“You can’t explore from the air, Madox. If you could explore from the air, life would be very simple.” Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) in “The English Patient” (1996)
Thursday 9th February, 2017
Hamdy pulls up outside the apartment as arranged just after 5.30 and calls me on his mobile. I tell him I am just fixing some last bits of kit and will be down in five minutes. Outside, it is still dark and the air retains some of the freshness of night. On the way up the road we confirm final arrangements and I check that he has the GPS unit and spare batteries. Just in case. On the open ground by the old alabaster factories the balloons are being fired up. There is a general anticipation of adventure.
No questions are asked at the checkpoints into the Valley of the Kings, and at almost exactly 6 a.m. Hamdy stops the car at the near side of the car park by the entrance to the Western Valley. This is the crucial moment. I must get out of the car quickly and walk straight into the side valley; the police jeep is parked less than 25 metres away by the ticket office. I open the back door, pick up my rucksack and turn to go. But it is too late – out of the corner of my eye I see a man approaching, the dark blue uniform of the tourist police, a machine gun.
“You need ticket, you need ticket for Tomb of Ay!” He is walking quickly himself and calling out as he goes. My lips are dry.
“Er, yeah…yes. Ticket Office, right?” He points in the direction of a place I know well. At the ticket office window I anticipate the routine in these days of low tourist numbers. The balding man looks up and smiles.
“Ticket for Ay please”
“Thirty. And you are the first person in the Valley this morning, that is so special for you! And something for me?” I give him fifty and he smiles again.
I nod at the policeman who is now standing by the jeep checking his phone. Back at the car I tell Hamdy that if he doesn’t hear from me within twenty to thirty minutes then it means I am up out of sight and he can start getting ready for the pick-up on the other side. My smile this time is a little nervous as I turn away.
Just as rehearsed two days before, I walk purposefully towards the right into the northern offshoot of the Western Valley. Given the police presence, I make a quick decision to try an alternative trail a little more out of sight that I have traced on Google Earth, and set the GPS to ‘WV2’. I follow the pointer around a spur and into a small wadi. But after some ten minutes of searching I cannot find the start of the path and decide I can’t waste any more time. I will have to take my chances, retrace my steps, and hope that the policeman is still distracted by his phone and not looking this way.
As I approach the floodlight housing which is the main marker for the path upwards, and the first place to get out of sight, I quicken my pace, pause a moment behind the stone structure, take a breath and then walk determinedly up the exposed spur, all the while sensing the possibility of unseen eyes on my back. Five metres, ten, fifteen, twenty…the half-expected shout doesn’t come. The ground levels slightly and I know from my earlier visit that I am now out of sight of the car park. The slope steepens again, uneven rubble, every fourth step a slight slide back, but after some fifteen minutes of effort I reach the junction with the main Farshut Road trail. Soon the first rays of sun reach over the cliffs of the Valley of the Kings and strike my sweating back. I feel elated; the main danger is averted. The plateau – the day’s expedition – is mine!
The isotonic drink I had sipped all the way up onto the plateau means that I reach the Lion Bench at 7.25 full of energy. The breeze is a little stronger than on Tuesday’s reccy, but nothing like the icy blast of 2015. After taking on some food and salt I put on my windproof top and woolly hat and set off across the undulating stony ground. For the first few kilometres the trail is at its widest and roughest and it is easy to imagine that you are on a route used by ancient Egyptian armies. I am excited to reach F4, the furthest I have explored so far, and take another brief rest at the Big Cairn, noting with interest the mass of broken pottery that suggests this was the site of an ancient water dump used by generations of fellow-travellers in the distant past.
On the way to F5 the going becomes easier and I feel cheerful and confident as I round the top of one of the big southern wadis and take another brief rest by a rocky overhang that has all the signs of being a rest-stop used by ancient nomads. I think of my brother John who had sent me an unexpected but very welcome ‘good luck’ message just before I’d set off for Egypt, then take a couple of photos of the trail straightening and stretching into the distance.
After about another half hour of walking I notice that the ground is starting to descend, a little more than I was expecting. I check the GPS and notice that the arrow for F5 is pointing towards the right which I put down to the fact – from memory -that this part of the trail has a bit of a kink in it before turning again towards the north-west. The trail is still quite distinct, characterised at this point as a series of parallel camel tracks, each little more than 30cm wide.
About 2 km further on, the track passes through the head of a wadi, on either side of which are pairs of caves cut into the rock, presumably in ancient times, to provide a resting point along the route. As I pick up the steep path leading out of the rocky cut it occurs to me that it is strange that such a distinctive feature had not been mentioned by either of the two previous explorers whose accounts of the traverse I had read. Soon the ground levels out once again and starts to turn to spongy sand. In the distance ahead are one or two noticeable rises, but generally the trail is still descending so I check the GPS again. F5 is showing as if behind me, yet the tracks are still quite clear. Have I perhaps entered the waypoint incorrectly? I decide to navigate to F6. This, too, is showing itself to be some 2km off towards the right. Presumably there must be a change in the direction of the track at some point ahead so I carry on walking for another fifteen minutes or so, yet the arrow keeps pointing resolutely to the one side. I slow my pace and gaze into the distance where I can see that the camel tracks are leaving the plateau and descending into another wadi system. I start to gather my thoughts and put everything together.
There is only one way of making sense of all the facts. I have lost my way.