Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Uncharted: lost city

Amira El-Naqeeb embarks on an expedition to find the lost city of Qosseir

Click to view caption
From top: the team on track; a group of hickers looking for a clue

I was told the mission in Cairo: to find the lost city of Qosseir. Yehia El-Deken, managing director of Holiday Tours and the brains behind the brand Weekend Trips, told me about it and I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.

The city of Qosseir lies along the Red Sea, 135km south of Hurghada, 80km from Safaga and 73km north of Marsa Alam Airport. We took the New Ain Sokhna road from Cairo and the trip was approximately 10 hours. Qosseir is famed for harbouring the oldest port in Egypt where many trips sailed from there, mainly to the mystical land of Punt (its exact location is yet unknown, but a close possibility is the Coast of Somalia) to buy ivory, leather and incense. It was also known as a major assembly point for Muslim pilgrims leaving for Mecca, mostly from Egypt and North Africa. The Qosseir port was also famous for exporting phosphate to India and Pakistan.

Our group of around 50 started the adventure at 8am, one hour after waking up to prepare for our quest and race against time. It took the bus almost 15 minutes from the camp to the main road where we disembarked and began our trek. We were randomly divided into two teams, with El-Deken leading one and Hisham Mady from Weekend Trips leading the other -- I was on Mady's team, and the only clue he gave us was "the track".

The plan was to look for a track that should lead us to the Lost City. Mady couldn't give away any clues even if he wanted to because he had only been there only once at night, and he couldn't see many of the landmarks. Lack of clues added to the adventure since the entire experience was new to him as well.

Within our group, we divided ourselves into beginner hikers and advanced ones; the latter would climb fast to survey if there is anything that would lead to "the track". Hiking for most people is the journey not the destination, so I took my place amongst the fast hikers who would climb up small hills to look for clues. The weather was warm and sunny with a pleasant breeze, perfect for hiking.

"We found a track down there!" exclaimed one of my team in an audible but discreet voice lest someone from the opposite team was close by. We headed down and led the rest of the team in the direction of the muddy track that twisted and turned, and finally came to a dead end where we were surrounded by mountains once again. It was disappointing for some but exciting for others, because it added more intrigue to the adventure. Four of us climbed different mountains in various directions to look for another key, a trace, or a hint of the Lost City.

Meanwhile, the other group was also standing atop another hill close to us, also looking for clues. "Tell me your gift," El-Deken addressed his team. Bandar responded: "I take fast decisions"; Sherif: "I can see from afar"; Maha: "I will be the clairvoyant of the group, meaning I have insight." Everybody laughed.

"This way!" one of my team shouted to our point group, so we all hopped from one hill to the next since they were all connected. We found a track hidden under what looked like a natural arch. Going down from there wasn't easy; it was a steep slope with small slippery pebbles. To make it worse, I was carrying a backpack filled with water bottles. A teammate helped me, but as I went down my foot slipped a little but I managed to regain balance. "I should have brought my hydration pack, even if it makes the water taste awful," I mumbled in agitation.

Our point team preceded the hiking convoy and after a 10- minute walk we spotted the first sign that we might be on the right track. A shadow of a building appeared in the horizon. Although we couldn't exactly figure out what it was, we began revelling for almost clenching victory.

Our competitive spirit took over because we were going to beat the other team. After another 20-minute arduous hike down the track we decided to sit and take a break; it had been more than two hours since we started. We picked a stunning mural as our backdrop. It was a naturally carved sandstone mountain masterfully etched by erosion; the textures and colours of the mountain smoothly forming a gradient palette from yellow to raw sienna. The erosion carved the mountains in irregular wavy lines, and we took shelter under one of the shapes that looked like a hood. We sat down and passed our snacks around.

After a quick repose we were ready to move again. We glimpsed a construction which we all thought was the first sign of the Lost City, but as we got closer it turned out to be an old water tank. Shortly after walking past the tank, the Lost City started to unfold.

Ruins of old stone and red mountain rock walls began to appear. Then we found traces of what looked like a school: short white torn down walls and blackboards, but the traces of the school seemed fairly new. Then suddenly we found ourselves in front of an entrance, a grand large gate in Pharaonic style. We stood in awe facing it, and the entire group felt we were transcending into another historic period.

Crossing the gate, I felt like Lara Croft about to race against time and villains. The silence, the mountains standing proud and tall, and the air filled with tension and anticipation. We crossed the gate to find small round-shaped red stone rooms, clearly the ruins of a Roman settlement similar to the ones I have seen in South Sinai close to Saint Catherine.

According to Haj Ragab Abdel-Ghani, one of the people who worked at the Qosseir Phosphate Company and a contemporary of the Italians who built the phosphate factory in 1914, said that historic Qosseir was inhabited by the Romans during Roman rule, then the Italians built houses to live near the phosphate mines.

Later came Egyptian workers and their families who worked in the mines. When Italians owned the company, the Lost City was known to the people of Qosseir as Old Qosseir. In Arabic, Qosseir means the small palace.

We could see a few settlements scattered around with small round-shaped rooms that you could only access by arching your back. There were also remains of a concrete building perched on a hill of what looked like a palace. I ran up to explore more and the view from above was breathtaking. Inside the palace were remains of walls and cracked windows of what looked like a two-storey building.

I was excited to find our lost city, yet sad that our adventure had come to an end. There was a canopy in the shade of what seemed like a resting place for explorers like us. Our group rested there for a while but some of us did not want to accept that our quest was over yet, so they roamed the surrounding desert to discover more caves, tunnels and ruins. And there was more to see...

The trip was organised by Weekend Trips. For more information about future trips and adventures log on to http:// www.facebook.com/groups/wetrip/www.facebook.com/groups/wetrip/ or http:// www.holiday.com.egwww.holiday.com.eg/p>

Yehia El-Deken, who calls himself a "tripoloigst", offers some tips on how to be an efficient traveller:

- Choose only the clothes you really need.

- Try to divide your bag into compartments so you can put and arrange the things you need in priority; day clothes, night clothes, etc.

- Choose the right bag. If you have three regular destinations, then pick the right bag for the right destination (carry-on, backpacks, suitcases, etc).

- Travel off season so you can make last minute decisions regarding flights, accommodations and excursions without the pressure of the high season.

What to pack:

- Hiking shoes or sneakers that don't have slippery soles.

- A ski hat or heavy head scarf and sunscreen.

- A minimum of four small bottles of water, preferably a CamelBak (hydration pack or bladder).

- Extra socks and extra T-shirt.

- Snacks that provide high energy: raisins, nuts, biscuits, apples, bananas (great for cramps).

- Wipes.

- A small plastic bag for trash since the Responsible Tourism Initiative in Egypt dictates "take nothing with you and leave nothing behind".

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