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Accessible Travel in Egypt

With the help of a few Egyptian and her Trailrider (a device developed in Vancouver), Lynn was able to visit the pyramids at Dahshur, a quiet patch of desert not frequented by tourists.

In November 2002 I booked a flight to Cairo with a side trip to Jordan. As I found out, the best time to travel is just before a war. No tourists.

It wasn't until we left Cairo on our way to Jordan that my feelings about Egypt and its people crystallized. Gone were the honking horns and the controlled chaos I had gotten used to. The Egyptians and their land of intoxicating sights, sounds, and smells had left an indelible impression. Above all, they made me feel welcome. From our first entry into the country until our exit three weeks later, Farida Tours had done everything in its power to ensure that my wheelchair did not present a barrier to my enjoyment of the trip.

Flowers and a photographer’s clicking flash bulbs were totally unexpected on our arrival at Cairo airport, but the nicest surprise was a completely accessible van that stayed with us throughout the trip. The Mercedes-Benz 1400’s lowered floor meant that my manual wheelchair could be tipped into the van from the pavement. I could remain in my chair without having to transfer, which with my multiple sclerosis is difficult at the best of times.

The U.S. tour operator Flying Wheels, who had booked the trip, told me not to expect accessible transportation. But Farida Tours had bought the van just before my arrival and I was the happy beneficiary of what I believe is the first accessible transportation in Egypt. No tie-downs for the wheelchair had yet been installed, but I wasn't complaining. At no time during the trip did I feel unsafe. Farida tours will also soon be offering a larger lift-equipped bus for tour groups. A new accessible Nile cruise ship is also in the works.

The next surprise came when my attendant and my partner were gently pushed aside when they tried to load me into the van. A handsome young Egyptian came forward and expertly maneuvered me into place. Ahmed, it seemed, had been hired just to push and pull, and if necessary carry me over the hurdles, of which there are many in ancient Egypt. Before we booked into our hotel, the luxurious Marriott, which is accessible throughout, we accepted an invitation to a welcome tea. At the tea we were introduced to the next member of our team, our guide Mamoud, a man with infectious good humor, excellent command of English, and a thorough knowledge of Egyptology. The photographer Ahmed, from the weekly government newspaper, also stayed with us throughout the trip. Muslims were getting ready for the end-of-Ramadaan feast—and calls from the minarets brought the faithful to prayer. Mahmoud and Ahmed took us on a walking tour of old Cairo where the city streets thronged with people all dressed in new clothes. Fireworks sparkled in the distance. Two-foot high curbs and traffic make a going anywhere in a wheelchair in Cairo a risky business. However, we eventually got to the Khan Khalili Bazaar where we were introduced to the custom of smoking “shisha”—tobacco cured in molasses, heated with charcoal, and smoked through water pipe—a rather pleasant experience even though I don't smoke.

For our trip to the Egyptian museum the Lonely Planet guide advised us to start off the day visiting Tutankhamen's treasures. Without a doubt, this exhibit of the treasures of the young and comparatively insignificant New Kingdom Pharaoh far outshines anything else in the museum. (Note: Although the museum is equipped with an elevator, the washroom is down two flights of stairs.)

At Saqqara, I had the thrill of entering my first pyramid. The tomb of Teti was robbed for its treasure and its stone and is now just a heap of rubble, but the inside is well worth a visit. To get down through the narrow 5-foot-high passageway into the tomb I took both wheels off my chair and was carried down. In the darkness, I gazed up in awe at the hieroglyphics on the wall and at the ceiling covered in stars. Within the intact burial chamber is the Pharaoh’s three-ton basalt sarcophagus.

After four days in Cairo, Aswan was like a breath of fresh air. The diesel pollution and noise faded away as we sat on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel sipping cold beer while looking out over the Nile at the white sails of feluccas fluttering against the ultra-marine waters. Described in 1912 as "the finest winter resort in the world," and frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill, Czar Nicholas of Russia, and Agatha Christie, the hotel has scarcely changed in 80 years. Our suite (at no extra charge) was sumptuous—with a balcony overlooking the Nile, a sitting room, a four-poster bed and a gigantic bathroom with marble tiles. Despite the British penchant for a step up to the throne room (bathroom) and narrow doorways, the ambience was more than worth the inconvenience. We dined that evening to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Driving to Abu Simbel from Aswan at 5 a.m. I experienced my first desert sunrise. It was a dramatic prelude to the colossi of Rameses II. No photograph can convey the megalithic proportions and breathtaking beauty of these monuments. The whole area has been made very accessible with paved paths and wooden floors.

After three magical days in Aswan we set off by police-escorted convoy to Luxor (Because of the massacre of tourists in Luxor back in 1007, authorities are anxious to promote an image of tourist Egypt as a haven of safety, which it in fact remains.).

In Luxor we checked into the Old Winter Palace, another historic place once frequented by King Farouk. The hotel is next door to the Luxor Temple and across the street from the corniche or promenade along the Nile. Again, the hotel was opulent but without the charm of the Old Cataract. Although the Winter Palace was central and our room was immense, I could not take a shower without being manhandled into a bathtub. Perhaps the most accessible and centrally located room we looked at in Luxor was just across the beautiful gardens behind the Winter Palace. One wing of the New Winter Palace—the Pavilion, had one room on each floor equipped with a large shower with about a 2-inch lip.

The Luxor Temple, next door to the Winter Palace, is built on such a grand scale that it makes anything in Greece seem puny. The Temple of Karnak ranks with the Great Pyramid as one of Egypt's most momentous achievements in stone. Both temples are built on level but extremely bumpy ground if you're in a wheelchair. You can avoid the stairs at Karnak by going around to another entrance.

At the Valley of the Kings and Queens on the west bank of the Nile we visited the Tomb of the Noble Ramose, vizier to both Amenhotep III and the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton. It has a fairly easy entrance of only a few steps. The tombs of Ramses III and IX are also accessible via long sloping rutted walkways. The climax of the day was a visit to Nefertari's tomb, opened in 1995 and hailed as the finest tomb in all of Egypt. Many patches of the original paintwork still looked as brilliant as they did over 2000 years ago. Mahmoud told us that the Egyptians made sure that their paint did not fade by grinding it from actual minerals: turquoise, malachite, lapis lazuli, and other stones.

For More Info

Contact Flying Wheels Travel for information on their available accessible cruises.

Contact All Tours Egypt for more information.

Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor is hotel which is friendly for accessible travelers.

LYNN ATKINSON is a freelance travel writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She is former publisher of We're Accessible: News for Disabled Travelers.

Related Topics
Accessible Travel

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