A Wander to Aswan
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
Written by Michelle Rorich
I wish you could have been here with us. Wish you were with us to hear the palm fronds whispering in the wind as we cycled on donkey paths along small canals near the Nile. I wish you were here to see the kindness shining in the eyes of the strangers who took our hands and invited us into their homes. I wish you had also wandered through Egyptian cities at night, feeling safe as can be and enjoying the aromas of the fresh pastries and breads. I hope that you will be lucky enough to experience these things one day. For now, I will do my best to share with you the marvels we have enjoyed.
From the Red Sea to the Nile
Today we rise before the sun, as so many Egyptians do for their first prayer of the day. Our hearts and spirits are full - warm hospitality, sea air and good homemade Italian pizza tend to affect one this way. We watch as the full, deep orange sun rises over the calm silver-turquoise sea - a celebration of a new day and new stretch of our journey.
We are pleased to have a still morning: this spot has been picked out as a kite surfing destination with 270 days of strong North wind a year and we have a 10km ride up North to the point where the road goes East to the Nile. Happily, we make it to our turn-off just as the wind picks up. We cycle 200m down the road before we are stopped at a police checkpoint. The effort by the Egyptian government to ensure ‘gold Standard’ security for their tourists unfortunately means that we cannot cycle on the road through the Sahara to the Nile. We pass 6 hours alternating between trying to make friendly conversation with the police and trying to convince them to let us cycle or at least hitch a ride. None of us are able to stop ourselves from losing our bananas just a little with the man telling us it was impossible.
A sympathetic travel agent eventually makes our day when he takes us to his office a little way down the road and stops a bakkie with a trio of travelers on their way to the same town as us. Without any hesitation they tell us to load on our bicycles and off we go into the Sahara on a blue painted bakkie with hearts cut out of the wooden railing. We enjoy watching the magnificent desert unfold behind us until we are sure we have passed all police checkpoints.
Then with the few Arabic words we have learnt and the help of Google translate, we ask the driver to drop us 45km short of Qena on the Nile and set up camp in the desert.
An extraordinary experience spending the night in this beautifully desolate place with all the comfort we need: water, food, warm beds and good company.
Qena and down South
We leave camp as the great sun peeps over the folds of desert earth that have sheltered us for the night. A quick stop for a hearty breakfast at a falafel and fool stand on the outskirts of Qena - one of the early signs of life as we near the Nile. Getting closer to the mass of water that has given life throughout the ages, we enjoy the sound of bird song - amplified by the contrast with the quiet desert and number that are concentrated in this small area. We have a new appreciation of the abundant life here: Cycling South along the agricultural road, there are trees planted on either side which are pruned into arches above our heads. Bougainvillea - pink, white and deep purple - fill the gaps between these trees. The abundant produce of this fertile land also decorates the roadside. Giant squashes and bright red tomatoes and yellow bananas, dates and so much more. The people on this road are full of life too. Young boys, playing their pop music and driving their tuk tuks fast alongside us - slowing down just enough for us to catch an ‘esmak ay?!’ ‘what is your name?’!. People in white galabias swing their legs as they ride their donkeys, their carts piled high with all kinds of fresh things. Hellos, waves and bigs smiles from children playing nearby light up our faces. A few old Peugeot sedans with roof racks for luggage make their way down this road too. Each on their own journey. I wonder what stories they have to tell. We arrive in Luxor after dark, hungry and tired. Nice and hungry and tired. We find a place to spend the night and a big plate of kushari for dinner.
We head to the home of Ashraf and his family which a friend of his had recommended for us to stay and organized that we pay next to nothing to camp in his garden. This place is an absolute treasure - a haven - complete with a fruit orchard and big herb and onion gardens. Ashraf, his wife and daughter and his mom and dad live here together. Their home is situated only a few meters from the impressive Colossi of Memnon, a statue of an ancient pharaoh that has tourists mesmerized at its base all day.
While we sip mint tea in the family’s homely outdoor eating area, Ashraf’s dad tells us about the incredible feat it took to lift these heavy statues to their feet. He is surprised that we haven’t done our reading on the Pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings but is more than willing to tell us about who ruled after who and which one stole stones from the other to build his own tomb.
We are spoilt with a visit to some of these tombs the following day. They are set deep in the sandy rock of dry the valley and decorated with colourful hieroglyphics. We pay the local Egyptian price, as did the Nigerians we met in one of the tombs: a 10th of the ordinary tourist price.
Ashraf’s dad explained to us that the tombs are on this side of the bank as it is where the sun dies. It hardly feels like the side of the dead when you are near the bank of the Nile. There are banana plantations, mango groves and bright green onion patches. Ashraf works with some of these farmers as an agricultural consultant. He tells us this as we walk through his garden, stopping every so often as he hands us a date, a crab apple or leafy herb to nibble on.
Happy to be in Ashraf’s garden
He proudly tells of work he does free of charge for subsistence farmers who cannot pay. We are lucky enough to visit one of these farms the following day.
We bring our cameras, eager to capture what Ashraf and his relative, who both give so much to others in their community, have to say about what makes a good life. This is what we learn from them: Part of living well certainly entails being able to give. It is important that each person has a role in their community - is able to contribute in someway. Religion matters a lot in the daily lives of these men and their families. It doesn’t matter which religion they tell us. It is the same God. They speak about all that can be done to improve the lives of Egyptians. A stable currency, reduction in inequality, ease of access to land and capital to start a business and the ability to produce all the country needs without relying on others for imports. It is clear to them that the missing ingredient to allowing this good change is the good hearts of the people in power. That, and the time taken to properly understand the needs of the community before putting policies in place. They have experienced the hurt of well intended initiatives that fail to do this. Do either of them want to go into politics with their big hearts and deep understanding of the country’s issues, we ask? Not a chance.
This whole experience on the farm was a sure highlight of the day for Jess and I - walking around the small garden as Ashraf explains the pleasure that growing plants brings to him. Such a beautiful thing to be able to bring forth green life and sustenance for a family from the soil. This is why, Ashraf says, every person living in a city eventually wants to return to this rural life, caring for family and field in a quiet space.
Chewing on some good food for thought as the sky darkens above us, we cross over to East bank. Today we had seen so much. The colourful market full of women warmly greeting and buying and selling fresh food, homemade cheese by the ladle from big buckets and other household goods. Tutankhamen’s gold Sarcophagus and his mummified 18 year old body. The wisdom from Ashraf and his relative.
We are on our way to the East side for mass. After meeting Angus, the father at the We are on our way to the East side for mass. After meeting Angus, the father at the Franciscan church had offered to do a private English mass for us. Greeting us in Zulu and speaking about the wonderful Afrikaans family he had lived with many years ago in Johannesburg, he tells each of us that God is here to support us. After mass, he phones their sister church in Aswan to ask for accommodation for us when we arrive there and explains to us how we can ‘crook’ the police by avoiding the checkpoint on the way out of Luxor. We spend our last night with Ashraf’s family enjoying the meal they prepared for us in their open kitchen where Jess and I had been taught to make a good Egyptian salad with garden produce the day before. We slept well in the orchard as the crickets sung around us.
Luxor to Aswan Life has already begun for the families living alongside the canal running South from Luxor as we cycle on the donkey path parallel to the Nile. Groups of women and children sit outside with their morning meals. Men are on their way to town with their donkeys. The well-fed chickens and cattle notice us pass. We have a long day planned out for ourselves and make good distance before falafel sandwiches in Isna. 20km further and we are escorted across the Nile to the wider agricultural road. It is almost night fall as we reach the Eastern side and as the palms sway in the pink sky in front of us, we make a call to find somewhere to camp. We approach a farmer, finishing his weeding for the day and try to repeat the magic Arabic words that Heba had taught us. ‘May we please sleep on his land in our tents’?. ‘Mamfadalik mumkin nene hena kheima?’ Without hesitation, he replies ‘Mesh’. ‘Yes’.
And so we wheel our bikes to the mango grove behind the field he is working in, watch the end of the sunset with him and another man who had accompanied us just to ensure we are completely safe. We eat beans and cheese in the company of a pretty white donkey tied to a nearby mango tree and fall fast asleep.We woke to what stands out as my favorite day in Egypt. With the wind at our backs we ride the short distance to Edfu where some people eating on the roadside invite us to join them for a meal. We eat and eat and then drink sweet chai and wash our hands overlooking the deep blue Nile.
Robbie knows well the Arabic that translates to an offer of food and soon we have stopped again with some men who lead us through the wonky roads in their village to their lovely home. Robbie and Angus fill up with cool water from the clay urns shaded by a tree outside their house and Jess and I are taken by the hand into what appears to be the women’s section of the home. A TV is showing the news in the background and lovely aromas begin to emerge from the kitchen. While the older women prepare food, 18 year old Aya takes us to visit her aunt’s home and get a good view of the Nile from the top of a hill. When we return, we are blown away by the tray of food waiting for us.
We are shown to where the men are sitting on benches that line the walls of their eating room. We sit on the floor at a low table and eat and eat as they join us for a few bites and then watch over us to ensure we’ve had enough before we are offered tea. In the room is the grandfather, lovingly balancing his granddaughter on his knee. There too are his 3 other grandchildren and number of his sons. All of them with enough time to spare to stop what they are doing and sit with strangers for a meal. They tell us how they do this for any travelers, no matter where they are from. We have some time after lunch to see the family birds that Aya loves so much and chat to her about her plans to become a nurse. A vocation she has chosen because it makes her happy to heal others. As we are saying our goodbyes and thank you very very much’s, we are offered money to take for our journey. With the sun low in the sky, 4 happy cyclists leave the road to find a campsite nearer to the Nile. The palm fronds of the tall date trees glow golden in the last rays of sun as the farmers leave their land on donkey carts for the night.
We try our magic words again and find ourselves sleeping near the house of the agricultural pump manager on the bank of the Nile. He makes us a fire and we cook fresh veggies for dinner and offer him some rooibos tea which he politely finishes. It is heavenly to sit near the warm blaze of the fire under the palms.
To Aswan In such a beautiful spot, with flame to heat water for Turkish coffee and a farmer who said we can ride his donkey, we take longer than normal to get going.
Again the wind is behind us and before we know it, we are sitting under the date trees, surrounded by wild rocket with cans of fool, bread and some spring onions that one of the policeman had picked for us from a nearby farm. We arrived in Aswan just in time to watch the sun set over the hills on the other side of the Nile, happy to be able to enjoy the moment with the knowledge that we have a place to sleep. I wish you had been here with us. I hope that this has allowed you to catch a glimpse of how wonderful this Egyptian region is.