After just about a week in Hurghada diving in the Red Sea and seeing the city, we finally arrived in Cairo a short 6 and a half hour bus ride later. The first thing we noticed about Cairo on the way in was that the traffic was out of control! We thought driving in Hurghada looked bad, Cairo was worlds worse. One of the locals warned us that there are no rules or laws for driving there, and as we bused toward our stop we clearly saw that he was right. We asked a few locals how to get to our hostel, which we had been told was just steps from the bus station, but most only spoke Arabic. One that did speak English told us it’d be a cab ride for the equivalent of five dollars. We were tired of looking around with our heavy packs on so we agreed. The cab driver took us in a loop through nearby Tahrir Square, which was the center of the Egyptian Revolution only four years earlier, asked a few other locals for directions, and finally stopped about 300 meters away from the bus stop if you drew a straight line across the street. We were pointed down a more than questionable looking alley, but luckily it was daytime and there seemed to be lots of police in the nearby square.
When we got half way down the alley we saw a sign up four stories high that had the name of our hostel, “My Hotel” written in an old horror movie font so it would look like blood. Someone had sharpied to go to the fourth floor on the bottom of another hotel’s sign in the alley, so up into an even more questionable doorway we went. As we reached the top of the fourth flight of stairs we found a decently nice hostel with an overly anxious receptionist who wanted desperately to sell us tours and trips. When we told him we really needed to find a bank and some food he tried a few more times to sell us something, then gave in and showed us our room. For $14 per night we had a decent size room with an ensuite bathroom and working AC, which was key as it was hovering around 37 degrees Celsius or 100 Fahrenheit outside.
I was excited that we could see the Egyptian National Museum from our room, and Tahrir square was just steps outside the door. I told Sissy I was anxious to see Tahrir Square and we should head down for some food right away, however she countered with some information that I didn’t know. She informed me that Tahrir Square was the site of not only murders during the Egyptian Revolution, but a massive number of assaults on women and rapes since then. We read up for a bit and were finally convinced that the troubles in the square had calmed down significantly in 2013, so we headed out to find dinner, me with a decent size knife in my pocket just for peace of mind.
When we got to the square we found policemen all around, ridiculous amounts of traffic and constant blaring of car horns, and very pushy shop owners trying anything they could to pull us into their shops. After only a few hundred meters we were exhausted with trying to navigate across streets with no real traffic system and repelling the onslaught of merchants that saw dollar signs behind our western clothing. It’s humiliating, but we settled on a Hardy’s for dinner, where the workers didn’t really speak English and the food wasn’t the Carl’s Jr quality I had known from home. After our burgers Sissy was excited to get an ice cream sandwich that was pictured on the napkin holders at every table, however we soon learned that they didn’t actually sell ice cream sandwiches, as the manager who did speak English would explain for us. We would learn over and over on our trip that the signs at Egyptian restaurants and markets didn’t have much to do with what the place actually sold.
We grabbed some money from an ATM, barely escaped a merchant’s shop that we were unwittingly led into, and headed back to the hostel. I needed to withdraw a few thousand dollars in USD to pay the final amount for our overland trip through Africa, which would start the following evening, but the banks in Cairo tend to close at 2pm and it was already getting dark as it was after 6pm. We heard one of the five daily calls to prayer blaring from loudspeakers attached to nearby mosques as we headed to bed.
The next morning we got up bright and early and headed back to the square in search of a Deutsche Bank that appeared right in the middle on Google Maps. I took screenshots of the location of the bank along with a few other banks that may carry some dollars on hand. As we followed the digital map we quickly saw that we were in over our heads as the Deutsche Bank was nowhere to be found and finding a local that spoke English was challenging at best. The few that spoke English had no interest in telling us how to get to banks, they only wanted to sell us trips to places or perfumes. We went into a few different banks that we found, none of which were on my list, and were told in each that there were no US dollars that could be withdrawn, which is the only currency our overland company would accept. We decided to withdraw the money in Egyptian Pounds and convert it to USD as there were multiple money exchanges around. Before making a withdraw, Sissy suggested we ask if they even could change from their currency to USD, which was answered over and over with “No”. These particular money exchanges would go from foreign currency to Egyptian Pound, but for whatever reason wouldn’t go the other way.
We were dripping with sweat from the intense heat and frustrated from the whole experience, plus the Egyptian National Museum had been open for a bit now, which was the entire reason we had come to Cairo a day early. I let our overland company know that we wouldn’t have the money together by 5pm that evening, which is when we were due to meet up with them, and they graciously told us not to worry about it. We headed off to the museum finally, excited to see the ancient artifacts and especially to see the mummies of the ancient kings and queens of Egypt.
The website of the museum isn’t very clear about fees, so it appeared that if you wanted to see the museum it was 75 Egyptian Pound, or see the museum and the mummy rooms it was 100. As it turned out, it was 75 to enter and an additional 100 to see the mummies, which luckily I had as there are no ATMs or shops inside of the museum. The museum was a bit odd as we entered, there was no photography of any type allowed, and once you enter it’s basically a large building full of artifacts placed inside. I guess I should elaborate as museums typically are just that. This is a large, non-air conditioned building that was built in 1897 and seems to have been left the way it was built for the most part since then. Priceless artifacts are either left completely exposed with no barrier between you and them, or they’re sheltered behind a wooden case and thin piece of old glass.
We would return to the museum the next day with our overland group and a guide to tell us about the large number of artifacts with no explanation attached, today we were mainly there to see the mummies as there wouldn’t be time the next day. The mummy rooms were two of the very few air conditioned rooms in the building since they had to stay at a certain temperature to keep the bodies from decomposing further. I expected to walk in and see cloth wrapped up things in the shape of humans, however that wasn’t the case. We saw glass boxes laid out in a room with dead human bodies in them and small placards explaining who each one was. Some did have ancient bandages on parts, and a few were completely wrapped, however almost all had their faces, hands, and feet exposed. The sight of the bodies was much more creepy than either of us had expected, and in an odd way much cooler than I had expected. We saw Hatshepsut, multiple Ramses including Ramses the second, the greatest king of Egypt, multiple Setis, and more all laid out in front of us, many still with their hair and nails intact.
We saw lots more of the museum, but since a lot of pieces had no explanation attached, we decided to head back out in search of a bank and a way to get dollars again before we would meet our new travel companions that evening. More banks and money exchanges lead nowhere and it was time to head to the hotel where we’d stay the next two nights as we met everyone we’d be with over the next 4½ months. The cab ride from our hostel to our new hotel was supposed to take 15 minutes, but as the driver wound through traffic, grazed a pedestrian, and avoided donkeys being ridden through traffic, he also took us the wrong way. Sissy had her navigation app open and noticed we were heading south and needed to be heading northwest, which I informed him of through some struggle as he also didn’t speak English.
After an extended ride we made it to our hotel, I paid the driver the agreed equivalent of $6 in Egyptian pound for the 30 minute ride, and we settled in for a bit. When we finally met the group at 5pm we found a diverse group consisting of people as young as us or younger, all the way up to some in their 60s. They were British, Welsh, New Zealanders, Australian, Irish, and of course us, a German and an American. Our guide explained that we would all have jobs on the truck once we got underway, anything from cleaning the inside of the truck to getting the tents off the roof in the evenings to acting as bartender as the trip went on, which mostly consisted of buying sodas and beers in different countries. She set our expectations for getting stuck (once she got stuck for two days where the truck wouldn’t budge as it sunk deeper while it rained all around), getting into tough situations, and getting through borders.
We had some dinner and drinks as we got to know our fellow 19 travel mates and neighbors in the hotel restaurant. It was convenient that they served alcohol as a significant amount of restaurants we had been to did not. Muslims don’t drink alcohol so it seemed that the more touristy the restaurant, the more likely they were to serve beer and wine. As we talked to our group we learned that many of them had overlanded with Odyssey before on other continents, and if we wondered anything about virtually any country, someone had an answer as they had been there before.
The next morning we all headed to the pyramids of Giza, a 30 minute bus ride from our hotel. Sissy and I had decided that our previous camel experience in Hurghada wasn’t enough, so we (over?) paid $25 each to ride camels to and around the pyramids. The Great Pyramid of Giza was a few hundred yards from where we had parked, and we had paid for the shortest ride, which was supposed to be 45 minutes around the Khafre Pyramid and back. We rode 10 minutes through the town surrounding the pyramids, then into a side entrance. We were searched by police on the way in, which cost me my pocket knife for the duration of the ride, and paid our entrance fee of $10 each, which is separate from the camel ride fee. Riding through the desert to the pyramids was hot and sweaty, however it was nice since there weren’t a lot of tourists doing the same thing as it was so hot out.
We happened to get the pushiest and most annoying camel guide available to take us to the pyramids, but when he wasn’t insisting on me jumping so he could take a funny picture, we had a really enjoyable time. The second largest pyramid, Khafre, looked nicer than and taller than the Great Pyramid, Cheops, since it was built on a slightly higher plateau. We ended up riding by all nine pyramids and near the sphinx, which was shorter than we had expected, but still looked amazing. The closer we rode to the sphinx, the more tourists we saw, however it still wasn’t too busy.
At the end of hour two of the ride, we finally got back to our starting point, where I withheld any tip from our guide until he finally helped me get my pocketknife back. I somehow avoided paying the police the bribe they wanted for the knife, tipped our guide $5, and we headed onward to a “Papyrus Museum”, which was a papyrus store as we had figured from the name.
After seeing a short example of how papyrus is made, and looking as some really nice paintings on papyrus, we all headed back to the Egyptian Museum for our second time. We had a local guide bring us through the museum, where he explained a lot of things we had seen the day before, but didn’t know what they were due to the lack of any structure or explanation in the museum. About a half hour into the tour we were shown a room upstairs that we had missed the day before, which housed Tutankhamen’s solid gold mask, his beautiful gold coffin, and one of his ornate sarcophagi. When he died at the age of 19, he was mummified as was tradition, his mask was placed on his head, then he was put inside a gold coffin. The coffin was placed inside a beautiful sarcophagus, which was placed inside an even larger sarcophagus, and then placed inside three more large boxes, and placed in his tomb. We saw a huge amount of Tutankhamen’s belongings, but not his mummy or largest sarcophagus, as they were still inside his tomb that was unearthed 90 years ago in the Valley of Kings outside of Luxor, an eight hour drive from Cairo.
The next day we packed up were introduced to our new home for the next 4½ months, Calypso, a large six wheeled truck built to house up to 22 people. We loaded our bags and set off toward the Red Sea, where we’d camp for the night before heading on to Luxor the following day. After a hot 10 hour drive, where we learned that for the many great things about Calypso, air conditioning or curtains were not included, we arrived at a camp site just a few hundred meters from the Red Sea. Sissy hadn’t camped since she was a child, and was excited to set up camp. The site was the Roots Luxury Campsite, which was properly named and maybe the nicest campsite I’d stayed at. We chose our tent, which was named the MGM Grand (all the tents had posh hotel names), and started setting up.
These tents were three person heavy canvas tents, which would fit both of us and our bags relatively snugly. The campsite had small bungalows as optional upgrades, some even had AC, but we were excited to camp. Most of us jumped into a pool that was at the site and cooled off after a tough ride through the desert. I had camped a good amount as a kid and some over the past years, but never in a desert in Egypt, and I wasn’t prepared for the coming night. The temperatures dipped from around 43 Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) to 26 Celsius (80 Farenheit), but would stay there until 5:30 or so the next morning when it heated up again. The sweat and heat were bearable, but we let a few mosquitos and flies in at some point in the evening, which enjoyed buzzing in our ears and biting us all over as we tried to sleep. A few fellow overlanders that had finished a six month trip through South America a month before set up their tent a long way away from ours, but the rest of us just set up right next to each other. I can sleep through a bit, but Sissy is a pretty light sleeper, which meant she barely slept due to snoring campmates nearby.
The next morning we awoke a bit tired and a bit wiser, and jumped back in the pool to cool back off. Sissy had brought her snorkel and mask with her, so we headed into the Red Sea for the first time in a few days and snorkeled around. The snorkeling wasn’t nearly the same as our four days of diving the week before, but it was still the best snorkeling I had ever done otherwise. We broke down camp and we started the “four hour” drive to Luxor. Under an hour into our drive we came across one of many police checkpoints and they were unwilling to let us pass. Certain areas in Egypt are safer than others, and this stretch of highway apparently was unsafe enough for the police to turn us back, which meant we would need a different route. Our total drive ended up being about seven hours, but our driver and guide both handled things well and got us there.
As we neared Luxor we passed through a town where the locals loved to wave at us, and our fellow travelers and us were having a great time waving back and watching their faces light up. We crossed into the Luxor city limits after sundown and the local police insisted on giving us not one, but two escorts into town. They claimed it wasn’t safe to drive around after dark, but we figured they enjoyed driving with us, lights on for a stretch, sirens blaring. We arrived feeling more special than we should have, with police having escorted us and locals waving all the way in.
Over the next few days we would visit Karnak Temple, the Valley of the Kings, Tutankhamen’s tomb, and lots more!