Down in Upper Egypt

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Of course you remember that Upper Egypt refers to the south of the country, upstream of the Nile, but at the bottom of the map, so we kind of went down to upper Egypt. We made it to Luxor after a long and frigid overnight train journey that you already heard a little about. We arrived at the Tutotel (Get it? Tut… Hotel…), dropped our bags, and turned right around to head for one of the big sights in Luxor – the Temple of Karnak. And instead of simply getting on a bus and driving the 3.5km, we took horse-drawn carriages. There’s a lot of that kind of thing on this tour – horse-drawn carriages, donkey rides, nights in Bedouin camps, nights on board feluccas. This is going to sound terribly bitter and jaded, but sometimes it turns out that these are the kind of things that sound hopelessly romantic and exciting when contemplated in a glossy brochure from the comfort of an easy chair, but are quite another matter entirely after an overnight train ride on Day 11 of a relentless schedule (or, for that matter, Day 227 of a less relentless but still taxing overarching plan). Regardless, into the carriages we went, and arrived at Karnak a short time after.

The carriages waiting for us outside the hotel

I was a bit frazzled and resentful that we didn’t have time for a nap or shower or anything before we were back on the job, but it turns out that the Temple of Karnak was great enough to dispel my crankiness (which has been more and more common these days, so you know it must have been pretty great). Part of what made it great was that we had a very good local guide for all our time in Luxor – Mr. Adil was apparently voted the best guide in Luxor at some point in the past, and I can understand why. He was amiable and funny and like to joke around (a bit too much for my tastes, but much more fun than the automaton guide we had in Cairo). However, he was also a serious scholar of Egyptology who had a lot of “common knowledge” kind of information and even shared some of his personal theories about the site, which were really... interesting. Some of them seemed a bit far-fetched, but he also admitted that he gets a lot of his ideas when he’s smoking sheesha, which he does a lot, so that may explain why his theories weren’t really mainstream.

Mr. Adil, with his beloved sheesha

The temple itself is a huge site covering about 2 square kilometres and was built, enlarged and modified over about 1,500 years. It was once the most important place of worship in Egypt and contains, in the words of the LP, a “vast complex of temples, pylons, obelisks, and sanctuaries” and “is quite possibly the most incredible sight in all of Egypt". A strong claim, but Karnak did not disappoint.

Part of what made the site really interesting for me was that its construction was never actually completed. There were the remains of a mud brick ramp that had been used to get large stones up to the top of the main wall, and Adil showed us an area where there was an unfinished column at the end of a row of finished ones. I thought it was really interesting to see.

The unfinished column

Undoubtedly, the best part of the Temple of Karnak is the great “Hypostyle Hall” (no idea why it’s called that… I wish I’d asked Adil.) It’s a huge room filled with massive columns – 63 on one side and 63 on the other, with 12 even bigger ones running down the middle corridor. Apparently it was originally roofed with huge slabs of stone, and the few pieces of roof that remain still have the bright painted decorations on them. It’s really impressive, and all the columns are carved with hieroglyphs, some of which Adil translated for us.

A view down one small section of the Hypostyle Hall, showing the huge columns.

I got quite fond of hieroglyphs during my time in Luxor – they really are all over these ancient sites, and it’s fun when you start to be able to recognize some favourite characters, or see the royal names in their cartouches repeated over and over again. There are lots of different birds – an owl, a goose, a quail chick, and representations of feathers and circles and water. One of our favourite characters was a relatively rare one we started calling the “Barack Obama”. You can see why.

See what I mean?

Adil was also very fond of pointing out the best places to stand to get good photos of the site, and even showed off a few tricks for getting interesting shots, including shooting through the lens of a pair of amber sunglasses to achieve a sort of interesting poor man’s sepia/sunset effect. And he demonstrated his famous “Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut Reflected in Sunglasses” shot with me, and I think it’s actually kind of cool.

The Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut (pronounced like “HAT Ship Suit”) reflected in my sunglasses

We were finished at the Temple by around lunch time, and then it became clear that it may actually have been a good idea to get the temple finished with early on. It meant that we could then enjoy that rarest of creatures: a free afternoon. I wandered off with Fabio for a local falafel lunch, visited the “best bookstore in Egypt” (this according to Ahmed, though it really was disappointing, despite the excellent selection of used Danielle Steele paperbacks) and then hit the internet café. Then I had a nice long nap and after that I did something I haven’t done since I left Kampala – I ran. Not hiding away on a treadmill, not on a hash – just me out for a run in public like a normal person. Ahmed assured me that Luxor was very touristy and it would be no problem at all for me to appear in public brazenly displaying my bare knees, so off I went. I did 7km along the banks of the Nile and it was GREAT.

It was another early-ish start the next day for our donkey ride out to the Valley of Kings. Coincidentally it was also my 41st birthday, though the birthday portion of the day turned out to be pretty minor. My donkey, especially, seemed unimpressed by my Birthday Girl status. As for the donkey ride, it was another one of those things I mentioned above – like the horse-drawn carriages – that seems like a good idea, but ends up being fun for 15 minutes, then sort of uncomfortable, then tedious. The ride took over an hour, and a lot of it was on fairly busy streets where we were frequently passed by shiny air-conditioned buses on the way to the Valley.

Yes, the donkey was small. They were all that size. I promise you, Kathryn, that my size relative to that of the donkey was not at all unusual.

Once we finally arrived, after only one mishap involving donkey and rider parting company unexpectedly and with minor blood loss (not me), Mr Adil was there again to guide us around the site. No cameras are allowed anywhere in the Valley so I have no photos, but it turned out that the whole thing was just a bit disappointing. There are a total of 63 tombs hidden away in the Valley – from an era rather later than that of the pyramids, when kings started to realize that burying themselves and their treasures underneath massive monuments was a bit like erecting a huge billboard reading “Attention thieves: unimaginable riches contained within. Please Steal.” Everything is underground in the Valley, but of all the tombs known to be there only three are open to the public. Of course the most famous tomb at the site is that of King Tutankhamen, but we didn’t bother to go into that one. It costs an extra £100 (about $20), and we’d seen all the good stuff from inside it in the Egyptian Museum anyways. Even the LP admits that it is “far from the most interesting”.

What we did see were the tombs of three different Ramses (they might have been the 1st, 4th and 9th, but I lost my notes and really, do you care anyways?). The best part about them was the colourful paintings on the walls of the corridors and chambers. The walls were just covered with hieroglyphs and scenes of gods and goddesses, and there were some where the colours were just brilliant. It was hard to believe they’re as vibrant as they are considering their age. Still, it was getting hot, and the site was crowded, so as soon as we'd seen what we'd come to see, we moved on.

After the Valley of Kings we made a short pitstop at the Funerary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (she of the obelisk-in-the-sunglasses). It’s a really impressive site not far from the Valley. My photos of the Temple are not great because I was taking them with my cell phone camera. What I didn’t mention about the donkey ride is that just as we were setting off my digital camera packed it in. The retracting lens decided to stop retracting and now the camera won’t do anything except try to retract the lens, fail, and then try again. There’s probably a tiny bit of Egypt stuck in the mechanism. I shouldn’t be surprised; that camera has been in constant use for seven months now, and as near as I can tell it took 7968 photos for me on this trip before calling it quits (and that’s not one of those made-up numbers that I stick in here for laughs – that really how many photos I’ve taken). I was gutted about this for a while, but then I realized that it was a good excuse to get a newer, better camera. My current plan is to check out a camera shop in Cairo, and to visit some of the really good electronics shops at the Dubai airport, where I’ve got a four and a half hour layover on Sunday night. Luckily I’m not camera-less. Fabio, the young Swiss guy in the group, and one of those people who has a serious camera, also has a small Canon point-and-shoot camera as a backup. It’s actually much nicer than mine, and he lent it to me for the rest of the tour. I’m enjoying playing with it and contemplating my future new camera, a birthday present for myself.

But back to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. It’s a three-level structure faced with columns that used to be fronted by big statues. Most of the statues are gone now, but it’s still striking. (As was Queen Hatshepsut herself – she was the first woman to rule Egypt as a king in her own right, not merely the consort of a king. She wore the famous double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and was apparently pretty bad-ass until she was succeeded by her son Thutmosis III who defaced a lot of her temples and stuff because he was pissed off that she’d taken over things when he was just a kid.) I thought the whole site looked a bit like a Las Vegas hotel from afar because it actually looks amazingly clean and modern.

The temple, viewed from afar. I can just picture a giant restaurant terrace with an all-you-can-eat buffet of shrimp cocktail on that lower level, and banks of slot machines on levels two and three. Perhaps I've been at this too long...

After our short stop at Hatshepsut’s place, it was back on the bus and back into Luxor. We had a bit of time to sort out our luggage and then it was on to Aswan and more big sights. However the hour is late and my brain is tired, so I think I will save the story of Uppermost Egypt for another post.

Steve's Weird Food for the Middle East: Three for One!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Steve’s Weird Food for Jordan: There hasn’t been a lot of weird food in the Middle East, but there’s one thing that I think should qualify for Jordan: zaatar. It’s “a fragrant mix of sun-dried thyme and sesame seeds” (LP) that shows up on buffet tables. I gave it a try on our last morning in Jordan, and it was quite inoffensive.

A dish of zaatar at the breakfast buffet

It’s generally served sprinkled on pita bread, with olive oil drizzled over the top, and that’s how I had it. It was a bit crunchy, and not nearly as strong-tasting as you’d expect. In fact, zaatar was a bit of a non-event and hence merits no more effort on my part, or yours.

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Steve’s Weird Food for Egypt: When I asked Ahmed our guide about what I should eat as my weird food for Egypt, both he and Anna - the half-Egyptian woman in our group - instantly had the same answer: Molokhiyya (pronounced sort of like "Moll – uh – KHAY – uh” where the KHAY is that throat-clearing guttural sound like in the Scottish pronunciation of “Loch”). The LP describes molokhiyya like this: “...a slimy but surprisingly sexy green leafy vegetable known in the West as mallow. In Egypt it’s made into an earthy garlic-flavoured soup that has a glutinous texture and inspires an almost religious devotion among the locals.”

Molikhayya

I tried it in a fast-foodish place that Ahmed took us to in Cairo, and found it exactly as described. It’s very green, and a bit earthy, and decidedly slimy. It was certainly edible, but the texture left a lot to be desired and the overall experience was a bit like eating a bowl full of stewed grass clippings suspended in snot. Molokhiyya probably will not make it onto my “Try Again” list.

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Bonus Weird Food for Egypt (The Birthday Supper Edition): It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for a birthday supper, but I long ago stopped thinking I’d get what I want when I want it on this trip, so it was all fine. We’d arrived in Aswan after a long day of sight-seeing and driving and Ahmed took us out to a local place to try a specialty called koshery. It’s a vegetarian mish-mash served in a bowl and consists of: rice, three different kinds of pasta (spaghetti, tubetti – like short macaroni, and something like those tiny noodles that come in Lipton chicken noodle soup), chick peas (of course), crispy fried onions, black lentils, and tomato sauce.

The koshery as served, with the tomato sauce on the side and extra chick peas, lentils and onions available too.

It was tasty, especially those crispy fired onions. In fact, it had the feel of something that someone made up out of a fridge full of leftovers. I liked it a lot, though it was a big bowl of food to get through, especially with all that pasta. I think it would be the kind of thing you’d really crave late at night in a less-than-sober state.

As we were finishing supper Ahmed and a guy in our group, Ron, went off so Ron could "help fix the computer" of the guy who ran the restaurant. This seemed a bit weird, but Ahmed is one of those guys who knows everyone and so no one questioned it. It turns out, though, that it was all a ruse and they came back with a big tray of birthday treats for me!

Yum! And there was a piece of cake too! I may not have got a beer on my birthday, but this definitely made up for it, and was a really nice gesture. There was even a big piece of chocolate cake that I ate all by myself!

Ahmed and Ron, the Birthday Rescuers - thanks guys!

Blockbuster sights of lower Egypt

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lower Egypt really is positively crammed with blockbuster tourist attractions – Cairo alone boasts the pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx, and the Egyptian Museum, which features the treasures from King Tut’s tomb. (Confusingly, “Lower Egypt” refers to the north of the country, because though it’s at the upper part of the map, it’s downstream relative to the Nile, and in Egypt, it’s all about the Nile). Anyway, it’s impossible not to be impressed on one hand, and simply overwhelmed on the other. I tended towards the overwhelmed end of the scale, but this may be because the tour I’m on now is setting a punishing pace, and I’m simply getting frayed. We’re moving around every day, staying in a different hotel every night, and we’ve got almost no free time. It is nice not to have to worry about finding accommodations or getting to the different sights, or even finding breakfast, but this convenience comes with a price, and these days that price feels too high.

For instance all the sights I mentioned above – the pyramids, the Sphinx and the entire Museum – were packed into one day, before we hopped back to the hotel, had a group dinner, and then got on a perfectly miserable overnight train. (The train itself was reasonable, if grimy, with large seats and lots of leg room. The problem was that the temperature on board dropped steadily from fresh to chilly to arctic during the night. This made it difficult to sleep for anyone not accustomed to dossing on a chair in a meat locker. I’d actually bought a couple of blankets in Cairo in preparation for spending the night on a felucca on the Nile in a few days, which should have helped the situation a lot. The blankets on display in the shop were a bit small, but I bought two. When I opened them up on the train it turned out that the blankets on the display and the blankets I bought (stacked directly underneath the ones on display) were two different things. I was, in fact, the proud owner of two postage stamp-sized baby blankets, which did little to keep me warm on the train and will be perfectly useless on the felucca. I abandoned them in the hotel in Luxor with bitter disappointment. No decision yet on whether I will brave the felucca with whatever fetid and ancient blankets might be available, or whether I give in to my better judgment and skip the whole thing in favour of an upgrade to a hotel. Odds-makers would favour the hotel, especially since I really feel like I’ve done my time sleeping al fresco and deserve every upgrade available at this point.)

One of the offending blankets. £66 down the drain (about $12.00).

Ok whining over for now, back to Cairo. The pyramids were impressive, but I hope I don’t sound too jaded and horrible if I say they were actually smaller than I expected. And though every guide book on the planet mentions it, it was still startling to see them rise up out of the modern suburb of Giza. They really are in the middle of the city! The most impressive thing about the pyramids is really their beautiful geometric perfection relative to their age. About 5,000 years old, they were built without the use of the wheel, the block and tackle, or any iron tools. Impressive.

Pyramid pic. Ok, maybe they are pretty big.

In fact, the best part of the sight was the trip inside the pyramid of Khafre (a bit smaller than the Great Pyramid of Cheops, but also only £30 to enter, instead of £100. We were reliably informed that there was little difference between the two from the inside.) Going inside involved a trip down a long sloping corridor that required an uncomfortable stooping posture. (GSRED Traveler Tip: Try going down the tunnel backwards, like going down a ladder. This way the natural shape of your posture matches the slope of the corridor.). After descending there was a short level passage and then a corridor sloping up to the burial chamber. The chamber itself was surprisingly plain – no decoration, no paintings, no adornments of any kind. The stone sarcophagus was placed at one end of the room, lid open, and empty. Otherwise, the room – about 15’ x 30’, was completely empty. In fact, the only thing on the walls was a comically large and arrogant painted inscription from the Italian archeologist who discovered the tomb in the 19th century. That was at least 12’ long, with letters about a foot high. Cheeky. I lingered with a couple of people in my group, enjoying having the place to ourselves and soaking up the ambience. Unfortunately we stayed a minute too long and got stuck waiting in the level spot for a group of 9,746 Japanese tourists to descend before we could get out.

See? I was really there!

After the pyramids, we had a quick look at what purports to be the oldest boat ever discovered. It’s a pharonic funerary barque and was discovered in 1954 and susbsequently reassembled. It was impressive too, and I especially liked seeing how they planks that made up the hull were held together with ropes instead of joinery.

The Boat

Then we all trooped obediently back to the bus for the short hop to the Sphinx. In fact, they’re as close together as you think they are, but getting between them on foot isn’t really practical. And once again I have to apologize, but it was smaller than I expected. There’s not a lot to see at the sight once you’ve taken in the Sphinx, but Fabio and I enjoyed watching the other tourists striking amusing poses for photographs. The most popular pose was the “blowing a kiss to the Sphinx”, followed closely by the “Appearing to hold up the Sphinx by cleverly placing the outstretched hand in the frame”. (Look over at Flickr to see one photo of mine that includes four, count ‘em FOUR separate Russian tourists all in a line, posing for photos. And yes, there are a couple of me posing too, with the pyramids. But no kisses.)

Obligatory shot of the Sphinx and a pyramid

After the Sphinx we made a quick pitstop for lunch at a popular take away place. Of course I had falafel, because it’s mandatory in the Middle East to consume your bodyweight in pita bread and chickpeas of some form every day. At least it’s cheap – my lunch was one small pita with falafel and one small pita with fried eggplant and cost a total of £3 (about 67 cents).

The Egyptian Museum, where we went after lunch, was large and dusty and hard to handle. I’ve been in a lot of museums by now, and this one definitely falls into the “well-intentioned but underfunded” category, which is a real shame given the unbelievable and unique treasures on display. The cases were old-fashioned and sparsely documented, and the number of exhibits was simply overwhelming. It felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and emerged in the 1950s – it was a lot like the museum at the Citadel in Amman, but one hundred times bigger. Then again, I did see the sarcophagus of Amenhotep and all the treasures from King Tut’s tombs. And there are LOTS of those. I think most of the second floor of the museum was King Tut stuff. It was undeniably cool to see the actual contents of the tomb – the many layers of shrines that surrounded the many layers of sarcophagi that surrounded the many layers of coffins that finally surrounded the actual mummy. And there was the furniture and jewelry and statues and such that were piled haphazardly inside the burial chambers. In fact, the most evocative things on display were the black and white photos depicting the tomb when it was first discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Having been inside a tomb that morning, it was chilling to think about going in there and seeing the vast collection for the first time. And of course I saw the famous golden mask, which was brilliant.

But I was also tired, and the museum was chilly and not long after arriving I realized I’d simply had enough. I waited out the time after that, having a look at some “lesser” sarcophagi, and a few papyrus scrolls, and I admit I also spent a bit of time texting, and I thought about going for a coffee. In the end I had a bit of time back at the hotel to get online and blog and upload some photos. Then it was dinner and the overnight train, and the too-small blankets and all those things I’ve already mentioned. We return to Cairo later in the trip, and I hope to have a bit of time to explore the city then. It may have brilliant sites dating back 4,000 years, but it’s also a busy, dirty, heaving modern city, and I’d like to see some of that too.

Climbing Mount Sinai

Monday, January 25, 2010

You have to give Moses some credit, because he was not a young man when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, at least not if you believe the pictures of him with the flowing white beard and all. Plus he had to come all the way down hauling a couple of stone tablets. I just had to haul myself and a light pack of extra clothes, snacks and water, and I was seriously huffing by the time I’d trudged to the top, 2,285 metres up, and back down again.

We have a new guide for Egypt, and we’re all thrilled. Ahmed is a young and enthusiastic Egyptian who gives us more information in 10 minutes than our Jordanian guide gave us in four days. Ahmed is FANTASTIC, and makes me realize exactly how crappy our Jordanian guy was. Always trying to please, Ahmed gave us a choice about the climb up Mount Sinai. We could either get up at about 3:00 am and climb through the pre-dawn hours to get to the summit in time to see the sunrise, or we could climb at about 2:00 pm and get there in time to see the sunset. Happily, the group agreed that the sunset option was better, a decision for which I am still profoundly grateful. Doing the climb in daylight and relatively warm(ish) temperatures was taxing enough. Having to do it in the middle of the night, in the dark, in the freezing cold would have been no fun at all. Luckily, the evening climb worked better with our schedule. It meant that the group of us who wanted to see the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery, home of the burning bush (yes, that burning bush) could go there in the morning, while those of us who wanted to go snorkeling in the Red Sea could do that. Later we’d meet at our hotel so the mountain trekkers could head out, and the lazy bastards who were not trekking could lounge about eating bon bons and napping.

I decided to skip the monastery, even though the LP calls it “unmissable” (apparently this isn’t strictly correct, because I missed it and lived to tell the tale). Instead I went snorkeling, and it was fantastic. The water was chilly, but not nearly as cold as we’d been lead to expect, and the sea life was the best yet. Spain’s snorkeling was fun because it was the first time I’d done it, though there wasn’t much to see. There was more to see in Zanzibar, but the water was a bit cloudy. In the Red Sea, near Dahab, the views were just great. We snorkeled around the top of a popular dive site called the Blue Hole, and it was just lovely. The water and the sky were both clear and blue, and we slipped easily into the sea right at the top of the Blue Hole.

Right away there was lots to see – schools of striped fish, coral reefs, anemones and plant life. The sun shone full on the face of the reef so you could see everything. And if you floated over the top of the deep area where the SCUBA divers were heading the sunlight streamed all around you almost like it was being poured into the water. It honestly looked like a Hollywood special effect. At one point I just floated there motionless, watching the light play through the water and feeling supremely content, when a big school of fish swam by right underneath me. Monastery be damned, the snorkeling was the right choice on that morning.

But back to the mountain. Ahmed hired us a local Bedouin guide named Nasr who purported to speak English, and who would be paid only if he delivered us all safely back down the mountain in five or six hours time. Nasr was an ok guy, but his English was limited (though miles better than my Arabic), and he seemed most concerned with getting us to slow down.

But back to the mountain. There are two routes up – the more gentle camel trail and the punishing 3,750 “Steps of Repentance”. Despite the fact that I’ve probably got lots to repent for by now, we took the camel trail. It started out as a gentle switchback trail that wound back and forth along the side of the mountain.

The camel trail, with camels. You could hire a camel to ride most of the way up, for about 90 Egyptian pounds (about $18)

The trail started out quite gently, but it became steeper and steeper the higher we got. The whole climb is supposed to take about three hours, and includes a very steep set of 750 steps at the end. Even if you ride a camel most of the way up, you still have to climb those 750 steps on your own. Luckily, there are a lot of small stalls along the way where locals will happily try to sell you souvenirs, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and Snickers bars.

Sole Man Coffee Shop (scheduled to be replaced by a Starbucks in April)

I climbed mostly with Emma and Fabio, two of the gang I’d walked around Petra with (Jammal left us in Aqaba to head for a skiing holiday in France. Jerk.) We figured that the camel trail part would be no big deal, and the 750 steps at the end would be a lot like the climb up to the monastery at Petra. In fact it was quite a bit more strenuous than we expected. The camel trail became steep enough to be an effort, and the steps were a real challenge. In fact, calling them “steps” is perhaps a bit generous. They were uneven and rough and sometimes non-existent. It wasn’t as hard as a marathon or anything like that, but I would equate it to a really hard track workout (Something like 10 x 800m intervals, for those who’ve had the pleasure). Add to that the fact that the temperature in the sun was quite warm, but it was quite cold in the shade, and the fact that I was sweating quite a bit, so it was really easy to get chilled from being wet at the same time you were being baked in the sun. I was constantly adding and removing layers of clothing to try and stay comfortable and dry, without much success.

But I did it. Fabio was the first to reach the top, and I was close behind. We made it in just under two hours, which makes me wonder how many cups of tea you’d have to stop and drink for it to take three hours.

Me, at the top of Mount Sinai, looking surprisingly fresh.

There’s really not a lot to see at the top – a small Greek Orthodox Church, a mosque, some random steps and rooms that were all closed off, and one of the Top Five Worst Toilets of the Trip. I’m not kidding, it was bad, and don’t forget I’ve been to Africa now and have seen some doozies. (Photo over at Flickr, but I figured I did not need to subject you to it here.)

Because we’d climbed so quickly we had about an hour to wait until sunset, so we sat around and tried to dry off and warm up. I put on all the extra layers of clothing I had, and we accosted some friendly Belgian ladies to take our picture.

Emma, me, Jessica, Fabio, Anna and Ron. And it was quite windy – that’s why my hair looks weird and big like that. And yes, I am obsessed with my hair these days. Get used to it.

Scholarly opinion among the real photographers in the groups was that the light would probably have been better at sunrise, but everyone was grateful we’d done the hike when we did. The closer it got to sunset, the more people arrived, though it was never really crowded. This was another advantage of doing the afternoon trek. Apparently most people prefer the sunrise, so there are a lot more people around for that. The LP says that in the busiest part of the year there can be up to 500 people at the summit, though I can’t imagine where they’d all stand; it’s really quite a modest spot.

Finally, the sun set and we all took loads of photos and then scurried off so we could make it down the nasty steps while there was still some lingering twilight.

My camera is really not smart enough to take great sunset pictures, but here’s one of the better ones, including a group of insanely fit Austrians who left us in the dust on the hike down.

The trip down was not bad. We all had flashlights or headlamps because it was completely dark by the time we made it down, which took about an hour and 45 minutes. And Ahmed was waiting for us at the bottom, bundled up and complaining about the cold that his skinny Egyptian body is not equipped to deal with. The whole trek really was quite an effort, and by the time we got into the warm bus for the short ride back to the hotel I was exhausted. Then there was a reasonable buffet supper back at the ranch, made memorable by the fact that the place actually had BEER for sale. It was an outrageous 30 Egyptian pounds for a bottle (about $6.00), but it was also the first time I’ve been able to have a beer with a meal since arriving in the Middle East, so I paid it grudgingly.

After supper I managed to stay awake long enough to clear my luggage off my bed and watch about 3 minutes of “Shaolin Soccer” on Fox Movies, originally in (I think) Chinese, but dubbed into English, with Arabic subtitles. I’m sure pulled up the covers and closed my eyes before 9:00 pm. It had been a long day.

As for Moses, I really hope that when he made it all the way down with those stone tablets someone was waiting for him with a beer, and I hope it didn’t cost him £30. I mean, really.

Pick of Pics: the Dead Sea

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I'm not backtracking to Israel - the tour I'm on included a visit to the Dead Sea, so I went there again, to the Jordan side. I didn't go in this time, but I did take lots of pictures for other people, and a few for myself. I have no idea why these chairs were in the sea, but I thought they were interesting.

Jordan's greatest hits

Friday, January 22, 2010

It was one of the places on my “must-see” list for this trip, and I think it’s safe to say that Petra did not disappoint. What did disappoint a bit were the Imaginative Traveller trip notes, which clearly said we’d have some time on the afternoon of Day 3, and most of Day 4 at the site. Instead we left the hotel in Amman a bit late on Day 3, then we stopped so our guide could pick up his credentials, then we spent an odd amount of time touring around Amman through some of the posher neighbourhoods. After that there was a pitstop at a convenience store so we could pick up some supplies for lunch, because we were told there wasn’t a good place to stop on the way. Once we finally got on the road lo and behold, there was a lunch stop! We were supposed to be there for half an hour, but that turned into an hour. All of this meant that we didn’t roll into Wadi Musa – the town closest to Petra – until dusk, and during winter months the entrance to Petra closes at 4:00pm. Needless to say we were not impressed, especially when we didn’t even get to do the cheesey “Petra by Night” walk because it’s not available on Tuesdays. (It really would have been nice if our guide had known that before he asked us all if we wanted to go.)

But nevermind all that, it turns out that one long day was enough at Petra. We were smart enough to go for an early start, leaving the hotel at 7:00am (early in Jordan and early in Africa are two very different things, thankfully). When we got to the site there were already several large tour buses in the parking lot, but a few of us surged ahead past the inevitable gift shops and headed into the Siq.

Best snack shop EVER.

The Siq is the legendary 1.2km long high-sided canyon sort of thing that leads into the city of Petra. The LP takes pains to point out that it’s not actually a canyon but a “rock landmass that has been rent apart by tectonic forces” but whatever the geological cause, it’s a spectacular walk.

Emma, my roommate, demonstrating the scale of the Siq.

Most people probably know Petra from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and it’s such a spectacular setting it really seems like it must have been designed by Hollywood rather than formed naturally. It’s really fantastic. You wander for about half an hour among these towering rocks and then suddenly you’re staring at the most famous site in Jordan

My first view of the Treasury

It is seriously amazing and improbable - carved right out of the pink sandstone cliff and really well-preserved. I can’t imagine how they managed to plan and carve it out. Access to the inside is blocked off, but there’s not much to see there anyways. It’s called the Treasury because locals mistakenly used to believe the Pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn of the facade. Whatever it was, though, it must have been important. (I took a lot more photos of it, and of the whole site, but it’s just not practical to include even a fraction of them here. If you haven’t looked already, click on over to the Flickr feed and look at the Petra set.)

It was at this point when we saw the wave of Japanese tourists returning from their visit to Petra. They must have arrived when the site opened at 6:00am, walked from the Treasury to the end of the main part of the valley, and then jogged back. Incredible. I speculated that they probably had the rest of Jordan all of Egypt to see that day, so they were moving fast (“Ok, Petra from 6am to 8am, then Wadi Rum from 9:00 to 9:30. Fast ferry to Nuweib and at the Great Pyramids by noon. 3 minute lunch stop. Pyramids from 12:03pm to 12:30pm. Photo op with the Sphinx 12:30 to 1:00pm. Helicopter transfer to Luxor for King Tut’s Tomb from 2:00pm to 2:15pm. Felucca ride on the Nile from 2:30pm to 2:45pm. Helicopter back to Cairo, visit the Egyptian Museum from 4:00pm to 4:30pm. Free time from 4:30 to 4:35pm… etc.)

Once we had our fill of the Treasury, we wandered along Wadi Musa, taking in the other sights of Petra. “Wadi” is Arabic for valley, so “Wadi Musa” means Moses Valley. The town we stayed in is named after the valley, and Petra is situated in the valley. We passed through the Street of Facades – an area riddled with about 40 rock-cut tombs. Some were quite plain, but the rock itself was really beautiful – much of it was striped and swirled with different shades of red and orange and purple.

Inside one of the tombs

And of course there was the mandatory theatre, and main collonaded street, all familiar from my many forays into Roman ruins. Petra was originally built in 3rd century by the Nabataeans and was a major stop on the caravan routes from Damascus to Arabia. It was abandoned – probably in 555 AD after a major earthquake – but the Romans inhabited it for a while too before it fell into disuse, so that may be why it’s got a Roman feel in parts. Remarkably, it was only “discovered” by the western world in 1812. And that’s all the history you’re getting from me, because I really didn’t pay that much attention and totally cribbed that whole last bit from the LP.

What I did do was take the long hike up a winding path to one of Petra’s better-known monuments, called the Monastery. The hike itself was a bit strenuous, and though the morning was cold I ended up stripping off more and more layers the higher we climbed and the sweatier I got. It was about a 35 minute trek at a steady, heart-rate-elevating pace. Some of the lazier/smarter among us hired donkeys and rode up, though we heard that was a bit scary. The donkey themselves are amazingly sure-footed on the steep steps but have no qualms about passing on the outside to try and get ahead of their mates. Though it was an effort, I’m glad I did it on foot

Some of the 800 steps up to the Monastery.

Our timing was really good all day. When me and my three compatriots (Emma, Fabio and Jammal) arrived at the Monastery we had the whole site to ourselves except for one insanely fit German guy who passed us on the way up. It’s an impressive facade – even bigger than the Treasury, and modeled after it, but you really don’t take in the scale of it unless you see it with a person in the picture.

Fabio standing in front of the main entrance. His head just reaches to the bottom of the doorway. I told you it was big.

We stopped for an extortionately expensive cup of hot, sweet tea with mint (1.50 dinars! They were only 0.50 dinar near the Treasury) and enjoyed having this incredible place to ourselves before we struck off for a nearby viewpoint and then did the long hike back down to the floor of Wadi Musa. After a short, cold, expensive and unsatisfying lunch the four of us went over to the see the Royal Tombs – more impressive facades cut into the rock.

And then, not satisfied with having negotiated the 800 steps up to the monastery, we decided to try and find the back route behind the Royal Tombs to a ledge overlooking the Treasury. And we found it – after another long and sweaty trek up more steps and some serious doubt as to whether were were on the right track. Being the only ones in the area is nice most of the time, but on this occasion I would have been grateful to have run into some people coming back the other way who could have confirmed that we were on the right track. Nevertheless, we persevered and finally found it, and it was a fantastic view.

Here’s a perspective most people don’t get. I do have a couple of pictures of me at this ledge but they are perhaps the worst pictures of me EVER. My now mostly unmanageable hair is frizzed out in all directions, my mouth is hanging open and I look like I’ve gained fifty pounds, not fifteen. Needles to say, those did not make it onto Flickr.

It ended up raining while we were trekking back down from that viewpoint, and we got quite wet. In fact, a lot of our time in the desert was marked by unexpectedly torrential rains, which seemed bizarre. We were actually lucky, though. We heard from our guide that the entire site had to be closed a few days before we were there because a huge rainfall made the place impossible. As we were walking out, it was easy to see how large volumes of rain would make the Siq an ankle-deep river of mud.

We met back at our bus at 3:00 pm after about 7 hours of sight-seeing, climbing, getting rained on, and generally exerting ourselves. All I wanted was a short ride in a warm bus to a comfortable hotel with hot showers and wireless internet. Instead, we drove through more rain to a touristy Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert, about two hours drive away. It was dusk when we arrived and were shown to our “rooms” in goat-hair tents.

Jammal, checking out the accommodations

Let there be no doubt – the desert is COLD. Especially at night, in January, after a large rainfall. Luckily, they had a nice kerosene stove in a big common area kind of tent, and we had our supper in there and hung out enjoying the warmth, thawing out, and relaxing after a long day. My mood was much improved by the time I’d sat near the heater for a while and had some hot food and lashings of sweet tea with sage, so by the time I went to bed I felt pretty good. I even managed to have pass a reasonable night, though it was a bit tricky keeping the mountain of covers balanced on top of me, and I turned out to be absolutely irresistible to the sand flies, which left me with a dozen or more tiny red blotches on my face.

Nevermind all that, though, because the next morning we got to ride camels! After the standard middle eastern breakfast most of us saddled up and went off for an hour of camel riding. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, camels are exceptionally smelly, mostly ornery and kind of ridiculous. Getting onto a camel is not hard, but you really have to hang on tight when they stand up because they accomplish this is a series of three lurching back-and-forth movements, any one of which could pitch you off into the sand. And once you’re up, it’s a looong way down. I think I had the biggest camel in the group, because I towered over some of the others.

Me, waiting for the big lurch

Each camel was lead by a handler, or tied to the camel in front of it, and we walked for about an hour, making a big circle that lead us back to the camp. I managed to get a few photos even though camels do not exactly provide a smooth, camera-friendly ride. Still, it was pretty cool, and I enjoyed it.

Here’s my camel and my camel-driver, neither of whose names I managed to discover.

So we had Petra and Bedouins and camels, and it was still only about 10:00 am – just enough time to pile into the back of a couple of pickup trucks and zoom around in the desert for a few hours! I was looking forward to this too, because we really hadn’t been properly IN the desert yet – like out on big sand dunes – that kind of thing. The jeep drivers delighted in racing across the wet sand (remember, there had been a LOT of rain), and they zipped up dunes and down the other side and generally behaved like boys do when given an accelerator pedal and an open space. It was fun, but breezy. We also stopped a few times to take photos, and we visited another Bedouin guy who made us coffee and tea and tired to sell us stuff.

Inside the Bedouin tent. My driver was the one on the right in the traditional clothing. He was insane, but fun.

When the sun came out it warmed up and the views were quite fantastic. Wadi Rum isn’t a Sahara-style desert with endless ranks of sand dunes and nothing else – it’s got a lot of rock formations and some scrubby vegetation and it was really quite beautiful.

Wadi Rum desert

It seemed like a long drive back to the camp, and I was grateful to finally get back onto our warm and comfy bus. The desert was fun and beautiful, but I was tired and dirty and cold, and very much looking forward to getting to Aqaba, a properly touristy place that promised to have the hot shower and cold beer I’d been craving since Petra. And it did. And it was good.

A slow start in Jordan

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gratuitous picture of crazy man-made islands at Dubai. I flew out of Dubai on the last leg of my trip from Livingstone*

It was a great hotel. I mean, it wasn’t the Burj Al Arab or anything like that, but it was exactly what I needed. It was not, however, the first hotel I tried in Amman. I’d originally booked at a place recommended by the LP, but it turned out to be a bit grim. It was certainly not the worst hotel room I’ve stayed in – that distinction still goes to the Baronie in Utrecht - but it really wasn’t what I was looking for. After 23 days of overland truck travel in Africa I wanted somewhere to hole up for a couple of days and just enjoy the comforts of first-world existence, and the Palace Hotel was not that. I hemmed and hawed a bit, and then opened up the LP again and cast my glance away from the “Budget” section and into the never-before-tried “Midrange” section, and found the Toledo Hotel. “Modern rooms with subdued lighting boast business-friendly amenities such as satellite tv and wireless internet, and the bathrooms are spacious.” It was 3 times more expensive than the Palace, but as soon as I walked into the room I knew it was worth every dinar.

There was going to be a video here of me narrating about my lovely hotel room, but the connection the hotel in Wadi Musa just can't handle that. Instead, you get a picture of the weird market that was right outside my room on Friday. The whole area across the street was filled with stalls of clothing and you could hear the din from six floors up inside the room.

The next day, it was completely gone - just an empty parking lot.

Not only was there satellite tv and wifi (though the wifi was 15 dinar for 24 hour worth of access – about $22.50!), there was cheap room service, and air conditioning, and an extensive breakfast buffet, and a fitness centre and a business centre where you could print stuff. There was even a Qu’ran in the wardrobe and a sticker on the ceiling pointing the direction in which to pray. Oh, and crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows and a Do No Disturb sign for the door. And they brought me a complimentary plate of fruit and bottle of water after I arrived. I got there at about noon on Friday and I did not leave the building until I had to check out at noon on Sunday. I napped, caught up on the blog, uploaded all my photos from Africa, Skyped, watched tv, slept in, and ordered room service for supper two nights in a row. I even got the chance to run again for the first time since Nairobi – on a treadmill in the hotel’s fitness centre. It was PERFECT.

Sadly, on Sunday I had to move hotels to join up with my Imaginative Traveller “Jordan and Egypt Adventure” Tour. The new hotel was somewhere between the Palace and the Toledo, but sufficient for a couple of nights. I met some of the group on Sunday night – at least the ones who were continuing on from a tour that had started in Turkey and moved on through Syria before arriving in Jordan. There was Emma, my roommate, from England; Jamal, also from England; Fabio from Switzerland, Leslie, a retired chap from England, and Fitz, a peach farmer form Fresno. They all seem like a nice bunch. We’re also joined by seven others – an even mix of Americans and Canadians.

A view of Amman houses – the city is built on seven hills and navigating is a constant up-down battle, with lots of stairs. It reminded me a bit of Lisbon in this respect.

Our first day was pretty grim – it was pouring rain outside and we were scheduled to go on a walking tour of Amman. (In fact, it was also pouring rain inside, because the five-storey “atrium” of the hotel was leaking quite badly, making it a treacherous trip from the breakfast buffet to a table.) The walking tour was ok, but the group seemed unenthusiastic. We’re split between people who’ve been travelling for a while - me and the Turkey/Syria gang – who are a bit jaded, and people who’ve just started and are fresh and keen and want to do everything and go everywhere. This has already created a bit of friction, but so far no big blow-ups.

We visited the Citadel, a hilltop archeological site in the centre of Jordan. It’s got some excavated ruins – Roman and Byzantine or something. I wasn’t really listening. Mostly I was huddling under my new 2 Dinar umbrella and trying to stay warm. The citadel is also the site of Jordan’s National Archeological Museum. It was small and kind of sad, and had the feeling of something from the 1950s. I think the only reason one would tarry there is that they’ve got a few scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were tucked away in a room at the back and uninsipring in the extreme, though perhaps this was mostly due to the setting and my generally grey mood.

See what I mean about the weather?

We also stopped at Amman’s Roman theatre, but I am really, really done with Roman theatres. I’ think this was my seventh Roman theatre of the trip – I’ve seen them in France, Italy, Turkey, and now Jordan. I didn’t even bother to climb to the top of this one. But I did have a nice lunch with Jamal, Emma and Fabio, at a place where they’d been the day before. We got two plates of hummus, two plates of fuul (pronounced “fool”, a mixture of beans), a plate of tomatoes and onions, cups of sugary tea and a mountainous stack of pita bread for a grand total of 7 JD in total, for all four of us. Yummy and filling and very local.

After lunch I wandered a bit an invested 2.50 JD in a pair of wooly gloves and a toque. We’re going to be spending a night in the dessert in a few days, and I thought it was worth it. I also had a look around the souk (market) and it was appropriately colourful. But as a measure of just how jaded I’ve become, I didn’t take a single picture of the market. What I did do is walk back to the hotel and have a nice nap while listening to the rain outside start up again, then get worse, then turn to hail, and then turn back to rain.

I was conserving my energy because I knew I was about to have a challenging evening. I was going to hash with the local gang, the Hashemite Hash House Harriers. (Jordan is more properly known as The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for reasons the LP does not care to explain. But it does make for the perfect place to have a Hash.) I had a bit of trouble getting ready for this run - I really don’t have the wardrobe for running in Arabic countries, where shorts are sort of inappropriate for women. Add to that the fact that it was still bucketing down with rain and much colder than I’ve experienced in some time, and you can see why I was having a bit of a wardrobe malfunction. In the end I wore my shorts with grey cotton sweats over them, and a long-sleeved shirt with my running shirt on top, and my rain jacket, and my new wooly gloves.

We met at the house of a local hasher, which was a huge stone place with big pillars out front and a swimming pool in back and a big open basement suitable for a group of drippy hashers. I was curious about how the hares would manage to set a trail in darkness and torrential rain, but it turns out that the Hashemite HHH don’t bother with setting a trail a lot of the time. The hare just heads out, and the runners simply follow behind. This doesn’t seem quite in the spirit of things, but it was a good arrangement for that night because there was no chance of getting lost and we could request a turn for home when we’d had enough. We ended up running for about 45 minutes and when we got back I was as wet as if I’d been standing in the shower that whole time. Once I got into the bathroom I stripped off my cotton sweats and wrung about 2 cups of water out them.

Circle was short but raucous, and the Hashemite HHH has the distinction of being the only place I’ve hashed other than Winnipeg where they actually had songbooks. It warmed my heart, which needed warming, let me tell you. And there was cold beer and a big pot of chicken soup and bread, which also helped warm things up. Finally I got a ride back to the hotel from a very friendly ex-pat American hasher, and was careful to leave one of my new wooly gloves in his car as a memento.

And now we’re on our minibus on the way to Wadi Musa, the jumping off point for anyone visiting Petra, “the ancient rose-red city of the Nabateans”. There’s a bit of concern that the extreme rains may affect access to the site, which actually had to be closed yesterday. But today has been sunny, and frankly even if I have to snorkel my way to the site I’m still going, so stay tuned.



* I flew from Jo’burg (that’s what the cool kids call it) to Amman on Emirates Airlines, which instantly became my favourite airline EVER. The plane was a huge 777 with the most fantastic back-of-seat touchscreen entertainment system I have ever seen. It had a huge selection of on-demand movies and tv, 9 zillion channels of music (including the top hits from every year), games, news, and the ability to send and receive SMS and email ($1.00 each). And the flight attendants wore these funny veils along one side, and there were fibreoptic stars in the ceiling when they dimmed the cabin lights. I transited through Dubai, which is the hub for Emirates, and the terminal has free wifi everywhere and loads of places for charging computers and things. And it was a hive of activity with all the shops open even though I arrived at 5:15am. I’ve already booked with Emirates for my flight from Cairo to Delhi and have joined their frequent flyer program. And if they’d like to give me a free upgrade on that flight for mentioning them so favourably in my blog, I would not be too proud to accept.

The last day in Africa, Part Two

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I’ve said it before, but a lot can happen in a day on a trip like this. Swimming at the edge of Victoria Falls, having an eggs Benedict breakfast on Livingstone Island, bluffing our way through a five star resort, and walking to Zimbabwe… all that was over by lunch time on my last day in Africa. The afternoon had very very different things in store. I mentioned that we met the guy who runs the bungee jump, right? Well that’s NOT what I did. I went to a different place where, for a mere 85 USD (instead of over a hundred for one lousy bungee jump) I got to do abseiling (rappelling for us North Americans) and a zip line thing called The Flying Fox, and something else called a Gorge Swing. Twice.

My companion for the afternoon was Jon, a guy from a different overland truck that was on the same route we were on. We kept running into him and his truck mates at every campground and struck up a friendship with them. I’d kind of been thinking about a bungee jump but the 85 dollar “Adrenalin Package” seemed like good value for money with some variety thrown in too, so when I found out Jon was going to do the same package I was right in there.

We had a bumpy ride out to the gorge on benches in the open back of a pickup truck accompanied by nine young Spanish guys who piled in and proceeded to talk very loudly, drop things on the road that required we go back and look for them, and generally be a bit annoying. In any case, we made it to the gorge.

A picture of the gorge in question, the name of which I never knew

Nikki and Alex from my truck where there when we arrived – they’d booked the whole day package and had been there since 9am. They looked knackered by the time Jon and I rolled up and ended up packing it in just as we arrived (but before giving us a crucial bit of insider info). Then we got a bit of a briefing and Jon and I hopped to the front of the line while the Spaniards sorted themselves out. It was abseiling first, which I’ve done before, though that was ages ago. Somehow I ended up going first, and acquitted myself fairly decently. Jon started out well but lost the knack about half way down and ended up dangling awkwardly for a while before finding his rhythm again.

Jon getting kitted out for the abseil

And then it was time for the part that Alex and Nikki decided not to warn us about – the walk back up. We were told at our briefing that getting back up from the bottom of the abseil and the gorge swing would be about a 10-15 minutes walk, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It felt like much longer in the heat, especially the first time when we weren’t even sure we were going the right direction. Suddenly it was easy to understand why Alex and Nikki had given up after half a day. Four trips up from the floor of that gorge would be enough for anyone. (And of course I have no pictures of the walk back up because I did not bring my camera with me while I was abseiling.)

Once we made it back up, sweaty and exhausted and puffing, we got ready for the Flying Fox. This was simply a horizontal cable strung across the gorge with a pulley on it. You’d clip in to the pulley and then take a running start off the edge of the cliff and glide as far along the cable as momentum would carry you. The deal was that if you made it all the way to the other side, you’d get your money back. I suspect that’s never happened. However, you do get the chance to strike goofy poses during the leisurely dangling time while they reel you back in to the starting platform.

See?

It was disquieting taking a running leap off the edge of a cliff, but the second time around it was much better. It really was a lot of fun, largely because it didn’t involve the bloody hike up Kilimanjaro before you could try it again.

The main event, though, was definitely the Gorge Swing. They were very crafty about how they get you warmed up for that too. The abseil is quite tame, but it gives you a chance to get used to the harnesses and it does involve going over the edge, albeit in as slow and controlled a way as you want. The Flying Fox requires a bigger leap of faith but you’ve still got the reassuring tug of the clip on your harness telling you that you’re safe. The Gorge Swing is hard core. It’s basically a bungee jump, but instead of going head first and bouncing up and down at the bottom you go upright and swing back and forth at the bottom. But the essentials are the same: you step off a precipice and freefall for a while until a rope or cord gets tension and stops your downward motion (or so you hope).

And once again, somehow I ended up going first. Probably lots of you have done something like this, so you may be familiar with the feeling of standing on the edge. I was a bit surprised at how nervous I was. We had the option of going facing front or back, and though my original intention was to go front-first, when I got up there I changed my mind and decided to go backwards. So I turned around and Fred, the Jump Master (or Gorge Captain or Chief Masochist or whatever he’s called) started to wrap a short piece of webbing around my ankles. I said, “Whoa whoa whoa. What’s that for? I don’t like that!” He said that if I wanted to go backwards it was necessary to strap my legs together so the rope couldn’t get between them while I was falling. I don’t know why it felt so yucky, but it’s just possible that I was not thinking entirely rationally at that point. In any case, I decided to turn around and go forwards.

So there I was, strapped into two different harnesses, standing on the edge of a cliff getting ready to step off. It was incredibly hard. When you bungee jump often they’ll give you a little push to get you going, but that was not the policy here. If you don’t take the step, you don’t go. Finally Fred got me calmed down – they really were a calm and pleasant bunch of guys, which is precisely the kind of people you want around for this kind of thing, I think. So Fred calmed me down and I stood looking out into thin air, and there was a countdown, and I stepped.

It was a 53 metre freefall before the rope took tension and I started swinging and knew I was not going to die. About 174 feet. And this is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, “OH MY GAAAAAAWD, it was SOOOOOOOOO incredible! I LLLOOOOOOOVVVVEEEDDD it!” Yeah, well NOT. Taking that step and experiencing the freefall – it was one of the most unnatural things I’ve ever felt. I didn’t scream because my mind was frozen. It was like I could not process what was going on except that it was wrong wrong wrong. So naturally I hiked up out of the gorge with Jon and we did it again.

Well, the “Adrenalin Package” included two gorge swings after all, and I figured that the second time would be better. I knew what was coming, so I’d be able to enjoy it more. Ummm, no. As soon as I took the step on my second jump, it felt exactly the same. Wrong. Awful. Scary. Jon had gone ahead on our second round and as I was being lowered down he called up to ask how I was. I said, “I’ve decided I don’t like this.” And I really, really meant it. I certainly don’t regret doing it, and I’m glad I went back the second time because now I know, with perfect certainty, that freefall is not my thing. I really hope that the next time the temptation comes along I’ll be able to resist it.

Thankfully they had a cooler of soft drinks and beer, so after our last sweaty hike out of the valley there was a bit of relief. And the driver agreed to make the trip back to the hotel just for us instead of making us wait for all the Spaniards to get finished. The ride was much more pleasant with the addition of a cold beer, and the pool at the campground was cool and refreshing. I had a quiet dinner with a few people from the truck, sitting on the deck overlooking the Zambezi river. And later that evening Fred and Dominic from the Gorge Gang showed up and we had a nice time chatting with them about the afternoon. Fred confirmed about about 15% of people who attempt the swing back out without taking the big step. And he told me that I was traveling - well, falling - at fifteen metres per second. No wondering it felt a bit disquieting.

Sunset on the Zambezi

And, most importantly, no one asked me to step off any more cliffs for the whole rest of the day.

And now I'm in Jordan, getting ready to embark on another organized tour, this one through Jordan and Egypt. It's a real "greatest hits" of the region - Petra, Wadi Rum, Bedouins, camel riding, the pyramids, cruising the Nile, climbing Mount Sinai, the Valley of the Kings - I'm looking forward to it very much. And there will be no camping, except for one night with the Bedouins, and I bet we don't have to flap our dishes.

Africa already seems like a faraway memory, and there are loads of things I never got around to telling you about - like how Charles our cook once gathered up the leftovers from lunch when we were stopped by the road and gave them to a guy nearby who was cutting grass with a scythe, and called him brother. It was just a bag of cold spaghetti and a rinsed-out pickle jar of orange drink, but you could tell the guy really appreciated it.

Charles

And I never told you about sausage trees! We saw them on the Serengeti, and when one of the group referred to them as sausage trees, I knew what she meant right away. Then I asked our jeep driver what they're really called and he said, "Sausage trees". And you can see why, it looks like they are growing big salamis:

A Sausage Tree on the Serengeti

And the houses in Malawi and Zambia! We passed by lots of small settlements and most of them were made up of small round huts with wattle-and-daub kind of walls and shaggy thatched roofs that look like they need a haircut. They seemed like something out of another time, yet sometimes you'd see people outside them texting on a cell phone. Africa really is a land of contrasts.

Shaggy houses, in a random spot where we had to stop to change a flat tire. (have a look over at Flickr for shots of the chunk of metal we ran over. Impressive)

And finally let me just say that if I ever, ever, hear the Toto song "Africa" again in my life, I may scream. Honestly, anyone who's ever had to kneel in the mud to pack up a wet tent would never want to "...bless the rains down in Africa". And Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" is on serious probation, too. Ah, Africa.

Saving the best for last

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My last day in Africa was the best day I’ve had in a long, long time, and that includes lion walking and helicopter riding. I went on a trip to Livingstone Island – a tiny spot of land that perches right on the edge of Victoria Falls. Terrence booked too; he and I ended up doing a lot of the same activities in Livingstone. This was partly because we had similar interests and partly because most of our group decided to go to the Zimbabwe side of the falls on Tuesday, but the Zimbabwe visa cost 65 USD for Canadians, and the entrance to the Falls park cost another 20 USD. Terrence and I (the only Canadians) decided to skip that $85 hit in favour of the package-mailing, fried-worm-restaurant-finding expedition to Livingstone Town instead. That meant that we missed seeing the falls on the day everyone else did, so we were keen to go the next day.


That start point for the 9:00 am trip was the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the only five star establishment in the area and the nicest hotel in Zambia (I think I heard that anyways). Whatever its rating, it was trés posh. It has that grand British colonial atmosphere with ranks of lazy ceiling fans and acres of white draperies and the nicest bathrooms I’ve seen since… well since a very very long time. I almost wanted to skip the island and just hang out in the lobby of the hotel except that I’m pretty sure they would have ejected us (politely, of course) after our grubby clothing stained their white upholstery.

The Royal Livingstone, estimated cost for a room was around $400-500 USD per night

I turned out there would only be three of us on the trip, and the third member of the party was a guy that Terrence and I had already met on our lion walk on Monday morning and on the helicopter ride on Monday afternoon. We were practically best buddies. And our guide was David, who was the brother of Lacken, the lion walking guide. Africa is big, but I guess Livingstone is very small.

The ride out to the island was very short but the water looked tricky, with lots of strange eddies and currents. We were in a small motorboat and made the trip in just a few minutes. David Livingstone made his first trip in a dugout canoe in 1855, which seems mildly insane given that there’s a 110 metre drop if you get a bit off course and run out of arm power to paddle against the current to get back on track. Not to mention the crocodiles.

David our guide told us we’d come at a really good time – the water level was high, but not so high that the island was washed out. There are times when they have to take much smaller boats because the pathways on the island get flooded and the smaller boats are narrow enough to navigate those paths during high water. And at other times of the year big chunks of the 1.7km length of the falls dry up completely. We had a short walk across the island, past the “Loo with a View” and the area where they’d be serving us breakfast after our tour of the island.

Are you kidding me?

The views of the falls were, of course, spectacular. We saw the Zambian side on the right, and then walked a bit and had a look at the more impressive Zimbabwe side. I also had a bit of a mission on the island. The day before - January 12th - I’d woken early and spent a bit of time wandering quietly in the campground. Sometimes I like to look at my calendar and see what I was doing exactly one year ago, and that morning something made me do just that. When I saw the appointment in my calendar for January 12th, 2009, my heart just froze. All it said was “3:00pm - Henry”. It was the day I took my poor sick hound to the vet and the day he didn’t come home. It almost made me cry again remembering, and I felt awful that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t had the notion to look at my calendar. So as I wandered and remembered, I decided something.

When I got Henry’s ashes back from the vet I scattered some of them at the dog park at the end of the street, and some of them at the kennel where he was born. But I did keep a tiny container along with his collar and a few other Henry things, and that all went into storage in Winnipeg. And I kept an even tinier container that I brought with me on my travels, attached to the zipper pull of one of my little gadget bags. The thought was that I’d wait until I found the most beautiful spot in the world, and leave that tiny bit of Henry there. I’m not sure if Victoria Falls is the most beautiful place on earth, but the coincidence of the dates and the location and the unexpected whim to check the calendar made it seem like it was the right time and place.

So I stood on Livingstone Island and took my photos and clutched that tiny half-a-cubic centimetre of my buddy in my hand. The trouble is that Victoria Falls is a National Park, so it’s technically illegal to take anything away or leave anything behind. (Dear Falls Park Ranger Patrol: Please don’t arrest me. It really was a very very tiny container. And he really was a very very good hound.) So I sneakily waited until the guide was turned away taking a picture for Terrence and I sent Mr. Henry over the Victoria Falls container and all, with a quick left-handed underarm.

The Zimbabwe side, and the vantage point from whence Mr. Henry was launched.

With that taken care of, it was back to the fun stuff. David asked if anyone wanted to go in the water. Terrence had really been hoping for this chance, but we weren’t at all sure it would come. The most famous swimming spot on the island is called The Devil’s Pool, and is out on the Zimbabwe side. You have to follow a rope strung out in to the water to get to it, but once there you’re in a deep natural pool right on the edge of the falls, with a wall that stops you from going over. We’d been told that the Devil’s Pool was closed due to the high water, but also heard there was another spot where you could go in. This was the spot David proposed, so we decided to go for it.

Well it was simply fantastic. There was a local guy there in the water to show you how to get in, and the other guides took our cameras and shot picture after picture of the whole thing. The pool was about six or eight feet from the edge and about four to five feet deep. The water fell into it from above, filled the pool and then spilled over and went on to the edge. It was great.

Terrence was excited.

We bobbed around in that pool for a while smiling stupidly and shaking our heads in disbelief at the whole thing. And then the local guy who was in the water with us tapped me on the shoulder and crooked his finger for me to follow him, so of course I did. It turns out he was leading me to another pool that was right on the very edge. He carefully told me how to get there, “Put your foot here. Sit here. Slide in. Stand here.” And then I was on the edge of Victoria Falls with water streaming past all around me. I could look over from behind a natural wall and see the bottom, and my fingertips rested on the corner of oblivion. I was only there for a few minutes, but there were some of the most amazing minutes of my life.

video

David was even clever enough to take some video. It’s grainy, but it gives you the idea. There really are no words for what this felt like.

Terrence got his turn on the edge too, and then we reluctantly hoisted ourselves out of the water and dried off with the towels provided, and sat down for our “light” breakfast: fresh coffee, muffins and scones, and eggs Benedict.

Are you kidding me? Swimming on the edge of Victoria Falls, and then this?

And all this was before 10:30 in the morning and cost just 60 USD. It might have been the best money I’ve spent on the trip so far. In fact at one point during the morning I said to Terrence that it felt we’d won some kind of reward challenge on “Survivor”. I could just hear Jeff Probst saying something like, “The tribe that eats the most mopane worms in the shortest time will win a trip to Livingstone Island where you’ll swim right up to the edge of Victoria Falls and then enjoy a delicious breakfast in view of the natural wonder of the falls.”

In fact the morning just kept being sort of charmed. We went back the the Royal Livingstone and I had a second visit to the nicest bathrooms in Zambia, and then went to sit outside to wait for a taxi and reapply my sunscreen. As soon as I stepped out of the front of the hotel and sat down on the bench provided a choir of four men and four women who were waiting at the entrance broke into an a capella song and dance. It was just bizarre and charming, and if that’s what it’s like to stay in a five star hotel then that’s something I should really do more often. In fact I think I need to go stay at that very hotel some time before I die.

video

The choir (more video!!)

We ended up getting a free Royal Livingstone shuttle to the slightly-less-fancy hotel next door, where there was a private path to the falls. (There were also giraffes and zebras wandering on the grounds, including a knot of three zebras standing on a median in the parking lot.) We thought the jig might be up when we found out access to the path was restricted to hotel residents, but then Terrence befriended Ceasar the security guard who decided he’d personally escort us through the grounds to the correct gate. I strongly suspect that the $10 USD park entrance fee we paid to a miscellaneous uniformed guard at this gate will never make it into the coffers of the national parks system, but since we would have had to pay it if we’d gone to the proper public gate, I bear no grudge.

We had a nice wander along the paths and took many many photos of the falls, and Terrence took many many photos of the bridge that links Zambia and Zimbabwe because he’s a Bridge Geek of the highest order. And then we walked out along the bridge, all the way to the middle where you can hop back and forth across the line that separates the two countries. I suppose technically I could declare Zimbabwe country number 19, but since I didn’t actually pass through customs and was really only there for about fifteen seconds, I think I’ll let it lie.

Another money shot of the falls

The bridge is also where they do bungee jumping, and the guy who runs the bungee outfit - a British ex-pat - ended up chatting with Terrence about the bridge, and about his big plans for the business, and about how incredibly safe bungee jumping is and on and on. At least he was enthusiastic. When we walked back to the Zambia side to find a cab, Mr. Bungee was there too and offered to give us a ride back to the hotel, saving us 50,000 Kwacha. Like I said, it was a charmed morning.

In fact it was such a full morning that I think I’ll save the story of the afternoon for another post. And trust me, you won’t want to miss that one.


Note: I'm writing and posting this from Amman, Jordan, having made my escape from Africa on January 14th. The first hotel I booked in Amman turned out to be a little sad, and really not what I wanted for a couple of days of R&R. So after a few minutes of dithering in my dingy room, I repacked my bag, hopped in a cab, and upgraded to a place that's three times more expensive but makes me one thousand times happier. I've got highspeed wifi and satellite tv in the room, and there's a complimentary breakfast buffet, and a Fitness Centre with treadmills where I plan to have my first run in 27 days this afternoon. There's even a Qu'uran in the wardrobe and a sticker on the ceiling pointing the direction to pray in. Oh, and they brought me a complimentary plate of fruit and a bottle of water after I checked in. And I had a room service supper last night. I've also managed to get all my Africa photos uploaded to Flickr, and even organized into sets, which is how I'd recommend looking at them. I haven't had a chacne to label them yet, but may get to that as well.

So things are good. I'm clean and relaxed and starting to feel caught up. My "Jordan and Egypt Adventure" tour with Imaginative Traveler starts on the 17th, but until then I'm just enjoying the good life.