After route-finding difficulties on the 2015 expedition I decide to try out an ascent to the plateau via the Western Valley adjunct of the Valley of the Kings.
Tuesday 7th February, 2017
I am up at dawn to cycle to the Valley of the Kings. As usual, there seems to be an inverse equation between the extent to which people tell me security has been stepped up and the situation that I find on the ground. On this occasion it is probably as relaxed as I have ever seen it in nine years of venturing into these hills. As I enter the valley on my rickety rental bike there is barely a glance from the armed police at the two checkpoints. I lock up the bike against the railings by the tourist market as usual and walk across the deserted car park, keeping half an eye on the police jeep by the main tourist entrance.
No one stops me as I enter the Western Valley but as I bear right onto a gravel mound I am seen by an old tomb guardian. As expected, he asks if I am looking for the Tomb of Ay but I give him my well-rehearsed routine, that I am just going up the slope a bit to take photos of the hot air balloons taking off against the rising sun. He says the police do not allow people up there, it is dangerous, to which I tell him that the police have let me do it in the past. He looks me up and down.
“Then will you come with me to the Tomb of Ay – in ten minutes?”
“By the time I have been up and down it will be more like half an hour.”
“Promise me, you will come with me then to the tomb.”
I turn and glance down at the GPS. The waypoint “WV START” is bang on and soon I have scrambled up the steep scree slope to where it meets the main Farshut Road coming up from the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. On the way up I notice that the huge stone floodlight housings, put in place a few years back, will be a good place for me to hide out of view, if needed, on the day of the traverse itself.
I reach the “Lion Bench”, first landmark on the plateau, at 7.45. There is only a light breeze and it is considerably warmer than the last time I was here, the failed attempted traverse of 2015. Getting up the first steep slope had been hard work and as I swig from my water bottle I half-notice that almost one of the two litres I am carrying has now gone, but this fails to make any great impression on me. I take a salt lick and try sending a test text message to Hamdy but it doesn’t look like it gets through. But I am able to get a good GPS signal on Google Maps to back up my Garmin which works on waypoints only.
At the gypsum outcrops familiar from previous sorties onto the plateau I see great numbers of paw prints and scratch marks made by the jackals / wolves that live up here. It seems strange that I didn’t notice these on previous occasions. I am making good progress – a steady 5 kph – and decide to press on to F4, eight kilometres into the traverse and the furthest point that I reached in 2015. I have a rest at the big cairn and a small hoverfly alights on my rucksack. It is curious how much of a bond I feel with the only other life-form that I know is up here with me. “Hello hoverfly – what are you doing up here?” What I am doing is talking to an insect. I get a satellite fix on Google Maps and take a screenshot that I can analyse back at base. I contemplate the fact that, as the crow flies, I am 25 km from the pick-up point on the northern side. I feel a warm sense of anticipation that the traverse that I have scheduled for two days’ time will be a success.
Before setting off on the return walk I take a big swig out of the second of my water bottles and, again, only subconsciously register that I have just a quarter of a litre left. But within minutes of starting back I begin to feel quite nervous, and for the first time that I have walked in the desert the reality that I am out in the middle of nowhere actually hits home. I start to sense the potential foolhardiness of setting out with just two litres of water. I feel I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the conditions and am acutely aware of how ludicrous it would be to “lose it”, not on the actual expedition, but on the reccy. I become intensely aware, for the first time in my life, of my body as an organism that needs fuel and if I don’t get it right there could be serious trouble. I set a quick pace and periodically counter the sense of mild panic, first with a Werther’s, and then by asking myself what Thesiger would have done – “not panic” the answer comes back. But I become increasingly aware that, even as I approach the head of the Valley, I am still a long way from potential help. I decide to get to the “Lion Bench” before taking the first half of the remaining water.
Suddenly, everywhere seems a long way ahead and I have to remember that often this is an illusion of the desert; earlier in the day I had seen in the distance what I thought was a person but turned out to be a very small stone cairn. At times I feel the start of cramp in my legs and drying of the throat and have to tell myself that it is psychological, but also that if I get out of this in one piece I will have learned a valuable lesson about taking the potential dangers of desert walking more seriously than I perhaps have done. However, all of these symptoms diminish noticeably as the final descent back to the Valley comes into view. At the ‘bench’ I drain the last of the water from the bottle. I decide that the next day I will reccy one of my very first plans, going back to 2009, which was to start the traverse via the summit of El Qurn on the grounds that, though the route is about 2.5 km longer the ascent, being largely steps, is possibly less fatiguing and the approach to F2 less rubbly than the Western Valley start. When I reach the valley floor it is with a feeling of achievement that I have made it, ‘kept it together’ psychologically and still feel I have plenty of energy for the cycle home.
That evening I meet Jenie in the lovely garden of the Fairouz Hotel near my apartment on the west bank. It’s been two years since we last met and we talk enthusiastically about everything from the fearsome heat of the previous Egyptian summer to Brexit. Looking back, I should have spent more time spelling out my plans for the traverse in detail, specifically that my arrangement with Pauline is that no-one needed to be alerted unless I hadn’t been heard from the day following the walk.
“What time do you expect to be at the road?” Jenie asks just before we get up to leave. “All being well I should be there between four and six.” We hug and say our goodbyes before I make my way happily down the dusty track to Lotus House in time to see the moon rise above a darkening Nile.