There we were - my photographer Royston and I - waiting for our tour leader Mohammed, as we were told to do at 7 sharp, at the Egypt Air check-in desk.
A well-dressed Arab gentleman was standing there alone, looking around as well. I took a chance and went up to him.
"Hello there, are you Mohammed?"
He nodded with a beaming smile and we introduced ourselves and then with some mirth and gesticulation indicated that we would see him on the plane in two hours as we were off to the pub.
Fast forward and there we are, sitting on the plane in the same row as our tour leader. As we take off, Royston leans over and enquires about the misunderstanding we had about travelling in business class. Finally Royston gives up – he can’t make himself heard above the engine noise.
“He doesn’t really speak English. This is gonna be interesting,” he says.
Eight hours of fitful sleep later we arrive at Cairo International Airport. We see Mohammed getting off before us and rush to catch up with him up through the winding airport corridors. But lo! As we collect our luggage, we see him heading for the exit gates.
He turns and seems strangely surprised and a bit frightened. “Where are you going? Are you getting off in Cairo?” I ask him, confused since we are going to Aswan. “Yes!” Now he looks positively petrified, desperately eyeing the exit gate like a starved mouse would a piece of cheese.
Until a voice calls out behind us: “Jo! Royston! We’ve been looking for you.”
We turn and standing there is what turns out to be our host; Sphinx Travel’s Mariska, other media-looking type people - and a strapping young Egyptian. “Meet your tour leader, Mohammed...”
First lesson - most Egyptians are very friendly, many go by Mohammed and at least one now thinks that South Africans are stalkers who demand to know from total strangers why they are not booked on business class.
But I digress. We catch our flight to Aswan to begin our amazing Egyptian adventure.
Our tour guide Mohammed – not to be confused with our tour leader Mohammed – tells us that Aswan is the ancient city of Swenet, which in antiquity was the frontier town of ancient Egypt facing the south. The sky is the shade of pale dust. The men are in dresses and in clusters on the streets, holding court. This is Egypt but mostly it is Arabia – any geographical location in Africa is merely coincidental.
After a journey of about half an hour, a bunch of very tired journalists arrive at the M/Y Alyssa Nile cruiser, our floating home for the next three days. The boat is luxurious and family-friendly. Day beds are scattered on the pool deck, where you can lay back with the curtains drawn and enjoy the sights and sounds of the flow
After a delicious lunch, we go sailing on a traditional felucca on the Nile, viewing Kitcheners and Elephantine Islands and the Aga Khan Mausoleum from the river.
4000 years of ghosts
We then continue to the town of Edfu. The Temple of Horus at Edfu is the most complete temple of the ancient world. Four thousand years of gods and ghosts wrap themselves around you in a surreal cloak inside the ancient shadows. The temple stands like a gargantuan, vast and silent witness to all that was once great about humanity. I shall refrain from a history lesson here – for that, one has wikipedia.
Back to the boat for some frivolity, lazing about the pool and being lulled into a state of rapture by the soft, sweet waves of the Nile as we sail along.
After a hurried breakfast the next morning we cross the river to the West Bank by road transport for our pièce de résistance excursion - the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Kings is where - for nearly five centuries - tombs were constructed for the pharaohs.
Day four sees us waving bon voyage to the Nile and it's off to the playground of Hurghada on the Red Sea. Located on the southern ridge of Makadi Bay and with more than 600 meters of sandy beach, the Harmony Makady Bay Resort is spread over a vast expanse of gardens. The rates are all-inclusive (including local alcoholic drinks) and basically a steal – and kids stay free.
The following day is made to order for scuba diving in the Red Sea. We board one of the world-class Blue O Two vessels and off we go to discover the remarkable wonders beneath the crystal blue surface of one of the richest and most diverse marine ecosystems on Earth.
Once more into the fray
Cairo is our final stop the following day. The city is the largest in Africa and brown highways seem to stretch into infinity, surrounded by a million replicas of dilapidated and seemingly abandoned high-rise apartment buildings. After lunch we finally visit the pyramid of Giza. It stands forlorn, small and out of context on the outskirts of the weary, dirty and ancient slum that is Cairo – almost as an afterthought.
The Sphinx lies adjacent - large, defiant and silent under the white-hot sun that burns down on us with impudence.
At the Hilton Hotel later we have a last chance to gaze over the city as the sun slides away. Egypt is barbaric, alive, ancient, loud, silent, passionate, awe-inspiring and guilty of eliciting at least a dozen more cheap adjectives. But most of all, Egypt is unforgettable...
Jo Kromberg and Royston Lamond were hosted by Sphinx Travel and flown to Egypt return from Johannesburg aboard Egypt Air.