THE TEMPLES OF THE NILE
A year later I was off again. One taste of North Africa was not enough and I had developed a desire to see the pyramids. I had almost glimpsed Egypt once before during my short spell in the Merchant Navy. Then I had been aboard the Dunnottar Castle when we arrived in Port Said Just too late to join the last convoy through Suez before Nassar had closed the Canal in 1956. I remember that when we arrived at dusk the sailboats had come out to welcome us, full of smiles to sell us their wares, and that when we left at dawn the following morning to get out of the war area and the Mediterranean the same bum-boats came to shower us with curses and rotten fruit.
I was to find that the manners of the Egyptians had not improved much during the intervening years.
This time I left my car at home. I travelled with Mike Willett, an old friend from my home town, and we went out via Istanbul and the famed Orient Express. We paid £21 each for our one-way tickets, and for that we were simply entitled to travel aboard a second class carriage -- if we could squeeze in. A few lucky travelers got seats, but the majority seemed to be packed into the corridor filled with Italians and Bulgarian, and later with Greeks and Turks, all squashed in between and on top of their mountainous piles of luggage.
There were even suitcases stacked in the toilet. We saw no beautiful blondes, and no one who looked even remotely like a spy, and so we could only assume that James Bond and all his prototypes must have traveled strictly first class.
It was a four-day train journey, but having scrambled aboard in Paris we were able to get seats after the first few hours. Our compartment contained a cross selection from most of Europe, and at Milan we were Joined by a Canadian and an American Jew who was also a psychiatrist. They proved lively company and in fact we were fairly fortunate with our chance traveling companions except for one. He was a shabby old Turk who came aboard at Edirne. He literally stank and we called him smelly Joe. The Canadian sprayed the air around him with an aerosol can but he wouldn't take the hint and leave.
They were four tiring days, with mostly sleepless nights as we tried to cat-nap in upright sitting position while the train rumbled and swayed noisily to the East. On the last morning I was woken from a shallow doze at about four am to hear Mike, the Canadian and the psychiatrist all singing “The West Awake” in the corridor, as they watched the sunrise blushing over the rolling Turkish plains. Whether they were inspired or simply interpreting their agony into song as they stretched their cramped limbs I was never quite sure.
At last we arrived, shouldered our backpacks, and found our way out through the babbling chaos that was Istanbul's main Serkeci station. We found our way to the large, modern camping site at Flora, which is ideally situated on the edge of the glass-calm Sea of Marmara just fifteen miles from the center of the city. There we pitched our tent, allowed the sea and the hot sun to ease the weariness out of our muscles, and then turned our attention to exploring Istanbul.
Istanbul! The very name has the ring of eastern romance and intrigue. Here East meets West at the crossroads of two continents linked by the busy ferries that ply the Bosphorus. This is a city of five hundred mosques, its skyline a forest of graceful minarets. If that sounds familiar it is probably because you have read it before, but one can only call a spade a spade.
We went first to the Blue Mosque, the most famous mosque of all with its six slender minarets, and as we passed through the wide, cloistered courtyard the voice of a muezzin called the faithful to evening prayers from high above. We had to remove our shoes before entering the mosque and found the interior to be vast and cool. The walls and the massive pillars were covered with the incredibly lovely blue-tiled mosaic which gives the mosque its name. The beautifully stained glass windows were again predominately blue, and everywhere was reflected blue light. At the far end of the mosque an old, white-bearded imam led the prayers in a soft, chanting sing-song, while the congregation knelt and pressed their foreheads to the red carpet.
During the week that followed we visited many of the city's mosques, including the Sofia Mosque, and the Great Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent. The latter is the largest of all, built by Sultan Suleiman between 155O.and 1557 it has four needle-tipped minarets piercing the sky around a splendid series of giant Byzantium domes, the center dome being topped by a high golden spire.
We also saw the Seraglio Palace where the Ottoman Sultans ruled for centuries over the vast Turkish Empire. Many of the fine council and reception chambers remain relatively unchanged, but now the palace is the Topkapi Museum. It houses, among other things, an armory of Turkish weapons, one or the most lavish collections of Chinese porcelain in the world, and a portrait gallery where the stern, cruel faces of the ancient Sultans gaze down coldly from long rows of dark paintings.
Next we went to the Great Covered Bazaar. Here you can have a suit made to measure within twenty-four hours, buy suede coats at a quarter of the English price, and find a fortune in golden bangles in the cramped windows of even the tiniest rabbit-hole shops. There is gleaming brass and piles of antiques, icons and polished alabaster, all jumbled together in the countless shops below the high arched ceilings. There is all the chattering commerce of the East, the scent of spices, and the oil-sweet tang of the big bundles of raw leather waiting to be used in the street of shoemakers.
The shopkeepers sit in their doorways and play cheerful guessing games with the tourists, firing questions in a dozen languages until a smile of understanding betrays your nationality. Once they have checked your strolling progress there follows a polite enquiry after the health of your wife, or mother or sister, and to admit to having any lady friends or relatives of any variety leads inevitably to suggestions for the presents which you must take home.
The very thing, the ideal gift, is always just inside their shop.
One afternoon we took the ferry over to the far side of the Bosporus, just to set foot on Asian soil. Life was a little less hectic over there and it was a relief to get away from the swarms of large American taxies, Dodges, Packards and Cadillacs, which charged like rattling stock cars through the European half of divided Istanbul. On another evening we took a bus ride through the northern suburbs along the Bosporus, and stopped at a garden restaurant where there were tables on the very edge or the river. We sampled shish-kebabs grilled over charcoal, and a tasty dish of cheese rolled into humbug shapes and crisply fried. While we ate large fishing boats chugged slowly past on their way to the Black Sea, and across the river yellow lights twinkled on the hill slopes of Asia.
We spent our last day in idly walking the streets, watching all that went on. There were water sellers with their polished brass containers on their backs, and their cups and saucers tinkling endless music in their hands. They manipulated the cups and saucers like castanets to advertise their trade. Along the pavements there were long rows of shoe-shine boys, of all ages, their footstools and brash boxes gleaming with more polished brass. There were lottery sellers and human pack mules, men with heavy leather saddles strapped to their backs to enable them to carry practically any bulky weight through the twisting streets. The latter hired themselves out to the shopkeepers for miserable sums and were among the poorest inhabitants of Istanbul
As a final highlight we even saw a dancing bear. Its proud owner was a small, grinning Turk who beat out a vigorous rhythm on a rattling tambourine, while the shaggy brown bear towered over him in its hind legs and shuffled clumsily to the music. They performed beneath the balconies of the large hotels, and gangs or eager little boys ran to pick up the small coins thrown down from above.
Oar last walk took us along the Golden Horn, the curving inlet from the Bosporus which divides the European side of Istanbul yet again. We crossed over the busy Galata Bridge, and re-crossed by the even busier Ataturk Bridge further down and dodging the traffic on Ataturk Bridge really was a feat worth mentioning. By then it was sunset, the golden Horn was silvery-red and the sky was crimson behind the silhouette of the mosques.
The following day we struck our tent at Florya and packed our gear back into the rucksacks. We took a train as far as Yesilkoy station and then hitched a lift out to the airport. There we boarded an SAS Caravelle, the night plane to Cairo.
The plane made two stops, at Beirut and then at Damascus, dipping down each time into glittering bowls of starry light that would abruptly become rushing runways and airports. For the rest of the flight the night was pitch black, with the sleek cigar shape of the plane's starboard engine just distinguishable beyond and behind my window, gliding along close to the fuselage like a ghostly grey shadow. At two o'clock in the morning we descended for the third time to land at Cairo.
We passed through passport and customs controls, each of which proved to be a ridiculous rigmarole or multi form- filling. In fact, through all my travels I have always found that the more backward and illiterate the country, the greater is the demand for time-consuming paperwork, lengthy visas and permits.
Perhaps they believe that by imitating the very worst of Western bureaucracy gone mad they can impress the visitor with their fitness to exist in the Twentieth Century, not to mention their right to raise a squabbling voice in the councils of the (dis)United Nations. In some places the whole ritual is so gloriously incompetent that you can laugh your way through it, but the Egyptian officials were too arrogant to allow that. Their paperwork was a serious business, and although sterling was needed there was the definite impression that the British were not over-welcome. No doubt they were still sore over Suez.
However, we passed through, and an SAS airline bus took up into the center or Cairo. It was a long drive through wide, yellow-lit streets, and at the end of it, after touring all the big hotels, Mike and I were the only passengers left.
Those wide, plate-glass doorways with resplendent doormen before and plush carpets beyond were not for us, we needed a cheap youth hostel. Nothing of that sort would be open until eight am and so we were finally dumped outside the Seramis Hotel where we went into the all-night bar and made two cokes last until dawn.
When it was light we wandered along the Nile, and finally, after asking our way from a succession of surly policemen and being misdirected several times, we found our way to the Garden City youth hostel. It was the sort of place one never forgets, everyone who stayed there eventually suffered with dysentery, and it was also the place where Mike met the girl who is now his wife.
The hostel closed again between ten am and two pm, supposedly so that the place could be cleaned up but it never was, so there was only time to dump our rucksacks and fill up the necessary sea or forms before we had to get out again.
From there we had to go and register ourselves as aliens as demanded by the Egyptian police, which was another orgy of form-filling which did not start until our British passports had been ignored for as long as was possible. By this time I had decided that I didn't like the Egyptians any more than they seemed to like me, and I had already classified Cairo as an ugly, half-modern city that the Arabs had dirtied up.
I felt better after a night's sleep. All experience is worthwhile and everything new is of interest. There were clean parts or Cairo, there were graceful dhows gliding along the Nile, and there were stupendous views from the top of the tall Cairo Tower, looking out over the city to the desert haze beyond, and showing us our first glimpse of the pyramids at Giza. We explored the Citadel, changed our money on the black market with sloppy-looking ruffians in their nightshirt-like djellabahs, and made efforts to ignore the hordes of grubby little boys in pajamas who followed us around yelling for ''Baksheesh!''
It was even an adventure to be thrown out of the poverty-stricken little market we found just off Port Said Street. It was tumbledown collection of stalls jammed closely together, all of them weighed down with sticky dates or rotting fruit and vegetables, thick with flies and stinking to high heaven. I tried to take a photograph but the moment I touched my camera we were forcibly hustled out through a sea of scowling faces. We later learned that it was forbidden to take any photographs that would illustrate the more backward aspects of Egypt, for the authorities desired that only the tourist attractions should be advertised. The people themselves would be in trouble with their own police if they allowed themselves to be photographed.
We spent a week in Cairo, exploring thoroughly and saving the pyramids until last. We met some lively companions at the Garden City youth hostel, and the place was bearable once you had learned the wisdom of walking two hundred yards to use the toilets at the Seramis Hotel, or better still, four hundred yards to the Nile Hilton. On one memorable evening a holy war almost erupted on the hotel landing. A party of Nubian scouts had come up from the southern Nile and one of them had laid out his own personal prayer mat as he knelt and made his devotions to Allah. He was half-way through when a big German came out of the shower, still dripping and naked but for the towel around his waist. Without thinking the German walked straight back across the landing, and plastered his bare wet feet over the prayer mat. Instantly there was uproar, with the pious scout leaping to his feet and howling with rage.
The friends of both parties rushed hastily to the scene, but somehow it was all smoothed over and I didn't have to use any of the nearer exits which I had quickly marked down for a fast getaway. It reminded me of a cinema in Mombassa in 1956, when all the Africans had jumped up to cheer Nassar's troops as they marched across the newsreel. The following shot had shown British and French troops landing at Port Said, and the massed crews of two British liners and a French freighter had stood up to cheer in turn. I had been prepared to exercise the better part of valor on that night too, but nobody had proved quite bold enough to push the issue into a riot.
We took a bus out to Giza on our last day. It was a very battered old bus, grossly over-crowded with squabbling, rudely- shoving Arabs, all of them hot and sweaty, and I was half-doped with the heat, but the pyramids were our reward. We rode camels the last hundred yards up to the base of the great Cheops pyramid, for at this stage it was impossible not to get caught up in the tourist routine. The camel driver took my photograph, holding my camera upside down, and cheated me out of ten piastres over the price of the ride, but I forgave him for that. I even forgave the ugly brute or a camel which did its best to pitch me over the top of its neck when its knees buckled to bring it back to earth again. It was all part of the fun.
We went into the burial chamber inside the great pyramid. It was simply a small square room reached by a long, upward-sloping tunnel where nothing remained but an empty sarcophagus and a musty smell. The sunlight was blinding when we emerged again and we blinked our way around to see the other pyramids, and the mighty Sphinx with its stone face shot away by Napoleon‘s soldiers who had used it for target practice.
We scrambled up and down sand dunes and in and out or the surrounding cave-like tombs. The sun was almost directly overhead and the huge, pointed mountains of stone threw no shade. To the south the desert stretched into hazy infinity, with another line or pyramids appearing and vanishing across the horizon twenty miles away.
Later in the evening we lay along the crest of a sand dune beneath a sky filled with brilliant stars to watch the festival of Sound and Light. It cost us nothing and we could hear the music and voices and see the floodlit monuments Just as clearly as the genuine pukka Sahib tourists from the Nile Hllton who had paid to sit on orderly lines of chairs which a ridge or sand hid from our sight. For them it was just an organized concert, and I swear that it was more thrilling to watch and listen from the desert night. The time-worn silhouettes of the Sphinx and the pyramids were bathed in ever-changing rays of red, green and golden light, and the past history of the mighty Pharaohs breathed with new life. The stars and the still, darkened sands around us added their own interpretation to Egypt’s long-dead glories.
We left Cairo on the night train to Luxor, a thirteen-hour journey up the Nile valley that made our much longer trip on the Orient Express seem like a short pleasure excursion. Not even India, which I was to visit later, could compete with the overcrowded squalor of an Egyptian third class train.
We arrived at Cairo’s main station at eleven o'clock and found the platform overflowing with a great, struggling flood of people. The men were in long white or striped djellabahs with scarves wound turban fashion around their heads and the women were all hidden in voluminous robes of widow’s black. Their children were either wailing like banshees, or sitting deathly passive and silently suffering among huge, covered whicker baskets and bulging boxes of belongings. Add to all of this the crates of ducks, geese and chickens, and you have indescribable chaos.
We fought our way to the ticket queue, which was just a stupid, selfish free-for-all, and despite the racket and the opposition managed to get our tickets. There were three of us, for Mike and I had now been joined by an American named Steve who had been staying at the hostel. Steve was husky, widely traveled, and heading down into Africa. His advice was that we should form a flying wedge on the edge or the platform and then jump aboard the train before it came to a stop, otherwise we would probably be trampled in the crush. We agreed and waited.
The train appeared with its single headlight blazing like a hostile eye as it rushed down the tracks out of the night.
The mass or passengers squirmed and yelled and struggled as they rounded up their children and belongings, and the sound was like nightmare in a zoo, magnified and lost in an almighty hiss of steam. The train swept past us and Steve gave a shout and bounded forward like a racing greyhound with a full rucksack on his back. He swung up into a doorway for the train was empty and all the doors were opened inwards, and a second later he had vanished as the train carried him away. It must have been doing thirty mph even then and that was the last we saw of Steve until Luxor.
The brakes screeched and the wheels locked and another six carriages flashed passed before the remaining two thirds of our flying wedge could make a less spectacular scramble to get aboard. There was absolute bedlam as the mob hurled their baggage and each other through the open doors and windows and already we were too late to get a seat. We were beaten by the hordes pouring in from the other side. The scene as that train filled up had to be seen to be believed. The mob simply fought, clawed and screamed their way aboard, as though the end of the world loomed threatening at their heels. I have never before or since seen human beings of any race reduced to such an animal level.
When the train moved off Mike and I were sitting on our backpacks, squashed together with our knees interlocked and completely unable to move. All around us squatting Arabs and their baggage were crushed into every available inch of floor space and there were even people stacked in the luggage racks.
I began to wonder why the hell I had ever wanted to see Egypt anyway, but worse was yet to come. At the next station the train stopped again and still they poured in. It was impossible to get the doors open, for if they had been made to open outwards they would have burst open to spill everybody out, and so the only passage for everything and everybody was through the windows. Needless to say Mike and I were directly beneath a window, like a couple of helpless doormats. We finally survived by closing the window and keeping it closed through the stations that followed, and although this wildly infuriated those outside on the platforms it was accepted with cheerful smiles of approval by those who were already safely aboard.
It was an awful night, and although I have spent a few bad ones I have never spent worse. There was no sleep, and when dawn came it was a long-awaited mercy. We were hot, sweating, tired and covered with dust, but at last the pressure of bodies was becoming less as the train disgorged passengers instead of absorbing them at each new station, and our spirits revived to appreciate the strange, passing scenery of the Nile.
There were fascinating Nubian-style villages, the crude dwellings made of plastered mad dried dull brown in the sun. There were green, irrigated fields of maize or sugar cane and endless groves of feathery palms. Sometimes the Nile itself was visible, with drifting dhows on its wide, placid surface and often we could see the yellow plateau of the desert beyond the narrow green belt of the river valley.
It was noon when the train pulled into Luxor station, and we staggered out on to the platform feeling like limp rags in the blazing heat. It was mid-June, not the ideal time to visit Egypt but Mike had to fit the trip in between terms at technical college back home. Later we were told that we had picked the hottest summer since 1907 and although I can't verify that I certainly believe it. We were surprised to find that Steve had also survived the journey, and when he left us that same night to continue down the Nile we didn't envy him one little bit.
There was another youth hostel at Luxor where we stayed, and early the first morning we walked out to the great ruined temples of Karnak, all that remains of ancient Thebes. It was a twenty minute walk along the banks of the Nile, and in the stillness of dawn the pale grey water lay like a broad dream river into fantasy. Graceful palms shaded our walk, and across the river we could see the arid, desert cliffs that overshadowed the Valley of The Kings.
We approached the ruins through an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. Karnak is a massive complex of restored temples, obelisks and columns, and its sheer, overpowering size is enough to stir the imaginative soul. First there is the huge temple of Amun Ra, the Sun-God and Earth-Creator of Egyptian mythology. The entrance passed between two towering stone pylons, one crumbling but the other still reaching its full height of a hundred and forty feet. From the top of the lower pylon there was a splendid view over the whole sprawling maze of the ruins, and of the palm-shaded, mud walls of the village dwellings beyond.
Descending again we walked through the great colonnade of the Sun-God's temple with its one hundred and thirty-four colossal columns, each one carved with stone images of gods and men. I felt dwarfed by it all and had to twist my head backwards to see the tops of the columns some seventy feet above, many of them still topped by heavy stone lintel blocks that made the mysteries of Stonehenge fade into insignificance. Beyond the hall of columns the soaring obelisk to the long- dead Queen Hatshepsut speared its needle point into the sky, and I tried to visualize everything as Homer must have seen it when he had made his visit to Hundred-gated Thebes.
We found the temple to the Moon God, smaller than that of Amun Ra, but more fully restored and a haven of dark, cavernous chambers where we could linger in the cool shade. After a while we found a way to clamber out on to the roof for more extensive, overall views of the ruins but now the sun struck us in a dazzling glare of murderous heat. Everywhere we went there was a whole wealth of history and mythology written in stone, every wall and column being richly carved with sacred animals, symbols and hieroglyphics, but it was too hot to devote to them the time they deserved. Our water bottles were empty, the eternal thirst was upon us, and we had to return.
We spent the afternoon in the youth hosted, and when the day became dark and cool we ventured out again to take an evening stroll around Luxor. The temperature was pleasant by comparison but when we wandered into the Luxor Hotel for a beer we noticed a large thermometer hanging on the wall outside.
It was then eleven o'clock at night and the mercury was still registering one hundred degrees.
The next morning we went out to the Valley of The Kings. The pukka Sahib tourists hired donkeys or taxies but we world travelers could only afford to hire push bikes. We rose at four in the morning, trundled our bikes on to the small, crowded ferry boat that chugged us across to the west bank or the Nile, and then pedaled madly to cross the intervening six miles of desert before the sun came up. It was many years since I had last mounted a bicycle and it was quite an adventure to be flying past palm trees and mud houses, and at the same time dodging the unusual hazards of donkeys, camels, and herds of shaggy black goats.
Soon we had left the Nile behind, and began circling the barrier of ochre-yellow cliffs that helped to guard the Pharaoh’s tombs. Everywhere was raw and barren beneath a merciless blue sky, and the road began to twist and climb steeply as it wound up to the head of the valley. By the time we arrived we were again drained by the heat. Here we were stopped and solemnly told that the ticket office was not on the spot but right back on the bank of the Nile where we had started. We offered the money but that wasn't good enough for the valley guard, the regulations said that we had to have a ticket. We howled protest and argued vigorously, and finally we were saved from a return trip by a taxi that pulled up with a load of tourists. There are exceptions to every rule, and that taxi-driver was the exception to the general rule that Egyptians are all stupid and unhelpful. It was agreed that he could take our money and deliver our tickets to the guard when he brought up his next load of tourists, and meanwhile we could go ahead and enter the tombs.
On the surface the valley was not very impressive, for it was just a small, dead-end canyon below stark yellow cliffs, but underground there is much to see. The most famous tomb of Tutankhamen is paradoxically the least interesting. The treasures taken from it make a splendid show which we saw in Cairo Museum, but the tomb is small and bare and empty but for the stone sarcophagus and the outer coffin of the King. The remaining tombs of Amenhotep, Seti and Ramesses, all much greater Kings, had far more to offer. They were much deeper and more extensive, with pillared halls and tiny ante- chambers cut out of the solid rock. Also they were finely decorated with long series of paintings that told the life histories of the kings and described their anticipated meetings with gods and judges of the underworld. They were stone galleries of mythological art. In the tomb of Seti there was a deep, vertical shaft, now spanned by a bridge, which had been dug in the vain hope of foiling grave robbers. Foolish dead Kings or Egypt, even Tutankhamen who lay hidden from the robbers after gold could not escape the robbers seeking knowledge.
When we emerged from the tombs the sun was blistering the landscape, but it was a downhill ride and so we did have enough energy to visit the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut on the way back. The temple was situated at the base or a forbidding barrier of high, sheer cliffs, and was built in a series of three terraces, supported by columns, and with a long, broad ramp leading up to each level. Mike and I staggered into the shade and drank what was left in our water bottles. After we had explored the heat drove us back to Luxor.
Those water bottles saved us quite a bit of money, for drinks were a constant necessity, and although they could be bought around the monuments the prices were always doubled at least twice. They were plastic bottles, but we wrapped them up in wet towels and clipped them to the carriers on our bikes and the water stayed quite cool.
The following day we made another early start and visited the Valley of The Queens. This time the road circled round to the south end of the plateau of yellow-brown cliffs, and the valley itself proved to be another rock-strewn dead end. It was an anti-climax for only two tombs were open and neither could compare with the tombs of the Kings. The tomb of Queen Nefertiti, which I would have liked to have seen, was closed.
However, on the way back we had plenty of time to explore the great funerary temple or Ramesses which was adequate compensation.
While we still had our bikes we rode them all round Luxor and its surroundings, visiting the small mud village near Karnak where we were chased out again by a horde of grubby little children, and finally exploring the temple in Luxor itself which stands on the bank of the Nile. When we had seen everything we returned our bikes to the hire shop, booked out of the youth hostel, and boarded that gruesome train for another four hour journey south to Aswan.
We had to climb through a window which was the only possible means of entry, and miraculously we found two seats. Of course this was too good to last, for if all the third class passengers had seats then obviously the train was pulling an unnecessary number of third class carriages. This was Egyptian logic. Everybody was turned out and our carriage was disconnected.
This left only one third class carriage, into which everybody poured like mad dogs after a fleeing cat. Mike and I watched hopelessly and then dumped our rucksacks into the second class carriage. That was almost as bad but at least there was room to stand in the corridor. When the ticket inspector appeared he passed our third class tickets with a rueful shrug but no comment, so afterwards we always traveled second on our third class tickets.
The heat at Aswan was even worse than in Luxor, but we stayed long enough to visit the new high dam. The Egyptians are very proud of their new dam, possibly because there is nothing else in modern Egypt which could support any national pride, and there is a special Public Relations department which provides free coach rides and guided tours for visitors. However, the dam is a mighty project engaging thirty thousand construction workers, and Aswan is a boom town destined to be the largest industrial area in Egypt.
The construction site was six or seven miles outside the town, across a savage waste of jumbled rock and dust and sand, scorched to a furnace heat by the hostile sun. Here the Egyptians have made their assault upon the barren landscape, tearing open the harsh red rock with dynamite and scarring the earth with the endless tracks of bulldozers and trucks. Power pylons and telegraph poles had marched to conquer every skyline and churning dust clouds swirled everywhere as the battle went on. There was no stop for the merciless noon-day heat, and by night huge arc lamps splashed pools of hard white light over rumbling tractors and swaying derricks. The dust never settles and the work never stops.
Already the mighty Nile had been stopped and the flow diverted through a new channel and six great sluice tunnels cut in the east bank. Each of the tunnels was to hold two massive turbines, making twelve in all, and each one capable of generating one hundred and eighty thousand kilowatts of electricity. None of them were yet installed, (this was June 1965), but it was hoped to have the first three operational by 1967, the next four by 1968, and the last five by 1969.
The benefits of the dam would be numerous; no further dangers of flooding, a vast new area of cultivable land, a plentiful supply of water in the new three-hundred mile long lake, plentiful electricity and new industry, and easier navigation of the controlled Nile. On the drawback side it has meant re-settling the Nubian inhabitants of the villages that will be flooded by the new lake, and raising the ancient monuments at Abu Simbel to a higher level. A new harbor will have to be built to replace flooded Shellal and continue the steamer link between Egypt and the Sudan.
Russia has provided the roubles and the equipment and the know-how, but Egypt’s cost has been in sweat and toil and lives. Over two hundred and thirty workers have died since construction began, although most of these died in the early hazardous stages when fifty were killed in one dynamite blast in one or the tunnels. The work was new to the Egyptians and accidents came easily. Since 1964, however, only a few men have been lost, mostly from among the older laborers and a few Russian engineers unused to the climate who have succumbed to sunstroke.
Aswan was the turning point of our journey and we braved Egyptian railways again to return like a couple of sweat- stained saddle tramps to Cairo. When we had left the Garden City youth hostel the washbasin in the men's toilets had been blocked and filled with dirty watery defying all amateur attempts to clear it. When we returned the washbasin was still blocked and still filled with the same dirty water. When we departed again for Alexandria it was in the same state, and another traveler who followed us up three days later reported that there was no change. It would not surprise me to learn even now that that same washbasin is still blocked and still contains the same stagnant water. Dear old Garden City youth hostel, was it any wonder that we all left there with dysentery.
We hitched by road from Cairo to Alexandria, having decided that another dose of third class train travel would be more than flesh and blood could stand. From there we sailed deck class aboard the Media, a small boat of some six thousand tons, and two days later we arrived at Piraeus. The weather was fine and warm and we were perfectly happy sleeping under a canopy of stars up top.
We spent a couple of days in Athens, that Queen of Capitals and my favorite city, and then moved out to a camping site at Daphni where we swam in the sea, ate well, drank royally of an excellent wine we discovered in the camp shop, and generally rested up from the ravaging effects of Egypt. For me Daphni held fond memories of being gloriously drink at the wine festival on one of my previous motor-cycling trips, but this time we had arrived too early in the year to repeat that pleasure. However, Athens was still a much-needed tonic, the meals in the gay little tavernas were not only eatable, they were cheap and delicious and a relief from our own cooking, for we had mostly lived on salads and omelets and a vague invention or Mike’s called Egyptian stew. Also the Greek girls with their warm smiles and sun-tanned arms were good just to look at after our self-imposed exile up the Nile. We had no money so we had to limit ourselves to dreaming looks.
Finally we had to move and thumbed our way across Greece. From Patras to Brindisi we sailed deck class again on another ship named the Krill, and then brandished our hopeful thumbs along the roads of Italy. We stopped briefly at Naples, at Rome, and Florence, and a week later we were in Switzerland.
An Anglia estate car took us over the Simpson pass, through a fog of damp rain clouds and along skidding roads. The car hurtled round above the dizzy drops at suicidal speed, and to explain his apparent recklessness the lone driver admitted that he had no brakes. We survived, and undeterred continued hitching until we reached Lausanne. There we needed another rest at a lakeside camping site, and finally decided to squander the last of our money on a direct train ride home. We returned tired, broke and bearded, but convinced that it had all been worthwhile.
Early the next year Mike got married to the girl he had met in Egypt, but at this time nobody wanted to marry me. I was busy writing Nightmare On The Nile, plotting the action of Stamboul Intrigue, and wondering where to travel next.
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