There are many ways to explore Egypt, but the best is by local taxi. Just make sure you arrive at your tomb of choice. By David Sharp
My right foot unconsciously pumps the floor. The bus we are attempting to overtake spews black smoke into our Lada taxi. My cab-driver, Ahmed, furrows his brow as the lorry expands in our windscreen. Thoughts of provincial Egyptian hospitals wander across my mind. A dog sits in the sun by the side of the road ahead, spittle on its mouth, rheumy eyes awaiting the impending carnage. On the lorry's back, looking over the driver's cab, are some unfortunate creatures that turn out to be camels on their way to market.

We are about to die, men and beasts, in a bloody mess of twisted Russian metal, camel, mad dog and Englishman. Before I close my eyes, I see the yellows of theirs. The noise is deafening, as three horns sound in unison, and in a biblical escape from death in Egypt, vehicles part and we nip through the gap in an act of which Moses would have been proud.

Package tourists to Egypt have much less fun than the independent traveller. "You can't truly appreciate a country without coming close to death in a taxi," says my travelling companion thoughtfully, after having enjoyed several bottles of locally brewed Stella Artois on a rooftop bar in Luxor.

I agree wholeheartedly. We are here to record a radio documentary on a mysterious tomb - Tomb 55 - in the Valley of the Kings, and I am checking the day's tapes, my equipment strewn across the table. This is my third trip to Egypt in as many years, and the best.

The first time I came here, on a package tour with an anally strict itinerary, we started in Cairo, where we were bused between the Giza pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel and a papyrus shop, in less than six hours. Papyrus is paper made, to an ancient recipe, from the stems of a plant that grows by the side of the Nile, and you can buy it all over Egypt, painted in bright, fresh colours with scenes from the walls of tombs and temples. That day, we spent about 45 minutes at each place, and although the papyrus shop may one day also become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I was a little disappointed to find myself spending just as long there, in the fluorescent-lit air-conditioning, as we had done on the Giza plateau.

When surrounded by those astronomically aligned, man-made mountains of stone, it really puts into perspective the few blocks that our ancestors were attempting to lever upright on Salisbury Plain at around the same time.

"I'm a little disappointed we didn't have longer," I said to the tour rep. "Oh dear," she replied, "most people can only take in so much history. Are you coming to the belly-dancing tonight?"

The second visit, by way of rebellion, was as an anally independent traveller. My budget was small, my hair unwashed, my clothes monochrome and my guide Rough. "I'm going to see every sight in this bloody country if it kills me," I proclaimed to Long-Suffering Girlfriend. I was lucky in that, before going, an intelligent friend had thrust a book on ancient Egypt into my hands. "Read this, you'll appreciate it more," he bossed. He was, as usual, right, and my itinerary changed overnight.

We caught the bus to Sakkara, near Cairo, and pottered around looking for the unfinished Pyramid of Sekhemket, which few people bother to see, but which has a history just as fascinating as that of the Great Pyramid. Discovered with a sealed burial chamber in recent times, the sarcophagus was found with a wreath of flowers from the dawn of Egyptian history resting on top. But when it was opened, it was found to contain absolutely nothing, and has baffled Egyptologists ever since. Mysteries like this abound.

The problem, however, with doing Egypt on a budget, was the transport. Although the Egyptian buses are dirt cheap, it can take you hours to get anywhere, owing to the tortuous routes through outlying villages, where the bus stops every four yards or so.

The low price in no way justifies the hassle some men give to some female tourists. "It's the way they smile when they grope you," said Long-Suffering Girlfriend, disgusted. "At least the perverts in England look menacing."

The next day, we travelled down to Luxor on the third-class train - a bad move, as we both seemed to be suffering from mild dysentery, and the cockroaches on the floor of the toilet cubicle had certainly not been sanitised for our protection. I dreamt of clean white tiles, and cute puppies bearing rolls of quilted three-ply.

But this trip was different, for two reasons. First, I had found the best way to get around, and secondly, there were hardly any other tourists. Tourism has suffered heavily since the massacre in Luxor, in November 1997, when 60 holiday-makers were killed by extremist Muslim terrorists. But even though Egypt does seem a genuinely safer place, at least on the surface, there are few visitors, and this is one reason why now is the best time in years to go to Egypt. The flight and hotel packages to Luxor are good value, with flights from London and Manchester, and some excellent hotels. And to see the sights properly, get a few good books on ancient Egypt, and instead of taking the "recommended organised tours", befriend a local taxi-driver (they're very friendly, especially if you have hard currency), and you can go where you want, when you want, quickly and fairly cheaply. I hired Ahmed and his cab for a full day, for around LE70 (pounds 14), and despite the occasional head-on incident with a camel lorry, it's in a different league to a tourist coach or local bus.

On our second day we travelled from Luxor, across the river to the Valley of the Kings, to record some interviews for our programme. As the few other tourists scurried back to their coach, we completed our recording in Tomb 55, and chatted to an Egyptologist working in the area. Egyptology is currently undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, and practical archaeology is returning to the valley for the first time since Howard Carter; the British experts Nicholas Reeves and Geoffrey Martin are due to return in October, when you can see them searching for what may be the tomb of Queen Nefertiti - potentially a find of massive importance.

On my final day, I hired Ahmed and his cab again, and went to Abydos, one of the birthplaces of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. With a guide, and five litres of water, I walked out into the desert to find the tombs of the very first pharaohs, half-buried under the shifting sands. I ate my sandwiches beside a massive mud-brick wall, in the 5,000-year-old shade, alone.

`Unearthing Mysteries : Kings' Valley 55' is broadcast next Tuesday, 13 July, at 11am on BBC Radio 4

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