Aswan Egypt: romance, majesty and culture

Aswan is just beautiful. The difference between here and Cairo is palpable: fewer cars, swaying palms, and our hotel is right on the banks of the Nile. It is also a lot hotter. Cairo was chilly most of the day, but Aswan is proper desert heat!

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The pace has been much more relaxing here. After a dip in the pool to shake off the train dust, we headed to the most romantic temple in Egypt, called Philae. It is situated on an island in Lake Nasser (it had to be moved after the dam flooded its original location) and is dedicated to the goddess of love and beauty – Isis. Wali, our guide, used the group members as actors to explain the relationship between the Egyptian gods. Lofty ended up as Horus – pictured in this temple as a big baby! Hehe. We had a couple of hours to explore the stunning temple, which felt really unique owing to its island setting. We also had the place pretty much to ourselves. Lack of tourism has really hit Egypt and its people hard, but for us it allows an unexpected peace amongst the normally bustling temples.

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A quick stroll through Aswan markets had us haggling for scarves and saffron, giving a few egyptian pounds to a persistent-but-charming Del Boy named Mohammed, but it was early to bed as we had a three am start to Abu Simbel. Where Philae was romantic and peaceful, Abu Simbel is majestic and awe-inspiring. In fact, as you come around the corner, the first temple you see is the temple dedicated to Ramses II’s wife, Nefeteri. There were many oohs and ahhs – until Ramses II himself’s temple came into view and all jaws dropped!

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The story of how they moved Abu Simbel is really fascinating, although a few people questioned why it the dam was built with such little regard for the safety or preservation of such ancient wonders. But modern life must go on – and without the high dam modern life in Egypt would be nigh on impossible. And so it was up to Unesco and the Egyptian people to ensure the temple could be restored in a different location.

We stopped off at the dam on the way home and after a chilled afternoon, we boarded a boat to a Nubian village, where we treated to a tour of a home – including their feisty pet crocs- and yummy traditional food.

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Tomorrow we are spending all day aboard a felucca, so more relaxation in store! It’s a hard Egyptian life…

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Egypt: pharaohs, perfume, pyramids and… Traffic.

Today we are in Aswan, after a long 14hr overnight train journey from Cairo. That’s now my third sleeper train journey in Africa (others being Nairobi to Mombassa and Harare to Vic Falls) and this was probably the nicest – although food was better in Kenya!

Our full day in Cairo had been hectic to say the least! After an early morning breakfast, we headed off toward the Egypt Museum. Cairo traffic (more on that later) meant we all had to hop off the bus for a quick stroll through the infamous Tahrir Square, where protestors were still camped out. The Egypt museum is just off the square, with the burnt out remains of the old regime’s offices looming behind.

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The Egypt museum definitely exceeded my expectations, and after gazing at all Tutankhamen’s tomb finery, I picked up a few ideas for my own khans in Oathbreaker! One of the most impressive items was a tiny statue of Cheops, the only visual representation of the great Pharaoh there is.

After lunch at Adelino’s perfume shop (and more delicious mint tea), we headed toward the Great Pyramids at Giza. After plenty of shots from a high viewpoint of the entire Giza complex, we all clambered aboard camels for a lift down to the third pyramid. It was a great ride, but not so long that it got really uncomfortable!

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We were luckily able to enter the third pyramid, which was quite eerie – even if there wasn’t that much to see inside. Just the thought of being in the tomb was enough to make my pulse race, and later standing next to the smallest pyramid of the three, you can’t help but be daunted by its massive size. Let alone its two big brothers.

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We watched the sunset over the Sphinx (no riddles were posed, much to my chagrin) and headed back to the hotel for showers and relax before our overnight train journey. At least, that was the plan. Cairo traffic had other ideas. In the event, we ended up racing along the platform at 8.01 (train was due to leave at 8), yelling at every train guard to let us on! Mercifully they took pity on us and we leapt on board, backpacks in tow, in the nick of time. Luck is on our side!

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First day in Egypt: traffic, pyramids, and the death of a pope

We have arrived in Cairo without any fuss, and our taxi driver whisks (weaves, ducks, nearly-sideswipes) us through the city to our hotel. My first impression is of dust-swept apartment blocks populated by millions of satellite dishes seemingly more numerous than pigeons, of towering minarets blasting out ‘Allah Ahkbar’, and of people. Lots and lots of people.

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We don’t have long to relax at our hotel before we’re introduced to the rest of the Oasis Overland group and swept off for our first taste of Egypt: a sound and light show at the Pyramids of Giza. Even though it’s dark there are a few squeals as the pyramids come into sight – and I’m not let down by how immense they feel.

The light show feels like something out of another era – I’m not sure whether that’s because it is narrated by the dulcet tones of Omar Sharif or because I’m sure lasers went out of fashion two decades ago, but although my brain feels too fried to take in what the guy from Lawrence of Arabia is telling me, I still feel awed by the sight. It is definitely a bit out-of-body to think that yesterday I was finishing up at work and today I’m staring at an ancient wonder of the world.

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On our transfer back, the news breaks about the death of the Egyptian Coptic pope, Pope Shenouda III. Our tour guide sends messages of condolence to his Christian friends. He worries a little more now about Security as the death of such a prominent religious figure could be destabilising. But we have only one day in Cairo, and the excitement is still high (if sobered).

Dinner is mixed grill at a local Syrian restaurant. Delicious – and only £8 for the two of us. Bargain. I could get used to this.

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This is maybe something that only my friend Sarah will understand (she and I travelled Africa for three months, alone and with oasis) but it feels amazing to be back in Africa – even if it’s very different from Kenya and Southern Africa. Just something about it still makes me feel at home, and I can’t wait to explore more.

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R.I.P. Mr Gorman

Before this entry, I would like to pay my respects to my favourite English teacher in high school, Mr. Gorman, who passed away from cancer on November 29th. He was the teacher who encouraged my development in creative writing, and I wouldn’t have had the courage to pursue writing without him. He taught me Writer’s Craft, Grade 11 and Grade 12 English and played a huge role in my high school career. If I were in Ottawa, I would be sitting in the front row of his memorial service, but since I cannot, I am sending my goodwill out to his family and to his extended Immaculata family who will be so sad during this time.

Today I am leaving South Africa and starting on the next portion of my journey. My flight leaves at 19:55 tonight, on its long long way to Perth. The next part of my adventure will see me and Sarah by ourselves, travelling Australia and New Zealand and South East Asia without the security of a truck and a tour leader — and can we say, we cannot wait. This has been such a great learning experience, and the best way to start our gap years. I plan on writing a recap on the plane ride over, so expect a longer entry over the next couple of days.

Lesotho was beautiful, and I’m glad I got the chance to visit while I was here. I’m sure if I had done SA myself, I would have missed out Lesotho in favour of the Wild Coast, but it would have been a mistake. We pony-trekked in the pouring rain and hail stones the size of golf balls, we hiked in the glorious sunshine amidst the “Kingdom in the Sky”. And the Drakensberg Mountains were stunning, with waterfalls and streams around every bend. It was idyllic, really. And now we are in Joburg, and unfortunately we haven’t had the chance to explore at all. We arrived late last night and leave in the afternoon today. I even have to give Soweto a miss, and I regret it… but it’s just another excuse to come back to this country some time in the future.

To all the Oasis people I am leaving… I will miss you so much! There have been moments on this truck I will never be able to share with anyone except you guys, and that will bind us forever. Even though we all live in such disparate locations, you are all welcome in Canada whenever you choose to visit. You have all my love.

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Adrenaline Beauty

Stepping out onto perilously thin wire mesh, the ground hundreds of metres below, I take a deep breath before the death march toward the centre of Bloukrans Bridge. It’s what I’ve wanted to do from the beginning of the trip — isn’t it? Isn’t it? I question myself over and over, but not as loudly as the others from the truck who are standing around, some shaking and quaking, some talking gibberish to compensate for their nervousness. I try not to show fear. Perhaps only those paying close attention would notice the increased heaviness of breath or lightly clenched fists.

Watching other people makes it seem easier. They put us through in weight order, and with the few men jumping it means I’m not first. The music is blasting so loud that you can’t hear the men scream, although we find out later that most of them went down swearing bloody murder. We wave to the people over on the viewing platform; those not even brave enough to walk out under the bridge. They have our cameras in tow, so we smile big, put on happy faces. Why are we doing this again?

There is no time to think about it. Toes out over the edge, 5-4-3-2-1 and no time to think about what you’re doing. Looking down is unavoidable, as is the feeling of having your stomach drop out of your body! But the rush is great, my scream is the loudest of everyone and the view — once your eyes can actually take it in — is incredible. Being hoisted back up is actually the scariest part. But when the blood rushes back into the rest of your body and your feet are on solid ground, then you can take in what you’ve just done, and brag about it for the rest of the trip.

Bloukrans Bridge is the highest bungy in the world.

Our next stop was the otter trail, a 3.5 hour hike which winds around the garden route coastline. This is more like the South Africa I imagined! Whales frolicked off the shore as the surf pounded the ground at our feet. We swam for an hour underneath a waterfall by the ocean, and generally had a fantastic time.

South Africa is getting better by the moment!

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