Pyramid schemes

Author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz is sending his teenage spy, Alex Rider, to Cairo. So he had to go himself.

I have never been too sure about holidays. Are they really worth the short-term benefits of souvenirs and a suntan? Ten years ago I invented a teenage spy, Alex Rider, and for purposes of research I have been forced to follow him around the world: to the US, Cuba, Thailand, Australia, the Caribbean and the French Alps. And that, of course, does make a very good excuse to travel, although it has occasionally led me to some rather offbeat places.

For Alex's ninth adventure, due out next year, I find myself in Egypt, a country well suited to teenage adventures. It is, in some ways, Middle East-lite - which is to say it has the oil, the heat, the religion and the culture but somehow seems closer to the West, more approachable than many of its neighbours.

The severe treatment meted out to anyone demonstrating against President Hosni Mubarak's government, increasingly conservative attitudes to women and the fact 40 per cent of the population subsist on less than $2.50 a day somehow seem to matter less when you have the Pyramids. And Egypt's ancient history grips our imagination in a way its modern history can't. Look at the success of film franchises such as The Mummy. They're lucky the pharaohs were so cruel.

Egypt does make a compelling holiday destination. There's diving at the Red Sea, cruises on the Nile, adventures in the Sahara and tombs and temples just about everywhere. What more could you possibly want?

Well, my needs are more limited. In the forthcoming Scorpia Rising, Alex spends a few weeks in Cairo (at an international school) before being kidnapped and taken to the desert - an abandoned French fort near the oasis town of Siwa. And so these are my two destinations. By and large, Alex does not do mosques or museums. Also, as a rule, he tends to steer clear of the main tourist sites for the set-pieces, trying to avoid the fate of some of the later Bond films, which became hopelessly corny as the action was twisted to embrace such obvious landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, Luxor and the Millennium Dome.

Unfortunately, Cairo is not a very attractive proposition. In fact, let's be honest, it's grindingly ugly. The pollution is bad. The traffic is worse. The heat is stifling. Who allowed them to build the Grand Hyatt Hotel in such a prominent position on the Nile and then hired an architect who had clearly trained at the Heathrow Airport School of Architecture back in the 1960s? And I can't look at the rotting pink carapace of the Sofitel on the opposite bank without imagining it collapsing in a cloud of well-deserved demolition dust. A great river deserves better.

How do you describe this densely populated city? While I'm having a mint tea in the bustling Fishawi coffee house, in the middle of the souk, a trader approaches my table and offers me a fake Rolex watch. I tell him I'm not interested. He offers me another, then another. I tell him I don't want a watch. In the nicest possible way, I try to explain that his watches are cheap and horrible and that, anyway, I have one. ''OK,'' he says. ''I lower the price.'' That's how Cairo is. It's blind to reason. It's in your face. It won't leave you alone.

And yet it is a city that rewards exploration. After an hour in the souk (where I buy jewellery at half the offered price and only three or four times more than it's probably worth), I wander down to Fatimid Cairo and visit mosques and madrasas - Islamic schools - whose beauty takes my breath away. The tomb in the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq is a vaulted chamber of soft grey wood and stone, utterly peaceful, with extraordinary colours from the stained-glass windows dappling the air.

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You have to look for the boxes within the boxes. That is, walk through Islamic Cairo, Coptic Cairo, Fatimid Cairo - it's just modern Cairo you have to avoid. The souk at Khan el-Khalili is undoubtedly fun (and a great place for a chase, with Alex using souvenirs - stone pyramids, spices, copper plates - as weapons) but the streets around the Wikala of al-Ghouri, an ancient hostel, are quieter and just as interesting. Above all, you need the noise and the heat to appreciate the interiors: their soaring pillars, the mosaics, the ornate wood-panelling, the sense of calm and stillness. They reflect each other and it's just a question of negotiating your way between the two.

I visit the Pyramids at Giza in the end - but even here you have to play the same game. I arrive early in the morning and manage to slip in before they open. For about half an hour I'm on my own and wander around in a daze. The site is awesome and whispers something of the power of civilisation, the ambition of those ancient dynasties. An hour later, a thousand coaches and taxis have arrived, turning the place into a car park and defeating the point. Modern Cairo again.

Alex is knocked out, bundled into a car and driven from Cairo to Siwa Oasis. I take the plane. Even so, it's a fairly gruelling journey: less than an hour in the air to Alexandria, then a six-hour drive across the desert, mainly through the night. The road is modern, straight and pretty dead, with emptiness on both sides - so that even when the sun comes up there's nothing to see. I did begin to wonder whether the effort would be worth it.

Siwa is the most remote of the Egyptian oases and although it is well into the Sahara Desert, it has more water than it can cope with. There are huge lakes so full of salt that strange crystal formations stretch themselves over the shorelines. You can swim in the lakes but because of the salt, you can more or less sit on them, too. The town of Siwa is small and sun-baked, spread out beneath the ruined Berber city of Shali, which gives the appearance of having partially dissolved - which is exactly what it did, in 1926, after three days of heavy rain. There are as many donkey carts as cars or buses. Life here pretty much ignores the modern world.

I have come here to get a real sense of the desert. I see stars with no light pollution and the strange blue glow in the sky after the sun has set. I watch the endlessly shifting sand dunes, swim in a thermal pool and glimpse a white desert fox with Yoda ears and startled eyes, somehow surviving in this arid wilderness.

Being driven at high speed in a four-wheel-drive over vertiginous sand dunes is an exhilarating experience - not for nothing is this area known as the Great Sand Sea. I love being served bright-red hibiscus tea as the sun sets, my driver having built a tiny fire in the sand. But is it too comfortable, handed too easily on a plate? I feel, like Alex, I should have suffered more.

He certainly won't stay - as I did - at the Adrere Amellal, one of the great, eccentric hotels of the world. The name means ''white mountain'' in the Berber language and it's built against a massive outcrop with twisting passageways leading to rooms that are actually more like grottoes, dug out of the stone.

The whole place could have been built by a child on a beach with a bucket and spade, perhaps influenced by Gaudi. There are no straight lines, no right angles. Nothing is regular. It has been designed to be part of the landscape and everything about it is discreet. Even the large freshwater swimming pool is supplied by an underground well (with a stone spiral staircase leading down into the depths). It has no electricity. When you return at night, oil lamps lead the way to your room. And all the food is grown or reared locally. Meals are delicious and, in caves filled with candles, intensely romantic. The tariff is higher than even the five-star Four Seasons in Cairo - and a lot less luxurious. But, then, it is not so much a hotel as an experience.

Egypt is on the edge of change. After almost 30 years in power, Mubarak has been ill and there is talk of a successor - although nobody is sure who that will be. Will it become more democratic or will it bow to the more hard-line, Salafi attitudes that are blowing in the wind? Tourism will be part of the equation, although perhaps smaller than one might expect. It is responsible for only about 11 per cent of Egypt's GDP.

All in all, it's a good reason to visit sooner rather than later. The country is endlessly fascinating and unthreatening - unless, that is, you're Alex Rider. And even he would want to go back

Horowitz's latest Alex Rider book is Crocodile Tears (Walker, $17.95). Scorpia Rising is due out next year.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Cairo for about $1800, to Singapore (8hr) and then via Dubai (13hr). Royal Jordanian Airlines has a fare for about $1900, flying a partner airline to Hong Kong or Bangkok and then RJ via Amman. Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days, which can be obtained on arrival for $US15 ($17)..

- Telegraph, London

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