Southbound Train, Egypt

The city of Luxor, a little over 650km south of Cairo, boasts an embarrassment of ancient riches. With a staggering number of tombs, temples and monuments, it rivals the Pyramids for the title of Egypt’s greatest archaeological show. After some fascinating days exploring the Giza plateau, I booked a ticket on the southbound train to the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire.

I have to admit I find massive train stations a bit intimidating. They are always more chaotic than airports, and in a mega-city like Cairo, and with still no Arabic to call on (no-one’s fault but mine), I was wondering if I was going to be able to find my train. I struggled from the cab and through the commuters to the Ramses Railway Station entry, and queued at the checkpoint. A security official asked for my ticket and passport, and reading the apprehension on my face, walked me to my platform and the waiting train. One of the railway workers got me to my carriage, and then to my seat, and I plunked myself down feeling relieved that the whole process had gone remarkably well.

Egyptian trains come in three classes: shithouse, pretty good and comfy. As tickets are cheap to us fortunate westerners (and the fortunate Egyptians), I reclined in my comfy seat to enjoy the trip. I was keen to get out of Cairo and see what the Nile Valley looked like out of town.

With a lurch the train heaved forwards, and my 10.5 hour journey to Luxor had begun. I watched impatiently as the seemingly endless drab expanse of Cairo slipped by.

Eventually we broke free from Cairo, and the high rise blocks became more scarce. After the sepia tones of the city, the vivid green of the crops and market gardens was a welcome sight.

To say there would be no Egypt without the Nile is both a truism and an understatement. Egypt is a bloody dry place, and I don’t mean just by Australian standards. I worked in arid Central Australia for many years, where the average yearly rainfall (though extremely variable) was about 240mm. Cairo receives about 18mm. And Luxor, my destination, gets less than a millimetre over 1.9 rain days per year. In other words, it never rains at all. Without the ‘Life Giver’, there could never have been an ancient Egyptian Empire, nor a nation of just over 100 million people today.

Naively, I was hoping to see some ‘natural’ vegetation during the southbound trip; perhaps a little of the Nile Valley that hadn’t been transformed to support Homo sapians. In reality, the Valley is thousands and thousands of contiguous farms running the length of the country. Consequently, there was no break in human habitation for the length of my train ride, with buildings, small towns and cities always visible from the window.

We stopped periodically at dusty railway stations where passengers, struggling with their luggage and boxes of new appliances purchased in Cairo, would pile out into the glaring sun. They would be replaced by others heading south, and I would take the opportunity to stand up and stretch during these brief interludes. Then a clank and a surge and we were off again.

A neatly dressed railway employee would appear every now and then, pushing a trolley of hot and cold beverages. He worked his way from the front of the carriage down to my seat at the back, asking each passenger in turn if they would like a refreshment. Come to think of it, I never actually saw him push his trolley back the other way, so I have no idea how he would magically appear at the front of the carriage every time.

The train rolled on and the hours with it, and in the early evening we finally pulled up at Luxor Station. I had been keeping a pretty close eye on our progress on the map on the phone, as Egyptian stations aren’t particularly well marked, and I didn’t want to overshoot my stop and end up in Sudan. I grabbed my bags and stepped off into the evening heat, noise and bustle of Luxor City. Having sat on my arse the entire day, I chose to walk to the ‘ferry boat’ jetty rather than accept one of the four thousand offers I received for transport. I was staying on the west side of the Nile, a quiet rural area, and needed to cross the nation-builder to reach my accommodation.

Tourist boats, southbound train Luxor
Tourist boats, west side of the Nile, Luxor

I’d worked up a sweat when I finally reached the ferry, which had switched docking locations to a spot further from the railway station since my map was produced. I handed over my grimy, crumpled Egyptian five pound note (the lower denomination notes are used a lot, and they get shabby fast) and climbed aboard. The public ferries are open and breezy, with a roof over the upper deck to protect the passengers from the sun (not the rain, because as I mentioned there never is any). They do not have a timetable as such; the two ferries just wait at each bank until one is full and departs, and when it approaches the opposite bank the other boat leaves to give it docking space. (The ferries are very popular with commuters, and I used them a lot over my week in Luxor. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes for the boat to leave.)

Reaching the west bank, I walked the 10 minutes through the powder dry dirt streets to my hotel. The manager, who was working his way through an enormous joint when I arrived, showed me to my quarters. Thankfully, instead of city noise, I settled in to the night sounds of nearby cattle, donkeys, and the occasional barking dog. It was good to be out of Cairo, and although I was tired, I was excited about the week ahead exploring ancient Luxor.

Postscript: A few days after my arrival, two trains collided north of Luxor killing 32 people

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy Inside the Pyramids of Giza, Outside the Pyramids of Giza

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