Abu Simbel, the McArabia, felucca sailing, Kitchener's Island Botanical Gardens
05/11/2011 89 °F
We are up early and by four o'clock we are at a parking lot for the early caravan to Abu Simbel. There are two caravans a day to Abu Simbel: one at 4:00 a.m. and one at 11:00 a.m. The early caravan allows us about two and a half hours at Abu Simbel plus the advantage of it being nice and cool in the early morning hours. If we were to take the late morning caravan we would end up spending only about an hour and a half there and it can be really hot by that time.
The caravan heads out in three groups: 4:15 a.m., 4:30 a.m. and 4:45 a.m. There are a couple of rules: a lead bus and an end bus are designated. All of the cars, buses or vans must stay with the caravan but they can’t pass the lead bus and they can’t lag behind the end bus. I had read the caravans were organized for security reasons because of past terrorist attacks. That may still be true but another big reason is the drive is about three hours and it is a desolate drive. If you broke down on the road you would be very miserable and it would be difficult to get help. Cell phone service is not available for the entire area.
Even with a nice comfortable car or van, it is a difficult and boring drive. There is no stopping along the way (there’s nothing to stop for) and there’s nothing to see except sand. For some reason the drivers still think it’s necessary to drive like they are in Cairo. Sometimes there are three cars driving abreast at 120 or 130 kilometers an hour, which can still make for a hair-raising adventure. That means at least one car is driving in the lane of oncoming traffic. There is very little oncoming traffic but still… the distant road shimmers in the heat and it can be difficult to see up ahead. I can’t sleep sitting up so that’s out of the question. I keep an eye on our driver to see if he’s feeling sleepy. Our guide from the boat, Ismail, is with us – he and Timothy seem to have no trouble sleeping. I watch the road and try to act casual as the front bumper of our car comes within inches (I’m not exaggerating here!) of the lead bus. Sometimes we pull up alongside the lead bus as if we are going to pass it but we never do.
We arrive at Abu Simbel about 7:30 a.m. Ismail has given us the history lecture in the car in the last half hour before we arrive. We hit the WC and then walk quickly towards the temples in hopes of getting a couple of photos before the crowds descend. Ismail tells us what to look for inside the temples (tour guides and cameras are not allowed in the temples) and then we are on our own to explore.
Abu Simbel is probably the most crowded place we have been to in Egypt to date. Maybe because it has the most control when visiting. (You would need to decide at least a day in advance if you are going and then join one of the tour groups. The caravans need to know who’s going and what vehicle will be used: the military police keep records of our arrivals and departures at every point. Nothing fancy – this information is passed on to the police by the caravan drivers; we don’t need to show our passports.) With all the ships in Aswan, there are a lot of foreign tourists. In fact, this is the first time on this trip that I haven’t seen any women with their heads covered except with a hat. Egyptians don’t wear hats so we foreigners are easy to spot by our headgear. The temples are very beautiful and there is still a lot of the original paint on the walls.
Abu Simbel is an amazing spot and I can’t help but think we are looking at two world wonders in one: the original temples themselves carved out of the mountain rock thousands of years ago and the second world wonder of moving these two temples to keep them from being submerged by the new High Dam completed in 1971. Timothy and I are both fascinated by the enormous job it would have taken to do this. Luckily the visitor’s center shows a documentary that includes film footage taken during the four-year project headed by UNESCO (also for sale in the visitor’s center). The guard obliges our request to play the DVD in the English language version and we spend a few minutes checking it out. It is an amazing mind-boggling job: Abu Simbel was moved 210 meters behind and 65 meters above their original location. Then a fake mountain dome was created to mimic the original mountain and avoid any possible stress damage in the future.
I am happy we went to the extra trouble and money of visiting Abu Simbel but Timothy and I are both wiped out by the time we arrive back in Aswan around 1:00 p.m. We aren’t good for much so we arrange to sail on a felucca around Elephantine Island and visit the botanical gardens on Kitchener’s Island. I also get to see the Old Cataract Hotel from our felucca. I would have liked to enjoy a G&T on the terrace at this hotel but it is unfortunately closed right now for renovation. (A little book and movie trivia: Agatha Christie stayed at this hotel and was inspired to write, “Death on the Nile” during one of her stays here in Aswan. And of course, the 1970s movie version of “Death on the Nile” was partially filmed at this hotel.)
Prior to our felucca trip, we get a late lunch at one of the local eateries. Whenever we travel in another country, Timothy and I like to have one meal at McDonalds. It can be very interesting how the food of a popular American institution is translated to appeal to the local culture and tastes. So I give you... the McArabia! Two grilled 100% Kofta patties covered with tahina sauce, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and onions all wrapped in a savoury Arabic bread. Yummy! The fries were really good and I had a McRoyale with Cheese (just like in "Pulp Fiction"!). For some reason though the beef patties in the hamburgers were really salty.
That pretty much does it for Aswan. I don’t think there’s much more we could do here… Wait, let me clarify that: I’m sure there is a lot more we could do but I don’t think we would be interested. I had thought Aswan was a much smaller place than it is. For some reason I had gotten the impression Aswan was a small town where people briefly stop to visit Abu Simbel; it is much more than that. Unfortunately, it is beginning to remind me of our trip to the Greek Islands. Remember that trip, John and Regina? Aswan is beginning to remind me of Poros. Can’t go into detail here but I think you get the idea.