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From Muscat to our first stop at Aqaba is 2464 nautical miles, so we knew this would take 4 days at sea. There is always a lot to do on board, and QE2 has a special reputation for the quality of its invited lecturers. On the first morning, Wednesday 28 March, Captain David Leney spoke about his experiences as a Concorde captain. Captain Leney had flown some of the set piece events - with QE2 and the Red Devils aerobatic team, and formation flying with other Concordes. He had also flown with the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, and had some unique insights and anecdotes.
As part of the charity events, there was a Maritime Auction after lunch and we went along to the Auction Preview. The items were a mixture of old memorabilia alongside items made specially by the crew. We heard later that over £4000 had been bid.
Thursday 29 March was our second day at sea. This morning we were presented with a gastronomic treat - a cooking demonstration by two of the chefs : Klaus Kremer and Gerard Dunne. Pauline is looking forward to trying out the recipes when we get home, and we have photos of the end results to aim for.
The evening entertainment began by listening to David Gilchrist, an Australian singer and entertainer, before heading for the theatre and piano music. This time it was piano duets, music specially arranged for four hands, and played by two Australian ladies.
On our third day at sea, Friday 30 March, we attended more lectures. Firstly we listened to the second talk about Concorde, which included a nice 6 minute video.
Then we stayed in the Theatre for Denis Cochrane's talk about his dives to Titanic in August 2000. The wreck is buried 2.5 miles below the Atlantic Ocean, and to visit the remains he had been invited to use a Russian submersible. Only in July and August is the Atlantic calm enough for diving. Again there were lots of pictures and some moving video, especially of the bow portion of the ship. Generally the ship herself is not touched, except to remove pieces of coal which are then mounted and sold as memorabilia to fund conservation and exploration work. However some items in the debris field, the area between the two halves of the hull, are collected. Over the years there has been deterioration due to the action of the sea, but anything wrapped in leather survived. Even a sampler set of perfume phials survived intact including their contents. One highlight of his visit to Titanic was the rendezvous with Captain Warwick and the QE2 on August 10, where signs and greetings were exchanged during her scheduled Atlantic crossing. The parent vessel of the Russian submersible, the Akademic Keldysh, flew a White Star Line burgee atop her foremast, clearly visible from the QE2.
At lunch we checked that it was going to be a formal Gala Dinner, with the Baked Alaska promenade. So we enjoyed salmon and caviar, Beef Wellington (although tempted by the alternative half Lobster) followed by strawberries (not the Baked Alaska). It was an excellent meal, and was followed by the Midnight Gala Buffet. This evening the pair of ice carvings were kingfishers.
Our fourth day at sea was Saturday 31 March. Today we had a second lecture from Denis Cochrane, where he showed a lot of pictures of Titanic memorabilia, starting with postcards and including one of the rare lifejackets. Denis also showed views from the Titanic exhibition in Boston USA, to which he is both contributor and advisor.
After lunch there was the World Cruise Charity Country Fayre. There were a number of stalls set up in the Grand Lounge, rather like an English Fete - Thrift Shop, Tombola, Pick-a-straw, Fortune Teller, Guess the weight of the cake. We intended to go, but the weather was so beautiful that we settled down on the sunbeds instead.
We arrived at Aqaba, Jordan early on Sunday 1 April. We knew we had a long tiring day ahead because we were taking a special excursion. We were going to visit the pink city of Petra, about two hours drive away. We began by driving through the resort city of Aqaba, It is the only port for Jordan, and in March became a Duty Free Zone. We headed east along highway 5 but unfortunately after an hour we had a puncture. The tyre was changed at a roadside tyre shack, which announced its work by hanging a large tyre outside on a pole, and was surrounded by mounds of frayed and torn tyres.
We had been advised by the Tour Office that Petra was a difficult excursion, involving walking for over 2 miles on rough surfaces, with temperatures which might be as cold as 58 F, and where only perhaps a few horses and (even less likely) carts might be available as an alternative to walking. This negative view of the day must have deterred many people from taking the trip, but on the ground it was quite different. En route our guide explained that there were very few tourists who came to Jordan now.
Against this background, we found lots of horses and were asked many times whether we would like a ride. There were three stages to our journey. Firstly just through the entrance we found the horses and carts. The horses only go to the start of the Siq gorge, whereas the carts go all the way to the first building, the Treasury. Then there are camels outside the Treasury which go along the streets within the town. There are also donkeys for hire. The horses looked an attractive option, but we walked because we wanted to hear the commentary of the guide. The carts were not a good option because part of the path was paved with large uneven stones, and the carts had no obvious suspension. We saw one cart with a puncture, and generally it was a bone-jarring adventure.
On the weather, we took our cue from the guide. On arrival at the bus park it was hot, and he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, long trousers and a hat. This was all protection from the sun. Many people stopped to buy the typical Arab headdresses to keep the sun off, and later we heard that one person from our coach got sunstroke and had to be helped back early.
Our guided walk began gently, noting the square Djin blocks and remains of the Roman Triumphal arch. We reached the Siq, and the path narrowed and the pink rocks towered above us. We stopped to admire the Obelisk Tomb, with its four obelisks above the tomb entrance, and the Triclinium below adorned with columns, lintels and pediments.
Suddenly, through a gap in the ravine we glimpsed the most spectacular building - this was Al-Khazneh Farun, the Treasury of the Pharaoh. We were just in time to see it with the sunshine still on the front of the facade. It was completely carved from the rock, and is well preserved by being relatively protected from weather erosion. The central urn was believed to contain a treasure, and there are bullet marks around it.
Continuing into the city, we passed along the Facade Street, which as its name suggests has beautiful facades in front of some of the most interesting tombs in Petra. On the top of the ridge over 700 steps above is the High Place of Sacrifice, and includes Abraham's Altar, said to be used for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
The tour group rested at a cafe whereas we continued, climbing up the steps to the six Royal Tombs. The first of these is the Urn Tomb, cut out of the rocks and surrounded by a deep colonade that overlooks a wide courtyard. This courtyard platform rests on an elaborate system of arches. The Corinthian Tomb is nearby, but is badly damaged. There is also the splendid Silk Tomb, carved out of spectacular rainbow coloured rock. The rock formations in this whole area are very striking.
We arrived at Safaga, Egypt on Monday 2 April. We should have been at anchor, so it was a pleasant surprise to find we were berthed at 06.30 instead. Safaga is mainly a port for the export of phosphates from local mines. There were two ferry boats at anchor in the distance, about the size of the old NZ InterIslander ferries, and behind us was a military area with several ships. We were warned that it was prohibited to take photos. The town in the distance did not look very interesting; just lots of concrete cube houses. Beyond the military area , there was a coastal resort, Hurghada, with more rows of neat square houses. We were here only to set down and pick up passengers, and left again at lunchtime. There was no real chance to see anything.
We arrived at Port Suez, Egypt early on Wednesday 3 April. The programme said that we would anchor at 05.00, and then proceed ashore by tender. We were taking the excursion to Saqqarah and the Pyramids, which was scheduled to depart from the port at 07.30. This meant that we needed to catch a tender at 07.15. Unfortunately although we arrived at anchor at 04.00, the ship had to wait in the outer harbour while the morning convoy entered the Suez Canal. Only then was a pilot made available. We waited. Eventually the pilot came aboard, we raised the anchor, and moved into the shelter of the inner harbour.
There were three coaches going to Saqqarah and the Pyramids, as well as coaches going to the River Nile and others going to the Museum in Cairo. The local security arrangements for the coaches restricted our timing. All coaches had to leave the port together under escort, meaning that we had to wait for all the coaches to be full before any of them could depart. This was not a very sensible arrangement when there were just 5 tenders and they could only be unloaded one-at-a-time. Having been originally scheduled to depart at 07.30 we finally left at 11.30. Each bus had one Cunard person, the local tour guide, and a young security man in a suit.
Cairo was 135 kilometres away, so we settled back for a two hour drive through the desert, punctuated by regular military posts and sentries, and interrupted by a history lesson from our tour guide.
We turned off onto the Cairo bypass, towards Giza, driving across the River Nile and through the green farming area. We were struck by the numbers of simple square houses being constructed, which had been built without proper permissions by the farmers. The groups of buildings included grazing areas for animals, especially bullocks and a few camels.
Because our departure on tour was so late, lunch was first, then Saqqarah and finally the Pyramids. The hotel chosen for lunch was the 5-star Mena House Hotel. The hotel was built around the original palace, still with its old wooden balconies, and had become a hotel at the time when the Suez Canal was built. It is one of the best hotels in Giza, with beautiful public rooms and good food.
We then continued to Saqqarah. There are many tombs on the desert plateau, but we were only going to see the Step Pyramid of Zoser (2630 - 2611 BC). This was the very first of the pyramids. The tomb was originally planned as a stone mastabah, and shows several changes in design before achieving its present six-stepped form. The Step Pyramid is surrounded by an enormous walled Enclosure. The original entrance doorway has an imitation palmlog ceiling, and leads to a corridor of papyrus-bundle columns, leading to a large court in front of the pyramid. The top of the enclosure wall offers superb views in all directions, including the two stone pyramids of Snofru at Dahshur; the southernmost of these changes the angle of slope halfway up and is consequently known as the "Bent Pyramid".
From Saqqarah we drove back along the road to Giza, passing in front of the Mena House Hotel. On the escarpment above are the three Great Pyramids of Giza, the only one of the seven wonders of the world which are still intact. We approached the Great Pyramids just as the sun was starting to set, which was a spectacular time for photos.
Khufu (2551 - b2528 BC), known in Greek as Cheops, was the builder of the Great Pyramid. It is the largest in Egypt. Almost all of the fine white limestone casing that once covered it has been removed and some stone is missing from the top. The second pyramid belongs to Khufu's son, Khafra (2520 - 2494 BC). Built on higher ground it is slightly small and slopes at a sharper angle. The lower courses were cased with red granite and the upper with white limestone, some of which survived at the top. It is believed that the tips of all pyramids were originally covered in gold. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to visit all the pyramids, and were only able to stop at the smallest pyramid, called the Third Pyramid. It was built by the grandson of Khufu, Menkaura (2490 - 2472 BC), but it was never finished. We were able to walk down the very steep ramp into the pyramid. It is a difficult entry, with a very low ceiling, and two extremely low door lintels.
Nearby is the Guardian of the Necropolis, the Sphinx. Although suffering badly from erosion, it is still a remarkable 66 foot high statue with the body of a lion and the face of King Khafra. It was sculpted out of the rock where a softer layer of yellow limestone runs between harder, greyer stone. The head is of harder stone so has survived better.
We thought that we would now be going directly back to QE2, but no ! We had to stop at a Bazaar for shopping. At least it had clean European-style toilets. Many people bought the gold cartouche pendants which were made while you waited with your Christian name spelt in hieroglyphs. We bought a granite cat, and a cheap silver necklace and bracelet from a street hawker outside. This meant that we had spent all our US dollars and were ready for the rest of our holiday in Europe.
Thirty five sleepy people got back onto the coach, and settled down for the drive back to Port Suez. At the outskirts of the town we were surprised when the coach pulled in to the side of the road. We were told that we had to wait until all the coaches had assembled before we could be escorted as a convoy back to the ship. After 5 minutes we continued. At the port we were sensibly invited by the crew to stay in the comfort of the buses until a tender was ready for us. At 23.10 we finally got back on board. Essentially the trip had taken 12 hours, instead of the original estimate of 11 hours, but since we had originally collected our tender tickets at 07.15 it had been a very long day.
Wednesday 4 April was spent in transit through the Suez Canal. From Suez to Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal is 173 kms by road. This is very similar to the 100 miles length of the Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The very first canal was said to have been dug in the reign of Senusert the Third, also joining the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Then in 591 BC a canal was dug between the Nile and the Red Sea. Only in the 19th century was it considered possible to try again and link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also built the Panama Canal, started work in 1859 and the canal was completed in 1869. It was jointly held by the Franco British Suez Canal Company until nationalisation in 1956. As a result of the Middle East discord, the canal suffered blockage and closure in 1967 but reopened in June 1975. The Suez Canal is simpler than the Panama Canal because it does not need locks. However there needs to be regular dredging and maintenance to keep the channel open. For much of its length ships cannot pass. So convoys are timed to meet at the passing place in the Bitter Lakes. There are up to three convoys heading north each day, and one heading south.
We expected to commence transit of the Suez Canal at 0630, and set an alarm for 0545. Sunrise was at 0535, and we noticed that we were moving early. We grabbed a video and camera and rushed up on deck, just catching the entry into the canal. We were the first ship in the first convoy of the morning. We watched the outskirts of Suez disappear behind us, and headed into the desert, punctuated with military camps and company resort villages.
We eventually reached the Bitter Lakes; first the Little Bitter Lake and then the Great Bitter Lake. We saw three ships from the opposite direction. They were waiting at anchor, and we cruised majestically past. By now the marked channel had expanded into two channels, enabling ships to pass.
We continued north, passing the new swing bridge, and then the new road bridge, both still under construction. On both banks of the canal there is a road, and on one side there is the railway. At present there are a only a few small ferries which can carry 10 or 12 vehicles from one side of the canal to the other. The workers on the bridge stopped to wave and were greeted with a series of three deep throaty roars from our ships horn.
Thursday 5 April was spent at sea. In the morning we watched the butter, vegetable and fruit carving demonstration by Chefs Ashis Kumar Chitrakar and Eric Yoong. There were two swans made from butter, starting with a foil base and pressing the butter onto it.
The range of decorative flowers carved from vegetables and melons were much quicker to make.
In the afternoon we went to listen to the White Elephant Auction. The objects for auction were mixed, ranging from toiletries and toys which went for two or three dollars, up to US$1480 which was bid for the chance to start the engines of QE2. Again all the profits went to charity.
Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 12th July 2001