Now we are knocking on Sudan's door.
This morning we arrived at the ferry ticket office to find a couple of travellers already there who we had met previously in Cairo. A few minutes later two more couples appeared.
Mr Salah, the ticket manager, explained that the Tour D'Afrique has filled a ferry and vehicle barge, so there will now be two of each sailing for Sudan. He then dispatched us to the traffic court, followed by the police office.
"When all is done, return here. One ferry will depart tomorrow (Sunday), the other on Monday. When you come back I should know which ferry you will be on."
So our little band of three motorbikes and three overland trucks weave through the roads of Aswan to the traffic court, buried in the dirt-paved back-streets.
There, an impromptu courtroom had been set up on the pavement, two chairs and two high stools as tables. Obviously we were expected. We all handed over our passports and Egyptian driving licenses which were checked for dates, then photocopied at a kiosk across the road.
Itinerant travellers mill about outside the traffic court awaiting judgement.
Closer view of temporary court room, two officials examine the evidence
Then the court deliberated for an hour to determine if any of us had outstanding fines, which gave the local teahouse, bakery and supermarket plenty of time to sell us everything we needed for the wait, and for the ferry journey.
Two more overland trucks arrived to join us and we all received little certificates to say we hadn't misbehaved.
So then it was three motorbikes and five trucks that drove in convoy through more Aswan streets to the traffic police office, where our certificates, licenses and number plates were all exchanged for yet another piece of paper.
Lastly we all arrived back at Mr. Salah's office where we paid for our passenger tickets and he announced whose vehicles will be on the Sunday barge, and whose on Monday's.
And as far as I could work out, despite the unusually large number of foreign passengers, there is still only one passenger ferry, on Monday.
This was reinforced when he told Caroline, Beau and me (our bikes are on Sunday's barge) that a good way to reach the port on Monday is the 8:00am train from Aswan station direct to the dockside.
"The ferry doesn't depart until the afternoon, but if you leave it until noon to board you may find all the passenger space already occupied. Take the train and you'll be one of the first on board."
The total timescore for obtaining our tickets? A swift Egyptian four hours.
Now we are repacking, keeping with us everything we need for the next four days (the barges are regularly one or two days late arriving in Wadi Halfa, sometimes more), and stacking everything else on the bikes. The passenger ferry itself has a published 17-hour journey time, arriving late morning on Tuesday.
Tomorrow we have to be at the dockside at 10am for the purchase of vehicle tickets, customs clearance, passport clearance and loading.
Tentatively, Caroline asks how long that might take.
"Maybe one hour, maybe five hours. Customs is like a secret society, I never know how long they take!"
With luggage re-organied as much as we can for now, I venture into a barber shop next to our hotel (which, handily, is right outside the railway station). My last haircut was also with an Egyptian barber in Nuweiba, so I reckon I'm an expert with them now.
He has a TV on, showing Manchester United v Hull City. All double-dutch to me.
A friend of the barber comes in, who speaks pretty good English, and we go through the usual things about where you are from, where going, and so on.
So he asks which football team I support. My usual answer is just to say I live near Crystal Palace.
So he points to the TV screen and says "What do you think of @#*@*#?" (Name I didn't recognise).
I said as much and he looks surprised.
"Look!" he says again, finger pressing against the screen. "He's Egyptian! Plays for Hull! One of their best players!"
Oh dear....... I fail the International Football Test again - and this time in a barber shop!
The adventure continues.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 07:04 PM
Footprints In The Saharan Sand
We arrived in Luxor yesterday (Jan 17th) after riding around the Western Desert for the two weeks since leaving Cairo.
Approaching the White Desert (part of Egypt's Western Desert) after staying a couple of nights in the Bahariya Oasis.
I fitted a camera clamp to the little screen on my bike and took a few 'action' photos while on the move. Most were a blurred smudge.
Caroline in front, Beau behind, 5 litre petrol cans strapped either side of his number plate.
We camped in the White Desert. So-called because of the large quantity of chalk deposits and white chalk rock formations, carved by the wind into all sorts of fantastic shapes, from a few feet high to fifty feet or more.
Our campsite, under 'The Acacia Tree'
And it's a funny thing, but the different shapes seem to be congregated into groups of similar appearance. As these rocks don't have legs, how do they do that?
Thus there is a huge area called The Mushrooms, where all the rocks are carved by the wind into mushroom-like shapes. Nearby is an equally huge area called The Tents, where the chalk rocks resemble nomads' tents. And so on. As the same wind blows through all the White Desert, how did these rocks become grouped together?
Unknown to me, some considerable time ago on this trip, the bolt holding the chain guide roller in place, immediately behind the gearbox on my bike, fell out.
By some quirk, when the guide roller itself fell out, instead of dropping onto the road it must have lodged somewhere in the area between gearbox, mudguard and swing-arm, where it's had a free ride since. Miles of shaking and bumping over all sorts of tarmac and dirt roads didn't dislodge it, but we are approaching areas of steadily worsening roads where it will certainly be shaken out and lost forever.
So, as I was unaware of this situation, and the guide roller will need to be back in place for those bad roads, what is fate's answer?
Fate - that mysterious force that decides what will happen, whatever we think.
Well, there's a lot of sand in the Sahara, so while camping in the White Desert we thought we'd ride around some of it, taking in all the amazing shapes of the wind-carved chalk rocks on the way.
The chalk, in lots of places, is flat and appears in large areas just above the sand, or in others, just an inch or so below, or elsewhere there's no chalk at all, just sand. So, riding around between the rock structures, the surface constantly changes between firm chalk, firm sand just above the chalk, and soft sand varying between soft and, errr, far too soft for our heavily-loaded bikes.
It was fun trying out these different riding surfaces, and not so much fun pulling the bikes out when stuck in the deep bits. At one point Caroline and Beau decided to stop riding and walk around a bit - a funny thing to do when you're on a motorbike journey - so I carried on down a track not yet explored.
Caroline and Beau park in the White Desert and decide on some 'walking'.
As confidence built up and the surface became easier to read, I found myself zooming along in third gear.
Then fate stepped in. It steered me across an area of deep sand, leading to old tyre tracks and firm chalk beyond. But via a deep hidden sand-hole far too soft for my momentary lapse of concentration.
The handlebars went one way, I didn't compensate, and fate laid my fully-loaded bike - camping gear and all - down in the sand on its right-hand side, with me completely alone.
But there's the opportunity here for a test, can I pick the bike up on my own? Under the searing desert sun? Charlie and Ewan style bikes need at least three men to pick them up, or a crane towed behind the support truck.
I removed the spare tyre, some water, a roll bag and the tent, and my helmet and riding jacket. And heave-ho and up she rises. Back to the vertical. So not bad at all.
And what's this in the sand, where the bike has just been resting on its side? Round and black and grubby.
It looks like a chain guide roller!
What an amazing coincidence, someone's lost a roller right where my bike parked itself on its side!
Hold on - let's nip round to the other side of my bike for a look.
Hey! My guide roller's gone! And Iíve found another one right here in the Saharan sand! How did that happen??
The Footprints In The Sand.
(Anyone not familiar with this little story can find it through an internet search if they want).
Just as I thought that I was all alone riding in the Sahara, there was Fate. Deciding that I needed to be told that my roller was no longer attached to my bike, before we reached the bad roads and it fell out altogether. (And it needs to be fixed back in place for the bad roads, to prevent the bumps and jolts from sending the chain striking against the top of the gearbox housing).
So very kindly, Fate sent me hurtling towards the hidden sand hole and laid the bike over on its right so that the black roller fell out of its hidey-hole straight onto the white sand. And of course I immediately saw it once the bike was upright again. How clever is that!
After playing in the sand some more and wearing ourselves out we rode the short distance to Farafra Oasis for the night.
Afternoon tea on the way to Farafra. 'Tent' formation behind.
My bike was on its side shortly before this.
And no, after I realised I'd picked the thing up before taking a photo of it lying down, I was not going to lie it down again just for the camera!
The following morning we set off for the longer ride to the Dakhla Oasis. Tantalisingly, that road skirts the very edge of The Great Sand Sea, truly a legendary area of the Sahara.
At the water's edge of The Great Sand Sea.
Contemplation On The Sand Sea.
At a stop for some photos another amazing coincidence. A rider on a Honda Africa Twin coming from the opposite direction stops for a chat. He departed Cape Town six months ago and is nearing the end of his journey to his home in Alexandria. He introduces himself as none other than Omar Mansour, a regular contributor to the help and advice columns on this HorizonsUnlimited website, and provider of assistance to overland bikers all over Saharan East Africa.
At the side of the road Omar gives us all sorts of useful information for our way ahead. From where to find easy sand dunes at the Dakhla Oasis, to how to plan our first couple of days riding after crossing from Ethiopia into Kenya on the notorious Moyale to Marsabit road. This road is famed for breaking bikes (and cars) in half, requiring a long and expensive lift in the back of a pickup truck to the nearest welders, normally in Nairobi.
So we thank Omar for his advice and keep our fingers crossed.
But fate was still lurking. That evening we stopped in El Qasr, in the Dakhla oasis, and took most of the luggage off the bikes. The next morning we planned to explore the local sand dunes recommended by Omar earlier in the day.
And the next morning - Pow! - Wallop! - Montezuma's Revenge enters stage right with a vengeance. That is, it makes a devastating direct hit on Beau, a glancing blow on Caroline and misses me.
So we have a day of chores instead. In the afternoon when Caroline was back in circulation (but Beau was right out of action the entire day and part of the next), we removed all air filters for cleaning, a nasty sort of job involving rinsing them clean in petrol then soaking them in oil. And fitting the new tyre on Caroline's front wheel.
And would you believe it? Fate is there again.
With old tyre off and new one ready, we pumped some air into the inner tube just to check. What's that hissing? A tiny hole! And a check in the old tyre revealed quite a length of steel pin protruding inside. The removal of tyre and tube must have just pushed it enough to penetrate right through the 4mm thick rubber of this super-heavy-duty inner tube.
And would you believe it? Mohamad, the ebullient owner of the hotel we are staying in, arrives and introduces his friend Mohammad, owner of the tyre repair shop across the road. "Mohammad will repair that very good, with heated vulcanizing machine. Better than your patch and rubber glue. He does excellent job for my guests!"
So Mohammad of the tyre repair shop took over and did it all for us.
And that was interesting in a way. Because he had never seen a tyre security bolt (or 'rim-lock' if you're younger) before. But dealt with it quite expertly.
The last time that happened to me was in northern Finland, also on a Serow (my old one) and the tyre man there had never seen a security bolt before either. He wanted to remove it altogether, said the tyre couldn't be put back on if it stayed there. I ended up having to fit the tyre myself in his garage.
Finland 0 : Egypt 1
The day after fitting Caroline's new tyre, with Beau still not well, Caroline and I explore the 'easy' dunes near El Qasr.
But I decide in the end that our bikes with little engines, road gearing and heavy luggage are not good, or even no good, for riding in soft sand. There's insufficient torque at the rear wheel to get moving without putting the clutch in serious danger of destruction. Even when we fit our smaller gearbox sprockets later in the journey.
And even riding down these little dunes in first gear, full throttle was needed to maintain momentum through the sand.
Perversely, the local riders (Chinese 250cc bikes are tremendously popular in the towns and villages of Egypt) get around on the sand with little trouble. They have lots of experience, and road tyres, which spin easily in the sand saving the clutch on take-off. Our knobblies grip so well that no spin is possible. Even on full throttle the engine stalls with a worrying burst of pinking.
So we are now in Luxor, seeing some sights, but mainly preparing for the long haul between the Egypt/Sudan border at Aswan, and Nairobi. Petrol, water and internet will be in short supply. Beau now has ten litres of petrol cans strapped to his bike, which we tested in the Western Desert. We think that will be enough.
We also need to jetison some stuff - that is, some weight. What stuff we don't yet know, but stuff will have to go......
Also, I needed to repair my chain guide roller. I unbolted the roller from Beau's bike, which is the same, and found that I had not only lost the retaining nut and bolt but also the simple ball bearing inside.
We are staying at a camp site in Luxor popular with long-distance overland travellers and the owner is used to travellers preparing their vehicles for the difficult stretch to Nairobi. I asked if he knew of a place that could do a repair. He consulted with his son, a lengthy conversation in Arabic, and said finally, "Jump on the back of his bike, he'll take you to a good place!"
Well, having been pillion riding around Cairo for Caroline's new tyre, Luxor promised to be easy-peasy.
We zoomed along for maybe a couple of miles zig-zagging around horse-and-carts and stopped outside a typical (that is, decrepit) lock-up, housing a small "we do anything" mechanic's workshop. Just like my garage but with an enormous lathe in the back and an enormous pillar drill in the front.
The owner examined Beau's roller, the remains of mine, and on dismantling the bearing inside Beau's, made that Egyptian "pppppszzz" sound - that you hear a lot and that can mean anything.
He mounted his bicycle, signalled "wait here" and pedalled off down the lane.
Presently he returned, fished some bits out of his pocket, and I found out what "pppppszzz" means.
It means, "This is pretty crude, no wonder it fell apart, this bearing just isn't up to the job, it needs a proper sealed journal pressed into it, I'll get two, one to replace your lost one and one to replace this inadequate thing in your son-in-law's guide roller."
And that's what he did!
Followed by his machinist making up a new spacer to replace my lost one and producing replacement nut, bolt and washers out of the company's junk box.
All for three UK pounds, and we have decent bearing journals now for the rough road ahead.
The remains of my roller, left. Beau's roller with bicycle-wheel-style ball bearing, right.
(That's an ashtray behind holding them in the right pose)
Smart new sealed journals in both rollers, mine all repaired on the left.
And all fitted back in place.
So our plan now, should internet not be available for a while, and just to make Fate laugh, is to ride down the Nile road to Aswan in a couple of day's time, and take the Monday (25th Jan) ferry that crosses Lake Nasser and the Sudanese border to Wadi Halfa, passing Abu Simbel on the way. The ferry is a once-a-week affair, taking 18 hours. But vehicles go on a separate barge which can take up to three days.
Thence our road follows the Nile and its villages to Khartoum, continuing onwards across the border with Ethiopia and on to Addis Ababa.
There should be internet somewhere in that lot.
Not only that, but 25th January is Burns night. Let's hope there's a well-prepared Scottish contingent on the ferry to show all the Egyptians, Sudanese and English a thing or two.
Please post a haggis to McCrankpin, c/o Wadi Halfa Ferry Terminal, Aswan, Egypt.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 05:57 PM
The main experience in visiting the Giza pyramids has nothing to do with the pyramids themselves.
But firstly, many many years ago, I attended a lecture given by a chartered Mechanical Engineer at the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London. The speaker was a serious amateur Egyptologist and his lecture had been published in magazines of the time and carried by BBC radio. He gave an irreverent but comprehensive debunking of all the romantic folklore written about the construction of these things.
A brief synopsis of the lecture was that life in the Nile area at the time of the Pharoes was very good and peaceful, a rich happy healthy society with an abundance of food, materials, knowledge, motivation, and love for its rulers. So the immediate response to a suggestion and desire to build massive pyramids over the tombs of those rulers was to enthusiastically assemble huge armies of willing workers and engineers. They built massive but simple ramps and levers enabling the masons' stone blocks to be lifted to great heights without a huge amount of sweat or muscle power. This was followed by a considerable number of failed and collapsed attempts over a very long time before success was achieved. Success that by virtue of the simple geometry and construction has indeed lasted thousands of years.
The lecturer's angle was that these pyramids were not great feats of human success, but actually fairly mediocre attempts at something pretty simple, albeit on a large scale, with many basic failures along the way.
So I was interested to see the reality.
And, well, yes, when it comes to neat straight and level brick and stone work, those ancient builders didn't appear to be in the top league. With the flat stone cladding long since disappeared (except for sections on a couple of the pyramids), the stonework revealed does seem a bit of a jumble, not many straight lines or vertical joints.
That's not to distract from the magnificence and grandeur of the artifacts that these constructions once housed, including the wonderful 'Sun Boat' now on display in an unfortunately awful building right up against the Great Pyramid of Cheops, completely destroying any semblance of a 'view' on that side of the pyramid.
And anyone expecting to see the view of the Sphinx that used to appear in illustrations of maybe sixty years ago will be seriously disappointed, as it's surrounded by a concrete structure onto which tourists are funnelled and squeezed, completely detracting from the monument itself. The whole thing being supplemented by banks of seating, gantries, and light installations for the nightly son et lumiere show.
But what do you actually experience when you arrive?
An army of hustlers that do their best, under the noses of the 'Tourist and Antiquities Police', to block the road leading to the entrance and persuade independent visitors that vehicles aren't permitted, you must park 'here' or 'there', and you must travel by 'donkey', 'camel' or 'cart' as it's 'ten kilometres to go all the way round'.
Once inside, the police argue and shout amongst themselves as they can't agree about where you can park your bike, so you ignore them and park next to a few local motorbikes by the ticket windows. Some of these bikes, you later find out, belong to the policemen.
At the ticket windows another army of hustlers are fighting to jump the queues where they insist that all the visitors sitting on their camels/in their carts are students and must therefore pay half price, "so hand over a wad of tickets pretty damn quick/I can't wait in this queue all day/no I don't have their student cards/there's something attached to the back of my hand that may help........"
Well, I'm wearing a motorbike jacket with padded elbows, and a helmet, so I get my ticket against the flow of backhanding hustlers but I canít say the same for the other ordinary visitors behind me.
Beyond the ticket inspectors, x-ray machines and metal-detectors - more hustlers call out noisily demanding to see my ticket. Don't know what for, but it looks like another attempt to force hapless visitors to buy a camel ticket/cart ticket to get around the site or a bogus ticket for the inside of a pyramid.
And whatever you do, don't get out a camera if you're in a group of flashily-dressed visitors (like many of the numerous Russian visitors). Yet more hustlers will demand your camera, demand you follow them to the best viewpoint, lead you by the hand, demand you pose while they take your photo, and demand a Pharoe's ransom for return of the camera. I watched as the police umm'ed and arrh'ed about intervening in a couple of disputes, waiting for the discrete baksheesh to appear from the hustler. A completely different attitude to the calm helpfulness of the tourist police in the mayhem of Nuweiba port.
Maybe it would have been better, after all, if all of the pyramids had collapsed........
As some of them didn't collapse, I'll offer my pet observation on beliefs in the after-life held at the time of their construction.
Those Pharoes were convinced that after death they would go on some great journey, so they filled their tombs with all the things necessary to make the voyage safe and comfortable.
I'd like to know exactly how those beliefs came about, how those thoughts and ideas of travel after death came to enter the minds and spirits of the people living in those times. What unknown forms of travel might they have conceived of? Did they have ideas of travel by wondrous means that could only exist in their imaginations? What were they? How futuristic?
Because, the simple fact is, that after their deaths, those bodies did indeed travel by fantastical means. To research laboratories and museums in faraway places, all over a world unknown to those people when they were alive.
Did the modern discoveries of those mummified bodies and subsequent transport to exhibitions in the world's capital cities lead directly, by some sort of pre-ordination, to the beliefs they held thousands of years earlier?
Did they see themselves as early time-capsules, buried to be discovered millenia later by descendants that they imagined might have advanced in ways that they could not concieve of, but at least had a conception that incredible advances in mankind's knowledge were a definite likelihood?
Is it possible, or even certain maybe, for everyone's different beliefs in the after-life to come true, as was the case with these Pharoes? By some means that the believer can never imagine or conceive of?
So many questions - so much time to think about them when you're riding a motorbike to Cape Town!
On New Years Day I opened my 2010 Old Moores Almanac - no answers there. Nor on the road south. The answers can only be found in one place - your own head.
Happy New Year.
Some token photos
The Great Pyramid, Greater Cairo beyond
While I took this photo, a hustler on a camel demanded I sit on his camel for a better picture. "I know, I take lots of photos." I didn't let go of my camera.
There are nicer places to see nicer pyramids, at Saqqara and Dahshur. Easily reached on the road southwest from Cairo, directly from our campsite, that went through a few unspoilt Nile Valley agricultural villages as a bonus.
Far fewer visitors and hustlers at these places.
Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara
No concrete constructions here to corral the tourists.
Bent Pyramid at Dahshur
Here, there's no car park as such, as there are hardly any cars and no coaches. So just ride your bike around the periphery, stop where you like. But mind the sections of deep soft sand, not easy to spot.
It's definitely the pyramid that's bent, not the bike.
Red Pyramid at Dahshur
This one is free to go inside, and it's quite an adventure. Climb the crooked stone steps up to the entrance hole about a quarter of the way up the pyramid's side. Then a long descent, bent double, down a 4-foot high tunnel to two huge 40-foot high chambers, the air being four thousand years old and at about 50 deg C.
High up the wall of the second chamber is a tiny opening to a third, 50-foot high chamber, reached by climbing a tall rickety wooden staircase.
Then the long climb down the rickety staircase followed by the much longer climb (bent double) up the 4-foot high tunnel back to the air outside, and the crooked stone steps all the way down to ground level again.
That was yesterday - today my thigh muscles are not keen on helping me to get in and out of my tent.......
Posted by Ken Thomas at 05:12 PM