Around the world by bike
Egypt & Sinai Desert
(2 332km - 46days - 27 December 2007 – 20 February 2008)
27-29 December - Wadi Halfa, Sudan – Aswan, Egypt (by ferry)
We were keen to get going as it was the day we were to purchase our ferry tickets, and get our police and other stamps to exit Sudan. Even with all the checking and stamps, no one said a word about our expired visas, and we couldn’t wait to board the ferry and get out of Sudan before anyone noticed. The ferry was an overnight one which departed at four a.m. Ernest was in luck 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 and after a day of sailing a speedboat came hurrying along, police jumped aboard, and our passports were nervously handed over. Fortunately, no one noticed the dates, and we were free to go. Phew!
With all the formalities done, one could relax and enjoy the beautiful sunset over the Aswan dam. The ferry from Wadi Halfa, Sudan arrived in Aswan, Egypt at around nine o’clock the following morning. We, however, only managed to place our feet on Egyptian soil at about eleven. The saying that, “Egypt was like a visit back in time”, appeared true in more ways than one.
Ernest and I cycled the short 20 kilometres into Aswan, and 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. What a culture shock Egypt turned out after a month in Sudan!
Aswan was an overly commercialised madhouse with busloads of tourists, large passenger liners lying 4-deep on the Nile, hotels, stalls, curio shops, and touts selling felucca rides. Feluccas were simple, traditional Egyptian sailboats, a popular means of transport on the Nile. We clung to each other while staring at the madness wide-eyed. Add to that aggressive haggling when buying anything from toilet paper to food was enough to send me scurrying to the safety of a room. My first day was mostly spent in-doors looking at the chaos through the window.
After three days of mostly eating and drinking; we were more accustomed to the craziness of Egypt 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 on the road and cycled the 116 kilometres to Edfu. The route was along a well-maintained tarmac road which ran next to the Nile and the landscape in stark contrast to Sudan with green crops of sugarcane, corn, rice, clover and even mint. The way led close to the palm-lined Nile with excellent views more or less the entire day.
In the process, we cycled past the unusual double temple of Kom Ombo constructed between 180-47 BC. It was also in this vicinity where more than three hundred crocodile mummies were discovered. The whole way felt like one endless village, and hardly ever did one get the feeling you were in the countryside, the exact opposite of Sudan. Halfway during the ride, police insisted on escorting us to Edfu where our arrival was announced with sirens blaring. The Egyptians can make a meal of about anything.
Edfu was known for its ancient Edfu Temple constructed between 237-257 BC and dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god. The Ancient Egyptians believed the temple was built on the site where the battle between the gods Horus and Seth took place. Arriving under police escort with flashing lights and wailing sirens, we ourselves 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’d been nine months since leaving home. Looking out the bedroom window at a view of the Temple of Horus, it dawned on me just how much my life had changed in this relatively short period.
The route north continued along the Nile and came with opportunities to escape police escorts by turning off onto smaller roads. It wasn’t that they didn’t notice us, but more a case if one didn’t pass in front of them, stopping us wasn’t in their job description. Luxor was reached in the dying moments of the day and having the impression the campsite was on the opposite side of the river, we hopped on 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 where a bed at the New Everest Hotel was home that night. I’m sure the name referred to the stairs one had to climb, not something I appreciated at that late hour.
Three days were spent in Luxor indulging in all the tourist attractions, including the Temple of Luxor, Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Luxor was rightly known as the biggest open-air museum in the world and said to contain a third of the world’s most important antiquities. That bit of information was such a mouthful, I had to read it twice before it sank in! Although 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 to be amongst the most beautiful in Egypt. It consisted of a complex, constructed approximately 1400 BCE, and is one of the best-preserved of all the 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 thought 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, it measured 1.5 kilometres by 0.8 kilometres. The Hypostyle Hall, at 16,459 square meters and featuring 134 columns, is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary, there 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 large amount of manpower, time and money in those days.
The Valley of the Kings didn’t disappoint either; the ancient Egyptians didn’t only build massive public monuments to their pharaohs but went to great lengths to create hidden underground mausoleums. The Valley of the Kings was such a place and famous for the tombs of Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramses II. While walking around and crawling into dusty tomes admiring what remained of these places (even with hordes of tourists), I still felt like an explorer.
3 January – Luxor – Qena – 70 km
On leaving Luxor for Qena, the route again came with numerous police roadblocks where convoy riding was required. We, however, ducked and dived through small roads and managed to avoid them all. On reaching Qena and after finding accommodation, food was next on the list which was surprisingly reasonably priced as Qena was out of the touristy area. Our staple of ful, or foul, and aysh, a brown broad bean dish eaten with a type of local pita bread, was inexpensive and could be found just about anywhere.
4 January – Qena – Roadside camp - 84 km
Qena was mostly known for its proximity to the ruins of Dendaralat, which wasn’t 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 it would be very windy due to my previous experience, but he was by nature a hard-headed guy and off we went. After about 84 kilometres, and on reaching a small village with a police checkpoint and a few shops, we called it quits as Ernest wasn’t feeling well. The tents were pitched off the main road which turned out a bit in the eye and a somewhat 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 with astonishing and dramatic scenery and colours. The wind picked up, and by the time the port town of Safaga was reached, the wind was nearly gale-force strength. With it being a windy area, both Safaga and the coast were popular destinations amongst kite and windsurfers, and we hunkered down in the nearest hotel, hoping the weather would improve by morning.
6-8 January – Safaga – Hurgada – 64 km
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and on leaving Safaga, the wind nearly blew me off the bike. On days like that, there wasn’t much one could do but battle on and, in the process, I lost my sense of humour somewhere between Safaga and Hurghada and didn’t find it again until turning in a westerly direction a few days later. The Red Sea coast was an unforgiving arid and windswept one, and the two “desert rats” were travelling into the prevailing wind, which, judging by the wind farms going ten to a dozen, was constant and strong.
At times like this all one could do was put your head down and concentrate on one pedal stroke at a time until reaching your destination. Hurghada was only 64 kilometres away but it took nearly the entire day to reach. Hurghada turned out somewhat of a nightmare, although a tiny fishing village until the 1980s, it by then stretched 40 kilometres along the ocean with thousands of tourist resorts. Ramped development by both Egyptians and foreign investors left the area with a multitude of unsightly structures. A budget room in the old part of town was more to our liking. Ernest was most definitely better as he finished off a rather large amount of Stellas.
There was little to do in Hurghada other than scuba-diving, and with the weather being cold and windy, all one could do was eat and drink. Ernest claimed he was still not feeling well, and we stayed an extra day, maybe he’d a case of the “wine-flu”.
9 January – Hurgada – Desert Camp – 52 km
The wind wasn’t as ferocious as the previous days and we managed 106 kilometres before setting up camp. Being winter, the sun set early and it was dark by six o’clock, making short cycling days, especially when leaving late.
10 January – Desert Camp -Ras Gharib – 52 km
The following day the route continued to Ras Gharib, an oil production town along the Red Sea coast. The wind was of gale-force strength, and although only 52 kilometres to the next town, I’d enough of the wind and sand and an inexpensive, clean and warm room lured me in.
11 January - Ras Gharib – Desert Camp -72 km
The following morning the panniers were packed with great reluctancy, and I suggested waiting out the weather, but Ernest wanted nothing of it. I’m not sure what his hurry was as we weren’t going anywhere.
I, subsequently, found this was a typical mindset amongst cycle tourers early on in their journey. Many cycle tourers are at first destination-oriented and time and distance all-important, leaving little time to sightsee and explore. That said, everyone cycles in their own way; some people go slow, exploring and experiencing new cultures, food and sights, others go fast and challenge themselves. For Ernest, it was still very much about the latter. These are small differences which, if not discussed beforehand, can ruin a cycling partnership.
Seventy-two kilometres were all that could be managed and, at the end of the day, we thought a large dune could give shelter from the wind. The dune, however, 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. Ernest, eventually, managed to light the stove for supper which, as expected, had a generous sprinkling of sand. Chewing our grainy meal, I was grateful we had something to eat, and when darkness fell, we crawled into our sandy beds.
From our sandy home, it turned out only approximately 38 kilometres to Zaafarana, which wasn’t really a village, but more a truck stop. I couldn’t believe the wind was even stronger than the previous days. I honestly didn’t think it possible.
I complained nonstop. Ernest never said a word, only put his head down and pedalled on with me following in his wake swearing to the wind (I don’t think he even heard me)
I later read somewhere 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 up with the Tour D’Afrique riders heading in the opposite direction and flying down the road with a tailwind. Wimpy, Errol and Thor, from my 2005 tour were still with them, and it was super awesome seeing them. The other surprise was, as soon as the road reached Sukhna, it turned onto the new highway heading west and, therefore, came with a tailwind.
Grinning from ear to ear we continued a few more kilometres before pitching the tents off the road, 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 (I was desperate).
14-20 January – Desert Camp – Cairo – 130 km
The next morning, the wind was still in our favour and thought I should be named the next Modjadji. Packing up was at the speed of light before it had time to 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 on a bicycle. It took ducking and diving the horrendous traffic before miraculously reaching downtown.
Being already late, the first budget hotel spotted had to do and after a quick shower, we headed to a local joint for beer, 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 without any luck. With that option out the way, the next challenge was extending our Egyptian visas, an arduous task, and after many filling in of 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 where an entire morning was spent wandering about. The museum was mind-boggling, and 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 quite amazing what was thought necessary in the afterlife. Then, back to our favourite drinking hole where beer was cheap and accompanied by a plate of hot fuul and salad.
21 January - Cairo - Desert Camp – 122 km
Having itchy feet, we moved along and only returned later to collect the visa extensions. Getting out of Cairo took the best part of two hours, but our chosen route spat us out on a toll road which had a good shoulder, making comfortable and effortless cycling. The way headed north towards Alexandria and after about 120 kilometres, camp was set up by the roadside in the vicinity of an unknown town.
22 January - Desert Cam - Amriah – 97 km
To my surprise, it started raining during the night and I could hardly believe it ever rained in that part of the world. On second thoughts, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as, by then, our route was fast approaching the Mediterranean. The way north led past farmlands and a multitude of pigeon lofts, as grilled pigeon was a local speciality which could be found on most menus.
23-25 January - Amriah - Alexandria – 42 km
The short distance to Alexandria resulted in a leisurely start, and soon the road reached 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, however, no sign of it except a few terracotta lamps in the local museum. In its heyday, Alexandria was famous for its Great Library, considered the archive of ancient knowledge. Again, there was no sign of its past grandeur, and it appeared replaced with traffic more chaotic than in Cairo and near impossible to cross a road on foot and even more difficult by bike. The city did, however, sport 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), we repacked our bags, read books and watched the same movies over and over.
By that time, our visa extensions were ready, and we hopped on the express train to Cairo and were back the same evening (the train covered the 250+ kilometres in under three hours).
1 February - Alexandria - Baltim – 140 km
Finally, the stormy weather cleared, and we could be on our way. The coastal road led 140 kilometres east in the direction of Port Said, which was flat and came with a tailwind. I knew it had to happen at some point. In the process, the route passed over the Nile delta where it drained into the Mediterranean, an unimpressive sight for such a mighty river, consisting mostly of farmlands along canals. Tailwind-assisted Baltim was reached in good time, predominantly a holiday resort in summer, but then deserted with not a soul in sight. The digs found were dusty and one could tell it hadn’t been used recently.
2-4 February - Baltim - Port Said – 140 km
The next day, 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 sight by anyone’s standards. Ernest had always been 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
Leaving Port Said was on a beautiful sunny day and cycling easy as there was still a slight breeze from behind. Ismailia made a good midway stop en route to the town of Suez.
The interesting thing about Ismailia was that it was established with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869 and named after Khedive Ismail, the founder of the canal. The city was initially built to house European engineers and labourers who worked on the canal, and till this day Ismailia has a European atmosphere with French architecture.
6-7 February - Ismailia - Suez – 115 km
Leaving Ismailia early wasn’t difficult as the room must have been one of the filthiest in Egypt, and we were on the road before nine o’clock. The streets were dead quiet as, as typical of a desert country, the Egyptians slept late, and most business was done after sunset. Cycling along the canal sounded a great idea but wasn’t possible due to police roadblocks. There was no other option but to head to the seaport town of Suez situated at the mouth of the Suez Canal along the main road. Again, a few days were spent watching in awe as the large ships and tankers moved through the narrow canal.
More impressive than the modern-day channel was the fact that in the 7th century AD, a canal was dug linking the Red Sea with the Nile. This little-known fact blew my mind.
8 February - Suez - Desert Camp – 113 km
We left Suez via a tunnel that ran underneath the canal. I later discovered most foreigners didn’t realise Africa was connected to Europe and the Middle East. In fact, I thought the tunnel underneath the Suez Canal no more than a subway.
The Sinai coast was uniquely beautiful and even more so with a tailwind. The most amazing part was on looking back, one could still see the huge ships moving along the canal, but not the channel, making it appear as if sailing through the desert—an extraordinary sight. Most of the day was cycling through desert terrain and the road dotted with farms where olives and tamarinds were grown. The area appeared mostly inhabited by Sinai Bedouins who lived in small settlements throughout the region.
That night camping was a couple of kilometres off the road past the village of Ras Sedr.
9 February - Desert Camp - Desert Camp – 130 km
Spectacular desert mountain landscapes greeted us as we pedalled along, stopping ever so often for a cup of tea. Eventually, the road left the ocean and turned inland, soon reaching the turnoff to St Catherine. The most interesting was that 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, as 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 located 1,570 metres above sea level, and the 106 kilometres there was about all uphill. We hardly noticed as the landscape was so unusual with the mountains changing colour from white, red, blue, black and purple. En route to St Catherine, the route led past Ferrin Oasis, Sinai’s largest and widest wadi with (as can be expected of an Oasis) plenty of palm trees. St Catherine, situated at the foot of biblical Mt Sinai, was only reached after sunset.
Being winter and located at altitude, the weather was understandably freezing by the time we pulled into Fox Camp, and tents pitched in the greatest of hurry. Ernest made food, while I remained curled up in the sleeping bag.
The next day there was no getting out of bed before the sun warmed the air, and 9h30 before we surfaced. The day was spent lazing around, only leaving camp once to visit the nearby St Catherine’s Monastery constructed between 527–565 AD. The village of Saint Catherine has an old and fascinating history, important to all three major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). It is 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 most fascinating, and that evening we joined the other travellers in a large Bedouin tent where a fire was lit, and where it turned out surprisingly warm inside.
The following morning, it was midday before we’d defrosted and started up Mt Sinai. A beautiful walk up the mountain with 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 all 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 with ice on the tent indicated time to seek warmer weather. Once again, it was midday before getting underway and onto the hilly road leading to the east coast. With our late start we wild camped along the way, only reaching Dahab the following day.
14-18 February – Desert Camp – Dahab – 45 km
Dahab was a smallish town on the Gulf of Aqaba and much warmer than the mountainous interior of Sinai. Years ago, pleasant Dahab was a small Bedouin village, but today it is a major (but still low-key) diving destination. It had a real holiday/hippie/Goa feel with a turquoise sea, palm trees, waterside restaurants, and plenty of budget accommodation, just the thing needed. An abode practically on the beach was our choice 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 lazing about easy, no wonder so many got stuck there. The wind picked up, signalling time to move along. We did precisely that and headed to Nuweiba along a hilly and windy route. The wind made a late arrival and Dolphin Camp was an excellent choice, located right on the beach. Nuweiba was as close to paradise as one could wish and we spent a few days watching the sunrise over the Hijaz mountain range of Saudi Arabia and the Aqaba Gulf, a truly spectacular sight.
From Nuweiba, there were various options: one could cycle via Israel and Lebanon or take the ferry to Jordan and cycle via Syria to Turkey. With it being difficult or near impossible to get into Syria with an Israeli stamp in the passport, the uncomplicated ferry crossing from Nuweiba to Jordan was a no-brainer. I was sure boats departed from Taba to Aqaba, which would have been much cheaper, but were unable to confirm its existence. The ferry only departed after 5 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., resulting in arriving in Jordan after dark, leaving us with about an hour’s cycling at night before reaching the city centre.