Growing up I LOVED (and still love) watching The Mummy, Prince of Egypt and Aladdin with my family. I adored all the family-friendly adventure that came with those movies, but I particularly enjoyed watching the scenery captured, whether they were animated or not. There’s something so luxurious about the Arabian landscape, decorated with ancient limestone buildings that all blend in together in the same colour scheme. Picture-perfect blue skies complemented by yellow sands and nothing else in between. They seemed overly superficial to me, untouchable and distant from the booming metropolis, modern architecture and greenery I’m accustomed to here.
I found myself wanting to see a piece of this history in January. The original plan was to travel in a largely guided tour to Israel and Jordan but quickly turned into a custom private tour. Those larger tour groups didn’t stop in the cities I wanted to see ie. Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Dubai.
People thought I was mad for traveling without a commercial tour group. But I write this in the hopes of providing some reassurance to those (solo or not) willing to travel to Egypt in a private tour with a stopover in Dubai/Abu Dhabi for a week.
The trip began with flying from Indonesia to Dubai on a 6 hour flight with Emirates. Flying from Indonesia meant that one, we could stopover, relax for a couple of days before embarking on the 8-hour flight and two, spend time with our relatives. Indonesia is also a great stopover on the way from Melbourne to Dubai for those who aren’t overly committed to a long haul flight. We arrived in Dubai at 12am.
Our hotel was within the vicinity of one of the largest malls in the world, just a short walk to the Dubai Mall we were confronted with 1200+ international retailers under the one roof. The Dubai mall is split into two malls: one being the main mall and the other being the designer mall. A bridge connects the two…seriously an indoor sanctuary just for designer brands? Help me.
Dubai is simple to navigate so there wasn’t the need for a tour on this leg. If you must, there’s the famous Hop On Hop Off tour bus around the city. Sometimes I get asked if it’s a safe city, I felt 99.9% safe. Locals are friendly and taxis are cheap – sometimes cheaper than an Uber. We also met a very friendly driver from Nepal, Tara. He kindly gave his number to us if we ever needed a driver! Weather is at its best this time of the year, we couldn’t fault it. The first 2 days saw us shopping in the Dubai Mall, soaking in sights of the Burj Khalifa, seeing local art, trying Emirati food, Skydiving and dessert dune bashing.
We jetted off to Cairo on the third day. At this point we still coordinated the flights ourselves. We drove from Dubai to Abu Dhabi which took an hour and 20 minute drive, $80 for all of us in one taxi. Earlier I mentioned the friendly driver from Nepal, Tara was the man to drive us that early! We called him up the night before and BAM there he was, gracing us with his presence in the hotel lobby. We boarded an Etihad flight that only cost us $250 AUD per person for a 3-hour return flight from Abu Dhabi. It was a nice modern fleet too.
A month prior to the trip I was referred to Ashraf, a tour guide my uncle used when he went to Egypt last year. Ashraf now runs an Egyptian tour company called Silvertoursegypt.com and has been busy with the business. He’s no longer a tour guide himself but manages the tours and organizes contractor tour guides in Northern and Southern Egypt. Together we designed a 4-day custom Egypt itinerary over WhatsApp. All up it cost us $495 USD for the tailor-made tour inclusive of:
• Tour guides (one per city)
• A driver with spacious mini vans (different driver per city)
• Entry tickets to iconic sites around Cairo, Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor.
• Domestic flights from Cairo to Aswan, Luxor to Cairo (tour guides will meet at the airport)
• Airport/hotel pick-ups and the best part, it covers the long 7-hour drive from Abu Simbel to Luxor. Food and drinks aren’t included but we were welcome to stop anytime at restaurants/fast-food places throughout the day. Tipping the driver at the end of the day is also necessary but we didn’t need to tip the tour guide.
So how did we organize the payment? A 20% deposit was required and easily payable over Western Union. This down payment was needed to guarantee our domestic flights which Ashraf booked in advance. He promptly emailed our flight tickets. The rest of the payment was made in cash on arrival. As soon as the driver, the representative and tour guide picked us up, we paid them in USD. For most Egyptian tours they’ll organize a representative to pick you up inside the airport right after you disembark the plane. The representative will help you get through immigration without any hassle and from there you pick up your luggage, go to the toilet and the representative will show you the way to the mini van where the guide and driver awaits.
Upon arrival in Cairo we went straight to the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx of Giza. First impressions, a jungle of tourists. Second impressions, it’s breathtaking. The feeling reminded me of entering the Great Wall of China. A plethora of tour buses at the entrance but once you enter, tourists disperse and you get a clear view of that giant piece of history right before your eyes. Another reason why the experience reminded me of the Great Wall is of course, the hagglers. No matter the country, there’s a haggler challenging your visit. From tipping $5 to Spiderman for a damn photo in the Hollywood Walk of Fame to a haggler claiming he takes the best photo angles in Egypt and forcefully ties a headscarf around your head without consent. We are again, victims! Eventually we tipped them. They all prey on you so just ignore them and pretend they aren’t there. The tour guide will remind you repeatedly as hagglers can slow down the tour schedule.
The sun sets over the Sphinx and that brought an end to our first day in Cairo. The guide and driver took us to a nearby KFC (as requested) for a quick dinner before touring a local Papyrus shop and finally dropping us to our hotel. We stayed at Marriott Mena House which is literally next to the Pyramids. Very beautiful and I wish I spent more time in the courtyard gazing at the silhouette of the pyramids.
From Cairo we flew to Aswan airport on Egypt Air (1 hour), drove to Abu Simbel (3 hours), then back to Aswan and did another 4-hour drive up to Luxor as the final leg of the trip. The memory of driving from Aswan to Luxor is so distinct to me. We encountered a few unprecedented events in the van. For 7 straight hours, we are LITERALLY in a van with manual transmission. I couldn’t stop thinking if this van was gonna break down or not. Driving past extremely rural areas, parallel to the Nile River you’ll find yourself on insanely underdeveloped roads and plenty of areas that are deserted…SO deserted to the point it’s infinite lands of sand and wonky powerlines. We had zero signal for most of the ride. Even at one stopover was at a suspicious-looking restaurant with no customers in the middle of nowhere. So it kinda felt like we were stranded with a group of strangers but not gonna lie, having a female guide made it feel a little safer for us.
We spent the remaining days in Luxor and stayed at the majestic Hilton Luxor which kindly served us complimentary breakfast overlooking the Nile. We also had authentic Egyptian cuisine for lunch in Luxor with the guide and it was tasty! As wonderful as the sites were in Luxor, my favorite part was seeing the Stone factory as suggested by our lovely tour guide. I got all of my cherished Egyptian souvenirs from this one place because it was easy to bargain, made of premium limestone and had endless options.
The tour ended when they dropped us at Luxor Airport to catch a flight back to Cairo and from there we waited for our flight back to Abu Dhabi.
The experiences here are vastly different to what I’ve experienced on other trips. It pushed us beyond our comfort zone and made me realize how truly remarkable it is to travel with family who appreciate the adventure, the art and history of these places as much as I do. Not a single moment is taken for granted.
Design had evolved naturally, as a passion and a lifestyle beginning at an early age when I made trips back to the motherland, Indonesia, I experienced the surroundings and the lifestyle that was vastly different from what I was used to. I found myself passing by villages where children made their own toys with whatever was left around them; scrap metal, bits of cloth, banana leaves, and even cigarette butts. Despite this, the children were happy and proud with anything they created.
This image struck me and forever inspires me to contribute my skills to places that need it the most. Design helps me make decisions, while art helps me take risks. Both areas reward me with opportunities to create something impactful and everlasting!