[31st January, 2008]
It is still not 9.00 a.m. and I am literally high on solitude. After taking photos and making a digital voice recording for posterity, it is time to set off for my next destination, the tomb of Ay at the head of the Western Valley. I make my way carefully back down the track that leads to the bottom of the main cliffs high on el-Qurn’s east-facing flank. From here there are visible, well-trodden paths leading down into the Valley of the Kings and along the cliff tops to Deir el-Bahri. But I have set my mind on the one that is markedly less distinct, heading out directly across the face of the Theban Peak. Soon I am looking up at those great cliffs that dominate the classic view of the Valley of the Kings. I am increasingly aware of striking out alone – I can no longer see the main valley and its ant-like visitors below and I feel dwarfed myself by the grandeur of the landscape. Everywhere is silence. I have entered the domain of Meretseger.
I look back along the path I have taken, one last chance to change my mind and return to modern humanity. But no, though I feel a twinge of uncertainty, the attraction of solitude is stronger and, anyway, dark patches of incinerated donkey droppings reassure me that, though the path is ill-defined and the slope quite precipitous, other people have been here before me. The terrain ahead is all scree slopes and vertical cliffs. These days it is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, albeit on a smaller scale, but once, at the end of the last Ice Age, it would have been more like the Ethiopian Highlands, cascades of water running between the cliffs, and instead of rocky slopes, verdant pastures populated by hoards of baboons. For a moment I wonder: could there be another, much more ancient reason why the Western Valley is called The Valley of the Monkeys?
As the slopes become steeper, my anxiety increases. I’ve been in mountains before, but never in the desert, and never so utterly alone. But it is important not to panic. I learned this from my brother, a mountaineer, when I suggested he must have felt fear as he climbed on sheer granite, 2,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley in California. Yes, he said, there could be fear, but danger comes from panic, and that is held in check by belief in one’s abilities. In my case I always treat the first symptoms of panic with a Werther’s Original – the quick sugar hit combined with the taste of something familiar and associated with home usually does the trick. The first time I reach for the Werthers on this trip is the point where, though I can see the valley floor and the tomb of Ay below me, the shale slope is becoming steeper and the path less distinct. As I carefully descend this track, barely visible at times except for occasional stone markers on either side, I gradually realise that the way to my destination is not going to be straight down, since that way leads to the top of sheer cliffs. It is to be to the left, the west, and though I can see the head of the valley now, in fact I would be moving for some time alarmingly away from it.
As I round the shale slope I see el-Qurn’s pyramid now looming way above me and, ahead, the cliffs at the head of the subsidiary wadi into which I would be walking, seemingly twisted into fantastic shapes, almost as if this whole landscape had once been semi-molten, buckling in the fierce heat. I am glad it is not so hot now. Within the cliffs I can see the dark shadows at the entrance to fissures and caverns and with a rush I feel overwhelmingly that I have entered the world of the great Belzoni, in which exploration of tombs went hand in hand with avoidance of bandits.
The first part of the descent into this subsidiary valley is alongside a band of sheer rock which looks like it has been quarried, since its faces do not share the organic lumpiness of the larger cliffs, but are smooth and angular. I imagine men in white linen garments crouched here working, endlessly chipping, endlessly producing the stone flakes that cover this entire landscape. At home, if you walk across areas of loose stone, you might stop to pick up something that catches your eye, yet though it looks like a flint arrowhead you convince yourself it can’t be, discard it, and walk on. In the Valley of the Kings, every stone you walk on, accidentally kick, or occasionally pick up, has the authentic look of something worked by ancient hands. And in many cases it almost certainly was. The effect of this is extraordinary – wherever I walk in the Theban Necropolis, though the only visible human forms might be way in the distance, I never feel completely alone. And sometimes, quite mysteriously, I feel part of a crowd.
For a moment my head reels with these sensations, and the sight of ‘tourist’ graffiti from modern times, scratched into the rock, which at another time might be seen as an unwelcome intrusion, here gives reassurance and calm. Otherwise, this is an eerie landscape which I have entered. The sense of solitude is almost tangible and dark shadows suggest a hint of menace, only heightened by some further evidence of people having been here before me in recent time – small piles of rocks suggesting the shapes of animals, birds, or inanimate fetishes which have been placed as sentinels in a silent world. I saw similar ‘sculptures’ the previous summer in Crete, on a rocky slope overlooking the sea, a spot I knew was rarely visited by regular tourists but was a magnet for new-agers, seekers of an alternative lifestyle, pagans. In Crete it had suggested merely the quirkiness of inhabitants of north-west Europe visiting the continent’s south-eastern extremity. Here there was something about it of the horror of a pagan past which prompted the early Christian hermits who visited these remote valleys into orgies of image destruction. Though not superstitious myself (how many of us say that!) I get an inkling of the imagined spiritual conflict that was at once the attraction, and the repulsion, of a place like this.
I reach the end of the wadi, an unstable and unnerving area of holes and hollows that I am glad to pass quickly, followed by a walk up to and along the top of sheer cliffs. Here there is a choice of routes, all of them quite indistinct, and my heart rate quickens as I realise I must make real choices. I decide on the path that looks the most worn, though on the less comforting side it is steeper and nearer the edge of the precipitous cliffs. I walk carefully now, forcefully reminded of the climactic scene in The English Patient when Ralph Fiennes carries his fatally wounded lover to the cave that will be her final resting place. I take no photos of this part of the walk since my hands are trembling.
After a hundred yards or so, the needle on the GPS starts to point backwards, telling me that I have reached the point where I must look for a descent to the valley floor or risk disappearing too far into the wadi at the extreme end of the western valley. The first possible route I see vanishes alarmingly at the top of the cliff so I keep going. A little further on I come across what looks like a stone chute – though possibly a path – that appears to work its way in a half-spiral towards the valley floor. I make the move that, were this valley still wet, would be taking the plunge, and half-scramble half-slide my way down the slope, still unsure whether it is chute or path. A welcome return to some firm rock, followed by another ungraceful slide, and I reach the valley floor.
Scanning the towering rocks around me, I take my bearings. And there it is – the entrance to the final resting place chosen by the successor to Tutankhamun, a man who stood on this very spot some 3,000 years before me and ordered his work to begin. The place is completely deserted and, despite the obvious trappings of modern tourism – rest shelter, electricity generator – I feel something of the emotions of a Belzoni or a Carter, a sense of discovery imbued with a curious sense of belonging. And hard on its heels, feelings of relief, then triumph – I made it!