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Egypt & Sinai Desert

 

(2 332km -  46days)

 

27/12/ 2007 – 20/2/2008)

 

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27 December - Wadi Halfa, Sudan – Aswan, Egypt (by ferry)

We were keen to get going as this was the day we purchased our ferry tickets and got police stamps to exit Sudan. Even after all the checking and stamps, no one said a word about our expired visas. We couldn’t wait to board the ferry and get out of Sudan before anyone noticed. The ferry was an overnight one that departed at four a.m. Ernest was lucky as I splashed out and took a cabin instead of sleeping on the deck.

 

The border between the two countries ran somewhere through the middle of the lake. Following a day of sailing, a speedboat came hurrying along, police jumped aboard, and our passports were nervously handed over. Mercifully, no one noticed the dates, and we were free to go. Phew!

 

Once all the formalities were done, one could unwind and enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Aswan dam.

 

The ferry from Wadi Halfa, Sudan arrived in Aswan, Egypt around nine o’clock the following morning. We, nevertheless, only managed to place our feet upon Egyptian soil at about eleven. The saying, “Egypt was like a visit back in time”, seemed true in more ways than one.

 

Ernest and I cycled the short 20 kilometres into Aswan. The first thing on our minds wasn’t the history or the magnificent monuments and sand-covered tombs, but finding a hotel, a hot shower and a beer.

 

Egypt came as a culture shock after spending a month in Sudan. Aswan was an overly commercialised madhouse with busloads of tourists and substantial passenger liners laying four-deep on the Nile. The streets were jam-packed with hotels, stalls, curio shops, and touts selling felucca rides. Feluccas are simple, traditional Egyptian sailboats, a popular means of transport upon the Nile. We clung to each other, staring wide-eyed at the madness. The aggressive haggling when buying anything from toilet paper to water was enough to send me scurrying for the safety of my room. My first day was thus largely spent indoors observing the chaos through the window.

 

After three days of mainly eating and drinking, we were more accustomed to Egypt’s craziness and felt brave enough to face the Egyptians head-on.

 

30 December – Aswan – Edfu – 116 km

Three days and many Stellas (the local beer) later, we finally got underway and biked the 116 kilometres to Edfu. The route was a well-maintained tarmac road next to the Nile. In stark contrast to Sudan, the landscape featured green crops of sugarcane, corn, rice, clover, and even mint. Our path led close to the palm-lined Nile, sporting excellent views more or less the entire day.

 

In the process, we cycled past the rare double temple of Kom Ombo, constructed between 180-47 BC. It was further in this vicinity where more than three hundred crocodile mummies were discovered. The whole way felt like one endless village, and barely ever did one get the feeling you were in the countryside, the exact opposite of Sudan. Halfway through the ride, police insisted upon escorting us to Edfu, where our arrival was announced by sirens blaring. The Egyptians can make a meal of practically anything.

 

Edfu was known for its ancient Edfu Temple constructed between 237-257 BC and dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god. Ancient Egyptians believed the temple was built where the battle between Horus and Seth took place. So, arriving under police escort with flashing lights and sirens wailing, we felt like two Egyptian gods.

 

31 December – 2 January 2008 - Edfu - Luxor – 122 km

The last day of 2007 arrived, and I couldn’t believe it had been nine months since leaving home. Looking out of the bedroom window at a view of the Temple of Horus, I realised how much my life had changed in this relatively short period, not something I was sorry about.

The way north continued along the Nile with opportunities to escape police escorts by following smaller paths. It wasn’t that the police didn’t notice us, but more a case that if we didn’t pass in front of them, stopping us wasn’t in their job description.

 

Finally, Luxor was reached in the dying moments of the day. Under the impression the campsite was on the opposite side of the river, we hopped onto a ferry to the West Bank. There was, however, no campsite and another ferry boat ride (this time a public ferry at a fraction of the cost) took us back to where a bed at the New Everest Hotel became home for the night. I’m sure the name referred to the stairs one had to climb, not something I appreciated at such a late hour.

 

Three days were spent in Luxor, indulging in all the tourist attractions, including the Temple of Luxor, the Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Luxor was rightly known as the biggest open-air museum globally and contained a third of the world’s most important antiquities. That bit of information was such a mouthful. I read it twice before the words sank in! Unfortunately, even though three days were spent in the area, it would take substantially longer to visit everything Luxor had to offer.

 

I still claim the Temple of Luxor is among the most beautiful in Egypt. It consisted of a complex constructed approximately 1400 BCE and is one of the best-preserved ancient monuments in Egypt. Construction of the temple was started by the pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-52 BC) and was completed by Tutankhamen (1336-27 BC) and Horemheb (1323-1295 BC) and then added to by Rameses II (1279-13 BC). I only mention this as I considered it a seriously long time ago.

 

The Karnak Temple was equally impressive and dated to around 2055 BC-100 AD. Being the largest religious building ever constructed, the structure measured 1.5 kilometres by 0.8 kilometres. The Hypostyle Hall, at 16,459 square metres and featuring 134 columns, is still the biggest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary were several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake measuring 129 metres by 77 metres. One couldn’t help but stand in awe of these magnificent structures. The Egyptians sure had a vast workforce, time and money in those days.

 

The Valley of the Kings didn’t disappoint either. The ancient Egyptians didn’t just build vast public monuments for their pharaohs but went to great lengths to create hidden underground mausoleums. The Valley of the Kings was such a place and was made famous by the discovery of the tombs of Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramses II. Walking around and crawling into dusty tomes admiring what remained of these places (even in the presence of hordes of tourists), made me feel like an explorer.

 

3 January – Luxor – Qena – 70 km

En route to Qena, the road again was dotted by numerous police roadblocks requiring convoy riding. We, nonetheless, ducked and dived along minor tracks and managed to avoid all the police blocks.

 

Upon arriving at Qena and finding accommodation, food was next on the list and surprisingly reasonably priced as Qena was out of the tourist area. Our staple of ful, or foul, and aish, a brown broad bean dish eaten accompanied by a type of pita bread, was inexpensive and could be found almost anywhere.

 

4 January – Qena – Roadside camp - 84 km

 

Qena was primarily known for its proximity to the ruins of Dendaralat, not visited as we were all ruined out by then. From Qena, Ernest insisted on cycling to Cairo via the Red Sea Coast, even though I surmised the coast would be extremely windy due to my previous experience. He was, however, by nature a hard-headed guy and we made our way towards the coast.

 

After nearly 84 kilometres, and upon reaching a settlement sporting a police checkpoint and a few shops, we called it quits as Ernest was unwell. The tents were pitched off the main road, which turned out a tad in the eye and a noisy affair, to say the least.

 

5 January - Roadside camp – Safaga – 84 km

The next day was another 84 kilometres to Safaga through what was known as the Eastern Desert or the Arabian Desert. The area is a mountain desert and features astonishing and dramatic scenery and colours. The day started promising but the wind picked up, and by the time the port town of Safaga came into view, the wind was close to gale force. Being a windy area, both Safaga and the coast were popular destinations amongst kite- and windsurfers. We hunkered down in the nearest hotel, hoping the weather would improve by morning.

 

6-8 January – Safaga – Hurghada – 64 km

Sadly, the weather didn’t improve and biking out of Safaga, the wind virtually blew me off the bike. On such days, there wasn’t a great deal one could do but battle onward. In the process, I lost my sense of humour somewhere between Safaga and Hurghada. I didn’t regain it until turning in a westerly direction a few days later. The Red Sea coast was unforgivingly arid and windswept. The two “desert rats” were travelling into the prevailing wind, a constant and intense wind, judging by the wind farms going ten to a dozen.

 

At times like this all one could do was put your head down and concentrate on one pedal stroke at a time until arriving at your destination. Hurghada was barely 64 kilometres away but took practically the entire day to reach.

 

Hurghada turned out a nightmare, albeit a tiny fishing village until the 1980s. It, by then, stretched 40 kilometres along the ocean and sported thousands of tourist resorts. Ramped development by both Egyptians and foreign investors left the area dominated by a multitude of unsightly structures. A budget room in the old town was more to our liking. Ernest was definitely better as he finished off a substantial amount of Stellas.

 

Hurghada offered little more than scuba diving and, as the weather was cold and windy, all one could do was eat and drink. Ernest claimed he still wasn’t feeling well, and we stayed an extra day. Maybe he had a case of the “wine flu”.

 

9 January – Hurghada – Desert Camp – 52 km

The wind wasn’t as ferocious as the previous days and we managed 106 kilometres before setting up camp. But, being winter, it became dark by six o’clock, making for short cycling days, especially when setting out late.

 

10 January – Desert Camp - Ras Gharib – 52 km

The route took us to Ras Gharib, an oil production town along the Red Sea coast. Unfortunately, the day was again marred by a gale-force wind. Although a mere 52 kilometres to the next town, it was considerably further than what I cared to go in such conditions. Moreover, I weakened at the thought of a clean and warm room.

 

11 January - Ras Gharib – Desert Camp - 72 km

The following morning the panniers were packed reluctantly. I suggested waiting out the weather, but Ernest wanted nothing of it. I’m unsure what his hurry was as we weren’t going anywhere.

 

I, subsequently, discovered this was a typical mindset amongst cycle tourers early in their journey. Many bicycle tourers are first destination-minded, and time and distance are all-important, allowing little time to sightsee and explore. That said, everyone cycles in their own way; some go slow, exploring and experiencing new cultures, food and sights, while others go fast and challenge themselves. For Ernest, it was very much about the latter. These are minor differences that, if not discussed beforehand, can ruin a cycling partnership.

 

Seventy-two kilometres were all we could manage and towards the end of the day we imagined a huge dune could provide shelter from the howling wind. However, the dune did little to stop the wind and instead created a whirling effect and in no time at all, the tents, bikes and sleeping bags were covered in sand. Eventually, Ernest managed to light the stove and as could be expected, the food came with a generous sprinkling of sand. Chewing our grainy meal, I was grateful we’d something to eat and when darkness fell, we crawled into our sandy beds.

 

 

12 January – Desert Camp – Zaafarana – 40 km

From our sandy home, the distance was a meagre 38 kilometres to Zaafarana, more a truck stop than a village. I couldn’t believe the wind was even stronger on this day. I honestly didn’t think it was possible.

 

I complained nonstop. Ernest never said a word, only put his head down and grinded into the unforgiving conditions - me following in his wake, swearing to the wind.

 

I read the wind farms of Zaafarana and El-Tur were the windiest stations in Egypt. I surmised something like that!

 

13 January – Zaafarana – Desert Camp – 84 km

 

I was long-lipped getting on the bike, but the day held a surprise in meeting the Tour D’Afrique riders heading in the opposite direction and flying south powered by a tailwind. Wimpy, Errol and Thor, from my 2005 tour, were still with the tour, and it was super awesome seeing them. As soon as the road reached Sukhna, a surprise awaited. The Cairo road turned onto the new highway heading west and thus brought a tailwind.

 

Grinning from ear to ear we proceeded a few more kilometres before pitching the tents, hoping the wind direction wouldn’t change during the night. That night, I made sure to toast the wind and performed a little wind dance.

 

14-20 January – Desert Camp – Cairo – 130 km

The breeze was still in our favour the next morning, and I thought I should be named the next Modjadji. Packing up was at the speed of light before the breeze could change direction.

 

Cairo was reached after 130 kilometres and in rush hour traffic. No one wants to be in Cairo with its 9.5 million inhabitants in rush hour traffic, especially not by bicycle. It took ducking and diving through the horrendous traffic before miraculously arriving downtown.

 

Being already late, the first budget hotel spotted had to do. So, following a quick shower, we took off to a popular beer joint, which Ernest rightly deserved on reaching one of his primary goals. Still, I didn’t think his celebrations would last an entire week, but that’s Ernie!

 

Our days were spent trying to obtain visas to Europe, but it was a waste of time as one had to apply in your home country. The next challenge was extending our Egyptian visas, an arduous task. Finally, after filling in many forms and being shunted from office to office, we were informed the process took ten days. Phew.

 

The next few days were spent visiting Cairo’s well-known sights, of which there were plenty. Our exploring brought us to the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Stepped Pyramid south of Cairo, as well as the well-known Bent and Red Pyramids.

 

As, in my mind, no one could leave Cairo without visiting the Cairo Museum, I dragged a very reluctant Ernest to the museum. The museum was mind-boggling, and it was best to hire a guide. One could only stare in amazement at the items on display, from the famous Rosetta Stone to the items recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb. It’s pretty amazing what was deemed necessary in the afterlife.

 

Then, back to our favourite drinking hole where beer was cheap and accompanied by a plate of hot ful and salad.

 

21 January - Cairo - Desert Camp – 122 km

Having itchy feet, we moved along and returned later to collect the visa extensions. Getting out of Cairo took the best part of two hours. Still, our chosen route spat us out along a toll road, making for comfortable and effortless biking. The way headed north towards Alexandria and after about 120 kilometres camp was set up by the roadside.

 

22 January - Desert Camp - Amriah – 97 km

To my surprise, it started raining during the night and I could hardly believe it ever rained in the desert. Upon second thoughts, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as our route was fast approaching the Mediterranean. The way north continued past farmlands and many pigeon lofts, as grilled pigeon was a speciality found on nearly all menus.

 

23-31 January - Amriah - Alexandria – 42 km

The short distance to Alexandria resulted in a leisurely start, and we soon arrived at the Mediterranean coast. Alexandria was a vast and ancient city, formerly home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a 120-metre-high lighthouse, built by Alexander the Great. There was, nevertheless, no sign of it except a few terracotta lamps in the museum. Alexandria was famous for its Great Library, considered the archive of ancient knowledge in its heyday. But, once again, no sign of its past grandeur remained and appeared replaced by traffic more chaotic than in Cairo. It was scarcely possible to cross a street on foot and even more difficult by bicycle. Nonetheless, the city sported a fancy modern library, incorporating both the old and the modern in its design.

 

A vicious storm picked up, and the wind blew at over 30 miles per hour, accompanied by horizontal rain. Ernest and I stayed put and waited out the storm. Day after day, the storm continued without any sign of abating. We cleaned and oiled our bikes (let me rephrase that: Ernest cleaned and oiled the bikes), repacked our bags, read books and watched the same movies repeatedly.

 

Our visa extensions were ready by then. So, we hopped on the express train to Cairo and returned that evening (the train covered 250+ kilometres in under three hours).

 

1 February - Alexandria - Baltim – 140 km

Finally, the stormy weather cleared, and we could resume our journey. The coastal route led 140 kilometres east in Port Said’s direction, along a flat road with a tailwind.

 

I knew it had to happen at some point. In the process, the route passed over the Nile delta, where the river drained into the Mediterranean, an unimpressive place for such a mighty river, consisting predominantly of farmlands along canals.

 

Tailwind-assisted Baltim was reached in good time, primarily a holiday resort in summer, but deserted in winter, without a soul in sight. The digs discovered were dusty and one could tell the room hadn’t been used recently.

 

 

2 February - Baltim - Port Said – 140 km

The next morning, the weather was mild and the breeze still in our favour and we gunned it to Port Said.

 

Port Said was the place one could stroll along the Cornice to view giant cargo ships and tankers move through the Suez Canal, an impressive scene by anyone’s standards. Ernest was fascinated by ships and staying another day to eye these giant ships going in and out of the canal came naturally.

 

5 February - Port Said - Ismailia - 87 km

Departing Port Said was on a beautiful sunny day, and biking was pleasurable as we picked up a slight breeze from behind.

 

Ismailia made an excellent midway stop en route to Suez. Ismailia was established while building the Suez Canal in 1869 and named after Khedive Ismail, the founder of the canal. The city was initially created to house European engineers and labourers who worked on the channel. To this day, Ismailia has a European atmosphere and French architecture.

 

6-7 February - Ismailia - Suez – 115 km

Getting away early wasn’t difficult as the room must’ve been one of the filthiest in Egypt, and we were on our way before nine o’clock. The streets were dead quiet as, typical of a desert country, the Egyptians slept late. Nearly all business was done after sunset.

 

Biking along the canal sounded like a great idea but wasn’t possible due to police roadblocks. No other option remained but to head to Suez’s seaport town at the mouth of the Suez Canal along the main road. A few days were spent watching in awe as the massive ships and tankers moved through the narrow canal.

 

More impressive than the modern-day channel was a canal dug linking the Red Sea and the Nile way back in the 7th century AD. This little-known fact blew my mind.

 

8 February - Suez - Desert Camp – 113 km

Departing Suez was via a tunnel that ran underneath the canal. I subsequently discovered most foreigners didn’t realise Africa was connected to Europe and the Middle East. In fact, I considered the tunnel underneath the Suez Canal more of a subway.

 

The Sinai coast was uniquely beautiful and even more so when powered by the wind. Looking back, the unique thing was that one could see huge ships moving along the canal, but not the channel, resembling ships sailing through the desert—an extraordinary view.

 

A great deal of the day was biking through desert terrain dotted by farms cultivating olives and tamarinds. The area appeared predominantly inhabited by Sinai Bedouins who lived in settlements throughout the region.

 

By evening, camping was a couple of kilometres past Ras Sedr.

 

9 February - Desert Camp - Desert Camp – 130 km

Spectacular desert mountain landscapes greeted us as we pedalled along, stopping ever so often to enjoy a cup of tea. Eventually, the route left the ocean and turned inland, soon reaching the turnoff to St Catherine.

 

Interestingly, Bedouins still lived in the area and wouldn’t be offended if one sought shelter with them. This was, after all, the Sinai Desert. They were generally honoured to offer hospitality to travellers. If you do, don’t overstay your welcome. Bedouins believe a reasonable stay is three days. The first day is for greeting, the second day for eating, and the third day for speaking.

 

10-12 February – Desert camp – Saint Catherine – 106 km

St Catherine is situated 1,570 metres above sea level, and the 106 kilometres were almost all uphill. We barely noticed as the landscape was unique, and the mountains changed colour from white, red, blue, black and purple.

 

En route, the way led past Ferrin Oasis, Sinai’s largest and broadest wadi covered by plenty of palm trees. The uphill ride made reaching St Catherine, located at the foot of biblical Mt Sinai, long beyond sunset.

 

Being winter and at altitude, the weather was understandably freezing by the time we pulled into Fox Camp, and tents were pitched in a tremendous hurry. Ernest made food, while I remained curled up in the sleeping bag.

 

There was no getting out of bed the next day before the sun warmed the air, and it was 9h30 before we surfaced. Instead, the day was spent lazing around, solely leaving camp to visit nearby St Catherine’s Monastery, constructed between 527–565 AD. Saint Catherine has an old and fascinating history, important to all three major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). It’s rumoured to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments as well as the site the Prophet Mohamad wrote about in his Letter to the Monks.

 

Fox Camp was fascinating, and by evening, we joined the other travellers in a massive Bedouin tent where a fire was lit and it turned out surprisingly warm inside.

 

The following morning, we didn’t defrost until midday and thus late when we started up Mt Sinai. The walk up the mountain was beautiful, featuring stunning scenery and views of the surrounding mountains. At the summit was a mosque, still used by Muslims, as well as a Greek Orthodox chapel. After exploring, we hurried down the mountain to join the others in the tent already warmed by the fire.

 

13 February – St Kathrine’s – Desert Camp – 91 km

Waking to ice on the tent indicated it time to seek warmer weather. Once again, it was midday before getting underway and onto the east coast’s hilly road. Our late start made for wild camping along the way, only reaching Dahab the following day.

 

14-18 February – Desert Camp – Dahab – 45 km

Dahab was a smallish town along the Gulf of Aqaba and considerably warmer than the mountainous interior of Sinai. Years ago, pleasant Dahab was a Bedouin community, but today it’s a major (but still low-key) diving destination. It had a real holiday/hippie/Goa feel featuring a turquoise sea, palm trees, waterside restaurants, and plenty of budget accommodation, just the thing we needed. Our choice was an abode practically on the beach, and the upstairs bar with its happy hour made it a perfect spot. The warmer weather, snorkelling, an abundance of books and good food made us linger.

 

19 February – Dahab – Nuweiba – 82 km

 

Laid-back Dahab made kicking back easy. No wonder many got stuck there. A breeze picked up, signalling it time to move along. We did precisely that and set out to Nuweiba along a hilly and windy section.

 

The wind made for a late arrival in Nuweiba and Dolphin Camp was an excellent choice, located right on the seafront. Nuweiba was as close to paradise as one could wish. A few days were spent watching the sunrise over the Hijaz Mountain range of Saudi Arabia and the Aqaba Gulf, a truly spectacular sight.

 

 

 

Nuweiba, Egypt – Aqaba, Jordan

From Nuweiba, one could bike via Israel and Lebanon or take the ferry to Jordan and cycle via Syria to Turkey. Being difficult or near impossible to get into Syria having an Israeli stamp in the passport, the uncomplicated ferry crossing from Nuweiba to Jordan was a no-brainer.

 

I was sure a boat sailed from Taba to Aqaba, which would’ve been significantly cheaper, but I could not confirm its existence. Moreover, the ferry departed after 5 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., resulting in us reaching Jordan after dark. Our late arrival further meant an hour’s riding at night before getting to the city centre.

 

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