Friday, 13 August 2010

Life on the Nile

From the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean Kenny & I have pedalled over 2000km upstream to Khartoum. We’ve faced knife wielding Cairans, fulfilled boyhood dreams and conquered the vast expanses of the Sahara Desert en route; quite a journey. Here’s the best of it:

Ghetto Wedding

Wandering home after a gig, Kenny, Ahmad and I stumbled upon a street wedding. On taking a closer look, we were enthusiastically welcomed and beckoned to join a table. We were plied with drinks and I was invited to dance… a knife dance! I defaulted to capoeira mode and reproduced a ‘makulélé’ stick dance with the monster blade that had been thrust into my hand. It went down a storm.

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It was a great night only mildly interrupted by a blade being thrust menacingly into my guts for switching tables; a social faux pas, I just about managed to explain my out of it – I am a dumb foreigner after all! Knife withdrawn; all smiles; part of some macho game I somehow survived; I’ll stick at my table next time.


Photo slideshow: Cairoooooo yeah!

Pyramid Climbing

The real pyramids to treasure near Cairo are at Dashour, 30km south. Almost the same size as Giza but crucially free of tourists and touts and surrounded by desert. The ‘Bent’ Pyramid, so called because it changes angle half-way up, is the steepest in Egypt and just 30m shorter than those at Giza.

Sizing up the 'Bent' Pyramid Pyramid climbing in Dahshur Pyramid climbing in Dahshur Bent Pyramid: Steep! The 'Bent' Pyramid Peaking the Pyramid Pyramid climbing in Dahshur

It was one of my boyhood dreams to climb a pyramid; here with guards snoozing and no-one else in sight, I got my chance.

View from the Bent Pyramid

In truth it didn’t quite have the majesty I’d pictured as a kid yet it still gave me a childlike lightness from being a bit naughty and fulfilling this long held dream. This sense of lightness is called ‘deam haffif’ in Arabic, which translates literally as 'light blood', it is a state of being I increasingly strive for.

Pyramid climbing in DahshurPyramid climbing in Dahshur

Photo slideshow: Cairoooooo yeah!

Nile Heat

The 600km ride to Luxor was a return to solo cycling for the first time in a while. Kenny had cycled ahead a week earlier to meet Kiran, a friend from home. I cycled out of Cairo past the Pyramids and South along the Nile.

City Creeping in on the Pyramids Saqqara Pyramid Sunet Cycling along the Nile: Friendly Locals Palm Reflections Praying Mantis Hanging Cycling along the Nile: Police Escort Desert & Irrigation

Jovial and otherwise bored policemen had orders to escort me; shielding me from some unlikely hidden danger. It seemed all the more preposterous given the friendly greetings of almost everyone I passed and met on the way.

Nile Sunset

The real danger was the heat; at times it reached over 50oC; even the Egyptians called it a heat wave. It was suffocatingly hot; the most physically torturous days of the ride to date. So affected was my mind, it spent hours composing odes to the blissful silken touch of a breeze or the embrace of cool waters. I’ll spare you the punishment of repeating them.

British Bridge on the Nile Grubby Tyre Boy Feluccas on the Nile Three Jugs & A Donkey Falafel Portrait Cycling along the Nile Cycling along the Nile

I raced through the endless stream of towns; one day topping 200km, a sizeable but exhausting feat. When I finally rolled into Luxor, the air-con, chilled drinks and power-shower in Kenny & Kiran’s room were sheer luxury. The joy tickled me to a smile, then laugh in mild hysteria at the wonder of these ‘simple’ things.

Photo slideshow: Luxor & the Nile

Hypostyle Hall

Boyhood dreams of Egypt were many and another was to visit Karnak Temple. The whole site is as huge as it is impressive but the Hypostyle Hall is the jewel I’d longed to see. Its mighty columns dwarf all beneath them, standing tall for over 3000 years. The deeply etched history and cartouches of Ramses II adorn the columns, his attempt to limit his successors’ ability to overwrite him.

Karnak Temple: Height of Hypostyle Karnak Temple: Lame Sphinx Karnak Temple: Deep Hieroglyphics Karnak Temple: Boyhood Dreams Fulfilled Karnak Temple: Gazing Up Karnak Temple: Through Kenny's Eyes Karnak Temple: Goodbye

Kenny and I lingered around the site until closing when the crowds were ushered out. We wandered around discreetly having the whole place, one of the most majestic on the planet, entirely to ourselves… at least until we were discovered. Being able to soak it in alone in quiet and astounded contemplation was heavenly.

Photo slideshow: Luxor & the Nile

Dream Boat

There is one border crossing from Egypt to Sudan, a ferry across Lake Nasser, which runs once a week. I was on a tight schedule to make a flight back to Damascus from Khartoum so we arrived early to secure our places… but we were too late. Mr. Saleh the official in charge empathised but didn’t budge; there was no room on the boat.

Notes on Egypt Boarding the boat Boat to Wadi Halfa Boat to Wadi Halfa Full on deck Abu Simbel Unloading in Sudan

As we left contemplating a Plan B, we met an irrepressible Dutch lady Kiem, and her husband, who on hearing our predicament offered their places to us at the drop of a hat. This meant they’d have to wait anther week to go. Who does this?! Good people do. As it turned out the same had happened to them in South America and a New Yorker named Justin had stepped aside. How lucky we were for Kiem, for Justin, and Mr. Saleh who miraculously found a way to squeeze our new friends back on.

Boat to Wadi Halfa

The boat itself was noisy, overcrowded and quite fantastic. Rammed with friendly Sudanese folks travelling home, it crawled through the night, appearing to face the wondrous sight of Abu Simbel at dawn. We met several other travellers driving through Africa, most of whom thought we were mad; we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo slideshow: Aswan & The Boat to Sudan

Crossing the Sahara

The Sahara we entered was not the ocean of dunes I’d envisaged. Instead something of Martian landscape of sand hewn with rocky outcrops and peaks. The newly laid road made it an almost welcoming wilderness. It was still, noiseless and strangely startling.

Crossing the Sahara: Two AmigosInquisitive Kids

Two days in with 668km to Khartoum, a tough decision had to be made. Kenny was suffering with heat exhaustion and a dodgy stomach and we were running behind time for my flight back to Damascus. In truth there was little choice. We parted ways with a smile but it was a sad moment.

After adjusting to being alone once more the kms raced by. I relished the solitude in the massive expanses around me. That night I camped beneath a sea of stars; a cooling wind blew, and as the camp stove bubbled I raised my hands aloft, soaking in the moment: naked and alone in the desert; totally contented. That night I slept under 10,000 stars.

Crossing the Sahara: Staring at the abyss

The Sudanese people I met were so kind, gentle, and inquisitive. They had an energy I like to be immersed in; they seemed innately spiritual. I can’t adequately describe it but to say they represent humanity in a way I wish I saw more.

The road to Khartoum was an army like routine:

  • 04:00 - 05:00 - wake up, pack up camp, eat noodles
  • 05:00 - 12:00 - cycling, snack, drink, drink more
  • 12:00 - 16:00 - cook a big pasta, eat, snooze (if possible), eat leftovers
  • 16:00 - 21:00 - press on, stay hydrated, find a spot to camp
  • 21:00 – 22:00 - eat and drink as much as possible, pass out

I had a mission: 6 days to cover almost 1000kms. I made it. It felt like great achievement to have ‘cycled the Sahara in summer’ …and just in time for my flight.

Crossing the Sahara: 894km to Khartoum (+40) Crossing the Sahara: Touch Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara: Parting Company - Waving Goodbye to Kenny Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara

The routine and the environment could be harsh, serene, wearing and delighting. Challenging then utterly fulfilling, this is what I came for.

Photo slideshow: Crossing the Sahara

Salute the hosts

Many of the unexpected highlights of Egypt were the result of CouchSurfing. First in Alexandria then in Cairo, Kenny and I were hosted by and introduced to people who transformed us from tourists into guests.

No longer at the whim of Lonely Planet guides, we were shown the places our local hosts are proud of, invited to events, and became part of what was going on rather than just looking at it.

We owe a big thank you to Shehab, Manu, Ahmad, and Nada – all of whom hosted us and made the last few months so incredible.

(If you haven’t heard of CouchSurfing, check it out. In short: kind people offer their spare beds or couches for people to stay for free. It has a tried and trusted system of referral that works. In my experience the hosts offer a level of hospitality you can’t buy. It is an outstanding way of meeting people and example of the internet dong what it is best for, bringing people together.)

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