Miles on the clock: 27,430
Port Said to Cairo was a noisy, dusty, sweaty couple of days by bike. Small piles of burning plastic on the roadside; white-robed men riding sturdy little donkeys; fields with neat rows of hand-tied wheatsheaves; few women in public; the hot wind an unwelcome contrast to the spring weather I'd recently enjoyed in Turkey. For the first day the road shadowed the Suez canal and every couple of hours a hulking cargo ship would plough silently past.
We visited the Egyptian Museum on the banks of the Nile: a large, colonial building, unceremoniously crammed with huge statues, sarcophagi, tablets and various other artifacts dating back as far as 4,600 years. The museum was poorly lit and presented the visitor with almost no information. It was more overwhelming than interesting to someone who knows little of Egyptian antiquity.
The pyramids were not as hectic as we'd anticipated and it was easy enough to leave the beaten track and scramble around unmarked ruins poking out of the sand. Cheops ("The Great Pyramid") is so tall (140m) and has such a long base (230m) that it's hard to comprehend its size. The gradient is quite gentle and the top is so distant that it throws out perspective. I finally appreciated its enormity when I realised it could swallow Salisbury Cathedral comfortably.
There was a 40-mile stretch of empty, wall-to-wall beach resorts. Most were poorly thought out with rooms opening onto the main road and the road separating them from a narrow, unattractive, gray-sanded beach. Many were half-built and I wanted to tell the workers to save their energy and not bother as the majority of these places simply wouldn't attract any tourists. Some had surprising names including 'Santa Clause' and simply 'Mexico!'
I noticed that no cars pulled over to say hello or ask what I was doing. The only one that did carried four Slovaks whom I'd met on the ferry from Turkey. I was surprised by this disinterest in me as in most countries cars pull over often, simply out of curiosity.
The days were hot but not yet unbearably so. The temperature rose as I progressed south but I enjoyed the weather knowing that I'd soon be in year-round scorching Sudan. One warm evening I turned inland towards the Nile and began weaving through low, sandstone hills. The road was still being built and wrinkled workmen squatted on the roadside sucking battered shisha pipes.
The last day to Luxor was hard work. I had four punctures in the morning and unintentionally took a road cutting across utterly empty desert instead of joining the Nile earlier and following it south. I had no food, there was no shade to rest in and the temperature climbed to the high thirties. I had some water which I used sparingly to moisten my mouth but I began to feel sick from drinking too much on an empty stomach. Thankfully the hazy band of greenery that signifies the Nile finally appeared on the horizon, breaking the yellow-brown desert monotony. I imagined the elation this sight must have brought to thousands of thirst-crazed caravans and explorers over the millenia.
Luxor is famous for its historical sites so I took a ferry across the river and cycled into the hills to the Valley of the Kings: an unpleasantly hot, shadeless, breezeless, little cleft in the hills; blindingly bright in the midday sun. To date, 62 tombs have been found and excavated here (including Tutankhamun) although most were raided and emptied of treasure many centuries ago. I visited three tombs which all plunged, corridor-like, into the rocky hillside. Each consisted of tunnels and chambers, all white-washed and covered in colourful paintings and hieroglyphics depicting mythology and praising the life of the occupant. I could comprehend little of the paintwork but spotted several recurring themes in the mythology. The age and preservation impressed me most and it was easy to recognise the primitive inspirations for the art that the ancient Greeks adopted, developed and perfected.
I next freewheeled down to the largely reconstructed Temple of Hatshepsut. The grand cliffwall backdrop more than anything made the building an impressive. Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BC) was the only female 'pharaoh'. She acted as regent for her young son after her husband died but soon usurped the throne entirely. Lots of small, variously-dated ruins are scattered around the temple and I enjoyed rummaging around these unmarked relics.
The next day I wandered over to Karnak, or the ancient city of Thebes: a sprawling complex of temples and palaces that was the centre of Egyptian power for 1,300 years. Seemingly endless slabs of engraved stone lie around with grand columns, countless statues and cool, sunless chambers covered with intricate stone carvings.
The road south traced the river and was prettily decorated with brightly-coloured flowers. Serene rural scenes were enacted all round: solitary men in pale-blue gelabiyas squatted in the fields working the harvest with small, hand-held sickles. Donkeys hauled carts of produce and men dozed away the midday heat under palm trees. The desert was never far away and the road often straddled the sudden divide between harsh aridity and fecund greenery with irrigation controlled by a series of canals leading upriver to the 1960s Aswan High Damn: a symbol of Egyptian ingenuity and independence (designed by British engineers, built and funded by the Soviets).
Men waved and shouted "hello!" Boys waved and requested "money?" The few women outdoors were mostly in groups, closeted in hot, synthetic, black burqas. It was a fairly idyllic ride excepting the all to regular thump thump through my saddle of momentum destroying speed bumps: abrupt, unnecessary, always in pairs and roughly once a mile.
The sinking sun was swollen and orange, reflected on the water, when I entered Aswan and found a cheap room. It took a couple of days to secure a Sudanese visa and a ticket for the ferry to Wadi Halfa. The ferry runs the length of the 310-mile Lake Nasser that backed up behind the dam and remains the only open border crossing despite the two roads that straddle the frontier. The ferry is infamous among travellers and I'd heard countless stories of overcrowded decks, lifeboats crammed with people and boxes, and frenzied chaos trying to get onboard. However, the boat had been delayed for a couple of weeks until a few days before I arrived so the service I was on was a one-off for the surplus of people who were unable to get on the last passage. I arrived early morning with Mick (a Geordie cyclist I'd met in Aswan) expecting the worst but was soon through the poorly arranged customs and immigration (about 4 jobs split between 5 offices and around 30 ineffectual men) and onto the empty deck.
In the morning we passed Abu Simbel: four 22m-high statues of Ramesses II (1264 BC) carved out of a cliff as a show of might at the ancient Egyptian frontier to deter incursions from the southerly Nubians. In the 1960s the entire site was cut up into 20 tonne blocks and relocated to an artificial hill 65m higher to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.
We arrived in Wadi Halfa and disembarked with minimal fuss. Mick and I stocked up on food and set out on the new, Chinese-built tarmac road running south to Khartoum. Sadly Mick's bike gave out after a day so he had to go ahead by bus.
When the heat became overwhelming I forced myself to remember the misery of biting cold in extreme mountainous winters. This was a hard bit of self-deception to pull off. I wondered if I sometimes whinge inwardly to myself during the hard times so I can reward myself with a greater sense of achievement upon getting through them. In the future, when I look back at now, these will all be the 'good old days' so I should strive to treat them as such now. Annoyingly this is much easier on paper than in practice. This lead me to reflect on the nature of my currently lifestyle. For almost three years I've largely lived an unpredictable day to day existence: always on the move, new places, new faces, sleeping rough, wondering where I'll next find food or water, grappling with unfamiliar tongues. This abnormality has become my norm and no longer surprises me. I decided I must fight to recapture and harness a sense of novelty. I remember the simple surprises that struck me so long ago when I charged wide-eyed through Northern Europe with such heady expectations.
I took a rest in the mid-sized town of Dongola before turning away from the river onto a little-used road running across a waterless 120 miles of desert to rejoin the river again further upstream in a town called Karima. I set off early evening weighed down with 17 litres of water and rode into the night. 30 hours later, and with not a drop of water remaining, I rolled into Karima and greedily drank a couple of litres in seconds.
There is a cluster of small, steep-sided Nubian pyramids (300 - 130 BC) near Karima and I had them to myself, happily clambering around them and the scattered ruins of a Temple of Amun built around 3,500 years ago when the Egyptian empire stretched this far south.
My arm ached with a pulsing sting that came and went but I decided to go about cooking my lunch. Fifteen minutes later a man arrived and spotted the dead scorpion. I indicated that it had stung me and pointed to my arm which now had a goosepimply rash spreading from the sting. The man hurriedly tied a painfully tight tourniquet above my elbow and rushed me to hospital where I was given a local aenesthetic and four other injections before being turned loose. The pain grew until late that night but in the morning was no more than a faint numbness.
The continuing wind blew a constant stream of sand across the tarmac that would swirl and dance in the wake of overtaking trucks. When trucks passed in the opposite direction I had to close my eyes and mouth, turn my face away and brace for the gritty wall of sandy air that slapped me.
Nearing the capital, the desert supported more thorny bushes among which non-Arab, non-Nubian nomadic tribes live with their herds of camel. I enjoyed watching the mysterious beasts swagger through the sand with their inimitable rolling gait. I stopped at the reed huts of these tribes sometimes to ask for water which they hang in goat skins so the wind cools it.
Tracing the Blue Nile on a narrow, busy road was little fun and inconsiderate drivers often forced me onto the thorn-strewn verge. Resultantly, I collected nine punctures in one day. Many Sudanese drivers ensure space on the road with Roman chariot-style hubcap protrusions that look like they could shred a man's leg and comfortably skin a cat. The frequent dog and donkey carcasses strewn along the roadside were a testament to the ruthless drivers.
The road began to climb gradually towards Ethiopia and the vegetation thickened. An incongruously-placed old baboon eyed me dismissively one afternoon; his weary, impassive face following my slow uphill progress.
The mercury slowly, mercifully dropped and I reached the border one fresh morning where the Sudanese police shared their breakfast with me. The Sahara and nine months in the Islamic world were behind me.
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