From Cairo to Aswan along the Nile Valley
Egypt. There are so many things I want to say about this complex and complicated country. It has certainly left a lasting impression, in both good and bad ways. It is not somewhere I would necessarily have chosen to cycle, but I am glad I did, because I don’t think I would have otherwise had anywhere near as immersive an experience of this country on the edge of Africa.
Our Egyptian experience started off in the best possible way. After negotiating a taxi for us and our bikes (straight into hardcore haggling) and then being whisked through crazy Cairo traffic, we were deposited at Mohamed’s house, an oasis of calm in this hectic city of 70 million. We immediately felt at home and were humbled by Mohamed and his families’ kindness. Not only did his wife Shaheera cook us a vegan meal, Mohamed was also full of information about cycle routes and what to do in Cairo.
For the next few days we eased into Egyptian culture. Of course this involved exploring the pyramids of Giza as well as the Egyptian museum (literally crammed full of antiquities!), but also how to take micro buses and the metro like locals, what to eat and generally how to negotiate this new country. I had a wonderful feeling of excitement, the one you get when you arrive in a totally different culture, where everything is a bit hectic, confusing and new. I always feel so positive and excited in a new country, everything sparks my curiosity. After a time this naturally fades, as the realities of a place set in and you become more immersed and familiar with the culture.
From Cairo we caught an 11 hour night bus to Dahab on the Sinai peninsula. We had decided to take a break over Christmas to join our friend Loiuza who was running a retreat, as well as to do some scuba diving in the Red Sea. Getting to Sinai itself is a bit of a mission; the north of Sinai is considered unsafe as it is infiltrated by several Islamic terrorist groups, this means getting off the bus several times in the middle of the night at army checkpoints and having your stuff searched. Understandable, except don’t try and apply logic. After having our bags searched and no one getting on or off, we drove 5 minutes, only to have the whole thing happen again. A taste of what was to come on our cycle later on…
By the time we arrived in Dahab we were both exhausted but so happy to have arrived. Dahab is a hippy oasis, in what can at times feel like quite an oppressive country. It is completely different to the rest of Egypt and so far the only place I’d want to return to. It is relaxed and low key, a mix of divers, expats, locals on holidays, Bedouins, and Egyptians looking to escape the craziness of the capital. This being Egypt and the nature of the current political situation, I am not going to say much more about our retreat. What I will say is that we had an amazing time. We met such wonderful people over those 5 days and by the time we left we felt like we had made real friends.
Aside from taking part in the retreat, we went swimming, did yoga, meditated and laughed a lot. We also learnt lot about Egyptian politics and culture. Some of the Egyptians we met had been active during the revolution, and it was awful to hear about the trauma they had been through, only to have everything they had fought for hijacked and turned into something that is perhaps worse than before. There is a collective depression amongst progressive Egyptians (Mohammed had said this also), a loss of hope that is palpable. It was sobering to be reminded of our own privilege. Here were these amazing humans who had literally put their bodies on the line to try and achieve the things we take for granted. Not to say our societies are perfect, or that there isn’t corruption or censorship on some levels too, but a lot of things (like civilian government, being able to put on a play without government involvement, journalistic freedom – to name a few) we take for granted. Not to mention our ease of travel, or the fact that the Egyptian economy (heavily reliant on tourism) has slumped significantly since 2011. Life is difficult in Egypt if you have an education and a job, let alone those who are stuck in poverty. In saying that I don’t want to just write about doom and gloom, our new friends were some of the kindest and most wonderful humans we have met. Their spirit really touched our souls and we were buoyed by their openness, despite all that stood against them. It is telling that I am not including any photos of them here. Perhaps I am being paranoid, but with people disappearing, and some in jail for something as simple as a facebook post, I am not taking any risks.
From Dahab we travelled to Saint Catherine, one of the oldest Coptic monasteries in the world. It is quite a magical place, with a long history of Muslims and Christians living and working together. There is mosque inside the monastery, and many of the Muslim Bedouins’ are employed in the monastery. We stayed at a desert camp and also hiked in the mountains, before heading back to Cairo.
Once back in Cairo we stayed with one of our new friends and attended the necessary admin, which mainly involved applying for out Sudanese visa. At the embassy we met 4 other foreigners, three of them cycle tourists like us. We were all leaving within a few days of each other, and one of them gave us the link to a WhatsApp group of nearly 200 cyclists currently pedaling between Cairo and Cape Town (see, we aren’t the only crazy ones!). A super way to stay up to date with information, especially in an ever changing continent like Africa.
After spending time with our Dahab friends in Cairo (they mostly all live in Cairo) and with Mohamed, it was finally time to leave the comfort of sedentary existence. Mohamed kind as ever, led us out of the city, before wishing us well and saying goodbye. Now it was just us and around 12,000km of Africa in front of us.
Our first day was the slight cultural shock I knew that it would be. We’ve been living in comfort, in Cairo and Dahab where many foreigners reside. The Egyptians who we’d befriended were open minded and while not rich, they’d travelled and lived lives not so different from ours. The truth is, the rest of Egypt is very different. At least what we experienced anyway. Once passed Giza and out in the countryside, our mere presence evoked a lot of attention. Boys driving tuk tuks and on motor bikes followed us, people waved and shouted ‘welcome to Egypt’, and at one point we had car loads of people following us, shouting and waving, and in each village we seemed to collect more and more and the whole thing was fun, but slightly overwhelming. We were certainly now in a different Egypt; the rhythms of rural life dominated here, and the modern world seemed partly suspended. People wore traditional dress, women became less visible, there were animals everywhere; goats, donkeys, chickens, as well as groups of boys who were usually mildly annoying. On the road side there were chai tents, where we could stop for refreshing tea, and many places to buy falafel or fuul.
By evening of the first day we were exhausted from the constant stimulation, the traffic and attention. As the sun set, the call of the mosque could be heard reverberating around the Nile Valley and people passed us by on their way home from the fields. There had been nowhere visible to camp – Egypt is known to be tricky for wild camping – discovery leading no doubt to a lot of attention, or the police. We were however in luck. In fact, it’s quite funny how in tune we are. I’d spotted a place and slowed down, Astrid had seen the same spot and was looking at it, rather than the road and almost ran into me. It was in fact perfect, hidden completely from view of the road, in the yard of a ruined and deserted house. Wild camp win for Egypt.
Unfortunately, our freedom in Egypt drew to a close that morning. We’d been expecting it. Egypt is notorious amongst cyclists for the annoying police escorts that are forced upon you. In fact, it’s so bad now, barely any of the country is completely rideable. The Nile Valley is about the only route where they won’t at some point force you on to a bus or van (in our experience). We had an escort from about 100km outside of Cairo to at least Luxor. We’d asked our Egyptian hosts whether it was necessary for security and their answer was a resounding no. Plus they surmised, if there was an attack on us the kind of police sent to escort us would be pretty useless. Of course there have been terrorist attacks in Egypt targeting tourists, but they are random and infrequent, targeting big groups on buses rather than lone cyclists. There are also terrorist attacks in London and many other places in Europe. And surely, what better way to advertise that a foreigner is in the area, than a great big police escort?! They made our presence completely unsubtle throughout Upper Egypt.
Anyway, a police escort picked us up as we went to look at the nearby Meidum pyramid a little after sunrise. The individual officers are nice enough, but completely don’t get what we are doing. They basically want to hand us over as quickly as possible to the next area, to be rid of us. Stopping to eat, or rest is a hassle for them, and we actively had to fight to stay off the main roads. More about that later. Our first day with an escort was uneventful but annoying, as they made us stop and wait at check points for the next escort and lied about where we could eat (resulting in us both getting irate). Luckily, one officer spoke good English (although he asked us how our husbands could allow us to be traveling like this) and we arranged with him to meet up with two other cyclists, one we’d met at the Sudanese embassy, and one I’d been chatting to on WhatsApp. Ewaut and Martin were only a bit ahead of us, and had already found somewhere to stay that night. I felt that joining them would be the easiest option, and potentially we could ride together, at least for a bit to ease the frustration of being followed constantly.
Although the police were initially concerned that we’d be with two men, we assured them we could handle it. We pushed on for 130km, finally arriving at a ballroom by the Nile a bit after dark. Ewaut and Martin had gone rogue, deserting their escort they had pedalled to this weird theme park kind of complex. The people there had kindly allowed them (and now us) to sleep in their ballroom and the police appeared to have agreed. After a frustrating day, it was a relief to see Martin and Ewaut, even though we didn’t know them at all really. An experienced shared is somehow easier. We debriefed about our equally frustrating times with the police and settled down for the night. The police were so paranoid, they even followed us to the toilet.
We didn’t know it then, but that night was the beginning of our awesome ‘habibi’ cycling family that would last all the way to Ethiopia. The more I travel by bike, the more I realise these chance meetings on the road often make the best teams. While happy to share the road, we are all quite independent and that somehow changes the dynamic in a subtle but important way.
Martin and Ewaut are both exceptional humans and we slowly got to know each other over the next few days and weeks. Martin is British and in his 60’s, (we’ve actually met him before at the cycle touring festival in the UK!) and we bonded over our shared appreciation of tea and Radio 4 (amongst other things). He has a wealth of experience cycling all over the world and is full of the best stories. Ewaut is 25, has already built his own gypsy wagon, hitch hiked all over the US, cycled Spain to Senegal and plans to build his own sailboat. Plus he’s a podcast and techno guru! The four of us got along so well, and our banter and humor helped us all deal with what was at times a frustrating cycle through Egypt with our ever present police escort.
Every morning we had to fight to stay on the small roads that ran along side the canals in the Nile Valley. This sometimes involved pedalling passed yelling police officers with guns, and even locals who were trying to stop us. Even if we took the time to talk to the officers and explain and show them the map of our route, they would always try and force us on to the main, heavily traffic routes anyway (which was obviously more of a threat to our safety than terrorism). Or they’d lie and tell us the road stopped, despite the obvious through traffic. Once we’d forced ourselves onto the small roads, they’d eventually calm down and follow us from a distance. Part of me felt bad for being so disobedient, it wasn’t their fault, they probably didn’t want to follow a bunch of tourists on bikes. We tried to be as kind to the officers as our patience allowed, remembering it was their superiors that ordered this ludicrous escort. Occasionally, when cutting through villages, we’d lose them in the hectic traffic and could hear their desperate sirens as they tried to catch their rogue ferangi.
For breaks we stopped at road side tea stalls and snacked on delicious fuul, tamia (falafel) and koshary (amazing carb fest of rice, pasta, chickpeas, sauce, fried onion and garlic). The Egyptians we met were kind and welcoming, although we often even felt hindered in even speaking with them as the police would hover around and try and interfere. One officer told us that the reason they follow us is because we cannot speak Arabic and the traffic is so dangerous, while I really don’t think this is true, but it does go some way to explaining the overbearing attitude of the police. They cannot, it seems conceive of what our lives are like, because it is so far from their reality. To tell them we’ve all cycled in many parts of the world with equally (if not worse) crazy traffic, where we also don’t share a culture, or language, falls on deaf ears. Perhaps because they themselves have never been outside of Egypt, or perhaps they just lack imagination. Either way, the prevailing attitude is that we need to be protected and helped, especially Astrid and I. The sexism was fucking infuriating.
In the evenings we were always made to stay in hotels, and it some places they even tried to stop us from going out to dinner (we actively disobeyed this). We either had an armed escort, or on one occasion the extremely nervous man from the hotel following us, trying to prevent us from crossing the road and generally hovering right by us wherever we went. The whole thing starts of as kind of funny, but after days on end having armed escorts follow us to the toilet and sometimes driving directly behind us with sirens, my patience was waning.
A few days before Luxor, the intensity of our escort thankfully waned. In Abydos we were allowed to explore the temple of Seti I and Rameses II unhindered. These temples completely wowed me. In fact, even after exploring Luxor, the temple of Abydos (Seti I) is my favourite. The carved and coloured hieroglyphs and paintings were absolutely stunning, and like nothing I’d seen before.
The escort completely left us just outside of Luxor and we were free to choose where to stay. We chose Al Salam camp on the west side of the Nile and it proved to be a lot less hectic than the east bank. I think we were all grateful for the days off and the chance to drink a beer and just relax. Of course we explored the Valley of the Kings, riding out there one day and marveling at the tombs. They really are other worldly, the long and amazingly decorated corridors taking you deep (or so it seemed) underground to where the mummies once lay.
We did also head to the east bank to explore Karnak temple, which is also phenomenal. Such exquisite work. I tried hard to imagine how it would have been when complete; its grandeur was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. It would have been so beautiful, softly lit with torches, the faded colours that we see today bright…Amazing.
From Luxor we headed south towards Aswan without a police escort! It felt amazing. On the evening of our first day out of Aswan we asked if we could sleep at an ambulance station. They readily agreed, and one of the paramedics actually spoke perfect English. We were treated with such kindness, given cups of tea and brought dinner, which we all shared together. Astrid and I even got to check out the inside of the ambulance, which was similar to the ones we work in. Although we were told Egyptian women don’t work as paramedics as they are too delicate. Sigh. We all bunked down in the same room to sleep, and I must say, their overnight work load is a lot less than Hackney. Not once did they go out on a job overnight! In the morning we were given tea and breakfast and sent on our way. I was so humbled by their kindness and struggled to imagine some dirty cycle tourist turning up at Homerton Ambulance Station and being treated the same way. What different worlds we come from. If only we could take a little bit of theirs and they could take a little bit of ours.
After exploring Horus’s temple in Efu the landscape began to change. We were closer now to the Nile, there was more agriculture, smaller villages, less people, palm trees. Almost on a whim we followed a track through some fields to the banks of the Nile. What we found was an idyllic place to camp, we didn’t care that it had only been about 40km. You can’t really go anywhere in Egypt without people noticing and we soon had a small crowd watching us brew tea and generally relax. The adults came down later and assured us that it was fine to camp there. What bliss. We built a fire, cooked a delicious meal and watched the light fade over the Nile. Sometimes fantasies of countries do come true.
The next day we rode through some of the most picturesque scenery of Egypt so far. It was slightly hilly, with small villages, palm groves, fruit trees and views of the Nile. Unfortunately I was also creeped quite badly. I’d dropped behind to look for a place to pee and noticed a guy had seen me and turned around in his tuk tuk. At first I thought nothing of it and just kept going, but it became clear he was watching me, as every time I stopped, so would he and go to turn around to follow me. So I decided to just keep riding. Unfortunately he decided to follow me and get his penis out, while casually saying hello. I slammed on my breaks and just started yelling every profanity at him I could muster. He sped off. I picked up a rock and hurled it at his head as he came back passed. Sadly, it missed. I knew I was kind of in trouble, the road was deserted and I had an inkling he’d be back. I pedaled as fast as I could, finally feeling fear instead of anger. He did come back and ran me off the road while I hurled abuse at him. He did manage to grab me but I think I swore so much and so loudly, he left. What an utter arsehole. I shakily rode to where the others had stopped to wait for me and told them what had happened. After that we all went and sat quietly by the Nile for a bit. Then Ewaut and I collected a bag of trash, it felt somehow right to combat something so negative with something positive. Ewaut carried that bag the remaining 50km to Aswan and deposited it in a bin.
In the afternoon, things didn’t really improve. We were constantly harassed by what looked like 10 year olds in tuk tuks and one of them grabbed Astrid’s arse. I picked up a rock and chased them, but sadly was unable to catch the little arseholes. I mean being assaulted by a grown man is one thing, but by a barely teenager, it’s almost worse. Somewhere, they are being told on some level that it’s okay to grab and harass women when they are just kids. I mean what the fuck is that even about?!
Luckily Ewuat had arranged for us to be hosted by Yeha in Aswan and it was such a relief to be around a normal Egyptian man. Mostly people are kind and respectful and it was important to be reminded of that. We had a lovely evening talking and I was super impressed about Yeha’s commitment and enthusiasm for Couchsurfing. I thought we hosted a lot in London but Yeha is a super host!
Our days in Aswan were fairly relaxed. We booked our tickets for the ferry to Sudan as we had decided to take the boat across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa. There was some shopping at the market, eating, drinking beer on the Nile, a felucca ride, meeting lots of other couch surfers, dropping by Yeha’s mechanic to encourage him to finish the much delayed service (as you do) and a movie night. One day we barely left the house, (only once to buy food) as we all just needed a break. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, and since the huge reduction in foreigners visiting the country after 2011, people are desperate for your business. Of course this is totally understandable, but it does get tiring being seen as a wallet on legs and hassled for taxis, felucca rides, clothes and any number of things. And then if you do happen to actually want something being asked to pay 5 times of what you know the normal price is.
By the time Sunday morning came around and we were getting ready to ride the 16km to the ferry, I was ready to leave Egypt. It has of course been overwhelmingly a positive experience. However, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at times a difficult country to cycle in. I will leave you now with some of my happier impressions of this country; laughing with friends around bowls of fuul and cups of tea in Dahab; snorkeling in the Red Sea; Mohamed’s hospitality; sitting by the fire on the banks of the Nile, watching the sunrise; hazy, smoggy, sunsets; old men riding small donkeys; 3 camels in a pick up truck looking suave; cups of steaming shay; delighted waves from friendly kids; the smiles of old men; palm trees and the shimmering blue of the Nile; giggling girls wanting selfies with us; shouts of ‘welcome to Egypt!’.
The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa is a pretty authentic way to travel between two police states. There is a lot of paperwork, x-raying of bags and pointless procedures (poor Ewaut had to get an ancient computer to try and print out his online visa, as despite it being completely legal, the immigration officer freaked out about the stamp in his passport). Once we boarded, around 12 noon, we found a place on deck to call home. Then it was several hours of watching mainly washing machines and tuk tuk’s being loaded onto the boat. Finally, as a dust storm was blowing, we motored slowly out onto lake Nasser. We drank cups of tea, chatted to people, snacked and listened to podcasts and music, a perfect way to leave a country and head towards the unknown.
So, the first thousand kilometres or so of Africa are behind us. The Sahara awaits.