I certainly wanted to see Cairo and its magnificent pyramids in broad daylight, but sometimes life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
First, Some Travel Details, Woes and Challenges
Here are some travel notes about scheduling difficult trips. You can skip this if you like, by scrolling down until you the first picture. Others, may want to read about the build-up to the trip…
While I’ve certainly earned a reputation for country hopping at a faster than normal pace, I certainly didn’t plan to have only six hours in one of the most fascinating countries on earth: Egypt, was my country #111. But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, right?
See, my original itinerary had me in at 2:30AM and out at 11PM, so at least I had one full day to see the market, and of course those awesome pyramids! Egypt would be one of twelve African nations I’d bite off on this trip, with ten of them being new countries for me, and 16 countries total on this voyage. I’d do it all in three weeks, including Gibraltar and an afternoon in Madrid on the way home. That’s why I couldn’t afford to spend more than a day in Egypt. But only six hours in Egypt???
Blame it on Saudi Arabia.
I’d had this entire trip planned, booked and paid for, months and months in advance. But then, without notice, all of a sudden Saudi tourist visas opened up and became available for a special “Formula E” race. Before this, Saudi Arabia was (and still is, normally) one of the toughest countries to get in to, in the world. It’s one of the few nations on the planet that simply doesn’t offer tourist visas. That leaves travelers like me with very few options. Until this race, pretty much the only way in was by signing up for a very expensive group tour with “business” visas being used. I’d even inquired about this—I was willing to fork out the dough—but these were long tours. The tour companies wanted nothing to do with me and my two- or three-day itinerary. I simply couldn’t find a way in before.
When I got news that Saudi Arabia was opening their doors to tourists for this race event, I got super bummed that I’d already had a trip—a huge trip—planned during the same time. Like all of my trips, this one included a ton of countries, in a short amount of time. I just didn’t have the time to break away to visit Saudi Arabia even if I wanted to—I had countries stacked back-to-back-to-back.
As December grew nearer, I witnessed dozens of my fellow globe-trotting friends making plans to be in Saudi Arabia for the race. They were all taking this rare opportunity to get into a country usually so sealed off. It was like I was a kid who’s never been to Disneyland, watching all my friends plan a trip to Disneyland…without me! I hated it!
As the date of the race came closer, I couldn’t take it anymore. I opened up my itinerary to see if there was any way possible—any small hole in my plans—where I could skip over to Riyadh, even for a day. And I hit a bull’s eye.
Meant to Be
My original itinerary was London to Egypt to Sudan, and so on. Wouldn’t you know it, there were direct flights from Egypt to Riyadh, and Riyadh to Sudan. And the flight times were just about perfect. Of course, I’d forgo my one full day in Egypt, but I figured that could visit Egypt anytime (open visa policy), and Cairo is a major hub to Africa and the Middle East, so chances are I’d need to come back through here anyway. It was settled. Cairo would get the shaft so I could see Saudi.
Which brings me back to my six-hour extravaganza of a visit to Egypt. I’d land at 2:30AM and fly out that same morning at 8:30AM. And I’ll be damned if I was going to stay in the airport. An airport connection not only doesn’t even count as a real “visit” to me anyway, but I’d already booked a non-refundable room at a nice hotel near the pyramids. So it was settled. I’d land, freshen up at the hotel, try and get a glimpse (and a selfie) of those amazing pyramids at sunrise, and then head back to the airport for my flight to Riyadh.
Getting out of the Cairo airport was a breeze. There was only one person ahead of me in the immigration line and I’d purchased an eVisa ahead of time. I didn’t check any luggage, so I was out on the curb and in my cab by 2:57AM. In the baggage claim area, I’d arranged a ride to the hotel and back to the airport, with a stop for pyramid pictures, all for $70, which I thought was a fair deal.
So far, everything was going according to plan, as we barreled down the wide streets of Cairo, with four lanes on each side, separated by a median with big palms wrapped in Christmas lights. I immediately liked Cairo. A lot. It was a big city, but not a “new” big city, like Dubai, which was built overnight. I could tell this was a city with history, and one still making progress. We passed new skyscrapers next to buildings that looked like they were built in the 1800s. And I was surprised at how many places were open at 3AM in the morning. From restaurants and convenient stores, to electronics and even a jewelry store, it looked like every fourth or fifth storefront was open.
I’d gotten some great airplane sleep on the way over from the US, so I was wide-awake. Arriving at 3AM was kind of weird: my brain and my body didn’t know if it was really, really late, or really, really early. My taxi driver, Ataf, finally pulled into my hotel at 3:35AM, and told me to be out front at 4:45, so we could see the pyramids and make it back to the airport in time.
Ironically the hotel upgraded me to a suite. This would be shortest time I’d ever stay at a hotel, making it the most expensive shower ever! The welcome bowl of fresh fruit and the plate of Egyptian pastries waiting for me in my room saved my life! I enjoyed the hot shower after traveling for the past 30+ hours, and soon I was checked out and at the curb for my pickup. Ataf was right on time, just like he promised.
Mistake number one on this trip: I should’ve demanded Ataf tell me how much this camel ride/pyramid viewing was going to cost me before we got there. He’d arranged everything but the price via telephone on the way to the hotel. “They will tell you the price when we arrive,” he said, earlier that night. I should’ve refused the offer until I knew the price, but I didn’t—leaving me no room to negotiate the $125 horse ride into the dark desert. Yeah, I got taken for a ride alright!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Always, always, always, get the price FIRST. Before you even arrive. I continue to make the amateur mistake of not asking first. No more!
It was about 5:10 by the time I was galloping off on a horse named Ramses, along side my guide Regb and his horse, Batut. This felt weird. It was pitch black and Regb was warned by my taxi driver that we needed to be back by 6AM. It was no leisurely trot as my horse kicked into high gear and I hung on for dear life while my ass and balls thumped up and down on the hard saddle. I was worried that my trip was going to end before it even started: that I might get bucked off the horse, or he might fall over on me…or even that maybe the saddle wasn’t harnessed on Ramses properly, and that it might slide of to the side at any given moment, throwing me to the ground to get dragged and/or stomped on by this huge horse. That’s if the terrorists didn’t get me first: I was taken aback when Regb advised me that I should tell the police guards at the upcoming gate that I was from Canada.
“Remember, you’re Canadian,” Regb reminded me a second time, as we approached a tent with a group of uniformed officers and an armored military car next to it. Luckily they gave us no hassle—I didn’t even get to use my Canadian accent—as the dirt road turned to sand and soon the pyramids were in sight. Well, kind of.
I don’t know if Ataf was trying to scam me when he told me sunup was at 5:30, or if it was an honest mistake, but I saw no sign of any light on the horizon whatsoever. The city lights and a few security lights from the pyramids themselves allowed me to vaguely make out the shape of the three giant triangles in the darkness. We weren’t actually on the “property” of the famous Giza pyramids, but along side the perimeter.
We continued up a sandy bank that gave us a nice view of the city lights and the pyramids if it had been daytime. It was still dark as death, as Regb offered to take photos of me and the pyramids, as if the sun was out. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling, but he acted as if it was high noon, as he had me pose on the horse with the pyramids behind me, snapping away and moving the camera to get different perspectives. I don’t know if I was more disappointed or more entertained at this whole mess. Did he really think I believed the pyramids were going to come out on these shots? I was 5:38 and I needed to be back in the cab by 6AM, so we trotted off into the darkness; I was getting a little more comfortable on the horse.
As we approached a road up ahead, I saw car lights coming towards us. It was Ataf, right on time again. I tipped Regb as I dismounted sweet Ramses and gave him a goodbye rub on the nose. The time was now 5:46 and we were off to the airport.
It wasn’t until about 6:15 that the sun began to creep out over the horizon, and by 6:25 its fiery orange, gold, pink and red hues were bursting through the light layer of clouds. It would have been such a majestic sight to see the pyramids now–just 40 minutes later–but I couldn’t risk missing my flight. We pulled up to the terminal right at 6:30, and I made it through security and to the lounge with over 90 minutes to spare. I couldn’t help but think if I would’ve hung out at the pyramids for just another 45 minutes, I could have caught those massive beauties in all their glory, lit up by that spectacular sunrise, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I had to make it to Riyadh this morning; I couldn’t risk missing this flight.
I did my very best to make this layover a worthwhile one. And although I was disappointed I didn’t get to actually “see” the pyramids, other than their dark silhouettes from thousands of feet away, my stop in Egypt was memorable. I will never forget trotting down the back alleys of a real Cairo neighborhood on my horse. Twisting down the alleys of a what looked liked a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones…having to pretend I was Canadian, hearing what sounded like hundreds of calls to prayers at once, all coming together like some sort of huge roar or air raid siren…and trekking the desert on a horse named Ramses with only the stars to give us light, and yes, seeing the great pyramids—if only their shadows against a black sky. Not to worry, I’ll be back in the not too distant future, with more time to spare and a pocket full of carrots for Ramses.
Sadly, just days later, there was a bombing that killed four people aboard a tour bus, right there at the Giza pyramids. Just when Egypt’s tourism industry was rounding recovery, this was a sad setback that would hurt more than just the people aboard the bus that day. Such a shame.
Up next…one of the toughest places to go: Saudi Arabia! Come along!
And now, the Rest of the (InstaStory)…