Egypt and Jordan: A fascinating part of the world worth visiting

The most common response I encountered when I announced I was planning to spend 16 days in Egypt and Jordan was "you're brave". I am not in the least bit brave, but I believe that if there is a 90 per cent chance that you'll have fun, compared to a 10 per cent chance something could go wrong, one should err on the side of the 90 per cent.

And I am so glad I have decided to visit this part of the world. It's among the most fascinating experiences I have ever had, not least because Egypt in particular is the most foreign place I have ever visited.

In Muslim countries, the weekend starts on Sunday and includes Monday. The haunting call to prayer rings out over cacophonous modern cities five times a day with a clarity that is other-worldly.

Despite the intriguing and exciting sense of the exotic, however, I never feel under threat or in danger, even though my husband and I are clearly foreigners. At the Muhammad Ali mosque, school children jostle to get photos of us and just for a moment, we feel like superannuated rock stars.

Actually, I tell a lie, there are times when I feel deeply threatened: every time I have to cross the road in Cairo. It is a city of 20 million people and all of them appear to be up and about at all times of the day and night. No one obeys any road rules, there are hardly any traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, and drivers manoeuvre around you in a way I find terrifying.

In the end, I learn to step into the traffic and cross purposefully to the other side, hoping against hope the drivers will avoid me. The feeling of taking my life into my own hands every time I leave the kerb adds to the excitement.

Even though Cairo is mostly dry (you can buy alcoholic drinks in the bars of major hotel chains), it's a city that pumps. Word to the wise – bring earplugs particularly if, like us, you are staying in a hotel overlooking the Nile.

We are travelling with Peregrine Adventures, which certainly takes the word "adventure" seriously. We spend our first day in Giza, exploring the pyramids, which are everything I had hoped for and then some. I even screw my courage to the sticking point and climb/crawl up to the chamber in the centre of the Pyramid of Cheops. It is worth it, not because there is anything to see, but for the thrill of exploring a structure built more than 4000 years ago.

The adventure really starts when we take the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor. Like everything in Egypt, the trains are old (built in the 1960s, I'd say) and dusty. I don't get much rest – it is a bit like trying to sleep in a washing machine – but it is exciting even so, and not something I had ever expected to find myself doing. There is a lot to be said for that.

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We arrive in Luxor before dawn and make our way to the Valley of the Kings. As we wait for the gates to open, we watch brilliantly-coloured hot air balloons take off over the Sahara and the Nile against a rising sun.. Thanks to the early start, we are the only 12 tourists in the Valley and can examine the tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses II without battling hordes. The colours, the details, the perfectly-preserved decorative hieroglyphs and scenes are as vivid as if the paint has just dried.

Our tour guide, Emi, mentions that Luxor used to be called Thebes. I am gobsmacked. Thebes actually existed? Then she casually mentions that the local Nubian traders will be keen to show us their wares as we leave. . Nubians are real, too? It is as if all the stories I heard as a child in Sunday School are coming to life. Later, as we cruise down the Nile, I stare at the bullrushes lining its banks and, yes, my thoughts turn to Moses. I am an atheist, which may explain my shameful, white-lady ignorance.

I also learn a lot of things that are completely new to me and am particularly intrigued by Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who apparently wore a fake beard. She ruled – pretty effectively by all accounts – for a couple of decades. Then, when her stepson ascended to the throne, he obliterated all representations of her face and her cartoosh (the hieroglyph of a pharaoh's name). Plus ca change.

We see a great deal more while we are in Egypt – including Abu Simpel, the Egyptian Museum, the Gayer-Anderson Museum and the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, where Agatha Christie stayed with her archaeologist husband – but I have to leave room to tell you about Jordan.

Sometimes described as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Jordan is much more prosperous than Egypt. Despite also being 80 per cent desert, Jordan is not dustyand its traffic is almost sane.

Petra simply has to be seen to be believed but my advice: wear sturdy boots. It's a 6000-hectare site with a lot of steps and we walkaround it for six hours – mostly with our mouths hanging open.

Glamping in Wadi Rum, which translates to Valley of the Moon, is an out-of-this-world experience and Jerash is an almost perfectly-preserved Roman city, down to the grooves from the chariot wheels in its flagstones. We end our tour bobbing about like corks in the super-salty Dead Sea.

I have never – in 16 days – seen, thought or learnt more, nor been so often out of my comfort zone, mostly in a good way. It has been a real adventure. Do go – there is nothing like it.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/egypt

traveller.com.au/jordan

TOUR

Peregrine Adventures' 16-day Classical Egypt and Jordan tour starts in Cairo and ends in Amman. Priced from $5895 per person twin-share, the tour includes an expert local leader, transport, accommodation and most meals and activities. See peregrineadventures.com

FLY

Qantas codeshares with Emirates to Dubai and onwards to Cairo and Amman. See qantas.com

STAY

The Novotel Cairo El Borg overlooks the Nile and is close to top city attractions, while Novotel Cairo 6th of October is a short drive from the Pyramids. See accorhotels.com for prices and current deals.

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