A return donkey to the Valley of Kings

Jack Barker avoids the crowds in Egypt - and meets a Casanova

The best way of getting to the Valley of the Kings is the way of the ancients: by donkey. The deal was sewn up within 10 minutes of our arrival in Luxor. Our hotelier's son, laid-back and very young, produced a visitor's book, stuffed with recommendations.

Almost all were fulsome in their praise, and raved about the donkey trip to the Valley of the Kings. Most said "Make sure you get Mohammed". One said "Avoid Mohammed at all costs: he is slimy and ignorant". Since half the population of Egypt seem to be share this name, the advice could have been more specific. But at only pounds 4 a head for a day tour it hardly seemed worth bargaining.

The next morning the hotelier's son took us to the river. He planted us on a tourist boat - included in the overall price, I'd been assured - and the fat captain immediately introduced the concept of the enormous tip he was expecting on the way back. Blanking his persistent wheedling, I looked out over the blue waters of the Nile as we chugged across.

Luxor is a city divided. We had left the west bank, the city of the living, with the imposing temple of Karnak, and were heading for the city of the dead, on the east, where the painted and inscribed tombs are dug into a harsh landscape of rock and sand.

The east bank didn't look especially dead: it was heaving with a tourist industry starved of tourists and it was some relief to have a guide to drag us through the touts. We were quickly slipped beyond the crowds and introduced to our mounts. Their names, apparently, were Casanova (for me) and Chocolate (for my wife). And we met Mohammed.

He was a chiselled Arab in his middle sixties who convincingly claimed to have fought on our side in the Second World War, catering division. Our donkeys were lithe, healthy beasts - although worryingly small.

Quickly we trotted towards the hills, smiling bravely at passing coaches. After a mile or so we came to the defaced glares of the Colossi of Memnon and stopped for a coffee to catch our breath before heading off up a steep donkey path.

Casanova only stood four foot tall with his ears up but my respect grew for his legs, locking straight in power surges as he doggedly picked his way up the slope and found a route through the mountains. We progressed along narrow paths over terrifying chasms, deep into a biblical landscape of sunblasted rock. From the seat of our donkeys we looked down on world- famous sites. Salesmen bearing scarabs appeared from under rocks and strolled casually up on collision courses but Casanova knew his route and brushed them aside.

Finally we crested a mountain to look down on the signposted paths of the Valley of the Kings. In the distance, flocks of tourists flooded around the best tombs. Donkeys are kept well clear, and we scrambled down on foot.

Any politeness to the guards lurking in the depths of the ancient tombs led to a request for money and within minutes my small change had run out. The last few tombs were seen in a purse-lipped meanness, proof against further demands on my wallet.

It was a relief to climb back up the mountain to find Mohammed. While we caught our breath, he protectively bargained down the price of a Coke on our behalf. Then we crossed the mountains towards the irrigated green smudge of the Nile Valley.

As we threaded along the banks of irrigation canals towards the road, I started to plan Casanova's reward. When we hit the Tarmac I stopped at a roadside stall to buy a bunch of bananas for my tireless steed. As I stood there bargaining, Mohammed hit Casanova on the haunches. I turned, clutching a hand of bananas, to see my donkey pelting off down a sidetrack.

You can't park a Sierra that easily. And it turned out Mohammed liked bananas.

The Brooke Clinic for sick animals has a hospital in Luxor, and suggests all visitors refuse to hire unhealthy donkeys. This consumer pressure has improved the health of all livestock used in the tourist trade. To get to Luxor you need a visa for Egypt: contact the Egyptian Consulate- General, 2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (0171-235 9777) for more information, and check with the Foreign Office (0171-238 4503) for the latest travel advice for the region. Charter flights direct to Luxor operate through companies such as Tradewinds (01706 260000) or Thomson (0990 502399). Expect to pay around pounds 250 for a flight.

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