Hitting Africa and the Western Desert

06/11/2010 VENICE TO CAIRO


- Total distance cycled since London: 2898km

- Days on ferry: 5

- Days in desert: 4

- Days cycling: too few!!


We left Venice (and Europe) on the 20th of October aboard Visemar lines, a new ferry that has been running for only five months, and the only one to take passengers from Europe to Egypt. We were early in the queue of vehicles waiting outside the closed gates that would lead us to the terminal, and it was here that we met our first overlanders: three couples, two (British) on motorbikes and one (Dutch) in a converted German army truck from the East-West divide period. As the queue grew, it became clear that this route had, in majority, been picked up on by the long-distance, desert-tackling, continent-crossing type: with the exception of a handful of family saloons, a Ferrari, and a F2 powerboat-carrying truck (owned and driven by the world champion from Kuwait), all were fully equipped 4x4 beasts. Our boarding happened in the slightly ramshackled way of a company that is only just getting on its feet, but the multinational crew were charmers, and it ended being more endearing than anything else.


Mestre is an industrial city and our way out of its port brought us through a mesmerising sea of contorted metal and great slabs of concrete, before delivering us to the open Adriatic. The crossing of the Mediterranean took five whole days, with a stop on the fourth day at Tartous in Syria. In a rare moment of foresight, we had decided to bring cold lunches and cookable dinners, enough for the whole journey. The more seasoned travellers tipped us on the cook-in-the-shower (prevents setting off the alarm), which worked a treat!


We didn’t need to wait to set foot in Alexandria to see Africa – it met us on the boat. Ten or so officials took over the ship’s cafeteria in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and spent a frenziful 45 minutes stamping all the passports indiscriminately and adding a visa to those who lacked one, before shouting out the names of each passport to hand it back to them – first, matching the face to the photograph (after the person had finally weaved their way through the expectant crowd that huddled tightly around them) and ended, sweating and bothered by this point, by simply shouting “France– woman!” or “Great Britain!-!” and handing it to whoever claimed it to be theirs/ their husband’s/ their friend’s. Africa indeed...!  Paperwork and customs took the afternoon away from us. At dusk, we made our way into Alexandria where we spent the night.


There looked to be a small road from Alexandria to Cairo on our map that seemed to bring us on a pleasant route down the agricultural strip and along the Nile, so we attempted to find it in the morning. Its existence having been denied by more than five people (ten by the time we reached Cairo), its origin hence remaining unlocatable, we found ourselves having to resort to the highway – a wide road with a variable amount of lanes, separated by a large concrete central reservation – in essence, a motorway, though unlike any European one in that it was used equally by donkeys drawing carts, men on bikes, mopeds, pedestrians, Tuk-tuks, travelling either with or against traffic but always on the hard shoulder, or at worst, the outermost lane, so as minimise chance of death by truck. These have a terrible reputation and, as put by our Bradt guide, cyclists come only above donkeys in the road food chain.

To find this highway from the centre of Alexandria, we were offered the kind help of a taxi-driver, who instructed us to follow him. The yellow and black beaten-up Skoda taxi was identical to all the others on the intersecting, looping, overlapping, multi-lane roads around the city, so we put our heads down and pedalled for our lives - every so often “reassured” by the sight of our guide slowing and pulling nearer the side of the road, to confirm his continuing presence ahead of us. He eventually waved us on once our ongoing direction became clear and we joined the road that, in three days, would deliver us to Cairo.


The wind was behind us on that first day of African cycling, and, fuelled by a late breakfast of sugarcane juice and falafel and foul wraps, we made quick, if nervous, progress on the highway. We quickly realised that cycling in the midday sun wouldn’t be a sustainable strategy in the long term, though it was okay on this cooler stretch. At 70km and 4 o’clock, we stopped to pick up some food from a small roadside cafe before setting up camp for the night. We attempted to ask for a take-away meal, but the language barrier proved obstructive, so we resorted to eating in-house. Here we befriended Ahmed, an eighteen year-old engineering student who, shocked at even the thought of camping wild, strongly advised us against it for fear of thieves and/or bandits. Instead he suggested a cheap local hotel and walked us there. From the road, the town had seemed small, its outermost buildings windowless and hollow, seemingly abandoned midway through their construction. As we made our way further in, we realised our deception - this was Damanhur, a sprawling city that took over half an hour to cross by car (as we later found out). Reza and Ahmad entered the hotel first to negotiate a price with the owner. We settled in and later explored the town, roaming the narrow and dusty streets and enjoying the absence of any touristic influence. Once a djellaba and headscarf were donned by Hannah, Reza needing no camouflage (except a three-week beard), we went about relatively unnoticed and free amongst the markets and coffee shops. We met Ahmed and his friend (also Ahmad) later, who brought us across town for tea and shisha and refused to let us pay despite our best efforts. We eventually succumbed: learning to accept generosity gracefully has been an important lesson on this trip, as future events would confirm.

After a rather restless night, kept awake by loud noises coming from the small but seemingly always busy and never sleeping street below our window, we joined Ahmad and Ahmad, Ahmad’s brother Mohammad and his friend for breakfast (even here, they got to the till before us), then set off. It was 11 o’clock. We had sworn to leave by eight.

The second day brought more of the same: the straight, busy, dusty road, us dodging potholes and donkeys, sweat soaking our clothes and providing adherence to the dirt flying into our faces. We stopped for lunch in a roadside village at a stall opposite a school. We soon found two, four, a dozen pairs of eyes on us as we ate our way through the Kosheri that was put in front of us. Keen children  soon lost their shyness and came to us with “Hello”s and “What is your name”s, sweetness veering to mayhem as we were eventually encircled in a mini-riot and escaped back to the open road, the followers eventually dwindling away.


As our search for the smaller road to Cairo failed again, we found ourselves at nightfall in a village a kilometre or so off the main road. Our plan had been to camp, but there seemed to be no adequate spot when we asked the locals, they looked at us in horror at the suggestion, as Ahmad had done the previous evening. Unfortunately, there were no hotels there and we were advised to move on to the Birkit El-Seb, the next town 10km away. Reluctantly, we rejoined the road and nervously cycled along – we really had wanted to avoid all night time cycling. We reached Seb only to be told that no, there was no hotel here either. We must have looked pretty miserable because the person we had approached, Ahmad (popular name) then suggested we could stay at his or at his friend’s, if we wanted. We said yes , probably too quickly, and found ourselves, after a 20 minute walk through town, in nothing less than a pretty swanky bachelor’s pad (for the night anyway - his parents were out of town), where five twenty-something boys were hanging out, smoking and playing video games. As sweet natured as many of the Egyptians we have me so far, their welcome was unexpected and great. Our host offered us fresh smoothies and showers, cooked for us and gave us his mother’s bed - casually, and as though there was nothing more natural than taking two strangers in for the night. We were so grateful.


We were relieved the following morning when the signs to Cairo indicated there were only 60km to go. We had abandoned the idea of rejoining the small road and found solace at the thought of getting this stretch out of the way. We had cycled through parts that were too narrow, where concrete walls deliniated the edge of the road, making us feel uncomfortable and unsafe. As we approached Cairo, traffic become thicker and slower and the tarmac’s condition worsened. Potholes threatened and eventually took us out with a resulting fall and innertube blowout. From its outskirts, we cycled about 15km into Cairo’s centre, settled into a hostel and planned our next few “city-break” days: sorting out visas for Sudan, clothes washing, picking up bits and pieces for our bikes, including some culture plans (the museum of Cairo and the pyramids at Giza). Neither of us felt we would particularly enjoy Cairo - Africa’s largest city - but over those few days we found its nooks and crannies to be full of charm, and soaked up the backgammon-playing, tea-drinking, shisha-smoking atmosphere with great pleasure.


Hannah’s father Jamie had planned to meet us in Venice with the few pieces of equipment we had left in France, but instead came to Cairo after we suggested an excursion to the desert with the Bedouins together.  We picked him up from the airport and left for the Oasis of Bahria the following afternoon. We had settled on two nights and three days in the desert and were escorted by our guide, Qasim, in his 4x4. We thought we’d leave Jamie to describe it...


"I was lucky enough to be able to come and join Reza and Hannah in Egypt for a week at the beginning of the African part of their mega bike trip. I feel privileged to play a tiny role in their adventure, and am very proud of their efforts as we all are.


We decided that the best plan would be to focus on spending some quality time together in the desert rather then trying to do a multitude of things. We decided to go to Bahria, about 400 kms south west of Cairo. This entails a 5 hour bus trip, which was fine as the buses are clean and modern and run more or less to schedule. In fact we set off an hour late, thus arriving in Bahria at midnight on Monday 1st November.


Our driver from the bus stop at Bahria to our 'base camp' was Essam Ahmed. He was effusive about the beauty of the desert and told us firmly that it was impossible to share the magic of the White Desert through the written or spoken word, but that one had to go there. He had a point, as we would soon see.


Bahria feels a bit like a frontier town, being pretty basic but with a certain energy and activity,albeit on a fairly laid-back level. Ahmed's Safari Camp is 4 K out of town and is a compound of mudbrick buildings built in a curious blend of creative style and slapdash tiling and plumbing. The plumbing in my bathroom reminded me mostly of a garden sprinkler system, generously spraying cold water on the floor and directing a small stream of same onto my head. Still, we didn't come here for the plumbing. The staff are friendly, the food basic but good, the organisation surprisingly efficient, the flies surprisingly insistent.


Qasim, our Bedouin guide and driver for the next three days, turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable about the, to us, totally unreadable terrain. He seemed to know every bush stump and boulder personally, not to mention every driver of the occasional 4X4's we would come across, half of whom seemed to be his cousins. He was also a very good driver who enjoyed sharing his skills with us, sliding the Landcruiser across and through drifts of sand. He turned out to be a good companion around the campfire too, quite handy as we were all sleeping together in a little group in the shelter of the 4X4 and an L shaped windbreaking screen of printed fabric on wooden poles.


I could give you a list of each rock or dune which we saw, but it seems more interesting to try to explain the desert experience. I'll giv it to you in soundbites, to avoid my customary wordiness.


The desert is:


- Living in natural time. Sunrise at 05,30, sunset at 18,30. Wonderful photo ops at both times, not to be missed. Bed by 21,00, up at 05,30 (except Reza, who has a special dispensation)


- Beautiful light, from chalky whiteness to rich golden amber warmth.


- Awareness of one's own fragility and insignificance in the enormity of its barren beauty.


- Not just sand dunes, an amazing variety of terrains and textures.


- Surprises such as finding seashells, volcanic rock, alabaster, desert foxes playing games around our camp.


- The miracle of water when least expected. A small verdant hillock in the midst of hundreds of square kms of arid barren-ness, with half a dozen palm trees and a vertical sequence of jacuzzi sized pools in which to refresh oneself.


- The incredible "seascape" of sculpted white rock waves in the White Desert, and the surreally sculpted white mushrooms and figures in the same white rock. It seemed like a giant gallery of abstract art, slowly but constantly metamorphosing in the wind over the ages.


- The camaraderie between desert travellers and the natural act of sharing in a place of limited resources, whether it be firewood, food, water or shelter.


- The amazing ability of the Bedouin to navigate in a changing and seemingly anonymous terrain. Their boyish good humour.


- THE NIGHT SKY - so utterly beautiful. We counted shooting stars and promised to learn about those tricky old constellations when we got home. We had profound, and profoundly ignorant, conversations about the universe while lying on our backs in the dampening sand after a tot of Jameson's whisky around the campfire.



I'm off now, back to France after a couple more nights in the amazingly funky rooftop hostel in Cairo which Hannah and Reza were clever enough to find. It's been a really great experience. I love what I have seen of Egypt and its friendly and welcoming people. The desert was truly amazing, something I have always wanted to do, and will no doubt do again. Spending this week in the company of Reza and Hannah has been a delight. They are a really exceptional pair of individuals who make a formidable couple! I say to them " Hali belak men nafsak" ("take care on your travels"),

God be with you, and love and protect each other above all else."





Our Sudanese visa now runs out soon, we must make it to Aswan in 2 weeks (over 1000km - yikes) for the obligatory ferry to Wadi Halfa on the other side of the border with Sudan. Until then!