Never has a tourist attraction celebrating death made me feel so alive
A winter sun holiday to Egypt in December gave us the chance to take the day-trip of a lifetime and visit the breath-taking archeology sites around Luxor. This delta detour to ancient Egypt did not disappoint.
A late bargain break to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Hurghada was just the tonic after organising my industry national conference.
The impulsive break gave me the chance to try out my new iPhone gimbal as well as the potential for a day-trip of a lifetime to the ancient city of Luxor on the Nile. And a chance to visit the Valley of the Kings and other must-see sites of ancient Egypt nearby.
Having saved a good deal on a last minute, all-inclusive deal we decided to splash out and hire our personal guide and driver from the Thompson resort hotel. It meant we were chauffeured by car rather than on a tour bus. A much more personal service.
It was an early start for the four-hour, 200-mile drive to Luxor. Leaving at 6am and heading along the coast to Port Safaga we were able to stop and take stunning images of the sunrise. The sun was a focus of worship for the ancient Egyptians and was to play a real and symbolic role in our fantastic day tour.
Turning inland at Safaga we headed across a mysterious desert landscape like nothing I had witnessed previously. With strange cloud formations, it felt like driving across the moon or a distant planet.
We made good time as we headed towards the town of Qena on the Nile valley.
Real Africa, Real Egypt
Hundreds of miles from Cairo, it was humbling to see real life as Egyptians tended their crops and were still using donkeys and animal-drawn wagons to get themselves and goods around the towns and villages. This was a different continent and real Africa.
We were whisked through a number of gun-toting police checkpoints by our guide and driver. Though we never felt in any danger, Egypt has had a fair share of attacks on tourists by terrorists. Our Hurghada resort was targeted in both 2016 and 2017 and just weeks after our visit in December 2018 a roadside bomb near Cairo killed three Vietnamese tourists and an Egyptian tour guide. And following the downing of a Russian flight in 2015, tourist income halved to £6 billion. But such is its importance to the economy, there is a visible police and army presence at all major tourist sites, which felt reassuring.
Riot of Colour
Despite a blistering sun and the harsh desert climate, the main roads from Qena to Luxor along the Nile valley are a riot of colour with miles of pretty flowers adorning the carriageway.
Being with a personal guide we were able to stop from time to time just to capture a typical scene. Having pre-booked tickets, he was also able to negotiate a speedy and personal entrance to all the three tourist attractions on the itinery, which were included in the £125 day-trip.
Temple at Karnak
Reaching Luxor around 10am we first headed to the Temple at Karnak. It was the place I knew best from TV documentaries. Construction at Karnak started by 4,000 years ago and continued up until the time the Romans took control of Egypt, about 2,000 years ago.
Each Egyptian ruler who worked at Karnak left his or her own architectural mark. The scale of the building is absolutely mind blowing. The vast complex is one open air museum. One famous aspect of Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall, an area of 50,000 sq ft with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters.
The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. To walk among this and to stand below these is to wonder at the ingenious methods used to construct this wonder of the ancient world, which is the second most visited tourist site in the country after the pyramids at Giza.
Valley of the Kings
From Karnak we made the short drive to the Valley of the Kings. While the modern access roads were empty, one can only imagine what it was like in Howard Carter’s day transporting equipment in this arid, featureless landscape.
Through a ticket point, an electric train pulls you the last mile or so up the hill to the tomb entrances. Though winter and low season for tourists there is a certain reverence from visitors.
Descending into a few of the 60 tombs that make up the Valley of the Kings, I can’t adequately describe seeing and touching the inscriptions and colours on the walls. The thought that these resting places were hidden and untouched for thousands of years until barely a century ago.
Going inside the tomb of the Tutankhamun rekindled childhood memories when the iconic face mask first came to the UK. I was a 10-year-old watching Blue Peter. I saw it again in a Cairo museum in Tahrir Square in 1986, aged 24, on a day trip from Cyprus.
Entering the actual tomb completed a lifelong fascination with the boy king and all things connected with the Pharaohs. My mind wandered to the work of Howard Carter and the little helper boy who stumbled on the entrance by accident back in 1922.
From there we went to visit the hugely impressive temple of Hatshepsut, named after one of the few female Pharaohs. The long walk up gives you a chance to soak up this fantastic sight and try out my new Movi gimbal with its time-lapse feature and shoot a bit of video. The late afternoon sunshine was perfect for photography in such a photogenic location.
Our accommodating guide and driver were happy to stop to let me catch the setting sun over the rice fields. It was fitting bookend to the day given having caught first light and given the Pharaohs’ worship of our star which they called the Sun god, Ra.
For people in ancient Egypt, the sun was a source of life, warmth and energy which made the crops grow. They believed that Ra was swallowed every night by the sky goddess Nut, passing through the underworld before being reborn every morning.
Unlike the non-existent gods of our modern-day religions, at least the Egyptians worshipped something which is, in fact, real!
It was a perfect metaphor for our day trip from Hurghada and a must-see location if you ever get the chance.
It’s amazing that a place dedicated to death that can make you feel so alive. It has to rank as one of the best travel experiences of my life.
Globe Trotsky is a retirement travel and photogaphy blog for the independent, budget traveller. A sideways look at travel in a tshirt. Visit www.globetrotsky.com to join the travel and tshirt tribe.