RED SEA Cairo

                                SUEZ CANAL AND CAIRO, Egypt - THE RED SEA                                     

Although we were expecting the wind to pick up to 18-20 knots, we had benign conditions and had to motor the entire 200 miles. We took it easy on the engine, running at low RPMs and the engine held out, albeit it got noisier and leakier as the hours past. We picked our way thru unlit oil platforms, burning wells, numerous ships, and other hazards strewn in the black water.

Port Suez

36 hours later, we reached Port Suez, where the Suez Canal begins. It was dark by the time we entered the channel but our agent, prince of the Red Sea, told us to continue on into the marina. It was frightening sailing alongside huge freighters and when they were bearing down right behind us we wondered if they even saw us in the darkness of the narrow channel.

Suddenly the Police boat came roaring straight at us, yelling in Arabic and waving their arms for us to get out of the harbor. We tried to explain that our agent gave us permission to enter but it took some persuasion before they left. Finally, Mohammed came and led us into the marina in his brand new power boat. A very old man paddled out in his row boat and helped us tie us to a mooring ball in the darkness of the night. Mohammed came on board and collected our papers and passports (and some money) to make sure that we didn't use another agent before morning came!


April 25/08

Morning came and the realization of the surrealist fact that we actually made it through the Red Sea. A wealth of emotion, part elation,  a sense of relief, but most of all a sense of achievement. We had overcome what was every Red Sea passagemaker's worse nightmare....losing the engine. We hoped that low point in our lives was well behind us now that we had met the challenge.

We were busy completing our paper work, organizing fuel and someone to measure the boat to determine fees for our transit through the canal. Since we arrived Easter weekend, everything was closed, which drug our schedule down severely as we still had 2 twelve hour days of motoring and then a 200 mile transit from the Port Said to Turkey before May 12.

We were tied to a mooring ball, being charged a ridiculous daily amount. As with all dealing with Egyptians, we were also losing our battle with overpriced fuel, and facing outrageous checkout prices. I'm afraid that our lasting impression of Egypt will always be sand and thieves!

Since we could not join a convoy through the Canal until Tuesday, 4 days away, we thought we would do a quick trip to Cairo to see the pyramids.

Cairo

We took a local bus from Suez driving through military check points and roadside guardhouses with guns pointing out through holes in the sides of the shelters. In about 2 1/2 hours we arrived at the busy dusty and dirty city of Cairo with its 20 million people jamming the streets in jumbled chaos, cars and donkey carts vying for every available space on the roads in haphazard reckless fashion. I did not see a car the entire time we were there that didn't have scraped sides and pushed in panels. They yell and honk continuously through the congested streets.

No one spoke English so we couldn't find a taxi that knew where our backpacker hotel was even though we had an address. So we started to walk. We passed streets where the sidewalks were packed with men on their knees, head to the ground, praying. We noticed that most men had a bruise or scar on their forehead from this 4-times-a-day practice! Our impression of the women were that they were not very attractive, all had their heads covered, but not all wore the full black burkes and veils here. The young girls wear the oddest fashions, trying the emulate the Western styles, mini skirts over jeans, tank tops over long sleeved shirts, always with the scarf covering the head!

We found an underground Metro and for 25 cents got within 4 blocks of our backpacker, although it took several attempts and lots of asking of directions to find it. People were friendly and would ask "Where you From?" When we said Canada, their faces would light up and they would say "Canada Dry"!! and laugh. It seemed to be a standing joke everywhere we went in Cairo.

Finally we found our hotel, which was marked with a tiny sign above the old Indian Embassy "Ramses II hostel 12th floor." We hoped there was an elevator until we saw it! A bank of 3 old elevators revealed that the only one that still worked was behind a warped metal door, its window missing the glass so that if you got your hand in there it would be chopped off when the elevator arrived! Definitely not quite to code. It ground to a halt and we opened the door and entered a tiny compartment. Really reminded me of the ride that we took at Disneyland where an elevator took you to great heights then failed and free fell...my worst nightmare! But we reached the 12th floor and checked into our little room, basic without towels, soap, a bathroom light or a top sheet, but affordable!

City View

We took a chance and stepped out onto our rickety balcony which overlooked the city, it's interesting combination of architect, old and new, along with the ever present garbage adorning the rooftops.

Chris & KT from Billabong were already checked into the hotel so we joined them for lunch at McDonalds.

Museum

Later we walked to the Egyptian Museum but were told that the museum was not open that day and we should go to the Bazaar instead. We already knew this trick from Chiang Mai in Thailand and were wise to it. We pushed past to the museum entrance and spent several hours wandering amongst the old pharaoh statues and exhibits from King Tut's tomb. Amazing and almost surrealistic to think that so many beautifully crafted artefacts were done with such precision thousands of years ago.

We sprung the extra money for a look at the actual Mummy Room where 11 royal Kings and Queens lie in peace, kept in a climate controlled room. The bodies were wrapped in shrouds but the faces and hands were visible and you could actually see the facial features, hair, teeth, fingernails and all. I was surprised that the Mummys were so tall.

We got together with Chris & KT for dinner. Pizza Man was very talented as he spun
the dough high into
the air,  proud of his talent as he posed for us.

Bazaar

Later that evening we took a taxi to the Main Bazaar area. It took a while to push our way through the traffic grid lock and throngs of people to arrive at street after street of shops full of souvenirs, clothing, shoes, shoes and more shoes... household items, alabaster carvings, papyrus paintings and everything else. The area was mostly locals and so we were quickly spotted by a man who "befriended" us and said he would take us to a special non-touristy place that we would really enjoy. We decided to play along and followed him down ominous alleyways, twisting and turning until I was sure I was hopelessly lost in some kind of foreboding kasba.

Finally we reached a little shop (surprise, surprise!). It was full of the little wooden boxes, the kind that I had seen everywhere in the souvenir shops throughout Egypt and then again in Turkey. However, these boxes were obviously of superior quality (and superior price) supposedly made by the father of the young man in the shop. They were truly beautiful, hand-made from inlaid Mother of Pearl, camel bone, teak and covered inside with velvet. He explained the differences in quality and technique of workmanship that made his boxes so special. Of course, since I collect boxes, I had to purchase a small one, my only souvenir of Egypt.

After we found our way back to the Bazaar, we ended up getting lost in the labyrinth of clothing shops and couldn't find our way out of the maze for the longest time. We must have walked 10 miles! We eventually found a subway and got back to the hotel very very tired.

The Pyramids

The next morn, we left with the Billibongs for a day at the Pyramids. However, Chris and Kt had to return to the hotel before boarding the bus because of stomach upsets. On the bus we were soon singled out by a friendly man proclaiming to work at the hospital and giving us helpful advise on how to see the pyramids cheaper.

We were not yet completely wise to the tricks of the relentless touts that are part of the huge ring of con jobs in Cairo. The Egyptian people pretend to be your friend, welcoming you to Egypt, but they are all after "Baksheesh" (a handout, gift or bribe). This is the way of life in Egypt and you cannot escape it.

So of course, we were shuttled off to the "Government" stables where we were coerced into a package deal (that didn't really turn out to be a deal) but we climbed on our camels and set out for an adventure.

Camels and Sand

I always wanted to ride a camel across the Sahara Desert with the Pyramids looming in the background and my wish was being fulfilled.

The camels were not as easy to ride as one might think and I can't imagine riding one for any length of time.

We were accompanied by a young man on horseback and a kid leading our camels up the sandy hill through the blazing sun.

Great Pyramid of Giza

When we first sighted the largest and oldest pyramid in Giza it was overwhelming.
The Great Pyramid is the only remaining monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Great Pyramid is thought to have been erected around 2600 BC. It is composed of over 2 ½ million blocks of limestone, which weigh from 2 to 70 tons each.

The world's oldest structure is so advanced that it can't be duplicated today, even using current technology.

Next to the Great Pyramid stands 2 additional large pyramids

The Giza Pyramid is 454 feet high which is equivalent to a modern 48-story building. There are currently 203 steps to its summit.

Cairo can be seen off in the distance as urban development reaches right up to the perimeter of the antiquities site.
The Great Pyramid did not always look as "rough" as it does today. Originally it was encased with a layer of tight-fitting, highly polished 20-ton stone slabs of polished white limestone, marble and copper.

After the Pharonic Period, stone from the monuments were taken and used to build buildings in Cairo. Many of Cairo's oldest buildings are built partly from stones from the pyramids.

It was possible to enter the pyramids (for a price) but we did not as all three pyramids stand empty, probably plundered during the political unrest that ended the Old Kingdom when the monarchy collapsed.

Khafre's Pyramid

The sides of all three of the pyramids were astronomically oriented to be north-south and east-west within a small fraction of a degree.

Archaeologists believe that the Great Pyramid was built by tens of thousands of skilled and unskilled workers who camped near the pyramids and worked for a salary or as a form of paying taxes until the construction was completed. The worker's cemeteries were discovered in 1990 by archaeologists.

Pictured left is what was thought to be the housing complexes for the workers.

Great Sphinx of Giza

To the south-east of the Great Pyramid lies the Sphinx. the half-human, half-lion statue, standing 73.5 meters long and 20 meters high and built around 2500 BC.

Sphinxes were used as temple guardians placed in association with royal tombs or religious temples.

Our exploration of the pyramids over we attempted to find transport back to our hotel. We wandered into a shop looking for directions and found an interesting collection of Egyptian artefacts and antiques with a friendly proprietor willing to spend time with us without any pressure for us to buy (Almost everything in the store was thousands of Egyptian pounds.

He directed us to a bus stop and we were soon back at the hotel to collect our belongings and head back to Port Suez.


Expenses to visit Cairo
(in Egyptian pounds)

bus for 2 - 62

hotel -120

meals - 90

entrance fees - 560

taxi/bus - 16

Total 848 ($162)

The day after we returned a convoy of boats left to transit the canal but we couldn't go because the wind and current was too strong for us to motor into. The following day, a warship was scheduled to come through so the canal was closed to small boat traffic.

Preparations for the transit of the Canal involves getting an official onboard to "measure" your boat to determine the costs. It is suppose to involve a complicated formula, and the idea is that it is based on the circumference of your vessel determined by running a rope around the widest point. However, our measurer only measured the distance from the bottom of the bilge to the floorboards, took info off our registration papers and accepted his baksheesh.

We compared all the quotes with other boats in the anchorage and ones that had just left with the convoy. Some boats protested the amount they were assessed but we felt that ours was in line and accepted the quote of $157 transit fees for our 37.5 foot boat. (Plus $80 agent fees, $40 check out fees, stamp, which we never actually got, $15, moorage $75 and diesel at $25 or $.60/litre)



April 28

Our transit was scheduled so we anxiously awaited the arrival of our pilot, mandatory for the transit. We were hoping that we got an amiable pilot as there have been so many horror stories about the behaviour of these pilots. Reports are abound about pilots who continuously demand high baksheesh, grope the women on board, overtax the boat's engine, and even run boats aground.

We were lucky. Our pilot was a cheerful young man. He didn't actually steer the boat much and was happy to use the autopilot as the canal is extremely well marked with no dangers. 

 

We were at the end of the convoy so didn't have many ships pass us, but there were some southbound ones. Being within meters of a huge container ship in tight quarters racks your nerves at first.

It was 44 miles and an 8 hour day, traveling through a straight boring ditch the width of a football field. Not much to look at...barren sand banks with Egyptian army posts sentries toting their machine guns every few miles and military pontoon bridges standing ready for deployment. There are no locks in the Suez Canal.

Once we reached Ismailia, we followed the customary ritual of surrendering baksheesh to our pilot; cigarettes (purchased for this
purpose) $15, a t-shirt, hat, nail polish for the wife and beads for the grandkids and a letter of recommendation. This was in addition to his wage. He promptly stuffed all the packs of cigarettes in his socks so the police would not take them away as he also pays "baksheesh," a way of life in Egypt.

Ismailia

Ismailia is the halfway point along the Suez Canal where there is a concrete dock to tie up the boat. We enjoyed our stay in Ismailia which is a clean modern town not so influenced by the traditional strict Muslim regime and not at all touristy.

The first night there we all went out for pizza, a really nice change. The dock was full of boats waiting for good weather because no one particularly wants to stop in Port Said but would rather continue on into the Med.

I took advantage of a washing machine at the marina and was able to top up my supply of groceries at a nearby store. Gord hauled diesel in jerry jugs for $.17/litre getting as much on board as we could possibly carry at that price!!

April 30

The day had come to set out on the final leg of our transit through the Canal.  We thought it might be a very long day indeed. There were about 10 other boats scheduled to make the transit with us. However, the pilot for one of the other boats did not show so our pilot was to act as their pilot as well, and the other boat would just follow us, with the pilot onboard our boat.

We were in an optimistic spirit with the promise of good weather and  the engine purring along like its old self. We were again at the very back of the convoy, only the boat sharing our pilot following us.

But we only got about 15 miles from Ismailia when suddenly the engine revved up but our forward momentum just stopped. We turned off the engine, realizing that we had a transmission failure!!! The one thing you do not want to do is have to be towed in the canal by a tug with the fee starting at three thousand dollars!

We were so fortunate that the sailboat boat behind us agreed to tow us back to Ismailia. You could tell that the pilot was unsure if this should be allowed but since he was pilot for both boats and it was a short distance he allowed it.

It was such a disheartening feeling to know that Egypt still had a hold on us and our departure was not to happen that day.
Back at the harbour the tow lines were released and our plan was to anchor, get the dinghy off the deck and deal with the lines to Med moor back up to the wall (there was no other boats left there to help us).

As we drifted apart I prepared to drop the hook. But when I deployed the windlass.....nothing!!! What more could go wrong.

Somehow we managed to drift into a spot on the wall as there was lots of room with the other boats gone. We got Ascension tied up and just collapsed. Gord had not felt well at the start of the day and now it was compounded 10 fold to the point that he just had to book off for a while!!!

May 1

After taking the transmission apart, Gord discovered that a coupling we had made in Thailand broke. So he set off pounding the streets of Ismailia to find a machinist to make a new part. 9 hours later he returned with a shiny new piece, better than the old one was. He had quite the adventure with the language barrier and their limited equipment but with a combined effort, the job got done.

Now, to deal with the windlass. Looks like the brushes are at fault as a result of the soaking on the way to Salalah. So the rest of the day was spent painstakingly taking the windlass apart which was chock block full of salt and welded to the motor with rust. After a thorough cleaning and rewiring, bypassing our remote switch, we were back in business.

May 2

The weather window to Turkey had apparently closed for us but our itchy feet and lack of time remaining overruled our common sense and we scheduled our last leg of the Canal transit.  We were all patched up and will continue on with the band aid on the motor. Hopefully our only fight will be with Mother Nature from now on. Wind was forecasted at 30 knots but we could deal with that.

We were delayed getting started into the canal waiting for a US warship to get through before our Pilot arrived. We set out around 9am trying to make conversation with our pilot whom seemed rather surely at first. I think as soon as he found out we were not American, his personality changed and he was very congenial. It also helped that we supplied him with cigarettes as his chain smoking habit depleted his own supply within an hour! We also gave him a hat as the sun was a killer that day.

We really rejoiced when we passed the point where we had to turn around 3 days before! However, about 3 miles later, we heard a loud THUNK, the engine slowed and my heart sank (in fact I am sure it stopped beating). In panic we raced to the helm in time to see a large chunk of wood pop up behind the boat. We had hit it with the prop. No damage done. I cannot even begin to tell you the relief. It made us realize just how much stress we were under to react like that!

Out of Egypt!

The remainder of the transit was uneventful and when the Pilot boat at Port Said came alongside Ascension to retrieve our pilot, laden with his gifts of cigarettes, money, t-shirt, hat and toiletries for his wife, we were ecstatic to be out of Egypt!


Some thoughts on the Red Sea

In retrospect, our journey through the Red Sea was the source of a mixed bag of emotions. The weather definitely controls your every waking moment because you don't want to be caught out in a sudden blow, with the short steep seas, combined with strong northerlies that last for days, make sailing into the headwinds near impossible. You sit somewhere just waiting the wind to die down,

We actually made good use of weather windows because we were willing to wait. But when the weather dictated that we must leave, there was no time for adventure or snorkelling and we felt that we missed a lot as a result of trying to rush through. Anchorages were plentiful although many not very interesting. The water earlier in the year (May) was really cold, and that combined with the abundance of blue stinging jelly-fish, was a deterrent for swimming in the sea.

Fuel was never too much of a problem (except in Massawa) and the prices varied from .75/litre in Aden, $1.15/litre in  Massawa, .70/litre in Suakin, .80/litre in Port Galib, .35/litre in Hurghada, .60/litre in Port Suez, but best of all only .17/litre in Ismailia!

Since we have a watermaker, we did not have an issue with having to get water. The best grocery store for provisioning was in Salalah with a smaller but ample grocery store in Aden. But then it is not until Hurghada that there is much choice of provisioning again, other than local markets selling a minimal amount of produce (onions, eggplant, ochre, tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers).

The biggest issue for us was what a filthy place the Red Sea was; dust, sand and dirt in everything, combined with salt that was caked on the shrouds, sheets, lines, dodger and sails. Washing with fresh water would not remove the grit embedded right into the gelcoat and when we got to Turkey, we literally had to sand it out, a square inch at a time and taking weeks.

The scenery is lunar, desolate and bleak but the purple crinkly mountainous backdrop displays quite a magical setting. Not much vegetation or foliage even for the camels.

The Islamic culture is extremely interesting but the oppression of women is shocking compared to our Western culture. The people were all very friendly although the men are far more aggressive that what we had experienced in Thailand. The poverty is heartbreaking.

I am glad that we experienced this part of the world, although much of our attitudes about our experience were slanted because of all the frustrations of having an engine that didn't work! 


 

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