No time to relax yesterday on Spirit of Adventure. We docked in Safaga in Egypt – with Thomson Celebration just along the quay – and most of the passengers had an early start just after breakfast, setting off in a convoy of coaches for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Luxor.
It was a proper convoy, with an armed police escort, as the Egyptian government is anxious to avoid any more terrorist atrocities which would damage tourism, the country’s biggest industry.
Trouble was, our police escort appeared oblivious to our need to get to Luxor quickly, in order to squeeze in a tour of the Temples of Karnak, lunch at a hotel in the city (you don’t expect cruise passengers to go hungry, do you?) and then a visit to the Valley of the Kings before the long drive back to the ship.
So we were delayed, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By the time we parked outside the shiny new visitor centre at Karnak everyone else had gone for lunch, and instead of having to queue and squeeze past thousands of other tourists, we had the place almost to ourselves and could admire the unique site, built over a period of 2,000 years from the 16th century BC, with little interruption.
Even so, an hour was nowhere near enough to take everything in at what is said to be the largest ancient religious site in the world (although I’m not sure what the guardians of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia would say about that claim).
To see it again properly, and at leisure, I might have to return on one of the Nile cruise boats I saw as we crossed the river heading for the Valley of the Kings.
There were few crowds there either, and it was possible to explore the Pharaoh’s final resting places at a leisurely pace, marvelling quietly at how the incredible wall paintings have survived intact for thousands of years, many still looking as if they had been created yesterday.
There was an extra charge to visit the tomb of Tutankhamun – not worth it according to our guide because it is neither the biggest nor the best and is renowned mainly because when it was discovered by Howard Carter its contents were intact, whereas all the others had long since been looted. Now the treasures, including the famous mask, are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, occasionally making a visit to London, as it did last year.
I did wonder, however, whether I ought to have made the effort, because the tomb will be closed to the public in the near future, in order to save it from further deterioration, and a future visit might involve touring a replica.
My thanks must go to the Egyptian guide in one of the tombs, who shone his torch inside the sarcophagus to show me the carving of the pharaoh’s wife chiselled into the massive granite lid. Unlike most of the locals we encountered, he was not hassling to sell anything, nor was he asking for baksheesh. Most surprising of all, when I pressed him to take a $1 tip, he offered to give me change. He was a real treasure.
There were plenty of open hands looking for small change outside the restaurant in the middle of the desert where our coaches made a comfort stop on the journey back to the ship, and it would have taken a hard heart to refuse the woman who was cradling a baby while another child rode on the back of a donkey, with a baby goat nestling in the pannier.
It was one time when I regretted not having any change with me.
Next stop, Suakin, in the Sudan. We’ve just been told the local authorities require the ship’s doctor to record the temperature of every passenger on board, to ensure we don’t arrive there with an unwanted delivery of swine flu. So I have an appointment with a thermometer to meet.
As long as the reading is normal, I’ll be back later in the week with my impressions of the largest country in the Arab world – well, one tiny corner of it at least.