Ship of the desert

That camel at the heart of the Cairo riots. I recognise it. It’s called Aziz. And I’m pretty sure the young denim-clad rider whacking it with a stick is the fellow who relieved me of £45 back in 2007.

Let me explain. Sir Francis Chichester’s famous ketch Gipsy Moth IV was en route around the world on her second circumnavigation. This was courtesy of Yachting Monthly, the magazine which led the campaign to rescue the rotting hull from her sarcophagus in Greenwich.

After being restored by Camper & Nicholson, YM and the boat’s new owners the UKSA had timed the voyage so that she would arrive back in Plymouth 40 years to the day that Chichester made his world-famous voyage and also YM’s centenary year. And thanks to Blue Water Rallies we managed it.

But it meant keeping to a tight schedule and YM staffers and contributors flew out to various parts of the world to help the boat on her way. One of these legs involved flying out to Cairo to make my way overland to Port Tewfik to join the 63ft ketch for her passage through the Suez Canal and on to Crete in the Mediterranean.

Realising I had a morning to spare before taxiing down to Suez, I decided on a quick squint at the pyramids. Be rude not to, I thought. I knew Egypt’s finest carpet-baggers were going to commit open wallet surgery on my wonga and so philosophically decided not to barter but to accept the prices proffered. For once in my humble life, time really was money.

Big mistake. My cab driver told me as he picked me up, pre-dawn, at my Cairo hotel: ‘The pyramids not open yet, sir. We go for coffee?’

Two coffees, five papyrus scrolls, three ‘lapus lazuli’ models of the Sphinx, and two Tutankamun bracelets later, my friend announced the pyramids were now open and we could proceed. My backpack was now so heavy I walked along bent over backwards looking straight at the blazing Egyptian sun which was now well and truly up.

We drove through the dust but still there was no sight of the pyramids. Suddenly we pulled into a shanty town of buildings made of tattered bedsheets. ‘Go, sir, here,sir,’ my driver encouraged. I jumped out and I looked round for my cabbie but he’d disappeared, instead smiling dealers in too-tight shirts and dusty ties surrounded me
and escorted me into a tent. Coffee was poured and sweet-smelling boxes of massage oils were produced. Before I could say Abracadabra my credit card was on a machine and I was asked to sign away £300, instead of the £30 I’d reluctantly agreed to shell out for the oils which I was told had helped seduce Cleopatra. I snatched back my credit card, lobbed their fly-blown credit swipe machine back on the dust impregnated carpet and stormed out of the tent back into the crushing sunlight.

The cab had long gone, but now an evil-looking camel was walking like some ghastly giant spider on its spindly, furry legs towards me. ‘Pyramids, sir?’ grinned one of the young men. I smiled, ‘Yes. I was going by cab, but since you’re here.’
The young man’s sidekick – the one I recognise from today’s front page of The Times as being one of President Mubarak’s supporters – then jumped in the air and landed on the camel’s back leg, just behind the kneecap forcing the hissing beast to squat down in the dust and receive it’s western pillion.

Once on it’s back and £45 later, I was suddenly raised 15 feet above the ground as the ugly, flea-bitten monster stood up. Before trotting off obediently behind its master’s chain snorter, shackled through its repulsive black, fissured nostrils, the creature turned its head towards me and made some unearthly sound like the cross between the hiss of a cat and the croak of a toad. It had clearly got the hump.

We padded for about two miles across rubbish-strewn desert before three triangles appeared on the horizon through the smog of Cairo. The pyramids. My camel train dropped me at last with another mile to walk: I discovered that the whole area around Giza’s finest monuments is demarcated with each camel-trainer, trinket-seller, and cab driver having their own patch of sand. Invisible lines must not be crossed.

When I eventually staggered into the shade of the first pyramid laden down with a Santa-like sack of tut, I wandered around the far side, batting off dealers trying to sell me sandstone model pyramids or charge me for aiming a camera and found, to my total humiliation, a four lane highway leading up to the foot of the pyramid with six coaches and a line of cab ranks all parked up.

Now I had the hump, too.