An idiot’s guide to Egypt

Part three – Aswan

After a colourful four-hour train ride from Luxor spent hanging our heads out of the cabin, sharing a cigarette or three with some gracious locals, our journey to the picturesque town of Aswan was complete. 

Stepping off the bustling platform the change in scenery is immediate. With a much busier, lively feel to the mainland, Aswan radiates African culture. Close to the border of Sudan and one of the Southern-most cities in Egypt, Aswan is truly a one-of-a-kind gem.

We eventually opted to stay in a seriously affordable homestay on Elephantine Island we stumbled across on Booking.com. A ferry ride over the Nile from the big smoke, Elephantine offers rustic beauty and kind-hearted locals at every turn. 

A word of advice that you’d be utterly braindead not to listen to – plonk your weary toosh down in a comfortable, wicker seat at the island’s true attraction, the Nubian Dreams Restaurant. I kid not and lie never, so listen up and let me tell you why. 

The Nubian Dream is Egyptian oasis on every level of the word. With a beautiful, bohemian backdrop of hand-crafted cushioned seats, cane chairs and cold beers, the friendly faces of the staff, their buddies and every other happy chap visiting the mecca of good ass North African cuisine will have you sold. 

One of our only photos taken at the Dream with Mufasa (criminal of us!)

A strenuous six feet and six stairs from the ferry port, the Dream offers up the most incredible tagines one would possibly lust over. Any mention of the eggplant, zucchini or spicy fish tagine send bolts of electricity to my tastebuds and dare I admit it, other less kosher parts of my body. 

If you have the pleasure of stumbling across a delightful local man by the name of Mufasa at the Dream, buy him a tagine. He’ll sit with you, chat, dance, sing, bring you traditional desserts, take you on a three-hour felucca ride with his family, wake up at 4am to personally escort you to a taxi and leave the best, lasting impression on your Aswan experience and all just for shits and giggles. A true gent and truly fond of French women!

The man himself and our captain for the day!

Lavished with cool beverages and plates of hot food cooked on the premises by owner Ali’s talented mama, the soulful tunes of Bob Marley sank into our weary, travel-ravished bones, giving us the perfect backdrop to end our day in Aswan.

To start your day, I suggest strolling over to The Ibiza Hostel. A colourfully painted hostel offering up some delicious local fares. We stumbled across it by chance and were hospitably sat on the balcony overlooking the shimmering Nile and within a stone’s throw of Kitchener’s Island – Aswan’s answer to a Botanical Garden. 

Our hosts plonked down some piping hot, minty tea, some freshly squeezed juice and let us have our pick of some falafel, soft pita, thick syrupy honey and deliciously greasy eggplant – again with the electricity bolts. 

With the Movenpick hotel at one end of the island, offering their pool side beers and top-notch bartender banter to visitors of the island (at a fee, of course) and hotel goer’s, I recommend securing yourself a primo spot pool-side and setting up camp for a relaxing mental health day if that floats your traditional Egyptian sail boat. 

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Dipping my Rue Roosevelt adored hands into the cool banks of the Nile.

It’s not a day in Aswan without a boat ride so taking a felucca (traditional Egyptian sail boat, duh) ride from the Movenpick’s dock will show you some of the hottest spots the idyllic cluster of islands has to offer, the Old Cataract Hotel to name just one – Agatha Christie fans delight . If the wind, natural not man-made, falafel induced, is hiding away for the day, a motor boat (good lord, the satirical avenues are endless) will suffice.

One of the best experiences up for offer in Aswan is enjoying the mind-blowing sites by river. Dipping your stinky toes into the Nile as a felucca leads you to some serene, secluded spots along the river – some of which, you can even have a swim in. 

While I was encouraged by all to swim, my skimpy bikini might have caused more of a splash than my meanest cannonball, so I opted to wade (pee) in the shallows while my adventurous travel companions embarrassed Australian’s everywhere with a poorly executed race to a large rock mid-river. 

The singing, dancing Mufasa who just so happened to speak seven different languages. All self-taught from making friends with inferior tourists over the years – all hail the real pharaoh! 

For those of you worried about the conservative nature of Egypt and how that translates to swimwear and sartorial choices, I would not sweat it.  While you might get a few looks, Elephantine and its surrounding islands are tourist friendly and it’s not necessary to be covered head-to-toe at all times. I would however, recommend travelling with men (or in my case, two very hairy man-boys) if you can and keeping legs and shoulders covered on the mainland. 

A more than frequently asked question we encountered in Aswan was “Abu Simbel?”. For those amongst us not familiar with the temples, Abu Simbel are two massive rock temples originally carved out of a mountainside in 13thcentury BC but were relocated in 1968 (moving mountains, huh?) and now they sit a 4 hours’ drive of Aswan on the border of Sudan. 

A total sight for sore eyes, sore thanks to the 4am wake up time and subsequent four-hour van ride, we were slightly disillusioned by the 45-minute time limit we were given to look around once we were there. Don’t let my sour puss explanation dim your enthusiasm though, Abu Simbel is really, truly mind-boggling. My advice – make sure you are given enough time to look at everything you want to and take the second van ride of the day, the early start doesn’t help avoid the tourist explosion. 

The final verdict on Aswan? Just really, bloody good for the soul. The perfect place to end an Egyptian adventure with its rich cultural tapestry, unbelievable food and even better company, Aswan has my stone cold heart. Talk to as many locals as you can and achieve the eggplant tagine trifecta – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

An idiot’s guide to Egypt

Part one – Giza & Cairo

Since the tender age of eight, I have longed with all of my wistful might to visit the land of the pharaohs. Transfixed by the mysteries of the great, honking pyramids, the promise of exotic landscapes and uncovering the secret to Cleopatra’s winged eyeliner, I recently took the plunge and booked my sorry ass on the first flight to Cairo.

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Our first, mind blowing stop was the ever-glorious Giza.

I can’t recommend the soulful experience of waking up to a view of the pyramids highly enough. Chugging down sugary mint tea to a symphony of calls to prayer, the dusky beauty of a morning gaze at the pyramids gave me more of an am kick than caffeine ever could.

Street puppies of Giza

The no-nosed lady, Mrs Sphinx – a heck of a load smaller than I had imagined!

You’ll find a load of affordable spots to stay in Giza, all sporting wonderful staff who are more than eager to organise your entire trip for you, but we chose the Best View Pyramids Hotel. 

With comfortable rooms, a tasty price tag and even tastier stuffed pigeon (more appealing to some of us than others), this ripper hotel had the rooftop terrace of a lifetime.

One hell of a terrace view ✨

Treat yourself to a cold, local lager, have a puff at a shisha pipe and put your lazy feet up on the glorious rooftop. With a view you’ll never get sick of and a lentil soup to write home about, you’ll find all you ever needed right in front of you.

Ask for Saber, the hotels resident tour guide and bad ass, who’ll take you on an astounding camel ride through the Sahara Desert to explore the pyramids. Yep, pretty flipping amazing. The man even knows his way around your good side, working the angles for any and all photo shoots you may require – bona fide legend.

Zinger happy snap courtesy of Saber himself 👏🏻

You’ll need a few days to fully absorb the wonderment of the pyramids. Explore, climb and try not to get swindled into a $40 photo on a camel in front of the tombs – it’s a heap harder than you might think.

Take your walking shoes, some snacks and your own stash of that h2o goodness. Giza is where it’s at, so much so that I’d almost endorse you put at the end of your trip, nothing will ever quite live up to the splendour of le pyramids.

The magnificence of Uber means you’re a hop, skip and a sarcophagus away from the big smoke in Cairo. Make sure to grab a sim card at Cairo airport when you land and save a bunch on taxis, that is, unless you’re an adequate barterer and can fend for yourself.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and it’s startling Mummy Room are well worth a gander. None of the artifacts seem to have the usual explanatory plaques, so it’s a spiffy idea to take up one of the eager guides outside the museum on their offer to show you around – at a price, of course.

Tahrir Square lies just next to the Egyptian Museum, and was the base for the people’s revolution in 2011. Again, without the wonderful world wide web, you won’t find much information about the uprisings in the square itself. Do a little research, give yourself some context and soak it on up.

During your wanderings in the bustling streets of Cairo, don’t let the opportunity to sneak into any of the Koshary stores slip you by. Open windows displaying obnoxiously sized bowls of pasta, lentils, chickpeas and fried shallots dot the avenues. Make sure to venture inside and have yourself a carb loaded meal.

A traditional Egyptian meal, Koshary is a bowl of all of the above, paired with a delicious tomato sauce. You can add spice and vinegar to the delicious concoction and eat as the locals do. Vegetarian and the ultimate belly filler, I swear it resurrected me after a long hard slog at Khan el-Khalili.

Khan el-Khalili is one of Cairo’s largest souk’s and is a tourist hotspot. Potentially the only time I felt a little on edge security wise, in the depths of the market you’ll find an intricate maze of market stall after market stall. It was here I did my best work, dropping some cold hard on a jazzy artesian rug and a hoard of Egyptian gold jewellery. Just remember to put your hard ass hat on and only pay what you want to.

The final verdict on Cairo and Giza? Make Giza home base and enjoy the pyramids in all of their glory. Cairo’s big city vibes make for a brilliant day out, but can feel a little intense for the everyday traveller.

Talk to as many locals as you can and don’t let stern warnings from concerned friends back home, stop you from making a friend or two along the way.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the Pyramids are all Giza and Cairo really have to offer, with a mountain of wonderful day trips and adventures to be had – Memphis, Saqqara and the Sahara to mention a few – this little pocket of the world has your name scribbled all over it.