Thursday, 11 November 2010

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.



  2. Ah Egypt, beguiling, frustrating and chaotic.

    You were right not to add your weapons to the mix. I'd a similar situation in Iran, I too was rescued by a group assembled from the benign 99%, and I reckoned that a mashad hoodlum would probably fare better in a knife fight than myself. Fair play for getting back on the bike and not letting the experience colour your world view.

    FYI its about three years to the day that we met at the RGS and talked of worldly plans : )

  3. I'm on the verge of proposing to Nyomi myself, so good thing she's already married to you. Are we into wife sharing? Do tell.

    Names for the band? I have only cheesy ideas: The Pelotonen PanPipe Panniers, The Tandem Tooters, The Nile Knockabouts. Or maybe just the group I'm listening to right now: The Gear Daddies.

    So glad you're still able to appreciate how fortunate you are to be living this life wherein you get robbed and are followed by the police...

  4. Another amazing blog I laughed and nearly cried a lot! When will you get to Cape Town? I want to be here ! Mum x

  5. Someone should film this! I really enjoy the blogs and have learnt so much. I still think you are both nuts but if only I had my time again I would be nuts too. I think you must have a lot of your wonderful mother's spirit! Well done Steve - proud to know you. Angela

  6. Hi Steve;) Good luck in Sudan! Ps.where ru planning 2b in May 2011? Jacek;)

  7. The Harmonibikeleles? The Bikeharmoleles? Just the Bikeleles? Please note that the "ke" somewhere in the middle of each name is pronounced "keh". What an adventure!

  8. really enjoyed reading about the latest adventures.
    it is a hoot to read.
    so glad nyomi is cycling with you now - she sounds wonderful.
    may the road rise up to greet you (old irish expression?)

  9. another great post steve - good luck in the next stage

    thought you should know reading this has inspired me to take up this lifestyle. First mini trip next week and hopefully within a year be following a similarly global trail

    keep up the good work

    hard up globetrotters gets my vote

  10. Next going greens of East africa