From one ancient empire to another, we flew from Athens to Cairo. I always had a quiet fascination with Egypt and its ancient history. After reading about Howard Carter and his epic discovery of the boy-king Tutankhamen, aged 10, I decided that I wanted to be an Egyptologist so I dedicated all my efforts – dial-up internet had just become a thing – to finding a whole world of information online, printing off newspaper articles and filing them away into my Egyptology folder, protected lovingly in plastic pockets. I even tried learning hieroglyphics and had a mini excavation kit, the lot. Alas by my 12th year I was onto something else…
A lovely sunset aboard EgyptAir
I was also looking forward to visiting Egypt as I had fond memories of camping in the Omani desert with its vast dunes and wadis, which we used to drive to in our dusty Pajero on the weekends. But before Lucas and I went out exploring the Egyptian desert for ourselves, we spent some time in Cairo. In a sense, a similar kind of dusty desert, just an urban one.
But landing at Cairo airport was the beginning of our culture shock. Thinking I’d be somewhat familiar with the way of the Egyptians, as I figured they would be similar-ish to their Middle Eastern neighbours, it couldn’t have prepared me for the next few weeks.
We’d read up a bit on Egypt and had in our mind to be prepared for the badgering and touting, and as soon as we arrived into the baggage hall we were set upon as fresh bait. So, the tales were true – and it was just the beginning.
What also struck us upon arriving into Cairo was just how busy it was. There were so many people and cars everywhere. Lucas read the stats and there are apparently 16 million people in the capital alone! It put my stressful days of wading through crowded London streets to shame.
Motorways were six wide with, seemingly, no respect for law, or driver/passenger safety at all and everyone using a horn as if it was an accelerator that would get them to where they were going quicker. Speed limits seemed to be at each driver’s discretion, as did lanes, and traffic lights. Someone later told us, ‘if you drive in Egypt you must have eight eyes. Cars/people/donkeys/bikes come from everywhere.’ And he had a point. Sitting in the passenger seat was unnerving enough let alone driving.
Where pedestrians were concerned, it’s also the kind of place where (there being no pavements or zebra crossings) you have to just walk along the road and brave stepping out in front of cars to get to the other side, trusting they will move, swerve or slow down. I felt like I was going to die every time we went anywhere near a road. I even sent Mum a text saying how perilous the traffic was, as a kind of warning to not be surprised if she got a phone call. I had thought the streets of Vietnam were bad…
On the plus side, we did learn quickly that Egypt was also very cheap: great for backpacker budgets, and a welcome change from the average living costs in Europe. We booked into a hostel in the centre of Cairo, welcomed by the ironic catchphrase, ‘Welcome to Alaska!’, where the price of a double room was even cheaper than in Asia, usually impossible to beat, costing a mere £4 a night – with free breakfast!
From our seventh-floor vantage point downtown, we could see the Nile, the top of the Egyptian Museum and out over to the towers of the mosques in the Citadel. Every building in sight was streaked brown with layers of dust and sand and looking out over the horizon you could see a brown smog hovering over the city. It was everywhere, a light coating of desert on every surface, including inside.
Waking up on our first day to the droning sounds of the morning muezzin, something we’d not heard since Indonesia, we decided to visit the Egyptian Museum just a few hundred metres away, meaning it would take as little time as possible trying to navigate the deathly roads. But aside from what lay outside our door within walking distance, it seemed like the best way to explore Egypt, and certainly the easiest, was by organised tours and private drivers in some cases. Thankfully our hostel was amazing at sorting this out and we had our whole 2-week itinerary planned the night we arrived!
The Egyptian Museum was huge and even after spending three hours admiring the ancient exhibits we still didn’t see it all. There was so much to take in, from Tut’s real gold burial mask to 3000-year-old mummies where you could still see their hair and teeth intact. Cool, but creepy.
That evening, as newbies, we ventured out again into the bustling city to hunt down a local koshary restaurant around the corner. As I said, we were trying not to venture too far, avoiding roads if possible. Koshary is a typical Egyptian dish, heavy on the carbs, made of rice, spaghetti, macaroni, chickpeas, fried onions, and a fresh zesty tomato sauce which you were invited to spice and lemon to your taste. At just 0.83p a plate it was perhaps one of the cheapest meals we’d ever found. Including table service!
Our next Egypt outing, according to our schedule, were the Pyramids of Giza. Bucket list, check! My (inner) 11-year-old self was jumping up and down with excitement. Only the day before we’d seen so many artefacts from the tombs displayed at the Egyptian Museum, so it was fitting to see where they had been excavated from and piecing parts of history back together. On the way, we visited Saqqara, the site of the first ever step pyramid and later drove to the site of the giant 20m horizontal Ramses II statue in Memphis. For those who don’t know, King Ramses II is one of the most famous kings in all Egyptian history who famously had over 150 children with 200 or so wives. As you do.
Step pyramid at Saqqara and the giant statue of Ramses II
Finally, arriving at Giza, we could spy the tips of the enormous pyramids from a mile off through our car windscreen. As we entered the ancient desert we were greeted by the epic, noseless Sphinx, with the tall towering pyramids in the background. They were huge. And so old! To see something that you read about as a kid in history books right up close was surreal and it was a major ‘pinch me’ moment to be there and see them in person.
We weren’t the only people admiring these ancient ruins, however. Oh no. Throngs of tourists and school kids were there too, along with salesmen and men atop camels and horses persistently trying to sell you a ride. The combination of annoying children and insistent men was a bad recipe with my hanger and Lucas had to make me stop and eat something before I really lost my shit.
Bar the wearisome touts, the pyramids were incredible, and we spent two hours walking around the fringe of the desert taking in these huge structures, trying to recall everything we had learnt about their regal occupants in the museums. One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was, practically, how were they built, especially in the heat? We were visiting in November, so the temperatures were much cooler, but still in their low twenties. I could only imagine how difficult lugging these huge stones would have been in the searing hot summer before the days of air conditioning and iced water…
The epic pyramids and iconic sphinx
After gazing in awe at these giant pyramids, savouring the amazing ‘pinch me’ moment, but growing tired of constantly saying no to the men stalking us on their camels, we headed back into the bustle of Cairo, retreating to our room to decompress. In all its historic awesomeness, the city was a bit of a sensory overload. I mentioned being a pedestrian was a pretty hideous experience, not only in terms of navigating the cars and trying not to get run over, but each time you stepped out of the door you were met by a barrage of people trying to sell you things. The Egyptians are the epitome of opportunists and if there’s a chance for an upsell, they’ll take it. It’s hard to walk down the street without being accosted by shop owners who would hover on street corners waiting for new tourist prey, or restauranteurs persuading you that their fare is better than their neighbours.
‘No, thank you, I don’t want to look at your bazaar. No, thank you, I don’t want to see the good price.’ I felt like a bad person always turning them down, and you got the feeling they were probably saying something behind your back knowing you had the money to at least buy a small something, but that was just part of the game. And I wasn’t taking any of the BS sales tactics, no matter how genuine their offer. The ultimate cliché would be to fall victim to a scam. Once I spoke with a man who tried to befriend me with his charm, telling me that he had a Scottish friend from Auchtermuchty, in a bid to find common ground. An exchange made even more hilarious because of how you pronounce Auchtermuchty, which he did wonderfully.
To break from the chaos of Cairo, we booked an overnight trip to the White Desert. We were inspired to go having seen it on a Planet Earth a few weeks before, learning of the unique and naturally eroded rock sculptures, worn down throughout the ages into unusual shapes by the wind. We were checking the bucket list off quickly, as you can tell.
The White Desert and endless miles of sandy highway to get there
At 7am we were dropped off underneath a dodgy looking bridge – seemingly this jumble of cars, vans and buses was the bus station – and piled into a car for a five-hour ride to the Baharya Oasis. It felt like a very long five hours, both bum cheeks went numb one after the other, but finally we arrived at the oasis to smooth out the cricks and crumples after driving along endless miles of sand-strewn highway.
It really was an oasis of green and palms, compared to the dusty red sand just a mile away and we were invited for lunch and ‘whisky tea,’ which was alcohol-free, sadly, but extremely strong and sugary. Rested and ready for more driving, even deeper into the desert, we were picked up by a Bedouin, Mahmoud our desert guide, in his huge 4×4 and sped through more miles of desert, further and further away from civilisation and anything green and growing.
Mahmoud and his 4×4 in the Black Desert
We were camping at the White Desert, a National Park, but along the way we’d be stopping at the Black Desert, Crystal Mountain, and the dunes for sunset. The Black Desert was so named for its volcanic black rock and there were mountains of these dark peaks were everywhere, contrasted again the deep red and pink sand. The Crystal Mountain was a mountain made entirely out of salt as the desert used to be an ocean, millions of years ago, and since then tall salty mountains had been left in their place which, when chipped away, looked like crystal or quartz.
For sunset, we sped over dunes and through peaks of jagged rock to reach the edge of the White Desert to watch the sun go down. The Bedouins also brought out a sand board which Lucas had a go on. I decided otherwise after watching him schlep back up the 30m incline of sand which was quite a feat….
We enjoyed more than one beautiful sunset in Egypt
We arrived at the White Desert in the pitch black and I have to hand it to our Bedouin, Mahmoud, who was an excellent driver navigating through the rocky mountain desert narrowly avoiding the huge rock formations like a pro. I’d expected to arrive at a pre-erected camp, with dinner already on the go, and some form of tents or yurts as our sleeping arrangement. But no. We arrived at an empty sandy clearing amid these standing carved rock giants with nothing around.
Setting up in total darkness, the moon wasn’t even out yet, Mahmoud managed to unload the 4×4 and set up a cosy seating area with woven mats, rugs, and cushions on the floor. Later the same space would double up as our open-air bedroom. He also set up a makeshift kitchen with a small table and kerosene fire to cook with. He was not only the driver but chef too.
Once he’d hooked up a light to the car battery and made us a camp fire we sat back and relaxed, now that we could see, and silently contemplated how cool it was that we were deep in the Egyptian desert and about to spend a night under the stars! Errr, reality check please?
Quite the chef, Mahmoud knelt in the sand and with very rudimentary equipment rustled up tomato soup, heaps of rice, and spicy potatoes; he even grilled some chicken on the camp fire. A true maestro. And, as we devoured our Bedouin’s bounty, we were visited by the resident desert fox who frequented the area and who was often fed leftovers, so he seemed quite happy to see us.
We spent the night lost in reverie, either hypnotised by the fire or gazing up into space, at worlds beyond. Because we were so deep in the desert, over 8 hours away from any big city, we were treated to a magical show of stars that night. The skies were so bright and clear that it felt like you could see the whole universe – and I even saw two shooting stars!
That night, Mahmoud laid out cushions and sleeping bags in our former dining room and gave us heavy-duty rugs to sleep under (which smelt distinctly animal-like, but which worked a treat) and we slept out in the open. It was incredible. Neither of us had ever slept so exposed outside, without even the sheer protection of a nylon tent above our head.
We went to bed as the moon was rising, like a huge megawatt torch, made all the stronger by the reflective white sand. It obliterated the stars but created a new magical effect nonetheless – and you could go for a midnight pee without even needing your torch! I slept soundly that night, and didn’t feel the cold once, but at one point I was rudely awoken by a scuttling at my head and then I felt some tiny footsteps on my shoulder. Soon, and rather suddenly, I realised I was being climbed on by a little desert mouse. Although harmless, the shock was enough to send my heart racing – and wonder what other nocturnal animals could be crawling all over me as I slept unawares out in the desert…
Camping under the stars and watching sunrise in our sleeping bags
The next morning, we woke up with the sunrise at 6.15am and prepared for the long journey back through the desert and back to Cairo. A few hours later, we boarded a bus which looked like it was from the 70s and hadn’t been MOT’d since – there were people tinkering in the engine before we left, never a good sign. An hour into the journey to the capital we shuddered to a halt on the desert highway, engine gasping. Our fellow bus members all ran off to get involved and have a cigarette, but we were back on the road before long. Until, it happened again. Marooned at the side of the road on a dead bus, we considered hitch hiking to make up the remaining 5 hours, but thankfully a replacement bus pulled up alongside and we continued our journey back to Cairo… On the plus side, some very kind Egyptian man gave us delicious fresh dates which made the ride all the more bearable.
Escaping the city once more, a night later we took the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor (which was an experience in itself) for a three-day Nile Cruise south down to Aswan. We swore we’d never be ‘cruise people,’ but there you go. It was a bit of a splurge, at five stars – there was even a pool on the top deck! – but it was worth it and a unique way to experience the lush Egyptian countryside and rich green farmland along the Nile, while being a bit fancy.
Nile views from our room
We boarded the boat and were assigned a lovely room with huge floor to ceiling windows that looked onto the river. But before we set off on our Nile voyage, we spent the day and night in Luxor, nicknamed the greatest open air museum in the world, and had the day to explore all the historic sites. We joined a tour group and headed out to the Valley of the Kings to see more tombs and ancient hieroglyphics, learning about the iconic ancient Pharos, Kings and Queens who walked the land before. Did you know when a new king was appointed people would start digging his tomb and would continue to do so until his death. So, the longer you were on the throne, the jazzier your temple and the better your afterlife would be, essentially! But there are no photos of the tombs as photography was not allowed. Unless you bribed the guards.
Back on board, it was pretty much an all-inclusive vibe where food was concerned, and we gorged on unlimited buffets day and night. It was also one of the only places we’d been to in Egypt that sold alcohol. So, drinking a cool Stella beer watching the sun set was a rather enjoyable experience, too.
Banks of the River Nile, Kom Ombo, and another spectacular Egyptian sunset
During the cruise we travelled from Luxor, down to Kom Ombo, and then onto Aswan. We saw temples galore and learnt about all kinds of things along the way. We even visited a crocodile mummification museum. Who knew that was a thing? After three nights of luxury and learning we boarded a train back to Luxor for a rather special once-in-a-lifetime activity: hot air ballooning! The one and only place that does it in Egypt is in Luxor by the Valley of Kings – a pretty spectacular location – so we didn’t want to pass up such a unique opportunity.
We woke for a 4am pick up and joined a group at the river to cross from the east side of the Nile to the west to make our way to the Valley of the Kings. Once we’d arrived at the site and been allocated our balloon (which was to take off first!) we clambered into the wicker basket, which held 24 people, and our pilot took us through the safety briefing getting us to practice our landing poses and advising us to hold onto our phones as we leant out the basket… After a smooth take off, we dipped and rose, reaching an altitude of over 600m taking in the vast views over the valley with the sun rising behind the iconic River Nile. It was an incredible morning. Needless to say, I took a million photos…
Hot air ballooning over Valley of the Kings
After Luxor, we’d almost exhausted the bucket list of ‘things to do’ in Egypt. We’d been on a speed date of every historic attraction and museum we could think of and so to relax and unwind for the last few nights we decided to head over to the Red Sea to do absolutely nothing. We also hoped that we’d be able to escape the endless touts and selling men.
We chose Hurghada, a touristy all-inclusive place which we shared with hoardes of Brits, Russians, and Germans, and had a lovely time doing sweet FA. We did go on a snorkelling trip one day, however, and saw lots of beautiful coral and exotic fish in the reef. But after 2.5 weeks we were ready to call time on our visit to Egypt. We felt it was a good enough length to be able to experience what we did and get a good feel for the culture, as well as have some R&R to decompress. But some culture differences were just too much to ever get our heads around.
I can’t think of any country I’ve been to that is quite like Egypt, both good and bad, and if I were to offer any advice for people going, especially inexperienced travellers, make sure you toughen up your poker face in any high-pressure sales situation, prepare to say no a lot, and be defiant in crossing oncoming traffic (you won’t die!). But most of all, be prepared to be blown away by the history, it will surely rekindle your love for all things ancient and you won’t be disappointed!
We were leaving Egypt to explore the opposite corner of northern Africa: Morocco. We had booked onto another yoga retreat (Lucas is quite the yogi now) which included surfing so the vibe was guaranteed to be more fun than the last, as we were joining a group of 20-something-year olds from my old studio in Brixton. I couldn’t wait!
Surfing on Imourane beach
We flew to Agadir for the retreat which was in a tiny fishing village called Tagazhout, the country’s surf spot. The village was full of laid back surfer dudes in traditional Moroccan riads, guesthouses decorated with hand-painted tiles around an open courtyard with a roof terrace for sunrise and sunset yoga. It was idyllic. The weather was beaut at a comfortable 25 degrees every day which meant we could top up the tans on the beach, in between our classes.
The group from Brixton Yoga couldn’t have been better, we all got on really well and there was a great mix of people. We practiced yoga twice a day with meditation and yoga nidra in the evenings, after optional workshops (including dance!) and surfing in the day. We also spent an afternoon at Paradise Valley and did our sunset yoga in the dunes. After five days of an amazing retreat, we were sad to leave our new yoga family and healthy routine but we were excited to explore more of this amazing country. So far the people had been great, so friendly and laid back, and always willing to help. They were a far cry from the Egyptians and their badgering ways.
Our next stop was Marrakesh. I’d always wanted to go to this exotic bustling city with its bright colours, souks and markets so I was excited to finally see it for myself. We booked into a riad in the medina, which, we didn’t realise until we were turfed out of the taxi, was a car-free zone and made up of narrow winding streets, unmarked on Google Maps. Spotting our newbieness straight off the bat, a young man took us right to our door for a small fee. Thankfully, as we never would have managed it ourselves. It took us a few wrong turns to find our way back after dinner, too.
Traditional riad decor in Marrakesh
Another thing about Morocco is that one of their spoken languages is French. So, trying my best, I dug deep for my (now very basic) French vocabulary to try and communicate and moreover negotiate. Like the French, however, the Moroccans were want to reply back in English even though I tried so hard to speak to them in their language. Clearly my s’il vous plaits and merci beaucoups weren’t up to their standards.
Marrakesh was just as busy and bustling as I’d expected, and the souks were filled with everything from jazzy printed trousers, to gilded mirrors, leather shoes, and silver jewellery. A tourist’s delight! While unlike Egypt on the whole (sorry, but we couldn’t help but make comparisons) we did still get hounded by sellers and restauranteurs tempting us into their establishments. One very opportunist lady doing henna actually grabbed my hand in the square and started drawing on it, even embellishing with glitter. Unfortunately I didn’t actually want any and had to shake her off (I’m so bad at saying no!) and we scarpered away without paying her anything… Lucas wasn’t best impressed with my naive street dealings, I have to say. He has a better game face than I do.
Once we’d been scared off the souks (only going back for last-minute souvenirs) we spent the rest of our days in Marrakesh holed up in cafes working and eating delicious food (chiwarma and chips) before planning a hiking trip into the Atlas Mountains. Slowly, the temperatures had been dropping (it was now December) and we had been getting used to wearing jeans and wrapping up in layers for the evenings, so we expected the peaks Atlas to be far colder. Packing a small rucksack each for the 2 nights we were staying in homestays in the mountains, we were practically wearing all our layers by the time we got out of the car and started hiking. It was very cold! Everyone was in their high-quality mountain wear with proper boots and woolly hats and we were in jeans and leggings, Nike shoes and light jackets. So out of place. Some Belgian hikers even commented on how underprepared we looked, but hey, we managed it and didn’t need anything extra.
Our trusty mule and views of the Atlas Mountains
We had planned to trek up to the second highest peak but it had snowed the night before, very delicately dusting the tops of the mountains of the Toubkal National Park. But although it was pretty, it meant we had to change route and stay lower, so we hiked the three valleys instead. The hiking wasn’t overly arduous but offered great views over the passes and in between the valleys. Plus – we could say we’d seen snow in Africa!
Our guide Ibrahim was amazing and he had been hiking these trails since a kid and for 9 years professionally, so knew them like the back of his hand. He told us of the history of these simple Berber farming villages and their traditions and customs and told us that up to 16 people would live in one of these tiny clay houses, all one big family. It was custom to all live together and look after the elders, something our cultures do very differently, we said. I was concerned as to how they kept warm in the winter (the temperature dropped to -6 degrees inside the gite we were staying in) and he told us that there would only be one fire in the house, which they would also use to cook with, but they kept their livestock in the stables below, in their basement, as another form of heating. It was astonishing how they managed to keep warm. He also said they could get snow a metre deep in some places and here we were little children running around with flipflops on and sundresses. They must have been a hardy bunch.
Where their hospitality was concerned, you couldn’t fault them. The Berber people of the Atlas Mountains, which included our guide and cook who followed us with a mule loaded with supplies for the two nights, were so friendly and approachable, always asking us if we wanted anything and making conversation. Not to mention serving up some of the most delicious food, all cooked on a tiny camping stove.
After three days and two nights of hiking and incredible mountain views we headed back to civilization. Basing ourselves in Marrakesh again, to turnaround for our next jaunt, we had planned to venture north to the picturesque town of Chefchouen, but having checked the weather forecast we decided otherwise. Ever the fairweather travellers, Lucas and I, we thought that heading back to the coast would be our safest (and warmest) bet, remembering the heat of our beach days in Agadir.
So, three hours directly east from Marrakesh, we chose Essaouira (a name I always had trouble pronouncing: eh-sa-wee-rah). This historic port was a big hit with the hippies by all accounts and was a hot spot for water sports in the summer. There were some people SUPing even then in December.
We spent three nights in Essaouira’s medina, again, full of market stalls selling everything from avocados to artisanal plates and the standard Moroccan tourist stock. We stayed in another wonderful traditional riad with a modern take, with huge high ceilings and exposed beams, plus our first hot shower in a week. Each morning we dined on Moroccan pancakes and fresh French bread served with jams and marmalades upstairs on the terrace. There was even a resident seagull which flew by especially for the meal, ready to swoop in and pinch any leftover butter.
All the colours in Essaouira
Because it was December, we refrained from any water sports – as did most people – and instead mainly used Essaouira for its reliable wifi and range of delicious independent restaurants at which we enjoyed a few nice meals out. Unlike Marrakesh, most of them also sold booze which was a welcome treat for a Muslim country. Essaouira definitely seemed to be a higher end tourist destination with its sea views and beach, but also had a bohemian feel to it. Perhaps it was to do with the abundant supply of hashish offered throughout the day by men carrying armfuls of home baking and ‘happy cakes.’
After wining and dining in this seaside market town, we moved on but stayed along the coast, choosing the sleepy village of Sidi Kaoki to spend our final days in Morocco, just 30 minutes away by local bus. Our riad was quite literally 50m from the sand and 50m from four out of the five restaurants, and only local businesses, in the area.
We discovered there wasn’t much to Sidi Kaoki, it was tiny. There wasn’t even an ATM and the only place that sold beer did so on the sly in case anyone of authority walked past. At first, five days in this tiny village seemed too long (what was there to do?) but in the end, it was perfect, and we’d not come for socialising or late nights anyway so we quite enjoyed the slow pace and quiet days.
We spent our mornings lounging on the roof terrace after breakfast, drinking tea and reading, and in the afternoon having a sandwich on the beach and going for long walks to discover what lay beyond the headlands and down the trails. We discovered camels roaming in the brush, local fishermen casting out on the rocks, houses abandoned midway through construction, and the secret local surfing spot where the best waves broke. After our walks, each evening we watched the sun set before dinner, lighting up the sky with magnificent golds and pinks and as night fell wild bursts of stars emerged on our walk back.
Sidi Kaoki’s camels and coastline and sunset over the Atlantic
Much like any surfer town, the vibe in Sidi Kaoki was very laid back, welcoming people from all nationalities and walks of life for any length of time, days, weeks, months… Some had clearly settled there for a while and had their campervans parked along the shore, others had even got jobs working in the local restaurant. I can’t forget to mention the town’s cutest and most coddled resident, the runt pup, Couscous, who seemed to change hands with every passer through who wanted to play mother and claim him as their own (myself included), wooing him with scraps under the table and picking the fleas from his ears.
The quiet life of Sidi Kaoki was a wonderful way to end our trip. Soon enough we were back to Marrakesh, for the last time, to catch our planes back for Christmas to see our family and friends – and dig up some festive spirit. (That’s the thing about spending the run up to Christmas in a Muslim country, there isn’t a string of tinsel or carol singer in sight.)
As I look back on our time – 5 and a half months galavanting around Europe, Egypt and Morocco – my God, has time flown! But now, we’re enjoying our time in the mother lands, and getting ready for our next adventure: Colombia and Central America… Roll on 2018.