The ancient spectacles of pyramids, mummies and temples on a cruise down the River Nile

We've wandered on to the set of an Indiana Jones movie. In the distance looms the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, its biscuit-coloured colonnades seemingly carved from the desert. To one side stands the famous archaeologist – raised brow and a half-smile at his lips – with a team of excavators at his side. Before us, a makeshift tent covers a cache of coffins, each draped with a white sheet. The 30 sealed coffins were found earlier this week (October, 2019), my guide Mohammed, a trained Egyptologist, tells me.

"This is one of Egypt's most significant discoveries of its type," he says. "They were discovered near Al-Assasif, by chance."

Chance is how our small group, on a guided shore excursion to Deir el-Bahari, on the west bank of the Nile opposite the city of Luxor, find ourselves amid an international press conference.

As Dr Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, takes to the lectern, the gloved assistants step forward to remove the covers. The wind drops, as the land holds its breath. Clearly the ancients need a moment before giving up their secrets.

The covers are lifted in unison and I am struck mute by such magnificence. My skin tingles; blood pounds at my temples; the air cracks with electricity as the canvas room fills with a white light, searing the scene on my memory for ever. Next, the space explodes with a kaleidoscope of carvings and designs, the colours on the coffins as arresting as when they were first painted 3000 years ago.

To chance upon something that has remained hidden for so long is both thrilling and moving. These are, after all, the final resting place of humans – 23 adult males, five adult females and two children, a rarity in its own right.

While the cache of coffins has been billed as a chance find, discoveries by Egyptian-led teams are on the rise, as the country continues with its flurry of excavations in the lead up to the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) near Giza. After an eight-year delay the GEM, described as the largest archaeological museum in the world, is set to open in late 2020. Once restored, these 30 new coffins will belong in their own exhibition.

Egypt is hopeful that the opening of the museum will herald a new era in tourism. The 2011 revolution, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak, followed by seven years of political chaos and a string of bombings, saw the number of tourists visiting Egypt plummet from almost 15 million in 2010 to 5.4 million in 2016.  But tourism has been on the rebound for the last two years, with an estimated 11.3 million visitors in 2018 and hopes to see a return of pre-revolution numbers by 2020.

As tourists return, today's visitors seek qualified and knowledgable guides to decipher and decode these recent discoveries. "We are seeing a new breed of traveller," explains Mohammed. "Ones that are already well-informed, but want to dig deeper and learn more about what's happening right now."

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Like most visitors to Egypt, we start at the pyramids; not just the 4500-year-old Giza trio, built for kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, but the little-known Step Pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara, a 30-minute drive from Cairo.

From a distance, the six-layered, 60-metre-tall structure totters above the bleached landscape like a child's sandcastle, a bit wobbly, as if one good puff would turn it into dust. Older than the Giza pyramids by a couple of hundred years, it was Egypt's first pyramid, the blueprint for the building boom that followed, and the oldest stone structure of its kind in the world.

Saqqara holds vital clues to the origins of the Egyptian puzzle, with the 2018 unearthing of a 4400-year-old-tomb of a high priest, and in November, 2019 the discovery of five large mummified wildcats. "It is expected that more discoveries will be made as the site is excavated further," says Mohammed.

The feeling of being at the edge of something great is infectious as we wander the Saqqara necropolis, stepping inside the tomb of Princess Idut and weaving between mud-brick walls where excavation teams sift rubble for treasures. In the distance the crooked outline of the Bent Pyramid, recently reopened to visitors for the first time in more than 50 years, hints at another "oops" moment for the ancient engineers.

After two nights at the Marriot Mena House Cairo, with startling views of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, we fly to Aswan to start our four-night river cruise. Cruising the Nile, with Egyptologists as guides, is the real strength of a journey aboard the recently refurbished, 32-cabin Sanctuary Nile Adventurer. Reaching across Egypt like a bony arm, the Nile flows northward from the mountains of Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea, the lifeblood upon which ancient empires thrived.

Under a scalding sky we visit Karnak Temple, with its forest of pillars, while at Kom Ombo we step straight from the ship into the twin temples of the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus. New delights abound, from arteacts that have been based overseas now being returned to Egypt's museums, to the city of Luxor, ready to shine again as it prepares for the opera Aida to be held in Hatshepsut's temple.

Yet, the thrill of a Nile River cruise isn't the things you see, but the things you feel. The romance of a night spent at the Old Cataract Aswan, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. The mysteries, such as Queen Nefertiti, whose mummified remains still lead archaeologists on a merry dance in the Valley of the Kings. And the chance of discovery. I'm close enough to the coffins to see the detail of the hieroglyphics, the grain in the timber, even the gleam in the painted ebony eyes. Past and present collide as a desert breeze swirls, sending nanoparticles of ancient dust into the air. I breathe deep, letting it become a part of my very being.

To the teams working these sites, such discoveries provide valuable information about how the ancient Egyptians lived and died. To this star-struck traveller, it's the catalyst to return. Not even a Hollywood producer could anticipate the mysteries yet to be unearthed.

FIVE OTHER NILE HIGHLIGHTS

KOM OMBO CROCODILE MUSEUM

If the Kom Ombo complex is one of the most beautiful temples, then the adjacent crocodile museum, home to more than 20 mummified crocodiles, is one of the strangest.

VALLEY OF THE KINGS

While the tomb of Tutankhamun is the most famous, other notables include Rameses III, IV, V and IX.

COLOSSUS OF MEMNON

Two impressive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III located near Luxor. Known in ancient Greek times for their haunting "voices" at dawn.

TEMPLE OF KARNAK

Considered the world's largest religious building, the complex was constructed over a span of 2000 years (2055BC to AD100).

PHILAE TEMPLE ON AGILKIA ISLAND

Built to honour the goddess Isis, Philae can be reached only by small boat.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/egypt

egypt.travel

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Cairo, Egypt, via Dubai. See emirates.com

TOUR

The 11-day Wonders of Ancient Egypt tour, from Cairo to Abel Simbel, includes Egyptologist guide, a four-night Nile cruise on Sanctuary Nile Adventurer, regional flights, luxury hotels, private vehicle and driver, numerous meals, day tours and entrance fees. From $5750 a person, twin share. See benchafrica.com; sanctuaryretreats.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Bench Africa and Sanctuary Retreats.

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