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Doing It By Donkey

With images from the films The Mummy Returns and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider still fresh in my mind, I willingly accepted the contract to lead an Egyptian tour for adventure travel specialists, Explore Worldwide. Few need reminding of Egypt’s key attractions – Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel but as well as taking in these highlights, this tour also went to little- visited Middle Egypt. As a tour leader you are responsible for everything – organising accommodation, transport, meals, guides and even guiding yourself in some places; and then on top you have all the tour administration. Not for the faint hearted – but you do get to some interesting places! Meeting my group at Cairo airport, I give them an idea of what to expect. The constant honking of horns and traffic chaos reminds me to mention: “Egyptian roads do have markings and signs, but they’re for decoration.” Seeing the worry on some people’s faces, I added: “So the best way to enjoy your holiday, is simply to sit back and relax. I’ll do the worrying!” The first day of a tour is always stressful, for the heightened security and constant trinket seller’s hassling are daunting. However, when we reach the Pyramids, the group settles down after a camel-mounted policeman welcomed them to Egypt. Even the hassling became amusing when a trader asked a male member of the tour: “You want something for your wife, mister?” “She’s not my wife,” came the embarrassed reply. “OK, for your mistress then?” Leaving the smog and chaos of Cairo behind, we travel to Luxor. Here, as well as seeing the ancient city Thebes, we visit the Valley of the Kings in the time-honoured fashion of the ancients – by donkey, which somewhat dampens my ‘Lara Croft’ image. I have to give the group a quick lesson on donkey riding. ‘It’s really very easy,’ I say. (They look at me unconvinced). “Gently pull on the left rein and they turn left. Pull on the right and they go right. Pull both reins, and they stop! Say ‘Yella’ to go faster and ‘Hoosh’ to slow down. Oh, and for those who have never ridden before, don’t try to take pictures when riding as you may lose your balance!” After the group are allocated their donkeys, Tayeb, the donkey handler, gives me mine. ‘Yours is called Road Runner,” says Tayeb smirking as he hands me the reins. “As a tour leader I thought you’d want something lively.” Road Runner is a born leader but, despite my assurance to the group that donkeys are well trained, he refuses to respond to anything I do. I am totally at the mercy of an animal that is rapidly taking on the persona of its namesake.

“Er, ‘scuse me! Coming through!’ I yell as the animal barges out of control past yet another member of my group. The road is lined with the usual papyrus and alabaster shops, and buses full of bemused tourists drive past, watching my saddle-sore group bounce up and down. “We are doing this in the way the ancients did,” I keep on saying, hoping my words will settle them. “But I was born in the twentieth century,” was all I got back. Leaving the road and the trappings of tourism behind, we begin our trek up the side of the Valley and we are suddenly transported back in time as we rely on the sure-footed donkeys to pick out the easiest route to the top. The view from the summit is classic Egyptian: the greenery at the edge of the Nile in stark contrast to the surrounding barren desert landscape, and up there you can clearly see the spectacular terraces and impressive ramps of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s Temple. Truly magnificent! And Egypt is full of many such sights. For me, the highlight was visiting Dendera along the Nile Valley in Middle Egypt. Because few people can get here independently, the site was almost empty and the nearby town is relatively untouched by tourism. Dedicated to the Goddess Hathor, it is one of the best-preserved Egyptian temples with everything inside the enclosure wall evoking a divine presence. You feel like a real adventurer as you enter the great roofed building with its towering Hathor-headed columns and great astronomical ceiling. Dark hieroglyphed passageways and hidden crypts are waiting to be explored and the writing unravelled. The attention to detail is meticulous and as you examine the ancient rituals described on the inner temple’s walls, for a moment, you are transported back in time and your imagination runs riot.

Lara Croft, eat your heart out!

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