Getting up at 2.15 a.m. to reach my flight from Zurich to Hurghada was tough but sacrifices must be made for vacations 😉
At least I had a lovely experience at the Zurich airport – just breezing through check in, security checks and boarding; attentive, friendly personnel and no queues – you gotta love business class. Thankfully, it’s not that expensive for short distance flights but I gotta figure out a way to afford that for long distances as well. Hey boss, seriously, I need a raise for, uhm, basic human amenities? At least they should be considered basic.
Onboard, the business class experience continued with different types of actual, fresh, warm bread and a high quality breakfast selection – hard and soft cheese, ham, Birchermüsli, fresh fruit and an ample supply of champagne. As the overhead screens had frozen for some reason, I used the pilot software to periodically check our location and flight data.
Altitude as usual around 39000ft, average speed over ground 450knots. Boy, these things are fast – in comparison, our little planes are hard pressed to scrape a mere 140kts (all the while puffing like the I-think-I-can-train).
Here are a few pictures from the flight:
Sunrise was just over the Croatian coast – very pretty.
After arriving in Hurghada, I was promptly picked up by our guide from Aggressor for the two hour drive to Marsa Alam. Hurghada is situated between the Red Sea and the desert, a hotspot for tourists and seemingly perpetually under construction.
The harsh landscape of the desert appears completely different from the greens of Europe. No bush, no tree – yet the vast, empty expanse is strangely pleasing to the eye. Just sand in different shades of beige, with rocky surfaces in between and dark mountains rising in the background, shrouded in mist.
A few Bedouin families apparently live in the solitude at the foot of these mountains. Originally from South Sudan, they make their home near small waterholes. They usually have a camel and maybe a few goats, living mostly of milk and bread. When the water is depleted they pack up their tent and move on.
There’s some traffic in the area close to Hurghada, mostly older, oddly shaped cars. Small groups of men (mostly in traditional attire) standing around are common. Women on the other hand are conspicuous only through their absence.
Litter is discarded directly next to the road or in the desert, wherever it must have been convenient. As a consequence there are small piles of rubbish scattered throughout the landscape which are being further distributed by the wind.
On the drive south, the stark contrast between the yellow sands and the light turquoise and dark blues of the Red Sea was striking. Heading further south, the traffic thins noticeably until there are no more cars in sight and we seem to be alone in the desert.
My step counter was very pleased with me after the drive (more than 10000 steps!) but I’m afraid it was just the road bumps.
Homa away from home, the Steigenberger Coroya, is situated directly at the sea, with Arabian style elements such as ornate mosaics, vases or the typical, intricate doorways. In between the buildings, there are green areas dotted with palm trees, flowering bushes and lush, green grass. After our drive through the desert, this abundance seems strange, even frivolous. Where does all the sweet water come from? Isn’t this a huge waste?
At the coast, the wind is a constant presence and a welcome relief from the baking sun.
The personnel is extremely friendly, almost excessively so. This must be how the pharaohs of old used to feel – everybody immediately backing out of the way when you approach, jumping at your every gesture, infinitely eager to please.
The Spa experience on the other hand wasn’t quite at this level. I actually stopped the massage. Well, there’s a first for everything.
Diving in the Red Sea was good but not spectacular. The coral reefs in the southern part are beautiful and there are many smaller, colourful fish to see. However, larger fish have become rare to the point where seeing even a single shark is considered a treat. Apparently, a lot of them have recently fallen victim to overfishing in order to meet the Chinese demand for shark fin soup. Another problem is the sheer number of divers that congregate on the dive sites. Even on the southern routes, which are supposed to be far less crowded than, say Hurghada, having up to 20 dive boats in one spot is common. In other terms, with a minimum of 20 divers per boat you can end up having 400 something divers invading a single site. With so much traffic both above and underneath the surface, it is not surprising that a lot of animals get scared off. This is especially true for shy species such as the hammerhead shark. After diving in the Galapagos, where hundreds of hammerhead sharks in one dive are nothing out of the ordinary, the absence of pelagics in the Red Sea is particularly striking.
On our third dive of the day at the famed Daedalus reef, the wind picked up and thus worsened the already choppy conditions. Coming up and during our safety stop at 5 meters we were moved back and forth by the powerful surge. Back on top, the waves were so high that we temporarily lost sight of the others with each passing wave. When the zodiac finally arrived to pick us up we had to take care not to be pulled underneath the boat. As the first divers slowly made their way onto the dinghy, the waves got progressively higher and it got harder and harder to hold on to the rope. Until, with another big wave rolling in, the girl next to me lost her grip. She and three others were carried away, directly onto the reef, where they managed to get a foothold. However, both the reef and the surge were now between them and the boat. Our skipper tried to throw them a rope but they were too far away to reach it and it was doubtful whether they (or rather all of them) would have had the strength to pull themselves to the boat anyway. After several attempts, our dinghy deposited the few of us who had made it safely inside on the main boat and returned with two other dinghies to retrieve those who were stranded. Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt – they only had a few scratches and several tears in their wetsuits. However, the reef likely sustained some damage through their presence as well as through their rescue.
After a couple of guided dives with the group, my dive buddy and I got tired of having to dodge other divers and decided to head out on our own. Things immediately got more interesting. Alone, we were more relaxed and we had ample time to take in and appreciate our environment – the beautiful soft and hard corals and the colorful, often schooling fish. We also saw much more interesting stuff because the fish didn’t scare as easily. If 20 divers were coming straight at me I’d hide too. In addition, because we have some training in cave diving, we were able to explore several caverns and tight swimthroughs that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. This was even more fun because we were doing it on our own, with nobody else around. You kind of get an explorer vibe.
On to Luxor
On Egyptian roads you do learn to appreciate cars with good suspension. Impressive holes in the road alternate with literally thousands of speed bumps – virtually indistinguishable (they feel pretty much the same to your butt and back) except for the fact that the bumps are usually found in bundles of 3 or 4.
The drive from Port Ghalib to Luxor first took us north along the Red Sea to Safaga, then west through the desert hills to Qena, finally turning back south to Luxor following the banks of the Nile. This circuitous road was necessary in order to pass several military check points which are supposed to ensure tourist safety. The direct route through the desert also doesn’t get mobile reception which may become very inconvenient if your car was to break down.
Night had fallen during the drive through the desert and the lack of artificial lights in this area allowed a good view of the milky way.
The driving in Egypt is interesting to say the least (even as a passenger). Communication with other drivers is achieved through creative usage of all available lights and more or less insistent honking. For instance, as far as I’ve figured out, turning up the headlights can mean anything from ‘here I come’ to ‘have you seen me?’ to ‘what the bloody hell are you doing?’.
Car lights are a far cry from standardized Europe as well. While some cars prefer going without any lights at all (darkness be damned) others are lit like a Christmas tree. Maybe this is a reflection of the driver’s character – the ones who like to pass unnoticed and incognito versus the party animals announcing their presence to the world. Safety seems to be a secondary concern.
Between Qena and Luxor, the landscape changes drastically. Suddenly, there are flowering bushes and even trees next to the road. The trees are allowed to grow over the roads, forming a tunnel, to provide some cover from the scorching heat to the farmers and their heavily loaded donkeys.
Like some cars, mosques are also lit in neon bright colors, predominantly green and white. This is because, apparently, Muslim men used to wear some kind of green cover on their head in ancient times.
Visiting the tombs and temples of old Egypt has been impressive. The tombs in the valley of the kings are still colorful after thousands of years and the hieroglyphics still legible (to those in the know). The energy that went into creating those gateways to the afterlife is astounding. While some areas have been destroyed by vandalism, grave robbers and the passing of time, what remains is still remarkable.
The temple of Ramses III is a huge complex of courtyards and columns, decorated with hieroglyphics and paintings that still show remnants of fading colors. Trying to conjure up what it must have been like at its height still gives a hint of the power and wealth of the pharaoh behind it. Godlike is no exaggeration.
Below are a few galleries of the temples and tombs we visited:
Valley of the kings
Tomb of Ramses IV
Tomb of Ramses III
Tomb of Ramses IX
Temple of Hatshepsut and area
Tempel of Karnak (east bank)
Tempel of Luxor (east bank)
A final note
I encountered several difficulties on this trip. For one, I was quite sick an extraordinary amount of time, with various complaints from gastrointestinal problems to flue like symptoms. This is an eerie reminder of my last time in Egypt when I was also violently sick. Second, the cultural differences are just a lot to take. The customs, the interactions and the aggressive selling just feel very tiresome. I also can’t come to terms with the female status in these countries. Maybe these points explain why I’m somehow never completely at ease in this place. Plus, the whole Arab world seems to be smoking. Is this in compensation for the tabu on alcohol? The news that smoking is not exactly healthy doesn’t seem to have arrived here. I’m a definite non-smoker, so this is another disadvantage. Also, while the hotel in Luxor was generally ok, periodic wafts of burned plastic drifted in from the other side of the river. Apart from environmental concerns, the stench was quite unpleasant. In light of the above, it’s quite likely my last trip to an Arab country.