The history of the Suez Canal dates to ancient times when a natural waterway connected the two seas. However, this waterway became blocked over time and was eventually lost. In the 19th century, French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps devised a plan to build an artificial canal in its place. Construction began in 1859 and was completed ten years later. The canal immediately became an essential route for ships travelling between Europe and Asia. For these reasons, I had a fascination with Suez Canal and wanted to see the ships passing through.
This post was written on the day of the trip. It wasn’t enjoyable and shows that not all viator.com tour operators are alike. Undoubtedly, this operator put no effort into understanding their requirements or even listening to what I highlighted as my key focus for the day. Below is a blend of what would be my feedback and my blog on the day.
Dangerous, dis-organised & completely underwhelming for the price (£280 – British)
The day started at 7 am. We were picked up ok in the lobby and went outside to the car. A vehicle was clearly past its use-by date with multiple dings, rust, and not very clean outside. Inside the car, it was clear it had not been cleaned for a long time, with shoe marks all over the back of the driver’s seat. Once underway, I attempted to put my seat belt on, but like nearly all cars in Egypt, the seatbelt did not work. Ultimately, I managed to use the ‘middle’ buckle, but this is not how seat belts should be worn, and there was still an uneasiness in safety.
Whilst driving out of Cairo, we were given a lot of ‘history’ on Cairo, which was nice, but we were on a trip to the Suez Canal. We were not asked what our priority was or what we wanted to get out of the day; instead, we had an elongated dialogue on Egyptian history (most of which I had heard before and some of which were not consistent with previous guides). With no consideration of what was happening, the driver left his window open, so I could hardly hear anything. I made it very clear my crucial focus of the day was the Suez Canal, spending as much time there as possible and viewing the ships passing through.
Our concerns about the driver began at this stage as we drifted across onto the other side of the road several times into oncoming traffic. I wasn’t aware at this stage of the driver, but Candy told me it was because he was constantly looking down at his phone.
Soon after we left Cairo, we were asked about a ‘break, on the premise that it was a further 80 km to Tanis without any further stops. Although we didn’t need a break (only in the car for 20 minutes), we took the break. At this time, we were offered the ‘snacks’ to be provided during the day. We had two plain croissants, one Red Bull and one coffee, which was to be it for the entire day, and no, we did not get to stop either. Ensure you confirm the budgets when these tour operators include snacks and lunch, as we didn’t get much value for money in this area.
Photographs of the road to Tanis, if you try the shorter way, it will take you longer!
We then settled into the journey to our first stop, Tanis. I advised the guide the third time that I could not hear him and to leave any further ‘history’ until Tanis. The theme of the day began at this time where we had taken the ‘shorter’ Google Maps journey in time, only to find we were on one of the worse, if not the worst, roads I’ve been on (this was to be trumped later in the day!). So, as we turtled through little villages, hitting every pothole available, our driver kept up his habit of driving as fast as possible before hitting the brakes as late as possible for each huge speed hump or alternative dangerous road obstacle. The irony of speed humps on poor roads is still somewhat lost on me. We were again ‘heart in mouth’ on several occasions.
Memorable Tanis, including the public restroom!
After missing the turning for the temple at Tanis, which was to become another habit of the day for this driver, Bilal (the driver) did not seem to make any turning the first time! We doubled back and went into the most desolate, isolated tourist venue we had been to in Egypt. Entry was Egypt £25 each. This would be all the entry fees until our guide had to ‘ad lib’ in Suez, but again, very cheap and nowhere near the extra added on viator.com. After using the pre-historic less than sanitary latrines, we walked around what seemed to be the last broken remains of a temple where most of the decent artefacts had been shipped off elsewhere. I believe one in Paris and one in Tahir Square, Cairo. Tanis’s ‘true’ guide escorted some more tomb visits. He seemed to tell our guide what to say. We were the only visitors there for the whole time. Our guide admitted he had not been there for two years (I doubt the driver had been there at all). We took some photos and tipped the guide and what seemed to be an ‘armed escort’ before jumping back into the car to head for the Suez Canal. The guide then dared to ask for photos with us holding their tour operator signs. I was still hopeful of a great Suez Canal experience at this stage, so we obliged. We seemed to have some extra attention from the ‘tourist police’; I suspect it was to ensure we stayed on the right road out of Tanis and onto Suez Canal.
Checking my Google maps as the tourist police left us (unfortunately), it was around 50 minutes to what I had ‘Suez Canal’ on my phone. However, it seemed our guides had us heading for Ismailia, which was also in a similar direction and time frame. After an hour or so of travel, our guide and driver had a heated ‘discussion’ of description. Rechecking my maps, we were now on the Ismailia Desert Road towards Cairo. We had completely missed the turn for Ismailia by around 20 kilometres! After a U-turn, we were heading back to Ismailia, 45 minutes away. Another wrong turn from Tweedle-dee and Tweedledum.
Ismailia – the Suez Canal Administration Building, being fobbed off as the Suez Canal, a dodgy road next to the Suez Canal wall, the worst road on planet earth!
We arrive in Ismailia. Why Ismailia? The only reason I can understand is that the official government building for managing the Suez Canal is there. After many other wrong turns, we drive past the ‘Suez Canal Administration’ building several times. They soon realise this is not the Suez Canal where ships travel. We find ourselves with a water view which I believe is here (30°35’17.9″N 32°17’05.0″E). No place for parking. We were just told we had 5 minutes to take some photos!
It was ridiculous. It wasn’t even the canal, just a body of water where ships could ‘hang’, and none were there! £280 quid, 8 hours driving and ending up in a half-arsed spot with no parking for 5 minutes. At this point, I had to highlight to the guide the photos on the tour website that they aligned with my expectations. He mentioned someplace 40 km away, I reiterated my expectations, and he said he needed to speak with the driver. I told him to talk with his driver, his boss, and anyone else he needed to as this was entirely underwhelming for what we had paid for.
We headed off, taking a few more wrong turns, but then we ended up on a strange freeway to somewhere. I looked, and it didn’t make sense. I asked again, but when I re-checked, it made sense we were heading to Suez. I let the guide know this was what I wanted from the start. Again, the road was under construction, but vehicles were still using it. One hour plus to Suez, I assumed that we would head straight to the Suez wharf or Maritime Museum. Unfortunately, this was a wrong turn on my behalf! As there was no plan or schedule, the guide tried to get us as close to the boats as soon as possible. I think we ended up here on Google Maps (30.031763747297035, 32.577656138252145) before we were escorted out by the police (another wrong turn). We then headed down this road which I believe is right beside the canal (30.01371462456618, 32.57811716704541). This now trumps the previous road I’ve been on (that is a road on Google) and becomes the worst road I’ve encountered. Somehow our driver works out this road is not passable, turns back, and with help from local police, we get to a semi-decent main highway.
We now travel down to Suez, and after a few turns and roads, we find a street close to the canal with a ‘venue’ with a view to which our guide seems to negotiate an entrance.
Suez Canal, the canal meets the Gulf of Suez. Finally, get somewhere to see the ships passing through, albeit dirty and not a legal viewing area (moved on by police).
Finally, I can see the ships moving through the canal, and I can take photos and videos and get a sense of ‘frequency’ and processes associated with the channel. The ships were graceful and impressive, various escort tugboats, ships full and empty, it was fascinating. We had around 20 minutes, our guide had his prayers, and I recorded some vessels passing through. This is where I’ll give the guide and driver some credit, but they should have had this organised from the start. We then went to another place where we were closer to the ships as they moved out of the canal. Unfortunately, the area was dirty and littered, and the road was closed, but it was a great view until local police came up and told us we weren’t allowed to take photos!
We head out of Suez at around 5 pm, back to Cairo for us!
Some indulgence, the un-made highway we travelled from Suez to Cairo with station stop just before getting back onto the made road!
Unfortunately, our ‘wrong turn driver’ aimed at the middle road fence, not knowing whether to go left or right. As he drove too fast and braked too late, he decided to go left. Well, the next 90 minutes is a mixture of driving on unfinished highways, moving through ‘no road’ scenarios, hitting new/old road bumps, traffic travelling in the opposite direction on both sides and more general disconcerting traffic conditions. After another set of near ‘head-ons’ and late braking issues, we finally get to the freeway near the airport. Strangely enough, I feel more comfortable finally seeing other vehicles on the road. As we travel down the road at 160 km plus, my wife is even more uncomfortable with Bilal. He talks to the guide, looking at the guide and not on the road. We drift less often, but his phone is still in his lap (a professional driver would have their phone mounted on the screen, have researched the drive prior, and have planned out exactly where and when we would travel).
As we get close to Cairo at high speeds, we see another accident in Egypt, one of many we see in the short two weeks. Unfortunately, this accident is fatal. Candy considers the driver’s body in the mummified position and being covered. Candy has had ‘gut’ feelings all day about how our driver has handled things, even sending our child an SMS highlighting the concern and our location earlier in the day. In the end, Candy says that the last 20 minutes after the fatal crash were the worst as they weaved in and out and round bends at high speed. There was never any query to us about whether we were comfortable. It was clear both driver and guide just wanted to get home asap.
We arrived back around 7 pm, I asked to be let out the front, but they couldn’t even get that right and drove into the hotel. Candy went straight in, and I gave Bilal £50 (Egypt) and Walled £100 (Egypt) in tips, the lowest for my trip. They were lucky to get that as they looked at each other in disbelief. My parting comment to Bilal was to get some driving lessons, and to Walled, I’d give feedback to the operator via viator.com.
In summary, a strange day as it was so bad it has generated so many stories. We did get to see ships in the Suez (albeit we had to force the issue). We certainly saw parts of Egypt that not all tourists visit, but I’m not sure it’s what we needed to see. We felt deeply let down by the customer service provided. We were a second thought, and I put more time and effort into deciding to downgrade their tips than what they put into planning our day. It would be interesting to see what the company has to say, as they also should have provided more support to the driver and guide.
If we were to view the Suez Canal again, we would probably hire a ‘taxi’ to take us to Port Said and travel down to Ismailia (30°35’27.1″N 32°18’26.8″E) – which ironically is just a kilometre further from where our guides had us. Then onto Suez Maritime Museum, where we could spend a few hours and find venues overlooking the ships coming through.
If you decide to see the Suez Canal, don’t do a day tour with an operator.
One last nugget for you, after a very long day we ate at a great Lebanese restaurant we had found in Cairo – taboula