Cairo was in a terrible state. In the two weeks leading up to our departure for one of the worlds great ancient cities, riots, shootings, sabotage and looting had been tearing it to pieces. The ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi had resulted in massive street protests, which developed into the nearest thing Egypt had seen to a civil war since the Arab Spring fueled by weapons and Islamic jihadists pouring over the border from Syria to support the cause. Dropping into this extremely hostile environment for a little holiday would be most peoples idea of absolute insanity, but we had our tickets booked, and there was no way this stingy Yorkshire man was going to waste a penny of the three hundred odd quid I’d laid out to some airline to not take me somewhere. Besides, we figured the spiralling volatility of the situation would provide us with a decent distraction for when we had to tackle the task at hand.
When you see civil disorder on the news, you can usually assume the reality is better than it looks on TV. All the broadcasters tend to flock to the worst affected areas and get the tightest shots possible to portray the maximum amount of drama in the footage they have to sell to the news wire, so you end up with a pretty distorted picture of reality.
While the riots and shooting had tapered off a bit, there was no exaggerating the weight of the military presence around the city. Road blocks every 3 or 4 miles, and tanks and tanks and tanks everywhere.
Due to the dusk till dawn military enforced curfew laid on by the government, the mate of ours we’d linked with figured staying around Cairo wouldn’t be much fun, so we hit the road north for a bit to hang with a few of his friends and mess about on the beach.
The endless road blocks grew extremely tiresome but we learned to deal with them with boss-like efficiency. The soldiers were naturally very suspicious of a well dressed Egyptian carrying two unmarried white people, and when they found out we were English all sorts of messy questions started landing. The English were treated with a great deal of suspicion because of the initial political support issued by Downing Street to the loathed yet Democratically instated Muslim Brotherhood so we had to start acting Australian until our passports were asked for (my Australian accent isn’t very good, but if you can find me an Egyptian soldier than can tell the difference between ‘Ey up’ and ‘G’day moyte’ then I’ll buy you a beer of your choosing).
In contrast to the Nile region, the Mediterranean Coast was super chill. We whiled away the next couple of days on private beaches swimming in the sea and eating beach snacks with a truck load of bikini clad lovelies from Egyptian high society. I’m not normally very good at beach days (I get bored quick) but compared the stinking arsehole of Cairo, this was the absolute tits.
Our man on the ground showed us a wicked time up here, although it felt more like California than the middle east. ‘This isn’t usual Egyptian life’, he later told us. ‘Maybe five if ten percent live like this, the rest, like you see in Cairo is much more common.
On our return to the capital, things seemed to have gotten worse. The curfew was still in force and the rioting had gotten more intense, and due to all this curfuffle the pyramid compound was closed to all tourists until further notice which well and truly sunk our initial plans of sneaking in during opening hours and hiding out till midnight. The next obvious thing to try was jibbing the fence just before curfew and pulling the same stunt once inside, so we went for a walk to try and spot a decent way in.
The pyramid compound is surrounded by a 6 foot concrete wall and a 15 foot chain link fence which separates it from the slums and shacks that flanks its east side. Our guess was that there must be some busted part of the chain link in a CCTV blind spot, especially so close to the shanty town as those kids pushing all the tat thats sold to the thousands of tourists that go to the pyramids every day certainly aren’t paying the full entrance fee. Our suspicions were confirmed after a ten minute walk and we found a decent hole in the chain link behind a donkey shed in a back ally.
We strolled back to the hotel to chow down some ‘Chicken Pain’ (god knows what got lost in translation there) and waited for 6.30pm, thirty minutes before curfew came into effect.
Just getting back to that fence hole was more of a pain in the arse that I’d given credit for. As soon as we walked off the main drag and onto the back streets, we started getting followed. They weren’t out to rob us or do us in (although thats what I figured would happen when two unaccompanied patsy white kids with nice looking backpacks started wandering though back allys in the slums of Giza), they were just pranging out over why onearth we were there in the first place and what we could possibly be up to, scared both for our safety and theirs if anything happened to us.
During the riots, pretty much every major police station in Cairo had been firebombed resulting in a total absence of law enforcement bar the military. Once the shops had closed and the evening prayer had been sang, the sun dropping below the horizon signaled to everyone in Cairo who had anything to loose to lock the fuck down. In these dark hours, old scores were settled, murders happened in the streets, people were robbed, shops were looted and the military shot who they wanted. Think Mega City One, with camels. It’s no wonder these people were petrified by anything out of the ordinary.
It took us a long time for us to shake off the tails and the people who kept approaching us to ask us what we were doing and we ended up totally lost in the slums. With the help of an eleven year old boy who was given leave by his father to get us the hell away from anything to do with his family and take us where we liked, we got back from where ever it was we were to the fence line and strolled back to the hole we’d found previously.
With no one about, we quickly hopped up, went through the hole and laid low behind a rock on the other side of the wall. It wasn’t the best cover, but we figured it would do until dark and we weren’t really expecting anyone to be looking for us. I was a bit worried, as despite the fact we were now off the street and not in contravention of the curfew, word has it that the business end of an AK47 doesn’t deal with ‘technicalities’ and we were laying flat in the same sort of hole scorpions and their ilk like to inhabit, but we were here now, and theres no sense in worrying about something you can’t do anything about. Climbing the those massive brick toblerone misshapes was a statistical inevitability.
We’d must have been there for less that fifteen minutes when a middle aged bearded Gizan with no teeth popped up at the chain link. Fucking fuck. We just stayed as still as we could. The sun had only *just* gone over the horizon and there were still plenty of ambient light, so it was hardly surprising when he saw us after ten seconds scanning the sand.
Wow, the man could shout, and Arabic is such a terrifying language to be told off in. When those long rounded syllables get cut off by those back-of-the-throat Khh sounds you know you’re in for serious trouble. The only word in Arabic I know is ‘La’ (No) and ‘ShehKira’ (Thank you) and he wasn’t saying either of those things, so most likely it was ‘COME HERE RIGHT NOW’ or something of similar nature.
We both followed the imaginary translations in our head to the letter and pulled up onto the wall and stepped through the hole in the chain link. As soon as Lucinda had stepped though the hole, Mr Beardy grabbed her by the arm. I was quick to follow and tried to get him off.
Following a stupid tug of war on the foot wide ledge, we must have simultaneously decided this was best settled on the ground, and one by one climbed down with everyone watching everyone else with fear, anger and a ruthless suspicion. What I’d also failed to notice was that beardy had two mates with him. Some fat bastard hard-as-fuck looking wide boy in a red t-shirt and a scrawny dude with a funny eye in pyjamas.
I tried to explain to this welcome party that we’d been chased into the slums by some robbers and we’d jumped over the fence to hide, but I might as well have said ‘two dozen grasshoppers thank you, baboon bulldozer upside-down cake’ as not one of them spoke a word of the queens. An ‘OKOK no Problem, goodbye, No problem’ sort of mantra came pretty quickly and pulled my comrade along with me along the road to our exit.
As soon as they figured we were trying to do one, more shouting happened and two of them produced long, thick wooden clubs and held them up to my face.
Oh fuckerdy do. We were about to get murdered.
There’s only one thing you can really do in a pickle like this, and its to make a lot of noise. My rationale was that the more women and children we could get out of the houses with a bit of a commotion, the less likely we were going to have our bludgeoned bodies dumped in the Nile before sunrise. I started shouting all sorts of shit, and boy did it work. Within 20 seconds we had about 30 villagers all stood round us wanting to know what the hell was going on in. Just goes to show that it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Yorkshire dales or in the slums of Cairo, fuss in the village is always top draw.
Thankfully, one kid came through the crowds and asked us, in english, where on earth we were from and what on what on earth we thought we were doing. I recited the ‘stupid white man get chase’ story in my best Australian accent, and I don’t think he bought a word of it.
“Open your bags, Open your bags!” Came the next shout. We knelt down and opened them.
I don’t know if they thought we had weapons or if we were on the rob or what, but we had no choice but to oblige. Lucinda went first and showed them the contents, but that wasn’t good enough.
“All Out!, All Out!”
First to emerge was a nice wide-angle lens, which the lad past to a woman in the circle of villagers that were now surrounding us. Then a purse with some cash and a passport in it, that went to an old man.
We were both thinking the same thing:
‘We’re never going to see any of this shit again are we?’
Then came a tripod of which a young lad of about 11 was the lucky benefactor, then a nice pro Nikon SLR body… you get the idea. All of our fancy western shit was being passed around a group of people who had comparatively very very little, and with their prime source of income, i.e. – tourism, completely gone after all the recent trouble, I was totally expecting them to want to keep of these things to al-ebay at the soonest possible opportunity. They’d have been well within their rights to as well, and while I was happy we weren’t going to get murdered anymore, I felt like an absolute pillock.
The tide turned when a young boy who’d just scored a lens held it out after the rucksack was empty. I took it, and then everything else started to come back. The money, the passport, the camera gear, the lot. I couldn’t believe it. It might have been the fact there were so many people there that saved us. No one wants to look like a pikey in front of their neighbours, and so once my bag had been inspected, the kid instructed us to get up.
“Where your hotel?”
I told him.
“OkOk, follow me please quickly please”.
He led us away from the chattering crowd and down a few more alleys to the main street where he left us.
“You could be in big trouble if you do this again” he said. “Do not come here after dark any more. It is bad time”
I was in such a mood that night, coming all the way to Egypt to do one thing and it turning out to be impossible. I was honestly thinking about trying the same stunt again the next day but the Fox (quite sensibly) was having none of it. We watched the sun go down and resigned ourselves to looking at the markets and doing normal things if the riots weren’t on.
We awoke the next day to a pleasant surprise. The wronguns causing all the havoc down town must have had a night off and they’d decided to open the pyramids to tourists, and without a second thought we threw all the stuff we’d need for 24 hours away from base into our bags and shot straight out the door.
The civil unrest meant that the thousands of tourists and hustlers that usually reside around the pyramids and get in the way of everything and wind you up were totally absent, and it felt much more like the magnificent wonder of the world it should have been and not another money spinning tourist attraction in the heart of a third world concrete jungle.
All the photos in the world don’t really prepare you for how massive these things are, and you can’t really appreciate it until you get up close. They’re bloody HUGE. No wonder no ones managed to figure out how they built them.
Once we’d had our fill of the site, we scuttled off behind the back of a soldier and found a decent hidey hole in a nobleman’s tomb which offered us an excellent place to chill and watch the sunset on the pyramids while we waited for dark.
11 hours had past before we decided to make the dash. In between sleeping, regaling pretty much every decent adventure story we had and playing eye-spy with different shaped rocks we’d been timing the rounds of the army jeep patrols and were pretty sure that we’d have a good 50 minutes to top it when we went for it.
Once we left our hole, we were on the first blocks in a matter of minutes, quickly making the ascent to the mid section. The blocks start as big as mini-coopers but once you get about a third of the way they get smaller and smaller until they’re only about two foot high. They’re also properly knackered, bearing the scars of three and a half thousands years of war, looting, erosion and the odd sweaty trainer of people like myself who fancy getting up there for kicks. Even though it was the middle of the night, the heat was still intense and we were both dripping with sweat after a few minutes of climbing.
The top of the pyramid used to be a gleaming cap of solid marble that extended the height of the thing by another 12 meters or so. After it got twoced by the Ottomans to build another palace, the thing left in its place is a rather convenient flat slab which you can sit down and chill out on. We did a bit of a silly ‘one.. two.. three..’ and touched the summit at the same time once we got to the top and felt rather pleased with ourselves.
We stayed at the top for a good few hours taking photos, reading the ancient graffiti carved into the top stones and absorbing our surroundings.
Cairo had gotten lairy again, and we could hear the sirens, gun shots and god knows what else that was kicking off on the horizon. Weirdly, being here, on top of the most visible thing in the whole city was probably the safest place to be.
We’d had our fill. It would be dawn in a few hours and climbing down in the light would have been a stupid idea. People have been caught trying this before, and we’d heard stories of everything from quick $100 bribes to two weeks hard labour in the camel stables. I certainly didn’t fancy the latter, and with this credit crunch even that bribe sounded a bit too hefty.
The descent was rapid and we were down in no-time, just making it back to our sand-camp before another jeep did his rounds. I went to sleep dreaming of awesomeness.
Just over 24 hours earlier I’d almost given up hope, that this trip all the way to the heart of Egypt in one of the most turbulent times in recent memory was going to be a failure. We’d gone from hanging out with the rich kids on paradise beaches to being brought to our knees by a swarm of furious villagers armed with clubs, and now we were lying in the dirt waiting for dawn after climbing the only remaining wonder of the world.
Our exit strategy was as simple as it was naive. The pyramids were now open, so we thought we could change our t-shirts, have a bit of a wash with the remaining water and hop out to blend seamlessly in with the other tourists before ambling out the front gate. The sight of one of those Bedouin camel herders riding along looking for punters to snare signalled to us that the place had opened, so we hopped out of our hole and walked straight towards the other pyramid, taking a few photos and looking like tourists.
“Hey…. Hey Mister!”
I looked around. Cantering towards me on an absolute beast of a camel was a teenager in a fake Man-United tshirt.
“You sleep here?” He asked as he pulled up to us.
“Errr, no..” I replied with as much confusion as I could muster. “There is nowhere to sleep here!”
“Then how you get in? It’s closed!”
Bollocks. I went into stupid white person mode again and cooked up my finest ‘we got sold some tickets by a man and came in a side door’ story. The kid looked puzzled. I think he was gearing up to ask another question, when a rather urgent sounding whistle pierced the air. The owner of said whistle, who was sat on a military motor bike about 60 yards away, looked like a man who wanted some answers.
We walked over to the soldier with the kid still there in the background sat on his camel, probably hoping to observe a bit of a scene to brighten up his morning. This wasn’t the first time I’d brought bullshit to a gun fight, but I honestly wasn’t sure how we were going to talk our way out of this one. The pyramid compound was extremely well guarded, and any notion that we could have ‘come in a side door’ would have been laughed straight out the park.
“TICKET.” Barked the soldier, followed by something in Arabic. I handed him yesterdays tickets (which probably said the previous days date in arabic in block capital letters on it) and he handed them back after looking at them for about 5 seconds. He shook his head, got on his walkie talkie, and started going off-on-one to some other dude in his unit.
The kid then popped back into frame, and was tottering towards us on foot pulling his camel behind him.
“Hey Mister!” (they never acknowledge the presence of women anywhere here)
“Come here, come here”
His voice lowered.. “Big trouble.” He brought his wrists together in that internationally understood symbol for ‘Handcuffs, motherfucker’.
“It’s ok. Don’t worry” he continued, “You know how?” he asked and pointed to the camel.
I’ve ridden horses and elephants, so I figured some combination of the rough techniques I’d picked up along the way would have served me OK, but I wasn’t really expecting how quick he was going to start it off. WHOOMPH! The camel knelt up with me on it. The kid got on another camel with Luce, and a stern looking moutached man in a green Bedoin desert suit, Atlanta Braves cap and massive sunglasses climbed up on mine and sat in front of me grabbing the reins.
Off we went. Fast.
The soldier realised what was happening started shouting, both at us and into his walkie-talkie but it was no good. Our escape party was making off across the soft sands of the northern sahara, and you’re not going to be following anybody over that if all you have is a motorbike.
Anyway, once the soldier was out of sight, I broached the subject of payment. It’s usually best practise when dealing with folks like this to negotiate price upfront, but the nature of our rapid departure sort of meant we’d had to skip that formality.
“How much?” I asked.
“It’s OK my friend, its good price, good price.”
“No, How much?” I asked again.
“How much you want pay?” Said the man.
I thought ten quid a piece would be fair cop and I expected to be driven up, so I started the bargaining at an honest fiver.
“50 Egyptian” I said
He just chuckled. “No no no, my friend, my friend. Think about me, my son, and something for the camel. This is too low.”
“How much then?” I repeated.
Now, I don’t know the price of a getaway camel, but I can tell you now, it sure as shite ain’t 45 quid a go. The fact that this man could have dropped me off in the middle of the desert or simply turned back round and dumped me at the feet of the Egyptian army didn’t really come into it. I hate getting swizzed, so I went in hard, haggling like an east end market trader whilst we continued our rapid escape across the desert flanked by more ancient pyramids.
He got a bit sick of me eventually and brought the camel to a halt, trying to show me who was boss by deliberately putting distance between me and what he presumed must have been my beloved wife on the camel ahead. I wasn’t having this.
“Look”, he said. “We’re men here. We do the business here.”
“I cannot take less than 300 Egyptian”.
I had a brain wave at this point. While most normal people would have just paid the man and thanked their lucky stars they weren’t in the back of a van being carted off to a military prison, I started to explain in my best bullshitology to this camel riding chancer about the exchange rates.
The Egyptian Pound was in a a right state thanks to all the recent civil disorder, and if I’d have paid him in Egyptian today, the next day it would be worth even less. Conversely, I told him, if I pay you in Sterling, all you have to do is wait a few days and it’ll be worth more.
I waved a crisp 20 about a bit, and miraculously, he bought it. He signaled to the kid who was on the camel with Lucinda to continue, and we got dropped off by a side door at the camel stables. The walk/jog back to the hotel was rapid.
The owner greeted us at reception when we came in.
“Hello!! Where did you go last night, we were very worried about you!!”
The poor man looked so relived that he didn’t have a pair of kidnapped guests on his hands, and we told him we stayed at a friends and left it too late to come home after curfew, and skulked off to our beds for some proper sleep.
Job done, top lel.
Cheers to The Fox for another good trip.