Egypt 1992

Starting up with a donkey carriage and ending up in a taxi

(Extract from the diary)

It’s already late afternoon by the time the squeaking breaks of our dusty bus eventually signal our arrival in the Siwa Oasis. A little boy comes running up to us yelling “Taxi, Mister! Taaaaxiii!” He urgently waves around with a sign showing the address of some accommodation. I laugh at him as I take the sign and turn it the right way in order to be able to read the name of the hotel. The taxi turns out to be a tiny wooden carriage pulled by a little donkey. Delighted, we load our backpacks onto the vehicle, and enjoy a leisurely ride to the hotel.

Siwa appears like a painting out of the Arabian Nights. The setting sun lays a warm red light onto the picturesque little mud castles, which look like honeycombs and can be up to six floors high. The lanes are very narrow and dark, forcing the people to turn on their lights even during the day inside their houses. A tangy smell coming from the market fills the air. The aroma of smoked foods mingles with that of addle tomatoes and hay, pleasurably munched by the dozing donkeys. You can find figs, dates and grapes for sale, as well as freshly slaughtered lamb, full of flies, hanging on rusty hooks.

As the last warm rays of sun disappear in the near desert, the celestial roof spreads over the oasis like an arch. The stars glitter like diamonds. Little fire places start flickering between the palm trees and people sit around them chatting and laughing and warming themselves up. A crazy cock crows at the top of its voice. Time seems to have been standing still here for the past one thousand years.

Cairo, however, is all the opposite. Here, our dented taxi blindly approaches a totally crammed junction in full speed. Seconds before crashing, the driver slams on the breaks. I fold my sweating hands as if to pray, hoping the breaks of this junky old vehicle won’t give up on us. Here we are now, trapped in this stinking metal ball. Then, in spite of all visible traffic lights showing red, the metal ball comes into motion again, accompanied by a frightening and ear-deafening tooting concert. All of a sudden we are overtaken by a cyclist on our left. Our driver seems to ignore him completely, and hits the cursing man with the outside mirror of our car. I cover my face with my hands, yet, peeking through my fingers, I can see the poor man ungently landing between two garbage bins standing at the roadside. “Inshallah,” says our driver as if nothing had happened, and accelerates.

Turning from being the hunter to being the hunted
It’s a cold night, and Ahmed, our camel driver, Tanja, and I are all sitting around a crackling fire. We’ve been in the middle of the Sinai Desert for days now. Our plan is to cross the whole of it with camels. We’re listening to nonentity, to the silence of the desert, to the grinding jaws of our camels, and are observing the lambency of our fire. The moon spreads its pale light over the mountains surrounding us and throwing their monstrous shadows onto the cold desert sands. We’ve pitched our camp in a narrow gorge, directly at the foot of an enormous mountainous massif. The wind blows around projecting and bizarre rock formations, and suddenly the gorge appears all threatening. My mind wanders back to long gone times when the Bedouins still had to watch out for lions. All of a sudden, a feeling of utter uneasiness creeps up my back. Are there still lions here today? This thought won’t stop haunting my mind, so I ask Ahmed. “Oh,” he answers contemplating. He lifts an eyebrow, and then starts telling us his story.

“Well, yes, our camel herds were attacked by wild lions not too long ago. When my grandfather was still young, his family repeatedly suffered the loss of a camel. At that time camels were worth a lot more than they are now. For some families the camel even represented the only worthy property they had.

One of my grandfather’s neighbours was a rich man. He owned 15 camels, and was an esteemed man. He was the one who was asked for advice when needed, and he was the one who determined the way the entire clan would go when leaving for a new oasis. One night he was woken by a terrifying roar. At first he thought he was dreaming, but as the roaring continued he was suddenly wide awake. He realised immediately what was going on, took his gun, and hasted to where the ghastly noise had come from. “It’s back,” he whispered. “The beast is back to kill one of my camels.” He ran, stumbled and fell, got up again, and rushed on. Only last year one of his camels had been killed by a lion. He’d shot at him and wounded him. He’d followed the blood trail for days, but the lion was too clever for him. At some point he’d lost the trail.

Now the beast was back to take revenge. Deep inside, he felt the same fear his camels would feel. Once again, he stumbled, but this time it was no stone that had made him trip. One of his camels lay there wincing on the desert ground. He was horrified as he kept hearing even more outcries in his herd. There was no time to mourn the loss of his leader camel lying there in front of him covered with blood. He had to chase away the lion. At that point he realised what an enormous damage the lion had made. He found another four camels lying in the desert sand, their heads dislocated, and their stomachs slashed. His eyes were filled with tears as he saw his animals, perishing miserably.

He had owned the camels for years. He knew them well, yes he would even say he knew them like brothers. Upon seeing this battlefield, all the characteristics of his loyal friends went through his mind. He felt especially upset about the loss of his two bulls. They hadn’t always been easy to cope with. Particularly during the mating season they’d often been stubborn, and done what they wanted to. Yet, they were strong and arduous. They could even do without water for 10 days, and they had no problems walking for 14 hours without a break and with a load of 40 kg each. They’d been his pride and joy, and now they were lying here in the desert, suffering wretchedly. Suddenly, further loud outcries called his mind back. Carefully, he carried on creeping through the dry bushes. Oh God, he saw another two camels lying in the sand, and a camel cow limping away on three legs. He had to choke at the awful sight of it all. He stood there paralysed, unable to move, and realised he was no longer a rich man. All of a sudden his entire body was shaken up by a deep, bloodcurdling roar. It was clear to him that it was his turn now. His whole life flashed through his mind. He was still young. He was not prepared to die yet. He felt his body being filled with an overwhelmingly strong will. Like an arrow leaving the bow, he darted ahead, and still in flight he shot at the shadow coming for him. Whining, his opponent hit the ground with a deep thud. A sense of delight overcame him, and all at once he noticed his knees were shaking terribly. With a feeling only known to winners, he ran back to the camp. He didn’t take care of anything else, not of his dead camels, nor of the dead lion. He just went back to the camp to tell everybody what had happened.

At the crack of dawn he and two other men out of the camp returned to the battlefield to inspect the horrific scene. Everyone wanted to see the dead beast he had so much boasted with. However, when they reached the point where the lion hit the ground, the beast had disappeared. He was shocked, and walked about in search of the deadly hunter. Behind him the air was filled with laughter. No doubt it was his merit. He felt hatred overcoming him. The big hunter had taken everything important to him. Within only few hours the lion had rendered him poor, and now, on top of it all, it even managed to show him up. He was a proud man, yet his pride would not allow a man without dignity to carry on living in the camp.

The next day he set off to prey, to prey upon the beast which had ruined his life. It should turn into a lifetime challenge, as he pursued his deadly enemy like a bloodhound. During the many years he spent hunting in the Sinai Desert, he shot any lion that came his way. He never gave his arch-enemy a break, son in the end the hunter turned to be the hunted.

In all his hunting years, he gained fame as a lion hunter. He is said to have had more than 200 trophies decorating his home, and to be responsible for the fact that lions are extinct in the Sinai Desert today," Ahmed concludes in a low voice.

The fire has almost gone out as we sit there contemplating, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of deep sorrow. “Nature can be so gruesome,” I whisper, while I listen to the wind sweeping through the close-by gorge.


Egypt 1992/2004

A country still today full of susurrated tales like in the Arabian Nights. A country allowing you to experience rocky mountains as well as oases, deserts, and the shrill colours of the orient. The breathtaking pyramids, sailing trips on the Nile, and the whispering winds of the Sinai – just to mention a few of the encounters made by Tanja and Denis Katzer in this part of the world.