Sunday, July 28, 2013

Safetytoes on the Nile.

My company, Safetytoes International Inc., sells the Slipp-R rubber safety overshoe to end-users all over the world and I often go on missionary work where interest in our products is on the uptake. Trips like these have a fair amount of personal discovery too and after a couple of days in noisy, hectic Cairo I flew as far south as I could go to begin such a journey. 
It's a four hour trek from Abu Simbel to Aswan that skirts the Western Desert. That being the case, it's best done in the cool of the near morning. Temperatures in this part of the world are in the 80/90 degree range, in the winter, and in the 105/110 degree category, in summer. We had stayed in Abu Simbel village for the previous two nights and decided to make the journey to Aswan as early as possible. 

The preferred vehicle is the 6am big bus that carries 60 passengers but, on the night before, we were alarmed to learn that it was already sold out. We had come up against another one of those big floating Muslim holidays. The kind that jump onto calendars from nowhere and give independent travellers a very hard time. Try as she did, my wife had no luck flattering the crusty old driver or his assistant. The bus was full and there were no more tickets to be sold. The later bus was a 1pm start, a long hot drive and a late arrival in Aswan. It was not on our wish list.  

Public sanitary conditions in Egypt are crude. Public spaces are trashed and floors everywhere are horrible. We faced the prospect of a dangerous, dreadfully uncomfortable and unsanitary trip ahead of us. With so many locals planning a well earned sojourn from work, our chances of getting on the 1pm bus were, at best, dubious. Big buses in Egypt carry loads of spare parts, and their own mechanic, so our worries seemed well founded. We had little choice and at 10pm we went to bed comforted only by an offer of "seats" on the floor of the 6am big bus. 

In Abu Simbel we stayed in a small 5 room hotel constructed in the Nubian style. It was very comfortable indeed, given that we were situated on the perimeter of a great desert. At 5 am we headed to the village transit assembly point. The large open space public square in heart of the village was already filling up with like-minded travellers. 

Aswan is the most easily accessed modern urban area. It's the Southern Egypt destination of choice for a well earned vacation. For many of the resident farm and livestock workers it may be the only holiday they get. We were only about 24 kms north of the border with Sudan and surprised to learn that Khartoum is a much shorter direct drive route to comfort and joy than Aswan. However, no travel is permitted there down the western side of the Nile, even for locals wishing to spend time with family or friends.  It's bandit and kidnap territory where close quarters protection is recommended.  The only approved route is to first trek the 300 kms north to Aswan, cross the Nile and head south again another 300 kms to the Sudan border and another 350 kms to Khartoom. For locals in the Abu Simbel area to visit family just inside the Sudan border it could mean a trip of over 600 kms!

Not that we had any desire to visit Khartoum, however, it was sad to learn of the inconvenience and unfairness of all this coming and going. The territory from Aswan to Khartoom is the Region of Nubia, a thin band of ancient culture clustered along both sides of the Nile. While never a very large population, Nubia is considered by many to be the birthplace of Egypt. It was a Nubian Pharaoh that first conquered the south and successfully unified the country. The Nubian culture is fantastically rich and the Nubian temperament endearing. 

Unfortunately for Nubians, none of this mattered much when Egypt decided to dam the Nile at Aswan shortly after the 1952 revolution. This threatened some stunning temples, tombs and other important archeological sites, two of which are in Abu Simbel. 

Following a world-wide appeal, hugely important archaeological ruins were relocated in a monumental international effort from 1956 to 1962. The rising water drowned the ancient Nubian society with considerably less sympathy. Approximately 120,000 Nubians were simply forced to move to new housing with no compensation for loss of incomes or income generating assets. 

The area was famous for its date palm trees many of which were very old. The date palm requires years of growth before yielding significant amounts of fruit.  Today, they now lie under millions of gallons of water at the bottom of Lake Nasser. The northern Egyptian Government, domiciled in Cairo thousands of kms away, left much to be desired in terms of equity and fairness. Since all habitation was located in a very narrow strip on either side of the river, most of Nubia now lies under water. The current complexity of travel has made family and old extended family contact a real hardship. While the Aswan dams have provided Egypt with an abundance of wealth-producing opportunities, they have all but decimated a much respected ancient society.

The big bus had not yet arrived and we noticed that there was a constant mustering of small 14-seater mini buses. We learned that these head out as soon as they filled and one looked like it would be leaving soon. So, we negotiated a price and hopped on the one we hoped would be first to depart. Leaving so early meant we would arrive in Aswan by 8.30 am and in plenty of time to secure a hotel. It's funny how unexpected consequences can bring so much joy! We escaped sitting on the floor of the big bus. With all the pressure from the unexpected Muslim holiday we had started to worry about availability of reasonable accommodations. Now, arriving at our destination so early and the added bonus of an actual seat, we were feeling a whole lot better about the new day. 

Buses and taxis travel in convoy here. Being just 15 miles north of the Sudan border we suspected this was for good reason. The route is protected by military check points and we maintained a low profile throughout the trip. Our travel book had indicated foreigners were not permitted to travel this way. Only travel on the big bus, first class train or by air is allowed for tourists. Since most Egyptian buses travel with a mechanic we figured breakdowns were frequent so we reckoned travelling in convoy was for good reason. For the independent or guided traveller these reasons give a much appreciated sense of security. 

We left Abu Simbel with only 11 on board our reasonably appointed mini-bus. At each group of people along the road our driver stopped for a brief few words. It became obvious that he was looking for some other passengers. Then phone calls started to come. Apparently, the other three passengers were further ahead, and late. This didn't please the driver. Like the rest of our group he was Nubian who are a very pleasant people but seemingly also quick to anger. Finally, at the mouth of a road emerging from the desert, there appeared two men and two children. They clambered on board and we entered the desert proper.

The road is black top, smooth, straight and well maintained. Another rather nice bonus. The sun peeped up at around 6 am, not that anybody but us was noticing. Our fellow passengers were quiet or slumbering. After the sun had ascended it all became quite boring. Until that is, the racing started. Hammering along at average speeds of 120 kms an hour a game of overtaking dulled the boredom for the drivers. With the road being so sure-footed it didn't bother me and I soon recognized the bus against which we were in competition. There was only desert on either side and overtaking was the only fun to be had. Occasional and annoying Arabic music and constant interruptions from cell phone calls ensured there was no chance of sleeping either. 

We had only one crude toilet stop before we disembarked at a spot along the Aswan Cornice. It looked like good hotel room hunting grounds. We were spot on! Within an hour we had already crossed the Nile twice for the first time and secured a decent hotel room for the following two nights.

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