Escape from Cairo chaos

David Skennerton photographed a burning government building from the Cairo hotel they were staying in during anti-government protests.
David Skennerton photographed a burning government building from the Cairo hotel they were staying in during anti-government protests. David Skennerton

TWO weeks after finding themselves in the middle of Egypt’s volatile political protests, Rebecca McGuane, David Skennerton and Kelly Smith are safely ensconced in their hometown.

But it’s been a traumatic fortnight. The travellers are back in Gympie after their dream holiday went horribly wrong and they were caught up in the deadly conflict that saw tens of thousands of activists take to the streets of Cairo protesting against poverty and corruption and calling for an end to the rule of president Hosni Mubarak.

Landing in Egypt’s capital on January 28, Rebecca said within about 30 minutes of reaching the Indiana Hotel they knew trouble was brewing.

The bus ride from the airport was relatively quiet, but the obvious police presence on the streets was disconcerting, David said.

“We saw a lot of riot police on the streets, but no civilians because it was prayer time,” he said.

“As we were getting to the hotel, people were starting to come out of the mosques and within the next half an hour, it just exploded.”

In the streets outside their hotel, crowds were gathering and they could hear loud chanting.

“We opened the window in our room to see what was going on and a tear gas cylinder exploded just outside the building,” David said.

“At that point, we weren’t really scared – it was just mind blowing,” Rebecca said.

“I was thinking ‘I’m not in Cairo right now’…”

Hoping things would settle down, and tantalizingly close to the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Sphinx and Khan El-Khalily Bazaar, the trio was told by their travel guide that “we don’t recommend you go out this afternoon”. Needing to buy bottled water and a few other supplies, hotel staff said it would be safe to go to a nearby shop and the KFC which was just around the corner.

“We went outside and saw a massive riot going on at the end of the street,” Rebecca said.

“We were just standing there wondering what to do when a local lady came up to us and asked if we spoke English.

“She said, ‘you shouldn’t be here, go back to your rooms’.

“We told her we needed supplies and we only had credit cards. She offered us some money and recommended we just go to the nearby pizza shop.

“She was lovely and very concerned about us and concerned about her son because he was caught up in the protest.”

To make matters worse, no one could send or receive phone calls or emails because all communication had been shut down by the government.

Family and friends in Gympie were frantically trying to reach them, after seeing frightening scenes on the evening news.

Rebecca’s mother Leanne McGuane had contacted Gympie Mayor Ron Dyne who had given her several numbers to ring and was keeping tabs on the situation.

Woken up by gunfire on their second day in Cairo, told to stay off the streets and with curfews in force, they felt they were in limbo. Egyptian television news reports were showing people covered in blood being dragged away and morgues full of bodies.

With the collapse of the government, and subsequent police dispersal, their hotel bell boys were handed guns to keep looters away.

It was tenuous protection but it made them feel safer.

Stranded in their hotel, Rebecca, David and Kelly watched in horror as nearby buildings were broken into and set on fire and banks were hastily boarded up.

On their third day they were called to a meeting by the head of Top Deck Egypt who told them it was best for them to leave the country as quickly as possible. And while it would be more secure at the airport, getting there was easier said than done.

Thousands of people were clamouring to get on emergency flights out of Cairo and what should have been a 15 minute trip to the airport, took them four excruciating hours.

“It was chaotic,” Kelly said.

The terminal was mobbed by tourists and Egyptians trying to flee the unrest.

“It was pretty much push and shove our way through thousands of people packed into the airport. It was a relief to get on the plane.”

They say it was thanks to the efforts of Rafik, the Australian-Egyptian manager of their tour company that enabled them to leave Cairo four days before Australian authorities managed to get other Australian travellers out.

“I’ve never been so happy to see the lights of Brisbane,” Rebecca said of their touch down on February 3.

“It was good to see familiar faces. We didn’t feel okay until we were home.”

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