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A Camel Named Yorkshire

I left you just as I was talking to the owner of the Bedouin Pyramids Guest House about a tour of the Pyramids…

Well, I think he was the owner – I’m actually a little unsure about that. As far as I know, he’s the guy who messaged me on WhatsApp when I made the booking. The only problem is that the guy who messaged me was named “Marwan” and I heard the guy I was talking to in person introduce himself as “Hassan” to other guests. I think he might have been a cousin, but who knows?

Anyway, we jumped into Marwan/Hassan’s car and drove to the entrance of the Giza Necropolis. I had partially booked this particular hotel because it was only a little over a mile (1.7 km, if you’re being precise) as the crow flies from the Pyramids but, having seen Cairo traffic and its…liberal approach to the Highway Code, I decided that walking was perhaps not the smartest idea.

Whistle-stop tour

Mar-san kindly went about getting me a ticket, sparing me a few minutes of standing in a queue. I then had to get out of the car, scan my ticket, walk through a metal detector, then get back in the car on the other side – security theatre at its finest! Now in the complex, we drove up to a viewpoint from which you can get a reasonably good view of the three main pyramids. Has-wan claimed it was the only place you can see all three in one panorama, which isn’t even slightly true, but it was a nice view.

The Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt
The view was actually too wide to fit all three pyramids into a good photo

Next stop was the Pyramid of Khafre – my favourite of the pyramids, for a silly reason. Basically, it’s the only one which is still relatively smooth at the top, presumably looking somewhat like it did when it was first completed over 4,500 years ago, minus the limestone cladding that would have made it shine bright white in the desert sun. I discovered, at this point, that it is possible to go inside the Pyramids and see the tombs therein. I also discovered that you needed to pay extra for this privilege and that I’d only been bought the most basic ticket, so that’s an experience that will have to wait for a future visit.

The Pyramid of Khafre in Cairo, Egypt
The Pyramid of Khafre in Cairo, Egypt

We next walked around the Great Pyramid and the nearby small tombs – all very impressive. The size is certainly awe-inspiring, as is the precision with which they were built, despite the lack of modern tools and techniques. Given what sometimes passes for a completed building today, perhaps that should be “thanks to the lack of modern tools and techniques”?

As we walked around, my hotelier-cum-guide would occasionally share fascinating little facts, like explaining that the reason the security guards were stopping people climbing up the pyramids was because there used to be a trend of suicidal Egyptians climbing to the top and threatening to throw themselves off. For actual historical details, we both resorted to Google.

Kissing the Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt

Finally, we reached the Sphinx. While I was taking photos, I noticed a group of Indian tourists doing some silly poses – pretending to kiss the [weirdly small] human head atop the mighty lion’s body. At first, I rolled my eyes at the clichéd silliness but, seeing how much fun they were having looking at the resulting pictures, I handed Hamwar my phone and, I’m happy to say, found my version just as entertaining. Turns out silly can also be fun.

Ask a silly question

A few days before my flight from Bangkok, I’d told a friend the few specifics of the planned trip, naturally including the intention to visit the Pyramids since that was the one part I’d locked in. He decided to give me a few challenges to complete along the way, being a very good friend who knows how my mind works very well. One was to answer a few questions about the ancient ruins of the Giza Necropolis. Those questions were:

  • Are they as awe-inspiring in real life as they are on TV? Answer: Absolutely!
  • Is the Sphinx as close to the Pyramids as it seems? Answer: Pretty much – it’s only a few hundred yards/metres from the Sphinx to the Great Pyramid, so they do indeed feel like part of the same compact complex.
  • Is there a Starbucks that’s right next to the Pyramids? Answer: Not that I saw. There’s a good distance of desert, roads, and car park between the city and the Pyramids, not to mention a substantial wall. Also, Starbucks isn’t especially common in Cairo.
  • Does the Sphinx have a butthole? Answer: Sadly not – the tail hides it.
The rear end of the Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt

Like I said, silly can be fun.

Enter Abdulaziz

Mar-Hassan-wan’s idea of a tour was unfortunately very reminiscent of tuk-tuk tours in Bangkok – very briefly visit the interesting historical sites and then head to some remote factory or other that gives the guide a commission. In Thailand, it’s often a gem shop. In Egypt, it was a perfume factory.

Having no particular interest in the fabrication of fragrances, I suggested that Has-Marwan-san go about his day while I entertained myself around the Necropolis on my own and on foot. The weather was pleasant enough, I wanted more time to take photos without feeling like I was holding anyone up and I was even considering riding a camel – an experience that had previously evaded me, despite my living in Oman for two years. He agreed and soon departed.

The Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, Egypt
The Great Pyramid
Inside the Tomb of Qar in Cairo, Egypt
The Tomb of Qar – the only one you’re allowed in without a special ticket
The Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt

I eventually made my way back to the Pyramid of Khafre to sit in the shade and write a postcard. I was interrupted in this endeavour by an extremely elderly camel driver who had previously introduced himself as Abdulaziz. I’d made the mistake of expressing a vague interest in a camel ride, partially out of genuine interest but mostly out of basic politeness. As I hadn’t subsequently fled the scene, he obviously assumed I was a likely customer and so kept pestering me until I finally agreed.

Scam ahoy!

Abdulaziz and Yorkshire the camel in front of the Great Pyramid in Cairo, Egypt

At this point, I made an error in judgement. When I asked Abdulaziz how much the ride would cost, he initially said 50 euros. After translating that into Thai baht, I found that a bit excessive. However, when I expressed this concern, he immediately dropped the price to 35 euros. That, boys and girls, is called a scam. No self-respecting businessman will drop his price by a third at the first sign of reluctance from the customer. Not if he wants to remain a businessman for long, anyway.

What followed was an extremely ambiguous experience. On the one hand, I rode a camel around the Pyramids and out into the desert, at one point riding entirely solo – how can that not be memorable? On the other hand, my finely tuned and highly experienced scammer senses were going nuts. I believe almost nothing of what he told me – that he was 89 years old, that his camel’s name was “Yorkshire” because some grandparent or other had emigrated there at some point, that he could read palms, or that the stones he occasionally picked up off the ground and handed to me were in any way special. For one thing, one of them wasn’t even a stone, but a camel turd with a tooth stuck in the middle of it. Another was very obviously the spout of a modern ceramic teapot and not the ancient relic he claimed it to be.

Another dead giveaway that a scam was brewing was the fact that each time we stopped near another group of tourists to take a few photos, Abdulaziz would wander off for a bit and then return with guides and guards all vouching for him, often saying remarkably similar things about how honest and good he is. Honest and good people don’t require such social proof – their actions are evidence enough.

The Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt

Time for the hustle

It wasn’t until we were right out in the desert that he finally sprung the scam, abruptly upping the price of the whole ride back up to 50 euros, asking for payment in foreign currencies, playing up the difficulty of his situation and the price of camel food – the whole works. Having limited amounts of Egyptian pounds on me, I offered to pay in baht so long as he returned the 35 euros in pounds I’d already given him. He pocketed the baht but I had to get really quite angry with him (quite unlike me, as anyone who knows me will tell you) before he’d part with some of the pounds.

In the end, the whole trip cost about 3,000 baht. Grossly overpriced, but not a significant threat to my finances. It wasn’t the money that bothered me, but the means by which I had been parted from it. Frustratingly, it has left an indelible mark on what should have been a wondrous experience. Such is life.

Riding a camel near the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt
If you thought the Mona Lisa‘s smile was ambiguous…

Home again

It was on the way back towards the Pyramid of Menkaure that Abdulaziz gave me solo control of Yorkshire, possibly to mollify my anger but more likely because he couldn’t hold the camel while he was taking a pee. Either way, I found the beast to be somewhat grumpy but not actually difficult to direct. He did have a slight tendency to veer to the right, though, which made turning left awkward. Also, I now understand why camels used to be known as the ‘ships of the desert’ – because riding one feels like taking a rowboat across an ocean! It’s a good thing I don’t get seasick. Or should that be sandsick?

With one last doomed attempt to elicit more money from me, Abdulaziz and I parted ways. I then got a message from Wansan saying that it was nearly time for him to go to his job at the airport and that, if I wanted a lift back to the hotel, it needed to be now. I power walked the mile back to the exit where I’d last seen him and, after some remarkable displays of precision driving in tight spaces, we got back to the hotel. Marwan-san said he’d never seen someone spend five hours just around the Pyramids, but the time had flown for me. It was only about 3 pm, but all that time in the sun had exhausted me and I just rested for the remainder of the day.

Sunset over the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt
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Ben has been an expatriate since he was 21, a writer since he was about 10 and a photographer since he was 12. Degema Travel is the culmination of that experience.

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