Last week we spotted that renowned photographer Lucinda Grange had signed up to CoinaPhoto and uploaded a few stunning pictures from her recent trip to Egypt. We had a feeling that there was a story behind these beautiful snaps, so we caught up with her to find out a little bit more…
Max and I had not been in the necropolis compound long when an announcement was made that it was being closed prematurely, and the few tourists were being ushered out. We found ourselves walking a few steps behind a security guard, heading to a place to hide until nightfall. The security guard lifted his arms to let a cool breeze wrap around his body, exposing the gun clipped to his side. Max and I looked at each other. We both knew things were different here - this wouldn’t be like anything we’d climbed before. We swiftly took a path into the tombs on our left, scrambled up the side of one of them, and hid between an enormous slab of stone and the rest of the tomb, providing shelter both from view and from the sun. It wasn’t yet 3:00 PM. We were in for a long day and an even longer night.
We dipped in and out of sleep and conversation for hours. I watched the shadows move up the stone of the tomb as the sun got lower. Then it was gone. From where we hid, we could see the Great Pyramid through a gap between the tombs in front of us. Through the gap, we watched security guards doing their occasional rounds by car, motorbike and foot. They never appeared to have a pattern; which would make knowing when to climb far more difficult.
As night fell, the surrounding area grew more still. We could hear everything with total clarity: a car outside the perimeter, dogs barking in a nearby alleyway. Over the rows of tombs, we heard a security patrol on foot, crunching the sand under his feet with every step, as clear and loud as if he were passing right by us. I found myself holding my breath whenever we heard a foot patrol, and whispering the rest of the time.
As the noise in the street lessened, other sounds came from the darkness: many gunshots, the first we’d heard since arriving here. In the darkness I rolled over to face Max. “This is Cairo, I bet it’s like this all the time” I said half-sarcastically, hoping he’d agree, if only sarcastically too. He didn’t oblige.
It was the evening of the 19th of August 2013, and just being out of our BnB was illegal at the time. There was a military enforced curfew of 7pm, punishable by immediate arrest, or, it was rumored, being shot on sight, as military forces cracked down on the Brotherhood. The whole country was in a severe state of unrest. With this in our minds, we lay in silence and darkness listening to every shot, until they finally became less frequent and stopped.
It was 1:00 AM; as good time as any to make a move. We needed to be silent; just as we could hear everyone else moving, they would be able to hear us. We came out from behind the stone slab, using every foothold with care as we climbed from the top of the tomb, and regrouped to plan a route. We exited through an opening in the tombs, and used this vantage point to see when the coast was clear. Then we ran across the clearing, avoiding the giant pits in the stone and sand, and climbed down an embankment wall onto the path that security walked. We crossed the road, jumped over the chain fence, climbed down a second embankment wall, crossed the large open space, and then hopped, at last, onto the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Each row of blocks of the pyramid was a different size. Some no higher than your knee, others the size a Smart Car. We quickly climbed up a corner to get a view of what was going on around us, and didn’t stop until a third of the way up, scrambling to be out of reach of the headlights of passing security vehicles.
We had aimed to climb quickly, and also silently. I couldn’t help but feel that they were mutually exclusive. When I moved too quickly, my footsteps sounded deafening and water sloshed in its bottle like a little tsunami. But to move slow enough to be silent would increase the time we were exposed. The patrols could do a round at any time. Every footstep, every crunch of sand and stone underfoot, felt like the last one of freedom.
The higher we got, the more worn the stone was. The undersides of some slabs had worn away from centuries of sandstorms, leaving only the toughened top of the stone like a thin shelf. We avoided these as we climbed, not wanting to damage the last of the Seven Wonders of the World that still stands.
It wasn’t long before the summit was in sight, Max and I climbing at the same speed to reach the flat top together. We counted to three and touched the highest point at the same time, before turning to enjoy the view. There was a full moon, and Cairo lay flat below us, the city lights looking like a sea of fire flowing over the desert. The atmosphere at the 455-foot high summit was different, relaxed. We soaked it in. Despite the revolutionary turmoil that surrounded us, this place felt a world away.
The top of the great pyramid was full of engravings. People’s names, the names of those who had climbed before, in English, Arabic, all different scripts and languages. One read ‘TOURING CLUB’, making me think of lads-on-tour type stags.
We were there for a little over two hours before we packed our cameras to move on. The photography felt rushed and messy, but I didn’t mind. This wasn’t about producing images, it was about the experience, the journey to get there. We’d managed that, now we just needed to get down the pyramid, out and back to the UK safely.
Climbing down was a battle, trying to make slow, calculated movements, when gravity just wanted to pull us down. Each time I put my foot down on the stone below, I feared it would crumble beneath me. I imagined hitting every level below me as I tumbled down the 51-degree slope of the pyramid.
The descent was like a gradual reintroduction into the world below. We were worried about security patrols, which could come at any time. On the lower third, we would be visible, like targets on a child’s arcade game, with nowhere to hide. We moved swiftly, apprehension and nerves getting higher as we got lower. Finally we dismounted the pyramid and, crossed back to our home for the night. We shimmied up the side of the tomb, removed our bags, and sat hidden behind our slab, trying to fall asleep.
After a few restless hours, barely sleeping, the sun began to rise behind the Pyramid. We had come up with an escape plan: we called it the “camel theory.” Once we saw a camel, we were safe to go. There are no camels without tourists, and no tourists without the site being open to the public. We lay there, watching and listening as the traffic slowly built up, from occasional motorbikes to foot traffic. But there were no camels, not yet. Hours passed, and we were growing restless, when at last we glimpsed a lone camel pass by on the road. We grabbed our gear and climbed down, weaving through the tombs. We found the camel, who was soon joined by another. From here we could see all the way the safety of our hotel, just a straight length of road away, past the mysteriously smiling Sphinx and through the security gates.
Having never been on camel, I persuaded Max to join me in asking how much it would cost. I was eager to get home, wash all the sand out of my now matted hair, and get some proper food and rest.
That’s when we were told that the site was still closed, and security was not too far behind us. Without time to haggle, we jumped on the camels with their owners and escaped over the desert, where security vehicles couldn’t follow us. It was a wonderfully improvised end to the adventure—a getaway on camelback!—though I didn’t feel completely at ease until we touched down in Europe a day later.
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