Wishing on the Nile
Posted on 01 November 2010, 20:56
I am two thousand feet up in the air. On one side, the Nile, and on the other, the Valley of the Kings and the white sands that mark the beginnings of the vast Western Desert. And suddenly I am conscious of a rather disturbing wish.
We had slept in Luxor on the banks of the Nile, and had risen at 4.00am to be ready for our sunrise trip in a hot air balloon. The river is dirty with oil and waste, but busy with boats and calls to prayer. On the hotel dressing table was a sticker with an arrow pointing East, with the words: ‘Pray in this direction.’ We crossed the Nile in a small boat, where we met our balloon pilot, who instructed us about the do’s and don’ts of travel by balloon. They were mostly ‘Don’ts’, but he didn’t touch on my particular temptation.
We are almost ready to go. The roaring flame machine blows life into our flaccid balloon, which like a giant waking, swells in colourful glory before lifting us fast and straight into the air. There are 18 of us in a surprisingly low-ledged basket, as the ground pulls away savagely beneath our airborne feet. The views are immediately stunning. The snaking Nile; the remarkable band of green which clusters round it; the Valley of the Kings where Pharaohs made their bid for eternity, and overlooking the valley, the house of Howard Carter, who couldn’t let them and their treasures rest. And as soon as the green stops, the desert starts; with no gentle hand over, you step in an instant from the blooming to the barren; from crowded city to the virtually uninhabitable.
All this I see beneath me, as fellow travellers lean over the edge in the endless taking of excited photos. ‘Oh, just look at that over there!’ they say. But I am terrified. I have always had a fear of heights, but this now takes a new twist. I am gripping the sides of the basket, taking deep calming breaths because I fear I might jump over the side. It seems it has taken a balloon ride in Egypt to reveal a dormant death wish within.
And maybe Egypt has a death wish as well, as my tour guide Mohammed revealed. ‘Things will be very different in ten years time,’ he said. ‘This government is interested only in money. They do not care about the environment.’ He is referring to the massive tourist developments currently taking place on the Red Sea coast. Famous for its beautiful coral, it is becoming one big building site for a hundred new hotels. ‘There will be no coral in ten years time,’ says Mohammed, a proud Egyptian. ‘Just hotels. This is not good.’
Meanwhile, our balloon loses height, preparing to land. A small boy waves up to us, and we wave back fondly. He then touches his pocket to indicate money and with another gesture, bids us throw it down. He’s learning from the government.