First Impressions of Cairo and the Pyramids

Post No. 4 — Looking back forty-years to 21 January 1981

During my intended six months in Africa, I had planned to join two truck-based groups of fellow overlanders because that was the only realistic way to cover the huge distances I hoped to do. And to this end, I spent my first night in Egypt in a very modest (read ‘extremely basic’) hotel in Cairo, ready to meet some fellow vagrants the following day.

A typical side street. [Copyright image, 1981.]

Sure enough, the next morning, I went to the rendezvous point and started meeting some of my short-term fellow-travellers.

Altogether, there should have been 14 of us but a little worryingly an Australian girl on a solo trip was missing. A message was left for her, telling her where we would all be sleeping that night, in the hope that she would catch up with us there.

Excluding the absent young lady, the group consisted of 2 Americans, 2 Australians, 4 Canadians, 3 English, 1 Italian, and 1 New Zealander — nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Our first task was compulsory. We had to go to El Tahir Square and individually register with the Egyptian Police at the main police station.

El Tahir Square in Cairo — later destined to become world-infamous in the riots of the so-called Arab Spring, but back in 1981 it was a bus station. [Copyright image, 1981.]

After that, we split into random groups and walked around Cairo to enjoy the sights and experience a very different culture.

Five of us headed off to the ‘Egyptian Museum’ where I was very keen to see the famous death mast of Tutankhamun.

I had previously tried to see it back in my home county of Cumbria, when the travelling exhibition came to a little town called Maryport, but my youthful naivete back then meant I didn’t realise the mask would be a replica — splendid though that truly was.

The replica mask at Maryport in the 1970s.

This time, it was even worse. When I got to the appropriate display case it was empty. There was merely a little notice stating that the genuine mask was on tour in the USA. And there wasn’t even a replica on display.

So here’s a question: What has the USA got that Maryport hasn’t?! {:-)

It would be crass of me not to mention that the huge collection of other ancient Egyptian artefacts in the museum was beyond spectacular.

I’m always careful not to cause offence with my camera but ‘people watching’ is great fun in different cultures. [Copyright image, 1981.]

We went back to the streets to walk and talk some more. Being in such a multi-national group had its own pleasures.

Then it was time for a late lunch — spaghetti and a Coke, in one of Cairo’s countless ‘cheap and cheerful’ little cafes.

No matter what language it is written in, the word ‘Coke’ will get the desired result anywhere! [Copyright image, 1981]

Later that afternoon, we went to the truck we would be using for the next few weeks: a ‘retired’ British Army Bedford that was painted an eye-jarring shade of pink so that nobody could even remotely mistake it for a military vehicle.

Far too much time is spent on unsurfaced roads to even dream about using comfortable coaches for travel, and in unstable countries the bright pink colour is to stop you getting shot at by mistake. [Copyright image, 1981.]

Then we headed off for our overnight stay at two bare concrete rooms in a ‘guesthouse’ in the desert beside the Great Pyramids of Giza, just on the western outskirts of Cairo.

For ease, it was men in one room and women in the other — the couples were separated for the night.

There was no furniture or carpets at all, literally just bare concrete, and the windows had no curtains of any sort. Outside, between the two doors and facing out onto the ‘Western Desert,’ was a single light bulb, beneath which sat an Egyptian soldier with his rifle; apparently our guard for the night.

Sometime after midnight, the door to the men’s ‘bedroom’ opened and in walked a young white woman. The noise woke us all up. There was enough light streaming in through the window for her to be seen clearly. Apparently she either didn’t know or didn’t care that the women were in the other room, as she threw down her sleeping bag and stripped off, down to her underwear.

“Piss off, you gawping bastards,” she said in a strong Aussie accent. “Have you never seen a woman in her knickers and bra before? At your age? Sad bastards!”

Some of us were too busy laughing to fall straight back to sleep. We had just met the missing team member Julie, and what an inimitable character she would prove to be!

For the next morning, we all planned on being up early to take a good look at the world-famous pyramids.

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