Egypt - Red Sea, Valley of Kings, Aswan 3500 years ago

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Elba Reef is confusingly in either Egypt or Sudan (its in dispute) and has
nothing to do with Elba of Napoleonic fame - it's a corruption of El Dibia.
The reef is already marked by a large ship perched incongruously on top, and
by 3 smaller rocks. The entrance 'into' the reef is so narrow (10 metres),
and the isolated 'bommies' (smaller coral outcrops just below the surface)
so dangerous that Elba is rarely visited by intent, more often by
misadventure.

Intrepid sidled into the entrance, just avoided bommies, anchored - and then
the dolphins came to visit. 20 Spinner dolphins, Chris and I slipped into
the water and for 3 minutes swam with them, hearing their excited squeaks,
watching their elegant family groupings, until they tired of our ungainly
slow splashings, and sped away in search of something more edible. Elba is
10 miles offshore, the GPS error is 0.5 mile, so you can't navigate by GPS -
just old fashioned eyeball navigation. The coral was out of this world,
delicate fans, lacework, brains, fingers, and multi-hued fish that looked as
if they hadn't seen a snorkeller ever. There is a real sense of isolation -
so much so that Jill was very reluctant to swim - you are very much on your
own out here.

We stayed overnight, admiring another thunderstorm as the convergence of
winds shifted above us, then sailed off 250 miles north to Port Ghalib as
there are few anchorages. One yacht that passed us motored/motorsailed the
entire 1500 miles from Aden right up the middle of the Red Sea to Egypt into
strong winds and big waves not stopping anywhere. What a waste! These myths
about having to get up the Red Sea early cause a lot of unnecessary grief.
As does the fishing - we caught nothing apart from a small Marlin that
self-released after 6 massive leaps - so I had to cook a rather good yeasty
meat pie instead.

Port Ghalib is a large new marina and housing development in Southern Egypt.
Well actually it's a construction site, but its hoped that it will be a
resort one day. For now the inlet has been dredged and heavy machinery is
working on the houses. Its supposed to be a port of entry but we arrived at
5pm and it wasn't until 11pm that we were cleared in after immigration
refused initially to accept Chris and Jill's visas issued in Australia - its
often easier to rely on visas on arrival which dim-witted immigration can at
least understand. The Coral Beach Dive Hotel doesn't actually have a beach
or coral but it does have dive boats - but they and the hotel are operating
at 20% capacity at best -its financed by Kuwait (largely) so all should be
OK in the long term, in the meantime if you want a good deal diving, try it,
its friendly and pleasant.

How about Egypt as a member of the European Union? It used to be, well as
part of the Roman Empire, remember Caesar and Cleopatra, and Alexandria and
Ptolemy? It probably won't happen not least because the Egyptians probably
regard themselves as too Arab and wouldn't want it - but the hotel prices
are in Euros, and as a route for aid via trade Egypt would be a good
bridgehead into Africa, and has an intelligent and well educated workforce -
it might even be more acceptable than Turkey. Egypt is on the cusp of west
and east, Arab, Africa or Euro, and at times seems to have the worst of all
worlds (bureaucracy, corruption, laziness), then at other times, the best
(friendliness, hard work, intelligence).

The fame of the early Egyptian culture is well known but a few  points
struck me. First, just how early it was - the Pyramids in about 2500BC, and
the Luxor Valley of the Kings and Queens and Abu Simbel in 1500BC, were
about as long before the Romans as we are after Jesus and the Romans. So
this was very early - the Egyptians had bronze but not iron, so all the
stone had to be cut by flints as bronze is too soft. Next, the colours! To
be able to see such vivid intense (original) colours and such detail of life
3500 years ago in the 200+ tombs in the Valley of Kings and Queens is
inspiring. The Romans in 200BC to 200 AD were certainly impressed, so much
so that they built Edfu, Kom Ombo and Phillae temples along the Nile as
massive Roman copies with Egyptian hieroglyphics to enable them to continue
to worship, and Roman tourists flocked to the Collossi of Memon which were
already 1500 years old.

Egypt never was an Empire -it never really expanded beyond its present
borders, but the richness of the Nile valley (which deposited fertile silt
every year minimising any need for ploughing) created a massive surplus of
labour which was used for temple and tomb building. The Egyptian army was
adequate at protecting the borders, using the latest technology - light
chariots and bronze tipped compound bows and arrows.

I had not fully appreciated how extreme is the effect of the Nile - on
either side for about 5 kms the valley is green, immensely fertile. Then at
the boundary it changes quite abruptly within a few metres to desert -
yellow sand rock or gravel. Egypt from West to East is the Western desert,
with a few oases, then 10 kms of the Nile valley expanding as it reaches the
Med to the large Nile Delta with Cairo at its southern tip, then the Eastern
desert then the Red Sea. The high Sinai desert of 10 Commandments fame is
between the 2 fingers north of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of
Aquaba.

The British took control of Egypt in a way unfortunately repeated often in
the 20th century by the West - British banks lent Egyptians so much money at
such rates of interest that it was impossible to repay them - so the British
took over Egypt 'until such time as they could repay their debts'. The
British did build the first Aswan dam in 1900, at the time the biggest in
the world. With so much desert the temptation to make more use of the Nile
is immense, and the much larger Aswan High Dam was supposed to be funded by
the World Bank etc in 1950's but when they suddenly cancelled funding after
Colonel Nasser threw out the British installed puppet King Farouk, Nasser
nationalized the Suez Canal, outfaced the British/French/Israeli invasion,
then invited the Russians to complete the project. It is quite different
from the Hoover high dam which is concrete. Aswan is massive earth fill -
which is comforting when you think that it is holding back a lake that
stretches back 300 miles well into Sudan, and if the dam broke all this
would wash over most of the population in the Nile valley and Cairo..It even
extinguished a country - Nubia - whose gold made Tutankhamen's death mask,
and whose population were living where Lake Nasser now is. UNESCO lead the
appeal for funding to move the temples of Abu Simbel and Phillae to higher
ground, and in a race against the rising waters just about succeeded. (The
Nubians didn't get such favourable treatment). We visited the 4 splendid 20
metre high statues of Rameses II in Abu Simbal overlooking lake Nasser 280
kms south of Aswan, while in the other Abu Simbal temple, 4 more Rameses
II's
look out with his favourite wife Nefertari beside. In many places they had
to use hand saws to cut the rock, so delicate was the operation. Other
unintended side effects include rampant billharzia (liver fluke) because the
Nile no longer flushes out the irrigation canals; and because silt no longer
washes through the dam, massive fertilizer use downstream, and the slow
silting up of Lake Nasser.

We had left Intrepid in Hurgada Marina, at the south end of the Gulf of Suez
and opposite Sharm el Sheik. The marina is just being finished and is very
safe and comfortable, but the dozens of dive boats are generally empty -
often only 3 or 4 people each. There are unfinished developments all along
the Red Sea coast - we heard that before 9/11 Luxor had 6000 tourists/day;
after, it dropped to 800. That's like having an income of $100/day and
dropping to $12/day. Now its slowly increased to about 2000, and real estate
is starting to come back - all the apartments at Hurgada Marina have been
sold (for $1200/square metre). But the other problem is Islamic
fundamentalists who sometimes attack tourists. They killed 63 tourists
(mainly Japanese honeymooners unfortunately) at a temple in at Luxor and in
Cairo in 1997 and at Sharm el Sheik in 2005. The Egyptian Government's
response is to have armed police at all tourist sites (sensible) and to
organise all transport in convoys (not sensible). As I understand it there
has not been any attacks on tourist vehicles, and the inconvenience of
leaving Aswan to go to Abu Simbal at 03.20 am to join the only convoy that
day at 04.30 am to arrive at 7.30am is considerable. And the escort is
meaningless anyway - on our convoy from Luxor to Aswan, the only escort
vehicle went in front at 120 kph through the villages overtaking on blind
bends and very quickly left all the rest of the vehicles behind. Our driver
tried to keep up also overtaking on blind bends until we persuaded him to
slow down, after which we felt much safer. The roads in Egypt are adequate
but there are speed bumps almost every mile or 2 at security checkpoints, so
our 280 km journey from Hurgada to Luxor took 4 hours by car one way and 6
hours by bus the other.

Egypt caters to all types of tourists from grand 5* hotels, either modern or
Victorian elegance at about $300/night through ugly Nile Cruisers to 1*
hotels at $13/night. Hotel Nefertiti at Luxor had been recommended, so we
went there, and it turned out to be a very clean en suite room with a roof
terrace and view all over the Nile Valley  for $13/night including
breakfast. Transport in Luxor is mainly by horse drawn carriage - beautiful
and elegant but the Egyptian hassle factor gets a bit wearing - every 5
seconds someone is trying to sell you something or get you to take a
carriage or taxi. Friendly though.

The Valley of the Kings is on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor in
hills above the Nile valley, in fact behind a pyramid shaped hill. The tombs
were then covered with sand and debris to deter grave robbers. However this
failed in most cases - except Tutankhamen, whose tomb was immediately below
the already excavated tomb of Rameses VI so everyone missed it, until Howard
Carter found it in 1922. Each Pharaoh started their tomb, almost as soon as
they were a child, so the length of the tomb indicates how old they were
when they died - the longest reaches 250 metres below the surface. It must
concentrate the mind to design and build your own tomb - your obituary in
fact - while you are still living! The hieroglyphics and glowing pictures I
found immensely appealing - especially some of the tombs of 7 year old
children in the Valley of Queens.

The temple at Karnak, (2000BC -0AD) just 2 kms north of Luxor is so big that
in just one of its halls you could fit St Pauls Cathedral in London and St
Peters in Rome into it. Karnak was the central temple and every Pharaoh left
some contribution including the only female Pharaoh, Hatsheput, whose
obelisk (single upright piece of carved granite) is bigger than all the
rest. She reigned as regent, but when Tuthmosis II succeeded he scratched
out as many of her names as he could.

One book describes the greatest threat to Egypt as not being fundamentalists
but rather the failing economy. The tourist sights and resorts give a
misleading impression - most Egyptians are very poor, we talked to 2 young
doctors who are paid the equivalent of $110/month. Female illiteracy is
about 50%, and hence families are large, typically 5 or more  - each year
Egypt with a population of 70m has another 1 million people to feed. To keep
the lid on all this the political system is restrictive - so much so that
one paper complained that in the absence of a political process, the only
way to get a protest heard is to write to the Letters to the Editor of the
local papers. President Mubarak and the National Democratic Party have ruled
for the last 24 years, with rigged elections every 4 years which have a
turnout of just 23%.(opponents the Muslim Brotherhood are banned and
routinely jailed). One day dissatisfaction may get out of hand, because
Egyptians are immensely proud of their country but if they feel it is not
being properly governed...

We had wondered whether we were being alarmist over pirates, but one yacht
in Port Ghalib had already been shot up in 1998 (the lady was shot in the
leg), and they only just escaped with their lives; and 2 days ago a Food Aid
ship was attacked off Somalia and a guard killed. But the strain of trying
to go too fast is too much for many yachts - Aliesha is a Harlberg Rassey
36 - her Volvo engine broke down completely in Hurgada, and they are having
to try to get to Suez for a complete engine re-build using a 25hp outboard.
Dick and Pam looked so sad and worried that we finally offered to accompany
them for safety as the winds in the Gulf of Suez are mostly hard
northerlies, the Gulf is narrow, and there are lots of oil platforms some
cut off just below the surface and unlit. It will cost us a few days and
will mean slow going but I think it's the only proper thing to do - if the
makeshift bracket holding their outboard fails they could easily end up on a
reef in a gale..

We hope to go through Suez about 1st June, and are booked to be back in UK
on 22nd June leaving Intrepid in Kemer Marina in Turkey. We look forward to
seeing those of you in UK.

With best wishes from Egypt,    Andy Nicky Chris and Jill.