“Somewhere north of heaven, where eagles fear to fly,
where the sun burns hot as the devil's gate, the desert meets the sky”
Hitching a Ride
A few days into our stay in Cairo, 2 Toyota land-cruisers drove in. They were a couple running a desert tour company. They took small groups of people around the deserts of Egypt and Sudan as a type of adventure tourism. Ole was a big bluff blond Dane, the epitome of a Viking. He had a booming voice and supreme disregard for any obstacles. He was pretty handy with the car maintenance and generally inspired great trust, as long as he had not been drinking. Alcohol brought out an argumentative and potentially violent side. A big golden bear of a man, but don’t poke the bear.
He had a lot of traveling experience in Africa, but also had gone through life doing various odd jobs. His partner Angeli was a tiny petite blonde Dutch girl. They met when Ole was selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Suffice it to say she did not buy a vacuum but did end up in bed with Ole. She was married at the time, but she threw her hat over a windmill and joined him in the new touring venture. Their relationship was passionate, fiery and impulsive.
Anyway one day we went out to Cairo together for supper….
As the evening progressed it became clear that they were struggling with a problem. Angelis brother had just gotten married and was bringing his new wife for a trip, their wedding present from Angeli and Ole. Joss was a sweet but rather timid guy, a nerd if you like, ( a bird watcher actually…sorry guys!) and this sent Ole crazy. Angeli was afraid he would kill Joss before the end of the trip.
Anyway, as the alcohol flowed they hit on a plan. We would come with them and pay towards petrol, and anytime Ole looked like he was going to hit Joss we would jump in between. Angeli had noticed we had a calming effect on Ole. We had by this time already worked out that cycling in Egypt would be challenging, and we really really wanted to see the Red Sea, so with no hesitation we agreed to the plan and we all rolled back to camp to make preparations. The manager at the camp agreed to store our bike and we hauled our few belongings into Ole’s landcruiser and we were set. Joss and Anka arrived next day, I may add a lovely couple who did not bat an eyelid at the addition of 2 slightly dirty and completely unknown bikers to their honeymoon party, and we were off.
Into The Deserts
The Libyan Desert
This trip was truly one of the most magical and unusual of our lives. Ole’s knowledge of the desert was amazing. Much of the desert, especially the Sinai, was land mined after the Israeli war and the landscape dotted with broken tanks and signs warning no off road. This restriction was particularly aimed at non Egyptians, so no foreigners were allowed off road. The bedouins could be seen on camels and 4x4s zipping around wherever they wanted.
Well Ole was having none of this and off we set across golden expanses and down stony wadis. As long as he couldsee an old track of some sort he reckoned we were safe. Who knows, I can only say we were not blown up, and we travelled areas which were vast and empty and indescribably beautiful. Towering rock formations and seas of dunes. Camel trains and colorful Bedouin camps. We fell in love with the desert, a love affair which still exists to this day.
No GPS in those days so used local knowledge and maps
Our days took on a rhythm. We started the day with a bowl of garlic soup, made from boiling about 20 cloves of garlic in water. Ole and Angeli swore by this to keep off mosquitos, and in a small car, believe me, if one ate it then all must do so or suffer the consequences. I soon discovered that every body fluid became scented with garlic; breath, sweat, urine, farts. But providing you all partook then you were immune to feeling any distaste for the pungency of your travel neighbour. God help unwary passers by. Then we all lined up and Ole would dispense a slice of German salami, a great treat to our meat starved souls.
We cooked over dried camel dung. We wandered the desert looking at forgotten temples, quarries with half cut pillars, petrified forests and chatting to straggling bands of bedouins, sometimes sharing a cup of tea or a sweetmeat. They loved Angeli with her long blonde hair
Petrified forest in the middle of the desert
At night, although we had our tent, we usually just rolled out our mat on the sand and slept looking at the stars. And what stars they were! Even now, nearly 40 years later, I can remember the beautiful nights and some of the best sleep I have ever had.
Every morning there were chains of footprints around your head, scarab beetles and mice and one jumping rodent called a Jerboa, similar to our spring hare, with kangaroo back legs. I desperately wanted to see the Jerboa and stayed awake as long as I could, lying still in the night, but soon I would drift off and next morning it was clear they had had a party right by my ear. We would see the rare desert gazelles and scimitar horned oryx grazing on sparse vegetation.
The Arabian Desert
The view from the top of Mount Moses
There were many adventures. In the Sinai we travelled to Mount Moses, where Moses received the commandments, and to the monastery of St Catherines, the site of the burning bush. It is a hard steep climb up Mount Moses to the a small church and mosque on top, and we took our sleeping bags and stove and climbed up at dusk to sleep in the courtyard with a few like minded pilgrims.
The church and mosque at the top.
The views at sunset were incredible over the deep red and orange mountains. After a cold night we were woken by singing and a huge train of mainly German OAPs came gasping up the trail to worship at sunrise. We did wonder if we were going to have to do some CPR but all happily survived.
Christine at sunrise
The Monastery of St Catherines
St Catherines Monastery is located in the shadow of 3 mountains, Mount Horeb, Mount Moses and Mount Sinai
It is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, built around 550 AD. It is the site of the burning bush seen by Moses and the living bush on the grounds is said to be the actual bush seen by Moses. There is both a church and a mosque on the site and one of the oldest libraries with original manuscripts and works of art.
The bush, still going strong!
The Red Sea
We made it to the Red Sea and what a fantastic first sight it was, vast and blue framed by the sandstone desert. We ate shark in Hurgada and camped at Ras Mohammed and Sharm, as well as by the blue hole in Dahab. Bedouins came and sold us 4 lobsters for supper that they had tied to their camel.
We have since returned many times to dive the Red Sea and the change over 20 years is one of the most startling realities we have ever experienced. On this trip there were few buildings, a few broken down shacks and nomad camps. 20 years later there were 80 km of hotels. We hired snorkels and had our first dip in this underwater paradise. It wet our appetites for more.
The Blue Hole, Dahab
The Blue Hole is a cave in the coral with a collapsed roof leaving a deep hole. It connects with the sea at about 56 meters. You had to drive down the coast to the hole and it was rarely dived. Now it is one of the most sought after dive sites advertised and celebrated world wide. It is also the site of many deaths from trying to swim through the hole at 56 meters and becoming disorientated or trapped by the current. There is a dive called the Bells close by named from the noise made by the tanks clanking the rocks as you descend through a narrow rocky crevice.
Crayfishing Red Sea
Touts And Temples
We found many quarries and unnamed temples in the middle of nowhere, west of the Nile, deep in the Libyan desert. On one occasion a self appointed guide trailed around after me offering pieces of ancient pottery. When I showed no interest he disconcertingly started hacking off bits of ancient pyramid for me to take as souvenirs. Beautiful pink quartz. I tried to make him put them back.
Where ever you went, even in the most remote places, a little wizened Egyptian would appear and claim to be the custodian. I suspect this was mostly a position he invented in his imagination for the extraction of money from tourists. One time, at a temple, we saw a man fine an American for walking in a particular spot, and then take the wallet out of his bemused hands, and promptly empty it of all American currency for the entrance payment. Looked like a few hundred dollars to us. We just laughed and walked in free.
An old Roman quarry hidden in a wadi deep in the Libyan desert with nearly completed pillars of stone lying ready for transport.
Back to the Desert
After an amazing 3 weeks we found ourselves back in Cairo waving goodbye to Joss, Anka and Angeli, who was going home for a spell. I was so sad. I could not imagine how we could reach the places that had wormed their way into our hearts and souls so firmly, on the bike. Additionally we had seen Egyptian driving first hand and it was looking increasingly suicidal. The roads were littered with burnt out wrecks. They all knew how to use the horn but no one had mastered the brake.
We toyed with the idea of taking the train down the Nile and then a ferry, but within 1 day of our return Ole was back with another plan. He had a German guest coming alone for a 5 week trip. He did not like Germans. I know you had to ask what on earth he was doing as a tour guide if he had a problem with half the world and a volatile temper. He thought it would be way more fun if we came too. Well so did we and we signed up again with embarrassing enthusiasm.
However he also had a little admin problem so the trip may have been a sweetener to get our cooperation in a little law breaking. The permit for his cars was expiring and had to be renewed in Cairo. Unfortunately this process required the owners of the vehicles to present themselves at the Licencing Department. One car was registered in Ole’s name but the other was in the name of his German partner. Ole decided we could forge some documents so Dudley could impersonate the partner and get the papers. Easy!
They cleaned up and put on their best clothes and Dudley tried to comb his hair like a German and off they went. I sat in trepidation for the whole day until, as the sun went down, they came back with big smiles. They had gone through another 20 checkpoints as per the governmental job creation. Dudley nodded and smiled and tried to say nothing except “Ja” because he could not speak any German. Ole charmed and joked and cajoled and in the end no one really cared and the papers were issued. We were good to go.
“Already I have dropped back into the desert as if it were my own place. Silence and solitude all around me like an impenetrable veil. Sleep more profound than civilisation contrives. And then, the roadless desert, again.”
Franz flew in and we set out again for more Arabian nights in the Arabian sands. Franz was an older German guy, very upright, pedantic and conservative. Not exactly a barrel of laughs, but firmly outnumbered. It was with Franz that we had one of more bizarre adventures. We wanted to take a road across the Sinai to Dahab on the East coast. There is a single direct road across the Sinai. We drove through multiple army road blocks but they looked at our papers and waved us through. In the Sinai it was only a few months since the end of the Egypt Israeli war and Egypt was still defending its newly acquired territory so army road blocks were prolific.
The road to Dahab
About 150 km from our destination we were again flagged down by an army post. We slowed at the checkpoint expecting to be waved through, but on inspecting the papers the guard demanded to know what we were doing on a “secret” road. We were puzzled. What did he mean a secret road, it was on the map and all the army checkpoints had let us through. He crossly told us it became secret 2 hours ago and we were not allowed. We must turn north for the coast and he would put a policeman in the car to escort us. With that he promptly confiscated our cameras and passports. We argued this was a 1200 km detour to our destination, which was less than 200 km away, but there was no arguing with him. In leaped the policeman and we had to do as we were told.
We had a strong suspicion that El Arish was the home of our police official and he was just getting a free lift home. Pretty pissed off, Ole spent the next 400 km driving like a maniac on the dirt track while the policeman hung on for dear life, banging the dashboard with his fist and yelling stop every 5 minutes with his eyes tightly closed.
Burnt Out Tanks Sinai
We pulled into El Arish, on the Mediteranean coast, after dark and were taken to the police station to kick our heels, then to the army base and finally, at around midnight, to a backstreet hotel where we were lined up on wooden chairs facing a guy at a makeshift desk. He proceeded to spend an hour questioning us as to why we were on a secret road? (“it wasn’t secret when we set out”) what we were taking pictures of? (“tourist stuff”), did we take pictures of military shrapnel?. (“No”- which was a lie as I just shot Ole sitting on a burned out tank), why our maps were made in Israel? ( “the only people who made Sinai maps”). It seemed they suspected us of being Israeli spies.
Luckily for us they got tired of this inane and repetitive conversation and in the early hours of the morning they kicked us loose. I think Franz helped us there. No one could possibly suspect him of being an Israeli sympathiser!
Camping Arabian Desert
"The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention."
Sayeed and daughters
We were sorely fed up with Egyptians by now so we immediately turned our noses out of town to camp in the desert. It was not to be. As we passed an intersection headlights flicked on and a land rover followed us out. As soon as we tried to leave the road he flashed and pulled in front and informed us that foreigners are not allowed off road. It was 1.00 am and we were tired. Severely he told us we must follow him back into town. Now we were even more irritable.
He led us into a large compound which turned out to be his house. Here, bizarrely, he invited us in for tea and chats about the political scene. We had assumed he was law enforcement but it seems he was just a concerned citizen cruising the streets at midnight looking for errant foreigners. Maybe he got a tip-off from the police. He invited us to spend the night. He got on famously with Franz who identified with his anti Semitic position with an almost Nazi zeal. We were all just desperate for bed.
Daughters, Christine and Ole
I was billeted with his 3 teenage daughters where we all slept in one room and in one bed like kittens. Actually it was not that crowded as at least 2 of them were up and studying at their desks off and on, all night. The youngest, studying English, kept waking me up to translate words. I went with the flow. The boys were forced to enjoy robust political debate before they were released.
Next day we were graciously served breakfast and I was given a tour of the kitchens and taught how to make bread and clean toilets (at a distance and with a hose pipe apparently, no one wanted to touch the unclean!) while the boys entered the next round of debate over coffee. We finally managed to extract ourselves and left them waving in the courtyard with big smiles. You wanted to hate them but really it was like being mean to a bunch of minions. Irritating but too cute and friendly. It was just weird but they had actually treated us with amazing hospitality.
Newspaper article Manchester
Ole and Angeli
Angeli and coral at the Red Sea
So after 4 more weeks of soaking up the desert and communing with nature we found ourselves back in Cairo and it was time to say goodbye. This time Ole had a full complement of guests and no more room for itinerant hitchhikers. Still we were privileged to spend nearly 2 months meandering the deserts of Egypt with him, an experience we remember with deep delight even now.
We never saw Ole or Angeli again, although for many years we got a New Years phone call from Ole. Ole and Angeli did not stay together, I think the fire burnt too strong, and it sounded very like the alcohol finally got the better of him. I hope not, hopefully it was just New Year spirits. He was a magnificent tour guide and man of the desert but not cut out for suburban life. He would have fared better in an earlier era of exploration and daring do.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams... “
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry