Mysteries of the Nile

At the world's oldest tourist destination, Dugald Jellie steps from eternal sunshine into royal crypts and crowded souks.

News cables dispatched the story around the globe: English archaeologist Howard Carter had made the find of his life. By candlelight, he peered into a lost tomb in the blistered crags of the Valley of the Kings. It was four in the afternoon, November 26, 1922. Lord Carnarvon, his financier, stood back and asked if he saw anything. "Yes," replied Carter, "wonderful things."

All the world's eyes turned to Egypt. An untouched treasure of lustrous artefacts ("... strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold ...") captured the public's imagination. A boy-king became an overnight sensation. His name - as exotic as the deserts of Egypt - would spread like a fever. Tutankhamun.

Now in Cairo, woozy with jet lag and face-to-face all these years later with his royal death mask, I have a travel epiphany. Car horns toot as a chorus outside. Tourists flaunt iPhones. Digital cameras lasso necks. And this wondrous object of burnished gold - so readily knowable with its nemes-headcloth, its divine beard of blue faience, its broad collar inlaid with precious jewels - gleams in a glass case with an untarnished beauty that is more beguiling and more extraordinary than you could ever imagine.

Not a day into our travels and at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, I've fallen already for the curse of King Tut. I am besotted by his bling.

"There's so much stuff," says a young American woman, craning over glass cabinets of gilded bracelets and scarabs and papyri. She wears a tight T-shirt printed with an image of the famed burial mask, above a directive: "Keep your hands off my Tuts!" And she's yet to see the mummies.

It could be said if you have not been to Egypt, you have hardly travelled. It is the oldest tourist destination on Earth; about 13 million people are expected to visit this year, adding 11 per cent to the nation's gross domestic product. Most fly here on package tours and it feels this morning as though they've all arrived at once at this museum, and all in freshly laundered khaki.

Crowds knot around tour leaders who wave clipboards in the air: Grand Circle Travel, Fez Tour, Discover Egypt. English couples with radio receivers in their breast pockets listen to commentary through earpieces. A man prays on the floor. Staff push a pallet jack beside the limestone colossus of King Amenhotep III; each of his toenails polished by the touch of foreign hands.

Never have you seen such curatorial shabbiness of so many objects of such unproblematic beauty. A sign, with arrow, says: "TO THE MUMMIES." Cigarette smoke curls from the door of the Department of Papyrology. I touch the cold stone of a sarcophagus. And our grand tour of Egypt, it's only just begun.

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"Cairo is bad traffic, very bad traffic," says the airport taxi driver. His name is Saad Abdul and his old Peugeot has no rear-view mirrors. "Horn here is like language," he explains. "Everybody drives as he likes. Nobody follows the lines. But everything is OK. No problems."

It's a crash course in the cultural sensibilities of the world's largest Arab metropolis - a "mother of cities", population 14 million - that has caught the imagination of outsiders since Napoleon's hasty visit. The 20-volume Description de l'Egypte compiled by his legion of savants, published from 1809, sparked a sensation in Europe and popular enthusiasm for all things Egyptian.

London Illustrated News followed up with romanticised depictions of Cairo street scenes that would excite and fascinate the British public. Thomas Cook from 1869 ran steamships up the Nile to satisfy the whims of Europe's new middle classes. And its downtown was remodelled in the image of Paris for the opening of the Suez Canal, with boulevards filling at night with parties and foreign blow-ins.

"Cairo is of course the strangest city I was ever in," wrote Geoffrey Armstrong, of the Australian Light Horse, in a letter to his mother. It was 1915 and he was off to Gallipoli; but not before scaling a pyramid at Giza and posing by the Sphinx. "The coinage is easy to get into the way of, it is all piasters [sic] or as we call them 'disasters'."

In the bazaars of Islamic Cairo, we're similarly struck by the foreignness of the city. It's a fete of commerce, full of gossip, rich with ornaments and silken fabrics. "Cairo was like Europe," says the ageing playboy protagonist in Alaa Al Aswany's best-selling novel, The Yacoubian Building. "People were well mannered and respectable and everyone knew his place."

We lose ourselves in souks among clementine-sellers and copper-sellers. We smoke water-pipes stoked with molasses-soaked tobacco, play games of backgammon, drink sugary mint tea and coffee brewed from beans spiced with nutmeg and haggle for the price of everything.

Rituals of travel in Egypt are as old as Herodotus, the Greek historian who in the fifth century BC ventured into the sunbaked heart of Africa to see the sights and would report: "Egypt is the gift of the river." He was an inquisitive romantic; meeting with locals, listening to what they said and writing a witness account that stands as the first form of the travel story.

"From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days' voyage up the Nile," he observed. We make the same trip - from Cairo to Luxor - on an overnight train. Curtains are tied back in the morning to a scene that looks as eternal as the sunshine: boys riding bareback on donkeys, citrus groves, date palms, sugar cane, irrigation ditches, millet fields and an ox ripping a plough through the "blackish and clod-filled soil" remarked upon by Herodotus.

For three weeks, the two of us plumb the mysteries of the Nile, following in the footsteps of the ancient Greek. We come to see the sights of an exceptional land, fertile without rain, by a river that drains half a continent and a civilisation as old as history itself.

And never is there a dull moment. In Cairo we pay a taxi driver 150 Egyptian pounds ($29.67) for a half-day trip to Dahshur, where we have the Bent Pyramid to ourselves - until we walk backwards into its bowels and meet a family from Ballarat. We catch a dawn balloon over the tombs of Luxor and an endless desert bathed in rosewater-pink light. We spend three nights on a cruise boat on the Nile, where I learn it's unwise at dinner to get between a Lithuanian tour group and a bain-marie.

And all the while my sweetheart truly does walk like an Egyptian. Her mother was born in Alexandria, where we visit a great aunt and all the second cousins. It's here also we meet four belly dancers from Melbourne and, in a Greek kafenion beside the glittering Mediterranean, eat what I think could be the world's best calamari.

"In the manners and customs, the Egyptians seemed to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind," remarked Herodotus. And still there are times on our trip when everything is wonderfully upside down.

The turning point is Aswan, on the upper Nile, where at 3.17am we board a minibus to take us on a day trip to the Sudan border. At road's end is the colossal temple of Abu Simbel. But first we idle in a car park until 4.30am. This is when the desert convoy leaves. This is how Egypt works.

Swiss adventurer Johann Burckhardt was the first European to see this New Kingdom landmark. He had met Sir Joseph Banks in London and with his patronage travelled in 1813 to Egypt's fabled geographic full stop: the Nile's first cataract at Aswan. Here two worlds commingled, with fortunes made on the trade of ivory, leopard skins, ostrich plumes and all the goods of Africa.

Burckhardt struck upstream into the kingdom of Nubia, where he spotted a statue submerged almost completely by desert drifts. "Could the sand be cleared away, a vast temple would be discovered," he remarked prophetically.

Tour buses now park in angled rows beside the gate. It's 8.09am and this pharaonic bookend of Egypt - moved by UNESCO heavy lifting in the 1960s to save it from Lake Nasser's rising floodwater - is a carnival of sightseeing. Talk is a babble of foreign tongues. A guide holds aloft a car radio antennae. I think Indiana Jones has much to answer for.

As with many of the monumental statues of Egypt, graffiti runs like a laddered stocking up the sandstone legs of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC). In the Temple of Isis at Philae we had read a Roman etching that says "B. Mure stultus est" ("B Mure is stupid"). Here at Abu Simbel it's a string of names and dates - H. Van Heleur 1839, C Black 1850, Sapper R.A. Wreal R.E. 1892 - the handiwork of Victorian-era tourists who came with a kitbag of archaeological tools.

"Napoleon's visit sparked widespread travel to Egypt," says Michael Turner, curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. "His artists and scientists mapped the country, drew its temples, looted its riches and spread word of all the extraordinary sights. Ever since, people have wanted to see for themselves."

For his part, Sir Charles Nicholson, a scholar, man of letters, representative of Port Phillip and Australia's first great collector, travelled here in 1856 with a long shopping list. He acquired mummies, ceramics and tomb carvings that now form the basis of the museum's Egyptian antiquities collection - the largest this side of the equator.

The craze for the pharaohs does not dim. A record 25,600 Australians last year marked Egypt as their main destination on outgoing passenger cards; up from 4300 in 1991. All through the country we hear familiar accents in the most unlikely places. On the High Dam wall we meet a nurse from the Huon Valley; at Luxor we encounter a woman who works at Yarrawonga's RSL but for now rides a donkey. All have come with camera battery packs charged, to see the story of Egypt.

"No touch, no touch," chants a guard deep in the burial chamber of Ramses IV, in the dry clefts of the Theban Hills on the west bank at Luxor. We now shuffle single file into a stuffy necropolis with magic text on its walls and I think for a moment the whole world has come to meet in this tomb.

In the Valley of the Kings, a place where sometimes it does not rain for 16 years and the mercury regularly tops 40 degrees, it's also a sweaty business. It was Carter who put this cursed abyss on the map, with a dig site that would unearth a phenomena that percolated into all forms of popular culture. The New York Times considered there was "no finer human interest story, no more thrilling drama" than the "undreamed of splendours" found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

The newspaper's front-page story of 1922 concluded: "Steamship agents said yesterday that the report of the riches found in Upper Egypt had stimulated travel to the Near East."

Nowadays all the great temples and burial chambers of ancient Thebes are like a modern-day theme park. Foreigners flock to the sites. And it's here in Luxor, a city on the great hook of the Nile, that I think how quickly the grandeur of Egypt becomes nothing more than a pile of stones.

Upper Egypt exhausts me. So many squiggles on so much stone. I am weary of hieroglyphs. I'm over obelisks. Tired of sphinxes.

Our trip threatens to become a souvenir hunt. Temple of Hathor, tick. Valley of the Queens, tick. Luxor Temple, tick. Tombs of the Nobles, tick. Kom Ombo Temple, tick. Felucca at sunset, tick. Mummified crocodile, tick.

The only one left is the most epic of all: the Pyramids of Giza.

In Cairo, their haunting triangles had followed us for days as we caught glimpses through the smog. All of Egypt's faults are forgotten - its corruption, pollution, chauvinism - with just one clear view of Cheops.

We planned to visit on the afternoon of our last day, as a last hurrah. What we had not planned was the traffic on the Pyramids Road through Giza. It is horrendous. The taxi ride seems eternal. The site closes in winter at 4pm. We arrive with barely an hour to spare.

As sightseeing goes, it's a rushed job but it does not matter.

This time-honoured spectacle is as monumental and as instantly recognisable and as memorable as you could imagine. It's a sight, as with so much of Egypt, that outstrips all expectation.

Dugald Jellie flew courtesy of Singapore Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Cairo for about $1735 via Singapore. Etihad has a fare for about $1820 via Abu Dhabi. Australians require a visa for stays of up to 30 days.

Getting around

Cairo's metro train system is clean, efficient and runs on time. Flat fare of one Egyptian pound (20 cents) a ride.

When to go

Travel in winter, December to February. June to August is unbearable anywhere south of Cairo: Luxor's average daily top temperature tip 41 degrees. Aswan is hotter still. Most visit Upper Egypt between October and February.

What it costs

Herodotus did Egypt on the cheap and probably didn't collect receipts. I have receipts for 1195 Egyptian pounds ($236) for 28 sights. Giza Pyramids: 60 Egyptian pounds.. Valley of the Kings: 80 Egyptian pounds. The most we paid was 100 Egyptian pounds for entry to Tutankhamun's tomb, hardly worth it after seeing his death mask at the Egyptian Museum, entry 60 Egyptian pounds. Best value? A ticket to have the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur to ourselves for 30 Egyptian pounds. Tourism is Egypt's No.1 foreign-currency earner and sometimes you're required to pay in foreign bills. But only US dollars or euros, thank you. For example, a one-way ticket for a two-bed cabin on an overnight train between Cairo and Luxor or Aswan costs $US120. Buy foreign notes before you go.

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