When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Everything about it excited me – the majesty of the pharaohs, the scale of the pyramids, an alphabet made of pictograms, and especially the possibility that there could be more tombs like Tutankhamen’s hidden somewhere.
Around the same time I was reading books about pharaohs and pyramids, the Gulf War broke out and tourism to the Middle East slumped. But when it was over, there were incredible deals to encourage people to come back.
It was with one of these deals (just $1 for an all inclusive trip to Egypt if you bought Sydney-London return airfares) that my father and I went to see this ancient land and discover the mysteries that I believed existed.
I still remember it as one of the best trips I have ever done – how could it not have been? Little Michael finally getting to climb over the temples and explore the tombs he had been obsessed with.
But, despite that amazing trip and my childhood obsession, I had not been back to explore Ancient Egypt since then. Not for more than 25 years. Not until now.
For many people, Egypt is a dream trip – one of those places you vow to go one day. I was lucky to have already been but it had become a blurry memory. Kids don’t remember specifics.
So, in some ways, this time was my dream trip, the one where I would have a better understanding of the significance of Ancient Egypt beyond just regarding it in the same simple way I once viewed dinosaurs: cool.
This time my adventure is with the Egypt Upgraded tour run by G Adventures. I’ve come as part of my role as a G Wanderer.
It’s a trip that takes me to the highlights of the ancient civilisation – the topic that I remember being my focus last time. But there’s much more to it than that.
The tour also shows me the influence of more recent history, introduces me to local cultures, leads me through modern cities, and shows me the natural beauty of the Nile.
What do we see?
It’s fitting (and probably no coincidence) that the first thing we do together as a tour group is visit the astounding Pyramids of Giza, the most famous symbol of Ancient Egypt and still probably of the country today.
But although they are so imposing, they are also so simplistic compared to the tombs of the later dynasties of pharaohs. I realise this later on when we reach Luxor and explore the Valley of the Kings.
It’s enlightening to go down the tunnels into the underground tombs, see the vibrant and detailed paintings on the wall, and realise the artistic vision and craftsmanship – not just brute force and mathematics – that it took to create these majestic resting places.
I’m blown away with places like Karnak, the ancient temple complex in Luxor that is generally considered to be the second-largest in the world (after Angkor Wat in Cambodia). It’s not just the scale that is impressive, it’s the almost endless collection of engravings and statues that decorate the walls and columns.
But then I also love the way I can compare Karnak to other temples from different eras – like the smaller Kom Ombo that we visit at night and experience it lit up in an eerie orange glow, or the superb Philae Temple that was built in Egyptian style during the Greco-Roman period and had to be moved to an island because of rising dam waters.
Plus there are the modern interpretations of ancient ideas. For instance, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that has an overwhelming collection of artefacts from Ancient Egypt that are sometimes displayed prominently like a prized possession and sometimes thrown together into huge piles in a cupboard.
And the gorgeous Library of Alexandria that claims to be the second-largest library in the world (after the Library of the US Congress) and is trying to emulate the status of the ancient library that once stood nearby and was considered to be one of antiquity’s greatest wonders.
With all of this history, it’s easy to imagine travelling to Egypt and just think of the ancient world. Fair enough – it really is the highlight to see the magnificently-preserved remains of one of the greatest civilisations to ever exist.
But there is much more than that and I appreciate the variety that is woven into the itinerary.
More than just Ancient Egypt
There’s the dinner that we have one night in a local home of a Nubian village on an island in the Nile. Not only are we welcomed warmly and offered a delicious meal, we get there by sailing on a traditional felucca as the sun sets over the water.
We visit a 4th-century coptic monastery near Alexandria and are taken on a tour by one of the local priests, who explains the significance of these ancient Christian refuges, and the place that the Coptic Church holds in Egyptian society today.
And there are opportunities to better understand Islamic Egypt. It’s not just about seeing the contemporary life for the majority of Egyptians (we accidentally crash a wedding event at a mosque one evening and are enthusiastically asked to pose for photos with the bride!), but also seeing the heritage.
For instance, I use some spare time in Cairo to visit some of the oldest mosques in the city and am astounded at the beauty of buildings like the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan that was constructed in the 14th century.
Of course, it would also be remiss of me not to mention the nights we spend on cruise down the Nile, travelling from Aswan to Luxor. It’s so relaxing to sit on the rooftop deck, watching the locals on the shore swim in the water, tend to their crops, and wave happily as we pass.
The boat stops at some of the main sights along the route – like the enormous Edfu Temple – and has large comfortable rooms and great meals. It’s certainly a nice chance to slow down from a schedule that is wonderful… but busy.
Hassles in Egypt
I don’t mind having a busy schedule. After all, there is so much to see here in Egypt it would be a shame to miss some of the highlights just because you want a sleep-in.
But I would be misleading you if I pretended the whole trip is easy and comfortable. Unfortunately Egypt is one of those countries where you need to be prepared to put up with a degree of hassle and chaos.
The most obvious of these hassles is the vendors. Constant and omnipresent, the local vendors will always be trying to sell you souvenirs (most of which are probably made in a factory overseas).
While I accept that people need to make a living and you have to respect someone’s right to try to sell you something, it does become frustrating after a while. It’s especially annoying when you decline but the vendor is persistent and even slightly aggressive, touching you or blocking your way.
But what particularly annoys me is when you get pestered inside the sites you’re visiting – often by the very people who are supposed to be looking after them.
It’s very common for the guards to hassle you by asking for bribes to let you access areas you’re not supposed to enter, or touch things you’re not supposed to touch. Or they’ll just do you an unprompted ‘favour’ and then ask for money in return.
It even occurs sometimes that they’ll claim you’re breaking a rule and you need to pay them. (This happens to me at the Valley of the Kings when, although I had already paid the outrageous 300EGP (about US$20) fee to be able to take photos, a guard claimed I needed to pay him again because I was using my main camera AND my phone. I just told him off and walked away – but not everyone would have the confidence to know they were not breaking the rules.)
Unfortunately it’s a country that’s full of scams. Bribery (or ‘tips’) are commonplace. You need to always be vigilant and sceptical… which is a shame because it means you’re not always open to genuine hospitality.
But it can also just be difficult to navigate the basics of travelling in Egypt on your own. For instance: When I do spend a few days doing some independent travel after the tour, I have real trouble buying a train ticket at Cairo station as I get directed between different queues by unhelpful staff, have people constantly push in front of me, and then hit a language barrier.
Even in Luxor when a few of our group go to see some extra sights with a spare afternoon, I think it’s only because we get help that we’re able to find the right boat to take us across the river and arrange for a taxi to be waiting on the other side (and have a decent price negotiated for us).
It’s our G Adventures guide, Adi, that does this for us. And it’s one of many moments when I’m thankful that we are on a tour with him.
The G Adventures difference
Like most of the guides that G Adventures uses around the world, Adi is a local. He’s proud of Egypt and has an excellent understanding of the history that he shares with us as we travel together.
But he’s also able to navigate us through a lot of the hassles that you might face otherwise – doing the negotiating, organising things in advance, offering suggestions and useful advice that make the experience more enjoyable.
It is possible to travel Egypt independently – but that’s not easy. (As a side note, I think that’s a real shame because some people prefer to be able to explore a country in their own way, and Egypt would benefit from making that simpler.)
But, seeing as things are the way they are, Egypt is a good country in which to do a tour.
So many of them are just click and run, though. I see it at so many of the sites we visit – a tour group gets off a bus, has a quick wander around, takes a bunch of photos, and leaves.
What I appreciate so much is that our guide knows their routine… and uses it to decide our plan. We go to different parts of the site where the larger groups aren’t going to be, then come back to the popular spots when they’re gone. And we get there earlier or stay longer to avoid the crowds.
Through it all, Adi gives us fascinating details and stories that bring the Ancient Egyptian world to life. Then we’re given the opportunity to do some of our own exploration (and, in my case, take photos).
When I’m in the middle of the incredible temple at Abu Simbel, the sun shining through the door to illuminate the ancient columns, and I’m the only one in the room now the other tours have left… well, it’s a moment that is very special, and only possible because of the extra time.
One night, when we’re at the local Nubian home that I mentioned earlier, we’re all sitting on the rooftop. Our host, Mohammed, is serving the dinner and we’re chatting with him about life here. At that moment I wonder how many of those big tour groups we had seen earlier were doing something like this. I’m guessing none.
Is this trip right for you?
As you may know, I’ve been working with G Adventures for more than a year now as a G Wanderer and one of the things I always try to do is give you realistic expectations of the various tours they run.
There are generally three levels that are offered. There’s the “18-to-Thirtysomethings” that is aimed at the young budget travellers. There’s the “Classic” that is the standard one suitable for everyone. And there is the “National Geographic Journeys” that is a higher quality with more additional features included.
This tour – Egypt Upgraded – is officially a Classic tour but is at the luxury end of the scale. The hotels are nicer, for example. And the excursion to the temples at Abu Simbel are included, rather than an option that you would pay extra for.
It means you get a certain type of traveller on a trip like this one. They tend to be slightly older than the average Classic tour because they’re willing to spend a bit more than a standard trip. But they are adventurous – particularly culturally – because you are exposed to more of the local life than most of the larger groups.
I think this is a great thing because too many companies think luxury means being isolated from the local community. What G Adventures offers here is a great level of comfort, but with an authentic experience and enough independence to do a bit of your own exploration.
The food is such a perfect example. It’s the way that we go to restaurants with great Egyptian food, and how we might make a quick stop for lunch at the same place where all the locals are queuing to get their meal.
It’s just one more connection with the culture, rather than being sheltered in a boring hotel.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing a lot more stories about the places we visited in Egypt, and I hope to be able to take you on a historical journey as I explain the different eras they fit into.
Because that’s what a trip to Egypt is. You’re uncovering the stories of almost 5000 years, meeting the people who call it home today, floating down the Nile, shopping in bazaars, and eating a lot of felafel!
I don’t think a young Michael appreciated all of that. He was just hoping to find the next tomb of Tutankhamen.
I travelled to Egypt with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Egypt.