Suez Canal - Catastrophes, Cairo and the bent Pyramid.

I have updated www.intrepidofdover.co.uk with photos and logs from Oman up
to Suez - sorry it hasn't been possible to do so earlier. And thanks for
comments etc on www.amazon.co.uk on Get that Job! (If you have trouble
finding it, put in Andy Gibb Get that Job in the Amazon search engine).

The Gulf of Suez is the left of the 2 'ears' at the top of the Red Sea. The
true extension of the Rift Valley up the Red Sea is the Gulf of Aquaba, the
right 'ear' that extends up to Eilat with Sinai on its left, and Saudi
Arabia on the right. So the Gulf of Suez is 150 miles long, narrow (10
miles) shallow (30 metres) and littered with hundreds of oil and gas
installations, with the shipping lanes for the Suez Canal 2.5 miles wide in
each direction going down the middle. The steep sides funnel the often
strong winds down or up the Gulf - usually down so that 90% of the time the
wind is dead ahead (if you are going north) and the waves are short steep
and nasty. Not a nice place to sail. In 2002, out of about 60 yachts, 5 were
wrecked in the northerly part of the Red Sea. Many yachts say it is the
worst sailing they have ever experienced. To quote one sailor: 'We hammered
away at the NW wind, then we nearly encountered disaster. There was a sudden
shift in the wind, and a strange yellowish cloudbank bore down on us. For 2
hours we were buried in a yellow murk while winds of hurricane violence tore
at us'. And this was a yacht that wasn't wrecked!

We had delayed for 2 days to help Aliesha whose engine had broken. We passed
the time by looking at Hurgada real estate - similar in some ways to Spain
but cheaper. But Pam on Aliesha developed food poisoning, and it became
clear that it was going to be a week before they were fit to go - going
earlier than that would rush them unnecessarily, and there were other yachts
around. So we said good-bye and sailed inshore behind coral reefs off
Hurgada to reduce the nasty 1 metre waves kicked up by the 20 knot winds.
Marsa Zeilut, 40 miles north was a good anchorage, one of the many oil and
gas terminals, then next day we sailed in an unusual southerly wind for a
few hours before the north wind kicked in again. We contacted Prince of the
Red Sea (shipping agents based in Suez) who urged us to get there quickly as
the weather would become very nasty, so we motored into the wind, crossed
the shipping channels under sail as evening fell, then as we ate rather good
Chicken Marengo and talked to the agent on the phone we sailed right through
one of the oil fields with platforms half a mile apart. Easy. But at
midnight the wind suddenly increased to a genuine and sustained 30+ knots
from dead ahead, and we turned back (quite an exercise in itself) to what
turned out to be a lovely sheltered anchorage at Ras Zenima, where the wind
was 10 knots and the sea flat. 5 am next morning we set off again in 15 knot
winds. We have had it lucky so far.

We made it to the south end of the Suez Canal by 4pm to find that the
weather forecast was as usual wrong - we found calm winds - but you don't
complain about that! We threaded our way past LPG tankers, container ships,
LNG tankers, crude tankers and then through the first 5 miles of the channel
until we got to the Suez Canal Yacht Club - owned by the Suez Canal and the
rendezvous and measuring point for all small boats going through the Canal.
Capt Hebe met us in a rowing boat, we paid our fees in advance (the exact
rates are determined by an archaic formula established in the Constantinople
Convention of 1888), and went to the Red Sea Hotel to celebrate getting up
the Red Sea. Capt Hebe was surprised at us, he said that most yachts say the
Red Sea was awful - we thoroughly enjoyed it, probably because we went up in
May, not February.

Port Suez is more or less 'dry' so we enjoyed the view of the south bound
convoy of 15 ships from the 6th floor restaurant with fresh lemon rather
than champagne, but its still exhilarating to see huge container ships and
tankers passing just 70 metres from Intrepid. When there are warships
transiting the canal, all small boats are cancelled. Captain Hebe is
convinced that America is going to start a war with Iran, so many warships
are passing. So the jungle telegraph operates. Port Suez is a pleasant
friendly town, largely destroyed in the 6 days and Yom Kippur wars, but
rebuilt in large soviet style apartment blocks and public parks hastily laid
over ruins. Also with 5 Israeli tanks, 2 guns and 1 aircraft - symbols of
the semi-victory which gave President Sadat of Egypt the negotiating
position to re-gain Sinai in the Camp David agreement brokered by Jimmy
Carter - a President usually regarded by Americans as a 'failure' before the
'success' of Reagan, but now due for re-evaluation.

The Suez Canal measurer confirmed our measurements and that we were booked
to transit the next day, Wednesday, again 'provided no warships'. The fee is
about $160, but if the keel is taken into account it can be $500 - the
Constantinople Convention didn't know about fin keels.

Neither did it know about submarines. At 9am Captain Hebe informed us that a
submarine was in the Canal and our transit was cancelled. Annoying, but Said
the 62 year boatman who blows kisses to all the ladies suggested a trip to
Cairo, and by 10am we were on our way, not to Cairo but to Sakhara and
Daushur. Everyone knows of the Pyramids of Egypt - the biggest one is at
Giza, with the Sphinx, crawling with visitors. But  about 20 kms south, are
the first Pyramids ever built, almost as large as the Giza Pyramids, and
seldom visited.

These date back to 2650BC to the 5th dynasty of Pharaohs who united upper
and lower Egypt (the upper Nile Valley and the Nile Delta respectively) and
in so doing generated such wealth that they could afford the fantastic
projects that the Pyramids were; and indeed to experiment as they were doing
it. (The farmers were idle for 6 months while  the Nile was in flood, so
Sneferu persuaded them to build his Pyramid during this idle time - its
encouraging I suppose that he chose a Pyramid rather than military
fortification or conquering army). We went first to Daushur, which was until
5 years ago a military zone, out of bounds to visitors even though it
contained 2 of Egypt's oldest and grandest Pyramids. Now there is a narrow
road leading there, but barbed wire fences still intrude. The Red Pyramid is
so called because of the reddish sandstone its core is made of - the flat
almost polished surface rock was carted off to build other buildings a few
millennia ago. Its was built by Pharaoh Sneferu (2600BC) 100 years earlier
than the Pyramids at Giza, and is almost as high (105 metres -v- 135 metres)
and just as impressive - more so because the 'bent' pyramid 1 km south shows
how the builders arrived at the Pyramid dimensions. The 'bent' Pyramid is
the same height (105 metres) but started off at a 54 degree steep angle -
until halfway up, the flat faced blocks of limestone facing became unstable,
and Sneferu and the builders had to reduce the angle to 43 degrees so
producing a huge Pyramid with a distinct kink.

The funeral chamber of the Red Pyramid is deep inside, reached by a long
inclining passage which eventually opens up to an inverse stepped highly
inclined ceiling about 20 metres high, with a further one opening off only 5
metres below the top, all to (unsuccessfully) deceive grave robbers. We were
the only visitors to the Bent Pyramid in the 1-2 hours we spent there, which
gives a much less commercial hassle free time.

Saqquara has the famous step Pyramid, the real prototype. The builders
started with the traditional 'Mastaba' grave for Pharaoh Zoser (2650BC),
essentially a covered mound, but then added another smaller layer of
sandstone on top, then when this looked good, another and so on up to 6
layers producing a stepped Pyramid, with a huge Funeral complex, which is
yielding a large number of tombs as it is excavated. Facing stones to give a
smooth finish came later with the bent and red Pyramids.

Next day there were no warships, so our Pilot Ali came at 10.30 and within 3
minutes we were off, racing in front of a large crude oil tanker in the
middle of the northbound convoy (not at the end as we had been told). I
steered as we settled on a speed of about 7.5 knots at 3000 rpm which with a
tide gave us 8.5 knots over ground. Ali and I alternated steering, passing
about 20 pontoon bridges stacked on the west bank, presumably to reinforce
the military in Sinai should they be needed.  There are no locks on the Suez
Canal, but the signs of war were evident in some old Israeli defences on the
east bank. After about 40 kms we reached the Bitter Lakes, where the Canal
forms a 'dual carriageway', enabling the southbound and northbound convoys
to pass each other - but to my eye at least it was a huge muddle as various
special cases made a mess of any organization - large tankers that although
going south could only use the deeper north channel, and various ships
anchored waiting. We zigzagged round ships 300 times bigger than Intrepid,
pursuing the wonderfully named 'Great Happy' a tanker from Hong Kong. I have
never pursued Happiness with such vigour as we tried to keep up with her.

After 20 kilometres the Canal resumed, and at 4pm we reached Ismalia on
Tamsik Lake, where all yachts have to stay for the night at the Suez Canal
Yacht Club, and Ali pleaded for an increase in his 10 pound 'tip', at one
point going on his knees. This is a popular place from which to visit Cairo
80 miles west, but because we are at the end of the 2007 cruising group of
yachts, there were only 4 yachts there. We 'Med-moored' to 2 buoys in front
with Intrepid's stern tied to the quay and next day bussed into Cairo. We
had booked into the Hotel Berlin recommended by the Lonely Planet, so it was
something of a shock to find it in an awful state - rundown and dismal.
Fortunately there are about 20 hotels in downtown, and Meramees Hotel is
quiet, clean and 4 minutes walk from the Nile and the Egyptian Museum which
houses the unique collection of Egyptian antiquities (9 pounds for a large
en suite room).

We had been to Cairo in 1981, en route from Oman to UK. It hasn't changed
much - the traffic is still chaotic, the cars battered, the antiquities
staggering. Crossing 6 lanes of never-ending traffic we perfected the
technique - find a local Cairene and position yourself downstream of him,
then cross as he does, walking confidently as the traffic weaves around you.
As an adrenalin rush it beats most rides on scary theme parks, its free and
you do it dozens of times/day. Before we discovered this, Nicky spent 20
minutes waiting for a gap, then asked a policeman in uniform who tried to
help her across - they were both nearly run down. Gallantry is determined by
whether you position your women upstream or downstream of you.

The best time to visit Cairo is a weekend (Friday and Saturday and to some
extent Sunday - when the 10% of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians are
praying). Most visitors come in winter, but the temperatures in early June
were pleasant, not too hot.

The Egyptian Museum has increased security a bit but is almost unchanged.
Because the Pharaohs believed that life went on after death, they provided
for the dead everything they used in life, giving an incredible insight into
how they lived. Tutankhamen's tomb was almost as if they had put everything
he owned and used (and much of his father's and grandfathers too) into his
tomb, sealed it up and forgot about him - until 1923 when Howard Carter
re-discovered it. It must have been 1000 times better even than they
expected. Tutankhamen in 7 burial casks, each inside the other, each a
marvel, the last of solid gold and the solid gold death mask looking as good
as when it was sealed up 3500 years ago. They believed that the Gods had to
be able to recognise the dead person, so the death masks were made to be as
lifelike as possible, and you can almost discern the character of the young
Pharaoh.

But what I found equally impressive were the every day objects - Tutankhamen's
vest and pants, his 25 pairs of shoes, his cupboards with trays for jewelry,
his 3 chariots, for hunting, processions and war, his chairs, his 5 beds,
some light when he was travelling, some more comfortable. It was relatively
uncrowded, so I could spend as long as I liked gazing at the death mask or
the golden coffins less than 1 metre away, with only a few people around.
But round the corner there are equally interesting in their own way models
of kitchens, workshops, boats, armies, with model people 10 cms high with
moveable arms, engaged in bread making, woodwork etc. For all I know the
young Pharaoh may have played with them, knowing they were supposed to
accompany him into the after life when he died.

For the remaining 3 days we explored Coptic Cairo where Joseph Mary and the
young Jesus were supposed to have sheltered on their flight into Egypt, and
where the Church is dedicated to St George with lots of pictures of him
slaying dragons. Also for a fee nuns will bind you in chains to re-devote
you to the martyrs who were usually bound before encountering a variety of
grisly deaths. There is certainly devotion here, most Cairenes were
elaborately kissing each of the pictures, and holding up young children to
do the same. The Jewish synagogue is also here. Then so as to be even-handed
we went to Islamic Cairo which coincidentally is beside the main Khan al
Khalili market. Chris and I were allowed into the  main Al-Hussain mosque,
you get some idea of the intended and continuing simplicity of the 'new'
religion - no pictures, no altar screen, no furniture really, just carpets
marked to pray on, and the niche in the wall to indicate the direction of
Mecca (confusingly, South South East). Shame that within a few years the
'new' religion had split into schisms just like the others. One, the Druze
sect was established by Al Darizy following the death of a total madman (Al
Hakim the 6th Fatimid ruler of Egypt ) if history is to be believed. In
another mosque, we found a genuine muezzin caller, (he proudly showed me his
Muezzin Identity card, and demonstrated  a short 'Allah' from the microphone
he uses).

The Nile dominates Cairo, with a few of the more exclusive areas (Zamalek
for instance) on islands, and its very accessible. We took a ferry down and
back (10 pence each), lounged in a river side park, then the very efficient
Metro, both quicker than car. An ancient rubbish tip just outside the old
city walls has been re-landscaped into a beautiful city park near the
citadel, where we looked down at the city beneath, and we visited 3 old
merchant's houses which have been excellently renovated with intricate
wooden screens and high vaulted ceilings.

But Suez called, and we returned to Ismalia, and as I write we are waiting
for the Pilot to join us for the final part of the Suez Canal. When we enter
the Mediterranean, we will have returned to the same Sea we left. Intrepid
will go north to winter in Kemer in Turkey. In July 2003 we sailed as far
east as Sicily so we actually have 500 miles to go for a complete
circumnavigation. We have sailed 35,000 miles since Sicily, and in total
45,000 miles since leaving UK in 2001. The circumference of the globe at the
equator is 25,000 miles (well, sailing boats even Intrepid ones don't travel
in straight lines).

I am sorry the www.intrepidofdover.co.uk website hasn't been updated for a
bit - I can only do it with a fastish connection and there haven't been any
in Aden, Eritrea or Sudan, and when I finally found a connection in Egypt I
also had to modify a few settings.

We will be in UK from 22nd June and in Kent from 1st August 2007. If you are
anywhere near, do drop us an email or phone 07932-054413. Chris and Jill
leave us in Ismalia, to travel on land through Europe, its been fun, they
have been with us for 2 months through an interesting set of countries and
experiences up the Red Sea.

Andy and Nicky

 Please reply to intrepidofdover@yahoo.co.uk. For news, photos and future
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