Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Lucky, lucky gits

It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,–
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world’s great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
‘Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

‘The Nile’
James Henry Leigh Hunt.

I greeted Nyomi at the airport. It was good to see her beaming, familiar face. After a beer and some catching up I had a look through her gear, I was curious as to what kit she had put together to aid us on our trans-African passage. The first item to emerge from her box was a small guitar shaped bag. Nyomi had brought a ukulele on a bike ride across Africa. Now, feeling a little nervous about her judgment, I sifted through the remaining gear wondering if I’d find coat hangers and hot water bottles, but instead I found she had managed to get a bunch of high quality cycling kit from several companies as sponsorship. We had very little to buy in Cairo and quite a lot to send back to the UK. I was however more than a little suspicious of the Eurohike tent option. My fears were confirmed when I read the following words printed on the bag…

“A budget priced tent for sheltered summer use aimed at youngsters seeking their first camping adventure, perhaps in the back garden”.

Summer use! Back Garden! Nowhere did it mention wild camping for nine months in the toughest and most unforgiving continent on earth. We bought another. I realised though that the ukulele was a nice touch. Not wanting to be outdone I hot footed it to a local music shop and purchased not one, but two, fine harmonicas. We have started up a traveling band. Neither of us have any clue about how to play either instrument and what’s more we have nobody to teach us and no text to learn from. But we do have time and enthusiasm. Surely that’s all we really need. We need a name for our traveling band. Please leave suggestions in the comments section below.

In Cairo we made our final preparations for the road ahead and explored the city on foot. Our first task was to secure VISAs for Sudan and Ethiopia. The Sudanese required a ‘letter of intent’ from the British embassy. We collected the letter, which was actually a letter stating that the British Embassy do not issue ‘letters of intent’. It cost 30 quid for the privilege on top of the one hundred US dollars for the Sudanese VISA. We visited the pyramids with an Australian fine dining chef called Damian who was about to start running across Africa. We decided against taking a camel ride even if getting around the pyramids, according to the touts, “is very far on foot”. In the evenings we chilled out in Al-Azhar park, chatting with young Egyptians and contemplating how young life here contrasts with our own in England. We were having fun but I was keen to get going. Cairo can be a hard place to find peace. In a crowded city of twenty million arguments can quickly erupt between locals, the barmy din of car horns and voluminous touts permeates every moment and mosquitoes and smog hang in the air. Perhaps it was a reaction to the surrounding chaos but I realised we were undergoing a subtle transformation. Ny started dreading her hair. My beard was making a comeback. We ate falafel and smoked shisha. I practiced the harmonica. We talked about how to sleep for free in Cairo. If we had continued in this hippie-esque vain we may have ended up dancing naked around central Cairo with flowers in our hair, so I was relieved when finally our panniers were packed and we knew the location of every spoon, every pair of socks and every spare spoke. The Nile would be our guiding companion for the next two thousand kilometres. We would shadow her twists and turns. The prevailing wind is brisk and blows reliably towards the south. Surely at least the cycling would be easy along her flat fertile flood plain, although I suspected our ride along the mighty river, like most things in Africa, would not be that straight forward.

Sunset over Cairo

The Nile, Cairo

We were off, a curious, grinning, two-person peloton. At first we weaved our way through the industrial outskirts and through the grimy detritus caste aside by Cairo’s burgeoning population. Little by little the traffic thinned and settlements became punctuated with greenery and pastures. The dusty road became an avenue lined with palm trees, prickly pear and sugar cane. Grey herons flew high over our heads and excitable ten year olds whooshed past our shoulders on motorbikes shouting “weeeeeeeeeelcoooooommmmeee!”. I took a long look at Nyomi. She sat proudly aloft her heavily laden touring bike wearing a large green rimmed hat. Two dreadlocks protruded from under the rim and were at right angles to her head. A piece of luminous yellow and green twine was tied into her hair. She had several spring onions and a large cucumber strapped under the bungees on the back of her bike and a ukulele was strapped to her back. On the front of her bike tied to the handlebar bag was a bright yellow metal plate emblazoned with the words “I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANYONE’. I realised at that moment that the question was not whether we were ready for Africa, but whether Africa was ready for Nyomi.

On our second evening we turned off the main road, found a nice patch of grass to camp and were soon surrounded by cheerful, tittering, curious faces watching us keenly as we ate and then erected the tents. We felt, above all, safe and secure here. But the night of Halloween was drawing in, all those friendly faces soon disappeared behind the locked doors of their homes and our situation changed. The sound of motorbikes zooming close by kept me from slumber. A group of seventeen and eighteen year olds approached the tent. I poked my head out to explain we needed some sleep. They skulked away out of sight. Then, a little later I heard some scuffling at the tent porch, a quick count and a pannier was missing. I went outside and found them rifling through Nyomi’s clothes. They saw me and quickly retreated but I had a feeling they’d be back so I sat vigil outside the tent. Again they came, now more aggressive, demanding money and making threats, again I ushered them away. I mentally sorted through our options and was left short changed. Again they came back but now with additions to the party, four or five more lads, two brandishing large sticks. They had upped the ante, diplomacy had failed and I had some very quick decisions to make. I had some CS gas and a knife in my tent. Adding either to the mix could only make things worse. Then I spied two figures walking down the road. Perhaps they would help us. I shouted for Nyomi to run over and enlist their help whilst I tried to stop the group raiding our stuff. The two lads got involved, pushing the boys back and shouting with menace. It was  brave thing to do. Our assistants cant have been much older then those in the group. Slowly the group dispersed. An old man appeared after hearing the commotion. He introduced me to his friend, a lean, grim character clad in a long brown robe and with a full beard. He lit a fire close to our tent and placed a foot long curved knife on his lap. He would act as our protector and bodyguard through the night. We paid him some baksheesh for his trouble the following day.

The next day I knew we had to metaphorically, as well as physically, get back on the bike so we found another village to rough camp in the evening and this time it was a much less restless night’s sleep. We were welcomed by a large extended family. We sat munching on sugar cane with the children and a cow was milked so that we had something to drink. Nyomi rode around on a donkey to everyone’s delight and amusement. We watched the sun set over the palm trees, sat around a fire and then when bed time came the villagers moved a water buffalo from it’s shed so we could sleep there.

A sugar cane snack
A man and woman living and traveling together for nine months, but not as boyfriend and girlfriend, is a concept that would be completely lost on most people in Islamic Egypt. So to prevent confusion, to ward off the attentions of Egypt’s many many leering romantics and to make life easier we pretend we are married and Nyomi wears a ring. Now that I have a cycling buddy to consider I have had to adapt after my slightly self-absorbed and solitary life before Cairo. I was glad Nyomi had done some training in the UK before she left and she has had no trouble on our first days on the road, easily keeping pace. What’s even more impressive has been her ability to match me mouthful for mouthful at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In Egypt we have the perfect leg fuel… Koshary. It’s a mixture of pasta, rice, tomato sauce, dried onions, garlic sauce, chick peas and chilli sauce. Tasty, loads of carbs, dirt cheap and available in every town and on virtually every street.

Egyptian children are a curious bunch and often seize the chance to chat away in English although sometimes the conversation doesn’t exactly flow…

“What is your name?”
“What is your name?”
“What is your name?” (now shouting)
“Like Stee-fen Gerrard?”  (there’s no ‘v’ sound in Arabic)
“Yes like Stephen Gerrard”
“Like Stone Cold Steef Austin?”

Of all the Stephen’s in all the world it’s not Steven Speilberg, Stephen King or even Professor Stephen Hawking but the WWF wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin who is my most well known namesake.

A few days after setting out the police escort arrived that I had been dreading and soon it started to wind me up. They tailed us for four days during which we had to use hotels where we would find them waiting again for us the following morning. As I write this blog there’s a policeman over my shoulder staring at the screen, although I don’t think he speaks much English. WE DON’T NEED A POLICE ESCORT. No reaction. It’s not just the constant hum from behind my back wheel as they trail my bicycle but the fact that they dictate when you can stop for a rest or for food. Inevitably they say “not now. In five kilometres” and this always means fifteen. On the third day I had a flat and it was a good excuse to stop for a while but the police wanted me to fix it immediately and move on. The policeman pointed to the long grass nearby and did an impression of a sniper taking a shot. Unimpressed with this ludicrous exaggeration Nyomi and I began a lie down protest by the road. The police predictably went bizerk and clearly didn’t know how to handle this novel situation. They telephoned a senior officer for advice. I can only imagine how the conversation went…

“Hi Sir. We have an, erm, situation”
“There’s two English cyclists lying down by the road”
“Have they had an accident?”
“No Sir”
“Are they sick”
“No Sir”
“Well what is it then?”
“They just won’t move Sir”

Although some grated, most of the police I met were friendly and of course only doing their job, and when they drove in front and sounded the siren as we rode into town I couldn’t help feeling quite presidential. They were also helpful when I had to stop to fix a puncture and a mob of children descended. They began helping me change the tyre but their hands were everywhere and I noticed a few sniffing around my handlebar bag. The cheap inner tube had completely ruptured, the split ran right through the words ‘made in China’. With the flat fixed I readied to go but realised my speedometer was missing. I erupted into a loud tirade, after a few minutes the speedo was returned but they wanted money for their ‘find’. At this point a policeman appeared and doled out a few clouts to the nearest youngsters who quickly scarpered.

During that evening I started to feel sick and the next day was the first on my journey where I have been physically unable to ride. I had a blistering headache, rigors, severe diarrhoea and my temperature intermittently spiked to 39 degrees. We rested up in a shabby hotel whilst I self medicated from my pannier pharmacy (‘borrowed’ from my hospital) and winged to Nyomi. But the next day we pressed on. Eventually we cruised into Luxor at the end of a healthy one hundred and forty five kilometre day. Shower, koshary, feet up, beer.

We hadn’t seen another tourist over the seven hundred kilometres we’d ridden from Cairo, but Luxor was packed full of backpackers. At the infamous Valley of the Kings I watched tour bus after tour bus arrive with amusement. Out piled elderly American and French package tourists. Clearly they had all been given some sort of instruction by the on board tour guide.

“Right Gentlemen, yank those shorts up to your armpits and lets see those pale wrinkly legs. Ladies, get those big golf hats on. Now everyone… cameras ready and I want to see those mouths open and eyes up towards the sky. Remember what I told you, don’t walk, shuffle.”

The last stage through Egypt was Luxor to Aswan at which point we planned to take a ferry across lake Nasser to Sudan. The road south to Aswan was lined by flowering plants of effulgent hue, beyond them crops of oil palm, cabbages and sugar cane. Traffic at last was sparse but there were more police around than usual, and for Egypt that’s a lot. Susan Mubarak, the wife of the president, was visiting a village nearby.

In Aswan we took a ride in a felucca along the Nile and made the necessary adjustments for the next stage. Chunkier tyres for the less salubrious terrain ahead, stashes of cash hidden around our panniers (it would be maybe two months until the next ATM) and new maps. On Saturday we take a ferry across the lake to Sudan and then I have a feeling that life’s about to get a little less comfortable. My next post will come from Khartoum.

I leave you with a few words regarding our journey I received recently via email from a good friend…

“The pair of you are about to set off into the most frustrating, dangerous, incomprehensible continent on earth. It is also the most life-affirming, the most human, and arguably the most beautiful. You lucky, lucky gits.”

Already much of those words ring true. The cycling has been easy but even so it’s been a tough start to our African epic. We’ve been sick, we’ve been threatened and we’ve been robbed but we’ve also been surprised, inspired and often overwhelmed. Already we have stories. I can’t imagine how many more we’ll have to tell in Cape Town. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are lucky, lucky gits.

Here are some stats…

0 – number of Killer Nile Crocodiles, deadly snakes or walking mummified undead spotted so far
1 – number of shisha pipes knocked over in Cafes
2 – number of times Nyomi has fallen off her bike blaming the toe clips
3 – metric tonnes of koshary consumed
4 – number of marriage proposals from Egyptian men to Nyomi
5 – number of English pounds required for a hotel, slap up dinner and beer in Egypt
6 – number of dreadlocks in Nyomi’s barnet
7 – an insufficient number of policeman to move two tired cyclists
8 – number of times we’ve crossed the Nile
9 – number of ruptured inner tubes over the last thousand kilometres
10 – our ‘skankiness level’ on arrival to Aswan (on a scale of one to five)

I leave Egypt with many striking images ingrained on my memory. Here are a few we caught on camera…

A Great Egret

The police helping me mend another puncture
Never leave your children with this woman

A young family who took us in for the night on our way to Aswan
A felucca on the Nile (but not one of the many sponsored by McDonald’s which actually do have the golden arches logo on the sails)

This was the ‘bike shop’ we were directed to. Four guys and a box of tools camped out on the street corner.

The promise of Africa

An egyptian ‘hill’. Scary, white knuckle stuff.

An Egyptian traffic jam

How to confuse another tourist whilst cycling around the world…

“So where are you from?”
“I’m from England”
“Oh great. And where have you come from?”
“From England”
“No no. I mean where have you cycled from?”
“From England”
“Oh wow. (pregnant pause). That’s a long way. How long did that take?”
“Around six months”
“No kidding! And where are you heading?”
“Back to England”
“How long will that take?”
“Around four and a half years”

I had a few conversations along these lines in Dahab. It made me chuckle, but reminded me that after clocking up eight thousand kilometres I’m still only one tenth of my way around the world. My days by the Red Sea were spent indulging in nice activities like snorkeling in lagoons, eating nice hot food, drinking nice cold beer, having a nice chat with nice new friends and occasionally having a nice quiet siesta. It didn’t feel right. It was only six days but a guilty feeling descended like a curtain, and with it an urge to push on. I kept poring over my map and the route inland across Sinai. More hills. I had a debt to pay and those mountains were calling it in. I reminded myself that hills are just like all those cold showers. The thought is always worse than the experience. This would be the last vertical test until the highlands of Ethiopia, maybe 2000 kilometres away. Until then the theme would be Red Sea coast, Nile valley and Sahara desert. Dahab was a great place for a break, but there were few solitary travelers here, everyone seemed to be part of a group. I started to miss home. Recently whenever I’m feeling a bit nostalgic something quickly crops up to put a smile back on my face. Sometimes all it takes is a tailwind or an exotic creature in the road, sometimes some local hospitality or if I’m lucky it’s meeting another cycle tourer. On my way inland across Sinai, whilst my mind wondered about the people I’d left behind in England, I met two.

The first was Nils, a German guy who’d taken off on his bike at the ripe old age of sixty six. I realise now that our conversation would probably have sounded strange to anyone else if they happened to be listening in. Two strangers met in the road and covered, in quick succession, altitude, kilograms of gear, prevailing wind directions and then the pros and cons of Rohloff hubs. I happened upon a pilgrim whilst riding through Turkey perhaps a month or so ago. A sunny, gregarious character from Austria called Martin who was walking from his homeland to Jerusalem. Amazingly Nils had run into him too, in Serbia. I waved goodbye to Nils who was just finishing his tour and then tried to ignore taxi drivers who frequently stopped to offer me a lift. I thought it was fairly obvious that I had put at least some time and consideration into my chosen method of transport, but they tried their luck anyway. I asked a couple if they wanted to ditch their taxis and find bicycles. They didn’t get what I was on about. I’d picked up one of those water spray bottles they use in hairdressers whilst I was in Dahab. I intermittently soaked my face to escape the heat and I liked it resting in my bottle holder. It contributed nicely to my increasingly bizarre appearance. The police at the numerous check points found it hilarious. I think every cyclist should have one. Also great for washing up, brushing teeth and for a very limited “shower”.

The second cyclist was Rob. A Brit who’d cycled all the way from Capetown, he’d made it in seven months despite more then a couple of chunky loops and detours. He was heading to Istanbul. We greedily traded information, the road ahead for the road behind. He probably knew a bit about my future and I of his. His tales inflamed my curiosity. These encounters with cyclists coming the other direction, more then any guide book or web search, help shape my decisions about the route ahead. Rob was full of useful tidbits. Here’s his entertaining blog. Cycle tourers met so far… It’s England  2, Germany 1.

I moved north, flanked by desert and sporadic red sea resorts. On my way I gave myself indigestion by eating my weight in various life-giving health foods, mostly pot noodles and family sized packs of kebab flavoured crisps. I love the Middle East, not least for those crisps, but some things I won’t miss. Mainly people’s inability to queue properly but also the fact that you have to barter for every commodity. I expect to haggle for gifts in the Souqs of Damascus or Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, but when you get to an Egyptian pharmacy and have to negotiate the price of six Rennie and a toothbrush you begin to wish things just came with a price tag.

Cycling through desert can be an uninspiring effort. After Sinai it was a stale, stagnant, unchanging landscape. Only the odd dead White Stalk and red or green stripes of mineral deposits in the rocks roused my interest. Nothing but the bare beige backdrop to stare at. To me camels always look glum and a little bemused. Stick twenty in a lorry, with their heads poking out of the top, and drive it fast through the desert and they look quite comical, but that was all that broke the monotony. Only one thing to do then. Three cups of coffee, some new school breaks on the IPOD, switch off that internal monologue and get cracking. At the end of the day is when the desert really shines, the nights and evenings are magnificent. The bleached blandness of the day diminishes with the light. Shadows rise, colours sharpen, contours look to twist and morph. With few settlements, no light pollution and dependably clear skies, the cosmos fluoresces in all it’s glory. During the desert nights I could easily make out the hazy streak of the Milky Way, luminescent planets, star clusters and even the faint haze of Andromeda, our neighbouring galaxy, three million light years away.

I ran out of food again after consuming the edible dregs from the deep recesses of my pannier. After fifty kilometres and still no breakfast I spied a coastal resort, and then once inside to my delight, and their imminent regret, an all you can eat breakfast buffet. French and Italian tourists picked at the salads and cereals. I went to town. When I piled my plate as high as I could manage, for the third time, a few olives bounced away under the table. The bill then quickly arrived without me asking for it. I stuffed two hard boiled eggs into my pockets, paid and made for the exit, ignoring the disgruntled looking staff. I felt no shame. This is not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that I take a few liberties with buffet carts.

I was cycling on the only two inner tubes I had left and it was making me nervous. The valves on the only ones available to buy in the Middle East didn’t fit through the holes in my rims. I hoped things would hold up until Cairo but of course the inevitable happened, a sudden ‘woooooosh’ and on examination a split, right where the valve comes off the tube. I hadn’t glimpsed a bike shop since Amman, over one thousand kilometres behind me. When my inner tube ruptured I was fifty metres from one. They didn’t have the right tube, but of course in Egypt my problem was not a problem. If the tube didn’t fit, the young mechanic would make it fit. He swiftly removed the tyre, chucked away my tube, grabbed some pliers and set to work widening the hole in my rim. Within ten minutes he had solved the problem, inflated the new tube and replaced the tyre, adjusted my brakes and refused payment. It took me longer to persuade him to at least take some money for the tube than it did for him to fix it. In the end I could only convince him to take the Egyptian equivalent of about two quid sterling.

I cracked on, hungry for Cairo, munching up the kilometres and trying to ignore the Egyptian stripped down, minimalist approach to motoring (who needs lanes, indicators, brakes, mirrors or eyes). Eventually I made it. I’ve spent about six months on the road, it would have been five were it not for that troublesome knee. I expected the hectic in Cairo, so sunnies off, headphones out and game face on. I needed all my senses. Time to embrace the chaos, forget the rules and above all, commit to every move and turn. This time I quite enjoyed it.

Cairo… the old and the new

When I first found out Nyomi might want to join me I asked her to choose a country. I didn’t expect her to answer “Africa”, but I’m glad she did. She arrives today and we have a lot to do in Cairo, on top of all the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the city to sample. So what are my hopes and fears for the roads ahead through ‘the dark continent’? There are many. I’m not looking forward to the police escort we’ll get in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan. Egypt’s boys in white insist on trailing cyclists if you choose to ride down the Nile valley. Rob had them in tow for four days. I guess they don’t care much for independent travelers. They prefer tour groups, where you’re told what to look at and then escorted to the gift shop. Many a cyclist has also recounted tales of the stone throwing hoards of children in Northern Ethiopia. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure why they do it. Perhaps it’s perceived as bad luck to see a traveler on their turf, perhaps it’s just youthful mischief, either way many cyclists I have spoken to warn of sporadic attacks along this route. The road through Northern Kenya is notorious, a rough lumpy hot bed of ups and downs. Hundreds of kilometres of what amounts to back to back speed bumps, and then for us a few weeks of difficulty walking in a normal fashion. Ethiopia and Rwanda have some hefty inclines to deal with, and of course I also sometimes worry about having all of our stuff nicked. The temptation’s obvious. In Africa our bikes are worth a fortune, but it’s unlikely that I will pass through anywhere on my five year expedition that has a higher rate of bike theft than my prosperous home town of Oxford.

Malaria is one that sometimes hits cyclists. It is a particular risk when you’re outside all day, but we have tactics to deploy. Obviously covering up and avoiding bites in the first place, good mosquito repellent (and I have some), nets at night and prophylaxis. Many don’t bother, complaining the tablets are “not natural”, that they’re not 100% effective or that they have side effects. Personally I couldn’t give a mosquito’s arse about the first, the second is true, although surely you should try what you can to reduce the risk, and the third? Well malaria has side effects too. Off the top of my head… haemolytic anaemia, liver and kidney failure and occasionally death. Whilst I’ve never seen a patient who has developed side effects to anti-malarials severe enough to warrant a hospital admission, I have been involved in the care of quite a few patients with malaria, including one who subsequently died on the Intensive Care Unit. Some had taken prophylaxis, but most had not. We also carry a malaria self test kit and some Quinine for treatment of Falciparum malaria if all else fails. Finally there are those wild beasts of Africa. If Nyomi and Steve disappear without trace and only their camera is recovered, the last photo may just show grins of the purest gorgonzola and edam, the pair oblivious to the pride of lions in the corner of the image and just over their shoulders….

The geographer George Kimble put it aptly when he said that the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. In the next chapter of the saga I hope to learn something of the continent through the people we come across on the road. I hope to visit some of Merlin’s projects. I hope the journey is as exciting as it has been up until now. I hope my knee continues to fair well. I hope our journey’s hard and I hope it hurts and then I hope to sit on the beach at Capetown, beside Belinda and Nyomi, and know that we conquered Africa together and that all the sweat and tears and saddle sores and long days and bumpy roads and dodgy bowels and aching limbs and homesick times were worth it. Steve and Nyomi! Nyomi and Steve! Team Ny-eve! Hang on, that doesn’t quite sound right.

Every thousand kilometres I cycle I stop, write the distance on whatever comes to hand and take a photo. The idea is to put together a collection of eighty images for every thousand of the eighty thousand kilometres I expect to pedal. So far I have written in the sand, in stone, in the ice on my tent or just on a piece of card. Here are the first eight of these milestones…
Fresh-faced in the French countryside
Blog posts:
The beginning 

On the Italian Riviera
Blog posts:
Lesson one

Getting a soaking in Croatia
Blog posts:
Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

A frosty morning in Macedonia
Blog posts:
Paranoia and pesky pooches

Back on the bike after knee surgery, Istanbul
Blog posts:
The humble fare
Recovery, japery and some summer shenanigans

South of Cappadocia, Turkey. I carved the numbers into the soft tufa rock
Blog posts:

North of Amman, Jordan
Blog posts:
Ain’t no valley low enough
Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest

The Sahara desert, Sinai peninsula, Egypt.
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Ain’t no valley low enough

I like to think that this camel in Jordan realised the comic potential in standing under this sign post. If you look closely you can see him smirking.

The approach the Syrian male takes to driving is akin to that the great white shark takes to lunch, and in Syria I felt like the seal pup. The ‘right of way’ is not a given, but instead a hard won battle involving lots of horns, aggressive manoeuvres and even nudging of bumpers. Mirrors are treated as functionless accessories. I knew Damascus, like other big cities, would be an exit fraught with near misses. But before I leapt into the tumultuous mayhem I had to find some inner tubes with a Presta valve, a rarity in the Middle East. It took me two hours to find the bike shop, half an hour to explain what I needed and then an hour following the proprietor around before being told to come back in an hour. I did. He had forgotten about our rendez-vous. He wandered around some more, kicking his way through rims, spokes and various cycle-related shrapnel on the shop floor. If the A-team were locked inside that workshop they could have constructed an aircraft carrier. He told me to come back tomorrow. I did. More meandering about the wreckage, another ‘come back in an hour’ and eventually a “tshh” and raised eyebrows. I’ve come to recognise this as “no” in the rich and frequently befuddling language of Arabic Sign. I walked away with a puncture repair kit and prayed that my patchwork held up until Amman.

During the usual faff at the border I started up a conversation with a motorist and mentioned that my plan was to cycle to Jarash and then Amman, the capital. “Oh my God!” he said with an American lilt and in a fashion that suggested I had just told him I was planning to throw myself off a tall building. “The road’s like 45 degrees man! And the heat! No way!” I’ve grown used to people I meet exaggerating features of my road ahead. It’s often too cold, too steep, too dangerous or sometimes mysteriously just “not possible by bike”, with no explanation offered. I reassured him and cycled off, wondering what happened to all the optimists.

I visited Jarash, allegedly home of some of the best Roman ruins in the world, outside Italy. I was impressed, but then I found some lizards in the rocks, lowered my camera and snapped away for half an hour. Some older tourists watched me with tilted heads and frowns, but I didn’t care. Nature’s glory has always outshone man’s achievements in my book. That night I slept on the floor of the tourist information centre, adding to my growing list of opportune and curious bedrooms. The next day I moaned a bit to myself as I climbed the hill into Amman, but at this point I hadn’t considered the Jordanian monster around the corner, at least five times the size of this amateur incline.

I rode into Amman after some swerving and hard pedaling to get away from a group of young boisterous misfits who chased me up the hill, throwing stones and shouting “hey you donkey! You crazy donkey!” I went immediately to meet Nick, a mate I’ve known from my years spent in Liverpool and who now lives and works in Jordan’s capital. We went out for a curry. A rubicund light had fallen across the city and Amman basked in a surreal, Martian glow. “Dust is coming in from the desert” said Nick. We left the restaurant and entered a strange, ghostly world. People rushed along the street, breathing through handkerchiefs and surgical masks. Within minutes Nick’s car had become coated in a layer of the fine dust and I realised that my respiratory tract would be suffering a similar fate. Visibility was plummeting. Amman can feel like a very Western city, complete with posh shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but when the desert suddenly encroaches you quickly remember where you are.

For the weekend we were joined by Nick’s friend Jad and went on a jaunt to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, an arid national park where sandstone and granite rise out of the red desert. Nick and Jad are avid climbers and went off to scale one of the surrounding cliffs whilst I did some trekking and then a bit more of my David Bellamy impression, gallivanting around enthusiastically after local wildlife. Afterwards we drove out into the desert. I’ve never owned a driving license, or even driven a car, so I was chuffed when Nick threw me the keys to a 4 by 4 Toyota and gave me the nod. After some enthusiastic ragging around on sandy tracks we decided that there was more than a strong possibility I had inadvertently driven us across the frontier and into Saudi Arabia, so we turned back. We slept in the desert, tent-less and under a full moon.

I had plenty of time to play with in Amman. I could have taken a day trip to the Dead Sea, leaving my bike behind, and then afterwards cycled from Amman south down the King’s highway. But continuing this journey’s theme of making my life more difficult than it needs to be, I decided it was important that I cycled to the shores of the Dead Sea itself. I felt there was something significant in bringing Belinda down to the lowest point of dry land on earth. This of course meant cycling back up again, a near continuous ascent from 400 metres below sea level to 1300 metres above, to roughly the height of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. It would be serious hillage, at least a fifty kilometre, more or less continuous, climb. Factor in forty degree heat, 55 kg of bike and gear, few places to top up with food and water and this would be tougher than my efforts in the Italian Apennines, The French Alps or the Montenegrin fjord. It would be a test like no other.

I camped on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Israel on the other side, Jerusalem just out of view. The night that followed was a lesson in the ills of procrastination. The two small holes in my groundsheet, holes that I’d persistently told myself I will repair later, became the front door to a stealthy nocturnal arthropod invasion. I woke in the early hours to an ant infestation after inadvertently setting up camp on their home. They had found my food and were dropping, like ants, onto me from all over the tent. The day after my restless night I sped downhill, reached the sea and floated and splashed about in the salinous waters.

The shores of the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level
The air felt thicker here, the atmosphere cloying, humid and heavy. My mosi repellent is excellent, potent stuff and has consistently kept the blighters at bay, but around the Dead Sea I could have been wearing Plutonium and I would have maintained my beard of fly. I felt violated when I caught an amorous pair in the act on my forearm. More followed suit. They seemed to have a preference for having it off on my nose or forehead. I had become an unwilling participant in an insect orgy. I opted to put up the inner of my tent, just so that I could have lunch on my own. Twice people stopped to offer me and my bike a lift. When I tried to explain I must travel only by bicycle they assumed I hadn’t understood their offer. Then, when they realised that I had, I got the “you must be a crazy nut” look. Getting this reaction makes every painful vertical metre worth it.

After the epic climb my appetite for sleep won over my appetite for food and I drifted off into a blissful slumber. I should have known better. The next day, with no food available to buy en route, I had to haul my carb-depleted ass uphill for almost twenty kilometres to the other side of a gorge. Luckily there were Bedouin around who kept me topped up with water. The next two nights I found some great but vertiginous spots to rough camp. I hoped that I hadn’t developed a habit of sleep walking during the night.

Night one

Night two
Tourism in Jordon is an expensive or lucrative game, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Prices are escalating exponentially. Cheapest no frills beach on the Dead Sea – that’ll be ten quid please Sir. One hour hike through a national park – fourteen pounds minimum. Petra, as of next month, will cost fifty quid to enter. Jordan has a huge amount to offer, but I feel I have missed out on quite a bit due to my budget, and I’m not talking camel rides and hot air balloons, just access to some of the natural features of this varied land. If money was being ploughed back in and services were improving it would sting less, but the fact is that they’re not, not in any substantial way. There are good examples of money going to local people, the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is one, but I can’t help but think that someone, other than the King, is getting drunk, rich and fat on tourist cash. In fact if you look at the proportion of GDP earned from tourism, Jordan gets a good whack. If you discount islands like the Seychelles or the Maldives then Jordan proportionally is one of the highest in the world. Greedy touts will start to turn travelers away and then Jordan’s riches will be out of reach, especially to backpackers, and that will be a shame.

So it was after some deliberation that I reached deep into my pocket for the entrance fee to visit the Dana nature reserve, one of the cheaper tourist attractions in Jordan. Whilst there I ran into a bunch of ten and eleven year olds from Amman Baccalaureate school. They were a bright and inquisitive bunch. I particularly enjoyed it when, after some conferring with a small group of friends, one young lad reported “we know you said that you’ve cycled from England, but some of us here don’t believe that’s possible”!

After Dana I made my way to Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, a place I must see before I die, another one to tick off my Lonely Planet checklist (its hard to convey sarcasm adequately using the written word). But it was magnificent, undoubtedly. Highlights included venturing down the dim narrow gorge known as the Siq, the entrance to the city, but also meeting an ostentatiously eccentric gentleman from Borneo who gave me his unique take on everything from politics and history to religion and international relations. My Lonely Planet didn’t mention him. He said his name was Ivanhoe (he noted that his Chinese name wasn’t well remembered by English speakers so he changed it after reading a well known book). He drank stone water and wore magnetic bracelets for their health giving properties and to give him energy.

The Treasury, Petra

So far I’ve visited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Dead Sea (although technically a lake) and now it was time for the Red Sea. I cycled to the resort town of Aqaba. On the way two young lads tried to steal stuff from my bike after I declined to give them the money they had demanded. They retreated, after I got off my bike and did my best to look menacing, but I cycled off to a volley of stones.

Aqaba has some great reefs. Diving is definitely not compatible with my budget, but I decided snorkeling was, so I hired some kit and spent the day swimming in the corals and admiring the spectacular Red Sea marine life. I decided against the campsite next door to the beach, with its inflated tax for a small patch of land, and opted to sleep for free on the beach itself.

My al-fresco free bedroom

The following day I took the ferry to Egypt, with nasty feeling that every border post from here south was going to be a more and more frustrating venture. At the end of the ride the boat’s passengers were asked to surrender passports to the ship’s crew. In exchange we were given a slip of white paper with some uninterpretable Arabic scrawl, and then we were deserted. I was told the passports were no longer on board. I cornered someone looking official. “One minute Sir”, and with that he was gone. This would happen a lot over the next half an hour. I realised that if you hear “One minute Sir” you will never see that person again. Eventually we worked out the procedure which involved trekking between banks, police stations and immigration offices. It was a DIY arrival into Egypt.

In Egypt I cycled south down the Sinai Peninsula to Dahab, a small town that had been dubbed the hippy capital of the Middle East, but now bigger corporates had started to move in to compete for backpacker cash and resorts of the ilk found in neighbouring Sharm El Sheikh were beginning to surface. But Dahab still feels laid back and easy. There are more reefs to explore nearby and it sounds like a good place to vegetate until I hit the mountains again on my way inland to Cairo. I’ve already noted the ‘Churchill’s Bar and Grill’ complete with a photo of Sir Winston, the availability of fish and chips, the red and white striped Brits abroad and the Egyptian response to telling someone you’re British (“Lovely Jubly” in a Del Boy stylee) but I’ve got time to kill and here seems a good place to spend it. Nyomi flies out on the 20th of October and together we will begin the next chapter… all of Africa. I can’t wait.

Finally I leave you with a few images I managed to capture of the desert wildlife of the Middle East. I’m off to a Dahab nightspot where I’ve heard some DJ called “Dave the rave” is playing. Lovely Jubly.

A ladybird taking off

A Giant Painted Agama lizard

The last thing I expected to see crossing the road in the desert… a chameleon

A relative of the Wasp spider

The stunning male blue Sinai lizard, unique to this area

Punctures: 20
Distance cycled: 7656 km
Countries cycled through: 16
Top speed: 75.4 km/hr. Taurus mountains, Turkey.
Longest continuous ascent: 1700 vertical metres
Days on the road: 172
Lifts offered: 4
Lifts accepted: 0

ps. Contacts for Cairo are much appreciated! Please email me if you know someone who would like to meet up or to host us. As usual I will exchange tales from the road for a small piece of floor to sleep on.