100km to an ambulance station on the desert road
150km to another ambulance station on the desert road
135km to Bawiti, Baharia
Rest day in Bawiti, Baharia
100km to camp in the White Desert
80km to Qasr Farafra
90km to Abu Minqar (camping by the police station)
100km to camp in the desert
75km to El Qasr in El Dhakra
100km to an ambulance station
120km to Al Kharga
160km to camp in the desert
160km to Luxor
10,959km so far
This is the story of riding in the Western desert, Egypt, with Alex Rossello, who is from Barcelona, and is on his first cycling adventure.
The Western desert might seem a bit of a long and unnecessary route when you look at the map. The other options were to follow the Nile or the Red Sea coast. But Alex wanted to do the desert and I wanted a challenge that would suit the “Thirsty cyclist” but also the opportunity to cycle with Alex seemed much more enjoyable and safer for both of us. It turned out to be a great route and also much better to have another crazy fool to experience it with….
After spending a day getting supplies and repairs for our bikes, we left the hostel in the centre of Cairo at 8am, and found the direction we wanted to go was blocked by tanks. There was no obvious reason for this, no protests or anything and the soldiers had smiled and waved at us the day before so we weren’t worried, we just found another route. It was just 14km to the Pyramids at Giza which lie to the South-West of Cairo. After crossing the river, the traffic wasn’t as bad as we had expected and although there don’t seem to be any rules, we generally felt that nobody would drive into us. The lack of rules also meant that we could cycle in the wrong direction down a one way road to reach the pyramids. When we arrived I cycled very quickly past the guys who tell you that the only way in is riding their camel or horse and instead I bought a ticket at the entrance. At first we were told “no bicycles – it is forbidden” but I pleaded with the official saying I had cycled 9500 km from England and need a photo of the bike in front of the pyramids. He smiled and said “ok but no racing”.
In front of the pyramids, we stood in excitement and awe and took as many photos as we could.
There were no other tourists so it was a great time to visit. There was even a road between the pyramids, so we were actually able to cycle past them. I went into the second pyramid down a tiny opening and walked down backwards, bent over to reach the tombs at the bottom. There wasn’t much to see as the mummies are all in the British museum!
I came back out and found Alex who was chatting with the locals, and we left after stopping to see the sphynx.
We ate Koshary, a mix of pasta and beans, for 5 Egyptian pounds – (about 50p) and then started cycling towards the desert. The last part of Cairo we passed through was 6th October City. All the buildings were empty shells. It was a ghost town. We were worried we had made a mistake and would not be able to buy water until we found some a roadside kiosk where we bought as much as we could carry. About 8 litres each.
The desert road was initially lined with piles of rubbish. Not the scenery I had imagined. Just miles of road surrounded by quite uninteresting flat dark sand and a railway line.
Although the sun was out, the air was quite cold. So it seemed a bit like riding along a beach in England. Except there was no sea and no fish and chip shops. Just sand and more sand.
As we had spent the morning at the pyramids, there wasn’t a lot of time left before it started to get dark. At 100km I saw some buildings and stopped outside one with an ambulance and waited for Alex. I hoped we could ask them for a safe place to camp. And maybe some water. The Ambulance men, Sameh and Mohamed said we could sleep inside and opened up a room for us! We cooked on their stove, recharged our phones and sat drinking tea. They even had a laptop with one of my favourite football games (Pro Evo 2011) and we played for a couple of hours. It was great fun and not the tough experience I had expected on my first night in the desert! And the game where I beat Mohamed was very exciting… England 4 Germany 2.
The next day I flew at 35-40km per hour as a westerly tailwind pushed us along the flat desert road. There were plenty of beeps of encouragement and waving from the trucks and vans passing us. There was a rest house at 100km where I drank tea and waited for Alex to catch up. Full of food and stocked up with more water, we got cycling again and managed 150km before finding another ambulance station. I could have done more but it was only the second day for Alex.
And it made sense to stick together and sleep at ambulance stations where we could enjoy the hospitality of the very friendly Egyptians. They cooked some amazing food and enjoyed playing with my phone and taking “selfies”.
The next day to Bawiti, at the Baharia Oasis was tougher. The road changed direction many times and we had headwind, small hills and some unfinished roads to deal with. The scenery had become more interesting at least with more dunes and white sand. I had a puncture after about 20km and changed the inner tube. The rear tyre was worn down, and had to be changed also. It had been going since Italy but there was no tread left and you could see threads coming through. With a new tyre and a new inner tube I got back to cycling.
Later we were invited to eat with road workers for lunch who laughed and joked with us and asked if we were married. I said “la” (no) but showed them a photo of Paola. They all agreed that she was “jamila” (beautiful) and I was asked if I could bring them some English women. We laughed as one guy said he would like a young thin girl, and the others said “so he can fatten her up and then she will look like him”.
After eating they gave us bread and dates for the journey which were very useful because it meant we didn’t have to cook.
We rolled along great stretches of nothing but sand and started to see curious rock formations, before coming to an even stranger sight, a road lined with trees.
There was a checkpoint and then 40km in the dark, mostly downhill, to Bawiti. I was lit up like a Christmas tree with automatic lights and a flashing armband but Alex had no back light. So I was relieved when an hour after arriving at the New Oasis Hotel, he showed up, exhausted but alive.
We had survived 3 days in the desert and covered 385km. And for Alex, a great achievement and for me it had been so much easier and more enjoyable than I had expected.
We spent a rest day in Bawiti where the New Oasis hotel was quite pleasant (with an orange tree you could help yourself to) but the nearby hot spring was an unattractive concrete square with boiling water, and the town was ugly, dirty and trying to eat was a constant battle with flies. I suppose I imagined something different from an oasis but I think I still have to adjust my expectations to real life in Africa.
Anyway it was a rest day and doing nothing was the main aim and we achieved that quite well. Alex had a mechanical problem and a screw for his rack snapped within the frame. He found a shop where they fixed it and I fell asleep back in the room.
We left in the morning and the desert immediately turned black, as if somebody had covered it in coal.
The black desert as it is known took most of the day, but by nightfall we had reached the White desert. We walked away from the road carrying our bags and then pushing our bikes in the darkness until we couldn’t go further. We camped for the first time and we made our first campfire. I was very proud of myself as I had not forgotten what I had learnt as a boyscout (“always be prepared”…. carry a lighter).
When we woke up we found ourselves on flat white sand miles from anyone and a sun rising next to us painting the sky orange. It was a nice moment.
That day we started to hit headwind and the cycling was a bit harder, but the views were amazing. The white desert is full of interesting chalky rock formations. They are so soft and flaky that over time the wind has sculpted wierd and wonderful shapes such as domes, balls, and mushrooms. And the effort of finding them by bicycle rather than in an organised coach tour made it even more rewarding.
And we found no other tourists to block our photos. Perfect.
That evening in Farafra we ate twice (A liver kebab and some koshari) and drank tea. I smoked some Shisha but it made my head dizzy so I think I will avoid it in future. There wasn’t much to see in town other than a museum. And we wanted to move on.
The next morning we found ourselves starting to really hit more headwind. We were also running very low on food and water when we arrived at Abu Minqar. We were offered a place to camp by the police station. Frankly they were kids with guns who I think were simply bored and “guarding” us gave them something to do. But Ahmed, who cooked for us was a nice guy and we were grateful for their hospitality. We laughed and joked and ate with them while watching “universal soldier: the return”, a terrible film where everyone gets shot and everything blows up. Our friends had machine guns but fortunately didn’t recreate any scenes from the film. They did have a very cute puppy which they told us was for sniffing drugs and bombs but I am sure it was just so they could play with him.
The next 2 days were much tougher as the wind was directly pushing against us. We also struggled to find enough water and food. We will mostly remember drivers waving and beeping, kids chasing us shouting hello, the spray of sand and being hit with blasts of wind as trucks passed, and hot dry air slowly cracking our lips.
We camped in the desert again with an amazing campfire and a plate of interesting food (pasta, questionable beef from a tin, foul beans, which really are called that, and cheese triangles).
And then to El Dakhra, an area of 3 towns in a 60km radius, and the first, El Qasr wasn’t as far as we had thought and we stayed at the El-Kasr hotel which is very very basic but for 5 euros including dinner and breakfast, pretty good value.
We had a rest day in El Qasr and went to a hot spring in the morning… A real open air hot bath made by men for men. So basically a very industrial trough..which the water passes into before being channelled off into the fields to irrigate crops. Not glamorous at all.
In the afternoon I caught a bus to the second town, the “capital” of El Dakhra, Mut, to find a cash machine. When I put my card in the machine, it stopped working and swallowed my card. The Egyptian officials inside the bank were incredibly officious and refused to simply give me my card back. They demanded my passport as proof the card was mine, but I hadn’t taken it with me. I showed them another Visa card with my name on it but this wasn’t good enough. I said it was clearly my card as I have the same name on my other card, the security guard had seen me put my card in, I told them it had swallowed my card immediately and they can’t have many cards with western names on them can they, and I am the only foreigner in town today. Still not good enough. I sat down and waited.
This seems to generally be the right thing to do in Africa. Eventually they returned my card and asked me to sign a piece of paper. I asked if the machine would work now and they said no, come back in an hour! I did and managed to get 2000 Egyptian pounds (about €200). What an ordeal though.
Finding the bus and waiting for it to leave was a similar story of confusion and waiting. You would think with only one road you could take any bus, but no. I asked all the buses who pointed me to an empty corner. After an hour of refusing the taxi drivers who wanted 50 egyptian pounds, a bus turned up, driven by Ahmed, who I had met earlier at the hotel in El Qasr, who spoke very good English. I asked him when the bus would leave and he said “when it’s full” so I asked him to join me for chai. Eventually, after waiting about an hour, we got on the bus and while I swatted away the flies, people appeared from nowhere and filled every available seat. Ahmed shouted loudly across the street at a man who brought over 3 boxes of food and wedged them between the driver and an old guy in the passenger seat.
We got going and returned to El Qasr and people passed money to Ahmed the driver as he drove and smoked and shouted. He refused to take any money from me.
Alex and I left late the next day and headed to Mut, and then Balat. We fought headwind all the way which was now so strong I struggled to stay above 20kmph and I started wearing a face mask (a cut-off sleeve of a t-shirt) to protect my poor lips from the sharp dry wind. The pain of the ride was made more pleasant by the constant beeping and waving, and shouting “hello” and “welcome” from every car, motorbike, truck, donkey cart or gigantic group of schoolchildren we passed. Many trucks sandblasted us as they trundled along carrying huge piles of sand which was not covered but just flying everywhere in the wind. The reason for the trucks carrying the sand is that the oasis is quite rich with water but also clay. They call the area from Farafra to Al Kharga “The New Valley” but the area could also be described as the Red Desert, as it is covered in a layer of red clay dust. As well as a rich source of nutrients for farming, they also dig up the clay to make bricks. So the traditional mud brick villages stand side by side with quite modern looking red brick buildings with brightly colored Islamic fronts. Nice.
The cycling was easier after Balat as we changed direction and got tailwind as we headed into the desert and into darkness.
At 100km, I found an ambulance station and as usual they were incredibly friendly, and said “welcome welcome” and made us tea and asked us to sleep there for the night. Lovely.
Getting to Al Kharga was tough. The wind was now very strong and we found we were hitting headwind or crosswind all the way.
The desert was less interesting so it was a relief to find the town. It was a big town with many roads in a grid, a lot more developed than any other oasis. The only thing we cared about was finding food. We found a stall with kebabs, kibda (liver) and spicy peppers which burnt the ever growing cuts in our lips. Ouch!
After a good night’s sleep, there was then the final big push to get to Luxor. It was 320km and hard to describe without swearing. Let’s just say it was NOT NICE at all. The wind was now a gale and icy cold. Whenever I left the bike standing, the wind would blow her over. And going North was unbelievably hard. At one point the road was a decline but the wind was so strong I was completely stationary! I had to fight for every inch of road.
At 130km I had my only good moment of the first day, when I met Mohamed, an Egyptian touring cyclist… who are quite rare! He is a freelance translator and speaks good English and is writing in detail about cycling in Egypt to encourage other Egyptians to try it. It was great to hear his enthusiasm for cycling but I needed to do another 30km so pushed on and camped in the desert.
During cooking around the fire, a desert fox came sniffing around, its eyes reflecting in the dark like tiny glowing marbles. It was small and clearly afraid of me but was very persistent, inspecting me and Silver, and my tent. I shouted at it but it kept coming back. Eventually I gave up and crawled into the tent. The wind in the night was so strong that I couldnt sleep. I had to take my tent down to stop the noise it was making like a giant plastic bag in the wind. I wrapped it around me like a blanket instead.
The final day to Luxor was freezing cold and a slow grind against the wind. A police station provided a shelter to cook food in and escape the cold for a while, but the rest of the day was spent wearing as much as I could and battling against wind and sand blowing into my face.
After about 120km the lights of the towns by the Nile in the distance were an exciting and thrilling sight. Another 40km, and we were in Luxor.
I had survived a desert for the first time, and it felt amazing.
I end this blog with a note for my own memory that while cycling in the desert I was told that Nelson Mandela had died. As I am cycling to Cape Town I will remember that while I enjoy the freedom of cycling through other countries an amazing man gave up 25 years of his own freedom just so that his people could be free within their own country.
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