80 Belgian Egyptologists and a missing El Kab
Updated: Jan 12
A Cornish childhood breeds a certain level of adventure. What’s a boy gonna do when school is barely 10 mins walk from the beach? Sure beats algebra.
But in truth I led a relatively sheltered life until I started leading adventure tours across the middle east. Based in Cairo and working for a super relaxed outfit called Tourologist, I led amazing people across an amazing region on 4-6 week camping treks. It was in Egypt that I specialised, covering every nook and cranny of that magnificent country, from the Sinai Peninsula to Siwa Oasis and down deep into Nubia and the glorious southern city of Aswan.
These rough and tumble trips were not for the faint hearted but being so close to the ground (literally) allowed me to learn so much about the people, culture, landscape and contradictions.
I fell in love with the place and soon assured myself that I was something of an expert until I was asked to lead one particularly specialist group of 80 Belgian Egyptologists. They were a mixture of learned professors, teachers and students with a deep knowledge of ancient Egypt and a back-to-back itinerary that makes Elon Musk’s diary look positively threadbare.
No pyramid or sphinx for these cats, we’re talking a deep desert dive and a search for every possible piece of obscure pharaonic relic. It was a step up from my normal motley collection of cash strapped backpackers. It was also a big one for the company so I was even given an air conditioned coach and fellow tour leader, my larrikin pal Jim B. Though we had clearly been over promoted by a company desperate for the hard cash that 80 people can bring. “Glad to see we’re being led by such leading authorities” exclaimed Professor 1, glancing across his meticulously tabbed tour notes. That said, with local driver Ahmed, a tightly choreographed itinerary and some highly focused guests, we presumed it would be a feet up, blinds down kind of trip. We certainly hoped so as the Tourologist tour leader training manual was of limited value beyond, “try to avoid panic in the group when (not if) you spot a dead animal floating in the Nile”.
And so we set off ….
Lykopolis – tick
Beit Khallaf – tick
Kom Ombo – oh yes
The group demanding, but sated.
The professors suspicious, but soothed.
The trip went like clockwork. Until the itinerary schedule took us to El Kab. El Kab is an upper Egyptian site on the east bank of the nile, about 80 kilometres south of Luxor. Flourished during the Greco-Roman period but nowadays, not quite on the tourist radar. Ahmed followed our directions to the letter. It was in Arabic so we had to trust him on that.
Alas, as we peered out of dusty bus windows, there was barely anything on the horizon apart from undulating dunes and unhelpful bramble. The only thing moving, the sense of tension on the bus.
We hopped out of the bus and stole a few moments in a temporary hiding space. It was clear from the perplexed look on my face, that I was perplexed. Professors were filing off the bus and in search of our “expertise”.
“What the fuck do we do now?” Barked my colleague.
The group were getting tetchy. The professors were moving in. This was not a time for half measures. I could fast see both of us being added to that long list of Egyptian memorials, left out in the sun as the latest tourist attraction when I spotted something in the distance.
It was a barely recognisable wall but that slight dislocation on the landscape gave me hope and a vague memory of spotting something similar in my well thumbed blue guide to Egypt (millennials get this – it was a book). Something in my mind from that book alerted me that we might just be in the right place, but it was so vague as to be still a very outside bet. There was no option but to set off with the confidence only men have, when they don’t know where they’re going.
We cracked off at a good pace, to avoid any penetrative questions from the 80 Belgian Egyptologists now in feverish and increasingly agitated pursuit. Many times in my life I’ve imagined I was in my own movie. That great try captured on film or perhaps the one time a cool line emerged from my mouth on a date. This was definitely another moment. As we sprinted through thicket and dune, pursued at pace by a grumbling retinue of real experts, I saw the camera panning across the pained expressions of all involved. The increasing beat and suspense of Jaws-style music as we neared the destination and still I had no certainty (nor did anyone else) that this was anything to do with El Kab.
Marathon des Sables was nothing compared with this mini epic, 800 metres of ever undulating terrain and uncertain conclusion. I occasionally looked back to see Belgian helping Belgian across the dunes, through the brambles, ever forward. A crescendo of tragic music wailing in the back of my head.
This was adventure leading, by a thousand cuts.
We landed at a wall. The Egyptologists soon after.
One barked, “Are you sure we’re anywhere near El Kab, feels like a hazardous walk to Libya”.
Another, “This is not El Kab – what are you doing to us?”
We did look doomed. I honestly could not BS my way out of this one.
Until a small, dapper man in his 60’s emerged from the pack. He’d kept his counsel whilst constantly referring to his notes. As a kangaroo court was being formed, he stepped forward with sweet words I recall to this day...
“This is definitely El Kab”
Ahmed had landed us a mile short of the formal entrance and so we were dabbling with the outer fringes of this ancient site. I was swamped with Belgian love, given a blue plaque in the centre of Antwerp and after a thorough and never ending sweep of the site, we set off for the finest bus party back to Cairo.
Adventure comes at you in different forms and shapes but it always pays to read the small print. The adventure devil, is often in the adventure detail.
And I have never lost my affection for Belgian Egyptologists.