There, there, there. Easy now maan. We’ve finally arrived in the dusty little town of Wadi Halfa, Sudan but we’re still not moving. At least after this there are no more ferries to catch so hopefully we can get a move on. Egypt however has been quite mix of all sorts and I rate we’ve checked quite a few boxes in the process. Ancient sites, Red sea diving, holy mountains, mixed riding terrain, relaxation, rioting protestors and awesome isolated desert scenery being a few of them. Holy shitballs! We’ve spent exactly a month in Egypt. Original itinerary? Now a bit of a distant memory or relic if you like. I’d say we’re at least 2 or 3 weeks behind schedule by now and at least 2 visas have to be extended or renewed. Not really too much of a problem hey…
Entering the country in Nuweiba, on the Sinai peninsula in the late afternoon was actually going quite well. The fact that the three of us had an official leading us between the various stages of the temporary vehicle import process was just not good enough however. Every window we arrived at resulted in handing over more cash. Fearing that we were being exploited somehow, we put 6 proverbial feet down and just refused to pay what we thought was the last 510 Egyptian pounds. “No. It’s too much. We sleep here tonight…” So we setup camp inside the border control post in protest. I can’t say the local officials were phased in the least. Up the next morning, papers in hand, back to the same window with the same official behind it. “510 Egyptian pounds please…” Ok then. At least we got a free nights accommodation if you can call it that. Eventually getting out of there in the afternoon sometime after handing over close to 600 odd Egyptian pounds each and in return receiving a few bits of paper and our new temporary Egyptian plates. All very necessary as we were stopped countless times at various roadside police checks throughout the country and asked to present our Egyptian licenses and passports etc. The checks seemed a lot more serious on the Sinai, I assumed because of the protected touristic areas of Dahab and Sharm el Sheik being close by.
After all this border madness we “deserved” a holiday. This adventure motorcycling business is not officially a holiday by the way – classification to be confirmed. We found the perfect spot for it just about 80kms down the road. For the next 5 days the chilled out, red sea town of Dahab would be our home. Cheap accommodation, outside of high season and with a few bars and many Bedouin styled restaurants hugging the coastline there. James proceeded in getting his Padi Openwater diving certification, Jeremy sourced himself some pretty serious looking knobbly tyres for Africa and I worked on my beer drinking skills. Having done my Openwater there before, I was toying with the idea of doing the advanced certification and then maybe heading out to do the Thistlegorm wreck dive from Sharm. Naa. Relax and save the 280 odd Euro instead was the decision. One of the days missioning out on the now nice and light, luggage free bikes for an exercise in dirt riding and some snorkelling around the “blue hole” was a definitely a highlight. Having not done any form of off road riding before this trip, its pretty cool having a bit of a play with the backend and seeing where ones limits are. (Brokebackbike ref #2) James found himself catching some shade under his bike at one stage but all pretty harmless stuff. Some local came past on his quad bike looking quite confused as to what these 2 crazy westerners were doing making such a noise where normally only camels are parked, chewing. We did find a camel who could down a can of coke. Apparently it also had a fine appreciation for beer and spirits.
Next stop was a bit north again and west into the centre of the peninsula where you find the likes of St Catherine’s monastery and Mount Sinai itself. We camped up close to the bottom (meeting some English travellers who had been helping to build a dam nearby) and decided to make an early start the next morning to catch the sunrise from up top of the mountain. Jeremy opted for doing the hard work up front by camping up top the night before and only had to wake up to the sunrise the next morning without even having to leave the comfort of his sleeping bag. Good effort man. I think we eventually started walking from camp at about 3am fuelled only by a rather chilly bowl of corn flakes. It was a cool experience starting the walk up the mountain in the dark, passing the occasional camel and Bedouin residence on the way while the stars slowly fade away into the new day. There was quite a mixture of beliefs going on at the top. Apart from the good mountainous scenery surrounding us at sunrise, there was 1x Bedouin man with a firm belief in his hash joint, 1x some random religious group chanting away with some kind of embroidered material in hand and additionally what looked like a full on church service as well (singing included). I discovered some prayer letters left up there tucked in between the rocks asking the Gods to cure Nigeria’s problems as well as some Toblerone. (Cunningly stashed out of sight as an offering of some sorts.) I left Nigeria’s problems where they were but we both enjoyed supplementing our corn flakes with a bit of good chocolate after the 2hr hike to get up there. Somehow we managed to find the difficult route down again, overtaking a group of Nuns on a pilgrimage who I think must still be making their way down.
Riding north for the last time (not) up to Suez on the west coast of the Sinai, there isn’t much to see really. Mostly industry / oil refineries and quite a lot of wind. Spending the night briefly in Ras Sadr with an early start to hit the anticipated madness of Cairo. Being early morning, we passed through the Suez tunnel and its guarding military presence with relative ease. The driving coming in to Cairo however is just a complete different mind set. No concept of slow and fast lanes and if you leave any sort of space open, shortly someone would be in it or be pushing through to get to it. I think James even got a boot to one of the bloody chancers trying their luck squeezing past us. Here, car hooters transform themselves into more of a proximity alert rather than any kind of early warning device. The beeping is just constant and is always around you. Inside Cairo things are quite a bit slower as traffic is quite congested. For once I think this may even have been a good thing.
The Cairo mission was pretty successful I’d say. Objective 1 – Obtain Sudanese visa, Objective 2 – Bike Service, Objective 3 – Enquire about Ethiopian visa extension. Oh and of course, they’ve got these quite famous 4 cornered structures that are worth having a look at. It was a bit of a mission finding the various consulates, also being told to come back the next morning but we got there in the end. 100USD for the Sudanese visa (which we later found out to be half the price down south in Aswan – Jeremy. If there’s a buck to be saved believe me he’ll find it.) and we’d need to get the Ethiopian visa again in Khartoum, Sudan once the current visa had expired. The bike service side of things went quite smoothly with there being a Mobil garage pretty much walking distance from where we were staying and they had everything we needed. New oil, a place to work and even a jetwash that I refused to use. I’m only going to wash my bike in Cape Town dammit! I figured the less clean it is, the less expensive it looks. Or maybe I’m just lazy…
We stayed at the Sara Hostel for 2 nights while taking care of all this business in Cairo. It’s run by a very helpful and friendly Egyptian man and it was definitely more affordable than the 2 or 3 hotels we’d checked out prior that first night. Being very close to the Cairo museum and Tahrir square, we were never too far away from the protests against the current “temporary” military government that was supposed to have a new government in place by now. We arrived on a Monday and things had been heating up since the previous Friday. A brief wonder on foot through the square on the Tuesday morning was just enough to just get a taster of the atmosphere. Some wearing full gas masks, others in goggles and whatever else they could find to prevent the effects of the tear gas being fired at them from getting in the way of their protest. Even from a distance you could start to feel your eyes getting irritated with this horrible stuff hanging in the air. “No sleep! No Sleep!” the one guy shouts as he comes past. He looked completely wired so who knows how long he’d been going on for. Quite a few bandaged or gashed foreheads doing the rounds with numerous ambulances and military vehicles lined up next to the square, ready for action. Things really seemed to heat up at night though. Being up on the 6th floor with the bikes safely parked a couple of blocks away gave one a bit of a sense of security with all this banging, shouting and general chaos going on down on the street below. One of the hotels right next to the square wanted to charge us 65USD a night and I don’t think that included one of the rooms with a view over the square. Apparently the likes of the BBC and other news agencies were based there to cover the action. There was also quite a cool local biker local dude who pulled up and helped us find parking in all this madness. He was riding an old custom British BSA that he said was the only one in Egypt. The bloody parking cost just as much as the room per night!
When it comes to sights in Egypt, the Bent and Red pyramids in Dahshur were definitely a highlight for me. By recommendation of the man running the hostel, we went in search to find these ancient structures (Dating back further than the pyramids at Giza). Dahshur itself is a relatively small and dusty place and it really doesn’t look like there’s anything of interest close by except for its proximity to the green and fertile banks of the Nile, south of Cairo. We stopped in a local supermarket to get supplies and again drew quite a mixed crowd of locals and children all quite excited to see us apparently. The usual conversation and a constant theme throughout Egypt. “Where you from?” and “How much?” pointing at the motorcycles. Or “How are you?” and “Where you go?” Quite often you say “South Africa” and get a confused or blank expression in return. “Africa?” If you lucky, referring to Mandela might make the penny drop and you get a response like “Oh Bafana Bafana!” Smiles all round. But quite often they still don’t understand why we’re not black. Anyways… I digress. A bit further along, finding the entrance to the pyramid complex, all of a sudden you’re in what seems like the desert again. Vast open space with only the road between the 2 pyramids as an necessary addition. I really found it quite spectacular. You could also just see the Step Pyramid of Djoser dwarfed in the distance. The best part – No one around and we could get the bikes pretty close to these ancient structures as well. This place, as far as I could make out, is off the usual beaten track and has not yet turned into a tourist trap like the Giza Pyramid complex and Sphinx. A spot of lunch and a quick chat to a passing Kiwi traveller and we’re off again to Giza to find the one campsite there for the night. (Salma camp)
I couldn’t figure out why James seemed to be in such a rush to get back but it turns out his lights had stopped working and dark was approaching quickly. After some maintenance that night and a couple of fuses, he got his hooter and lights working again by sorting out a short circuit of some kind. I made dinner and got talking to Jesus. A bearded man with long hair wearing all white was sat in the kitchen preparing a modest meal. Turns out he’s German, quit his western life quite sometime ago and has found his calling as a spiritual healer. Quite an interesting character having travelled quite a bit, working his magic in places like India and others I can’t remember now. In summary: He can talk to ancient angels (or old souls / beings) not of this world, there are some children born with this ability (more appearing in Europe these days apparently), various pyramids / temples around the world channel energy, wearing dark or black clothing suffocates ones aura (White or certain bright colours allow for better… erm radiation?) and of course money rules the world and is the root of all evil. After all this, a few cold Sakaras hit the spot. The protests in Tahrir square being on the television whenever going back for another round from the bar. We also crossed paths with a Dutch couple for the first time doing the same journey to Cape Town. They’re also on the BMW F650’s but one being the more off road capable Dakar variant.
A bit of a late start again in the morning resulted in the Giza pyramids area being quite busy already when getting there. A few quick photo’s from a distance would suffice instead of hitting the tourist trap we thought. Job done after sourcing a scarab beetle for good luck from an old confused looking Arab man there. Hopefully off to the Western desert a bit later. Not. Looking for supplies, following the ring road around town we ended up in quite a nice, new part of surrounding Cairo for some Burger King (cheating I know but hey…) and eventually located a full on shopping mall. (Mall of Asia or something) It was like stepping back into the Western world with familiar brands everywhere but it somehow just didn’t really feel right walking around there in dusty motorcycle kit passing the likes of GAP and Zara. We stocked up on some good grub and left the desert for the next day instead. It was agreeably a bit of a waste of a day. Finding a student hostel for the night with some cheesy American TV was definitely the better option than spending the 100USD the local Novotel wanted to charge us. I think we still got nailed on the price though as there’s no way students would pay what we did for the night but at least the bikes were locked up.
So there are 3 ways to travel south in Egypt, from Cairo by road. The Western desert, down the Nile or probably the fastest route – the Red sea. I was very keen to check the desert out and so we did. Great. So food – check. Serviced bikes – check. Route – check. Petrol – … A tiny detail possibly overlooked for the first time resulting in us using our jerry cans and further on, asking some locals for help finding “Benzine”. They did help us but of course wanted to charge us an extortionate rate for 20l of fuel being poured out of a 16l can. Apparently it was an oil can and 16l of oil = 20l of petrol. Go figure. The bikes can only take 17l in the first place! After a bit of a heated discussion we left and found a petrol station about 5kms away. In hindsight, I’m sure we could have made it but so it goes… So after stopping for what would definitely not be our last chicken, rice and salad meal, we meet “The desert wolf” (A local coordinating tours in the area) and his sidekick who pull up on one of the many cheap Chinese motorcycles one finds buzzing around (Normally 150cc and blinged up in some sort of fashion). I ask him about wild camping and he says not a problem, just pull over about 30km down the road somewhere and you’re in the Black desert. Awesome. Quite a vast stretch with numerous large rocky outcrops all covered in bits of loose black rock seemingly carrying on for miles. Finding a spot out of sight of the road was relatively easy and having a bit of a burn around the next morning, luggage free was good fun. There wasn’t too much soft sand around and the terrain seemed to be never ending. No one else in sight except for the the occasional bit of traffic on the road not too far away. Without being able to braai, us two South African okes still enjoyed a couple of steaks that evening, just fried up in a pan instead unfortunately.
Next up, a bit further down the drag, was the White desert reserve and my opinion, the highlight down this route. Stopping close to the entrance at Crystal Mountain, (No, unfortunately not bearing any great resemblance to Saruman’s tower or any other fantasy novel you may have read in he past but there was quite a bit of some kind of crystal lying around there) we got chatting to a local and very helpful Egyptian tour guide who says we can take a turn off in about 20km and wild camp. Once again. Awesome news. We find a left turn a bit further ahead accompanied by a sign with mushrooms on it (not growing obviously – there were mountain rocks in this shape. Somewhere…), leave the tarred road and follow the tracks in the sand. This time a bit more forward planning is needed when navigating around the (now white) surrounding rocky outcrops of various interesting shapes and sizes as stretches of soft sand were now very prevalent. Eventually finding a pretty cool secluded spot at the base of one of these large natural wind breaks. Once the sun fades away, stood still, all that one could hear is the faint whisper of sand shifting in a slight breeze across your feet. I’m starting to run out of adjectives here so the isolation element and waking up in the morning in this kind of surrounding was pretty damn cool / awesome / fantastic / whatever and of course their were plenty stars out that night as well. I suppose we had our first close encounter with some local wildlife in the form of a little curious desert fox (real one this time) coming to pay us a visit. Lucky little thing didn’t have to work hard for its dinner that night as it gladly got stuck into the remaining chicken bones we left it. Getting back onto the road the next day was a bit of a struggle at times through sections of soft sand tracks, rock and gravel but we got there in the end. James pulled off what was probably the biggest wheelie of the trip so far rocking my bike out of a rocky-stuck situation. I tried to master soft sand at relative speed. Saving the situation quite well on one occasion but spilling my one pannier and luggage on the next. (I’ve now lost count officially) Ha! I think the theme for these few days was an adaptation of a Guns ‘n Roses song. “You’re in the desert baby. You’re gonna die!”
Another 2 days of wild camping ensued, officially pushing the dirt levels up to the record of 4 days while making our way through the western desert passing through the majority of the oasis towns there. The first being just behind and a little old Muslim village (with some very puzzled locals glaring at these foreign beings passing through their narrow village roads) up against the mountain side. The second, eventually settling after dark, in the wind amongst some very soft sand dunes. We got stuck on quite a few occasions here even after letting the tyre pressures down but hopefully all this counting positively towards off road riding skills. It was near dark, we needed somewhere to sleep. Stopping a bit earlier hopefully to find a spot in a nearby oasis, a humble local tried to help us. We get the “sleep here?” gesticulation across but in return we get a shake of the head and a squiggle in the sand resembling the shape of a snake. Not here then. So a bit further on we find a long stretch of the soft stuff and just gun it until eventually finding a suitable spot. Naturally, after securing everything properly to prevent blowing away, the wind stops. The fine sand just gets in everywhere. Quite a bit of it now circulating through the bikes sprockets having been picked up by the rear wheels getting buried while stuck. Obviously quite a lot of it in the chains as well. First thing after hitting the asphalt again the next day, we found a garage nearby and did a rather good job of washing all the gunk out of chains by running them through a cut out half container of diesel complements of the J Cameron Engineering corp.
So enough of all this desert malarkey already we’re off to Luxor. It’s just the last stretch of nothing for 240km heading east that’s still got to be covered. Oh yes, and passing by a fellow, solo Japanese rider somewhere amongst the various police checkpoints on the way. For some reason, eating tinned tuna from Thailand in the middle of Egyptian desert for lunch seemed significant to me. Coming in to Luxor in the late afternoon, running on fumes there was a fantastic sunset with the entire horizon striped in bands of colour. We first settled in the relatively well know overland friendly Rezeiky camp on the east bank for 2 nights, then spent a night at Al Salaam camp on the west bank of the Nile. Rezeiky was quite overpriced but the Egyptian meal prepared there for us was very well received (Along with a few beers of course). Ahmed at Al Salaam camp served us as a very good host while we were there as well. Quite a cool little spot, the last to be found on the dirt road leading from the ferry crossing amongst the fertile farmland on the river bank. It’s just out of the city madness with quite a rural feel in the form of the locals tending to their land and bringing their cattle down to graze. The late afternoon being particularly picturesque with the felucca sails dotted up and down the river. Little be known to us at the time that we’d actually end up spending quite a bit of time there. Waiting…
Luxor and Aswan kind of moulded into one place for me as we ended up travelling up and down between the two with the upcoming delay. Maybe its just the constant moving that does it but quite often I found myself having to make a conscious effort as figuring out where we were. There is only one passenger ferry and vehicle barge, once a week making its way from Aswan high dam, Egypt across Lake Nasser to the dusty little town of Wadi Halfa, Sudan. There are 2 other roads but neither have customs in place and there is also some disputed territory between the 2 countries so passing this way is not possible. So. This is where the term “fixer” came into its own. (Basically some local looking to ease your crossing by getting as many US dollars out of you as possible) The only way to get a ticket for passage is to rock up early on a Saturday morning and hope that luck is on your side as a reservation system is just non existent. Being told there was space for one more vehicle and that it was reserved (contradiction, I know, go figure) was not the best news for 3 bikes and 3 land rovers. Somehow one of the new arrivals managed to get the “reserved” space and the poor guy who had already been waiting a week in Aswan had to wait another week. In this whole mess you have a Mr Machmood, a Mr Salah and a Mr Kamal and of course various bits of red tape that had me zooting around town trying to avoid paying a fixer. So we couldn’t get on the Monday ferry having gotten to Aswan on the Saturday. “Come back next week…” was the best that Mr Salah could give us. However, going down to the actual port, Mr Machmood says there’s space on the Sunday. Mission. So we wait till the Monday with great positive thoughts of possibly getting on just to be denied. Again. Apparently a lone Japanese biker slipped his way on somehow. And amongst all this great news, James finally battle tested one of his panniers on the way to the ferry. I saw a photo of the long skid mark down the road and it looked to be quite a decent slideshow alongside the barrier. A little shook up maybe but hardly any damage except for a pannier lock and his motorcycle jacket that is officially no more after causing the trouble by getting stuck in the back wheel. Just as luck would have it. The one time you go riding without protection, (Geared up lightly for a possible ferry crossing) you need it!
Great. So back up to Luxor it was, this time up the Nile road which was bloody slow going and pretty hard work. Up and down the gears continuously slowing down for speed bumps that tended to appear out of nowhere as there’s nothing to warn you about them approaching on the road. In hindsight, we should’ve checked out a bit more of the Red Sea coast but we got lazy and James also got quite ill for a few days. Prior to all this ferry nonsense, we did actually check out the old city of Karnack as well as the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Pretty good stuff to see, with the exception of being bugged by very persistent touts the whole time trying to sell you things which is quite a shame as it tends to ruin the whole experience. Tourist trail… Booo. We did get a sneak peak into a forbidden area in one of the temples in Karnack though. A lone Arab man calls me over to have a look while he makes sure no security is around. All for a little “Baksheesh” of course.
Egyptian tourism has taken a bit of a knock recently with all the unrest in Cairo etc. You definitely get first hand experience of it when wondering around the likes of Luxor and Aswan. When spotted as a tourist, you’re continuously being approached to buy something and as there are many people relying on tourism for a living. “My friend, my friend. How are you? Where you from?” is how it all starts normally and does get quite tiring after a while. In Luxor its horse and carriage rides and in Aswan it was felucca trips up the river. We got spotted by the same guy at least three times in Luxor. “Hey! South Africa! Carriage ride? Only 2 pounds…” In Aswan it was Captain Ramadan the felucca sailor I kept bumping into. As the police’s powers were lessened with the current military government, Hashish and Marijuana also seemed very much available from these touts as their secondary service offering. After a while, you tend to not want to walk around anymore. This is a bit difficult if you’re stuck somewhere for a week…
The positivity is just flowing at this point. Not. I think we were all very glad to get out of Egypt in the end. Pity to leave the country like that but hey. There were some good times! Including meeting and travelling with all of the following cool fellow over lander peeps.
Jeremy – http://carnetdepassage.com/
Willem and Esther – https://sites.google.com/site/we2afrika/
Michiel & Jeldaw – http://rotterdam2capetown.com
Michael & Claus – http://travel-story.dk/english.html
Oh and would someone please tell the various people on the road who kept flashing theirs lights at us that - Yes we know. Our lights are on. We cannot turn them off. Maybe you guys should try driving with with more than just park lights on at night. Especially the large truck drivers. Thank you.