Tahitian Adventures on the Paul Gauguin

I’ve been meaning to write this review for quite some time now and upon being presented my gold medal for procrastination, I thought I’d best pull my finger out! 


A couple of years ago Josanne threw out a line that it might be nice to spend her next birthday in Bora Bora.  It was a significant birthday (ie ending in a zero) and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to tick off one of our joint bucket list locations.  As such, I set about working out what the options were.

After considerable research, I settled on a 7 night cruise aboard the Paul Gauguin.  I wasn’t entirely convinced that we were of a sufficient age to do a cruise, but everything I read suggested that this one would suit people of all ages and that the ship was small enough to remain personal, unlike some of the larger 2-3,000 passenger ships that I regularly see docking in Auckland.

The Paul Gaugin, named after the famed French artist who spent a considerable time in French Polynesia, is small (catering for a mere 332 passengers).  This results in a personal, somewhat intimate experience where the crew even learn your name.  They can’t do enough to ensure that you get total value for money on board this floating 5 star hotel / restaurant.

The package included accommodation, food and alcohol (and to be perfectly honest, when you look at what it would cost to stay in a hotel on Bora Bora, it works out to be very cost effective by comparison). We booked a basic cabin (portholes and no balcony), but as you can see, it was perfectly acceptable.  We didn’t spend much time in it anyway!  The beer and soft drinks in the fridge were topped up daily.


To ensure we were there for departure, we arrived the day before, spending the night in Central Papeete (we wanted to eat at the waterfront food trucks that we’d heard so much about) and at the Intercontinental close to the airport on the final day.  This worked really well for us.

We had to laugh at ourselves on the first night on board.  Being novices, although we knew the package included alcohol, we weren’t sure if it was all alcohol or just the cheaper brands.  To determine which of the two it was (without having to look stupid by asking) I ordered us two Bombay Sapphires (they also had Gordon’s on the shelf). The barman cheerily made these, handed them over and didn’t ask for our room number!

Result! We now knew that all alcohol was included in the cost.

Finding this out was really useful and we instigated cocktail hour every night before dinner.  The downside of cocktail hour is that I now know that I’d make a rubbish James Bond.  The only martini that I didn’t like was the vodka martini (ordered shaken not stirred of course)! The chocolate martini or apple martini on the other hand……

We’d initially worried that (relatively speaking) we could be the only “youngsters” on board.  We needn’t have worried.  There was an eclectic mix of ages and nationalities.  Yes, there were some older people (who knew full well that they could order anything from the bar), but there were also honeymooners and other younger couples celebrating special occasions.  We still keep in touch with a great couple we met from Sydney (Hi John and Priscilla Gregory if you’re reading this!).

At the end of our week, I discovered the only downside of cruising was weight gain!  The food on board was exquisite, rich and decadent (unfortunately there’s a 4th adjective directly related to the previous three – calorific). At home, we never eat three large meals a day.  On board I felt obliged to.  And afternoon teas. And beer. And cocktails. And….. well, you get the picture.

There is a gym on board.  I know this because I made a point of finding it on our first day.  And then walked past it every single day without actually going in!

You had to book for dinner in two of the three restaurants.  The third was where we ate most nights (because I kept forgetting to book!).  You can also choose whether to eat on your own (i.e. a table for two) or with a larger group.  I recommend the latter, as we met loads of great people that way.  One of the restaurants did a beautiful degustation menu.  It was heavenly.  Looking back at my weight gain though, I’m very glad we only did it once (surprisingly, I remembered to book for it!).

At mealtime, there were a couple of choices of red and white French wines included in the price.  If you wanted, you could choose wine from the menu.  This was the only time that you needed to pay for alcohol.  The wines supplied as part of the package were perfect though.

After dinner entertainment consisted of a small casino, a theatre that put on shows,  karaoke in one of the bars (which I stayed well clear of), and themed evenings. We’d generally meet up with friends and just have a drink in one of the bars.  I’m fairly certain that I’ve tried just about every cocktail known to mankind as a result!


Each night when you left port, most passengers made their way up to the main deck where cocktails were served.  Not only was this great for catching up with people, but you got some great photos.  It was also how we tended to meet up with whomever we were going to have dinner with (necessitated by yours truly not booking.  I’m sure you’re getting the picture by now).

So I’ve talked about the cabins, the food, the alcohol, the outstanding staff.

What about the location? Was it worth it? Would I recommend it to anyone else?

I can only answer with an emphatic Yes, Yes and Yes.

Our itinerary took in the islands below (I’ve taken this directly from Paul Gauguin’s website).  The order in which we visited them changed slightly as the captain moved one destination as there was a large cruise ship that would have been in port at the same time as us.


We started in Papeete, moved to Taha’a, followed by Huahine, Bora Bora and Moorea.  We did excursions in each port (you do have to pay for these, but you choose what – if any – you are going to do).

Our first stop was to the Paul Gauguin owned island of Motu Mahana off Taha’a.  We spent the day, or as much time as you wanted to, there.  Lunch was an extensive barbecue with  plenty of cold beers and cocktails to get us through.  After the exhaustion of lounging about, we deserved a cold beer if nothing else!

The changes in the colour of the ocean are exquisite; from dark blue to bright turquoise.  This is the tender taking a group of people to Motu Mahana.
The view approaching Motu Mahana from the tender.

Lots of the passengers tended to congregate on the main beach area on the island, but if you walked around to the other side, you had the place almost entirely to yourself:

A panorama from the other side of Motu Mahana.
Clearly no need to fight for this deckchair!
Sorry about the third person in the ocean here.  We arrived at rush hour.

After spending the day on Taha’a, it was back to the ship to head off to our next destination – Huahine.

One thing to be remembered is that you are in the Pacific.  You don’t get the greenery of the islands without rain.  So while you can have glorious days of hot, humid sunshine, you can also get some impressive bursts of rain.  The panorama below shows one of these downpours as we left Taha’a.  As we were back on the ship, it didn’t affect us at all – other than having to have our cocktails indoors (such hardship)!


Another of the benefits of this cruise is that most of the sailing is done at night, meaning that you have access to the islands for most of the day when you’re in port.

On Huahine we did a trip out to see one of the Tahitian black pearl farms.  While Josanne didn’t buy a pearl there, she did get round to buying one in Bora Bora. It was supposed to be made into a ring. Supposed to being the operative word.  I’m sure she’ll get round to it at some point (a bit like me getting round to writing this review).



We also went inland and fed some blue eyed eels.  The guide used a tin of tuna and this got them right up out of the water eating it.

As is the way, cocktails on leaving Huahine enabled us to get some nice photos.  It had started to cloud over, so we missed the sunset.

People actually lived on this tiny island!

Our next stop was what the trip was all about – Josanne spending her birthday on Bora Bora!

It has to be said that if you don’t have Bora Bora on your bucket list, you need to move something off of it and put it on.  I’ve been to a number of the Pacific Islands and Bora Bora easily surpasses all of them for beauty, cleanliness and for what I can only describe as pristine turquoise waters.  And believe me, my description does nothing to describe the genuine beauty of those waters.  It really needs to be seen to be believed.

As we spent a couple of days in Bora Bora, we did three excursions; two of which involved feeding sharks and stingrays, the other dolphin and whale watching (we got lucky with the latter as it was the end of the season and most of the whales had already headed back south with their calves).

Have I mentioned the clear, turquoise waters at Bora Bora yet?

The first experience of feeding sharks and stingrays ended up with me getting into trouble (without even trying).  I apparently got too close to the sharks when they were being fed.  As my head was under the water, I was oblivious to my telling off.  That said, given how the sharks were fed the next day at the Lagoonarium, I suspect that the guide was taking Health and Safety way too seriously for a Tahitian!

I’d bought a cheap underwater camera off Trade Me (big mistake – it stopped working on day 1!), but thanks to John Gregory with his GoPro, we managed to get some underwater shots of the sharks and rays:

The sharks are more wary than the rays, which will crawl all over you to get fed.  Photo thanks to John Gregory.
Photo thanks to John Gregory
I managed to get this photo from above the water
As soon as the boat got close, sharks started coming in.  They clearly knew they were going to be fed.

Later that day we went dolphin and whale-spotting.  It didn’t look like we were going to see any whales when suddenly a shout went up that a mother, her calf and another male were in the area.  In the end, they came up right next to our boat.

The weather had started to turn for the day and most of the way back we were in the rain (warm rain though) and getting over the reef was like a big aquatic roller coaster!
With a wave of the tale, these whales were off to join the others, heading South.

On day 2 in Bora Bora, we decided to visit the Lagoonarium.  This has a number of sharks  in a more enclosed area.  You get in at one end and snorkel up to the other while one of the guides throws great chunks of fish in.  The sharks are swimming around and under you (the water is deeper here) and if I’d had an underwater camera, I’d have got some great photos.  Next time!

That’s me in the blue shorts, sending out vibes about how bad I’d taste. Just in case.

We left Bora Bora that night and headed to Moorea – the last stop on the voyage.  I had the tick in the box for Josanne being in Bora Bora for her birthday though.  I think my brownie points for that will have expired by now.

A breakfast-time panorama of Bora Bora from the Paul Gauguin.
Cocktail in hand, taking photos of the sun going down as we headed off from Bora Bora.
A small spot of sunshine striking the water as we headed for Moorea.

There was some heavy rain during the night after we left Bora Bora.  This meant that the planned excursion we had for the next day (4WD driving to some spectacular spots for taking photographs) was cancelled, as it was too muddy for even the 4WDs.

The view of Moorea as we headed in on the tender.

As the weather had cleared up, we decided to take the tender ashore and walk up what was known as Magic Mountain.  How hard could that be in 30C heat and 95% humidity?!

It was very hot and very sticky. Once we’d finished, we decided to head back to the ship for a shower, lunch and a cold beer.

I’d ordered a couple of cold beers from one of the waiters, had grabbed my food and was back eating it at the table.  I was busily thinking that Josanne was taking a very long time at the buffet when the waiter came up and quietly said “Mr Kevin, have you fallen out with Miss Josanne?”.  “No“, I smiled “what makes you think that?”. He smiled back and pointed to the other side of the dining room “Well she is sat having her lunch over there with two beers“!  After joining her, I was forced to drink three of the four beers we’d collected.  It was one of the few times I made time for an afternoon nap!

You’ll note that the waiter actually knew our names.  The crew, most of whom were from the Philippines, took the time to learn your name and they’d greet you wherever they saw you on the ship.  I was Mr Kevin for the duration.

Magic Mountain – we met some tourists at the top who thought we were mad for having walked up.  They may have had a point, but I had plenty of weight to lose!

While it was a hot, sticky walk to get to the top, we did get some great views once we were there, so it was worth it.

Moorea from Magic Mountain
Looking down at the Paul Gauguin from Magic Mountain

And that was the last of the excursions.  All that was left was one more cocktails hour (or two), one last delicious meal and a night of sailing back to Papeete, where we’d spend a night at the Intercontinental before heading back home.

So what do I think about the experience?

I loved it. I discovered I’m not too old to cruise and neither is anyone else.  As with any holiday, you’ll meet some neat people.  I’d also do it all again.  The crew on the ship really helped make the experience – always smiling, always asking how you’re enjoying it, always representing the Paul Gauguin impeccably.

If you’re thinking of a cruise in the Pacific, you should definitely consider this one.

What were my “must do’s“?

  • The shark and stingray feeding.  It’s an exceptional experience.  As they are black tipped reef sharks, you’re fairly safe (I wouldn’t advise doing it with Great Whites though).  If you can only do one – do the Lagoonarium.  A Tahitian throwing great chunks of fish to the sharks as you snorkel is a fantastic experience.
  • Whale and Dolphin watching – even the inclement weather couldn’t spoil this day.  We were so pleased to have seen dolphins and whales, and the rollercoaster ride over the reef on the way out and back topped it off!
  • Take an underwater camera.  You’ll get some great photos from it.
  • Take some gym gear.  Oh, and use it.  I took gym gear and didn’t!  The food is too good not to indulge, so if you visit the gym at least you can legitimise it!



The Tongariro Crossing

While there are definitely issues living on an island that’s earned its place on the planet as a direct result of tectonic activity, there are also advantages for those very same reasons.

The Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand’s internationally acclaimed one day walk is one of the advantages.  If you’re reasonably fit and want to take in some stunning volcanic vistas, you should take the time to do it.  It’s not noted as New Zealand’s best one day walk by accident.

Mount Tongariro from National Park Village.  Even in summer it is snow-capped

If you’re reasonably fit and can walk for up to 7.5 hours, you can do this.  Without any add-ons (i.e. the summits of Mounts Tongariro or Ngauruhoe), you’ll finish the day having walked around 18km.

It is weather dependent.  If the forecast suggests wind speeds in excess of 65kmh, the Department of Conservation recommends that you don’t do it.  The top is very exposed with big drops on either side of Red Crater.  You also need to be carrying food, water and clothing for all eventualities.  It’s an alpine region where the weather changes quickly and with little warning.

The map below provides an overview of the track (marked in red).  It’s taken from the www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz website.  They also have a good pdf you can download, giving you all the information you’d need for the walk.


Many people do the Crossing from Taupo, itself an impressive caldera from an ancient supervolcano.  You can book transport from Taupo (most hotels and motels can help with that), however, it is a longer drive to get there, necessitating setting off very early.  There is plenty of accommodation in Taupo.

An alternative is to base yourself in National Park.  While there’s less to do here, and accommodation is limited, it’s significantly closer to the walk (only around 20 minutes by bus rather than 1.5 hours).

I’ve done the walk from both locations and think that the more relaxed starting time associated with National Park suits me!

Stages of the walk

You should start at Mangatepopo and finish at the Ketetahi hut end.  Firstly, I’d hate to come up the scree slope at the Emerald Lakes and secondly; if you start at Ketetahi Hut, you have an additional 300m to climb due to the difference in height between the two.

For simplicity, I’ve broken the stages of the walk into sections.  My advice is not to rush it.  Stop often. Enjoy the scenery. Take lots of photos – they’ll give you some stunning memories!

Mangatepopo carpark to Mangatepopo hut

The bus (you can use your own transport, but need a vehicle at the start and finish) drops you off at the Mangatepopo carpark.

This easy section of the track, some of which is over boardwalks, is flat and unlikely to cause you any difficulties. It takes you towards the initial climb, fondly referred to as the Devil’s Staircase.



Mangatepopo hut to Soda Springs

On reaching the Devil’s Staircase (which begins at the Mangatepopo hut), the upwards hike begins, and at this moderate to difficult stage your lungs and legs start working noticeably harder!

Dont forget to keep looking back.  On a clear day, you can see Mount Taranaki in the distance – although you’ll need a decent camera to get a photo of it.  While the track is much better than it was several years ago, you still need to watch your footing.

Soda Springs to Red Crater

Once at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, there’s a well appreciated flat section. It’s a good time to take a breather, get some water in you and take more photos.  You’ll start to appreciate just how many volcanic craters make up this plateau!  The last part of the climb to Red Crater is moderate to difficult, but the plateau itself (seen below) is easy.

Platuea at the top of the Devil’s Staircase.  There are plenty of opportunities for unobstructed photos of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom, if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan).


You can take a side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe from here.  I’ve never done it, but the views from the top would be stunning.  Access to Ngauruhoe is via scree slopes, so it’s dangerous and hard work.  Allow two hours extra if you’re doing this.

Looking back towards top of the Devil’s Staircase (Mount Taranaki in far distance).  
Nearing Red Crater showing how steep the climb is.


It would be nice and peaceful without all these fellow trampers about! 🙂

You’ll definitely want to stop at the top, not just to recover but for more photographs.   Red Crater is an active part of the volcanic system (last erupting in 1850).  As you progress over the summit you’ll see evidence of some of its volcanic deposits from eruptions down to the left.  Inside the crater you can see an exposed lava tube, formed when cooling lava flowed back into the crater:

Lava tube sticking out to the right of the crater.  

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

This moderate section is one of the most beautiful parts of the walk.  Standing at the top of Red Crater, looking down to the Emerald Lakes for the first time is fantastic.

Then comes the scree slope descent!  Having good walking boots helps keep you on your feet and off your bum.  That said, even with boots I’ve yet to make it down without landing on my bum!

Emerald Lakes from Red Crater.  People heading down the scree slope and the track on the left towards Blue Lake.
Note the steam coming from the right of the lakes.

We usually stop at the Emerald Lakes to have lunch.  It’s an early lunch, but you’ve done enough walking to warrant it!  It’s a nice spot and is generally out of the wind.


A popular spot for lunch and getting stones from the scree slope out of your boots!
Looking up the scree slope to Red Crater.  

Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake

The Blue Lake – this area was once molten lava, 1km across.

This is another fairly flat section.  Once at Blue Lake look behind you.  You’ll see the trifecta of Mounts Tongariro, Ngaurahoe and Ruapehu (with snow on it even in summer). Red Crater is also clearly visible. It’s my favourite photograph spot of the entire walk:


From Blue Lake you see Tongariro (and Red Crater), Ngauruhoe and snow-capped Ruapehu in the background.  Note the lava field from Red Crater to the right of the photo.

Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut

The descent starts here as you zizag down the mountain.  The toilets at Ketetahi Hut are busy (I often wonder if it’s just an excuse for a quick break!).

Lake Rotoaira (foreground) and Lake Taupo (background).

As you descend, you get great views of Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo.

Ketetahi hut to Ketetahi carpark

I’ll not lie – this moderate downhill stretch seems to last forever (it’s around 2 hours but feels longer).  There were many times on the descent when I’d have gladly swapped the downhill for more uphill.  When you get to the carpark, it’s a great feeling to get your boots off and wiggle your toes in the fresh air!

In Summary

This really is a highly recommended, outstanding one day walk, exposing you to some of the volcanic beauty of the central plateau.  It’s not easy – you’ll deserve a beer and feed at the end – but neither does it require superhuman fitness.

The walk itself is free, although you have to pay for transport to get you there.  The cost of this depends on where you’re coming from. If you have a car, I’d suggest you stay at National Park for a couple of days.

On both occasions our motel provided packed lunches.  We topped it up with snacks that we wanted and 2 litres of water.

On a clear day, the views are spectacular and well worth getting up early for!  You’ll struggle to find a better one day walk in the world, never mind New Zealand!

Helpful Hints

  1. Go out of main holiday periods (i.e. Christmas) if possible – The last time we went was just before New Year and it was very busy (albeit not enough to ruin your enjoyment).
  2. Water. Take 2 litres. Don’t skimp on it or you will regret it.
  3. Food. Take a packed lunch.  You’ll be doing upwards of 30,000 steps so as well as keeping hydrated, keep yourself fuelled.  It’s great to have little snacks that you can have when you stop to enjoy the view.
  4. Altitude.  Although you only get up to 2,000m, it’s high enough to make you notice that the air is thinner (harder to get your breath) and it’s cooler than at sea level.  Make sure you take waterproofs and warm clothing.
  5. Feet. While I saw people doing this in trainers, I’d suggest strong walking shoes or walking boots.  It’s easy to go over on ankles in some places. I wouldn’t do it in trainers.
  6. Sunblock. Even if it’s not hot, apply plenty of sunblock.  The UV in New Zealand is lethal and there’s very little shade for you on this walk.

Quick video of my last Tongariro Crossing

The last time I did the Tongariro Crossing, I made a quick video (disclaimer – I’m never going to be in the film industry with my cinematic skills). It gives you an idea of some of the views you’ll get on this walk though. Click here if you’d like to see it.


Egypt – impressive land of contrasts

Egypt is a land of startling contrasts.  Isolated, arid deserts and fertile river floodplains.  Polluted, congested cities and unspoiled, desolate riverbanks.  Illegally constructed buildings, likely to topple at the first suspicion of an earthquake, and Pyramids and temples that have withstood all that nature has thrown at them for over 5,000 years.

Egypt continues to mesmerise travellers, hundreds of years after the first tourists turned up to inspect the centuries old legacy of the Pharaohs.

Our 10-day Egypt tour with Peregrine Adventures took us from Cairo to Aswan and back again, providing an insight into the ancient Egyptian psyche and unravelling the mysteries of this ancient civilisation.


For me, the trip had four highlights;

  • The Pyramids,
  • Karnak Temple, a cultic centre of worship of the God “Amun-Re” (built on 2 axes, covering over 100ha),
  • The Valley of the Kings, where many Pharaohs were buried, and
  • Abu Simbel, Ramesses II’s rock cut temples on the banks of Lake Nasser.

Arriving in Cairo, you know you’ve stepped into something special.  Never before have I experienced a rubbish dump in the middle of a city, surrounded by people’s homes, with pigs used as mobile mulchers.  Nor have I seen so many people living in a cemetery, in a suburb known as the City of the Dead.  Yet neither have I been in a city where I have felt entirely safe, where the locals are incredibly friendly (if slightly over curious!), where the roads are as busy at midnight as they are during the morning rush-hour, and where you are guaranteed an experience that you can only get rummaging about in the shadows of such an ancient civilisation.

Cairo’s roads cannot be judged by New Zealand norms.  One taxi driver took great delight telling us how safe he was and that he had never crashed his car.  The rolls of sellotape holding both of his wing mirrors together suggested that he was being at least slightly economical with the truth, but we jumped in anyway.  His taxi looked no worse than any other in the vicinity!

Cairo and Giza’s combined population of 22 million put Auckland’s traffic congestion into perspective.  They have minimised gridlock by having few lane markings and negligible numbers of traffic lights.  These omissions enable seven or eight cars abreast to fit in a space that, in New Zealand, would comfortably hold four.

Egyptians communicate energetically via their horns.  A single honk can mean anything from “get out the way” to “if you just squeeze slightly to the left, I can get my car between you and the pavement without having to mount it”.  Remarkably, Caireans have an innate understanding of what each honk means and whether or not it is directed at them – particularly impressive when you understand that most drivers are frantically honking most of the time.

Our official tour began with a visit to Memphis and Saqqara near Cairo.  Here you start learning the importance of ego to the ancient Pharaohs.  The enormous statue of Ramesses II is a great example of how these ancient kings viewed their importance and self-worth:

Memphis Open-Air Museum - 4/7/07
Statue of Rameses II at Memphis

Saqqara boasts Djozer’s Step Pyramid, a predecessor to its more famous neighbours at Giza.  Dating to around 2630 BC, it started as a single bench (or mastaba), but grew to a total of six mastabas placed on top of one another by the time he died.

Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex - 4/7/07
Djozer’s Step Pyramid (circa 2630 BC)

If the Pyramid’s size and surroundings are not sufficiently impressive, knowing that it has stood for almost 5,000 years certainly gives you a sense of how well things were built in those days!

Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex - 4/7/07
Entrance to Djozer’s Step Pyramid Complex (as seen from the inside).

Giza’s Plateau (home of the Pyramids and Sphinx) is equally impressive.  It is truly fascinating, and somewhat humbling, to examine the Pyramids and to consider the workers who toiled so hard to complete them.  It is even more fascinating and equally humbling to think that, had we been about in their heyday, we would never have been allowed in the inner sanctuaries that we were being guided through.  It is perhaps most fascinating, though not at all humbling, to walk around the corner from these structures and find a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a fake Hard Rock Café!  I guess that’s progress for you!

Khafre’s Pyramid is most impressive, with its limestone cap and Sphinx, although Khufu’s is the oldest of the three on the Plateau.  The splendour of the area is tempered by the litter left by tourists; sadly typical of many Egyptian tourist sites.

Giza Pyramids - 5/7/07
Khafre’s Pyramid, with its limestone cap intact.
Sphinx - 5/7/07
The Sphinx with Khafre’s Pyramid in the background.
Giza Pyramids - 5/7/07
The Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Mankaure (l to r).

Khufu’s Solar Boat museum was also worth a visit.  Not only was the air conditioning a welcome relief from the oppressive July heat, but the 3,000 year old boat, believed to have been used to take the dead Pharaoh to his Pyramid, was very impressive in its own right.

Solar Boat Museum - 5/7/07
Khufu’s impressive Solar Boat.

From Cairo, we headed south to Luxor by sleeper train; an experience I’d recommend trying no more than once, if you want a decent night’s sleep!

Once in Southern Egypt, you are coming forward in time and many temples in this area were still being added to in Roman times.

Approaching Karnak Temple by horse and cart at 7.30am, the increase in temperature compared to Cairo was immediately evident.  Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for temperatures to reach 48C.

So much is packed into the 3,500 year old sprawling temple complex, including the 134 columned Hypostyle hall.  Commenced in 1390BC, the hall was still being decorated some 177 years later.  Imagining such sustained construction nowadays is a real challenge.

Karnak Temple - 6/7/07

Western entrance to Karnak Temple through an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes.

Karnak Temple - 6/7/07
Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall.  The post and lintel hall was originally illuminated by high windows, as seen at the top of the photograph.

The Hypostyle hall’s 134 columns leave you with a sense of enduring admiration for their craftsmen.  The undersides of some lintels still retain much of their original colour; vivid hues of red, yellow and blue.

Karnak Temple - 6/7/07
The colour that remains on some of the lintels is very impressive!

The temple still retains two of its original six obelisks, one of which was built by Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh (who reigned as if she were a male). The other was built by Thutmose III, Hatshepsut’s stepson.

Karnak Temple - 6/7/07
Obelisk at Karnak Temple.

It was disappointing to leave Karnak Temple, as we could have spent several more hours exploring.  Our disappointment was soon forgotten on arriving at the Valley of the Kings, however.  A huge area on the West Bank of the Nile, this was the burial ground for Pharaohs, Queens and Nobles from around 1500BC.

Our day got underway with a dawn balloon trip, taking in the spectacular vista before the inevitable crowds descended.  The peacefulness of sun-rise at 1500ft in near total silence totally justified the US$95 per person cost.

Valley of the Kings (Hot Air Balloon) - 7/7/07
Sunrise from a hot air balloon over Luxor.
Valley of the Kings (Hot Air Balloon) - 7/7/07
The views were impressive….
Valley of the Kings (Hot Air Balloon) - 7/7/07
….and helped to understand the overall scale.

Following an inch-perfect landing, we were bussed to the Valley of the Kings, where our entry fee entitled us to explore the resting places of three Pharaohs.  Our guide showed us to those of Ramesses IV (a simple, early style tomb with vivid, colourful scenes on the ceiling) and Merneptah (a more intricate tomb with a much steeper entrance).  For our third, we walked to the far end of the Valley to the temple of Thutmosis III.  This was a fascinating, if somewhat claustrophobic, tomb with simple wall paintings depicting instructions for the Pharaoh’s progression to the afterlife.

Although this tomb did not boast the vivid colours of the other two we visited, it was certainly my favourite.  Unfortunately, no photography can be carried out within the tombs, as this can damage the paint.

Valley of the Kings (Sesostris III) - 7/7/07
The climb leading to the tomb of Thutmosis III

On the opposite side of the hill from the Valley of the Kings lies the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.  Designed to legitimise her right to rule, much was made of her feats, including trading voyages that she oversaw to neighbouring countries.  Most of Hatshepsut’s images in this temple were destroyed by those who came after her.

Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple - 7/7/07
Dug from the limestone cliffs, Hatchepsut’s Mortuary Temple is very impressive, although in its heyday, there would have been significantly more greenery around it.
Valley of the Kings (Hot Air Balloon) - 7/7/07
Seen from above, it is clearer to see how it was dug into the limestone.
Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple - 7/7/07
Soldiers marching in honour of Hatchepsut at her mortuary temple.

Many Egyptian tours include a trip on the Nile.  Not wanting to “rough it” in a felucca (a small sail boat that has been in existence for centuries in Egypt), we opted for a cruise style ship, the Atun, instead.  There are many such ships, with varying degrees of luxury. Peregrine’s choice in ship (not to mention their outstanding guide Big Mo) was excellent and made for a very relaxing three day cruise, during which we took in temples at Edfu, Komombo and Philae.  The cruise provided an excellent opportunity for relaxing and watching life on the Nile.

Philae Temple was possibly one of the most impressive to approach.  Built for the God Isis, it was relocated following the building of the Aswan High Dam.  The island on which it was originally located is now underwater.

Philae Temple - 9/7/07
Approach to Philae Temple.
Philae Temple - 9/7/07
A closer view of the Temple.

The Romans continued to add to Philae Temple and Trajan’s kiosk, built to embellish existing features of the temple, is a great example of this.  It demonstrates that some of these Pagan temples were used until fairly recently.

Philae Temple - 9/7/07
Trajan’s Kiosk.  Built by the Romans at Philae Temple.

Our final destination prior to returning to Cairo was Abu Simbel.  Here we visited 2 temples; the larger one celebrating the great Pharaoh Ramesses II, the other celebrating his most famous wife, Nefertari.  Like Philae Temple, both of these were cut and moved to higher ground due to the Aswan High Dam.  Had they not been moved, they would currently be submerged.

Ramesses demonstrates the extent of his ego through his four seated statues (that are as tall as a five to six storey building) and through the depiction of him being an equal with the three Gods with whom he is seated in the inner sanctuary.

Abu Simbel - 10/7/07
Temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. A long minibus ride to get here, but well worth the effort.
Abu Simbel - 10/7/07
Temple of Queen Nefertari at Abu Simbel.

Ramesses II had around 110 children and probably lived into his 90s.  Given that he spent the first 20 years of his Kingship at war building his empire; it seems surprising that he also had the time to be one of the most prolific builders of all the Pharaohs.

Having finished in Southern Egypt, it was time to return to Cairo for a final couple of days sight-seeing. It didn’t take long to get back into the clamour of Cairo life.  After the heat of Southern Egypt, the cool 38C of Cairo almost felt civilised!

As I said at the outset, Egypt is a land of startling contrasts.  It is precisely these contrasts that ignite your senses, guiding you back to early Dynastic times, immersing you in a history that is very hard to imagine without being there.  I suspect that Egypt will still be mesmerising travellers such as me in another 5 millennia, with the wondrous legacy of the Pharaohs.


  • Haggle for everything including taxi rides.  It’s fun, it’s expected, and you’ll get ripped off if you don’t!
  • Tipping (or “baksheesh”) is a way of life in Egypt.  You will be expected to tip everywhere you go.  Ensure you accumulate lots of small notes (i.e. EG£1, which is around 25c).
  • Be prepared for the heat if travelling in July / August.  This will result in some very early starts on your excursions.
  • Don’t eat fruit or salad if you have not washed them yourself with bottled water.  This should help you fend off a bad stomach.  Even use bottled water for brushing your teeth.
  • Take Imodium and electrolytes for replenishing your body if you get an upset stomach.  It’s better to be safe than sorry!