but grazed by Gaza
23.07.2010 34 °C
We struggled out of our seaside chalet and back onto the road. We were starting to get travel weary and getting back on the bikes to head into another hot windy day didn't really fill us with joy. We followed the surprisingly hilly coast road past mile after mile of windswept concrete skeletons and parched gardens of abandoned half built hotels and villas overlooking the turquoise waters.
(We only took photos of the picturesque bits!)
This coastline had been a rapidly expanding hub of up market tourism catering for Egypt's wealthy Israeli neighbours - that was until 2006 when some young Arabs drove a truck full of explosives into the foyer of Taba Hilton (The Israeli/Egyptian seaside border town) and detonated themselves killing scores of people and destroying most of the front of the hotel. Tourism to this coastline stopped overnight.
A week previously we had been sitting in a smart bar in Cairo talking to an Egyptian friend. We mentioned we would soon be in Israel.
"Don't say that word in public" he said. "You must refer to that place as 'The Jewish State'. In Arabic we refer to them as 'The Enemy' "
"But this is Egypt!" I protested - "The most moderate Arab nation in the world! You are friends with 'The Jewish State!'"
"No" He said firmly. "Only our government, and then only on paper"
As we neared the Israeli border we could see the dry hills of Saudi Arabia over the sea, the smart high-rise flats of Eilat, the strategic Israili town jostling the Jordanian port of Aqaba for a tiny but immensely important portion of The Red Sea coast.
You can see why Israel is security conscious. Most of their neighbours are oil-rich and openly hostile and their only 'friend' in the Middle East refers to them as 'the enemy'!!
We were expecting tight security at the border but that was an understatement!
There were a lot of mean looking male and female soldiers wearing dark glasses and carrying some pretty high tech weaponry. Everything was X rayed carefully. We even had to disassemble the bikes and send them though the machine! Polly was dusted for drugs and explosives. We were both interviewed independently about why we went to Sudan and Egypt.
"Why did you visit Sudan?"
"We've cycled from South Africa - Sudan is the biggest country in Africa so it is very difficult to traverse the continent without crossing it - and it is a very interesting place."
"Did you meet any people in Sudan?"
"Yes many many people, we found the people in Sudan incredibly friendly!"
The security official looked unimpressed and increasingly suspicious.
"Did you ever stay in their homes?"
"Oh Yes, The Sudanese are so hospitable, they were always offering us cups of tea and a bed for the night, but we usually camped in the desert."
"Did any of them give you any packages or documents."
"Oh no, only cups of tea and sometimes cake!"
"Your entry and exit dates - you were in Sudan for over 2 weeks. Why so long?"
"Sudan is HUGE! We crossed at about the thinnest point we could and it was over 1500km. 1500km on a bike is pretty good going in under 3 weeks - especially as we had a headwind most of the way"
2 hours and many questions later we were begrudgingly aloud into the Jewish State. Incredibly there intense search had not revealed 2 very mean looking lock knives, a canister of MACE spray - our little piece of self defence - that is illegal to carry though any international border. A pressurised bottle of petrol and US$300 hidden inside the bike frames.
Walking though the streets of the Jewish town was as if we had just disembarked a transatlantic flight and were walking the streets of Texas. A scorching desert but all the amenities of Western life. Air conditioned malls, coffee shops, frozen yogurt stands, burger kiosks, an IMAX cinema, lots of people wandering around chatting in broad American accents. But there were no tubby Americns here - most of the young men were sporting tight tee shirts - showing off their muscles - whipped into shape by a minimum of 3 years intense military service. Those not wearing tight tee shirts we still in their khakis carrying their combat equipment and licking ice creams.
We didn't have time to do too much wandering and ice cream eating as we only had 2 days to traverse the whole country to get to the port of Ashdod where the cargo ship was waiting. We didn't know how far away Ashdod was from the border as obtaining a map of Israel in Egypt was completely impossible. There wasn't even any info on Israel on Googlemaps when accessed from an Egyptian computer!! As it turned out Israel is a tiny country in comparison with all the other countries we had travelled though so Ashdod was within 2 days cycling of the border!
We set out across the desert. Our misconception of deserts as flat sandy places was quickly changing as we climbed and climbed away from the Red Sea and into the interior towards Beer Sheva - Where many of the Old testiment greats resided for some time e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel.
The desert was only broken by the occasional small valley filled with lush vinyards/peach/citrus/wheat/or sunflowers - all completely dependant on an irrigation pipe that we followed along the road. We assumed it came from the Jordan in the north of the country. You can see why the dead sea is dropping by 6inches/year.
For a long period we cycled parallel and about 40-60km from the Gaza strip and as evening approached we started looking for a place to camp. I spotted a lovely looking patch of trees in the middle of a huge field of wheat. We headed over. As we got closer we could see there were people in trees. Having not seen any Arabs in Israel so far - we thought it would de interesting to go and chat.
Khumal was shoeing and lunging a beautiful stallion. We sat under the trees for almost an hour and chatted in gesture and broken English to him and his friends. After a while we asked if it was Ok for us to set camp the night - they had no objections so we pitched our tent and cooked our dinner under a tree at the other end of the copse. As darkness fell and Khumal's friends joined him for a Friday night drinking session around a fire and things became less idyllic and harmonious. We went to sleep but were woken several times by drunken shouting.
"You, English" then non descript Arabic.
Of course then you start to think - 'bugger we are 40km from the Gaza strip - Western hostages are a valuable commodity. Even if Khumal is our wholehearted friend he isn't be able to control his drinking buddies as amply demontsrated by their yelling.'
I slept fitfully, clutchinng a knife in one hand and the can of MACE in the other. Then I heard a twig snap.
I was immediately fully alert - heart pumping I looked through the tent inner to see the siluette of a large man standing over us.
"Hello - What do you want?" I said while quickly unzipping the tent to get in a less defenceless position.
The shadowy figure said nothing - turned his back and slowly walked off through the darkness. We didn't sleep very well after that!
We were back on the bikes early the next morning and cruised down down down to Ashdod - were we hoped our boat would be waiting. Excitement welled up in us as the Meditteranian came into sight. The beach felt just like Bournemouth, dumping the bikes we ran across it dodging sandcastles, brolleys, deckchairs and sunburned girls wearing too little and dived in in our undies! Still well over 1500km of cycling to go - but we felt so close to home!
Fully refreshed and high on lack of sleep and adrenalin from the night before we headed to Ashdod port to find our passage to Europe…. But the 10 storey cargo ship was not there!!
01.07.2010 23 °C
Just got home.. it's all very exciting!
We were on the radio yesterday - check out http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p008hrvq then skip 56.30 minutes into the show!
We're also in the Daily Echo - check out http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/8246148./
But we still have soooo many stories to tell and will get back into doing weekly updates soon.
Really looking foreward to telling you all about the Israel and what happened when we wildcamped 20km from the Gaza strip, our ride on a cargo ship accross to to Italy.. and how we kept fit for the 7 days spent on ship, all about the wonderous feeling of spring in Europe - the Italian icecream and vino and then crossing the alps and traversing france!
Watch this space!!
Rob and Pol
The Sinai Peninsula
We had reached the pyramids but despite our feelings of ecstasy our journey was far from over. We had covered a gruelling 12000km but we still had a few thousand to go.
After a night in Giza admiring the distant grandeur of the pyramids we had a day absorbing their greatness before heading into Cairo proper where a fellow cyclist had kindly agreed to put us up.
People often ask us what the most dangerous part of our trip has been so far and I believe it could possibly be dodging the traffic in Cairo. I have never experienced anything like it. More than once I felt all my confidence melt away, dissolving, leaving me completely stranded amidst 8 lanes of alien traffic. They never crawl. The traffic progresses by means of intermittent bursts of acute acceleration followed by abrupt brakes. There is a whole section in the Egypt Lonely Planet on how to cross the road in Cairo, the basic gist of which is “find a local, put him between you and the oncoming traffic, and run when he does” yet even following this formula I had to duck out of several attempts.
Anne and Mo, her boyfriend, were absolute stars. Minutes after arriving at their flat low range stomach pains which had been grumbling erupted into the acute stages of full blown giardia. When we were recovered sufficiently to venture more than a few metres away from the toilet they did a thorough job of showing us the sights and giving us the low down on Cairo.
The view from Mo's flat - 3 pyramids and the Nile!!!
Keen cyclists who had done a trip together from Cairo across the Sinai peninsula to the Red Sea a few months ago in preparation for a longer trip from Cairo to Germany (Anne’s homeland) Mo and Anne inspired us with their tales. Our plan had been to head from Cairo to Alexandria where we would pick up a ship to Europe. However it turned out after much investigation that this would not be possible and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves tracing Mo and Anne’s steps, well pedal strokes, across the Sinai desert en-route to Israel.
Sinai is barren and beautiful. We stopped off to climb one of two possible mountains thought to be the Mount Sinai of Old Testament fame where Moses received the ten commandments from God, twice!
It was incredibly cold on Mount Sinai and in St.Catherines, the little village below but on top of the mountain a cup of tea purchased from a Bedouin who spends his days camped up there also bought us the use of a thick camel-hair rug whilst we waited for the sun to set.
Our onward journey found us escaping the glare of the sun in this Bedouin stop where we were once more treated with heart-warming hospitality as we discovered these men had paid for our meal. They were in the area for a few months working with techniques to preserve ancient Coptic writings in the cliff face.
As we came to the eastern side of the peninsula we enjoyed a most fantastic, long and sustained downhill as we dropped down to the Red Sea below.
The Red Sea
The eastern shores of the peninsula, and indeed the whole Egyptian coast line, were in the throws of expansion when a suicide bomber drove a van into the Hilton hotel in the town of Taba in 2004 stopping the development dead. Consequently the coastline has an eerie “ghost town” feeling as you cycle past deserted half built complexes. However we were happy to find somewhere with some life on the beach north of Nuweiba.
We sat on the beach watching the coastline of Saudi Arabia flush pink with the sunset. The Red Sea coastline is unbelievably beautiful and we were so pleased to find ourselves there. We walked into the water off the beach with a snorkel and mask and found ourselves submerged in an underwater paradise.
We ended up staying a couple days longer than we had planned to.........
WE'VE MADE IT!!!!
07.06.2010 32 °C
Abydos temple really was something special. We were not planning to look around as there is such a plethora of ancient monuments in Egypt and we were starting to get the feeling 'seen 1 temple, seen them all'. however our lovely Dutch hostess - Yvonne - at the 'House of Life' adjacent to the temple was amazed that we would come so close and yet miss 'the most incredible temple in Egypt'. 'It is a place of supreme energy... i'll show you around!'.. it was an offer that could not be refused!
The temple was incredibly intact - it had been built to last 4000yrs - although it had benefited form some 1950s renovation - it seemed that almost all of the structure was original.
As it turned out Yvonne had been a temple musician in about 2000BC. So had an intricate and heartfelt knowledge of the temple's history and the meaning of all the beautiful carving and hieroglyphics.
One of the most interesting (but least profound) carvings is shown above. Ancient Egyptians are said to be able to see into the future - Whether this mason had a dream about lynx helicopters, tomahawk tanks and jet fighters or this is an impressive prank by some 1950's restorators will probably always add to the mystery of Abydos!
Unlike the majority of Egyptian sites Abydos receives virtually no tourists on account of the fact that an Islamic terrorist group targeted foreigners in the area - the last attack being in 2000. To combat this threat to the national treasury (tourism is the top source of foreign investment and spending in Egypt) tens of thousands of 'Tourist Police' were recruited to mind foreign visitors. These policemen have particularly little to do in the 600km between Abydos and Cairo as most foreigners still bypass the region. Us vulnerable white cyclists were therefore granted a compulsory escort of between 4 and 8 men in 1 or 2 vehicles - for the whole 600km....
Initially the company of stern policeman was a fun novelty - making us feel like real adventurers.
But after a while it became a bit suffocating - Stopping for an al fresco pee is alot less pleasurable with 8 armed Egyptians looking on!
Our excitement mounted as the road signs started a Cairo countdown 200km, 199km,198km etc, etc. The countdown also seemed to get the car/truck/bus drivers very excited too. As the volume and speed of traffic increased the road manners decreased so much so that Rob nearly got in a punch up with a minibus driver.
The camels, however didn't seem to feel the stress in the air
It was a welcome relief to pull off the main drag, wash the dust off our faces and head towards the first of the Great Pyramids.
Dashoun lies 25km south of Giza and seems to have been the practice ground for building pyramids. There is a VERY large pile of rubble showing where the fist attempt once stood. Second attempt was far more successful and still stands today - the famous Step Pyramid.... however it doesn't really count as a 'real' pyramid - the steps ruin the aesthetic grace somewhat.
The Egyptian architects then tried an extremely ambitious pyramid which was so huge and steep that it started to rip itself apart... so they had a quick rethink, reduced the angle creating the aplty named Bent Pyramid.
Lessons were learned and applied to build the first of the Great Pyramids - The Red Pyramid.
It was incredible to have the pyramids all to ourselves. Our bikes weren't even allowed in the carpark at Giza - let alone cycle them to the top of the pyramid!!
We were also allowed to clamber around and venture inside... the entrance was through a rather small door 1/3 up the Red Pyramid. Then a 60 vertical meter decent down a terrifyingly steep and claustrophobic tunnel. At the heart of the pyramid were several vaulted chambers - revealing the incredible ancient technology - the enormous stones were cut and placed with perfect precision as if with a diamond saw and laser level. The silence was deafening - a perfect final resting place!
I say we had the pyramids to ourselves - that wasn't strictly true!
The last 30km into town were done in the rush hour traffic - racing against the fading light and concentrating hard on not getting run over.
We pulled into our campsite just in time to hastily buy a celebratory beer and swig it wile watching the sun sink over Giza's pyramids and sky scrapers!
We slept well. We made it from South Africa to the Pyramids on our bikes, one bus, one train, 3 ferries, and a few free rides up the hills hanging onto the back of trucks!