14 October, 2006

Derring-do in the desert 6117miles

It had stopped raining and was sunny and dry so I headed East. I was getting a bit tired of all the police checkpoints "Hello, how are you? What is your nationality? What is your name? Where are you going?" You tend to forget things were like this in Europe until fairly recently. Also I got over-charged in the next hotel the following evening. I decided to get as far as I could. The Libyan 'scenery' was non-existent in the north. Just miles of horizon and rubbish strewn everywhere. Plastic bags and bottles as far as the eye can see. I took the short cut towards Tobruk. There's nothing on this road (except one petrol station) for 400km/250miles. A sandstorm threatened and just caught me for a mile or two before the road turned away from it and I managed to outrun it at 80mph! A wee neckerchief I'd blagged in Lithuania (literally!) saved my skin! [Look closely at the photo and you'll see the approaching dust cloud.]

35km (and 1 mile) south west of Tobruk there's a track leading off to the north. It was getting dark and this looked like the last opportunity I might get to camp in the desert. I took it. The gloaming all around, nobody saw me take the track and I got far enough away from the road so that I'd look like a non-descript blob of darkness in the sand. Got the stove going and had a passable meal followed by tasty coffee. All excellent. Sunset, moon rose. The best 360degree star-o-rama I've seen since sailing to the Scilly Isles overnight four years ago. Slept an excellent sleep, rose in the morning silence, packed up and headed for the Egyptian border.

So then there's the border. I enjoyed borders, just before the EC all but did away with them. There was something strangely appealing, even romantic, in stopping to get your passport stamped and then changing money and getting a little bit cheated for the new currency. [Going to the haberdasher's in Chaves, Portugal to change Pesetas into Escudos was my favourite and most surreal experience, but it's a long story for another time.]

I'd heard about the Egyptian level of bureaucracy. The 'Adventure Motorcycle Handbook' (AMH) describes it as "truly world class" They weren't joking. It only took two and a half hours to clear through the Libyan side. I was in 'no-man's land' but the Egyptians awaited my arrival. I had lots of assistance from genuinely helpful types on the Egyptian side. It's just that the whole thing was so wonderfully and imaginatively inefficient. As if they'd put some real effort into making it this way. So many bits of paper to be signed and stamped by offices and officers at such daft distances from each other. All the while children and adults sneaking through gaping holes in the fences smuggling clothes as far as I could make out. They were screamed at, chased and if caught, swiped at by policemen with long sticks. I didn't see any of these sticks connect with flesh but I certainly wouldn't like to either!

Meanwhile I was escorted through the whole thing by uniformed officers, skipping queues of pushing, shouting and angry people who eyed me with envious eyes. I looked mainly at the floor and tried to look as if I was in trouble. I thought it was because I had a bike, then because I had no Arabic. But I think retrospectively that this is the same kind of 'positive racism' that I encountered in Nigeria. Things happened more quickly for me because of the paleness of my skin. Stamp here - new driving licence, stamp there - another new number plate, stamp - "yes, you do need a visa but we can give", stamp - "you don't need that bit", stamp - "I keep this bit", stamp. I'm not exactly sure what all I paid for but it cost about 900LE (Egyptian Pounds - 10LE = 1GBP) to get in. I came away from the border with licence, number plate and three stamps in my passport.

Even though I had all these helpful people - and I fully managed to giggle and smile through the whole thing, all my paperwork was in order and nothing was at fault - it still took six and one half hours of my life to get into Egypt. "You are welcome to Egypt!" is the greeting heard at every checkpoint (inside I think "and you're welcome to it aswell, mate") but instead always smiling and "thank you VERY much. It is such a relief to be here!"

But giggling all the way through dinner that evening in the hotel in Soloum with Ibrahim, the very chatty 8-year-old who had no English but a real determination to communicate by signing, was worth all the hassle. He showed me how to eat, he showed me to my room and where to park the bike. He carried the helmet, smiling and laughing all the while. In the morning he helped me pack the bike, offered me Coke from his bottle, had a wee drink of my water and waved a sad goodbye as I rode off. Top child - I hope he goes into International Relations!


At 14/10/2006, 23:56, Anonymous Chris said...

Cool self portrait but is that your wheel that's just overtaken you and is resting in the desert?
For a little bit of Kinghorn, turn up the volume and try www.kcla.org.uk/ May your wheels keep round, insha'Allah

At 18/10/2006, 21:14, Anonymous ross mitchell said...

hya its ross (chris's son) just to say i think ur barking mad to go motor biking in the desert but any way good luck. i think ur website
is really cool =p. p.s i am following u on the globe so dont get lost !!! where u going next?


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