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Volume 35, Number 4July/August 1984

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Sphinx II

Written by Jay Gissen

In Egypt this winter, publisher Malcolm Forbes unveiled what must be the most unusual balloon ever flown: a huge, bright-yellow replica of the Sphinx 40 meters long (131 feet) and 20 meters high (66 feet).

Part of a Forbes personal goodwill mission to Egypt from the United States, "Sphinx II," as the great balloon was called, enchanted thousands of Egyptians as it soared over the real Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza, above a stadium in Alexandria and over places like El-Minia, Asyut, Luxor, site of the Valley of the Kings, Aswan, site of Egypt's High Dam, Lake Nasser, the Suez Canal and the Sinai Desert.

Sphinx II, moreover, was only part of the mission. Continuing a well publicized tradition of touring the world on a motorcycle, Forbes, the wealthy, extrovert publisher of Forbes Magazine and part-time aeronaut, also led a caravan of roaring motorcycles to those locations. Though motorcycles in Egypt are hardly a novelty these machines, brilliantly painted and freshly waxed, turned heads and drew applause along their 20-day, 3,701-kilometer trip (2,300 miles).

The tour, scheduled to include nine Egyptian cities, began in late February when we flew into Cairo, biked to the Sphinx in a siren-led parade, circled the pyramids, unpacked 272 kilograms (600 pounds) of rumpled nylon from a truck, inflated the balloon for the first time - before some 500 spectators - and sent it soaring high above the great stone figure that it roughly duplicated.

Though it was tightly tethered to stay no more than 30 meters or so above the ground (100 feet), the balloon, whipped about by strong winds, had to be brought down almost immediately. The following morning, however, we gave it another try - successfully, this time - and then headed for Alexandria, the second stop, where a crowd of 1,000 turned out at the city's stadium to see our huge yellow mascot soar up into the sky.

The next day, it was back to Cairo - for the start of six tough days of riding along the Nile to Aswan. On the first day we covered 264 kilometers (164 miles) and received our warmest welcome: people lined the roads and crowded into the streets, marathon runners came loping along beside us, and signs and banners made us welcome.

The children were especially enthusiastic. Whenever we began to deflate the balloon, they would come swarming onto the field to leap with great glee onto the collapsing skin and help depress it.

In Luxor, we finally unleashed Sphinx II fora free flight. Accompanied by a second, more traditionally shaped balloon - for photographers and observers - Sphinx II soared into the sky on a clear, windless morning to thunderous cheers and for an hour or so hovered over the Valley of the Kings, the great temples of Karnak and the site of Thebes, capital of ancient Egypt.

At Aswan, the next day, Sphinx II flew free again - but not without some anxious moments. The wind could easily have taken it out into the desert, or over the Nile or, worse, north to the huge Lake Nasser. Fortunately, a gentle breeze carried the balloon over Aswan and landed it on a hillside just outside of town.

From Aswan, we headed across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea and up to the Suez Canal - a gruelling 440-kilometer run (275 miles) consisting mostly of rocks, gravel and deep red sand which explains, perhaps, why the Red Sea is so named. It took more than eight hours for that run, but the welcome we received was worth it: a festival of sports, dancing and singing, suggesting that this was one goodwill tour that was indeed generating goodwill.

The Sinai Desert was a shock. Mountainous, gritty, rocky and windy, the Sinai seemed like another world, its only inhabitants the 49 Bedouin tribes that have lived there for hundreds of years. We sometimes made speeds of 120 kilometers an hour (75 miles), but at other times got bogged down so badly that we were lucky to make a mile every 10 minutes.

By then, we were down to six motorcycles, two of them having succumbed at the Red Sea to the desert track's bruising punishment, and lost another on the way back to Cairo for what Malcolm Forbes decided would be a fitting end to the tour: a free flight over Cairo in Sphinx II.

It took time to get permission, and then we ran into trouble with the wind. But on a second attempt, Sphinx II soared up early one morning just as Cairo was on its way to work; as a result millions of Egyptians saw the balloon as it floated and hovered over the Nile and drifted northward before descending gently into a turnip field, to end the tour.

Before departing, Forbes conferred with President Hosni Mubarak. Then, balloons and bikes packed and loaded, he headed for New York, leaving behind a bemused audience of millions who, no doubt, will be telling the story of the flying yellow sphinx to enthralled children for generations.

Jay Gissen, who wrote for Forbes Magazine for three years, is now on the staff of Manhattan Inc., a New York business publication.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the July/August 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1984 images.