A taste of Egypt, and home for tea

It's a long way to go for hyst a few hours, but a day trip to Luxor from Bournemouth is proving popular. Cathy Packe joined a tour to find out why people want a whirlwind visit
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The Independent Travel

Once a year, the people of the Dorset resort get the opportunity to go on the ultimate away-day. To Egypt.

Three in the morning is a terrible time to be at Bournemouth airport. But if you want a day trip to antiquity, that is the time and place you must start. Once a year, the people of the Dorset resort get the opportunity to go on the ultimate away-day. To Egypt.

As I drove through the night to the airport, I wondered who else would be on the trip. Couples celebrating anniversaries, perhaps? Or, as one friend suggested, people with more money than sense? It would doubtless be a small group, though; I couldn't imagine many people wanting to be at an airport at 3am out of choice.

So it was a surprise, when I reached the departure hall, to find that about 200 people had got there ahead of me. Only a couple of dozen people turned up later than I did. The queue whizzed along, because no one had any baggage to check in. But I still had time to find out why some of my fellow passengers had chosen to spend a day in Egypt, rather than, say, the New Forest.

"I don't know if I'd like Egypt enough to spend a week there," said one man. "But this way I can just have a taste of it." A woman travelling on her own admitted she had wanted to go for longer. "No one would come with me for a week, and I wouldn't want to go on my own," she said. "But I don't mind being on my own for a day."

We had all been told to bring a packed lunch, a selling point for some people. "I was worried about getting ill while I was there," several people told me, "but I knew I'd be all right if I could take my own food and drink."

In the departure lounge there were frequent exclamations of surprise as people bumped into friends they didn't know were coming.

We were called to order by Peter Bath, whose company, Palmair, was running the trip. Impressively for a company chairman, he always turns up to see the passengers off and wish them a good trip ­ however ungodly the hour. Palmair began running day trips nine years ago, to keep its single plane busy when it wasn't being used to ferry passengers to and from package holidays in the Med.

The first trip went to Quimper, in Brittany, in 1993. Since then a number of destinations have been added, including Venice, Krakow and Iceland. Last year Egypt was included in the programme for the first time, a day in Luxor and one in Cairo; they have been repeated this year, and Istanbul, another distant destination, has also been added.

The man who dreams up these trips is Rob Nichol, Palmair's tour and sales manager. He admits that taking so many people so far for such a short time is a challenge. Organising 222 people, showing them five different sights, and getting them back on schedule is a military-style operation. Once on the plane, we were given return boarding cards and told to sit in the same seats on the way back.

A group visa had been arranged for us, which minimised the time spent at passport control; and five air-conditioned coaches turned up to meet us and ferry us around for the day, each with its own local guide as well as a representative from Palmair.

Go back to the same coach after each stop, we were told, so that we can quickly find out if we have lost anyone. But no matter how good the organisation is, Luxor is still a long way to go for a day. How much would we actually see?

We set off for the West Bank of the Nile, the area known to the ancient pharaohs as the City of the Dead. Here we would visit the Valley of the Kings, burial place for many of the ancient Egyptian rulers, including Tutankhamun. During the 40-minute drive, our guide rattled off statistics: 90 per cent of Egypt is desert, and the country's population of 70 million people lives in the other 10 per cent ­ and that population increases by a million every 10 months. Egypt's unemployment rate is 10 per cent.

The drive across an almost biblical landscape was fascinating. Skinny donkeys carried bulky loads across the fields, past mudbrick houses. Minarets glistened in the bright sunshine. Eventually we were in the Valley of the Kings, chosen to house the tombs because they could be built into the hillsides, which it was believed ­ wrongly ­ would protect them from looters in search of buried treasure.

We visited the tombs of Rameses III and Rameses IV. One tripper summed up what many of us must have been thinking as we surveyed the detailed carvings and the impossibly bright colours of the paintings: "I am completely, totally gobsmacked." This near-disbelief at what we were seeing continued throughout the day, as we stopped briefly to photograph the magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut; the enormous Colossi of Memnon, the two statues that have been guarding the entrance to the West Bank since 1500bc; and the temple at Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile. Finally we spent an hour at the temple of Karnak, never completed although the building process continued for nearly 20 centuries. As one woman put it, "I can't believe we have seen all this, and tonight we shall be back in Bournemouth." Little did she know...

Despite the best efforts of Palmair to make sure everything went smoothly, the plane broke down. The battery had gone flat: maybe the pilot had left the lights on after the outbound flight.

It had already been a long day and no one wanted to spend too long in an under-equipped airport lounge; we were ready to go home. That wasn't going to happen for several hours: a new battery had been found in Mancheste. It and a pair of engineers were brought over on a plane diverted on its way to Goa, disrupting the travels of hundreds of India-bound holidaymakers.

We didn't mind though. Our air-conditioned coaches returned, and took us back into Luxor for dinner and a night's sleep in a five-star hotel on the banks of the Nile. We even got to see the illuminations at Luxor temple, a treat not to be missed.

We finally touched down 14 hours late. Did everyone think our "day trip" had been worth it? Despite the delay, the verdict was unanimous: "It was everything I hoped for and more. It's good to do something mad from time to time." But perhaps if you spend £300 on a day trip to Africa, you would say that, wouldn't you?

The five highlights

Colossi of Memnon

This pair of giant statues are the first things that most visitors see on the West Bank. They have been on guard for 3,500 years and are in poor condition ­ which is perhaps why there are no controls about visiting them.

Valley of the Kings

So far, 62 tombs have been discovered in this barren spot, although it is believed there are many more. Work would begin at the start of a pharaoh's reign and continue until his death; finishing it while he was still alive was considered a bad omen. Most famous is the tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Unlike most of the others, which had been emptied by the time they were excavated, this one contained all the treasures placed in it at the time of the pharaoh's burial; these are now on display at the Cairo museum. Entrance costs LE20 (£3.50), and tickets are available from the office next to the Colossi of Memnon. These will give you entrance to three tombs; if you want to visit more, buy an extra ticket. Entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun is LE40 (£7) extra.

Temple of Hatshepsut

This vast mortuary temple commemorates Hatshepsut, daughter of Tuthmosis I, and the first woman to declare herself pharaoh, which meant that she reigned as king. On the death of her father there was a struggle for the succession, and she finally took control in preference to her stepson, who eventually became Tuthmosis III. Such was the animosity between them that he removed all traces of her image and her name after her death.

Luxor temple

Unlike the monuments on the West Bank, which were built for the dead, those on the East Bank of the Nile were built to accommodate the rituals of daily life. This riverside temple was built by Amenophis III, and was once linked to the temple at Karnak by an avenue of sphinxes, some of which have been excavated along the route. The granite obelisk in front of the pylon, or main entrance gate, was one of a pair; the other now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Karnak temple

This magnificent building is best known for its sacred lake, and its hypostyle hall, whose 134 columns give a forest-like appearance. It was built over centuries: every pharaoh wanted to leave his mark on the temple that was once the most important place of worship in ancient Thebes. An impressive son et lumière show is held at the temple every night. Entrance to the temple costs LE20 (£3.50).

All monuments are usually open from 6am-6.30pm (5.30pm in winter)

Cathy Packe travelled as a guest of Palmair, which charges £299 for the day trip. Take your own sandwiches. For details of its day-trip programme, call 01202 200700 or visit www.bathtravel.com