Accidental Tourist

When bodyguards scare off the birds

It's hard to be a tourist in Egypt with a security detail fit for a dictator, writes Chris Harvie

27 August 2017 - 00:00 By Chris Harvie

Call me a Philistine but, after nine days, I was Pharaoh-ed out, tomb-ed out, hieroglyph-ed out, Egyptian-ed out.
So I amused myself with some birding from the open deck of the Nile Cruiser, surrounded by flappy-stomached Brits baking in the spring sunshine.
The boat was also surrounded - four police launches, manned with machine-gun-toting officers - and a few mercenary-looking armed youngsters in black T-shirts were perched on the prow of our boat, with two more aft."Purple gallinule. In the reeds." A bird one sees in books, but never seemingly in real life.
I had evidently travelled all the way to Egypt to see this one, but in a flash, it was gone.
"Smyrna kingfisher!" shouted the only other like-minded passenger with glee.
"Gone!" And that was how it was.
The police outrider dinghies were scaring off the birdlife, especially when their sirens kicked off. So, I thought, this is what it is like to be on the inside of a blue-light brigade. Unlike our politicos, though, I found it embarrassing, noisy and rather patronising.
This high security was, we had been told, unconnected to Alexandria's bombs of the previous week. The Egyptians won't allow anything to happen to their tourists, and here we were, sitting ducks on the Nile.Literally. Stepping off into one of the towns that stretch along the banks, we were greeted by the mayor and then despatched on a tomb-spotting expedition, shepherded by four bakkies marked SWAT and an armoured vehicle.Soon, everything looked the same. Every figure had its left foot forward and a hand outstretched, much like the bullying salesmen in the souks.
"Bonjour. Guten Morgen. Special price. Only one pound."
At least our security phalanx spared us the predations of the plastic-pyramid and model-tin-camel sellers. These were English pounds, not Egyptian.
And the place names! When the guide tried to get us to pronounce Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Deir el-Bahari, I tried in him on Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmors-doodgeskietfontein and then Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll but he wasn't playing along. So we stuck with Cheops and Giza.South African history, I get. I was once a tour guide for the colonial wars. Dead Brits' graves, I can do; Boer memorials; Zulu monuments. It all seems relevant to our current world.
But these venerable Egyptians are so long-dead that nobody knows much about them except their names and the type of furniture they had buried with them. Nobody believes in their gods any more. Nobody is mummified. OK, apart from Walt Disney.
It is as if, in 5,000 years' time, people will be digging up graveyards in Mpumalanga and knowing only that we were Van Schalkwyks or Mnisis and that we bought our wardrobes at Joshua Doore.
I am musing on all this when somebody shouts out: "Duck!"
It's not someone throwing a bomb, though. It's just another gallinule.
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