Priorities; Rest & Relation first…

So time for some R&R in Luxor; I couldn’t wait. Joining me here was Kiran Bolina – she flew out from London to meet me the same day my Uncle and Aunty flew home; perfect timing. Luxor was an ideal place for us to catch up, take in the sights (of which there are many!) and watch England’s dismally unimpassioned performances at the World Cup.

Our hotel (the Sophitel at Karnak) was really rather nice. A little out of Luxor itself but on the River Nile with air conditioning and a swimming pool; most welcomed! It felt somewhat strange at first, almost a bit naughty, but I convinced myself that it was OK.

After tucking into numerous onion bhajis (thanks to Kiran’s mum for those!) and admiring my new selection of fresh t-shirts that Kiran had kindly purchased for me, we organised our trips to see some of the many sights. Our hot air balloon ride over the Nile Valley (including Valley or the Kings/Queens & Nobles) was a clear highlight, though Quad biking through the sandy desert was also a great deal of fun. Being able to accelerate at great speed by simply twisting the handlebars was quite a novelty! Valley of the Queens, Luxor Temple and Museum, Hatshepsut and a sunset felucca (sail boat) on the Nile were all enjoyed.

History in Egypt really is, quite simply, off the scale. The sheer amount of it that’s visible (yet alone all that’s yet to be discovered) is a wonder to behold. The age and length of time some of these monuments have stood for is mind-boggling. You simply can’t imagine building something today that people in the year 5,000 would be walking around; yet in Egypt, relatively, that’s exactly what you’re doing and looking at.

Touting is high in Luxor however and prices are much more expensive; if I had a pound for every time we were offered a felucca or ride in a horse drawn carriage I’d be a millionaire…but you’ve just got to get used to that. Please; if you ever visit Luxor don’t think the rest of Egypt is like that…because it’s not. Prices are much lower elsewhere and you won’t get hassled anywhere near as much (except at the Giza pyramids). To give you an idea of the price differences, just outside Luxor I paid 5 EGP for 2 cokes and a fanta. At the hotel, one coke was 10 EGP.

Another tip for those who fancy a tipple (I have been known) is buy alcohol and water outside the hotels, barter hard on the taxis and you’ll save yourself a pretty penny. Local restaurants are good too and much cheaper – our favourite was a delightful curry at A Taste of India, though traditional Egyptian cuisine at El Hussein is also highly recommended.

A huge thanks to Kiran for joining Dan and I in Luxor; it was a wonderful and very memorable “holiday” on our adventure.

Get back on the saddle…

So as the “holiday” drew to a close and Kiran flew back to the UK, it was time for Danny and I to get back on the road; this time we were heading for Aswan. Our “leaving towards the evening plan” was soon scuppered by the Police as that stretch of the road you’re not allowed to cycle at night. So after a good few failed hours of trying to persuade the Police, we camped at the Police stop and set off early the next morning instead.

All in all we had a very enjoyable Cycle to Aswan; very hot, but frequent places to stop meant it was pleasant. Just outside Kom Ombo, the Police again stopped us and forced us to be escorted. The Police before were slightly annoying, but this bunch were annoying and comical at a different level. Our escort eventually rocked up with a clearly drunk chief inside banging the roof of his van like a disobedient donkey. After the usual “Hamza Kilo” (rest in 5kms) fiasco, we took matters into our own hands and tried to rest at a local ambulance station. Clearly rattled and confused, the police wouldn’t let us stay there and after a while agreed to let us sleep in the Police station. Arriving there, the smell of smoked cannabis was slightly overpowering…but we didn’t care, we had a room where we could sleep, or so we thought. About 2 hours after we had nodded off, the clowns of Kom Ombo came back only to tell us that we couldn’t sleep there as “the General” had said this wasn’t allowed. A tired and frustrated Dan and I asked that the General be put on the phone and, deploying Passport diplomacy, Dan spoke to the General only for him to confirm that we couldn’t sleep there. But then, somehow, after the intervention of a man dressed in a black cloak who we’d met earlier (and to who I’d said we’re looking for somewhere to sleep), we were suddenly allowed to sleep. Early we rose and the same man entered the room (again in a black cloak) to check we were OK. I’m not sure who he was, but his mystical ways were much appreciated by us!

Off we peddled and after a few kilometres the Police gave up the escort. The kilometres ticked down and following the railway line we were soon in Aswan. On initial appearances it’s much like Luxor; hotels crowd the Nile and cruise boats park there polluting the air with their engines in full flow. There’s much less visible history in Aswan, but a bustling souq (market) makes it an interesting place. We checked into a Basic hotel which had a rooftop Pool and Nile views, so not all bad I think you’ll agree 🙂

Over the next few days we had important tasks to complete, we had to get plenty of US Dollars, check our Visa’s with the consulate and get our tickets for the Ferry to Wadi Halfa (Sudan) which left on the Monday (it was Saturday). There is only one sailing per week. The Nile River Valley Transport Corporation (which for other travellers reading this blog is by the old Aswan Tourist office) was the only place we could get a ticket, so off we trotted. We thought the office would be closed as it was past its closing time, but we persisted and made it to find it was still open. I entered the ticket room to find a room full of other travellers. Slightly nervous I asked “is this where we can get a Ferry to Sudan?” “Boat it full”, declared the company owner; “come back on Tuesday and you can get a ticket for next weeks sailing”. “OK”, I shyly responded – part knowing immediately that this put our plans in disarray, but party a little embarrassed in front of all the other travellers.

Dutch Intervention

“Where are you from?” asked a Dutch lady who was sitting quietly on one of the couches. “From the UK” we responded; after a few other one liners, a brief conversation ensured as the group split up into smaller groups and conversations. We kept chatting.

We were told to persist, which we did, but still we were unable to get a ticket as we were continually told boat was full. And so we left the office: deflated, but with the reality of it all still not sinking in. After we exited, just outside and cleaning their motorbikes were two French travellers and the Dutch couple. We spoke to Kiem and told her the predicament; from an earlier conversation she knew that Dan had a deadline to meet. For Dan’s 30th, the folks he met in Damascus had collectively paid to fly him from Khartoum to Damascus so he could join them for the Batizado (a Capoeira festival).

Kiem really wanted to help. As we spoke, you could tell the majority of her kind-hearted brain was frantically trying to work out exactly how she could help. Out of the blue she then says: “What if I tell him that I’m willing to sacrifice our tickets for you?” Dan and I a little taken aback nervously accepted with a view to “let’s see what happens” – and so back into the office we trotted. Kiem’s generosity had a huge impact on Mr Salah (the reservation manager) and after a while he agreed to give us two extra tickets.

After much sweat, but the type of unselfish generosity that moves mountains, we had our tickets; we could hardly believe it. We were lucky; had we not been there at that time and met such wonderful people (particularly Kiem of course), we would be in Aswan for another week and Dan’s flight back to Damascus would have to be re-arranged…or cancelled.

And so, with lady luck seemingly on our sides, Monday arrived and we strapped the bikes up and peddled to the ferry port (which was about 20ks from Aswan at the top of Lake Nasser). Semi-chaos was met at the initial entrance as, alongside a crowd of merchants and numerous other frantic ferry-goers, we somehow needed to get our bikes through the security area, including unstrapping our bikes and re-strapping them at the other end. Numerous other checkpoints later, we boarded the boat – we were 8 hours early but you need to be if you’re going to be able to rest on the boat. We parked the bikes up and headed for the top deck where we rested under a lifeboat with the same group of folks we met at the Nile Transportation Office.

The boat eventually set sail and it was a relatively pleasant journey in fairness. Sure it was full to the brim and crowded; a little stinky and the toilets like wading in an apple bobbing competition (it wasn’t apples)…but they had fresh water, food and nice people to chat to. We sailed passed Abu Simbel (the ancient temple recovered from the flood waters after the area was flooded by the Aswan Dam) and had probably the best view of the stars I’ve ever witnessed. With a gentle, cool breeze we sailed into the stars…this could be a lot, lot worse.

The next morning we arrived at the Port of Wadi Halfa which is a desert hut with a customs area after a kilometre. We had read that this was supposed to be the toughest part, but after we got off the boat through a minor struggle, we sailed through customs and out into the open.

Note to travellers; the Black Market exchange you get just after customs will give you the best rate in Sudan – so if you’re exchanging US Dollars or Egyptian Pounds do it here – it’s the best rate you’ll get. At time of writing we got 2.75 SDP for 1 USD – the bank rate is a measly 2.3.

We registered with the Police (100 SDP) which was a comical routine of going from one office to the next in a Spider Web formation (I think we went into about 8 offices), but each time we at least got somewhere and after an hour we had our magical pass).

So off we set; after 10ks we came to the brand new road built by the Chinese which opened in March of 2009; fresh Asphalt between here and Khartoum…wonderful. 894ks was our first marker…excited we peddled off – there was a marker at every kilometre so yep, you’ve got it, we had another 894 to pass (there is one at 0 before you question my math!).

Our bikes were each strapped with about 15litres of water – at this point most of it bottled water but we had local (Nile filtered) water on-board too – slightly discoloured but it tasted good if not a little sedimenty.

The first night we camped under the stars and then rocketed the next morning through 100ks before making a roadside village where we pulled in for water (by which point it’s out of roadside pots) and our first taste of Sudanese hospitality.

In short, the Sudanese are wonderful people; generous and willing to do anything for you. The family we met without hesitation prepared some food for us and ensured we were watered, tea’d and fed before we headed out. They didn’t ask for anything in return, just a gentile smile as we made our way out of the village.

We eventually made it to Abri, locally regarded as a town but for UK readers it’s more a village. I was starting to feel a little dreary; clearly dehydrated and in need of food, we eventually found the town entrance (it wasn’t obvious!). We rocked up at the local social centre for some re-hydration and a bite to eat; they didn’t have much food but we joyously tucked in. We slept under the stars again in a local hotel (it was just beds in an open air courtyard).

Unfortunately, I was little ill through the night and the next morning felt somewhat less than Spartan; I had obviously picked up a minor stomach upset from the water (which I was still getting used to) so energy levels were down. Dan was feeling OK and so prepared our breakfast and located fresh water, juice and everything else we needed. I was grateful as all I wanted to do was sleep…for those who know me, some things never change!

We headed out into the desert but I was lacking energy; the very mild hills were a struggle and as the heat set in I was feeling mildly Olympic. We found a water station where we soaked ourselves – now THAT was heavenly. 700km from Khartoum we then weighed up the options. Dan had a flight to make that he couldn’t miss; at current progress we wouldn’t make it and neither Dan nor I wanted that to happen. So the difficult decision was made; we’d have to complete the majority of the ride Solo – Dan would go on ahead and I’d rest at the water stop before pushing on through the remaining 200 kilometres to Dongola.

It was actually quite a difficult farewell; standing there watching Danny cycle off into the distance the scale of the task soon dawned – exciting, but nerving; my mobile phone was broken so I was without communication. Even if I tried, I knew there’d be no way I could catch Dan; he’s faster and fitter than I am – so in typical style I took it all in before retiring to the water stop, stretched out and promptly had a snooze.

I woke; temperature had dropped but there was still 200 kilometres to Dongola. With nothing for it I set off over the hill and into the wind. I cycled quite late into the night so I’d leave about 100/120 kilometres the next day. I rested in a local village (again, the recipient of wonderful Sudanese hospitality) before hitting the road again.

Another day of desert cycling ensued…sand, rocks, hills and not a lot else. The kilometres dropped; I then looked behind me only to see a fleet of motorbikes powering my way. Excited, I knew exactly who these were – the two French chaps and the wonderful Dutch couple who without their help I’d not be cycling in Sudan at all! They pulled over and we chatted for a little before they headed off on their journey. The remaining kilometres ticked and as the sun set, I passed the 500km marker, crossed the River Nile and arrived into Dongola.

After another registration with the Police (you need a permit to stay), I rolled into “Lord Hotel”; a very basic but super friendly Hotel – at only 10SDP (£2.50) it was great value too. In Sudan, most basic Hotels are just walled areas with a collection of beds; Lord Hotel was very similar though it had some areas where you could store your belongings. But even so, Sudan (the North part at least) is a safe country and the risk of theft (or certainly the possibility I felt of it happening) is very low.

I rested in Dongola for a few days, catching up on the Internet and letting modern medicine work its wonders. I was also lucky to be introduced to a very friendly chap called Abdul. He used to work as a local tourist guide in Sudan and in the past organized trips for visiting tourists and business travellers. He was immensely generous with his time; showed me places to eat and drink (including ordering teas and other drinks to help with my sickness) – he was even kind enough to help me get another mobile phone and change my remaining dollars into Sudanese pounds. Thanks Abdul, you were a great friend to me in Dongola and I’m very grateful.

So, rested and recuperated, the next morning I energetically set off; 500ks to go and with a new boost of energy I was soon back out into the desert. That day the cycling was really good; before I knew it I was down to 400ks where I pulled into eat and subsequently be shown around a university campus stationed out in the desert. They were really keen to show me around and, very kindly, offered for me to stay the night. So I chatted with them (in my pigeon Arabic), ate, and then slept on the roof. At around 2AM I woke with a peculiar sensation all over my body; the locals were screaming with joy so what was going on? It was raining; I hadn’t felt rain for over 2 months. Out here in this part of the desert it rains very, very rarely. Like London school children witnessing their first snow blizzard the students were beside themselves. A celebration ensued; a seeming miracle of nature stood before them; I too smiled before promptly rolling over and going back to sleep. It did feel good though.

The winds of change

And so, early the next day I peddled further south. The wind was growing in strength; the rain had caused the breezes to pick up and this was something that would escalate the further south I cycled. With only 80ks cycled that day I was a little deflated, so I pulled in to rest for the night at a stop Dan had also rested at a few days prior.

At 303ks to go you hit a small service area where you can get some food and water before the final push towards Khartoum. After this point there is very little at all – a few hamlets and police checkpoints that have basic water/food, but almost nothing in-between. So bike stocked up again with plenty water, I headed out into the wind. That lunchtime I rested in a hut before setting off for my evening stint. As I cycled the wind grew and grew until it was quite hard work to keep moving forward at a decent pace. I looked up and in the distance I could see the sand had lifted; a dark brown cloud was heading towards me at reasonable pace. Sandstorm. Knowing exactly what it was, I semi-excitedly kept cycling forward. Slightly nervous of course, but there was nothing for it – I had to keep going so I cycled into the Sandstorm and with high winds and visibility reduced to about 100 meters or so, I couldn’t cycle any further. Luckily there was the remaining mud walls of a former hut close by so I sheltered there wrapped in my t-shirt. The walls took the brunt of the wind and offered some protection, so bicycle and I rested there for it to pass. It did eventually pass, though no until 12 hours later by which time it was the next morning; the sand had settled slightly but the wind was still strong. But, keen to keep moving I pressed on. Tired by this point I only made it 25ks before cowering under a rock to stay out of the sun and strong wind. At 200ks to go it seemed a short distance but yet such a long way all at the same time. I ate a few toffees, snoozed for 30 mins or so and took it all in.

Over to my left was a small Mobile Phone station; as I stared at it dreaming of air conditioning and Coca Cola, the doors opened and out came a 15 year old boy who walked towards me. “Quayes” he asked, which means “are you good?”. I replied to say I just marvellous but resting here as the wind was becoming a right pain in the arse…or face as it so happened. He asked if I’d like a cup of tea which I duly snapped up, so we sat and had a cuppa. Already slightly beside myself with “did that just happen?”, he then asked if I’d like to come into the Mobile Phone station which, by now, I had worked out was a new mobile phone station, not yet operational and he was simply stationed there as a form of security. I dragged my bike across the sand, entered the mobile phone station (which has walls around it) and out of the wind. Slight turn up for the books I thought; it got better.

With improvisation worthy of an inventor, using bits of metal from the phone mast, a metallic dish and a fire that he’d just started, he chopped up some onions & herbs, added water, spice and knocked up a meal! I couldn’t quite believe it, not only that but he made bread to go with it. Wonderful Mohammed had saved the day; food, tea and now some games of Ludo, I was cheerfully restoring my belief I could cycle the remaining distance. You can probably guess what happened next; yep, I snoozed a little more, we chatted, waited for the wind to abate before snoozing again and then setting off the next day into strong winds, but at more of a South Westerly direction their impact was diminished.

I managed 80ks that day (better than 25!) before resting the night and beginning the final push of 130ks very early the next morning. Through the seemingly unending road and scorching heat, the kilometres passed; more acts of random kindness ensued with bottles of water handed to me as I cycled. Buoyed and pumped that I was nearing the finish line I was down to the last 10ks; they ticked ever smaller whilst a thunder storm appeared on the horizon displaying yet more of natures might. I cycled on – 3, 2, 1, 0.5, 0.2, 0.1…0!! Hurrah! I had made it; but hang on, where was Khartoum? Before I could taste Coca Cola and faint into the Air Conditioning I soon realised that the road sign makers in their wisdom made the sign stop 30ks from Khartoum itself, about 5/10ks from Omdurman which is on the outskirts of Khartoum. Marvellous; oh well, everything happens for a reason so I plodded into Omdurman where I stopped for a drink. I met Moutaz and yet more wonderful random Sudanese hospitality came rolling my way. We sheltered from the rain and they then invited me to eat then drink tea with them. I tucked into the food like it was a buffet before washing down the local after-meal-drink of Natural yoghurt and Sprite to settle the stomach. They then offered me a shower and a bed to sleep on for the night. I was so grateful to Moutaz and his friends; that bed felt like a mattress made from the feathers of angel wings.

The next day after a lie in and a cup of tea, I peddled through the rain into downtown Khartoum where I found a cheap hotel (Al Dawra) for $35 a night; Khartoum is very expensive, most hotels are $100+ per night. I indulged in Pepsi, Miranda and bounty bars. Like a pig in shit I rolled over and dozed off; I had made it, I was in a Hotel – I had a shower, air conditioning and a comfy bed. The Sahara during summer stage of the cycle was complete. Ahamdeluiyah.

The ride from Wadi Halfa across the Nubian Desert (Eastern Sahara) was very tough, there’s no doubt about that, but what an experience. I was so lucky on the way to receive such wonderful hospitality; from food with villagers, inside a mobile phone mast and on the outskirts of Khartoum. The willingness of the Sudanese to help, but yet expect nothing in return was heart warming to say the very least.

These wonderful people for me made the cycle possible. I can’t think how much harder it would have been without them. To the people of Sudan and the opportunity to cycle through the Nubian Desert in your wonderful country, a massive, massive thank you.

Night Night