Overland Istanbul to Cairo. Part 5: Nuweiba and…Cairo, Egypt!

Sphinx and Pyramids

I woke to find the sun had come up on a new day. It was 6.30 am, we had arrived at Nuweiba, Egypt.

The ferry took ages to dock at Nuweiba ferry port but once we were off we were waved through customs and the tedious-looking bag check, and were out of the dusty terminal in no time. We took up the offer of a taxi and it took us, no quibble (taxis are my big travel bugbear!), to Soft Beach Camp a short distance round the coast. Wow, we had found paradise!

Soft Beach Camp is a cute bohemian camp, right on the beach. Wonderfully simple and inexpensive, we had only planned on staying a night or two but we loved it so much we stayed on an extra night. Our accommodation was a little rattan hut on the beach, very basic and rustic: bliss. There were hammocks, sun-loungers and palm fronded seating areas nearer the sea. The backdrop to our hut was the dramatic mountains of the Sinai and in front, across the Gulf of Aqaba: Saudi Arabia.

Nuweiba

We were welcomed to the camp with a pot of tea, and followed it up with a hearty breakfast, sitting crossed-legged on some cushions admiring the view. The egyptian flatbread we had with breakfast was amazing, it bode well for Egyptian food.

Nuweiba

Our hours on the camp were spent eating, relaxing, eating and relaxing. We couldn’t have wished for a better spot. The camp is owned by a Egyptian/German couple who were really friendly and the food was good. We hired some snorkelling gear and had a dip in the Red Sea, to see the coral but it was far too choppy to see anything. It was out of season and we practically had the beach, and the camp to ourselves.

NuweibaI picked up a book {The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser} from the camp bookshelves and promised myself to finish it before we left, there were plenty of comfy places to curl up and read. It was marvellous to have the excuse to just sit in the sun and enjoy a good book.

The large communal area served as a restaurant too, where we ate all our meals over the following days. Once the sun went down, the sky was filled with stars and the fabric-hung den was a cosy place to lounge with a beer, and in Chris’s case, a shisha. We were often joined by a cute little cat, who I named Buttons. He sneaked the tomatoes off our plate from one meal!

It was in this restaurant that I first tried one of Egypt’s national dishes, the vegetarian delight that is Koshary.

Host Sayed said I would find the best Koshary in Cairo. I couldn’t wait! Koshary is a bit of a carb-fest, rice, pasta and lentils topped with a spicy tomato sauce and crispy fried onions. I was in food love.

Nuweiba

We eventually had to tear ourselves away from Soft Beach Camp and make our way to Cairo. After saying our goodbyes we set off up to the main road to wait for the bus. A minibus heading to Cairo (not the official Cairo bus we were actually waiting for) pulled in, our packs were strapped to the roof and we set off along the beautiful winding coast to Taba before cutting across the largely empty expanse of the Sinai, long straight roads across the desert.

The driver fairly put his foot down, which was made all the more alarming when we passed the occasional overturned buses along the route. The journey took us under the Suez Canal, through a tunnel. The driver got in some kind of altercation with another driver while we were queuing to enter the tunnel. This seemed to fire him up and by the time we hit the Cairo ring road we were seriously fearing for our lives. Even the few other local passengers were screaming at him to slow down!

It was such a huge relief to arrive at the bus station but we were then at a loss. It was a chaotic minibus hub, miles from the city centre. We must have looked shaken and lost as a really kind man from Dahab found us a taxi driver, the only taxi we saw there. He was, by far, the sweetest taxi driver I’ve ever come across on my travels. His taxi may have been practically falling apart, and very slow, but he took us all the way into the city, inching through the solid traffic to our hotel for a bargainous fee.

I adored downtown Cairo, many of the buildings date from the 1920s/30s and although a little shabby these days, they hint at old glamour. We stayed at The African House Hostel, it was in a great central location and our room was big and airy with high ceilings and old Art Deco furniture.

The manager was really helpful, he pointed us in the right direction for the best Koshary place in town and that is where we ate that evening. We sat outside the Koshary bar – Koshary Sayed Hanafy in Oraby Sq –, absorbing the Cairo atmosphere and eating the delicious, cheap dish.

Cairo

Next morning we walked to the Cairo Museum, there was quite a queue to get in due to the three security checkpoints and we couldn’t take our cameras in. The museum had a certain degree of organisation, it was separated into Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom, with a separate section for the finds from Tutankhamun’s tomb and the hall of Royal Mummies.

There were just so many artefacts, this museum is packed to the rafters with Egyptian treasures. The unfinished statue of Queen Nefertiti’s head was a particular highlight. The King Tutankhamun section was extraordinary, I never imagined so much had been found in that tomb in 1922. The highlight was undoubtably his gold death mask, breathtakingly beautiful.

A nearby room held a lot of jewellery and toiletry pieces from the Royal Tombs of Tanis. These pieces were exquisite, it is almost implausible that they were made three thousand years ago. They looked like flawless items from the Art Deco period, it’s not hard to see how much of Art Deco design was inspired by ancient Egypt. I was spellbound by it all.

We decided to buy tickets to see the Royal Mummies, it was a little pricey (for Cairo) and rather gruesome but seeing these millennia-old Royal faces was incredible. Looking into the ‘glass’ eyes of King Rameses II was like a historic figure had stepped right out of a book.

Sphinx and Pyramids

It took two attempts to get out to the Pyramids at Giza. On the first try we managed to find the only taxi driver in Cairo that had no idea where they were. He had to ask people the way, it was a painfully slow journey. He picked up another fare at some traffic lights and this guy seemed to think he could get us in on the cheap. It sounded quite dodgy but the guy directed the taxi driver to drop us off at some stables round the back of the Pyramid area anyway, he had a cousin with a horse….. I’m not a horse person, I wasn’t ready to overcome that fear at that point.

It felt like we had been abandoned far from the entrance. We kept walking and eventually found the gate but it was closed (it was mid afternoon). Exhausted and disheartened, we went for a cup of tea in the restaurant overlooking the Pyramids then got a taxi back to the city.

We tried again the following day, this time successfully. The taxi driver knew the way but he still dropped us off at the stables! At least we knew where to go. The gate we had seen the previous day, we found out now, was for the Sound and Light Show, whoops! We found the daytime gate and finally were confronted with the mighty Pyramids.

Nothing really prepares you for their size, the cube-cut stones from which the pyramids are built are huge, the feat of their creation is astonishing, We paid to go inside the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), there was nothing really to see but what an experience! A tiny corridor, you have to bend double to walk, leads downhill before it switches and you are walking up into a blank, empty room in the belly of the pyramid. It was stiflingly hot in there.

The Sphinx was as enigmatic as expected but bigger than I imagined. It really is a remarkable statue, quite surreal. The Solar Barque Museum that is also on the site, was well worth a look. Inside was a restored cedar-wood funerary barge that had been found in excavations near the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), making it the oldest surviving boat in the world. It would have been buried with King Khufu to transport him to the afterlife. It is a beautiful object.

Cairo

Later that evening we left Cairo, to return in a few days, and took the night train to Aswan….

Many of the photographs in this post were taken by Chris Hodgson.

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By Rachel Davis

4 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    So excited to see another post from your middle east trip! Been waiting for this one… If the other local passengers on your bus were screaming then the driver must have really been speeding!! Very interesting to hear about the links between Art Deco and Egyptian art, didn’t know about that but makes sense now. Your level of detail in these postings is amazing, do you always carry a journal and write down everything? Will you do the same for your upcoming trip?

    • Yes I do, I have a bundle of journals from the last trip and I’m going to write a post on them. For sure keeping up the tradition for this upcoming trip, makes blogging a whole lot easier.
      I was amazed by how art deco Ancient Egyptian design was, the Tutankhamun tomb opening must have fired up design in the 20s.
      The driver wasn’t just speeding, he was swerving and dodging. Terrifying!
      One last overland post to go, part 6 coming soon!

  2. Sarah says:

    I know I keep saying this every time. But I am in love with these posts. What a remarkable part of the world.

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