“Son of the old moon-mountains African! Stream of the pyramid and crocodile! We call thee fruitful, and that very while a desert, fills our seeing's inward span.”
So at the end of February we set off for Athens and the ferry for Egypt, the Espresso Egito. It is a 2 day sail and we managed to get a cabin for 150 pounds. We took all our food and set up a little cafe on the deck, providing tea and coffee for passers by.
When I say Egypt was the real destination, it was the thought of Egypt that first inspired this adventure. It just sounded so exotic and certainly beyond my comfort zone, somewhere we had neither of us been before, but with an aura of mystery and great wonders to be found. Somewhere in the north of France, when we went to a bar one evening, Dudley was looking particularly morose. I was actually feeling quite chirpy and was most flabbergasted to hear him announce that he was not happy. The gist of the conversation was that he was frustrated we were not yet in Egypt. Shocked, I berated him for failing to appreciate the magic of the places we were traveling through, and questioned what speed he really thought we could cycle. So what if we were in rural France and not mystical Egypt, there was so much more to see. He calmed down and truly the journey and not the destination became the focus for both of us, but the lure of Egypt remained a central theme and lent sharp anticipation to our travels, driving us relentlessly south. Now we were finally on our way.
Our first taste of Egyptian bureaucracy was felt when the ship anchored off Alexandria. Here they forced everyone to change money for Egyptian pounds at a very low exchange.
We had to exchange LE 20 each for every day our visa was valid, and we had a one month visa. This was about 4 times our calculated budget. Egypt was in the grip of a dual financial system with a very active black market. Within the bank there were 2 rates, but if you wanted a receipt you had to take the lower rate, a mere LE 1.18 to the pound. Without a receipt the bank would give us 1.6, and the black market exchange rate was nearly LE 2. However, for the visa you need an official bank receipt. Also at exit from the country you needed receipts to prove you spent the required amount of money or they would not exchange any Egyptian currency back to another currency. Essentially blackmail. We were forced to exchange nearly all our money to meet these demands at the lowest rate, and effectively lost 50% liquidity. Only when this was accomplished would the boat dock.
We then had to go through the most bizarre border process where about 20 people had to check you through and look at your passport. We were irritated but also puzzled. We later discovered that they had a system which guaranteed every university graduate a job with the government. This meant that for any official department there were 10 people doing the job of 1. Instead of 1 check point you must go through 10. If you got irritated they delighted in sending you back to the beginning to start again. Job creation at its finest. A taste of things to come and the beginning of a love hate relationship with many Egyptian customs.
After this lengthy delay we spilled out onto the dock in Alexandria. It was a culture shock, the sharp light, the bustling crowds, jelabas and burkas, a world away from the familiarity of Europe. No camp sites were to be had in Alexandria, camping is not such a trend in Egypt, and we found ourselves in the Alexandria youth hostel, in separate rooms for men and women.
Kushari is one of the national dishes of Egypt and consists of a mix of rice, lentils, pasta, chickpeas and topped with chili tomato sauce. Small stores would sell just this, the glass shopfront would be a mound of this mixture, and you could buy a bowl scooped from the top. From the beginning we recognized the incubation potential of this treat but it was too tempting to refuse. The shine soon dimmed when Dudley had his first bout of diarrhea, Egyptian style. Still it was clear we would not starve.
Alexandria has some amazing sights, palaces and forts, temples and mosques so there was plenty to see and do. It also had the cosmopolitan feel of a large port. We got used to the the tastes and sights of the bustling market place and found our way around the fast food scene. We discovered that we could eat for the equivalent of 5 South African cents from the road side carts, and delicious food it was too.A paper cone full of fresh falafels or spiced livers or a big bowl of Kushari.
On the Road
Water from a passing truck
We set about stocking up for our first long haul trip to Cairo. This is through the delta but the road is still a desert landscape so we ditched almost everything non essential in favour of 17 L of water which Dudley balanced precariously on his handlebars and off we set. There is little option for B roads in Egypt. There is really only one road system down the Nile and it falls far short of expectations as national roads go. It is narrow with no shoulder and a whole country of traffic, heavy haulage, trucks, coaches, buses and cars with not a patient bone in their bodies.
As far as tourists on a bike were concerned we were just about invisible. The big trucks came so close we were buffeted by the hot slipstream and Dudley fought to keep the bike from leaving the road and heading into the sand. The tar road edges were frequently eroded and steep. I guess you could say the outcome was inevitable. At about 2.00 pm we were finally knocked off the road by the airstream and into soft sand and the front wheel buckled and that was that. The water weight on the front wheel probably did not help. Our shiny bike with new wheels would go no further.
The bent wheel. No fixing that.
We were in the desert in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight except a busy road. We had no choice, we tried to straighten the wheel so we could at least wheel the bike and we stood on the shoulder with our thumbs out.
Here was the first of many inconsistencies in Egypt. They pretty much forced us into a crash by being oblivious of other road users but as soon as they saw our plight the big trucks stopped and were solicitous and happy to give us, and the bike, a lift to Cairo. Mind you the driver was rather too familiar with his hands and my knees for my liking but I grinned and bore it. After all he had all my worldly possessions strapped on to his truck.
Truck drivers that rescued us
In sight of the pyramids he dropped us by the road with directions to a camp site some 8 km away. The sight of the pyramids took some of the sting out of our situation. What a colossal and mind blowing vision they are. Rising from the desert in perfect harmony with their surroundings. In the orange late afternoon light we were spellbound.
“ A beautiful thing is never perfect.”
We pushed the bike down sandy tracks and past stagnant canals until we found the campsite, a small green oasis in the desert which was to become our sanctuary for the next 3 months.
Cairo was bustling chaos, everywhere we went we were chased by children, tradesmen and just random people, outstretched hands, cries of “baksheesh”. The campsite was quite far out of town, half way to the pyramids at Giza, but we decided we would stay there for a while and venture into and around Cairo on the bike or bus to explore further. If we were exhausted by the chaos we could have a day to recuperate in camp. It was expensive but worth it, definitely cleaner than anything we could afford in Cairo.
It was a grassy site and mostly frequented by overland touring companies and self drive. The bike was a bit of a rare attraction, and a topic of conversation, and we chatted to our camp mates and planned various trips out and about. We loved the markets and spent many hours haggling and drinking mint tea. We had no money so we felt no pressure from the aggressive sales pitch.
In particular we loved the ancient designs of the Bedouin silver jewelry
We spent many days admiring and negotiating. We had time so we were able to beat them down to really good prices. We decided to invest in some of the heavier pieces. We could always sell it when we got home. This led to one of the best buys we ever made. Needless to say we were never able to bring ourselves to sell a single piece which begs the question as to how good an “investment” it really is if it will never be realized!
We boldly took new arrivals at camp out into Cairo as seasoned guides. The fact we were operating on the premise of see one, do one, teach one, but who were they to know! The dusty Egyptian museum became a familiar stamping ground. The exhibits were amazing once you blew the cobwebs off them. Major upgrades have since been made, but the elegant decay almost added to the charm.
Giza To Saqqara by Camel
A bargin is struck
One of our best trips involved hiring camels at the Giza pyramids for a day trip. We took along 2 Belgian camp mates and drove a hard bargain with the camel herder to take us through the desert to the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, approximately a 60km round trip. No one had informed us of the innate discomfort of riding a canal. The saddle is composed of strips of carpet thrown over a wooden frame with a pommel. The gait of a camel is curiously rocking and when it runs the punishment to your nether regions is brutal.
The step pyramid of Saqqara, the oldest pyramid in Egypt
We started off sedately but the trip to Saqqara took way longer than anticipated. We had a break to explore the pyramid, one of the oldest in Egypt, and its compound. We were fortunate to be allowed into the Serapeum of the Apis bull sarcophagi, rows of enormous mummified sacred bulls. It has since been closed because of concern about damage from the carbon dioxide in exhaled breath, so we were lucky to be there when we were.
Anyway as the afternoon waned we climbed aboard our camels for the trip back. Half way and with the sun setting the camel drivers wanted us to get off and get a taxi. We had paid for the whole trip, we were not going to pay for a taxi. They chased the camels into an excruciating run for the last hour in the dark. Not sure we did ourselves any favors then. Grumpy camels, grumpy tourists and grumpy camel drivers!
Still it was an amazing excursion, just for a while we could conjure up Laurence of Arabia and the salt caravans of the desert. When we tried to reproduce it with our kids 20 years later they had closed the desert route to tourists and took us through the slums of Cairo instead. Not even close!
On the way home
The Driver's Comments
I never thought for a moment the possibility of riding from Giza to Saqqara on a camel would not be allowed in the future, but that's what we found 20 years later. Of course the security issues in Egypt also changed with attacks on tourists and religious intolerance. We also found the The great bull sarcophagii and painted murals hidden away. We were lucky to have gone when the freedom of access and movement gave us such amazing experiences.