The usual species of disclaimer: I am sure that there are plenty of Egyptians who do not drive in the manner described below, and as I’ve experienced similar in the Philippines and elsewhere, the problems are not limited to Egypt.
And the driving aside, I have a particular liking for Egyptology. Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the Valley of the Kings, and ancient Karnak were all wonderful memorable experiences. I took loads of photos. The diving was also excellent, but at the time I didn’t own an underwater camera so my pictures were limited to a few around the hotel.
Way back in the late 1990s, for this is a yarn from þe olde days of yore, I was part of a group on two weeks’ holiday in Egypt. The first week we spent in Luxor for a week of temples and tombs. Then, having been generally pharaoed to exhaustion, we headed eastward towards Hurghada to enjoy the Red Sea Diving Experience.
I didn’t really notice the driving style in the transfer coach between Luxor airport and the hotel, not least because I quickly nodded off following a sleepless night and a problematic departure from London Heathrow that involved many hours of sitting around in the terminal.
However, when we went out to explore the town one evening, a weird and less than wonderful phenomenon became quickly apparent along the ill-illuminated streets:
Almost every vehicle was trundling around with no lights on. Anyone who dared show a headlight was immediately vehemently flashed by oncoming drivers. The reason for this, I have subsequently been told by Egyptian colleagues, is that using the headlights flattens the battery. Clearly in Egypt the alternator, dynamo, or even magneto are optional extras. I've heard tell of cars hurtling across the desert roads at night running into the backs of slow-moving trucks, neither vehicle showing any lights.
But the true hairy scary wasn’t this; it was the journey west across the fertile Nile flood plain and then the desert from Luxor to Hurghada.
Following at least one incident in 1995 I think, when terrorists hijacked a tour bus and gunned down a load of foreign tourists in an apparent attempt to stem or more likely eliminate the inflow of foreign tourist dollarpounds, these trips now came with police escorts.
We assembled and found our allocated bus, and eventually about forty minibuses and coaches set off in convoy. At the front was a police Hilux with armed guards, at the rear was another, and there was a third in the middle of the convoy. By ‘armed guards’ I do not mean a couple of police officers with pistols. I mean a 50mm machine gun mounted on each truck and about four guys in fatigues and flak jackets, sporting automatic weapons.
So, with nowhere to go except Hurghada, and with everybody having to travel at the same speed as the police, the convoy threaded its way caravan-like across the Egyptian countryside, right? Wrong.
Every bus and coach driver engaged is a constant battle to get to the front, and every other driver closed up the gap to prevent it. About 260km of terror.
Particularly near the Nile, single carriageways are elevated on embankments to keep the roads dry when the Nile floods. So we have two lanes of traffic confined on top of an embankment by rickety-looking safety fences. And we also have coach drivers attempting overtakes.
A minibus pulls into the opposing lane and overtakes a coach. The coach driver accelerates. Meanwhile there’s an oncoming truck bearing down on us, yes US, and nobody has anywhere to go but through the barrier and into the date palm plantation. Our driver stomped on his brakes and inserted his vehicle back behind the coach. The truck roared past with its horn bellowing stentorian abuse. Then our driver tried it again.
At this point I spoke to the tour guide. “Are you going to tell him, or do I have to? Because I will be a lot less polite.”
Not that it made the tiniest scrap of difference. All forty drivers spent the next several hours in a competition to see who could drive closest to the police Hilux which, of course, still trundled along at a steady speed.
At last, at dear sweet last, we rolled into Hurghada. As is custom and practice, everyone in Egypt expects to receive a gratuity for doing absolutely anything at all. Our driver stood at the door of the bus with his hand out as we all dismounted. Nobody gave him anything.
Actually, not true. I was the only one to give our driver a tip, which was this: “If you don’t scare your passengers, they’re more likely to give you money.”