At 5 a.m. last Wednesday, David Walker’s tour guide got a call.
“Queen’s has arranged an evacuation flight for you,” the guide told the group of Queen’s alumni holed up in a cruise ship off the coast of the Egyptian city of Luxor.
Walker, MD ’71 and former dean of Health Sciences, was one of 21 who travelled to Egypt on a tour organized by Queen’s Alumni Relations on Jan. 19.
The Queen’s group flew from Toronto to Cairo, connecting with travelers from the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia on the ground in Egypt. They had lunch near Tahrir Square, less than a week before the riots broke out.
The travellers moved onto attractions in Jordan, including Petra and the coastal city of Aqaba.
“Everything started out beautifully,” Walker said. “We had lunch at a Bedouin camp where Lawrence of Arabia used to hang out and learned how to ride camels. It was absolutely spectacular.”
The group then headed back to Egypt, travelling four hours through the desert by bus to Luxor. Walker and his wife, along with three other couples from Queen’s, opted to extend their trip for a cruise along the Nile when signing up for the trip months prior. The rest of the Queen’s group, including former Principal Bill Leggett, headed back to Cairo expecting to fly home.
“They flew into trouble,” Walker said. “Theirs is quite a story.”
When Leggett, Queen’s principal from 1994 to 2004, arrived in the Cairo airport he estimated there were over 10,000 people in the terminal.
“This surge of humanity was trying to get through,” he said. “It was so heavily packed with people that it was impossible to move at times … Chaotic to say the least.”
Leggett was scheduled to fly back to Canada on Jan. 29, but was delayed by two days.
“[There were] people who had spent 24, 36, 48 hours in the airport,” he said. “Luggage carts being passed overhead … A couple of people fainted and were lifted up and passed bodily overhead. Quite a scene.”
From his cabin on the cruise ship, Walker said he watched the situation escalate.
“There’s BBC world news showing rioting,” he said. “We’re getting texts from our friends saying ‘it’s not good here in Cairo.’ “So we were getting a bit anxious.”
Then their cellphone and Internet connections went dead. “Smoke was rising from the towns,” he said. “From time to time on shore there were fires and you could hear gun shots.”
The itinerary had Walker and his group landing in a small town on the banks of the Nile to visit a temple. It would be the last time the group was allowed off their cruise ship.
“That’s where the story starts to get interesting,” Walker told the Journal in an interview on Friday after he arrived home in Canada.
“We got ourselves caught up in a bit of a riot.”
The group was traveling by bus, passing a line of “shabby-looking” riot police protecting the police station from any arson attempts. Walker said burning stations had become an ordinary sight.
The tour-guide on the bus dismissed the gathering crowd in town as only “a small riot,” but when the group returned from the tomb, the riot had grown to the point that the bus couldn’t reach the boat.
The shoreline was crowded with demonstrators and entrepreneurs upset that the other cruise ships had refused to dock in town.
“They were angry at losing business, the crowd was angry about Egypt and our bus arrived in the middle of it,” Walker said. “We got as close to the boat as possible. That’s when it was really scary. There was shouting and yelling and pushing and shoving.
“I said to my wife, ‘go, go, go’ and we just ran.”
The original schedule drafted by Alumni Relations planned for the group of Queen’s travellers to dock in Luxor and fly to the Cairo airport, connecting to a flight back to Toronto. But the Luxor airport was closed.
“We were lingering around on this boat … sitting on the deck in the sun watching the shoreline with anxiety,” Walker said, adding that while they were on board the ship a Luxor museum exploded near the coastline and a police station was burned down.
“The tourists were dissolving around us,” he said. “There were many of these Nile boat cruisers around and some of them were packing up, you could tell they weren’t going to have any business for a while.”
The gift shop on Walker’s cruise liner packed up all their silver and gold, which the shopkeeper told Walker was an attempt at protecting his business from looters.
“I thought ‘great,’ ” Walker said. “So now if they come on the boat they’ll be looking for our watches.”
The group explored several opportunities for escape from Egypt, each one proving to be impossible in some way. The group’s tour guide planned on chartering a bus to the Red Sea and then taking a boat across to Jordan or Israel—but authorities advised against traveling four hours through the desert unprotected.
“At this time we hadn’t had much sleep for a day or two and it was getting noisier and noisier all around us,” he said. “All the security disappeared, all the police disappeared. All the prison guards left their posts and we heard all the prisoners were out of jail, roaming the countryside.”
The group’s last-ditch effort was going to be camping outside of the Luxor airport, waiting for it to open. At midnight on Jan. 31, Walker and the other passengers from Queen’s were briefed on the plan.
“The options for getting out seemed to have disappeared to nothing,” Walker said. “We were told to be up at 5 o’clock and have your bags packed and we’ll go … nobody slept.”
By this point, Queen’s Alumni Relations had been working for 24 hours to arrange a flight to retrieve their travellers. Judith Brown, associate vice-principal (Alumni Relations) worked in tandem with the Tour Operator, Gohagan, to charter an eight-seater jet and evacuate the tourists in Luxor, ensuring they wouldn’t sit unprotected outside the airport for days.
When everyone woke up at 5 a.m., the tour guide briefed them on the plan and though the group had to break curfew, they finally left en route to the airport shortly after sunset. “They coupled us off the boat with our bags onto the bus, praying that we wouldn’t get caught,” he said.
When they reached the airport, it was closed but the group managed to have the doors briefly opened so they could reach the plane that was only on 40-minute clearance from the Egyptian aviation authority.
“We went into this deserted airport [and] went through security where the [metal detector] was not plugged in,” Walker said. “We went to the passport control, couldn’t find anybody at first but eventually found somebody to stamp our passports.”
They ran out onto the runway, immediately entering the jet that had been circling above the airport waiting for the passengers to be ready to board.
“[The pilot] shut the doors and we were off,” he said, adding that the group flew overnight to Qatar, connecting to a flight to London, England and then home to Toronto.
The Alumni Relations Egypt tour cost over $7,300 per person. Brown said the thousands of dollars put towards chartering a plane in Luxor were taken out of the Alumni Tours revenue and will not take up funds from the operating budget or alumni pockets.
“The principal was very clear on this: safety is the first priority,” Brown said, adding that the University’s efforts would have been the same regardless of whether a former principal and former dean were on the trip. “There’s only one thought that goes through your mind at a time like this and it would be the same thought regardless of the passengers. You need to bring them home safely.
“I’m just so relieved. The adrenaline is still kind of pumping.”
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