Sunday, 17 November 2013

Don't Burn Yer Boats - Egypt 2013

Canoes and Camels, Hospitality and Horses**t

The rough plan was to fly to Egypt's Red Sea coast, hire camels and a guide, ride cross-country to Lake Nasser, paddle North in an inflatable canoe - part lake, part Nile - and fly back from Sharm el Sheikh at the base of the Sinai Peninsula.

As always, every mate and relative I invited had better things to do. And so.... alone 'tmust be! As always, the plan had to change. As Hargreaves's Rule of Adventure states: "In case of doubt, difficulty or danger... adapt, adapt, adapt." A few days before departure I managed to burn my canoe on the gas fire and only just get a replacement in time. At £80, the cost was a smaller worry than going up the Nile without a paddle.

 Nic gets the point. Gas fire in the background.
The Egyptians were wonderful, especially in the little-known town of Daraw. The police and army were not so wonderful, but I shall try to avoid talking about Egyptian politics: as I said at the time, their politics is nothing to do with me, a mere guest in their country.

          My mate Ahmed                       Not so friendly                     Mizmar band in Daraw

        Five minutes on a camel        Uncle Mahmoud and Abdullah      Lake Nasser Fisherfolk

Arabian Horse Sprinting                 On Lake Nasser                 Sword Fight with Sudanese

      Nasser's Shop, Aswan        Back Road to Philae         Cataracts below the Aswan Dam

'Ere We Go!                         Sun 24 Nov 2013
Off to the station in a few minutes with the words to The Who's "Slip Kid" in my head.

My version of the lyrics:

  I got my Lapsang Souchong
  Lead me to the station yeah
  I'm off to the civil war

  I got my kitbag, my heavy boots
  I'm running in the rain
  Gonna run till my feet are raw.

Rucksack beside me, fully populated to a state of great refinement - a little box here, a ball of string there, all in the smallest possible space and within the allowed weight limits.

Oh, the joy of adventure, the great prize! One accepts that such activities are not entirely risk free.... but the experiences are real, authentic, genuine, original, unique.

Sunday 8 Dec 2013: Aswan then Daraw

A three-metre Nile crocodile is a terrible thing. I'm using 'terrible'
in the original sense. Its roar is of such sudden violence and volume
that, I believe, a deeply-buried race memory surfaces and I am truly
terrified. I can scarce imagine the effect of a really big'un - five or
six metres I have heard they can reach - and it crosses my mind that
this roar may be designed for underwater transmission rather than by
the air, a thought worthy of pursuit.

Two metre croc: very scary                      Young Nasser and abominable animal cruelty

The crocs are in a concrete pen with a steel grille on top. This is in a Nubian village across the Nile from Aswan. I mention to Ebrahim and Young Nasser that when man first appeared on the Earth some three million years ago, these beautiful and dreadful (original sense) creatures had been around for 97. They do not seem impressed. They have brought me here on a bike, across the old dam, and I keep hearing how expensive petrol is. Am I being - what's the word - squeezed? Here I am the meat in a gay sandwich:

Ebrahim, Brent and Little Nasser on the bike. I can confirm that he's little.

The roar of the big croc subsides into a thunderous rumbling gurgle over ten or fifteen seconds and, immediately after, into an obscene hissing squeak. When Steven Spielberg's sound director chose the roar of a Tyrannosaurus in the making of Jurassic Park I reckon he used a croc roar, knowing exactly what buttons to press in the audience.

The Aswan Dam is an impenetrable barrier to crocs. Upstream - South - towards Central Africa - they thrive. Downstream - North - towards the sea - they are absent. But the ten-or-so crocs in this tourist attraction (a Nubian village on the West bank) are North of the dam. I ask, what is the risk of escapes which would repopulate the crocless river? They say, "Oh, it has happened already. Not long ago this guy disappeared when going to the Nile for water and they later found just an arm." Sounds like a tall story to me. (That's a polite way of saying bollocks.)

It is not for me to question the captivity conditions, nor the way they prod the crocs (ranging from a one-foot baby to the ten-footer) with a broomstick for my benefit, nor the dry-as-leather mouths of these poor creatures. A two metre one pounces like lightning with a vicious squawk, hissing hatred; malevolence in its eyes.

Note to self: if ever I paddle in Lake Nasser again, take no broomstick. I later meet people who have seen six-metre crocs and who claim that ten-metre crocs have been known. This is frightening, and I begin to wonder if it is rash to take an inflatable canoe onto Lake Nasser.

The experience then turns unpleasant. Would I like to cuddle one? Go on, mate, it's safe. The special croc has an unnaturally upturned mouth, and they haul it out of its pen and stroke it. Nasser has it on his lap on a settee. Come on Brent, what are you scared of? I am 96.8% certain that this poor animal has had its mouth smashed by hammers, or its jaw muscles severed as a moneymaking exercise. They deny this, saying that, like Elsa the Lioness, it has been brought up in the company of humans and it just loves being cuddled. I reckon that these bastards force the croc's mouth open to feed it; to keep the revenue stream going. I can't stop this cruelty but I'm damned if I'll collude in it any further by cuddling the poor crocodile.


The Nassers of Aswan
Nasser and his nephew have begun milking me at Aswan, so I decide to decline their offer to show me the ropes at Daraw, a town ten miles North of Aswan with the largest camel market in all of Africa. "Only fifty quid a day, Mister Brent. What's that to you?" "Sorry, lads, gotta paddle my own canoe. I'll get by." "It may be dangerous at Daraw," they say. They tell me that the citizens of Daraw are a dodgy lot. Yeah sure.

Stepping off the minibus at Daraw I have the most astonishing stroke of luck. I sit and have tea on some grass with a bunch of blokes (gotta "tune in" to a place before moving) and they ask me by sign language what I have come for. They start slicing up a cylindrical chunk of hashish and start rolling drug ciggies. This is not alarming: different strokes and all that. I decline their kind offer to join in; to take the first step to heroin hell, think yo virry mutch. Then one of them (he seems to be wearing a shower cap) suggests that I go with him to something really good. With no language in common I haven't a clue what, but being a trusting sort I go with him. We go, not to an opium den nor nuffink but to a street festival.

Do we really know what we're getting into here through the Blue Curtain? Gulp!

Lots of bunting, light bulbs strung everywhere, bustling convivial atmosphere, a couple of hundred people sat on carpets around a square arena strewn with wood shavings. There's lots of action. Two men are circling each other in a slow motion mock sword fight with quarterstaffs like Little John's. Very stylised, no contact whatsoever, lots of smiling between
combatants. Most of them roll up one sleeve.

Ceremonial sword fighting at Daraw                           The talented Mizmar player

They are accompanied by a five piece band, very tight, with four blowing squeaky pipes (mizmar) and a drummer with a very two-sided drum (zamarr) with high and bass notes. The lead mizmar has a mike and its sound is amplified into a shrill piercing sound. At one stage, amidst the musical cacophony I seem to recognize a tune. What is it? Ohcorblimey, it's Happy Birthday to You! I make eye contact with the blokey shown above with the white bandage on his head: he's playing it for me and he somehow grins with his eyes. What a laugh. But I am also deeply honoured.

Zamarr player. Mizmarr blowers behind.

The pair of dancers (for that's what this is really; not fighting) are replaced by two others. I later hear that this fighting goes back to Pharaonic times. Today's Egyptians are a racial mix of the arabs who invaded in the 7th Century and the original Egyptians. Each new pair has different styles, some hopping backwards as they circle each other ready to pounce, some prance, some lunge but slowly. But then two of them get carried away, there's wood on wood contact, danger of fingers getting broken, and others have to step in. Whoa! Hey, it's just a bit of fun, eh?

This goes on for 2 or 3 hours with food breaks. I am the only non-Egyptian. Most have distinguished turbans. They look somehow eminent; bags of character and perhaps authority. It later emerges that this is a kind of gathering of the clans with people coming from far afield  - as far as Luxor and Qina - for tomorrow's annual horse racing in a nearby wadi. Many eyes are on me, and I put on me Yasser Arafat as a non-verbal way of telling them that I'm a fan. I don't need to put a fake happy-face on because I am in seventh heaven in this place. Cheek muscles aching because I can't stop smiling at the good fortune that has brought me here on this very night. I look down to make sure that, in my happiness, I haven't floated three inches above the ground, which might alarm people.

At last, somebody who speaks English. Ahmed S is an English teacher, handsome and smart in a white high-necked robe and as the evening wears on many people come over to ask him what the score is with this forrigner in Yasser Arafat fancy dress. Maybe forty or fifty people (repeat: forty or fifty!!) come over to wish me welcome, and say Merhab - welcome. Would I like tea? Yes please. Would I like food? Yes please. How much does it cost? No money! You are our guest! I am led to a building where there are carpets on the floor and groups of four or five sat cross-legged around big circular trays with bread and four or five dishes: it's a communal dip-in.

Brent trying to blend in                    Inside the Omda's house - kids marvel at my headlamp

Which hand to use? The arabs have a thing about clean hand, dirty hand which I had completely forgotten about with the Abu Simbel fishermen (of whom more below) maybe committing a faux pas there. I know that such communal eating carries a risk of bacterial transfer, but I'm committed now so it's shit or bust or maybe the other way round, and I dig in, oohing and aahing at the wonderful food and at the hospitality to me, a stranger.

A week before, invited to dinner by Abu Simbel fishermen using THEIR right hands.

After the festival they put me up in a big lounge with twenty-odd settees to be used as beds. There is no taboo on making a racket after others have turned in. They sleep in their robes under heavy blankets, their heads under.

It takes me 2 or 3 hours to get off to sleep. As I try to drop off a brown tick lands on my arm. Yeek! I dive for my bivvy bag (thin waterproof sleeping bag): better to be sweltering hot than to be infested by creepy crawlies, and I manage to sleep in that.

I am awoken by - by what? a croc??? It's a roar which subsides into a thunderous rumbling gurgle: a six-second arab fart. Fwaaaaaaarp!

In the next hour my ears are assailed by every accoustic variant of wind breaking. There are steady sharp razzes; musical thweeps and squeals; no-messing (at least I hope not) paper-bag bangs. I reluctantly begin to muse on the common characteristics of orchestral stringed instruments and the human arse, comparing the resonant frequency of the gas chamber and the... what's the word for the hole in a cello?.... the aperture?.... the orifice???... surely not the feckin' anus?!... why are we having this conversation at four in the feckin' morning?

One wonders at the vibrato. One imagines a high-speed video recording (as with a bullet slowly piercing a plank) slowed down to reveal the sphincter action and - horror of horrors - the mental image of Mick Jagger comes to mind - all teeth and revolting lips - singing 'why oh why oh why'.

Somebody's mobile goes off. For ringtone it has an islamic chant. It rings out. It happens again. And then later somebody else's bloody mobile. And then there is the sound of the loudspeakers atop the mosque, but this is not a ringtone, it's the call to prayer. A strip light goes on and three or four blokes traipse loudly to the bathroom for ritual cleansing. They then go on their knees on prayer mats, singing out the words of the Koran in the approved manner. It's five o'clock in the gottverdammt morning. I'd always figured that the call to prayer was the exact equivalent to church bells - girls and boys come out to pray - but I now see that the mosque is calling for folks to wake up and pray in their houses and inflict sleep deprivation torture on poor English backpackers. How very dare they?

The house belongs to a smashing guy, Mr. Aimad. He's a local dignitary, and his title "Omda" means mayor or councillor. A few days later, when I am interrogated by the police at 11pm (just because they think there's something fishy about a tourist who goes beyond King Tut and posh hotels) his presence is reassuring. There are four or five policemen, one in a leather jacket with good English, asking me about politics. I just stay calm and reply truthfully that I am a backpacker; that I enjoy meeting real people; that Daraw's camels are what brought me to Daraw. I light up a fag. They say, "Aha! You are smoking Cleopatra!" (They pronounce it Ka-LEE-oh-PAT-rrra.) I reply, "Well yes, this is a deliberate choice. By smoking these instead of, say, Marlboro, it tells people that I like Egypt, even where there are no words in common. Take this red and white headscarf. It says that I like Arabs. I call it my Yasser Arafat." "Aha!" says the intelligence officer. "So you like Yasser Arafat, do you?" I briefly get a bit ratty and say, "Oh fucking pack it in will you? I have no opinion of Yasser Arafat but I know he was popular here. That's all."

The next day Ahmed's Uncle Mahmoud says that if the police muck me about too much I can demand to see the British Consul. I agree, and say that I have been aware of the option, but I would much prefer for the police to satisfy themselves that I'm just a tourist, or perhaps a traveller (which is less vacuous) and let me get on with my holiday than have to bring out the heavy guns of the diplomats who probably have enough on their plate already. I take the opportunity of contact with the police to mention my plan to hire camels for a week or so and head off into the desert. Yes you can, comes the reply, provided that you are followed by a vehicle and a medical team. Which kind of defeats the object. Who do they think I am, Bear Grylls?

On my final day (he has put me up for a week, and got quite shirty when I tried to force payment on him) Aimad plants a big pair of smackers on each of my cheeks. Sweet. On the night of the festival he asked my advice on importing thoroughbreds from England. Did I know about horses, he asked. "Oh yes," I say with Ahmed's help in translating. "They have - I think this is right - four feet."

Mr. Aimad                                   Ahmed's Grandad: head of the household

Ahmed takes me to visit the famous camel market. It's fab. All the camels are tethered - one foreleg folded round to parallel to the upper leg which I believe causes no discomfort at all.

Without this tethering there would be chaos, because even tethered they are a handful, hopping all over the place, still very mobile, and we had to be careful not to get trampled when escape was attempted by a dozen hopping in unison towards us, the owners whacking them mercilessly with sticks. These camels, brought in from the Sudan, are destined for Cairo. They are for meat, not transport. Later on I meet a guy called Yasser. He is in charge of a quarantine compound, and when I explain that I want to take camels into the desert for a few days, he is kind enough to let me ride some in his compound. I was too polite to say that I was after more than a donkey ride on camelback. Still, I got some good practice at making the camels squat down (pull down their reins and hiss "sssssssss") and getting them to rise again (whack 'em on the rump and shout "hutt hutt!"). I do wonder if I'm up to handling a couple of them alone in the desert, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Sudanese camel traders                      The smashing Mr. Yasser, camel compound manager

She knows she's beautiful                               Trying not to fall off

The next day there are horse races in a nearby dry wadi. It is a grand occasion with lots of yipping and whipping and ululating. One of the guys is very political, big in the Muslim Brotherhood. At the races I snap him and some of his mates lounging under a massive awning. They all put a hand up for the photo. It seems an innocent enough gesture. A couple of hundred people are looking on. One of the lads says, "Come on Mister Brent, a photo with you now." As I pose for the photo I give the same cheery wave as everybody else. But from the seated crowd a bloke jumps up and starts remonstrating loudly. It turns out that the four fingers are a political symbol, a symbol of defiance, comemorating the recent massacre of 300 protestors in a Cairo square (not the famous Tahrir) whose name is something like four sides or four prophets or four stooges - I dunno. I've said all along that I'll talk football, family, food, but NOT politics. Luckily, I gave it five. A TV bloke from CBC - Cairo telly - comes over and asks in arabic if I'd like to be interviewed. I ask one of the lads to translate. He says, "Your choice, Brent, but this TV station supports the military dictatorship so I hate them." I thought it best to say no. This is not my fight; I must keep my nose out of their business.

The horse racing is spectacular. They love Arabian horses. I am so proud of getting this shot of a winner, running in front of the victory parade to get the shot:

The winner with his certificate.

Not a film set: reality.                                      A competitor.

I haven't been allowed to spend a bean here so far, so one night I take Ahmed and three others plus two kids for a meal. The total bill, at twelve quid, was what I had been paying for just me in Luxor and Aswan. For those on a salary like Ahmed, salaries are correspondingly
low. He earns 730 EGP - 65GBP per month.

Ahmed is a really nice guy, recently married to a lovely lady called Manal. He runs two little training centres, helping local people to learn language and IT skills. The populace is so poor that it is a financial struggle. I try to help him get backing from UK charities but with the country so unstable a cloud seems to hang over everything. Ahmed has me give a talk to an English class at each of his training centres, one at Daraw the other up the road at Kom Ombo. I waffle on about the Queen, about an English ball game where the ball is egg-shaped - indeed I demonstrate a rugby tackle on one surprised fellow. We count from one to ten in Arabic and in English. And just to be awkward I do it in Nubian which has them all baffled. I later regret the lost opportunity for counting in Yorkshire: Yan Chan Tether Mether Pip....

Somebody asks a loaded political question: I flee the room and only come back on condition that they bloody cut it out. The moon-faced guy below asks me, "Mister Brent, please tell us the secret of a long, happy and successful life." My first reaction is to snigger at this preposterous question, but I play it with a straight bat and explain that this is just English practise; that his guess is as good as mine at matters of philosophy. The assumptions behind that question are fascinating. I suspect that a few centuries ago our English forefathers had a similar exaggerated respect for authority figures; that if the Lord of the Manor said "vote for my candidate" or "hand over your daughter for the night" we would go along with it. Democracy's roots lie in the cussed, ornery, opinionated individual who is convinced he knows better than a roomful of the so-called great-and-good. And I am deeply annoyed that people would think that I know better than them just because I was born in a richer country. Now I know how Monty Python's Brian felt on that window ledge: "You're all individuals!" Yes! We're ALL individuals!

TEFL: teaching english for laughs

December 2013: Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser
If the name Abu Simbel rings no bells, the following images surely will.

We Brits built the first Aswan Dam a century ago. (It's pronounced ass-WAHN, not AZZ-wonn.) Around 1960 the Russians built a bigger one which caused the Nile to back up and create Lake Nasser. Many archeological treasures were forever drowned by this, but a worldwide whipround resulted in some rescue missions. Most notably the Temple of Philae just upstream from Aswan on its beautiful island was picked up stone by stone and placed tastefully on a higher island.

 Philae Temple, just South of Aswan. A place of great significance.
If this 1849 painting by David Roberts doesn't make your heart sing then it is made of stone

£40m was spent on raising the four massive seated Pharaohs some hundred miles South - upstream - of Aswan at Abu Simbel. Today the lake laps at the new site. To avoid any kerfuffle, I paid the entry fee and walked around like most people do (tourists are now very rare, down to 5% of normal because of the security situation). I asked if I could arrive by canoe. "No", came the answer. So next morning I did it anyway.
Having camped on the lakeshore, I set off in the canoe at sunrise, and paddled the mile to Abu Simbel. A glorious morning.
Dawn on Lake Nasser                                                  Abu Simbel
As I approach there are a couple of tour guides in their long white nighties. They start yelling at me. I act all innocent. I do a u-turn. I paddle off somewhere else and hide behind an island. Then I get fed up and head back towards my campsite. A boat approaches from astern. Oh no, they've called out the river police. But in fact, the putt-putt-putt is the slow regime of a fisherman's boat and they give me a cheery wave as they overtake.
A few minutes later and there's a higher-pitched motor approaching, again from astern. This time it's a police Zodiac (inflatable with outboard). They pull me over. I'm all smiles, all innocent, answering their questions about nationality and where I'm camped. I then ask, "Is there a problem?", and when they say yes mate, there IS a problem, I go from happy unconcerned tourist to frowning, concerned citizen who doesn't like to cause offence. Back at my squat, they call in a sodding police colonel who gravely asks lots of questions and then starts photographing me and my deflated canoe. I ask, "Is this an official photo?" He cracks his face: "No, sir, no! Thees forr Facebook!"

 Police Zodiac                                                  Fish for breakfast

Abu Simbel from the lake. Very few visitors see it from this perspective.
A couple of days before this a similar thing happened. On that occasion I paddled from Aswan's outskirts to Philae Island. On that occasion also the guides put the kibosh on me. As I landed at the jetty they called a constable. He makes me get out and deflate the canoe, and radioes for backup. A police Captain arrives by boat from the mainland, takes me off to the crappy little office of Colonel Sherif Daoud who, after many stupid questions, relaxes and wishes me a nice holiday. I promise him to stop canoeing around, with every intention of breaking that promise in other jurisdictions such as Abu Simbel and the Nile.

The Abu Simbel fishermen are a friendly bunch. They plied me with fish and stuff, and told me about the crocodile risk: crocs are scared off by motorised boats, and so the dangerous places are the quiet ones. I decide it's too dangerous to take the canoe to these quiet places. Ahmed (yeah another one...) agrees to take me out for a day's fishing. But when the police arrive they forbid it. Dammit. A day out on a fishing boat would have been very educational, great fun, and the grub would have been excellent. The dead hand of the police is doing my head in. I have no intention of booking into a boring hotel as they insist, and decide to leave town. I give away all my fishing lines and spinning lures to my fishy friends, having caught nothing with them. At one stage we are exchanging ideas on knots. I show them a sheet bend on their slippery nylon cords, and when it falls apart they roll around laughing - they ROFL - at how superior they are with their curly wurly knots. To be fair, their knots work and mine don't. Bastards.

Ahmed the Fisherman
Earlier, upon my arrival at Abu Simbel town I went about my "tuning in" procedure in a nice green park with an outdoor cafe. A bunch of kids came over to say hello. Gorgeous kids, all smiley and cheerful. They are called Seslma, Episam, Hadir, Fatma, Kasho, Shezza, Bela, Ashma, Saffroud and Hosam.
Nubian children at Abu Simbel town
I later get to know some adult Nubians. They are very peaceful and hospitable. The rise of the Nile drowned many many Nubian villages: it was a catastrophe for them. Unlike many other displaced people they did not resort to violence.
The Nubian language is purely oral, not written. Attempts to transcribe it into Arabic script or into hieroglyphics have failed. And so it is in danger of dying out. One Nubian told me this poem about the rising of the Nile's waters. I wrote it down in my silly phonetic method and, when I read it back to a roomful of them they were most pleased:
Nubian Poem 
Kurrty kar karreengon keara joo
                        (My knees are shaking and I'm climbing up)
Irrkin djebelka maskarg-me eek-se -nee
                        (And I said to the mountain how have you been)
Goulba goan djebel aigah orro-donna
                        (The mountain replied, showing his tiredness)
Heemla meska ag korrja sou-kirrea
                        (I cannot stand any more, I am breaking down)

The poetry fan was one of these nice people near Daraw:

Nubians invite me to their house, give me a present, feed me. Such hospitality.....

After we (the men that is, not the women) had eaten, all squatting around a big metal tray, I learned that they have only four words for colours: red (gaill), green (dessy), black (orrum) and white (mouloo). At the end of the evening the ancient black-clad ladies presented me with a gift! It was conical raffia thingy coloured green purple and cream. Why treat some random bloke like me in this way? Heartwarming though it is, honoured though I am, I don't get it. Anyway I pointed to the purple and asked, "What colour is this?" She replied "gaill". I ponted to a blue object. "Dessy"! Ask a Nubian what colour pink or blue or avocado is, they''ll say gaill or dessy. What a glorious anecdote of how quirky the human race can be! If we forgot the word "legs", would we all fall over?!

Messing About on the River

My choice of canoe was very well made. It had to be light enough to carry, yet compact enough to fit inside a rucksack and still leave room for clothes, food, poncho, stove, sleeping bag, medical kit. If this meant spending several hundred, I thought, so be it. In fact it was a mere £80! First practice on a local lake; second practice down the Severn; third time out 27km down the Nile to my riverfront hotel in Luxor where, as I arrive with aching arms, a boatman says, "Here, don't I know you from somewhere? Yes! There was a girl with yellow hair." He is referring to my wife's daughter whom we sent off across this very river from this very jetty to ride horses across the desert and survived to tell the tale.

See a little video of the Luxor paddle, a music video in fact. Having rowed past the corpse of a goat floating down the river I tried to include that detail into a song which would rhyme "floating dead goat" with "inflatable boat", but flopped. And another vid, showing an actual bird in the distance!  

And another vid, not exactly exciting but a Nile Cruiser appeared in the distance. If this had been Bear Grylls the helicopter team would have scrambled and the scriptwriters whispering, "No Bear.... it's pronounced Jepper-dee. Now DO be careful."

Ahmed; shameless selfie; some Nileside guy, Uncle Mahmoud

There's much more drag on an inflatable than on a proper fibreglass canoe, which makes it heavy going. But for sheer mobility, what an asset! And what an icebreaker! On many occasions people's expressions would turn from frowning doubt (Who's this loony? Oh yeah, got a felucca in there have you? What else, a spaceship?) to open-faced delight as oars and stuff emerged from my canvas Tardis. And it's a superb airbed at night!

Camp Brent on the banks of Lake Nasser.

The jaunts across the two lakes (the lake between the two Aswan dams, and Lake Nasser) to see Philae Temple and Abu Simbel were glorious halcyon days of orange light, benign warmth, tranquil progress, rythmic gentle effort, enormous blue skies, control over one's own destiny.

Having now had two run-ins with the police (on the two lakes), I went to Luxor Police Station to ask if it was OK to paddle on the Nile. Little Nasser took me there. We went into a scruffy third-floor office where a fat Captain sat slouched and complacent behind his desk. Many Egyptians have typical arab faces (if there is any such thing), but this bloke looked like a dark-eyed pharaoh, a Mubarak with mascara, very forbidding. He listened with a scowl to Little Nasser explaining all the fun and frolics to be had by his friend Brent paddling around like a kiddywinky, and then drawled,"No".  

I thanked him for his time, said that I would not dream of going against his wishes, and a couple of days later did it anyway. Rather than setting off from the hotel (the copshop was downstream, north, from there and it would have been asking for trouble to paddle past it!), I walked to the North end of town where the posh hotels peter out and ordinary folk live. The outskirts of Luxor became rural, and I happened upon a cluster of houses at a place called Ziniya Qibli with lots of activity. Women and children were tending to all manner of livestock including fowl.

Abno-yout Hadjad at Ziniya Qibli                   The rather gorgeous Assma

Zinia Qibli. A happy place.

On the three-day hop from Luxor to Qina I spent one of the nights on an island in midstream. It was a horrible night's sleep due to barking dogs in a nearby village and also some night-fishermen who spoke of the dangers (there were none; the donkey was tame) and just as I managed to drop off at dawn came over to say goodbye.

Nile fisherboys; Hargreaves Island; neighbour (or is that eey-ore-bour?); next morning.

Here's a little video of the next morning's paddle.
Exhausted the next day, I went on strike. Lifting my feet out of the canoe and resting them on top it was possible to recline right back and..... go..... I'd wake up from time to time and have to paddle a bit to get back into the main current. Video. On one occasion I woke up stuck in some riverside reeds like a latter day Moses. From time to time I would pass a village where the kiddies especially would jump around like monkeys trying to persuade me to land. At one stage, needing provisions, I pull over to a flat patch where boys are playing football. We have a kick-about, and then their mothers send croissants down for me, and the men of the village come to investigate, and they summon up an English speaker who demands that I come to his house and have lunch with him and his family and a whole gaggle of them help get my rucksack onto a donkey for the walk to his house.

My playmates: Nile United FC                            New method of rucksack transportation
I had also pulled over because of springing a leak. I had failed to tighten the canoe's air-valve properly, and upon getting a cold bum, found that I was low in the water. Hoisting myself up with both hands depressed the flabby sides of the canoe and water came over the sides. Yeek! We're sinking. As maritime disasters go this was a pretty mild one. For the most part, canoeing down the Nile with the current was easy going. Another little vid, showing just how benign the Nile is.
Fool's Errand to the Red Sea
From Qina on the Nile I took a long bus ride back to the coast, intending to spend a few days in the Wadi El Gemal National Park. Gemal is, of course, arabic for a camel. Just like in England there are regional accents. Around Aswan, gamal is pronounced dji-MAAL; in Cairo, I am told, it's GAMM-ul.

At Marsa Alam, a crappy tourist resort on the Red Sea coast, no hotels are open. As I roam the streets, a hospitable shopkeeper buys me tea and then takes me to another café which might help. The friendly owner offers me an empty flat of his to sleep in. Exhausted, I accept. His name is Semeh (the end pronounced like a cat trying to get rid of furballs) Masri, very relaxed and smiling, as are the rest of his clientele playing snooker. I show him my travel blogs on his smartphone. He loves my open attitude to exotic countries, and then shows me some of his piccies. "These are my children in Cairo. This is my wife, my house. This is my brother in military kit before a mission with our father, an army general. This is video footage I shot from the roof of a building overlooking the square, these are burning vehicles set on fire by protestors, this is the armoured car advancing on the crowds, my brother is one of these on foot. This is a photo of a row of corpses in body bags killed by the protestors - they tried to blame these deaths on the army."

Ferchrissakes, this was a scary transformation in the man! He said all this with the smile, proud to be associated with it, all very matter-of-fact. But I was exhausted, and couldn't decline his kind offer. He took me to the flat. It was empty - no furniture. He also had a flat above on the building's flat roof. "You should be in my flat, not here, no I insist. I must go back to work in the café now. I finish at 5 am." He left me to get some sleep. Shortly after he left I thought I had heard a knock at the door (maybe it was some other noise) and, trying the door, found I was locked in. Windows all have mosquito mesh. I began to wonder if I had been set up somehow. Might they have tracked my movements from Daraw, having wrongly concluded I was some kind of troublemaker. Mulling over the pros and cons of this hypothesis, I concluded that if I was about to be murdered and the official story would be that an innocent tourist had been killed by baddies aiming for the General's son, I was toast. He has, after all, just spoken of violence by one side being presented as the acts of the other.  

I could have escaped by busting open the fly screens fixed on the windows but that would be bad form. I spent an anxious night, hoping that my fears were the result of an overactive imagination, which they in fact were. At 5 a.m he came home as planned. Was I being a drama queen? I think not: when somebody calmly talks about killing witnessed at first hand it is cause for alarm. With hindsight I should have declined his offer of accommodation, even at the risk of causing offence.

Semeh had told me that camping in the National Park was forbidden, but that he was an honorary ranger and could pull some strings for me. In the morning I told him I had changed plans and legged it. He doubtless though me rude; compared to the appalling events he had shown me through his iPad - which he had revelled in! -  this feels like Jane Austen apologising for the temperature of the tea to a gentleman from the East India Company whilst he brags about beheading a dozen sepoys.

Finding Nemo: Found Him - Delicious!
My return flight to Britain was from the other side of the Red Sea, from Sharm el Sheikh. The boat service I was counting on to get from continent to peninsula had been withdrawn - oops - and people told me that the long way round by bus via Suez was a 26-hour journey from hell. So a flight from Luxor to Sharm was the only option.

Sharm is too touristy for my liking but a couple of interesting things happened. I wrote to folks back home:

Hello all!

How to describe a coral reef without first swallowing a Thesaurus?

The gay colourscheme of one fish - pink, turquoise, yellow and garish green - rings a bell: Andy Clarke's lycra outfit when he cycles to work in Wolverhampton...

Then there's the royal blue and vivid yellow-striped ones: they ought to have labels on the fin: "Sponsored by Svedish Embassy, Cairo".

This is the third stop-off of the Rosetta III, a two-deck fifty-person cruiser, and I'm adapting fast. We have donned our snorkel sets, leaped athletically off the stern platform (the bold ones) or crept slowly down the ladder (my sort), wincing as the freezing-cold water reaches groin level, wondering about icebergs.

The fish are feeding on a subsurface coral hillock, pillar more like, whose top is barely six feet under the surface. Despite warnings not to touch the coral, I decide to stand on a clearly dead patch - no poisonous 'fire coral' here. Instead of my foot, a gigantic foot - Bigfoot's? - comes into vision through my mask. What??? I do not have size-20's! Chiding myself for forgetting the magnifying effect of water, I then swim out over the precipice. Whoa! It's a sixty or hundred foot fall. But again I have to chide myself: this is like parachuting! We are flying, not falling. Such fun! Great globular bubbles rise past me: down there in the depths are scuba divers.

A school of goldfish down below me - maybe 400 strong - is being harried by a few nearlygoldfish, but it all seems a bit halfhearted. There's no fear here. Why hasn't the evolutionary niche been filled by a predator, a Gobbler Fish, a piscine London banker?

Breathing is much easier than I had feared. My only previous experience of snorkeling had left me breathless and drained. At the boat's first stop-off I had felt like the old guy at the back, struggling to keep up as the young folk swam away and me lagging behind with my laboured breast stroke. This time, though, I am using the canoe-inflation technique: great big lungful in; great big lungful out. If water gets in the snorkel a gurgling sound is heard, so I then moderate the rate of intake to avoid inhaling the u-bend contents and then - pish! - puff the water out explosively. Easy. Sustainable. Adaptation was again called for. Half an hour flies by in multicolour paradise. I think I've died and gone to heaven. In a muslim country do we get the 24-virgin special offer?

Every couch-potato has seen coral atolls through the Attenborough Eye, so it's no big surprise. But this is live; it's at first hand; it's very 3D. Look: the knobbly beige pumpkin pustulences; cancerous tumescences. Is that a blue worm just under my feet? No! Haha! It's the blue lips of a clam. It seems to be chewing.

Wow! Mancunian Rob points out a long blue-black pikelike fish a foot and a half long. with a silly long snout. Predator? Everybody else is playing nice, darting in to the coral to nibble a bit off, but this feller looks surly, prowling, like the schoolyard bully.

There's no red down here, (yeek! A long fish with brown-on-white leopard spots. But - phew - he's just a veggie fish) and I speculate that the black fish and the mottled deep-mauve ones have markings visible only in the ultraviolet; that these fish have the same colour-bandwidth as humans, only shifted up - no, that's actually down - a few nanometres of wavelength.
Surrounded by Silly Soldiers

I swear that I do not go looking for trouble. Adventure does admittedly include the possibility that danger may arise, but that is an unintended and unwelcome by-product. If a bunch of SAS were to annoy a camper on the Brecon Beacons we would tell them off; send 'em away with a flea in their ear. Something similar happened....

Tuesday night I camped out in the Ras Muhammed National Park. What a waste of time and shoe-leather. I yomped 18km to the tip of the peninsula only to find some boring blue sea and three Tourist Police drinking tea. In the 18km of zigzag road I saw only MMFD. This is a location given by an RAF pilot to yank controllers aboard their AWACS during the first Gulf War. "Gee whizz, buddy, where are y'all?" "I say old bean, corblimey, I'm at MMFD." "Say again." "MMFD." ""What does that stand for?" "Miles and miles of f*****g desert."

A long long walk for very little reward

It so happens that "Ras" means head, as in "Birkenhead" - the headland of the Birch Trees. These 18km were so unrewarding, and my feet so sore that on the return walk I took a shortcut, zagging instead, steering by GPS, off the beaten Tarmac. To begin with the straight line route takes me along a wide dry watercourse (wadi) where nobody ever goes, with thorn trees and gorgeous sand dunes and lots of animal droppings. It then becomes more undulating, then cut by deeper and deeper gullies.

I'm having to climb down and up again. And then a very deep one, twenty feet deep, several yards wide except in one place with concave sides where the gap is barely a metre wide. What would Paul Stewart say if he were with me, the Sundance Kid to my Butch Cassidy? Juuuuump! No problem. Made it. Birds are nesting in water-cut hollows of this dry minicanyon, and fly off in alarm at my leap.

Off the beaten track in Ras Mohammed                   Nutter's Leap

Nearing destination, less than a mile from the park exit, a shout from my left: a soldier, a big old chubster who could have doubled for Private Pile in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket runs up to me. He smiles and mounts guard over me. I put my hands up. Hahaha. He yells for Mohammed, who sprints from one hillock to another, leaving a trail of dust, to fetch the Lieutenant. Much telephoning in the distance as Pile and I wait. The Lieutenant comes over, explains that he's too junior to make a decision, and we await the Captain's arrival. Each time their Kalashnikovs ("Made in Egypt, hahaha, welcome!") point in my direction I snap at them, "Oi! Point thaty bloody thing elsewhere!" Pile pats his safety catch reassuringly. That don't reassure-a-me much. Guns nasty. Don't stick the muzzle in your fat gob now, Pile. The Captain arrives: a well-groomed smoothie with American university written all over him. He asks me if I have a knife. "Yes, of course I do. Here." I show him a Stanley Knife I have bought to replace the one nicked at Daraw. He has me frisked, searching my rucksack. I tell him that this is a sodding National Park not an army base. In honour of panto season we then play "Oh no it isn't' oh yes it is" for a while. They let me go, the Captain explaining that if this happened at night I could, he drawls, have been "shart". Pompous git.

Just south of the 'X' shown on the map below, just before meeting the soldier boys, I took a little video of my unsuspecting approach to that bunch of military nitwits.

The Egyptian security services are doing my Ras in. All in all, if I had known six weeks ago what I now know about this police state I would have gone elsewhere. I hear of fresh events on BBC News which reinforce this new assessment.

No comments:

Post a Comment