So long as the world continues spinning and the sun continues to shine, there will be days. There will be happy days, sad days, rainy days, days in the sun, wasted days, salad days, dog days, birthdays, stay-in-bed days, days when the world is your oyster and days when you lose your shirt. But every so often you have a perfect day. A day in which it all comes together. It might be something you’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It might be a childhood dream you never thought would actually come true. It might be a day when you finally win the lottery. Or it might be all three at once.
Today was all three at once.
I love Egypt. Okay, I’ll poke fun at the place as I would a younger brother, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the bones of the place. I’ll always come back here and as I’ve said before this, for me, is my travel Ground Zero, the place I first fell in love – with backpacking, with a country, with a girl. Through everything, everywhere I’ve been, Egypt has remained in my top three countries in the world.
The second time I came to Egypt was in December 1999. I stayed with my friends Paul and Mary (who, gawdbless’em, are still together) and we attended the Jean-Michel Jarre concert at the pyramids together to see in the new millennium. Yes, that’s right, I saw in the year 2000 watching French electro-pop from the 1980s. But I don’t care, it’s still cooler than anything you did that night.
But what I really wanted to do was to climb the Great Pyramid and watch the first sun rise of the new millennium from the top of the last Great Wonder of the ancient world. (The others being – off the top of me noggin –The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Golden Statue of Zeus, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. (I’ve been to the sites of those last two, but there’s nothing there anymore.))
A couple of decades ago, people climbed the Great Pyramid all the time, it was just something you did. But then, like Uluru in Australia, a few too many people were getting themselves killed, bringing bad luck on the Aboriginals and the possibility of law-suits from those ever litigious cousins of ours from across the pond. On millennium night there were hundreds of people knocking around the plateau – security, musicians, random Egyptians with flashlights – and (possibly more importantly) nobody I was with at the time fancied attempting it.
Not wanting to see the dawn of the new century alone (or in a jail cell), I elected to stay with my mates. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great night, maybe one day I’ll post the video on YouTube, but that longing – the desire to just, you know, climb the damn thing, stayed with me.
Exactly 10 years later I was once again at the Pyramids for New Year, this time meeting Mandy after the first year of The Odyssey Expedition. I wish I got there a little earlier (I arrived at a couple of minutes past midnight) and had climbed up the pyramid with Mandy. But in any case we had Matt the cameraman tagging along, so it wouldn’t have been very romantic, plus I had my backpack with me: not gear you want to lugging up all 146.5 metres of Cheops swanky-assed burial mound.
So my second opportunity to climb the big boy passed me by.
But not this time. This time nothing would stop me.
With the possible exception of a guard with a whistle.
It was around 4am on Saturday morning before Kendra and I rolled into her place. The sad news was coming through of yet another high school massacre as America’s deadly love affair with the gun continued its unrelenting rampage through the corridors of innocents. Americans just cannot grasp how damn uncivilised it makes them look when they talk of ‘freedom’ but what they really mean is ‘the freedom to kill 20 children in 10 minutes – try doing THAT with a knife, Fu Manchu.’
In my country we don’t have the ‘freedom’ to do that. We couldn’t even if we tried. When I have kids I’ll be able to send them off to school with a 100% certainty that a nutter with two assault rifles and a handgun isn’t going to burst into the classroom and spray 300 bullets a minute at my little boy or girl and their classmates.
Now that, my Yankee cousins, is FREEDOM.
The freedom to relax. The freedom from paranoia. The freedom that comes from living in a land which does not allow idiots, morons, psychopaths and sociopaths easy access to weapons of mass destruction.
After a few hours shut-eye I was up and plotting my course back home to Liverpool in slightly finer detail. I had already announced in South Sudan that I’d be back on December 22 and, thanks to a few outrageously good chess moves while in Ethiopia, I’m on schedule to his that deadline. I’ve even got a bit of redundancy built in, but more about that later. That afternoon, Kendra and I headed out to first of all check out Tahrir Square (there were a few tents and things, but not much going on, which was surprising as the referendum is today) and then met up with a couple of her Egyptian friends, Mohammed and Mohammed, and started looking for a leather jacket so I don’t FREEZE TO DEATH when I get back to Europe in the middle of the coldest winter since the last one.
At first they were taking me to fancy shops, jackets costing up to £200. That’s British pounds, not Egyptian. Ever so slightly out of my budget of a tenner. Once they understood that I couldn’t afford these crazy prices and didn’t want a fake leather knock-off from the street stalls that ran down the sidewalk, we headed over to the market where our Egyptian friends were mortified to see me rifling through the second-hand jackets looking for the perfect fit: soft leather, not too busy, not too pricey… No, really, second hand is fine. We call it ‘vintage’ in the UK and charge way over the odds for it. A bit like the trains and organic vegetables…
I have to say that Egypt isn’t the trendiest place in the world (you could probably tell that from all the revolting gold chintz they sell), and so it was a tough old rummage. In the end, I must have visited about 50 shops and stalls and rifled through about 1000 jackets. And then, in the last shop before the shops ran out, I found it. An old Hugo Boss number, no crazy zips everywhere, not stitched up like Edward Scissorhands, wonderfully soft lambskin leather, a little bit scuffed, but then I’d do that to it within a week anyways, How much? “120” (GB£12) says the man. “I’ll give you 100” (GB£10).
Mohammed later laughed at me for not haggling more. But sod that – I know a bargain when I see one, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth eh?
After coat we met with Mohammed and Mohammed’s friend, Mohammed, and sat for a tea on the Nile. It would have been nice, perhaps some traditional Egyptian music quietly carried by the breeze as we sat under the stars. But no, This Is Egypt and the music simply must be annoying, repetitive, played on a kazoo, sung by a tone-deaf hyena and played SO LOUD IT DISTORTS like a teenager in his Mum’s Fiesta. Empty ‘party’ boats sit forlornly along the riverside blasting this crap out quite possibly scaring away any tourists hapless enough to still be here.
Did I mention there are hardly *any* tourists in Egypt at the moment? Surprisingly, protesters being shot dead and holiday-makers do not make happy bedfellows. Quite how President Morsi has been allowed to get away with ruining the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of his citizens (sorry, ‘subjects’) is beyond me. Egypt has lived off tourism since before the days of Herodotus and to scaring those tourists and their much-needed dollars away is not what the leader (sorry, ‘fuehrer’) of Egypt should be doing.
After tea Kendra and I said goodbye to Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed and headed back to her place. I got a couple of hours sleep as tonight was the night.
Tonight I would *finally* climb The Great Pyramid of Giza.
Kendra climbed the smallest pyramid, Mycerinus, back in 2010 with one of her mates. When I told her a few weeks ago that I would be returning to Cairo I also told her that this time we would be climbing the big one. I knew that Kendra, the girl who waited in line for 3 weeks to be the first to watch Star Wars Episode I, would not say no to such a proposition.
Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed were also up for it. It made me feel a lot safer having Arabic speakers with us, although they told us that if we got caught, Kendra and I would have little to worry about – we could just act like dumb tourists – Mo, Mo & Mo didn’t have that luxury. They could get into some serious shit for doing this.
But we figured that tonight of all nights, the Pyramids would be under minimum surveillance as this constitutional referendum took everybody’s eye off the ball.
We reunited at Kendra’s flat at 2am. Mohammed bought us all special pyramid-climbing gloves which made me feel like a proper cat burglar.
We drove to Giza in Mohammed’s car and arrived at the infamous KFC by The Sphinx sometime before 3am (I know this because it doesn’t close until 3am. I bought myself a piece of chicken). This was were I met Mandy at the end of the first year of The Odyssey Expedition. Now it would mark the beginning of our journey to the summit of the most famous building in human history.
How To Climb The Great Pyramid of Giza
If you’ve ever paid the scumbags who run the camels and horses to take you to see the pyramids at night, you’ll know where we went, but for uninitiated, you need to go clockwise around the plateau from the KFC. The track is well marked by camel tracks and horse shit.
There’s usually nobody about at this time of night, but we had the misfortune of walking through the Gizan backstreet when the last remaining nutters were leaving an Egyptian wedding, setting off fireworks and shooting their guns up in the air. We just walked on as though we were supposed to be there.
Once past the small cemetery, turn clockwise 90 degrees you’ll see the parameter fence to your right. Follow it along until you get to the place where the late-night horse rides end – on the sandy bluff from where you can see all three pyramids. It’s the spot Mand and I sat during the final credit sequence of ‘Graham’s World’. There’s a little shelter there at the top of the hill.
Make sure nobody is about, If it’s late enough, there probably won’t be, Don’t trust the horse and/or camel guys: don’t forget it was them who charged into Tahrir Square in February 2011 and set about beating women and children. If they see you climb the fence, there’s a good chance they’ll report you in order to take a cut of the ‘fine’.
Getting over the fence is a doddle. Between the panels there are metal poles. In some places these are missing and the side bolts of the chain-link fence provide splendid footings. Don’t worry about the CCTV cameras – they’re not on.
Your biggest problem is going to be the pyramid dogs. They’ll bark at the merest hint of a person walking about at night and once one starts barking, they all start barking. They won’t run over to you, which is the good news, the bad news is that if there is just one guard on duty, you’re going to get caught.
We crouched as we made our way across the plateau towards the smallest pyramid, that of Mycerinus. This was the one that Kendra had already climbed. It’s nearest the fence and it’s unlikely that any dogs will notice you on the way over. We did our best to go around any ridges, we didn’t want to get skylined. We were also lucky to have a moonless night: it’s the darkest you can hope for given Cairo’s substantial light pollution.
Once at Mycerinus we proceeded around the left hand side of the pyramid towards Chephren, the middle one. A few dogs started barking and howling, but nobody came. We were very cautious on the way in. We had a choice of which way to go around Chephren, but we decided to go around the left side again, since on the right (Sphinx) side, there was a whopping great floodlight that could cause us grief.
The direct way to Cheops requires a little bit of climbing, but soon enough we were near the south-west corner: the best place to climb.
There was only one problem. The pyramid dogs were going BALLISTIC. There most have been a couple dozen of them, all running around in circles, screaming “People are trying to climb the pyramid!! People are trying to climb the pyramid!!” in their own little VERY IRRITATING doggy way.
We ignored the dogs and started to climb. We had made it this far, hadn’t we? Half expecting to shrill PEEEEEEEEP from a guard’s whistle at any moment we started to scramble up the big one. I have to admit, the dogs freaked me out. My heart was beating nineteen to the dozen.
The lower stones are the most dangerous. There’s a lot of rubble to slip on. Things get easier the higher you go. If a stone seems a bit too high to climb, then just walk along your tier until you find a better proposition – you invariably will. As I said, the south-east corner is the best to climb, the stones are well placed and you get some cover from the other two pyramids.
In the event, all the barking in the world wouldn’t have stopped us. There was nobody there. Literally not a single soul guarding what I regard as the important buildings in the history of mankind. Once we were halfway up, the barking died down and from then on up it felt like an enjoyable hike to the top of a comparatively small man-made mountain.
The View From The Top
It took 20 years to build The Great Pyramid of Giza. It took 20 minutes for Kendra, Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed and I to climb. The massive capstone was stolen a long time ago and so there’s a flat area at the summit measuring around 5 metres square: plenty of space to move about and admire the view from the top. Cairo spread out below us like the whore she is, polluting the night air with dust, petrol fumes and yellow phosphorus light, while taxis tooted mercilessly in the distance. The stars were bright. The Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, pointed straight down towards Mycerinus and of course Orion, my faithful travel companion, was there too: he didn’t want to miss out on all the fun.
Well, we made it. The worst they could do to us now would be a fine once we got back down, so we took a stack of photographs, the flashes no doubt signalling to anybody in a twenty mile radius that there were no good hoodlums monkeying around on top of the last great wonder of the ancient world. And yet nothing. No whistles, no shouts, not even a dog barking.
We stayed up there for about an hour, marvelling at both the view and the sheer majesty of these bombastic, iconic and timeless monuments – monuments that we had all to ourselves. Then, just before dawn, the city below us crackled awake as the muezzins sounded their ghostly call to prayer. When your hotel window is right next to a speaker, being woken up at the crack of down by this tuneless warble is a nightmare. But up here, with the murmuring cacophony going off in every corner of Africa’s biggest city far below, it sounded amazing: a harmonious drone like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed got down to pray. Kendra and I sat nearby and kept respectfully quiet. When they were finished, with the morning sun fast approaching, we figured it was time to leave.
We clambered down the south-east corner, nice and easy. I kept surveying down below, to see if anyone was waiting for us, but there was no-one.
Once on the ground we walked back to the fence, this time using the Sphinx side of Chephren and Mycerinus. Unlike the journey to the pyramid, we used torches and spoke openly: by now we were pretty confident that there was literally nobody here.
It was fairly light by the time we got back to the fence. By the time we got back to the car it was broad daylight. The night was over. We had done it. We had climbed The Great Pyramid of Giza.
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