20th Feb 2012 11:22am | By Editor
A year after protests began in Egypt, we explore the fun, the beauty and the uncertainty of a country still in flux
There’s a man cradling a large gun, sitting directly in front of me. It’s also 2am and I’m on a bus in the middle of the desert. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little uneasy but, luckily, this guy isn’t a threat – he’s a policeman, here to protect me and my tour group from hijackers and terrorists. But I’m still not sleeping tonight.
The casual observer may ask what any sane person is doing in the middle of a desert in the small hours, when a guy with a gun is necessary to protect you. Well, the likelihood of anything actually happening is pretty small, but having an armed escort does feel pretty glamorous. I’m on my way to Abu Simbel – two massive temples carved into rock on the banks of Lake Nasser, near the Sudan border. I left Aswan, Egypt's most southern city, in the middle of the night to catch the sunrise, which I’m told is going to be worth the 1am wake-up call.
To think that the requirement for travellers to be accompanied by an armed police escort is a new one, brought in since the revolution started, would be wrong – it was common practice before, as it is in other African and Middle Eastern countries. But that’s not to say things in Egypt aren’t different since the 2010 uprising that led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party. Visiting the country is best done by following the ‘safety in numbers’ philosophy and travelling with a tour group – especially since two American and three Korean tourists were kidnapped by armed tribesmen attempting to assert their power in the Sinai peninsula at the beginning of this month.
But despite its problems, Egypt is generally safe for travel, providing you stay away from demonstrations and protests. And, on the flipside, it’s a great time to visit: tourists aren’t exactly arriving in droves, hotels are cheap, and the Ancient Egyptian sites are empty – so no queues.
Back at Abu Simbel, the stone-cut temple is deserted as I arrive. The four figures of Rameses II loom out of the darkness as I enter the temple through a comparatively tiny door between their feet. Inside, I wander around, marvelling at the walls of colourful hieroglyphics and images that tell stories about the pharaoh’s reign over Ancient Egypt. When I emerge, the sun shoots
above the hills across the lake, creating
a spectacular scene.