sat, on top of this sand dune, not a person around, in the heat of the desert and loved life. We had the most gorgeous view, I had fantastic company, and we sat for maybe an hour, literally just enjoying each others company. For Jack it was a moment he could tell his friend James about, for me it was yet another memory I would cherish forever.
After Jack was convinced he’d seen a snake and my face was starting to burn we made our way back to the boat, but en route passed a load of camels. I was stood trying to convince Jack it would make for a perfect photo opportunity when some guy appeared out of no where. Now what normally happens at this point is that he moans that no pictures are allowed without payment. It’s complete bull shit as he has a camel in a desert and of course I’m going to photograph it. But this guy was different, he wasn’t arsed about the photo and offered to take us out for a ride. As it happens i had spotted an old monastery from the sand dune and asked how much, he told me his camel, Bob Marley would take us for LE£160 (£16 English) , it would take around an hour for the return trip. I explained this was too much and the bargaining began. In the end we agreed on LE£70 (£7 English) providing there was no bull shit along the way, such as unplanned detours etc. He was cool with it and off into the desert we went.
Jack was really nervous at first, anyone who has rode a camel will know, when it stands its quite unnerving the first time, and since Bob Marley decided to bolt off with us on top it was very unnerving. But eventually the valley of sand opened and we made our way to the absolutely stunning St Simeon Monastery (which of course was pretty much ruins) it was something straight out of Arabian Nights. There was no one around, we was the only camel in the desert and the heat made the Monastery built from ancient bricks look like a mirage. It was memorising. Absolutely beautiful.
Entrance to the Monastery was LE£25 with Jack being free. The whole guide thing came and went and then we explored. Completely in the middle of desert it felt surreal, but yet so very real. Jack was in his element as he climbed, and ran and just got lost in it all.
On the camel back to the boat dock the guy (who called himself Jamaica) explained that before the troubles in Egypt he would see 12 customers in just one one day, making a fair living for himself and his family. But we were his first customers in three days, and I believed him since literally, we appeared to be the only tourists on the West Bank. The issues of such a wonderful country are literally bringing it to its knees, and making an already tough survival for many people, almost impossible. And for a country that relies so heavily on tourism, the effects are clear to see. Even so far away from Cairo, at the opposite end of the country.
Our journey to the West Bank, and the camel ride meant it was now almost 3pm and we’d not yet had lunch. Jack claimed to have spotted a KFC and so we set about finding it. Sure enough there was one, and we were soon munching down on chicken, chips and coleslaw which was nasty, and turns out is made not from mayonnaise, but curd.
After reminding ourselves we were Westerners we were all Egypted out and so hopped back on the boat to the hotel and spent the rest of the day in the pool. Jack assured me the day had been the best of his life and I could see why. We had taken a boat down the Nile, scaled a sand dune, the son had shone at around 32 degrees, we had explored ancient tombs, mausoleums, then rode a camel through the desert to a monastery, there had been no one else around, we had crammed ourselves into a mini bus, had KFC and the spent a couple of hours in a pool surrounded by lush palm trees and one of the most famous rivers in the world. We had watched the sunset over Aswan again and then had anything we wanted to eat from the hotel A La Carte menu followed by chocolate ice cream. It really was an amazing day, and in Jacks young existence it was easy to see why it was the best day of his life. The only problem I have now, is how I’m ever going to top it.