Published by: John Alty on 8th Aug 2017 | View all blogs by John Alty

When I was sixteen I travelled from Hong Kong to Marseille on a French ship, the S.S. Vietnam. I was in economy class, up front in the anchor lockers – not luxurious by any means but full of fascinating people – including back-packers of all nationalities. Here’s a bit about Egypt:

“Hey John, listen up. We’re planning on taking a taxi from Port Suez to Cairo and then Giza, where the pyramids are, and then catching up with the ship again at Port Said. The French guy and the English school teacher, Elizabeth, are in. You want the fourth spot?”

“Sure, Peter. How much do you think it’ll cost?” I smelled adventure.

“There’s a guy on here who did it a couple of years ago and he said it cost about £20 for the taxi, so £5 each, we think. Apparently, it’s about 200 miles, so that’s a helluva deal. It means you don’t get to go through the Suez Canal, but I think that’s pretty boring unless you like sand. I think the Cairo Museum, the Pyramids and the Sphinx will be a lot more interesting”

“I’m in” I said, “thanks for asking me.” 

 The ship stayed overnight at Port Suez and we disembarked early in the morning to begin our journey. We’d been warned by the Purser that the ship would not wait for us if we failed to get to Port Said before the scheduled sailing time so we absolutely had to be there that evening by ten o’clock when the gangplanks would be rolled away. The taxi, the first in a line of several waiting at the port gate, looked as though it had seen better days and so did the driver but the price was right and off we went. 

At the Cairo Museum, we tagged onto the end of a guided tour led by a small Egyptian wearing a shabby three-piece suit and a red fez. I was spellbound as he talked about the discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamen, sealed since the time of the pharaohs three thousand years ago. 

“Imagine the thrill” said Elizabeth, “of being the first person to step into the tomb and discover all these amazing artefacts and then the burial chamber with the mummy itself. That was Howard Carter, a British Egyptologist. Lucky chap.”

We spent an hour or so following the tour guide, browsing the ancient antiquities and listening to his commentary. As we were leaving the museum the little professor hurried up to us, wringing his hands, asking if we’d enjoyed the tour. It was clear he was looking for payment so I gave him a quid and he seemed delighted.  

We had lunch in a small restaurant suggested by the taxi driver who drank several bottles of local beer with the shared koshari, a mixture of pasta, lentils and rice. On the way to Giza it was clear the driver was in a less than fit state to drive. He snoozed in his taxi whilst, in the sweltering afternoon heat, we took in the sights and smells of the desert. There was an aura of commercialism surrounding the site of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We were offered sand-baths, camel rides, donkey rides and all manner of clap trap as souvenirs. But this didn’t detract from the historical wonder and I’ll never regret making the trip. Standing in front of the Sphinx, so much more impressive, I thought, than the Pyramids, Elizabeth recited:

The sexual urge of the camel is greater than anyone thinks,

He gallops across the desert and tries to fuck the Sphinx.

But the Sphinx’s posterior orifice is blocked by the sands of the Nile,

This accounts for the hump on the camel and the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile.”

“One of my favourite little poems” she said, “rumoured to have been written by Somerset Maugham.”  

We lingered a little too long and the final leg of our journey to meet the ship at Port Said had an element of desperate hurry about it. The driver had slept in his taxi while we enjoyed the sights but, even so, we weren’t convinced he’d sobered up enough to tackle the long road through the desert and we proposed that Peter should drive, an arrangement the driver accepted without complaint. Crossing the desert to Port Said as night fell was a tedious and dangerous part of the journey even with the excellent driving skills of the Canadian. The Egyptian snored away unconcerned in the back seat, wedged between me and the Frenchman, Gregory, as we dodged trucks and donkey carts and camels, careful not to plunge into the soft sand on the side of the main road. 

At the port entrance the driver, fully awake now, got permission to drive us right to the ship because it was getting ready for departure. We paid the agreed fee and set off towards the gangplank but I could tell he wasn’t happy. He was complaining loudly to the Egyptian officials who were checking our passports before allowing us to board. I was the last one to hand over my passport and the official then refused to give it back, saying I had to pay the driver an additional ten pounds. I refused to do so and we had a stand-off; I was demanding my passport be handed over immediately and the official was holding it behind his back out of my reach, standing between me and the gangplank. It was a tense moment. Gregory had stopped and turned around when he’d heard the commotion and was now making his way back down. I could see what he was going to do and as he snatched the passport from the hand of the official and hared back up to the ship I darted past the astonished man and went up the gangplank like a rat up a drainpipe. 

The Egyptian officials could see they were defeated, the gangplank was rolled away, the lines were cast off and we set sail across the Mediterranean Sea.




  • Kate
    by Kate 4 months ago
    For once I can say yay, I've been there. This brought back loads of great memories. Though someone did grab me and try to chuck me on a camel. I'd been warned this happened sometimes. They don't let you off until you've paid up, but I fought back and won. I wasn't quite as adventurous as you though. Used a tour guide. :)
  • Mashie Niblick
    by Mashie Niblick 4 months ago
    I tried to push someone into the Suez Canal after he squeezed my girlfriend's tits (without her permission I should add). His friends stopped me, and said he was just treating her like his sister. Port Said was a pretty place back then. Evocative piece John thanks.
  • Tony
    by Tony 4 months ago
    Great story and great memories for you and your companions. Yes, I've been stuck up on a camel - even had my picture taken by the drover, but (after getting my camera back) I refused any payment - I'd said all along that I didn't want a ride, but they said that was fine, just try it out. I was in no hurry and sat up there taking pictures of the pyramids. They eventually got the beast to kneel and let me off.
  • Mezz
    by Mezz 4 months ago
    I enjoyed this account. I don't even possess a passport.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    Glad you enjoyed it. It was an interesting trip.
  • SecretSpi
    by SecretSpi 4 months ago
    A very atmospheric piece that captures the spirit of the moment without lengthy descriptions - well done!
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    Thank you SecretSpi, kind words.
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 4 months ago
    Great story. I've never been to Egypt but I was lured onto a camel in Tunisia. The one in front, being a little grumpy that day, kicked my camel but missed and clobbered me on my leg instead. Camel kicks hurt. My dad climbed up and went inside one of the pyramids in the war. Said he was terrified of the small spaces and general lack of any health and safety.
    When he was finally (after 5 years) shipped back to England, he'd bought twenty lemons from a vender there. Six months later, the lemons arrived in England, with an apology and an excuse for being late. Amazing.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    Not the most pleasant of beasts, the camel. A bit hissy and bad tempered. Knew a girl like that once, but that's another story : )
  • Mashie Niblick
    by Mashie Niblick 4 months ago
    Climbed the main pyramid at Giza once. Tried again 3 weeks later but hadn't got the bribe second time round to pay off the police (someone had fallen off it in between times and died). Got horrible thigh rash from riding a camel 3 hours to Saqqara pyramid and back. What else? Got invited to sleep over in a police station but refused on the basis they were in the middle of beating up a suspect. Sailed on an illegal (i.e. they hadn't paid the bribe) felucca down the Nile, avoiding police. I was offered three camels for my girlfriend, but I said I wouldn't be able to get them on the aeroplane. Got robbed. Such memories
  • Clytemnestra
    by Clytemnestra 4 months ago
    I have for most of my life wanted to visit Egypt, John, but whenever I've had the time and money to do so there were always 'issues' getting in my way.

    Your blog and the comments of others - so well described - have given me a taste of how it really feels to be there. Thank you :-)
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    Very interesting. I read a journal of the same trip. But this took place in 1832. The writer describes seeing Cleopatra's Needle prostrate in the desert and laments that the ruins are being cannibalised to build,I think, the modern Alexandria. I would have liked to take the same trip, but never did, If you were in Upper Nubia at the time, the chances were that the only other European you might have met would have been another travel writer.
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