We woke up refreshed after a night on the train and were served breakfast in our compartment by our very friendly steward. Right toffs we are! The Egyptian diet presented itself in its full glory again with 4 types of bread, 3 types of jam and a cheese triangle. It filled the gap, we washed it down with some teaand saddled up our backpacks for our next adventure.
Aswan is in the southern-most city in Egypt that can be accessed independently - any further towards Sudan and you have to join a convoy - which is of course exactly what we did! One of the most spectacular temples in Egypt is the Temple of Abu Simbel, commissioned by Ramses II, widely regarded as the greatest Pharaoh in Egyptian history. There are 2 temples, one for himself and another for his most beloved wife Nefertari,in the shape of the god Hathor (so she's got horns on top of her head with a sun disk in between them).
There are 3 things that make these temples a must-see site.
1: They were carved into a mountain. Ramses II's temple has four colossal seated statues in front of it, more than 20m high - the width of the mouth alone is over 1m. In between these 4 colossi are standing figures of the rest of the royal family, among them his daughter, which also happened to be one of his wives… I guess he was desperate to preserve the family blood.
2: Coinciding with the winter- and summer solstices, twice a year the rays of the sun penetrate the entire length of the temple, thereby spectacularly lighting up the small room at the far back of the where there are 4 seated figures: The gods Harakhty, Amun & Ptah and the deified Ramses II. The light however never illuminates Ptah because he is the god of darkness.
And 3 (this is by far my favourite): Originally, both of these temples were located about 90m down the slope from where they are now! In the 60's, the Egyptian government appealed to the rest of the world to help with one of the most ambitious excavation projects in history: both of these temples (along with another 12 in the area) had to be relocated to higher ground to avoid them being submerged by the rising waters of the newly constructed lake Nasser. So they cut the entire mountain apart, including all the spectacular hieroglyphs inside, and reconstructed the whole thing on an artificial mountain higher up! And thankfully so, otherwise we would not have had the incredible privilege of seeing this.
But back to the convey situation. The first convey leaves from Aswan for the 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel at 4am (why, oh why????) and the second at 10am. But by mid-morning the temperature is already hovering close to 40 degrees (that's why!), so we joined a minibus on the 4am run. It's quite a site to see around 30 minibuses and 30 large tourist buses line up as if it is the starting line of the Dakar Rally. Then when the clock struck 4, we pulled away at awesome speed and joined what actually did turn out to be a race to Abu Simbel. We are not sure how this works, but it seems that whoever gets there first gets the best parking - it's the desert, there is no shade, not sure what the fuss is about. But after seeing the sites, we sped away again in the 9am return convoy to Aswan, just to arrive first there again. We won both ways, we were very proud, but we still don't understand the need for speed in Egypt. We know that they are not racing to make lunch (it's Ramadan, so there is no lunch), and generally they are a very laid back people who prefer to drink tea and smoke a sheesha (water pipe) to anything else. But there is also this dormant aggression that pops up every now and again - maybe the speed is just a stress release mechanism (it's too hot for exercise, so it's the only outlet that makes sense really).
The following day we started on the Big Splurge of our trip: a Nile Cruise from Aswan to Luxor, 2 nights of luxury accommodation - clean sheets, clean towels, clean floor! -and 3 buffet meals a day. To be honest, we only went for the food - these were the most balanced meals that we've had in a very long time! Our intention was to just laze around on the sundeck and hang around in the pool every day, catch up on our reading and writing and to generally veg out.
We have not met many South Africans so far on our trip, but since good people tend to group together, there were 2 couples from Durban on the cruise with us. We had such a great time talking about everything South African:the surge in Afrikaans language theatre, rugby, politics, violence, travelling through Africa and the future of our country. It was such a necessary experience for us, hearing fresh optimism and speaking Afrikaans with people from a region that we really have very poor knowledge of, learning new things and getting even more excited about going home. It eased the homesick pangs that we have been having for a while now! They took us under their wings, bought us beers and shared their whiskey and kudu biltong with us as a taste from home. And in the end it turns out that one of their daughters is a very close friend of one of our cousins - obviously!
Thank you again Robbie, Marie, Theo and Leonora for everything. We look forward to meeting up with you again in Natal.
After arrival in Luxor we had another half day of sight-seeing: the King's Valley where there are 62 tombs carved into the mountain. When we first came to Egypt, we thought that all the pharaohs were buried in pyramids. But there aren't that many that were entombed that way. The pyramids were a very visible sign of the pharaoh's greatness, but it was also very visible sign of wealth for grave robbers. For this reason the later pharaohs preferred to be placed in these underground chambers set in a secret valley. Unfortunately the grave robbers stumbled onto the hidden tombs before the archeologists and they stripped all but one of the 62 tombs - this is the reason why the young Tutankhamon is famous, his tomb was found intact with more than 700 artifacts as well as the pharaoh's very elaborate gold sarcophagus and mummy in 1922.
We also spent a couple of hours walking around in the local market in Luxor, watching the Nubian people about their daily business. It was a great not being hassled to buy tourist crap and just to be able to experience and watch. But by now we have had our fill of pyramids, tombs, hieroglyphs and culture in general: we need some action. So we will go to the East coast of Egypt for some Red Sea diving in Dahab - what an awesome privilege!