CAIRO & THE PYRAMIDS

NILE BLOG 14

Tuesday 23 October, 2012

There are few man-made symbols that speak as loudly and as universally as Egypt’s massive Pyramids and their ever-watchful Sphinx. These massive monuments (the Pyramids were tombs of the Pharaohs, and the Sphinx was installed to protect their occupants and guarantee them safe passage into the afterlife) were built out of millions of stone blocks (each weighing an average two-and-a-half tons) … and it’s not until you stand before them on the desert sands just outside Cairo that you can really appreciate how overwhelmingly BIG they really are. Little wonder they were known for centuries as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!

Frankly, it was the Pyramids of Giza more than anything else that brought many of our Mad Midlifers to Egypt … and today, while Mrs Cooney and I were waiting for a delayed flight from Luxor, our Kiwi group kept an appointment with these giants – photographing them from every conceivable angle (like zillions of tourists before them) … following other brave souls down-down-down into the internal burial chambers of Cheops Pyramid (the biggest) … and being taken for a ride (in more ways than one) by the hordes of camel-drivers that lay in wait.

We met some pretty happy campers when we finally caught up with them – and Peter and Rodger happily agreed to some of their photos being shared with you and other adoring readers back home.

Last night, before heading for our beds at the elegant Cairo Marriott Hotel (famous for its palace gardens and views of the Nile), we drove again through crowded streets (past a kaleidoscope of people, faces, shops and animals – including corralled sheep awaiting sacrifice for the upcoming Muslim Eid Adha festival, starting 26 Oct), and returned to the now-dark Pyramids and Sphinx for an inspiring sound-&-light show.

This morning, after yet another posh hotel breakfast (not many more of these to go before we’re back home and back to Weetbix or toast), we spent an informative few hours in the vast Egyptian Museum, where the world’s most important collection of Nile antiquities is exhibited – including some celebrated mummies, and the knock-you-over treasures of the mummified King Tut.

Then a late-afternoon Egypt Air flight took us from Cairo to Amman (Jordan), where we down-luggaged at the 5-star Regency Palace Hotel in the heart of the city.

PEOPLE NEWS:

The stragglers are being mopped-up now, with a last-minute nomination being received for another quacky yellow duck:

  • The ‘Leading Sheep Astray Award’ has gone to Alison C – for marching into the men’s loo at one of our recent stops, faithfully followed by at least four other Kiwi women.

TOMORROW:

Magnificent, mysterious Petra (in Jordan)is one of the Middle East’s most unmissable sights … and a special ‘icing-on-the-cake’ bonus for us Kiwis.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

Eid ADHA 26 Oct

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

KOM OMBO … EDFU … LUXOR

NILE BLOG 13

Monday 22 October, 2012

Imagine being pampered aboard a triple-decker, pool-topped cruise ship … riding silently on the wide, still waters of the Nile … with nothing to do but bask in the sun … interrupted only to be fed three times a day … while the peaceful shoreline slips past in slow motion.

Imagine fields of maize and sugarcane, date and banana palms – vivid-green against a backdrop of harsh brown desert. Imagine minarets (mosque-towers) rising high above the treeline in even the smallest, dustiest village … and the sound of muezzin (Muslim criers) calling the faithful to worship.

Imagine a thousand scenes ever-changing – and yet unchanged in thousands of years. Imagine small boys in rickety rowboats throwing fishing nets and smacking the water with sticks to scare up a meal … women at the water’s edge washing robes and shirts and pots while their kids splash each other and shout “hello” to the passing tourists … sun-blackened men ploughing the rich soil with tired plodding water-buffalos.

Imagine …

Well, we Kiwis don’t have to imagine it anymore, because this is exactly what we’ve been DOING for the past three days! And it’s been every bit as “pinch-me-please-this-can’t-be-happening” magical as it sounds.

ON SATURDAY …While we ate a royal shipboard breakfast, the Tamr Henna cast off and motored gently out into the current. Our route took us downstream (northward – see map), and our first stop-off  was the shoreside town of Kom Ombo, where we visit a temple (332 BC) dedicated to Sobek, the Crocodile God.

(Note: Since arriving in Egypt we Kiwis have had a crash-course on the Nile and its gods, and will probably lecture you on the subject when we get home. For your interest, the river goes back a long way – into central Africa (winding its way north through Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan) and into ancient history. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians depended hugely on the Nile’s annual floods. Those floods brought down silt by the sack-full and spread it along the riverbank in thin fertile strips. If the Nile failed, Egypt starved. Not surprising, therefore, that the bewildering array of Egyptian deities were linked to these watery cycles. And not surprising that the pharaohs chose the banks of the Nile to build their stunning monuments. Anyway, I’m not gonna tell you any more. I’ve got places to go and people to see. But you can meet some of these gods yourself – like Osiris, Isis, Seth and Horus – by reading Wilbur Smith’s novel, River God, and its sequel The Seventh Scroll.)

Following lunch back on the ship, we did some Mad-Midlife relaxing in top-deck sun-chairs and splashed around in the cool, cool pool while the Tamr Henna continued its downstream cruise to Edfu and the beautifully preserved Temple of Horus, the Falcon God. Thanks to the dry heat (plus the fact that most of them spent centuries buried deep beneath the sand) these 2500-to-3500-year-old temples are remarkably well-preserved … and their huge scale, looming statues and stunning reliefs (hieroglyphics, cartouches, wall-carvings, and faded-but-still-glorious colours) must be seen to be believed.

That afternoon, for something a little different, we travelled to this temple via a hair-raising horse’n’cart ride … careening through the streets of Edfu accompanied by much shouting (by the drivers) and shrieking (by us)!

Then, at night (while the shippassed through the lock at Esna and continued on to Luxor), we dressed up as pharaohs, queens, priests, whatever (robes and togas, beads and head-towels) and enjoyed an Egyptian Galabea Party. Yeehaa!

ON SUNDAY …With the Tamr Henna moored in the big, busy city of Luxor, we got up before the sun, crossed to the Nile’s West Bank,and drove out through arid mountains to the renowned Valley of the Kings, where some 63 Pharaohs of Egypt – including the young and mysterious Tutankhamen – were buried (up to 1500 years before Christ) in elaborate tombs. We also visited the eye-catching Temple of Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh), blending dramatically into the sun-baked cliff-face … had a photo-stop at the Colossi of Memnon (all that’s left of the Funerary Temple of Pharaoh Amenphis III) … and enjoyed a fascinating papyrus-making demo at a local factory.

Then, after another weight-watcher’s lunch back on the ship, we were up-up-and-away again – to the fabulous temple complexes at Karnak. Construction started here some 4000 years ago, was spread over 1300 years, was undertaken by a succession of big-name pharaohs (including Ramses 11), and resulted in the world’s largest religious complex (St Peter’s, Milan and Notre Dame Cathedrals could all be lost within its walls).

We’ve seen more than our fair share of temples these past three weeks, but this one – the granddaddy of ‘em all – simply knocked our socks off. Its three main temples (dedicated to the gods Mut, Montu and Amun), are enclosed in enormous brick walls, and set among avenues of sphinxes and halls of gigantic columns.

More than a few of us went back to the Tamr Henna with stiff necks, from all the looking up-up-up!

ON MONDAY … (that’s today) We packed our bags, vacuumed our cabins, ate our final Nile-cruise breakfast, said “Maa al lama!” (goodbye) to the ship‘s friendly crew, and relocated to Luxor’s lovely modern airport – where we had to fight off hordes of would-be porters, intent on taking our bags and scoring a fat tip.

And that’s where I am right now … sitting with my beloved … and writing all this nonsense for you lucky people. Our group flew out to Cairo a couple of hours ago without us. There was a small hiccup, you see: the plane was overbooked, and they couldn’t take all 49 of us, so me and she elected to stay back. But our (later) flight has now been called – so I’m signing off.

Bye for now!

PEOPLE NEWS:

We’ve been too busy these past few days to hand out yellow ducks, so time for a catch-up:

  • In most stopovers our big group has been using two coaches – right? And Gavan joins several others who, without realising it, have climbed onto the wrong one. For giving his wife a panic-attack he has earned himself the ‘Missing Husband Award’.
  • Our gorgeous tour-guide-cum-Egyptologist – Emmy – gets the ‘Don’t Follow Me I’m Lost Award’, for trying to make us all get on some other group’s bus.
  • Olwyn has walked away with the ‘Uncooked & Runny Award’ – for cracking open what she thought was a hard-boiled egg at breakfast yesterday. (It wasn’t hard-boiled; it was raw … and, of course, it went everywhere.)
  • Leila has claimed our ‘State of Emergency Award’ – for allowing her curiosity to get the better of her while taking a shower in her ship’s bathroom. She pulled on the red knob attached to a red cord hanging on the shower wall … setting off a loud alarm and bringing concerned staff running.

LATER TODAY:

Our Mad Midlifers experience a close-up encounter with one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: Egypt’s massive Pyramids and their ever-watchful Sphinx.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

ABU SIMBEL & ASWAN

NILE BLOG 12

Friday 19 October, 2012

When I spoke to you yesterday, it was (you may recall) from Rome’s Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino, and we were about to fly to Cairo, Egypt. Three-and-a-bit hours later, as we made our landing approach, the sun was going down on the Land of the Pharaohs, and the dry-desert landscape was shrouded in haze.

We were excited? What do YOU think? Yes, of COURSE we were!

It was dark by the time we got bums and bags on the coach – and Cairo’s 18 million people all seemed to be rushing home from work in the same general direction as us. This wasn’t just a traffic jam: it was PANDEMONIUM! – and a tourist-experience all on its own. Cars with missing fenders, no lights, and loud horns … motor scooters weaving in and out of the traffic (sometimes even against the current) … grubby on-the-footpath shops … rubbish everywhere … donkey carts competing with overloaded trucks … garish brightly-lit billboards lining the ring-road … men fishing in the dark from a bridge that crossed the legendary Nile. On and on it went – fantastic!

Two hours later we reached the Mena House Oberoi and our beds for the night. This palatial hotel sits in the shadow of the Great Pyramids. But the Great Pyramids were just a huge ghostly outline in the night sky by the time we arrived – and they were just as hard to see when we left, only a few hours later. In fact, don’t tell anyone, but we were woken next morning at the unearthly hour of 1:00am (aarrgghh!) … and, by 2:15am, 49 very sleepy Kiwis were back on the coach, boxed breakfasts under our arms, driving to the airport!

(I warned you that this tour wasn’t for the faint-hearted!)

Why the early start? Well, next on our to-do list was Abu Simbel (south of Egypt, in the Nubian Desert, near the border with Sudan). And a red-eye flight was (i) the only flight available that morning … and (ii) the only way to beat the heat down there in the desert.

Our lack of sleep was rapidly swept aside by the truly astonishing sight that awaited us at Abu Simbel. The two eye-popping, oversized mega-temples of Ramses II and Nefertari, carved deep into a rocky cliff-face by Egyptian engineers back in 1257 BC, were astonishing enough. But just as astonishing was the recent (1960s) relocation of both temples – block by block, in an artificial mountain on higher ground – by UNESCO engineers, to save them from the rising waters of the newly-forming Lake Nasser.

For the first time in three weeks, our Mad Midlifers were speechless … blown-away (I kid you not) by the scale of these things!

Later, following another short flight to Aswan and a photo-stop at the Aswan High Dam, we were welcomed aboard the luxury ms Tamr Henna for our much-anticipated Nile Cruise. After checking out our cabins, bouncing on our beds, and gobbling lunch, we went ashore for an afternoon tour in-and-around Aswan – which included (i) the amazing Unfinished Obelisk (abandoned in the city’s granite quarry 2000-plus years ago when it developed a crack) … (ii) the lyrical Temple of Isis out on the island of Philae (which we reached by means of a small boat) … (iii) a felucca (Nile yacht) ride around Elephantine Island, with views of the Agha Khan Mausoleum plus the Old Cataract Hotel (made famous by Agatha Christie’s ‘Death On The Nile’).

Then it was back onboard for a freshen-up – and a classy dinner in the elegant restaurant.

TOMORROW:

We cruise downstream to Kom Ombo, where we visit a temple (180 BC) dedicated to Sobek, the Crocodile God… and then on to Edfu and the beautifully preserved Temple of Horus, the Falcon God.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

ALEXANDRIA & PORT SAID

NILE BLOG 05

Thursday 4 October, 2012

Alexandria

As we were waking up this morning, on this our second day in Egypt, the Prinsendam was manoeuvring gently alongside the cruise terminal in Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal. And, from our up-high vantage points in our cabins or out on deck, we watched a colourful tangle of fishing boats jostling for mooring-space in the harbour below … and ate breakfast to the accompaniment of muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer over loud-speakers installed in the tops of nearby minarets

We spent yesterday, of course, in Alexandria – Egypt’s second largest city, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. These days, nine million people live cheek-to-jowl in that tired, untidy, overflowing metropolis … and watching the teaming masses go about their daily business was an education, to say the least!

We Kiwis climbed aboard two coaches in the afternoon (along with armed guards) for an overview drive through the civic centre, the main square and the bazaar. We motored along the cornice (waterfront) to the eastern harbour, with a toilet-stop at the impressive Salamlek Hotel (built by Khedive Abbas II for his Austrian mistress) … and photo-stops at the Montazah Palace & Gardens (built by Abbas as the summer home for Egypt’s royal family), the Abu al-Abbas Mursi Mosque (a superb example of modern Islamic architecture), the Fort of Qait Bay (built on the ruins of the Faros Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and Alexandria’s massive new library (built with help from UNESCO).

But yesterday’s highlights were actually (i) a rush-hour (literally) traffic-jam, which saw us all waving to friendly locals and going nuts with our cameras … and (ii) the extended conversations we had on both coaches with the highly-educated, well-informed, and surprisingly-frank young ladies who were our tour guides for the afternoon. About what? Oh, about Muslim customs, Egyptian politics, the recent changes that have shaken this ancient nation, and lots more. Fascinating? You bet!

Then today? Well, Port Said (pronounced ‘side’, not ‘sed’) was founded in 1859 at the start of the Suez Canal excavations – and, by the late 19th-century, had become a bustling port (synonymous with hashish-smuggling and crime) where all the major maritime powers had consulates. It took a beating during the Suez Crisis and two wars (1967 and 1973) with Israel. Nowadays, however, this hyperactive, ramshackle city of half-a-million people earns its living as an important harbour: both for Egyptian exports (like cotton and rice), and also as a fuelling station for the 20,000+ ships that pass through the Suez each year.

Port Said is a popular kick-off point for tours to Cairo, the pyramids, etc – but we Kiwis are returning to Egypt later to do all that in style. So we just took it easy, watching all the comings-&-goings, wandering the town, rubbing shoulders with locals, enjoying horse-&-buggy rides past mosques, markets and landmarks, and sitting out the afternoon heat in the Prinsendam’s air-conditioned restaurants or around the pool.

This is a tough life, I tell you, and I don’t know how much longer we can keep it up …

PEOPLE NEWS:

Have you ever noticed how some couples, the longer they’re together, start looking more and more the same? Well, that must have happened to today’s nominee for a quacky-duck award:

  • Goodness knows how, but Peter managed to get off – and back on – the ship today using his wife’s photo-ID card. Must’ve been his new lipstick, we think. But for that little bit of trickery Peter earns the Mad Midlife ‘Sex Change Award’. A round of applause for Peter …
  • There are numerous lectures, classes, workshops, etc that passengers can attend on this ship. And some of us have been learning Creative Photo Editing with Windows Live. The panorama shots included here are by Rodger Grant (Alexandria) and yours truly (Port Said). Aren’t we clever?

TOMORROW:

Oh boy! Another big day … another ancient culture … and another bunch of unforgettable memories! Ashdod, with its seaside promenade, is Israel’s largest port – and serves as a gateway to Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. (You’re green with envy, eh?)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

Port Said

DELPHI & THE PRINSENDAM

NILE BLOG 04

Tuesday October, 2012

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“Time’s fun when you’re having flies …” (as the old saying goes). And our sojourn in Greece came to an all-too-sudden end yesterday when we boarded our cruise ship and sailed for parts unknown. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Yesterday began with another 5:30am wake-up call … another yummy non-Weight-Watchers breakfast … and another loading of the coach with bodies and bags. We waved goodbye to Meteora and its unforgettable mountain monasteries, and drove south (that’s right, south – or southeast-ish, if you want to be precise) towards the rising sun. The temperature outside rose steadily (we’ve had 39 degrees, and maybe more, here in Greece) – but we Kiwis weren’t bothered. In air-conditioned comfort we snored with our mouths open, told laugh-yourself-silly jokes, and sang a few choice numbers from the Midlife Madness Ye Olde Songbook … stopping every hour or two to top-up on food and drink at Greek autobahns.

Our destination was the ‘biggie’ of Greek religious shrines: the 2400-year-old Oracle of Delphi – considered by ancients to be the physical and spiritual centre of the earth. This place has everything: a long and glorious history, spectacular ancient remains, a new museum, and a breathtakingly beautiful location on the craggy slopes of Mount Parnassus. There’s not a lot left standing, to be honest – with the ruined Temple of Apollo being the main draw-card, and the smaller Sanctuary of Athena with its mysterious ‘tholos’ (circular temple) being Delphi’s most photographed attraction.

But we Kiwis lost no time puffing, panting, sweating and clambering all over the site.

Then, in the afternoon, we motored eastward to the port of Piraeus (Athens) where our floating hotel, the ms Prinsendam, was waiting to welcome us aboard.

The Prinsendam is the baby of Holland America Line’s proud fleet – carrying only 800 passengers, weighing 38,000 tons (for those of you who like to weigh your ships), with four giant diesel engines giving her a maximum speed of 21.5 knots. We sailed all night, leaving Greece and its untold islands behind, and have continued sailing all day.

I won’t go on about it now, because you’ll just get jealous. But let me drop a very broad hint: the 5-star-luxury part of this Mad Midlife adventure has begun in earnest. And, even as I write these words, your loved ones and friends are being disgustingly pampered.

I know you feel sorry for them, and I will pass on your sympathies and commiserations tonight when we sit down together for another four-course gourmet dinner.

CORRECTION: Several of you dear readers spotted a misteak in the previous blog-entry – where I stated that Kalambaka was “rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis in WW1.” Surely I meant WW2? Well, yes and no. The town was, in fact, nearly almost destroyed in WW1 by the Nazis – who were a virtually-unknown group at that stage. However, when it was pointed out that they should have waited until the next war, they apologised and stopped their almost-destruction, returning to properly almost destroy it in WW2. (And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything …)

PEOPLE NEWS:

Two more Mad Midlife Kiwis have each walked away with a cute little yellow Quacky Duck (or they will tomorrow morning when I’ll make the thrilling announcements):

  • As we embarked the Prinsendam yesterday we each received a plastic ID card (much like a credit-card) which (i) gets us on and off the ship, (ii) gets us into our cabins (doubling as a key) and (iii) allows us to purchase luxury goods and services on the ship (where cashlessness rules). Martin, who managed to lose his card almost as soon as he got it, had to go to the front office for a replacement – and shortly thereafter he found the original, tucked inside the little nametag-pouch which was hanging around his neck. For this and other misdemeanours, Martin wins our ‘He’d Lose His Head If It Wasn’t Screwed On Award’. (You had to be there …)
  • Pam gets the ‘Upside Down & Inside Out Award’ for reading the security code on her Visa card upside down – and spending 30 panicky moments wondering why her online Visa transaction was being declined.

TOMORROW:

With our heads still spinning from all we learned in Greece, we get face-to-face with another ancient culture in Alexandria – Egypt’s second largest city, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. (Bet you wish you were with us – right?)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.