SWAT a Nuisance

Call me a Philistine but, after nine days, I was Pharaoh-ed out, tomb-ed out, hyroglyph-ed out, Egyptian-ed out; instead I amused myself with some birding from the open deck of the Nile Cruiser, surrounded by flappy-stomached Brits baking in the spring sunshine.

The boat was also surrounded – four police launches, manned with blue-bereted, green-jerseyed, machine-gun toting officers. In addition, a couple of mercenary-looking armed youngsters in black T-shirts were perched on the prow of our boat, with two more aft.

“Purple gallinule. In the reeds.” It is a bird one sees in the books, but never seemingly in real life. I had evidently travelled all the way to Egypt to see this one, but in a flash, it disappeared.

“Smyrna Kingfisher!” shouted the only like-minded passenger with glee. “Gone!” And that was how it was.

It was the police outrider dinghies that were scaring off the birdlife, especially when their sirens kicked off. So, I thought, this is what it is like to be on the inside of a blue light brigade. Unlike our politicos, though, I found it embarrassing, noisy and rather patronising.

This high security was, we were told, normal and unconnected to Alexandria’s bombs of the previous week. The Egyptians won’t allow anything to happen to their tourists, and here we were, sitting ducks on the Nile. Literally. Stepping off into one of the towns that stretch along the banks, we were greeted by the mayor and then despatched on a tomb-spotting expedition, shepherded by four bakkies marked SWAT and an armoured vehicle. On one occasion, 70 troops altogether accompanied us into the sandy wastes, where our guide helpfully pointed out that one is most at risk in the desert. From what, he did not say.

We reached a temple. The troops fanned out onto the hilltops; the SWAT team in Kevlar, scarves and helmets, silhouetted against the skyline, alongside every pillar, mounted on every mound, like so many real-life Ninjas.

Egypt has the tenth largest army in the world. Most of it seemed to travel with us. Everything ancient – every well-dead pharaoh, crumbled-nosed sphinx or collapsed temple – seemed, in my photographs, to sport its own incongruous 21st century sentinel with an AK47.

Soon, everything looked the same. Every figure had its left foot forward and a hand outstretched, much like the bullying salesmen in the souks. “Bonjour. Guten Morgen. Special price. Only one pound.” At least our security phalanx spared us the predations of the plastic-pyramid and model-tin-camel sellers. These were English pounds, not Egyptian.

And the place-names! When the guide tried to get us correctly to pronounce Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Al-Dier-Al-Bahari, I tried in him on Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein and then Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, but he wasn’t playing along. So we stuck with Cheops and Giza, which we could all do.

South African history, I get. I was once a tour guide for the colonial wars. Dead Brits’ graves, I can do; Boer memorials; Zulu monuments. It all seems relevant to our current world. But these venerable Egyptians are so long-dead that nobody knows much about them except their names and the type of furniture they had buried with them. Nobody believes in their gods any more. Nobody is mummified. OK, apart from Walt Disney.

It is as if, in five thousand years’ time, future Azanians will be digging up graveyards in Mpumalanga and knowing only that we were Van Schalkwyks or Mnisis and that we bought our wardrobes at Joshua Doore.

I was musing on all this – and my hopeless cynicism – when somebody shouted: “Duck!”

It was not someone throwing a bomb, though. It was just another gallinule.