DATE: 6 November, 2005
CURRENT LOCATION: Aswan, Egypt - in the garden of 'Adam's Nubian House' (outskirts of Aswan)
GPS COORDINATES: Finally, eh N 24 deg. 10.136' / E 32 deg. 51.952'
Ok, I'm properly now in Upper Egypt!! Very excited because the most challenging part of the trip is imminent - Sudan. I've pulled up into a 'campsite' in the garden of a Nubian elder on the outskirts of Aswan and have (thank God!) come upon a whole gaggle of overlanders who will also be making the jump into the unknown next week. They've got Land Rovers and trucks and all the doohickies and some actual off roading skills. These are people who camp in the desert for real! I'm afraid that I might be the weak link in the chain, but I'm very glad to possibly be in any chain in the first section of the route through Northern Sudan, which starts off as a big bowl of sand and then transforms into what is dubbed 'the belly of stones' not too promising for this off-road novice.
I guess I should say something about Cairo. It is insane. I can't say I fell in love with it, or perhaps even 'liked' it much - but it certainly has a presence. I eventually saw myself stuck there almost a week as I tried in vain to get a recommendation on a possible responsible mechanic to give Mario a once over before I drop her into Sudan (yes again, Mario is a she - all manners of vehicular transport, i.e. boats, cars, bikes, whether the have a male name or not, are she's). Each day came up a dead end and wasted more precious traveling or sightseeing time.
I also had a huge number of other practical things to accomplish in order to continue and these usually took up most of the mornings, as things do not move quickly in Egypt. For example, there is only one post office in all of Cairo that can handle packages larger than 1.5kg. That's ONE office in one of the world's largest cities. One. Right, the Central Cairo Post Office at Ataba Square you say..? Right, well I trudge across the city and am told after much gesticulation and persistent ignoring at the Central Office that because I'm not sending documents (it was a heap of personal bits that I didn't need anymore), there is only one (ONE!) post office in Cairo that can handle packages of personal items over 1.5kg - the Central Cairo Post Office at Ramses Square. Imagine - only one post office in the entire city can send the package, but there are TWO Central Cairo Post Offices
After some persistence, it was also revealed to me that there is also an Express Mail Service (EMS) Station a few minutes around the corner that could maybe also perhaps send it for me as well, maybe. Hallelujah! The man at the counter at the EMS forced me to break into my heavily taped package for inspection in case of any illicit goods. By the look on his face when his first sight was of my treck shoes you would have thought he'd come across a 3-week-old kipper in my parcel. He handed the parcel by fingertips to his assistant to re-wrap.
Sadly, I don't have any pictures of Cairo My digital camera went down and had to be sent to Canada for urgent reconstructive surgery (thanks Kev!!). I only bought an amazingly cheap and awful no-name Chinese disposable camera on near my last day as I was headed out to the Pyramids at Giza, thinking I'd really ought to have some glossies of these exemplary monuments to empire and servility.
Right. Got them all there in one shot. Can I go home now..?
No honestly, these are majestic monuments to all the attributes (positive and negative) of human civilization. They are staggeringly huge. I'm standing on a road about 1km away. Look at all those ant-like people at the base!! I got to crawl inside this one. You descend almost bent over for what seems like a 100m into the bowels of this thing, with how many thousand of pounds of stone above you. The interior isn't elaborate in any particular way, with just a big square tomb room at the heart. After to screaming Spaniards and the perfunctory-photo-Russian left, I had the whole room to myself for a few minutes. Really awesome. Silent. Or maybe I could I hear the stone whisper something..?
This is the step-pyramid out at Sakara, a further drive from Cairo, from the previous dynasty. It was the first of the Pyramids - a bit of a prototype. I kinda liked this one even more. But I was a little puzzled by the cleaning man with the broom and dustpan - that's got be a hell of a lot of sand for one guy to cleanup. (badoom-bing)
I spent most days, as the example given above, scrambling around in the mornings for practical things and then collapsing disheartened in midafternoon from the heat, pollution, and general failure of accomplishing any of the practical things I set out to do. Besides, it was Ramadan and everything and most sites were shut by 3pm anyways. I'd then find myself scouring for some back alley falafel stand or sneak into the fast-food Hardees establishment on the corner for an illicit double cheese burger lunch (they had their shades drawn to hide you from the ireful eyes of Ramadan adherers!). I really copped out on the sites. Got the Pyramids in. Saw some of old Islamic Cairo. Largely skipped out on the shopping in the big souk, the Khan al Kallili. Missed Coptic (Christian) Cairo. Didn't pay US$20 for all you can eat riverboat buffet and 'traditional' music and belly dancing. I didn't even get to the Egyptian Museum, which was 200m around the damn corner!! I feel a bit of a failure But I ate a lot of ice cream! Drank a lot of coffee and smoked lots of sheesha in cranky or ancient coffee houses. Met a fellow traveler, Will (Aussie), headed to Sudan and swapped notes for a few days. He's a week ahead of me by backpack and has been asked to report in with any tid bits or advice - sort of an advance party recce for me. We also tried to go and see a proper local belly dancing bar, but it seems they were either shut down or didn't do dancing anymore, but still had many ladies Yup - that's an about face Will. Lets go drink some beer instead and smoke some more sheesha.
Evening in Cairo was intense. Being Ramadan, everybody broke loose in the evenings, finally able to eat and drink (soft drinks) and be merry. Even if I had my camera, I don't think I would have ever been able to capture the essence of it all. I'll try to put it down on paper sometime, but the commotion and noise of the massed humanity would make Broadway or Oxford Street seem silly in comparison. There was just everything going on at once, on every level in downtown Cairo during Ramadan. And I don't think I saw a single tourist in all that melee. It certainly was genuine.
So I left Cairo with mixed feelings and missed opportunities. Oh well, back out onto the road.
I decided to take the long road to Upper Egypt. The Nile is great, but am I essentially going to be following it to one of its sources, so I thought I could take a break for the time being. I headed out into the oasis of the Western Desert, which is essentially the eastern stretch of the Sahara. I had to cut one of the legs out because the road is poorly surfaced, you need to apply for a permit (no more paper chasing for me!), and I was told you need to have a lot of water and a good puncture repair kit. Wow, that sounds like such an easygoing ride, where do I sign up? But it also meant I missed out on the best oasis (Siwa) and stopping over at El Alamein to pay tribute to the Desert Rats. Bit sad about that. Instead, rode out from Cairo (braving the blood sport of Cairo traffic again!) to the Bahariya oasis and then Dakhla, before swinging eat again to the Nile and Luxor.
It was a road through true proper desert with NOTHING around for hundreds of kilometers. Great riding for the most part. Very, very little other traffic (I was having culture shock almost after leaving Cairo traffic), though whenever heading east- west / west-east I was punished by terrific northerly winds, and the sand would blow hard across the road or even cover it in some places in small drifts. No wonder the Sahara is swallowing up Africa.
Wow. I have now lost both my gloves and blasts like these felt like my hands were being peppered by millions of intergalactic space particles moving at 10,000km/h. If my boots fall apart a few months from now, I could just skin my newly leathery hands to re-sole them. Sometimes a big gust would come along and it was almost as if someone threw a bucket of sand in my face from the roadside. The last ride through the desert to Luxor was the worst and I arrived with a nice sugar powder dusting of sand across my face.
This is the 'Black Desert' between Bahariya and Dakhla, which is a mix of sand and rock and rocky outcrops. The landscape is somewhat dusted with the blackest stone, basalt I think. Like the gods came along and scrapped the carbon from their burnt cosmic toast all over this land. It was a bit creepy and kind of evil looking I decided to not camp out in case there were monsters in this here desert of evil.
My favourite was a run down out of this higher elevated desert and the descent into the Dakhla oasis
depression, which is something like 200m under sea level. Because of its depressed level it is closer to a great underground aquifer that was perhaps an geologically ancient second branch of the Nile. After coming down the graveled descent, you pass through a great sea of sand with a ridge running off along the side you came from and then just sand and dunes as far as my eye could see to the other side. None of the pictures I took gave it due respect, probably because of the blinding sunlight and its vast expanse. Oh well. I thought it was pretty neat.
Probably the most incongruous thing I would regularly see were the desert 'bus stops'
Even if you did live out here, where would you buy your monthly pass?
The oasis were funny, each having its own 'gate' usually manned by police or army who each time reacted to my arrival as if I was going to burst through their barricades, even though I approached each time at a controlled 5km/h or so. After saying hello and that I am Canadian in Arabic at each encounter, they were convinced that I could speak Arabic and would attempt long conversations with me. Maybe about the weather? I'm not sure, but a few smiles later and much convoluted license plate noting (they could never seem to find it, even though it was plainly hung from the back where motorcycle plates are always hung?) I was allowed entry.
A different greeting party, however, manned this one.
I spent one day toodling around Dakhla oasis. Almost like Gilligan's island in the middle of the desert. Crops, and farmers, and palms around one corner, dunes and crags peeking around the next. Pretty laid back and rural place, most on donkeys and many in mud brick houses. There were a number of old (possible there even in Pharaonic times) fortified mud brick villages at strategic places, with narrow winding alleys that were often roofed to deter mounted assault by desert raiders.
This mud brick minaret of Nasser Al-Din in Al-Qasar is a thousand years old (though the mosque around it has been rebuilt). Geez.
Also, just a short jaunt out into the desert were the Mousawaka Tombs, with graves dating from 2000 year ago. They turned this crag into a giant dresser drawer of graves by digging in at each level.
This chappie showed me about
and took me to the Moommies. Yes, Mummies. Right there. If he wasn't around I could have reached in and stolen a fibula (or a tibia?) if I wanted. Amazing. There were others that were wrapped up, but the light was impossible for photos. They were really short! guess dehydration and all that. Quite amazing to be that close to mummies with no glass panel in-between. But then it all started to change in my mind when we passed another tomb and the guard said, look, leetle girl. And in the entrance was a 3 foot tall little girl. Yes, it all started feeling very CSI'sh after that, like I was at a crime scene.
After a few days out in the oasis, I headed back towards the Nile and for Luxor. If I was feeling a little worn out from travels, I did have one last reprieve to escape back to civilization
Paris - only 90kms away!! Well, I could just pop in to see Spencer and Sabine for a nice cup of coffee and some of those scrummy French cakes
So Luxor: Valley of the Kings, Nobles, Queens; Karnak; Luxor Temple. All still in the now Kodak disposable camera. Very impressive. And very hot. With faaaaar too many annoying touts and guides and small children clutching at you to buy something or just give them money. And it was Eid, the great big end of Ramadan holiday - I can't imagine how big a headache it would have been when it isn't a holiday.
So it seem this Monday I'll be sailing apparently on a barge with this crew of other overlanders sailing to Sudan. 3 days camping on a wooden platform in the world's largest man-made body of water. Scuse me, but where's the toilet..? Oh and now I hear there are actually crocodiles in them there waters too! Neato!
But I am extremely happy to have come across other overlanders. There's even a big overland company truck and driver making the crossing who's been doing this for years and will likely be full of route advice. Before arriving in Aswan, I was getting very apprehensive about tackling northern Sudan on my own. There's a very small margin of error on a bike. A car or truck can run into something or have a bit of a crash, and the occupants will be fine. One bad fall off the bike on a treacherous trail can mean the end of a trip. I will now gladly follow the others and let them test the track first! (and let them haul me out of the sand when needed too!)
All for now - I'll drop a line from Khartoum to let you know how it all went!!
lots of love,