31 October, 2006

"We're Khartoumed!"

We arranged that Rachel would e-mail or phone to say that all was well and off she went. I started to think out my options. It was far too expensive to stay in that Hotel any longer. I'd no idea how long it might take MotoBins to get the new parts to me from the UK. I had seen an SKF bearings sign on a shop and began to think my best bet would be to buy and fit another set of bearings before heading straight for Ethiopia. But there's 200miles of sand over the border and through bandit country (no - really!). If these bearings didn't hold up, or went during the sandy bit, I could be in serious trouble.

Here in Sudan they have only recently introduced ATMs, so all that stuff they tell you at the bank about ATMs being available in every country is just nonsense. These new ATMs are for specific bank customers only, as ours once were when they were first introduced. I have some cash supplies but they are supposed to be for emergencies only. This is certainly one of those but I really need to access funds from home if I'm going to be here for some time.

Sudan, it seems, is a member of the US/Bush invention, the "Axis of Evil". (This from the man who said "the trouble with the French is they have no word for 'entrepreneur'!" Help.) You may remember that the US bombed a chemicals factory here some time ago, having linked it to Al Qaeda. Later, when they'd realised their mistake, they quietly apologised and paid the owner some compensation, it seems. One result of this is that nobody gets to trade with the Sudan, except other countries the current US Administration doesn't like. So we have quality tyres 'Made in Syria', as well as much from China, who are just too big for the US to push around! And the French who will never do as they are told and good for them! The "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" (Cheney or Rumsfeld - not sure!).

But there can be no doubt at all that something quite unnecessarily unpleasant is going on in Darfur, although it seems that it is much more complicated than the Western media, with its "goodies and baddies" preconditioning would have you believe.

So what to do in the meantime? Well, Mithad must be the only man in Khartoum who owns a 1973 BMW R75/6, which he 'inherited' after its Dutch owner was consumed by hyenas (truth and fiction having that curious relationship!) back in 1981. They still have the photos of the approaching cuddly pack of laughing things which the unfortunate Dutchman took just prior to his ugly demise. Of course this R75 is in need of some parts so he is extremely excited about the prospect of a store in England that can send him bits over the internet. He also knows lots of mechanics and would like to show me his bike. So I am of some use. But where to stay? I visited several hotels in the hope of finding one less expensive but there really wasn't anything at all. The run to the border was starting to look like the only viable option. I could exchange my cash reserves here but what if they run out before the parts arrive?

Then Rachel e-mailed to say she was fine and had a flat. Did I want to come and stay there? Wooohoo!!!! That night I slept on the balcony under a mosquito net - excellent and all for free! :-) The view from Rachel's balcony.Now all I need to do is to get MotoBins to answer my e-mails, which they say they only do "during slack moments"! Meanwhile the heat . . . and I'm sitting . . . and I'm waiting . . . and I can only afford 3 hours of sitting on a computer per day . . . and it IS BORING!!! Once this order is confirmed I can go and look at some museums and do the touristy thing (again!). The Blue and White Niles converge here. Kitchener's gunboat is now the offices of the local Sailing Club. There's stuff to see - but nothing to photograph - oh, no - they don't like that!! Which is just as well for me, because I left my camera behind on the road to Hurgada in Egypt! :-)

This trip seems to be as much about sitting around waiting for stuff as it is about moving and travelling on the bike. I have to say that I find the lack of momentum and progress pretty frustrating. I really want to get to Ethiopia now, where they have altitude to keep them cool, and good roads, and greenery and scenery and . . . I think I see a mirage! The heat must be getting to me! I may have had enough of sand.

Thankfully the bike is still mobile on tarmac roads (not all roads, even in the very centre of Khartoum, are tarmacked). But I have to say that I was tempted the other day as I rode past the airport and saw the offices of British Airways Cargo! Just to ask the price, that's all!! It's the heat!

29 October, 2006

Boats, bikes, heat, sand and trains . . .

We arrived at the port in good time. Although we were ready to go at 10am, the boat wouldn't sail until 5pm! Lots of fun to be had in the meantime counting the droplets of sweat dripping from your nose and trying to make patterns with it on the tarmac before it evaporated. Normally vehicles go on the three-day barge and not the actual 'ferry', which goes overnight. Since the barge wasn't going at all, the man who had the stamp for our Carnets was having the day off and had to be raised from his bed to open the drawer wherein lay the stamp. This cost him 20LE in taxi fares and we'd better reimburse this expense, or else. So the boat itself wasn't a roll-on, roll-off ferry at all. More like climb-on,climb-off. With the help of lots and lots of shouting men and a couple of old, broken, wooden pallets we rode and heaved all three into the passenger gangway. Photos of this would have been perfect but cameras are very much frowned upon here. Be assured, it was utter chaos and I used some 'measured tones' as I rode on board. We'd never have done it without all the shouting though.

The crossing of Lake Nasser was relatively peaceful. There wasn't all that much to do except sit on the sacks of fish feed on the top deck and watch the sun and then the moonset. Then enjoy a few stars. Early to bed in order to be up in time for passing Abu Simbel in the morning.

The sun was just rising on our backs over the Eastern Desert as we approached and the boat pulled in close. Busloads of tourists were tiny specks in front of this massive, amazing monument to Rameses II and his dear wife. I think the lake was surely the best vantage point. The sun got a lot warmer as we passed and so we cowered below, apprehensive about what lay ahead. This ferry goes about as far as the Rosyth-Zeebrugge one and anyone who's used that will know about the temperature change from Scotland to Belgium. Somewhere in the middle of the lake we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer and we were heading much further south. The breeze made it all seem easy, but would there be any breeze on the land?

Lots of squashing and much more shouting much more loudly and all the bikes were off and we headed for the customs shed. During the time this took I tried various ways of fitting the washers I'd blagged from the Chief Engineer on the ferry, to the front wheel. No joy whatsoever! Eventually we wibbled and we wobbled off into the sands of Wadi Halfa (renamed hopefully "Wadi Halfords", but actually in vain!). It quickly became apparent (about 6miles down the sandy road!) that my bike wasn't exactly compatible with the other two for this sort of thing. Their wider tyres meant they could go much more slowly whereas I had to keep up momentum or sink. Also their far better, more modern brakes meant they could stop and after RedNick stopped dead in front of me I could only take desperate 'evasive action'. This meant going off the road in a wide arc over lots of tyre-ruts, gunning the engine, getting not very far, then wobbling a lot before thumping down softly into the sand! Just as well I'd forgotten to tie my boots up, or I'd never have got that authentic Saharan experience of bootsful of sand! A little bit more of this and we decided that it would maybe be better if Rachel and her extra baggage got the train. On the way to the station we decided that it would maybe be better if the bike and I tried to get the train too!! The play in the front bearing was moving the dust cover - exposing the bearing itself to the sandy elements. I'd be lucky to get 30miles before it became full of sand and dust and (literally) ground to a halt. I had been hoping against hope for a soft dirt road, but this was soft sand!

We waved our hankies and tried not to snuffle as the Nicks rode bravely southwards, off into the desert following a pick-up truck, shouting and promising to try and re-group in Khartoum.

A train was waiting at the station but of course we could hardly hope to have negotiated passage ourselves. Up pops Mazar to help. He takes us all over the place buying tickets and organising for the bike to go in the goods wagon. "No, it won't spill its petrol, I promise!" Once seated (after only a few short hours wait, Mazar appeared on the train again and I reached for my wallet. "No, please no (you'd have thought I'd pointed a gun at him!), but here is my brother's number in Khartoum. You must call him if you need anything, anything at all." True kindness beats cynicism again, and we sit quietly and not a little shamefully!

I'll spare you the details of the train. They wouldn't let us take a photie as I rode the bike up a girder, no wider than the tyre itself, onto the goods wagon. The only funny part. I've never been much use at public transport (I think it's the 'public' aspect - sorry public!) at the best of times. But I can tell you that the very idea of a squat-down toilet on a very wobbly train does NOT work and should obviously have been just a quick laugh in the drawing office. This railway was built at the end of the 19th century by Lord Kitchener and really hasn't had any upgrades since. The Wadi Halfa-Khartoum express whistled through the desert at a very scary 36kph (23mph). It had all the definitive trajectory of a very, very buckled wheel. We were in a cabin with six others. Heat. No leg-room. Heat. No washing facilities. Heat and sweat. Feet and heat. Our companions all smoked very smelly cigarettes very heavily. An open window invited clouds of dust in. No air but lots of smoke, heat and plenty of sweat with dust sticking to it - and sweaty feet. Yummy! Sometimes the train stopped. Stretch outside into the oven - this was at night!! Two nights and one day on a swinging, sweating, smelling train did nothing for my old back wound. Can't remember ever being so sore and filthy, but this included much of the dust from the spill at Wadi Halfa. (I know, but that is sparing the details!)

The train squeaked and shook slowly into Khartoum and we eventually collected the bike from the goods wagon after chasing it around sidings for an hour. We're told the Secret Police here may try to sell you beer so that they can put you in jail. We started looking for hotels and at the first hotel . . . "Hello, can I help you?" This bloke looked strangely familiar. "But . . . don't we know you?"
"My brother Mazar was in Wadi Halfa . . ." said Moez, Mazar's double. Complete coincidence that in a city of three million souls, we should roll up to the one hotel he is standing outside. We didn't stay there but in a much better one. Good barbecued chicken for tea, and Rachel has contacted her people here. They're picking her up today so I'll be alone again to get myself organised. With Moez and his brother Midhat's help!

I'll miss Rachel's company as well as her positive input. She fitted in extremely well, knowing just what to do and when, how best to help and never complaining. It was two whole weeks and we were a pretty good wee team from the off. A highly recommended pillion passenger. Difficult, however, even for me, to believe we did all those sunsets over the Nile, sailing in felluccas, swimming in the Red Sea and the Nile, camping under desert stars, horse-riding beneath the pyramids, motorcycling through the Egyptian mountains, yet still she stubbornly refused to fall for me!! The age of romance is truly over! Never mind. Thanks a lot and best of luck Rachel . . . :-)

28 October, 2006

Swanning around Aswan 7194miles

We made the 7am convoy to Aswan, then had to wait a while till it left. The Egyptian Authorities have imposed these convoys for travellers since an attack left some tourists dead and injured a few years ago. They are supposed to be protective but . . . ours just went far too fast on very poor roads, turning the whole thing into a 'Wacky Races' of daftness! Huge buses, minibuses, cars, and us competed for front spot - behind the lead Police pick-up (all bristling with scary firearms). The roads were NOT up to this, so I gave up the competition and happily slipped to the rear of the convoy. The last police car wasn't too happy about this and encouraged me to speed up. 80mph through wee villages strewn with bairns and dogs isn't sensible, so I signalled that the bike couldn't do it. They stayed behind us for a few more miles before getting bored and flying off ahead. We had no escort now but we were free and therefore able to do our own thing - i.e. dawdle!

I texted RedNick (they are RedNick and BlueNick according to their choice of BMW desert gear) from a cafe in Aswan and they appeared almost instantly. They'd only arrived the night before and had camped on the banks of the Nile, much to BlueNick's dismay. He went off to find a good hotel and returned soon after with the news he'd found an excellent one just around the corner. Hathor Hotel, small roof garden overlooking the Nile, tiny swimming pool, air conditioning and breakfast included for 3.50GBP per evening. Where do we sign and well done BlueNick!! Aswan MCC off to get the ferry for the Sudan. The Ferry had become ever more elusive. Eid/Ramadan always seemed to be "finishing the day after tomorrow and nothing will be open until then." So we wait and then lots of things are open anyway so we needn't have bothered panicking. The Nicks had had a look and the Nile Navigation Company's office was very, very closed with no indication of when it might re-open. They had heard many conflicting notions. There's a great tendency here to tell you what you want to hear. So, you ask a closed question; "will it be open tomorrow?" "Yes." But, "will it be open in the next few days?" "Yes." So then you ask an open question; "when will the ferry sail to Wadi Halfa?" Maybe tomorrow. "Maybe?" Then you make some closed suggestions - tomorrow? the next day? next week? The answer is always yes. Followed by "do you want a felucca/taxi?" This became ever more annoying and we sadly became ever more grateful for the roof-garden as a sanctuary. It was worst when we were asked while sitting on the bikes whether we wanted a taxi! Flummoxed for a response - was our response!

Next morning was a whirlwind as we went to the office on the off-chance and found it unexpectedly open. Naturally everything was about to close for the Eid celebrations (again) and we would have to hurry if we were to get all the papers in order. If we failed, we'd need to wait another week for the next boat! We had two hours. It was 11am. Dispatch riding experience came in useful as we scooted around the various offices at opposite ends of the town. Additionally for me, I had to go to the police and get a report saying I'd lost my Egyptian licence. Rachel employed charms unavailable to masculinity (smiles and fluttery eyelashes!) to keep the man at the office talking and therefore, open. At 1300.10seconds I got back and concluded the ticket-buying deal. It was Sunday, and the previously rumoured Saturday or maybe Monday boat would sail - this week only - on Wednesday. We should be there at 10am. But would the boat be?

Four days to hang around. Not to waste this time I learned to sail a felucca (and it is a serious consideration for retirement), they have only one sail but once set, there's little needing done and even when tacking, the boom is so high that all you need to do is turn the tiller. We found every word that rhymes with 'felucca', including verrucca, Stuka, Luka, bazooka . . ! We visited the Nubian museum which attempts to explain the lost culture under Lake Aswan. It does quite well, but it seemed to me to be a poor compensation for the loss of any culture. I 'drove' a pony and trap (interesting - they don't stop to poo and you get a full view! :-/) We sailed into the 1st cataract and went swimming off the back - fantastic! We had lunch with the (genuine) Chief in a Nubian village where the national dish is a kind of flavour-free dark green mucus called 'mulach' - nobody's favourite. We visited the Tomb of the Nobles and got mobbed by children (euch!). Almost every evening the sun was watched from the roof as it set over the desert across the Nile. Waiting, waiting. After four days the felucca captains and taxi drivers began to understand that we were not interested and the hassles lessened.

Of course I foolishly decided to check the bikes on the last day. Both Nicks' bikes and mine needed oil. However, mine also had a curious wobble at the front wheel. The new bearings maybe weren't fitted properly (?). I don't know but there's 'play' on the bearing which is not good. This play is moving the dust seal and will expose the inners of the bearings to any destructive grinding sand! Maybe they turned the spindle down too much! Funny how that chance encounter with those roadworks in the Czech Republic has dogged me all this way!! I resolved to fix the whole thing in Khartoum and can only hope to make it that far! A final evening to say goodbye to Aswan in our favourite restaurant - but I'm apprehensive about how things will hold together over this sand!!

19 October, 2006

Red Sea Then Back to the Nile 7051miles

We all met as planned outside the Rugby Club in the hours before the heat and headed off towards the motorway. We flew along the three empty lanes at 80mph. I did this sort of nonsense years ago but I need to get my bike round the planet this time and prefer speeds of around 60mph which should mean that all the mechanical bits stay where they should. It was only desert though so no significant scenery to enjoy. I toddled along and started a game where I lined up both Nicks and had to keep them one behind the other. This meant a fair deal of lane-changing but the motorway really was empty. Eventually we got to the end and saw the Red Sea as the motorway ran out. The road even began to wind a little along the coast and the Nicks slowed down to a more reasonable speed. They had a video camera which they asked Rachel to use. We overtook them, let them overtake us and generally played at 'Tour de France' for a bit. Then I heard the screech from my front wheel. Closer inspection suggested a wheel bearing on its way out. The Nicks headed off when I decided we could make it to the next petrol station. We made it easily and spent a few hours trying to get the spindle out. My new pillion had a surprising number of useful ideas about how to do this - but none of them worked, and neither did any of mine! The biggest hammer in the place wouldn't get it out! We decided to go a little further in search of a mechanic with more tools. However, it was getting darker so we found it prudent to camp in the desert, Rachel's first time. Fantastic. Shooting stars in the desert sky, somebody to say "did you see that one!?" to, and an excellent sleep.

In the morning we managed only 11 miles before the bearing collapsed completely. A passing truck soon picked us up though, and took us to Hargada, a holiday town on the coast. Sadly I noticed the absence of the tank bag, with my iPod, camera, binoculars and other useful things. While the mechanics fixed the bike I searched the road in a car which went far too fast for me to see anything. No sign of any debris so I concluded it must still be in one piece, either bounced to the side of the road or in someone else's car. I looked again in the morning - 50 miles standing up on the footpegs of the bike but nothing there. By the time Rachel and I had had a quick dip in the Red Sea and then run around on a wild goose chase (having been told by the hotelier that the bag was in such and such a place that didn't exist) it was well into the heat of the day. In blazing sunshine and stifling heat we rode through the brown, dry hills towards Qena, determined to make it to Luxor that night. Only one stop at an Ambulance station meant we got lots of cold, cold, cold water and re-filled the thermos flask with ice-cold water. All for free. There were frequent stops while road guards asked where we were going, where we had been, which country we came from and other nonsensical questions about nothing. These get really tiresome after a while, but they are 'only doing their jobs'! My pillion proved her worth once more by managing to smile and charm through these episodes. I'd have done this myself had I been alone, but it's amazing how having someone else around to do it lets you grump a wee bit. Grumping is effortless while smiling and grinning through repetitive nonsense can be wearing! We rolled into Qena hot, tired and in sore need of water, fuel and a place to sleep. Policemen waved us towards Luxor and we rode through - not stopping.

Next thing there was a police pick-up in the mirror all flashing lights and screaming sirens. I pulled over to let them pass, convinced I hadn't offended anyone. But the soldiers in the back patted the tailgate - I was to go with them. And there was another pick up behind us to ensure we didn't sneak off! I couldn't imagine what we'd done. We sped through the rush-hour traffic. Sirens blasting cars and buses out of the way. I got a little closer to the van in front and tried to signal that we needed fuel. He smiled and just kept going. 70, 75, 80mph - these guys were moving. Out into the countryside and through more checkpoints at top speed!! It suddenly dawned on us that WE were being escorted, not to jail, but to Luxor!! Cool! The bike wouldn't go any faster, with all that luggage but our escort comprised eight armed guards in two vehicles. What a buzz!

Rachel had stayed in Luxor before and knew the very place to go. A lovely wee hostel called the Happy Hotel. They had a welcome drink called 'kerkerdi' made from hibiscus tea. Delicious and very refreshing. Rachel even got the hostel to organise some sailing!! Watch the sunset on the Nile for next to no money at all. I was dazed with fatigue since the early morning search for the tank-bag but it was a refreshing thing to do. The felucca captain even let me on the tiller. That's my retirement sorted out then! We needed to be up early in the morning to catch the next convoy to Aswan, where we would catch up with the Nicks and find out about the fabled ferry to Wadi Halfa in the Sudan.
All photographs here and till Khartoum are courtesy of Rachel Walton.

Caring Cairo 6563miles

The 'Desert Road' to Cairo was very straight and very, very mind-numbing. So grateful for that iPod and I thoroughly recommend the Rolling Stones for crossing deserts. Eventually the road filtered into the main Alexandria to Cairo motorway and became more 'interesting'. I had heard about driving here and was not unreasonably nervous as a result. Nobody seemed to realise what the lines in the road were for. To be fair though, sometimes there were no lines in the road at all. The tops of the two larger pyramids appeared as the sun lowered, and I headed for El Maadi, where I knew I had contacts.

Lorenz, although I'd never met him, had contributed to previous postings. A good friend of a good friend's brother, he and his wife Hilary, had kindly expressed a willingness to accommodate me. It was too late to bother them that night so I found a strange hotel where the waiter was so 'attentive' I honestly thought he was going to cut up my food for me and feed it to me like I was a bairn. I think it was when I sat back, folded my arms and opened my mouth expectantly, that he realised he may have gone too far. I think we should all help each other and am never ungrateful for assistance in anything. However, there is a tendency in some here to assume that you've just arrived from some distant, as yet uncharted galaxy and know absolutely nothing. This can grate a wee bit. "I know that's the fork! Yes, we have remote controls in Scotland! Really? A 'bed' you call it? For lying on? No, in Scotland we use deer skins and bits of moss gathered together in 'mats' to keep the wind out of our caves! Then we huddle together and grunt at one another until sleep comes out of sheer exhaustion!" Sarcasm can only go so far without hitting its intended mark before you realise to your horror that you're wasting your breath.

The next evening Lorenz and Hilary were away out so I (with more invaluable help from Top Travel Consultant Paula in London) moved over to the Canadian Hostel in the centre of town who, naturally, insisted I park in the foyer for safety. I haven't given much consideration to hostels in the past, but this was a clean, efficient and inexpensive place to stay. It was five minutes' walk to the Sudanese Embassy (15minutes on the bike! Another story!) and was quiet and very comfortable. It also had internet access.

Next day I toddled down to the Embassy as advised at 8am for it opening. I had variously heard that you couldn't get a Sudanese visa outside of Cairo, and then that you might get one in 24 hours, maybe a week, a month or never with lots of promises along the way. Some joking and daftness with the armed guards (fixed bayonets!? but sheathed) ensured they'd look after the bike while I was inside. I sat down and waited. The place was full of those whom I assumed, because of dress or skin colour, to be locals or Sudanese. A smallish lassie came in looking gey peely-wally to be wearing all that black. Maybe she was a European Muslim, or in old-fashioned mourning dress. Two blokes came in, one really tall, the other with a t-shirt saying something about a motorbike challenge from the Cotswolds to Cape Town. Nothing happened until 10.30, just as I'd introduced myself to them. Then everything went a bit funny. Some people appeared behind the desks and lots of quite desperate shouting and pushing started. Papers were waved around and the heads behind the desks shook a lot. The two English bikers 'had a man' to sort things out and his knowledge was gratefully received by me. They actually had visas but they hadn't been produced by the Sudanese Embassy in London until after they had left home! The wee lassie in black piped up in her New Zealand accent that she'd been waiting seven days for her visa, her mistake had been to say that she was a volunteer. The Sudanese don't have a visa for volunteers. She got sooked into the queue for a while and then disappeared completely. She must have been refused. It wasn't looking good.

We three bikers handed over papers and lots of American dollars and were told to return later. The English at 2pm, me at 1pm. Little made much sense. I decided to try and get in with these two, who were riding to Cape Town for charity, having received support from none other than Ewen MacGregor himself! The route on their t-shirt was similar to mine, and I thought there could be safety in numbers, at least through Sudan and Ethiopia. We arranged to meet back there at 2pm.

I arrived early to find the Kiwi girl back and an Italian who had been shouting previously at the officials. Rachel, the Kiwi, had had to go back to her Consulate to get yet further paperwork detailing her intentions in Sudan. She only wanted to go and Teach English as a Foreign Language in Khartoum for $100US per month. I wished I had that sort of grit. She had recently invented a 'husband' to help things out. Very useful for single ladies dealing with officialdom here. The Italian (he never told us his name) wanted to get to the Yemen. I wondered about the wisdom of being seen talking and joking with this belligerent gent. I saw the English guys' passports lying in a drawer. Their visas were ready. No sign of mine! Then my name was called! Ha - success, and after only three hours! I felt quite guilty getting mine after Rachel had been waiting seven days, just to get to do something far more useful than me! So I tried not to rejoice overly. While I waited for the other two to return, she explained that she'd been in Egypt for six weeks and the 'get up' meant she got far less hassle from the overly-attentive local males. Then the Italian's name was called and then Rachel's and we were all congratulations and smiles and relief. Rachel had a book, 'Africa on A Shoestring' which I decided I'd better buy and the Italian wanted to photocopy. When they arrived I arranged to meet the two English guys (both called Nick) at their digs - the Cairo Rugby Club, no less - that night and we three headed off to the bookshop.

On the way into the American University bookshop the guard, who kept my passport, gestured at Rachel. "Is this yours?" He asked gruffly. I hoped it was more a poor command of English but he looked pretty stern so I acknowledged 'ownership' and 'this' was permitted entry. Weird! After buying a copy, I gave it to the Italian who went off to photocopy it, saying he'd be along for a coffee soon. Rachel and I had a bite to eat during which she told me she'd been travelling for eight years!! She certainly had a passport to rival Phileas Fogg's! She has a blogsite as well, which may be obtained upon application. But be warned, this is a well-travelled, ex-Burlesque dancing, ex-Edinburgh Ghost tour-leading, pierced, tattooed, 5'2" lapsed witch who also worked behind the bar at the Holyrood Tavern in Edinburgh before a hair-dyeing attempt went wrong and she had to shave her hied! And her spelling's very poor! You could NOT make this stuff up. She needs a lift to Khartoum, Sudan, where I'm going. She's wee, she travels light - all in; 80kg. The bike can take the extra weight. Where did I put that armour polish?

The Italian never re-appeared and I began to think very, very badly of him. After we'd eaten we looked. But not there. Not anywhere! I returned to the bookshop and bought yet another book, cursing my stupidity and naivete in trusting this stranger. Muttering madly to myself I wandered back to the bike alone, having exchanged details with Rachel for the next day when I'd know after consulting the Nicks when we'd leave. The bike was still there under fully-armed guard who gestured towards a solitary figure sitting opposite it. The Italian!! Guilt and sorrow rushed through me as we shook hands and laughed that he hadn't seen us in the cafe and had looked in another three before coming to wait here. I gave him a lift back to the shop, where we got the money back for one of the books, and then to his Hostel. We were even.

I rode back down to Maadi (aptly named for the driving!) through crazy but not aggressive traffic to find Lorenz and Hilary's house. Lorenz's directions were spot on and I found it with very little trouble. I told them about the adventures of the day and we laughed. Lorenz insisted we phone Rachel and get her down. They've a very comfortable two bedroom 'granny' flat on the top of their very comfortable house. He took the number from me and phoned her Hostel. "Can she ride? Because we could take the horses up to the Pyramids tomorrow morning," said Hilary. She said she could ride but had already paid for her digs so thanked L & H but would meet us in the morning in front of the Sphinx.

L & H have two highly active sons who love nothing better than water and splashing. Their home was as welcoming as any I've been in. I was made to feel, and immediately felt, quite at home. A fair feat guys and one for which words of gratitude fail. Lorenz has had bikes but is presently limited to four wheels. The traffic is insane and it would only be a matter of time before disaster struck if you rode in it each day.

Lorenz - co-incidentally a member - and I went to the Rugby Club and it was decided to leave on the following day, the Tuesday, via the Red Sea road because there's less traffic, and to get to the fabled ferry to Sudan. Latest information is that it goes on Saturday, needs 24hrs check in time and tickets are like hen's teeth anywhere, but may be available in Cairo - maybe.

The riding in the morning really was awesome. Galloping across the desert and right up to these ancient Pyramids with Hilary and her pals was incredible. Blazing sun, as you might expect, but good horses and a patient hack-leader. Rachel and myself made a reasonable impression by not holding anyone up. Others were getting more advice from the leader, Hassiem. We were out for an hour and a half, then we went to look for ferry tickets.

Tune in next time for Nick, Nick, Mick and Rachel's incredible journey into the sand!

Ice-Cold in El Alamien 6364miles

And so I arrived in El Alamein. I went to buy some food before looking for a place to stay and the friendly Muslim shopkeeper with the huge beard made a phone call on his mobile. I have to confess (sorry!) to a certain amount of paranoia at this point. "Who is he calling? Why? Best just give him the money and go!" Then I was given the mobile. I spoke to the telephone and in good English was directed to the first motel with a 'Heineken' sign outside it that I'd seen since Italy. But of course it was still Ramadan and this sign must be for the summertime tourists. I jokingly asked the barman about the sign, expecting the usual response about it being Ramadan. "Yes, in the fridge. You would like?" In Muslim countries they sell non-alcoholic 'Malt' drinks made by many of the famous beer companies. This was the real thing. I even (pathetic I know) ran my finger down the condensation on the cold glass BEFORE drinking it! Were there tears in my eyes? I wouldn't say so, but I WAS John Mills! I was glad of the authentic, justifying dusting of Sahara on my boots. The really very friendly shopkeeper had sent me to the only Christian-owned bar!

My grandfather had a bit of a dust-up with some Germans here a few years ago as both he and Spike Milligan played their respective parts in Adolf Hitler's downfall. Some of their mates are undoubtedly buried among the 8000 Commonwealth graves neatly maintained in a huge plot of land gifted to the Commonwealth by the people of Egypt. The graveyard itself is something of a monument to the struggle of all types of different people against tyranny. Muslim and Hindu Indians, Africans, Greeks, Jewish, Polish and Czechoslovakian graves here outnumber those of the British alone. And for the most part they are all intermingled, some choosing to be buried together in groups of up to five. The comments put on some of the gravestones by their surviving relatives, many young wives and not-so-old parents (most of the dead are in their 20s) are touching. Politicians contemplating wars from the safety of their capital-city bunkers should be dragged around places like this before being allowed to make such daft decisions. There can't be much doubt that this war needed to be fought but I struggle to think of one since that was worth the bother.

There was one other visitor that day. Dave and I had a good old blether - my first in English since Germany three (?) weeks ago! We shared similar views and found we'd been born in the same year. He was travelling around the Middle East alone mainly by bus, having given up on an 'adventure tour' when he realised it was a 'pre-packaged adventure'. He was going to write a book. He was very excited about my trip and had a well-thumbed copy of Ted Simon's 'Jupiter's Travels' on his shelves at home.

After he had returned to Alexandria, I was treated to a slap-up meal by the young lads who ran the place. Lots of rice and vegetables - all washed down with - oh, okay then, Heineken. Well, after so many sweetie soft drinks, I thought I might indulge in one or two.

I hear the driving in Cairo's really bad!

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!

07 October, 2006

Libyan Libations 5256miles

I went back down the road this time to Menedine, where I arrived in good time. I organised a perfectly good room at the Hotel Sahara and wondered where to eat. Najete (wife of Adel, mother of Loujeim, excellent chef) had given me two delicious home-made loaves of bread the night before and I had the ubiquitous tuna. Now all I needed was a few thousand chums. But I really needed a hot meal, on a plate, with cutlery. The meals of the previous two nights had convinced me that my malaise was less to do with the heat than lack of nourishment leading to feebleness both of body and brain. I've always wondered how little food I could manage on, and now I think I have a good idea.
Up the street was a grand wee fast food place run by Ahmed who has an R1, but used to have a TDM which was much more practical, he tells me. He loves biking in Italy. He noticed the bike jacket and "oh was that you that passed earlier?" He'd seen the bike and thought it far too old for such a journey. He did provide a lovely hot, freshly cooked meal, with plate and all the bits and bobs. Luxury. After an argument he let me pay for the food but I wasn't allowed to pay for the Orangina because, well, he'd opened the bottle anyway! He explained the loud 1 0'clock gun-type explosion I'd heard earlier as being a 'Ramadan bomb'. A kind of huge firework (a mortar!) set off by him to announce the setting of the sun. He had a video on his phone to prove it was him!
Next morning I crossed the border into Libya. Only two hours at the border and no Guide to pay for. However, I had to pay $80 for my new number plate! Some more for insurance. This bitter pill was sweetened when I mentioned I was really low on fuel. "Take some from there . . . " The guards pointed at some plastic water bottles full of green fluid lying in a puddle in the middle of the road. I decided I could probably get one of the 5 litre bottles into mine and proceeded to splish, splash and splosh it all over the bike in the freshening breeze. Having got about two litres into the bike and put the rest onto my legs and all over every other bit of the bike (phew - no smoking in Ramadan!) I went for my wallet, disappointed to have wasted so much. Lots of shaking heads meant I didn't have to pay!! Later when I got to a fuel station I found that I filled up with 20 litres of 95 octane for 3Libyan Dinars. I think that's about one pound fifty!
Rode on through what looked like the antidote to scenery, towards what I assumed must be Tripoli. All signs are in Arabic only so I was going by the number of kilometres away, the signs suggested each squiggle was. Then I got the idea of the squiggle for 'Tripoli'. Whereas there had been thousands of tiny mopeds in Tunis, and the police used XT350s and BMW R1100s, there are NO bikes in Libya. None that I've seen anyway, except for the police.
So I appeared as something of a novelty. Lots of smiling and waving - in between the attempts to destroy - fairly cheered me up! Slowly it became dark. This is good because the roads empty while everyone goes home to eat, but bad because then I couldn't see the potholes. I could barely see the road! We are so blessed in the UK with cats' eyes in the road. Are they so expensive other countries won't buy them? Be grateful all you British road users!
Just as I was starting to wonder what I might do if it started raining, the 4star Al-Hasnian Grand Hotel loomed into view, all bright lights and warm glow inside. Safe!! "Certainly we have a place for your motorcycle sir. Do you have any whisky?" Their disappointment was palpable! "But you are from Scotland!" How dare I come all the way from Scotland without any whisky! Clearly it had been a big mistake to have let me in at all! I felt like a disgrace to my nation.
However, there was a refreshing 'welcome' (non-alcoholic) drink while I filled in the relevant forms. "And now sir, if you will bring your motorcycle through here . . ."
I was amazed, "what? Through reception? Across all this beautiful marble flooring!?"
"Certainly sir, it is the quickest way."
Had to get a photo of that - bike, red-faced me (just out of the cold!), beautiful surroundings and giggling staff. The ice was re-broken, thankfully. With the bike parked up I was told that my meal would arrive at my room in 20 minutes. "And we are very sorry sir, but there will be live music at 11o'clock tonight. Libyan Folk, perhaps you might like to come?" A live band? Who could resist?
Of the two they showed me, I chose the dearer room at 16, rather than 13LYD. For this there was a big telly, double bed, enormous balcony, and a wee separate living room. If only I had thought to arrange a small meeting! The phone rings - would I like to move my bike, it's raining. With an earful of bathtowel it rings again - would I open the door, my tea is ready! It rings again - "the band are waiting for you sir!" For me?
Wow! They were loud. I don't know though, I tried to get into how they were playing together but I really struggled. Music often makes more sense to me whenever I see it played live. I can see how each musician works together with the others to produce pleasing sounds. But these guys seemed almost to be playing against each other! Maybe some musician knows more than me about beats to some bar or other but I grinned as best I could through about five songs. I remembered to smile whenever the video camera panned round and settled onto me (only 'Westerner') before panning back. Then I remembered how tired I was and how I needed to go and sleep now. That was fine.
This very morning it was POURING with water that didn't even have the decency to bother arranging itself into droplets of rain before washing half the Sahara into the streets of Khoms. I wasn't going anywhere and I'd very little money. The following dear reader, I promise, is true word for word. I spoke to the owner of the Hotel, a young ex-lawyer with six children.
Me - "I need to get to a bank machine to get more money if I am to stay another night."
He - "There is no machine in this town, only in Tripoli - but don't worry."
Me - "Then can I pay by Visa card?"
He - "Oh, no, I'm afraid we do not have that facility, but do not worry."
Me - "Do not worry? But how am I to pay if I have no money!!?"
He - "If you have no money then we can get it later when you send it to us. And if you have only a very little money then do not pay us now, and we will give you a little more money, so that you can continue your journey. You can send it back to us later when you get some."
Me - Dumbfounded?
So as I'm recovering from this antiquated but very comforting state of affairs, he suggested running me into town in his car, till we can see the banks about possibly extracting money from Visa. None helped, but I have an emergency supply of US dollars which I can change tomorrow. Phew! Eventually, he dropped me here at the iCaff where they're playing the strangely hypnotic Qu'ran on a constant loop. I don't understand a word but I can listen to this. Ears, funny things!
In e-mail conversation with my favourite travel consultant in London, it is suggested that a picture of me might be a good thing to have on the Blog. Well I've just the perfect photo now and so I'll just go back and get the camera . . .
I went back for the camera and got a taxi to the hotel only to find it full of THREE air-conditioned busloads of retired Brit tourists all chowing down heartily on food in the middle of Ramadan without so much as a 'by your leave'! I get the taxi to wait, run in, grab the camera, get the cable to connect it to the computer, rush straight back out - pausing only to ask at reception whether they might have another hotel I could move to - jump straight back in the taxi, argue with the man about going to other iCaffs I know are shut, and don't know they have Windows XP, drag him back here, ask politely whether it's alright to stick the cable in and take it out of my pocket to show. "Aye, ye could," says the lad, "but there's no cigarette-lighter connection in the machine!" AAaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!! I brought the wrong cable. This one charges the mobile!!! Such is adventure.
But at least the sun's blazing now! Back to the hotel for a nice cup of tea, a biscuit ad a slice of cake before tonight's knees up with Chas and Dave. "Snooker loopy nuts are we, we're all snooker, loopy . . ."!

04 October, 2006

Desert Camels 4727miles

So, the Algerians said 'no', but the Libyans said 'maybe'. In five days. I went south to see the desert and there it was right enough. Hot and silent. I thought of camping in the middle of a dry salt lake, but was beaten off by flies, low(ish) water supply and the 'what if . . .' factor, which is really just fear.

Eating was still a major problem, especially in the southern rural areas where almost everyone eats at home during Ramadan so the vast majority of restaurants and fast food outlets are closed except to sell sticky cakes. More tuna and bread. Cooking on a petrol stove isn't the thing in hotel rooms!

It was hot though. VERY hot. And that's just the northern part of the desert, the shores of the Grand Erg Oriental. An Erg is a sand sea. Camels crossing - wild ones. Troglodyte homes and even a troglodyte hotel for the tourists. All very practical. And the silence. Deafening would be about it! The sand sooks up all the noise so there is nothing, except the occasional wisp of wind. I wish I'd camped in it. Clear blue skies, nothing for miles . . . but there were camel footprints in the sand and my expert Shoshone tracking skills don't extend as far as to decide whether or not they had people on top of them. Not much call for reading camel tracks in Shoshone country. If there had been one other person there, even a stranger . . . Sadly I found no organised campsites. And it really is easy to disappear in the desert. And I am remembering all of those who think I'm foolhardy at times. Must prove them wrong by getting back in just the one piece.
Anyone know where this sign goes? Nada? Umar?

I returned dry, dusty and parched, to the same welcoming hotel in Tunis, to wait for the Libyans to make up their minds. In a moment of foolish undernourishment I decided the next day to take the bike into the crowded 38°C heat of the city. Of course it wasn't too long before I abandoned the bike and jumped in a taxi, feeling very aggrieved with the world. I would never have found the Consulate anyway, even though I'd been there four times. I'd never been the same way twice.

Adel the taxi driver had an infectious optimism, for which I was grateful. He was very excited by my 'aventure' having travelled through the Indonesian islands and sneaked into Australia without a visa. He was so happy to have done it but was now happily settled, having fully scratched his itchy feet. He asked how I found Tunisia and I said I loved it and wished only for a decent restaurant so I could stop eating cold food! He said he didn't know any good restaurants that were open but that his wife was an excellent cook and that I must come and meet his 18month old daughter! I tried in my imprinted Scottish way to gently refuse but he could see that the rumbly in my tumbly made my attempts half-hearted.

I met him outside the bank near his house and enjoyed perhaps the most delicious meal of my life! Everything from breakfast and lunch to dinner was eaten in several tasty courses. I had hardly any room for dessert! His wife really was a superior chef and we got along very well, I in my broken French, which really does improve with practice.

They insisted I went back tonight, which I'll gladly do. This time I'll take my kilt. I saw some shortbread in the supermarket and I'll take my camera too. 19hrs00 and not to be late - they've been fasting all day! Last night's sustenance has given me the strength to try it myself and so far, at 13hrs00, I'm managing.

And the great news is, the Libyans will let me through! I leave tomorrow for Libya, so thanks to Mo and Paula for all your help in arranging Plan B, but it won't be necessary. Keep standing by though, you never know. Next thing could be boats from South Africa to South America? I'm off to Cairo - probably for another wait at the Sudanese Embassy. Keep your fingers crossed!

I'll be in Cairo probably for the October holidays, should anyone care to join me there, you'll be more than welcome. I haven't had an English conversation in a fortnight!