Friday, 26 August 2011

... Egypt: "Hey Mr. Spielberg, I've Got A Script For You"

By midday today I had been 2000ft in the air, landed in a field in a pile of poo, ridden a donkey that I nicknamed Mustafa just because, visited a temple of the female Pharaoh Hetshepsut, walked past Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings and passed more than one comment at the state of dress of some tourists (namely Eastern Europeans... Yes I shall name & shame!) who seem to think that Daisy Dukes & wife beater shirts are acceptable in a). A sacred place and b). A Muslim Country especially during Ramadan.

Despite an incident involving crashing into a cell phone tower in 2009, hot air ballooning remains an extremely popular activity here in Luxor specifically to see the sun rise over the ancient monuments of the West Bank and the mountains. This might be the only explanation I can offer as to why on earth I was up at 345am to do this seeing as I am acrophobic (and some of us were half way across the world enjoying the sunset). Despite downing two coffees between the hotel, crossing the Nile and the launch site I don't think it really hit me until I was in this huge basket with at least 18 others rising into the sky whilst a bunch of men below began praying loudly. That had the same effect on me as when people start clapping after a plane safely lands. I racked my brain trying to work out if I had watched any "MayDay: Hot Air Balloon Disaster" episodes recently.

I strategically picked my spot as far away from the burner as possible because I am quite fond of my eyebrows. The heat that thing gives off is pretty intense... So at least it'll be cremation then when I fall to my death. I was actually doing pretty well: able to get some great shots with all my cameras, particularly of the sun rise, without too much hand shaking. The sun rising on the horizon was pretty fantastic to watch that's for sure.

I think it was when we went so high that I could hear the wind whistling and every other balloon bar ours was much lower that I lost my nerve just a little. Still the scenery as you can probably imagine was amazing and quite literally breathe taking.

When we began to lose altitude about 25 minutes into our flight I think the vast majority of us expected it to be the end but we continued eastwards crossing the Nile. Hmmm ok, may be we'll do a loop and turn around? Despite the rather ungodly hour the was a bustle of activity below us. It is kind of funny looking down and seeing people sleeping on their roofless top floor with their chickens. Lots of people came out to see what was going on and waved at us all enthusiastically before snapping shots with their cell phone... Whilst they may live in mud brick roofless houses priorities appear to lie elsewhere. It really was very peaceful gliding through the sky and despite my initial (& usual) fears I didn't really want to come down just yet. But alas.... "resume the landing position" barked the pilot. "No! not yet. NOW!" Of course as I predicted, half the people hadn't been listening to his explanation at the start so faced the wrong way. Then again that had been "normally we have a safety briefing but we have no time. So we will just tell you the important things, this is the landing position." Oh dear God help us.

I don't think I have ever filled in a comment card for the "best bit about this trip" with "where we landed in a field in a pile of poo". Well now I have. They made it sound like they do it all the time landing in fields in the middle of no where. Hmmm, may be explain why a rather angry looking farmer trying to plough that very same field looked mightily bewildered and sounded a tad pissed off. Or why we were surrounded by adults & kids as though we were something strange and new. Because of the obvious disdain of at least the farmer we briefly rose again and went over to the next field to re-land. Surely it was comedic timing that caused one of the ground crew solemnly exclaimed upon our second landing "Happy Landing." I don't think I have laughed so hard... But then the pilot announced that "the balloon will die now" as it was deflated & quickly folded away. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

We'd travelled quite some distance from where we originally started from and so were driven back to the dock on the West Bank. This was where I was to meet my next mode of transportation that would take me to the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut.....

I have now seen a male donkey try to mate with another male donkey. And it wasn't satisfied with trying just the one. Let's just say I now have a whole new meaning to the phrase "donkey kong". What has been seen cannot be unseen. Thanks heavens I wasn't riding that donkey - Mustafa for most part was pretty placid and riding a donkey through the fertile green Egyptian countryside past Ramses II memorial temple, the Ramesseum, a wonderful way of getting to the temple.

The most famous of Egypt's female Pharaohs is Hatshepsut. She took over when her husband and half-brother died and she managed to get rid of the half-son. Oh yes, they tended to keep things in the family... Kind of like a certain modern Royal family? *cough* Deir al-Bahri lies at the foot of some rugged cliffs and incorporates her memorial temple. It is almost modern looking with it's design and lines yet is obviously several thousands of years old. Continuous excavation and restoration since the late 1800's has revealed a stunning monument and one can only imagine how much more stunning it was back then.

Over the centuries the temple was vandalized: One of the primary culprits was Hatshepsut's half-son Tuthmosis III, whom I guess she didn't do that good a job of making disappear. He removed her name wherever he could. There are some gorgeous reliefs in the middle terrace and then the Hathor Chapel was well worth a visit. Of note are the statues of what appears to be a male pharaoh with very feminine facial features.

The heat here however was extreme despite it barely being 9am and I felt my skin was still sizzling despite having slapped on some factor 50.

"KV 62" is probably the most famous tomb so far discovered within the Valley of the Kings. Howard Carter slaved away for six seasons and on November 22nd 1922 discovered the first step to the tomb of Tutankhamun. The rest, as they say, is history However, despite the treasures found within an already twice-robbed tomb, it is said to be one of the least impressive tombs and so I figured not worth the extra fee. Your regular ticket enables you to visit 3 tombs and unfortunately no cameras are allowed.

The tomb of Ramses IV contains a beautiful red granite sarcophagus said to be one of the biggest in the valley. The mummy is in the Royal Mummy Room of the Egyptian Museum In Cairo. The paintings have deteriorated in places but there is the most beautiful image of the goddess Nut stretched across the ceiling. The blue colour here is amazing.

Opposite the tomb of Ramses II is the most visited tomb. The tomb of Ramses IX has some fantastic drawings including animals, serpents and demons from the Book of The Dead, the Book of Amduat, the Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth. On the ceiling the Book of the Heavens is represented. The tomb is relatively well preserved and was well worth the visit.

One of the longest tombs in the valley is that of Ramses III, the last of the warrior Pharaohs. His mummy, the model for the 1930s film "The Mummy", is also in the Egyptian Museum. The tomb, 125m long, is beautifully decorated with lots of very colourful reliefs. In the chamber beyond is an aborted tunnel where the ancient builders ran into a neighboring tomb so the axis was shifted to the west. The remainder of the tomb however is only partially excavated.

"Tomb raiding" three tombs in this heat was just right and I believe I picked three of the best. Eight hours after leaving the hotel it was time to head back to Luxor for some well deserved lunch and to rehydrate before adventures from a final night in Egypt.

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