It's blindingly hot on the Nile and our river boat has just docked for a visit to one of Egypt's most beautifully preserved temples, the Temple of Edfu.
Dating from Ptolemaic times and dedicated to the falcon god Horus, it's a must-see, but the primary tourist access is by horse-drawn carriage or caleche. Drivers with their two-person decorated carriages line the dock. We are their money-earner for the day. Our guide wrangles the drivers, gives each party 50 Egyptian pounds and the instruction not to bargain and only to pay on return to the boat.
There is some disquiet. Ribs are visible on a few of the little horses and every driver carries a whip. Our guide, however, has selected the horses that appear to be the best cared for. My carriage partner and I choose a driver who is proud of his horse. It appears well fed, its ears are forward, it is alert, and there are no sores. He tells us the caleche has been in his family for generations, it is his only source of income and it is in his interests to keep his horse healthy.
The rights of animals raise constant dilemmas for travellers to developing countries. We should not be riding elephants in India or Africa, chaining up tigers for "tiger selfies" in Thailand, walking with lions in Southern Africa or handling sea turtles in the Cayman Islands.
In Egypt, where horses and donkeys are still an important part of local life, there is concern about the treatment of some of the working horses you see at the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, in Luxor or at any well-populated Egyptian tourist spot, as well as those horses used as beasts of burden. These horses can work on meagre diets for long hours in scalding temperatures.
Our Cairo tour takes us past the Brooke Hospital for Animals, the head office of an international animal welfare charity that has long been trying to improve the lives of the country's horses, donkeys and mules. It relies solely on private donations and focuses on providing a free veterinary service for working horses in both the six static clinics (in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Edfu, Aswan and Mersa Matrouh) and three mobile clinics that operate from the Mansoura office. Equally important is its role in educating owners and users about disease-prevention and equine care.
Apart from teaching tourists about responsible tourism, the Brooke Hospital's work is also done in country markets and in animals' workplaces such as Egypt's brick kilns. Animal husbandry education and early treatment of disease is targeted so owners realise it's in their own interest to care for their animals.
Brooke Hospital sprang from the concerns of an English woman, Dorothy Brooke, who, upon arriving in Cairo in 1930, was shocked at the condition of Cairo's working horses. The British Government had sold about 20,000 cavalry steeds to Egyptian buyers 12 years earlier at the end of World War I. Brooke's letter to a British newspaper raised the equivalent of about £20,000. Within three years, she had bought the remaining 5000 cavalry horses still working in Egypt, and the animals ended their days contented.
Dorothy Brooke used the facilities she had created to develop a free veterinary clinic, which became the Brooke Hospital. The hospital has since expanded to countries such as India and Pakistan, and helped millions of animals.
Brooke Hospital asks visitors to come in the morning. In Cairo, it suggests you take a taxi, fix a price beforehand and ask it to wait (30 minutes to an hour is recommended). Brooke Hospital in phonetic Arabic is "Brooke, mooshtashfa hossan."
The hospital treats about 160,000 animals annually but with about 3.4 million working equines in Egypt, there is still much work to be done.
Brooke has a "Happy Horse Code" for travellers – match your size to the animal, pay a fair price, one rider an animal, one person a carriage wheel, choose a healthy-looking animal (no sores, wounds, cracked or misshapen hooves), and look for signs the animal is comfortable – high head position, eyes open, ears forward – speak out about mistreatment and report it to your tour guide or local authorities.
Alison Stewart was a guest of Scenic.
Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Egypt Air flies from Abu Dhabi to Cairo. See etihad.com
Scenic's 11-Day Treasures of Egypt journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel includes a four-night Nile cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III, four luxury hotel stays, Egyptologist tour director/guide, multiple temple, tomb and museum visits, internal flights, most meals, accommodation, tipping, and complimentary wine with lunch and dinner. Priced from $9095 a person twin share, departing Giza (Cairo) on May 10, 2019. See scenic.com.au
Brooke Hospital visits need no appointment but if there is an emergency, doors will be closed. See thebrookeegypt.org