"they came at last to the end of the living lands...So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them, that some of the host were unmanned and they could neither walk nor ride further"
JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
And so it was, with Europe knee deep in snow, we were trapped in a vicious sandstorm in the dark Mordor-like wasteland of Egypt's Sinai Desert, only 300km short of Cairo. With nowhere to shelter and no way forward or back, it was with regret that we had to be rescued by a passing pick-up truck, accepting our first lift since leaving home. Three days later, we rolled into Cairo, one third of the way through our journey, with only one continent, 12000km, and 24000 lions between us and our flight home. We now sit in a rented flat at the top of a run down suburban tower block, which we've transformed into a clothes washing, tent cleaning, bike maintenance factory, as we prepare to join the Nile and follow it south through the Sahara, until it spits us out in Africa. And after a grueling two of weeks of battling through horrid squiggly mountain roads, we're looking forward to being back on the banks of a river for a while.
On such a long journey, you have to strike a balance between going slowly enough to have fun, but fast enough to get to where you're going. When we left Damascus, the plan was to get our heads down, get back on schedule, and get to Cairo in a couple of weeks. But as usual, nothing quite went to plan. Cycling in Jordan was brutally tough. Fierce headwinds and the most ludicrously hilly terrain I've ever seen made for slow progress, and more than a couple of exasperated and profane roadside rants, decrying mother nature and what a 'bloody sh*t country Jordan is' (which I now wholeheartedly retract). The route we had chosen went through the heart of the country along a ridge between the Arabian desert in the east, and the descent down to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth – in the west. The further we pressed south toward the Sahara, the drier and more inhospitable the land became. Horribly steep and dramatic gorges would come before us, winding down toward the Sea. My heart would sink, and distressed locals would inform us that the road through them was 'too dangerous' or just 'not possible by bicycle'. After stubbornly refusing to hop in their vehicles for a lift, we would spend entire mornings painfully proving them wrong in true stiff-upper-lipped British fashion. My altimeter told me that for one stretch we were doing the equivalent of cycling our fully laden bikes up Ben Nevis from bottom to top, every day for three days, against the wind. Sadistically grinding out the kilometers like this made it almost impossible to appreciate the magnificence and unique geography of this part of Jordan. When we stopped for a 'rest' day at a National Park to hike down into another gorge, I was so exhausted that I only managed to walk for 20 minutes before scoffing my pack lunch, and refusing to go any further ("i'm not spending a supposed rest day going up and down another f***ing gorge" I thought to myself). Fortunately, the culture of hospitality that we found in Syria, was also alive and well in Jordan. Whenever we decided to stop for the day, we could always count on a warm reception, wherever we might be. First a Jordanian buisnessman took us in, then a Palestinian mosque the next night; and a bedouin village the next. Every day we'd see a new side to Jordan's multicultural populace, and as usual, we rarely needed to camp. 'What will my neighbours think if they see you camping in my garden when I have a spare bedroom' our bedouin host exclaimed in horror when we asked to put up our tent. He was an English student and after his mother - a wise looking old matriarch with ritual tattoos on her face from her nomadic childhood - had rustled up some dinner, he took me to meet the rest of the village. They were a truly amazing bunch: carefree and happy, with the simple and welcoming, community orientated values of a traditional people, but also with a surprisingly modern outlook on life. Women could speak their minds (unusual in the middle east) and one scruffy looking guy who I assumed was a farmer of some kind, turned out to be studying political science in New York! Despite getting invited for dinner the next day with the chief, we had to push on.
When we crested the last hill before Jordan's southern border on the shores of the Red Sea, the glittering turquiose waters looked too good to be true. Then I saw a huge Burger King sign! I would have wept with joy if the dusty gale force winds had left any moisture in my eyes. Worried that it may be a mirage, brought on by wind and hill induced madness, I waited until the burger was actually in my hand before collapsing in celebration. The next day we had to take a boat across the water to Egypt as passing through Israel over the land border would have disqualified us from getting a Sudan visa. As is mandatory for British ferry passengers, I got some duty free cans of beer, which I drank whilst wandering around in my shorts like a twat.
Riding up the Egyptian coast, we were sandwiched between the Red Sea on one hand, and a wall of mountains on the other that we'd have to cross to get into the open desert. All signs of vegetation had been slowly disappearing since Syria, and the barren rocky slopes that rose above us really did look like Mordor. It was the very last place you would expect to find a pristine 18-hole golf course, yet that is exactly what we found as we looked for somewhere to stay the night before turning inland. 'Taba Heights' was a weird kind of place: A heavily guarded tourist enclave of luxury hotels, boutique shops, and restaurants. We had to show our passports at the gate, and once inside, it was as if we'd been teleported back to Europe. But all was not well. Behind the glitzy facade, Taba Heights was a tightly controlled holiday police state, in which camping - and the likes of us - were not permitted. The message was clear: If we weren't paying hundreds of dollars for a hotel, we could sod off into the desert. It seemed ironic that we had spent the last 3 months being welcomed in foreign lands, and now back amongst our own people and culture, we were persona non grata. As night fell, we sought assylum in the 'Traditional English Pub and Curry House' to have a pint, and assess our next move. Going back out into Mordor wasn't appealing, and after explaining our plight to the restaurant owner, he agreed to let us sneak upstairs and sleep on the roof. So after a curry and a couple of drinks, we crept up like a couple of fugitives and quietly inflated our air-mattresses. Hopefully we'd gone unnoticed. I nervously imagined the Holiday Inn gestapo beating down the door in the middle of the night – after receiving an anonymous tip off - and dragging us out, along with the complicit restaurant owner, to be executed at dawn. It was a beautiful night though and we remained undiscovered. I could see lights twinkling across the Red Sea on the coast-line of Saudi Arabia, and a thick blanket of stars overhead. Orion looked a bit wonky though, and I realised that we'd cycled so far now that the even the stars looked different. In the morning, we went to the nearest fancy hotel to abuse their buffet breakfast cart, before heading up the mountains and across the desert.
Camping that night, the desert was silent and the air was still. It was so nice to be out of the wind for the first time in two weeks but it didn't last long. Sometime in the night, we were woken up by galeforce winds battering our tent. In the morning it was clear that we were going to have a very bad day. The wind was almost too much to cycle in and we had to fight to keep balance, creeping along at only 6km/h. As the day wore on, things went from bad to worse and at some point, the heavy winds turned into a full blown sandstorm. The air was thick with dust, and waves of sand were streaking across the road at high speed, stinging our faces and arms and legs. Even with sunglasses on and our faces covered, the sand was working its way into our eyes and throats until we could barely see. Visibility in any case was down to a few metres, and eventually we had to get off and start pushing. We'd never get the tent up in these conditions, and at walking speed we wouldn't make it to the next village before night. We'd been declining lifts all day ("no, no, thanks very much but we're fine, really" I would scream over the noise of the tempest), but the situation was now getting ridiculous, and potentially dangerous so upsettingly, we had to jump on a passing truck. We got about 150km and it broke down, leaving us to pedal the last 20km into the town of Suez (of canal fame) where we holed up for two days waiting for the storm to die down. Suez is a squalid little place, and it was extremely frustrating to be stuck there, only 130km from Cairo. There was a KFC though, so it was bearable, just.
Riding into Cairo was pretty hairy. But I felt better when I saw another cyclist riding the wrong way through three lanes of traffic, balancing an enormous tray of pitta breads on his head. I have been to Cairo once before during my gap year, after working on a banana plantation in Israel. I was quite a sorry sight, with no money and no idea what I was doing. I remember thinking that one day I'd have to come back when I had a job, and wasn't in such a state, and see Egypt properly...Now, 10 years later, here I am again with no money, and in more of a state than ever. But I wouldn't have it any other way. As we set off out of the so called cradle of civilisation, and into the cradle of humanity, I haven't the foggiest idea what to expect. What little I know about Africa comes mostly from wildlife documentaries and TV charity appeals. In fact I probably have a better understanding of the surface conditions on Mars than I do of most of the places we'll be riding through in Africa. We will be doing some research though. When we arrive in Luxor in south Egypt, I am expecting Santa Claus (aka Emily's dad) to have Fed-Ex'd our Christmas list of literature, maps and bike stuff to a convenient postal depot so we can do some last minute swotting-up on what the hell we're about to get ourselves into.
Until then, Merry Christmas!!
Stats so far:
Days on the road: 109
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 81.3km
Average Distance per day including rest days: 57.4km
% of total distance done: 34.8%
Longest day: 143km
Highest Poınt: 1720 metres (Taurus Mountain pass)
Top Speed: 64km/h
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