And so, before I knew it May 1st was here. A final goodbye to my sister Laura and then off to the airport; Rob Simpson kindly volunteered to escort me out the country and so with everything packed, I headed to Gatwick airport. Checked in, I headed to the bar (of course – where else is there?) for a few thoughtful, last minute beers before boarding the plane. British Airways were fantastically helpful in checking my bike and associated equipment (none of which fitted through the check in desk!) onto the plane. Miche, the bicycle box you sourced for my bike was just perfect, thank you!
I arrived in Sharm El Sheikh at 05:30AM; slightly bleary eyed from the sleep, but also, admittedly, the Red Wine I took advantage of on the flight. Customs, baggage carrousels and a few questions later I exited Arrivals to be greeted by Danny with his stereotypically warm “Easy G, great to see you brother” smile and wave.
With my bike in bits we quickly took to re-assembling it at the airport. I say we, but the reality was Dan did most of the work; I meanwhile sorted out my Visa but on return the bolts I tightened were very important ones.
Bike assembled and after a few high 5’s, it was 10AM – the wind was blowing and it was time to head out into the Desert. We fuelled up at the local petrol station with food and Gatorade and off we went. It felt good; finally, after all the preparation here I was – the sandy hills, intense heat and road ahead were all in front of me. The kilometres ticked by and the sun grew higher in the sky. Have you predicted what’s coming next?!
40 kilometres passed, energy dwindled to a candle flicker and the heat got the better of me. Tired, weary with probably slight dehydration and heat exhaustion we (I) cowered in a storm drain to stay out of the heat. Welcome to Africa I thought to myself, only to realise yet another mistake…wrong continent entirely; I was in Asia. The Sinai part of Egypt (the right-hand bit of the Suez) is actually Asia unlike the rest of Egypt…so I wasn’t in Africa at all – that was about 800km away! I snoozed.
After the heat and a few Gatorades, we headed back out hoping to make a rest stop at the 60km marker where we could eat and sleep for the night. The kms ticked down at an almost unfeasibly slow speed…but, eventually, at the top of a hill and dangling off the end of the handlebars like a plasticine cyclist, we arrived at the “Cheers Cafe” in the middle of the desert. We ate, drank, slept in a Tepee then played volleyball the next day with the pleasant workers before heading back out into the desert – our destination Dahab.
Predominantly downhill, the cycling was a lot better! We arrived, ate Ice Cream and took in the wonderful views of the Gulf of Aqaba (which separates Egypt from Saudi Arabia). We then cycled along the front to find a cheap, basic hotel – which we duly did; Marine Garden hotel, perfect. We settled there; ate good food, snorkelled and generally took it very easy for a few days until Dan’s friends Tarek and Ummal from Damascus (Syria) arrived. These lovely folks were people he had met and worked with during the 5 months he spent in Damascus. They, along with others – most of whom are still in Syria – worked hard in setting up a new NGO called Bidna Capoeira. Bidna’s aim is to assist community development and the psycho-social well-being of children and community members alike through teaching Capoeira, a dance/martial art originally from Brazil that is increasingly popular around the world.
I even dabbled in some Capoeira, though my somewhat inflexible construction making it an exhibition for all the wrong reasons.
We all rested for a few days before heading up the coast a few kilometres to Ras Abu Galum where we stayed the night with a Bedouin family, ate fish and generally took it very easy for a day or so. I also turned another year older and so to mark the occasion, Dan, Ummal and Tarek decided to shave my head with a lady razor; in a chilled out mood I responded with, sod it, why not!
So, with an almost completely shaved head, barring some stylish thunderbolts and a KG Crown at the back (and yes, I felt immensely self conscious) we headed back to Dahab for a few more days where my head was completely shaved of the remaining hair.
Off to the Devils Head
After almost 2 weeks it was then back on the bike as we headed 80km up the road to Ras Shaitan (Bedouin for Devils Head), just north of Nuweiba. 80km; I could do that I said…and so off we set at 6AM back out into the desert and along a very gentle incline. At mid-day energy levels were super low and I was struggling (again). So for a few hours we made a makeshift tent in a very small building site and saw out the heat of the day. Running very low on water we ploughed on further; after a few smaller stops we made it to the peak of the incline where a long, very tasty downhill into Nuweiba followed; wonderful! We eventually arrived in Ras Shaitan, tired and weary but buoyed because we now had a moderately difficult cycle under our belts; progress.
We spent another week in Ras Shaitan; swimming, lounging, eating good food and generally having a good time. This simple resort is a collection of traditional beach huts – all made from cane type sticks; no electricity, it is back to basics natural beach dwelling. There’s a great community of people visit this resort – many were from Israel, but others were from Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries, so it was an interesting mix and great conversation.
So, hoping my acclimatisation was complete after 2/3 weeks in Dahab and Ras Shaitan, it was time for some “proper cycling”. I was super keen to get on the bike; I knew I had the “pain barrier” to go through and a lot to learn, so I just wanted to get on with it. So off we peddled, our first marker was Taba just along the coast on the border with Israel. There’s not a lot there, though the town does share borders with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia so politically it’s an important (and vulnerable) town.
After a refreshment stop in Taba, we took a right turn and headed across the Sinai desert camping the first night behind a rock on the bend of the main road.
Cycling the Sinai was pretty tough going; we cycled most of the day from around 6/7AM, resting between 12 – 4/5 and then cycling into the evening. There were odd places to stop and eat along the way which made life a little easier and more enjoyable; but where there wasn’t anything it was Pasta or Noodles cooked using our very smart outside portable cooking kit from MSR.
Gateway to Africa!
So after 5 days and a wonderful last days cycle through the hills (up at first but then a long downhill to the Nile afterwards), we arrived at the Suez Canal. We slept the night in a derelict house before cycling up the canal the next day to the Mubarak Peace bridge (we preferred this option to taking the tunnel). Sunset drew closer and with the final security checkpoints passed, we headed across the bridge. At the mid point a police officer offered possibly the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, not only that – at the same time he was displaying an energetic two handed wave which simultaneously bided us goodbye from Asia whilst welcoming us compassionately to Africa. Down the other side we rolled, getting good speed and singing Hakuna Mutata (from the Lion King); we had arrived in Africa.
We stopped to grab a drink where another act of spontaneous generosity ensured. We were chatting with a really nice guy (I forget his name), but looking a Dan’s head scarf he said that “I’d need one of those”. Without further hesitation he gave me his and tied it on in traditional fashion. Quite wonderful; he had only met me for 2 seconds yet decided that I needed his headscarf more than he did; I was of course immensely grateful. Welcome to Africa indeed.
We rested another night then headed up to Port Said where we checked into a hotel for a few days to rest, recover and catch up on Internet, Emails etc… Port Said is the most North Easterly part of Africa, so it was a great to be here as a significant milestone on the tip of Africa knowing that one day, hopefully, we’ll arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, the most South Westerly part of Africa – approximately 7,500kms as the crow fly’s. Of course, we’ll be taking a much, much longer route in order to visit the much deserving orphanages.
Rested and showered (my goodness the first shower was nice!), we headed along the Mediterranean Coast back towards the UK! But, most importantly, we were heading to Alexandria; I had a good vibe about this City and really had an urge to visit it. For a few days we battled head winds before rolling into Alexandria to be greeted by Shehab who, very generously, though the Couch Surfing website had offered to host us for a few days….or a week as it turned out.
It got better, much better; on arrival we were greeted with an Egyptian feast! Shehab had invited around many friends and Couch Surfers to bid farewell to his Lebanese companions so we ate, chatted and enjoyed a wonderful evening.
The next day we headed out to a local arts festival in Alexandria. It was a fantastic day out, thoroughly enjoyed by all; we met many locals, chatted, danced, ate and were pretty tired by the end of day…though not before a quick game of football in the evening.
We even spray painted the Couch Surfing logo onto the pavement as our contribution to the patch[art]work that the organisers wanted us to complete. Wonderful, thank you Alex!
Dan turned 30 the next day so to mark this major life milestone he, rather unfortunately, spent most of it on the toilet. Yep, a very bad case of the [you know what] had floundered him in bed. So he snoozed; I bought him some birthday cake before he pointed out that dairy products are probably not the best thing to eat. With nothing for it I carried out the celebrations solo and ate most of the cakes; happy days and Happy Birthday Danny!
Off to Cairo
After a few more days (huge thanks to Shehab to showing/driving us around the city to see the wonderful sights) it was time to head south to Cairo, the bustling capital of Egypt. It took 2/3 days to cycle down there where we were met by our next, very generous, Couch Surfing host Ahmad. He kindly met us on the outskirts of Cairo before showing us to his apartment.
We then spent the next week enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo. Ahmad was generous enough to show (and drive) us around the city; what makes Couch Surfing even more amazing is that you get to see the city from a locals’ perspective, avoid the common tourist traps and get to see the “real” city. One great example here was our visit to the Pyramids. We didn’t go to see the main three Giza pyramids as these are bustling with tourists and, sadly, touts who will offer you anything and pester you continuously. Dan had already seen the main three pyramids from a previous trip and whilst of course majestic and wonderful, the experience was marred by the touts and hustle.
So instead we took a trip to Dashur, which is a little further down the Nile but boasts two amazing pyramids. Once is almost perfect in shape and only a little shorter than the main pyramid in Giza (Pyramid of Khufu). The other pyramid is less well shaped, but still has a lot of its limestone topping which makes very interesting viewing. However, impressive enough already, the best thing was we were the ONLY people there. We had the whole area to ourselves; it was so quiet that Dan and Ahmad climbed one of the Pyramids, fulfilling one of Dan’s childhood dreams. I was nominated cameraman and so stayed at the bottom taking pictures of the intrepid climbers. One the way down we were eventually spotted by the Police (on a camel, which I also snapped), but no problem – a little back-hander and all was good. We even got a ride in the police truck back to our car!
During our time we were able to take in and experience many of the wonderful sights in Cairo. We climbed the minaret of the Al-Azhar mosque (again thanks to a back hander), perused the souqs, visited a Jazz festival, gate crashed an open air Muslim wedding (where we soon became guests of honour!) and stuffed ourselves silly with a buffet on the Nile. We also met other Couch Surfers, whilst Nada and Olga, friends we had met in Alexandria, were also in the city for few days so we drank and enjoyed ourselves too.
In Cairo I we took delivery of our first “aid package”, though this one was for Dan and I (mainly me) with items from home. Before I left the UK, I was frantically ordering all manner of items. However, in my usual style, not all of it got delivered on time, so I arrived in Egypt minus a few key items. Nothing mega essential, but there were bits I was missing (such as bike oil!), plus over the course of the first 6-8 weeks, I racked up a list of items I realised I’d need from the UK.
So along the way there was more Internet ordering with the packages being sent to my great friend Veronica, who in super smashing style co-ordinated all these items for Dan and I and duly packed them into a box, organising for it to be Fed Ex’d out to us in Cairo. When I picked it up, it was like Christmas as a 5 year old; ripping off the box lid to find a Pandora’s Box of goodies; from the items we ordered to surprise cards and packets of Harribo sweets from home. My smile could have stretched the length of the Nile, so a MASSIVE thank you to Veronica for so kindly arranging that for us both.
And so, with our Sudanese Visa’s sorted in Cairo (it’s pretty much the best place to get a Visa for Sudan, though the cost is high at $100), we were all set for our journey south. Dan needed to stay in Cairo for a few more days and also needed to visit some folks back in Alexandria, so we decided to do the Cairo to Luxor stretch solo. I was of course a little nervous as this was my first solo stint, but with my legs able to cycle a lot more than they could at the outset and a few pigeon words of Arabic to boot, I headed off into the sunset (literally).
Cycling the Nile was a joy, at first. As I left Cairo I (courtesy of a wrong turning) got a majestic glimpse of the Giza pyramids in the distance, quite wonderful, especially to witness such a monument of history at sunset.
My first night was spent in the prayer room of a roadside café. I had stopped there for dinner, but they later had a power cut so I helped them out with the two head torches I had. After that I was able to barter myself some free accommodation, but I’m sure they’d have let me sleep for free anyway. I inadvertently slept at the top of the prayer room which meant that at 4:30AM I woke to find folk praying towards me; left me a little confused at first but I soon realised what was going on, rolled over and slept for another joyful hour before getting up and hitting the road.
The towns ticked past and the next night I spent sheltering in a carpenter’s workshop with harvest mice. I could hardly communicate with the owner, but he knew I needed to sleep and the kind, warm gentleman offered a spare bed that I snapped up like a winning lottery ticket. I even got a morning cup of Shai (tea), so I left refreshed and ready for another day on the road.
Again the kilometres and towns ticked past; by now I was averaging about 130kms a day; wind was good, temperatures getting warmer (around 40 degrees), but my strategic snoozes during the main heat mitigated any consequential dehydration. But then, just after the police stop at Asyut I was informed that I needed a Police escort for the next sections.
The Police had so far been really friendly in Egypt; willing to help and bid us farewell on our journeys. However, over the course of the next 300kms my positive view was to encounter a slight dent. In Egypt, there are a LOT of Police. Quite what they do most of the time I’m not entirely sure; the folks at the Police checkpoint must be bored out of their mind. Quite often you’d find 20-30 of them all standing there, chatting away as if it was a local social club. They of course kept trying to get me to put my bike in their truck (so they’d give me lift), but each time I refused as I’m doing everything I can to ensure I cycle all the way to South Africa, except where it’s blatantly not possible (such as across Lake Nasser).
So we set off, 6 officers manning the van which was sometimes in front, sometimes behind – most of the time with blue flashing lights on. Novel at first, this soon wore off as every time I stopped, so did they. If I got out to eat, they’d either sit in their van and wait for me, or worse, sit with me whilst I ate. If I stopped to go into the shop, like a lost sheep that hadn’t eaten in a month, by my side would be another Police officer kindly pointing out to me that a can of coke is a drink.
But still, the Kilometres drifted past. Able to stay in a Police rest stop for the next night, bright and early the next day I headed off with the Police in tow. In part I was grateful as I know of course they had my safety at heart, but it soon became even more annoying as each time I wanted to rest, they’d tell me it’s not possible to rest here. If there was a local shop/farm owner or passer by, the Police would simply request of them to “say it’s not possible to rest here”. The phrase “Este Raha Hamza Kilo” (which means rest in 5 kilometres) would become a common one. Of course, there was no rest in 5 kilometres as I’d cycle 5ks and then it’d be 3 more…and so on – this would keep happening until you get to the next set of the Police. It was quite apparent after a while that each set of Police would simply do their upmost to keep you moving so you’d be out of their patch and into the jurisdiction of the next bunch.
Eventually, after a while of being tired and frustrated, like a 5 year old I threw my toys out the pram, deployed Passport diplomacy and wafted my Passport around with my phone in some kind of childish but hopeful gesture that to them looked like I was phoning the embassy (knowing full well that they wouldn’t give a monkeys either!). But it worked, soon after there was somewhere I could rest and finally I could relax. It was most welcomed as by this time I was starting to feel quite sick, partly from dehydration but mainly from the roadside water which is heavily chlorinated.
About 60 Kilometres from Qena (also spelt Kena), the Police escort abated and I was free. It felt so nice, now I could cycle at my own pace again and I duly did, getting myself to Qena where I slept on a wooden bench in a petrol station; I was happy, I had cold drinks, food, no Police and above all somewhere to sleep. By this period on the ride the heat had become super strong; I was greeted on arrival in Luxor with a temperature of 50 degrees centigrade, which is like nothing I’ve felt before. Cycling was completely impossible during the heat of the day, but even at around 4PM it was like cycling into an oven, the wheels seemingly sticking to the tarmac and energy being pulled out of you as if by an injected syringe. But I had made it to Luxor and I was super chuffed. By sheer chance my Uncle Alasdair and Aunty Marion were also in Luxor; they very kindly put me up in their Hotel which was the equivalent of 10 stars given where I had been sleeping. I maxed out on the Water, showered like a king and then ate for Queen and country at dinner and the following morning’s breakfast buffet. A huge thank you to you both for that little piece of heaven.
I was lucky on the route; I had met so many nice, honest, genuine people who had helped me – from places to sleep, to drinks, tea and food. The folks along the road were ever so friendly; a smile and wave goes along way – everyone is pleased to greet you and I was only too happy to reciprocate. I found it quite touching how when passing-by someone in Egypt they’d say “Welcome”, not just “Hello”. To a visitor “Welcome” means so much more – it’s like a “hello”, “pleased to see you”, “you’re welcome here” all wrapped up with a little national pride.
Sure the Police were annoying, but I’m sure if I spoke better Arabic it would have been less of an issue. Ultimately they did want to keep me safe so there’s a limit to how far my gripes and annoyances can be justified.
To all the people I have met, couch surfed with and to those who had smiled and waved along the way, I owe you a big thank you.