Saturday, March 3, 2018

Chickpeas & Checkpoints - Delta, Oasis & Upstream


I give Nawarra a hug and reluctantly leave Cairo. My headlight blows and when I reach the streets of Ismailia, they are Friday-quiet and slick from a downpour I just missed. It would have been the first rain I felt in 3 months. I check my map on a corner, the cars splashing my legs, and then realise I am actually outside the hotel. It's a peaceful sort of town with a very French-colonial feel to the architecture. Cutting across a bit of wasteland, a friendly guy with a machine gun under his raincoat nudges me back the way I came. I meet three 20-something students, 2 Saudis from Jeddah and a Ismailian. Ahmed, Ameer and Islam. Bright sparks. We have dinner together and talk books and films. They tell me of difficult relationships with their fathers who are always telling them what to do. They ask me earnestly for fatherly advice on life and love. This is starting to be a pattern with the younger men I meet in the Middle East. We meet the next day and go to the little museum together.
2000 year-old dice - Ismailia Museum
Detail of Mosaic - Ismailia Museum
Port Said

I fly alongside the virulent green fields of the delta, echoes of the Mekong, and find myself in the rumble of industrial Port Said. Ibrahim checks me into the ancient Hotel de la Poste with its lofty stained ceilings and shuttered balconies and I eat little orange fish called Sumak Barbooney in a powercut by the light of my phone. At least it silences the annoying sound system that was blasting from the beach.

I redress the wound on my leg - the burn I inflicted in Dahab is almost closed now - and amble over to the canal, the streets a shambolic patchwork of gone-to-seed businesses, and watch the super-tankers pass and admire the decapitated statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the canal's architect. He was toppled after the Suez Crisis - the military humiliation that brought my uncle Geoff here in 1956, commanding a tank. I've been disappointed to find that even some of the most switched-on of young Egyptians find this hard to reconcile. That, and me visiting Palestine. Those that don't have a problem with these things tell me that they grew up in the glare of a lot of hate speech from their media and that that is hard to shrug off.

The beach here is thick with crushed shells and mouldering skiffs and sectioned-off. "Romance Beach" makes me smile, with its festering mud and agressive German Shepherd. I hop on the ferry for a brief visit back to my beloved Sinai. Here the sleepy streets hold cosy French colonnial mansions with wrap-around verandahs and anti-police graffiti referring to the awful massacre at the stadium here just a few years ago.
Suez Canal, Port Said

Denuded statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, Port Said

Canal Shipping Agency Offices, Port Said

Graffiti, Port Said

Suez Canal House, Port Said


The journey along the coast to Alexandria takes me through wetlands dotted with little fishing islands and chemical plants and unloads me into the intensity of the muddy backstreets of El-Rashid, more famous as Rosetta, where the eponymous stone was found that unlocked the decryption of Egyptian heiroglyphics. There are some amazing old Ottoman houses here and I marvel at the still functional grain mill and intricate Mashrabiya windows that remind me of Safranbolu in Anatolia.

Souk, El-Rashid

Bakers, El-Rashid

Souk, El-Rashid


Michael Palin was not far from the mark when he said Alexandria is like Cannes with acne. A mixture of cheeky teenager and grand old dame, unfinished literature seeping from the crumbling walls. My hotel is like stepping into 1905 Paris. The proprietor is in his 80s and has some advanced trachea issue, from a lifetime of shisha no doubt. When I ask him to arrange my laundry he spends nearly half an hour meticulously counting and arranging each sock, pressing on his windpipe to enunciate each number in a robot rasp. He writes it all up on a ledger and eventually announces that I will pay the equivalent of about 80p.
Hotel Triomphe, Alexandria
Kom el-Dikka, which translates as "pile of rubble", is actually a pretty well preserved Roman amphitheatre in the middle of Alex. A residential house which forms part of the ruins has very beautiful mosaics of birds.
Detail of mosaic, House of Birds, Kom al Dikka, Alexandria
Pompey's Pillar is interesting for the tunnels below it with little body-sized niches that the pagan priests slept and prayed in. Kom al-Shokafa has some really creepy intricate catacombs with lovely statues and reliefs. I get a bit too Lara Croft here, wandering off-limits tunnels and end up soaking my shoes in a half-submerged tomb.

I squish my way out and then find myself late for an appointment with Omar, a local biker, so I hop in a tuk-tuk for one of the crazier rides of my life - I don't think we actually go the right way down a road for the entire hour-long journey. I count seven actual collisions and countless minor abrasions. Omar was the first native African to ride a motorbike between Cairo and Cape Town. He talks a blue streak and loads me up with contacts across Egypt and Sudan.

I spend the evening getting drunk at Spitfire bar with Marwa, an Egyptian pharmacist who studied in Paris and Tristan, a South African biker who has just spent 3 months getting here from Johannesburg. "Whatever you do, don't hit a camel" he says. "They have AK47s and they are very attached to their camels."

Anfushi is a nice buzzy neighbourhood. I eat lovely fresh fish and in shops am plied with tea while faking my way through conversations about Egyptian footballers. Ah yes, Mo Salah very good but we gunners have Elneny, strong midfield... er...
Anfushi, Alexandria

Corniche, Alexandria

Spitfire becomes a regular haunt for the week I spend in Alex and I meet a lot of good people there. Like Storm and her boyfriend Alaa, both bikers into metal. She from Wales by way of Denmark and he from a satellite town of Cairo, from a Bah'ai background. He studies English and she studies Arabic so they are a good team. Where Alaa comes from, they dance with swords so our trips to Mermaid nightclub involve pulling some artful shapes. The club is gay belly-dancing until 2 and then after 3 the "Africans" (from Upper Egypt and Sudan) come and then the place really warms up. Storm says she feels like she has no hips at all compared to these girls.
Karmus, Alexandria
I eat Molo7ea (a "7" signfies the phlegmy sound like the ch in "loch" in 'WhatsApp' franco-arabic) - it's a slightly slimey green soup - very good for you and pretty tasty.
Molo7ea, Anwar Masoud restaurant, Alexandria
One Egyptian girl I get to know quite well tells me a dark version of what it is like to be a woman here. She is a bright and well-educated 30 year-old. She wants to get a place of her own but her mother says she will completely disown her if she leaves home without getting married first. In fact her mother hasn't talked to her brother in 3 years for similar reasons. She lives with her mother who is separated from her father. He actually lives in the same building, a common arrangement apparently. When she stays out late her mother calls her a whore and threatens to lock her out if she's home after midnight. One afternoon I get tearful audio messages from her saying she has taken all her pills and doesn't think she will survive. I don't know where she is but I get a mutual friend to check up on her and in the end she sleeps it off. Over coffee and red bull later she tells me it is not her first suicide attempt and that she is bulimic. We have a deep conversation about nowness and religion and how much we hate evangelism. She says that in the Qu'ran it says that anyone who does not believe is going to hell, provided that they are actually aware of Islam. She says that all muslims are supposed to be prophets, i.e. they have a duty to evangelise. An hour later she is doing tequila shots and has to be taken home.
Butchers, Karmus, Alexandria

Karmus, Alexandria

Karmus, Alexandria
Fort Qaitby is a pretty fort guarding the east harbour. I pick up a farcical booklet there about Islam that makes it sound like Scientology. It says that the Qur'an is the literal word of God because embryos are like 'leeches and chewed things' and that is how Mohamed described them even though he lived many years before microscopes. It also refers to mountains as 'pegs' (in one translation)  and recently geologists have discovered that mountains have 'roots'. So that seals it. It says that Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified but that he was replaced by a double at the last minute.
Mosaic at National Museum, Alexandria
Coptic Textiles, National Museum, Alexandria
There is a great Koshairy place just near my hotel - great comfort food this - pasta with crispy fried onions, lentils and chilli. Very more-ish.
Koshairy, El Manshiya, Alexandria

El Alamein

The military museum at El Alamein is all sparkling new with a large outdoor display of field guns, tanks and other vehicles from the punch-up between Rommel and Monty in '42. The display cases inside are state of the art. And yet somehow they couldn't afford a decent English translation for the signs and video voiceovers and the whole thing is pretty much incomprehensible. Shame. There is a long list of reasons why the Egyptian army is a wonderful thing which makes for interesting reading.
Information panel, Military Museum, El-Alamein


Marsa Matrouh is an off-season beach town and I get mostly hostile looks in the streets so I do not tarry. The road out to Siwa is desolate and further than my petrol tank can take me so I am glad to find a little place that sells from the jerrycan
Abdel Carim's benzin place on the road to Siwa from Matruh
After several hours of featureless flat sand, the oasis of Siwa comes as a welcome jolt to the senses, covered in lush palm trees and with a friendly laidback end-of-the-road feeling. It is centred on the old mud-and-salt brick fortress of Shali, which mostly dissolved in 1929 when it rained for 3 days. Through my friend Said, I manage to find a little house to rent that is a renovated part of the ruins.
Home for a week in Fort Shali, Siwa

Fort Shali, Siwa


Siwa Oasis
Said takes me and a Saudi biker called Hussein on a cruise along causeways to the salt production pools.
Hussein Halawani, Siwa

Salt ponds, Western Lake, Siwa

Salt crystals, Siwa
I go watch a chemical sunset at Fatna's island
Fatna's Island, Siwa

Fatna's Island, Siwa
Said takes me out to the dunes and I do my first serious sand riding.
near Siwa

near Siwa
with inevitable tea breaks
Guy and Said, near Siwa
Said dreams of building a house where people can come stay and eat for free, the way they would have been received before tourism. He shows me his sustainable agricultural land. He is pioneering the use of AM, a bacterial fertiliser that is organic and part of the ongoing reclamation of the desert. So strange to imagine that the Sahara is such a recent phenomenon - even in Roman times it was much more fertile with vineyards and olive groves and much more wildlife. He shows me pictures of him competing in the Egyptian rally in his landcruiser piling across the Western Desert.
Said, Dalia and their sons.
I spend several days trying to get permission from the army to ride to El Bahariyya. Eventually I show up outside the completely unsigned offices and a tiny window opens in the huge forbidding steel gate. Two young kids peer out and after a lot of chat, an older boy, maybe 17, comes out and says he will ask for me. After about 45 minutes, he comes back and asks for my passport and dissappears again. Another half an hour and he comes back and says the answer is "la'a" (no) "mustahil?" (impossible) I ask "aiwa" (yes) he says.
Downtown Siwa
I visit the Oracle of Amun
Oracle of Amun, Siwa
Said finds me blankets and olive wood for my fire and we head out. Riding this powder-soft sand with my heavy bike is stretching my capabilities and after struggling to pick it up several times along the way and nightfall, I eventually leave it about 500 metres short of my camp. But it is all worth it. I have another taste of infinity and peace lying on the cold sand under the crystaline stars.
Camp in desert, near Siwa
When the moon rises, the wind gets fierce and I have to weight the guyropes with logs to avoid becoming airborne. The sand lashing the side of the tent becomes a cosmic static and I sleep.
near Siwa

Badr restaurant, Siwa

backstreets of Siwa

backstreets of Siwa
Out past the western lake, I find the atmospheric ruins of Az-Zeitun
Az-Zeitun, west of Siwa

Dovecote, near Western Lake, Siwa
Through my friend Rania, I get in contact with Mahmoud in el Bahariyya and he says there is a way to get past the checkpoints. It so happens he is coming to Alexandria for a funeral and I can follow him back to the oasis. So I saddle up and head back to Alex. Storm kindly lets me stay at her place.  We have dinner with Orwa, who is from Aleppo. When he first came here in 2007 to avoid military service, he was known as "The Syrian". Now there are over a million Syrians in Egypt. He tells me about his soap factory back home, slightly damaged but still functional as it is underground.

Next day they take me to a friend's bike shop where I clean off the sand and top up the oil and then head off for my sunset clandestine rendezvous with Mahmoud.
Biker gang - Storm and Alaa, Flemig, Alexandria
It's dark by the time I am past the Alex checkpoint and I just have a WhatsApp location to find a stranger who will lead me around army positions to a forbidden oasis. A modern fairy tale. I finally catch up with Mahmoud about 50 miles later and I tail him and his brother through the cold night for the next 5 hours. They drive fast and at times it is terrifying, with sudden patches of slippery sand and oncoming juggernauts with no lights on the single lane road. But my nerve holds and I arrive lightly trembling at Mahmoud's camp on the outskirts of Bawiti. I am told to stay out of town where the police would see me.


I explore and find a little hot spring the locals use at El Aguz. Some guy is washing his truck in it. It's a blustery cold day and I hop in to the deliciously toasty water and give my rubbish Arabic a workout with the friendly kids and their dads.
Bir El Aguz, Bawiti
I ride the footpaths up Gebel Ingleez - where a British Army officer built a house to watch the local tribesmen
Gebel Ingleez, Bawiti

Gebel Ingleez, Bawiti
and scud across the dunes to a salt lake and then Al Maghrafah, a natural pyramid.
Al Maghrafah, Bawiti
Mahmoud and Mohamed take me south in the landcruiser. We head offroad into the extinct volcanos and basalt of the Black Desert.
Black Desert, near el-Bahariyya Oasis
We stop at his cousin Salar's place - here the hot springs are so hot you can't keep your feet in for more than a few seconds. Strange that they irrigate their land with boiling hot water but it is full of minerals, iron especially. I wander the funny little outpost.
Salar's Goats
We stop for a while at the Crystal Mountain
The Crystal Mountain, between el-Bahariyya and Farafra Oases

The Crystal Mountain, between el-Bahariyya and Farafra Oases
and then, maybe 30km short of Farafra, head out into the stunning White Desert.
White Desert, near Farafra Oasis

White Desert, near Farafra Oasis
The aeons have carved the chalky rocks into a phantasmagoria.
The Chicken and the Mushroom, White Desert, near Farafra Oasis
White Desert, near Farafra Oasis
Unfortunately there is phone reception here and Mahmoud and Mohamed make zealous use of it. After eating I escape for the night with a mattress and some blankets and find my own personal artwork to sleep under. On the way I meet a fox. The night is thick with ripped clouds and as I stare up from my lonely little bed I feel myself falling into the sky, the primordial soup. The dawn blows right through me and leaves me breathless.
White Desert, near Farafra Oasis
Mahmoud lets me drive the landcruiser through the sand for a while - kind of like steering a powerboat - four wheels are a lot easier than two, that's for sure.
White Desert, near Farafra Oasis
Next day I head into Bawiti and steel myself to meet the police. Idiotically they swallow my story that I have just arrived from Alexandria (It's 9am and it would have been a 6 hour journey) and don't seem bothered that I have skipped a bunch of checkpoints. Not exactly joined-up government here thankfully. Before I leave town I visit Qatar Qasr Salim - a couple of deep tombs in the centre of town. The paintings are absolutely stunning. Vivid colours and that touching naivety and delicate expressions of the best ancient Egyptian art. No amount of cajoling the morose old guard will allow me to take a picture even without flash.

Al Qasr

At Farafra, the army snap to suspicious attention on my arrival. I pretend not to speak any Arabic and say I don't have a phone. Mahmoud warned me that if I give them my number they will call me every five minutes wanting to know where I am. Again they accept my unlikely story, chortling at this stupid foreigner who would come out into the desert so unprepared. After a while a policeman called Tariq shows up and drives off waving my passport out of the window by which I gather he means me to follow him. He takes me to a little shop, makes completely illegible photocopies of my documents and has me sign a form saying that I don't want any protection during my stay here. Then he hands me over to his subordinate Sharif who escorts me to a petrol station, an ATM and then a Koshairy place where I make a fool of myself trying to drink what I thought was orange squash but which is actually vinegar meant for pouring onto the meal. The entire town has of course gathered to watch the spectacle.

Sharif tells me there is a petrol station about 120km later at Abu Minqar but I am taking no chances out here in this nothingness and ride at 100km/h to maximise my range.

Yet another overloaded truck comes to a sticky end. No joke out here.
Road between Farafra and Al Qasr
It's is heart-breakingly desolate. The paucity makes the very occasional spark of life shocking, miraculous.
Road between Farafra and Al Qasr
And I marvel at the little shacks the young soldiers live in at the isolated checkpoints for months at a time. They chat with me excitedly - it's been an awful long time since they saw something like me come by.
Checkpoint on road between Farafra and Al Qasr
At Al-Qasr, the police escort me into town. I want to stay in town but at the friendly Mohamed's Resthouse he tells me the water is not working so I will have to stay at a bedouin camp outside town. I am pretty sure this is an arrangement to keep the police happy. To monitor me more easily out here.

Once past the man sitting outside with a shotgun, the police leave me be. I meet the lovely Friedel. She spends her summers in her native Germany and her winters here, running her centre for meditation dance and shamanic drumming which she has built on the adjacent land.
Friedel Braun, Al Qasr Oasis
I have lovely chats with her and she points out the best places to go, not least the beautiful stretches of desert between the camp and town which I love to wander. 
desert near Al Qasr
She gets slightly stern when I say maybe I will ride through them!
near Al Qasr
She has helped the camp with some great projects. Like cleaning the iron oxide from the hot spring water using a sand filter and solar power panels that supply the pump for the spring and the lighting throughout the camp. I am glad of both and bathe in the gigantic hot tub morning and evening.

I visit the old town, with its beautiful lintels on the doorways with a section of the Qu'ran, the date and the name of the occupant and the craftsman.
Lintel, Al Qasr
I climb the minaret - not for the faint-hearted!
Minaret, Al Qasr
the view is worth it
View over Al Qasr, from minaret
And find a donkey-driven mill, restored to working order.
Grain Mill, Al Qasr
Al Qasr
I ride out to Deir Al-Haggar, get slightly lost and accidentally find some different tombs called Gebel el-Muzawaka which turn out to have very beautiful paintings. 
Detail of tomb painting, Gebel el-Muzawaka
 After a few more false turns and alarmed-looking locals, I find Deir Al-Haggar. It's the first time I encounter reliefs of the god Amon-Re, god of fertility, as evidenced by his erect cock. What is slightly more enigmatic is why he has only one arm and one leg. My guide tries to explain. He says the men went off to war leaving the women in the village. Amon-Re "made lot sex" and then there were lots of babies when the men came back. So they cut off one arm and one leg. "Because they were angry?" I ask. "No it was mistake. Before free, no die." I never do manage to get more sense than that. The heiroglyphs here are very clear and interesting. The Roman emperors Nero and Titus and others are named (it's called a cartouche) with a continous line around their names whereas the gods just have parallel lines either side, with open ends, I guess representing immortality. Mut is the wife of Amon-Re and is shown with the head of a lion when she is angry.
Amon-Re, Deir al-Haggar

Mut - angry head! Detail of relief, Deir al-Haggar

Names of the expedition that discovered the ruins - Deir el-Haggar
Inbetween times I stop at Mohamed's resthouse for lunches and coffees with  the Tuk-Tuk drivers. He busily fills shishas with palm charcoal and makes amazing food in the tiniest of kitchens. His cheery repartee mostly consists of calling people either Me3aza (goat) or Homar (donkey)
The lovely Mohamed at his Resthouse
I climb the nearby bluff. Hard work getting up the sand but so much fun to run down. I spend some time just sitting in the sand, awestruck by the perfect maths of the tiny landslides I can cause. Even spitting creates little flocks of tiny bouncy jumping beans that skittle their way off into the far distance. When the wind picks up it creates beautiful diaphonous patterns at the crest of the dunes.
View over Al Qasr from Bluff
I am shaken from my reverie by a facebook message. Ahmed, the doctor's son staying at the camp tells me they have found my numberplate. I had no idea I had even lost it! Apparently the police found it near Deir Al-Haggar and gave it to the guards there who gave it to them. I fix it back on with big washers this time.

When I go to leave, I am supposed to tell the police so they can escort me, but when there is no sign of them I take off anyway. My respect for these clowns is diminishing every day. After a while I pass a police van who waves me down. I pretend not to see and presently they appear in my rearview. After I leave the city limits they give up and go home.

I stop at Balat briefly to look around the old town there - sort of similar to Al Qasr but more tunnel-like
Balat, Dakhla Oasis

Balat, Dakhla Oasis
I stop into the necropolis at Qila al-Dabba
Detail at Qila al-Dabba

Cemetery near Qila Al-Dabba

The sands blows across the road cinematically as I progress antlike across the emptiness, Neil Young in my ears. El-Radwa hotel is 100 pounds including breakfast. It is maybe the most monumentally scummy hotel I have ever stayed in, and that's saying something. The lift is pretty hi-tech though. It plays heavily distorted extracts from the Qu'ran when it is moving and then abruptly cuts them off when it shudders to a halt. And you have to gingerly step over the massive hole in the concrete to alight. The room absolutely stinks and I burn some of Friedel's patchouli sticks to ward off the evil. The bathroom is a one-stop shop for cholera, Hep C and typhoid and I make careful movements to avoid lacerations from the splintered toilet seat and shattered basin. The fridge still has most of its original plastic wrapping from 1983, congealed and blistered to a stomach-turning shade of green. It buzzes angrily at me as I try to put the bed back together.

In the morning, I smell the room before I open my eyes and first priority is lighting incense. I have a bizarre shower/breakdance as the water only comes out of leaks in the pipe, none actually makes it as far as the shower head. I am shocked to find the water is hot and even remains that way. Breakfast is a cold hard-boiled egg and a cheese triangle and interupted by a surly policeman demanding to know when I will leave. I manage to get out of town without them noticing.


Somewhere in the void to Minya I am detained at a checkpoint by a friendly bunch while they summon an escort to protect me from smugglers bringing arms, drugs and cigarettes from Libya. Apparently they cover their trucks in oil and then sand as camouflage. They will shoot me and use my bike for recon. In the end no escort materialises so I am just waved on to take my chances.

At the Asyut checkpoint they wave me down and then I have ducklings all the way into town. Sirens blaring I am whisked through the traffic and deposited at KFC. I stamp my foot and they let me go eat fuul and tameya on the corniche instead. It's clear I will have no independence in this town so I hit the desert road to Minya.

I make it into town with Big Brother none the wiser. A guy called Ahmed gets talking to me at a junction. He gives me his business card and says they have rooms for 200 Egyptian Pounds ($10) at the Etap. I am dubious. He accompanies me into the swanky reception where their cheapest room is $72. There is a weird awkward moment while Mohamed gives a crafty smile to the receptionist who stares back disgusted. He scuttles off before the security step in.
Dodgy Ahmed's business card
In the end I find a hotel for 130 pounds. It's not much less scummy than last night's but somehow its faded grandeur makes me forgive its little blemishes.
Ibn Ghaseeb Hotel, Minya
The shower is but a trickle but at least warm. Outside there are 3 police vans and 10 heavily armed men. They want to know my plans. I want breakfast. Hamdy is detailed to escort me to a tameya place and stare at me while I eat.
Breakfast with Hamdy Kbeer
He also tells me at length about his rifle and what his name is, more than 15 times.
Police at my hotel, Minya
I pack and six of the police help lift my bike out of the reception. At least they're good for something. The boss wants to know exactly what my itinerary will be for the day. Way to suck all the fun out of things.. I tell him the 3 places I am planning to see, in decent arabic but he is trying to ask me something I don't understand and is being pretty rude about it. He's thinking 'stupid tourist, can't even understand Arabic'. I'm thinking 'stupid policeman doesn't understand the difference between "tourist" and "interpreter" '. Finally I snap and shout at him. Now shouting at stupid people with automatic weapons is not that great an idea in general but in this case it works wonders and he backs-off slightly wide-eyed. A few minutes later one of his mates shows me his phone with a google-translate message saying 'thanks for wait Egyptian policeman' and a little while after that, the boss buys me some falafel. An Egyptian 10 minutes later, a further police van shows up and I am bidden to follow it. One block later it turns the wrong way up a crammed one-way street and then there is a huge muddle of horns and donkeys while they try to turn around. So this puts me in front. I look in my mirror after the next turn and there is no sign of them. Blissful. I know it's not very sensible to antagonise them but somehow I just don't care and I speed off enjoying the taste of freedom. I get a lovely friendly reception as I pass through the little villages along the Nile and the green fields ripple gently in the midday heat. The paintings at the Bene Hassan tombs are spectacular. Vast instructional diagrams of wrestling moves. Beautifully rendered animals and serene scenes of music-making. But they want 300 pounds to take a photo. Actually it's for the best and I engage a bit more with what is before my eyes than I sometimes do when documenting it.

The police have caught up with me by the time I emerge and ask me, crestfallen, please don't drive so fast, our trucks have rubbish engines. We convoy it back through the villages, this time only dark looks from the locals. Something is lost in translation and instead of taking me to a necropolis I wanted to see, they take me to a quarry where a lot of pharoahs found their temple building materials. Off in the distance, I can see the necropolis but the police poo-poo this. "Only dead people there" they say. This in a country whose entire tourist industry is based on tombs.
Police taking pictures of each other with their guns at Pharaonic Quarry in Zawiya el-Sultan

I meet a pretty Emirati magazine editor called Salma in Estoril restaurant and we chat chat chat. I have a drink-a-thon with some of the crazier denizens of Lotus bar, the completely incomprehensible Scairon from Sudan, cheery Sharif, Meher who listens to easy-listening music on his headphones, Diva style all night and party girl Asma, culminating in a 6am belly-dance club visit. The music is bizarrely raw and I find myself actually really liking it in a kind of Einst├╝rzende Neubauten kind of way. The dancer comes over and jiggles her breasts in my face with a bored expression on her face and I know it's time to go home.

Cairo is the last place before Nairobi that I will have any chance of a decent mechanic looking at my bike so I go to Mohamed Anwar. BMW parts are hard to come by here but as in the rest of the developing world necessity is the mother of invention and he fixes my bashplate with some cunning curved pieces of steel that work as mini-shock-absorbers
Mohamed Anwar, Cairo
I also take the oportunity to find new boots and riding pants. In both cases even the patches have patches at this point. Cairo is also probably the only place that buying tent pegs feels more like a drug deal than a shopping trip. Involves going to a Whatsapp location in a strange newtown suburb of Cairo and waiting for a man to show up in his car and then counting out the pounds on the dashboard.

I spend a lovely afternoon at a class in a park with my Meditation teacher friend Maisara and then have dinner with him and Rania - also a meditation teacher. I get them on the subject of politics. Rania says she actually supported Sisi. Basically there was such chaos under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and a succession of mini-revolutions that she, like many Egyptians felt that bringing back the military seemed like the best way to at least achieve order. They both say that they don't engage with politics anymore and that the only way forward for Egypt is a change of consciousness. Maisara says that a recent facebook post asking if people were going to vote was greeted with an avalanche of derision. Everyone knows the election will be a fraud with no real candidates put forward. It breaks my heart the loss of opportunities for the many amazing talented young Egyptians I have met, their voices are swamped in a country crippled by economics, terrorism, largely caused by western policies and deeply-ingrained conservatism.

I have a lovely evening getting gently wasted on a rooftop with Storm and a bunch of her friends who are visiting from Denmark

I visit the stunning Islamic Art museum
Detail of Ceramic tile, Islamic Art musuem, Cairo
Carpet, Islamic Art museum, Cairo

Water filter, Islamic Art museum
and wander the Citadel and the soaked-in-time streets of Bein al-Qasreen, the Islamic quarter.
Mohamed Ali Mosque, Citadel, Cairo
Bab Zuweila, Bein Al Qasreen, Cairo
View from Bab Zuweila,  Bein Al Qasreen, Cairo
Cairo from Bab Zuweila
Bein Al Qasreen - Islamic Cairo
Bein Al Qasreen - Islamic Cairo
Old rundown mosque, Bein al Qasreen, Cairo
Bein al Qasreen, Cairo
Bein al Qasreen, Cairo
Bein al Qasreen, Cairo
Bein al Qasreen, Cairo

I spend three days in Cairo trying to get US dollars for Sudan - there are no ATMs for foreign cards there I have just heard. Without an account and a plane ticket, the banks won't sell dollars and the currency exchange offices feel iffy. Fake notes are a big issue here. In the end, the safest and simplest thing seems to be to go to Alexandria where my friend Omar can sort this out.

It involves a marathon of ATM visits to get the requisite giant pile of Egyptian pounds. With my pockets bulging I then go find Omar and three tough-looking guys smoking in a half-finished building, bare apart from a solitary chair on the raw concrete. A textbook interrogation scene. I emerge unbruised and we wander the area, Agami. He says he is from an old Bedouin family and that much of this neighbourhood is owned by his relations. He says it used to be all beautiful villas down to the beach but then the governement came in and built lots of highrise hotels and it is spoiled. He wants Mubarrak back. Under him, 5 pounds bought a dollar and there was no rubbish on the streets. We make arrangements with a fixer in Aswan to fiddle things so I can keep one of my numberplates, with their gouge from the bus that hit me in Cairo, which I dearly want as a souvenir. It will be no mean feat especially as the plates are from South Sinai and such a contentious place to ride a motorbike.

I have a crazy 45 minute ride into town to meet Alaa for a beer at Spitfire. slaloming in between the trucks belching smoke and chasms posing as potholes. When I arrive my face is as black as a coalminers.

Omar tells me the incredible tale of his bike accident, here in Agami a few years back. A BMW car flew over the central barrier, rolled and hit him. He recalls flying up into the air and seeing the top of a nearby 2 story building and then waking up with boots all around him. He was 4 days in a coma.

I am stressed about buying the dollars and Omar's friend is insulted when I want to check they are real. Afterwards I find out that the bills are actually older than I really want and might not be accepted. In the end someone on one of my overlander forums reassures me that it should be fine.
Egyptian pounds are not worth what they were
Before I leave Alex for the last time I manage to catch one of my filmmaker friends, Tasnime, for breakfast. She's lovely. She makes films about sexual harrassment and says she thinks Egypt is a sad place and that Egyptians are sad people. She is piercingly smart and has impeccable taste in film and music. She speaks better French than English and is a beautiful product of her time and place.

I make a last pitstop in Cairo as I pass through and visit Mohamed Anwar again to see if he can help me with a good system for carrying extra fuel. With typical Egyptian generosity he drops everything and gets on it. By which I mean he puts on a pair of shades, gets on my bike, me on the back and we head off at high speed to where I do not know. Now he really knows how to ride in Cairo and I can only laugh at the wild ride and try not to fall off. Shopping Cairo-style involves shouting across the road at a succession of people and finally we are directed to a little place that has jerrycans. I want two 5 litre ones but they only have one so I have to content myself with a single 10 litre can which I will just bungee on behind my drybag. Not the most elegant solution but it will work. We ride back to his shop where he replaces my front brake pads (turns out I sensibly brought one more spare than I thought), cleans the callipers and adjusts the chain. Then he gives me two new bungees for the jerrycan. And then he won't accept any money.

I manage to coincide with Jordan for a few beers in the evening. He's a 22-year old Aussie biker doing a similar journey to me - he has been emailing me for advice for several months and now finally we are in Cairo at the same time. We swap war stories. His experience of Egyptian police has been a lot more hassle than mine. On arrival at Nuweiba they wouldn't accept his carnet - the same thing that happened to me in fact - at the time I got an odd facebook message from the same official - it read "hi dear. your friend joy is with me in nu we iba born .and he needs your help" - at 4am my phone was off of course - in his case it could not be resolved and he was forced to get on a bus all the way to Cairo and back to get a stamp. He also has had many more escorts. Went through the Suez tunnel on the back of a truck, I rode. I think maybe the age difference is a big part. They look at me and think (erroneously) that I must be more responsible.

On the stagger home after a few gallons of ale I put a facebook post - "Why do I feel more free in a miltary dictatorship than at home in the UK?" Possibly not that sensible a post to make - miltary dictatorships rarely like being called miltary dictatorships but it elicits some interesting responses. Most people seem to confuse feeling free with being free and I get a couple of haughty responses about being a white single male flouncing around Africa on a motorbike so how much more free could I possibly get? And how would I feel to actually live long-term in a dictatorship? Both absolutely valid points of course but the point I was trying to drunkenly make was that somehow in Egypt or in Egyptian culture, it is easier to be in the moment, in the now. Maybe this is a larger, African thing, I guess I will see, or maybe it's about something lacking in European culture. Certainly outside western culture I feel myself more looked-after by my fellow humans, fundamental connection has a greater value placed on it and life is less of a competition and a race to tomorrow.

Egyptian lifts are like Egyptian cats, decorative but fundamentally mentally unstable. The one in my hostel is a classic example. The top 3 floors have a gap where there should be a call button so the only way to go down is just wait until it deigns, in a feline sort of way, to grace you with its presence. With over 75 kilos of luggage this causes an issue and involves a lot of shouting up and down the seven floor stairwell of the building. When I do get to the ground it freezes about a foot too early and the lift man (Egyptian lifts need a sort of lion-tamer in attendance to pace around their cages) bellows at me to go up to the second floor and come down again. The lift goes into a sort of Ian Curtis style dance before finally spitting me out. I am deemed indigestible.


I ride out to Ain Sokhna on the Red Sea and head south. Between bullrushes,  I get a little glimpse of my beloved Sinai across the electric blues.
Red Sea coast
Hurghada feels rather lifeless and I feel a strong tourist-leech atmosphere.
depressing amusement park, Hurghada
Al Quseir

10km north of Al Quseir, I find Rock Valley Divers Camp - as recommended by Friedel in Al Qasr. I take a hut on the beach, snorkel down to stare at hundreds of bright orange fish in secret caves, build a fire and work on my star names. 
Rocky Valley Divers Camp, Al Quseir
In the town there are some sleepy old buildings
Old police station, Al Quseir
Al Quseir
Al Quseir

Back up to Safaga and the desert crossing. The checkpoint asigns me an escort who just crawl along, so I just take off. Next checkpoint the same happens. Third checkpoint - (at each they are surprised to see me - seems odd to me they don't talk to each other) - this time they go in front but at least at a decent pace.

Dendara temple just near Qena is awe-inspring. The hypostyle hall has massive pillars topped with the head of Hathor to whom the temple is dedicated. A lot of the paintings have been carefully cleaned and are very beautiful.
Dendara Temple
Dendara Temple

Dendara Temple
Dendara Temple

Dendara Temple
On the way to Luxor one of the police guys films me a bit on his phone from the back of the truck and so I try to get the video from him. He does send it in the end but oddly it is about 2 seconds of me and then 6 minutes of his boots. As a consolation prize he also sends me a video of him and his mates posing by their trucks with slow zooms and a sentimental love song soundtrack. Er...


I find a lovely hotel on the west bank in Luxor called Al Fayrouz. It has a gorgeous garden festooned with magenta Jacanamia flowers where I breakfast and is probably my favourite hotel of the trip.
The Garden at Hotel Al Fayrouz in Luxor
The west bank is much more my kind of place, with a real Egyptian town feel to it. The east bank is horrible with grifters hassling you persistently every few steps for a ride in a taxi, felucca or horse carriage. Makes my blood boil. My friend Salma is here by coincidence from Cairo and we sip beer out in the soft warm breeze by the Nile in the protective fortress of her east bank hotel. Next day we go to the beautiful Habu Temple together. Nice to have a partner in crime briefly and the bike feels a little empty when she's gone. 
Salma in the saddle, Luxor

Habu Temple, Luxor

Habu Temple, Luxor

Salma and I at cafe outside Habu Temple
Near the Colossi of Memnon, I get talking with Azab who runs a shop opposite. While the tourist buses disgorge payloads who click and go, I chat with him and he takes be into his house and shows me the irrigation system that his sugar cane fields use, his goats and donkeys
One of the Colossi of Memnon, West Bank, Luxor
Al Qurna, West Bank, Luxor
I find a guy in the village for lamar (welding) I need an extra handle on my jerrycan so I can mount it on the bike more solidly. He sniffs the can and says "Boom!" Yes we need to clean the last of the petrol fumes out I agree. He gets some vinegar and rinses it out, then gets me to run the bike exhaust into the can for a minute or two. Then he tests it with his cigarette. Well we're still alive so I guess that means it's safe. He hammers a scrap of metal into a V shape and gets busy with his blowtorch, his 13-year-old son operating the gas controls. His torch keeps going out, he keeps relighting it with his cigarette and then I have my handle. It's slightly too small so I get him to melt a bit off.
Welding bits onto my jerrycan, Al Qurna, West Bank, Luxor
I wander the tombs of the nobles. Lots of baksheesh but it buys me photo privileges despite the huge no photo signs and the paintings here are worth it. I sit and have tea with the guides and they try to persuade me to swap my bike for their Chinese one. A recurring theme. 
Blind musician, detail of paintings, Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor

Detail of painting, Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor
detail of painting, Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor

Detail of painting, Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor

Harvest scene, detail of painting, Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor

Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor

detail of painting, Tombs of the Nobles
and go to Al-Deir Al-Bahari, also known as Hatshepsut Temple. Imposing setting in a huge cliff. A bit over-run with tourists and not as beautiful as the Tombs of the Nobles but still has some interesting bits.
Relief, Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple

Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple
My favourite visit in Luxor was the tomb of Ay, partly for the setting - I was apparently the only visitor that day - it's on a little dirt road away from the rest of the Valley of the Kings. A policeman on an ATV had to come after me and wake up the guard who then got on the back of my bike for the ride up. He seemed slightly terrified but then got into the spirit of it and filmed the descent on my phone for me.
Road to Tomb of Ay
The place is so peaceful away from the bustle of Luxor. The paintings down in the depths are wonderful, including a set of twelve baboons, one for each hour of the night and there the silence is a glorious blackout.
One of 12 Baboons, Tomb of Ay

detail of painting, Tomb of Ay

Near Al-Qurna, West Bank, Luxor

by Public Ferry, West Bank, Luxor
I go to the Luxor temple, karate-chopping hustlers as I go. It doesn't do much for me, but then at this point in my trip I am so spoiled! I eat local speciality stuffed pigeon at a lovely old rooftop restaurant called Sofra. Bit of a ridiculous dish really - almost no discernable meat on it! Back at the hotel Khaled tells me there is heavy rain in Cairo and I struggle to even imagine the stuff.

Next day I visit Karnak Temple. It is the largest religious building in the world and I love the hypostyle hall with its awe-inspiringly massive papyrus-styled columns. I read that the chamber would originally have been partly submerged in water, like a swamp. I play ludicrous cat-and-mouse games with the annoying so-called-guides to avoid paying baksheesh, ducking under ropes and hiding behind obelisks.
Great Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Karnak, East Bank, Luxor

Egyptian spreadsheet,  Temple of Karnak, East Bank, Luxor

Restoration work, Temple of Karnak, East Bank, Luxor

Tenth Pylon, Temple of Karnak, East Bank, Luxor

Annoyingly, at the first checkpoint on my way out of Luxor, they won't let me take the fast new road through the desert. The bandits will shoot you, they tell me amiably. So I have to take the slow Nile road but it's rough and fun and full of life going on in all directions and not that much slower anyway.

In a classic bit of Egyptian logic, the ticket office in Esna for the Temple of Khnum is about 300 metres away from the actual temple at the other end of a covered souk.This temple is about 9 metres under the accumulated desert and dirt of 2000 years. It's very beautiful and complete and the careful cleaning of the paintings has really brought out the depth of the art. They've only done part of it so you can really see the process.
Temple of Khnum, Esna
A dwarf called Ahmed at a nearby coffee shop befriends me and takes me to sit down but I say I want food and he leads me through the ancient crumbly souk. All a bit Game of Thrones.. (if that's not a totally unPC thing to say...) We find a place that makes me tomato sandwiches and Ahmed suggests I get a drink so I get a coke. Back at the coffee shop the proprietor goes absolutely balistic that I am not drinking one of his beverages and charges me 15 pounds corkage. Ahmed looks sheepish.
Ahmed and his friend, Esna
I sit with a bunch of ex-pat retirees on a day trip from Luxor where they all live. Elisabeth and Isabella do most of the talking. Classic small world - Isabella's house is right next to where I attended my friend Benedetta's exhibition a year ago, in Mendrisio in Italian Switzerland. She's been spending half of the year here since the early 80s and tells me how a radio station from back home used to interview her every time there was an Egypt-related item. When she told them she thought Sisi was the best thing for Egypt in 2014, they stopped calling her. Didn't fit with their liberal agenda, she says. Maybe she's right, maybe Rania was right and Egypt just needed, above all else, order from the chaos of the brotherhood and it's just not ready for democracy. When I think of some of the innocence and irrationality of some of the less-educated Egyptians I have met, I wonder.

I ride the Nile road onwards to Aswan, in slanting late-afternoon sunshine, along little tracks carpeted with sugarcane, skirting tiny chewed up railway tracks that trail syrupy canals.

The lift at Nuba Nile hotel, by Aswan train station is a piece of work. When it is actually working, it rarely goes to the floor you request, or, Being John Malkovich style, arrives 3 foot too low or high unless you hit the button extra-hard, and then it judders and makes animalistic groaning and growling sounds, straight out of my sound design for Papagajka.

Jordan messages from a police cell in Siwa. He tried to take the direct road to El-Bahariyya that I considered taking. They interrogate him for 30 hours with little food and water. They mention deportation and not letting him ride south from Cairo. They have him sleep in the back of a ute alongside his bike and then they drive him all the way to Matrouh at 6am and set him free. There but for the grace of god...

I meet Kamal outside McDonalds on the corniche. He is going to grease the wheels for my exit from Egypt. Actually, I'm not entirely sure that Egyptian bureaucracy is aware of the invention of the wheel as yet. Kamal's wheels are a sorely-beaten white Peugeot 504 estate from the early 80s, the weapon of choice for all Aswan taxi drivers, and the dashboard and front seat overflow with dog-eared documents. It is identical to my first car, my mum's in fact, and I tell Kamal how I used to drive all my mates around in it to get stoned on hilltops around Bath and how I wrote it off at 5mph, in the heinous traffic jams of my hometown, because I was reading the Melody Maker..
Kamal and his office
He takes me to the Sudanese embassy, and to the police court, an anonymous door in a housing estate, to get a stamp that says I have been a good boy in Egypt and to the police station to report my numberplate "missing". He cracks jokes with the cops and officials, leans in for conspiratorial mutters and palms them a few pounds from time to time. Kamal's plan is that someone will take the plate from me while I go through security and then give it back to me before I leave for the Sudanese side. I am to put it inside my 'life-jacket' as he puts it, meaning my motorbike jacket. I am glad not to be alone in the police station, where I fill in a form at a desk next to a cage containing two empty-eyed ne'er-do-wells slumped on the bare concrete. They look like they may have been beaten. We wander around the inner courtyard past a broken ATM and hijabbed ladies slurping fuul and I catch a glimpse of a huge cage that holds 150 prisoners. This is probably where I will end up if the numberplate ploy goes bad.

Aswan town underwhelms me - I had been told it is another Siwa or Dahab but to me it's just another down-at-heel city with too many touts. I do enjoy taking the little public ferry to Elephant Island. Not so much for the ruins but for the Nubian village and its peaceful streets. There I meet Hesham and his friend Mohamed who have a huge collection of antiques, like a rhino horn lamp from China and a silver Victorian soda syphon from England. If only they could find a way to sell some things - eBay is a tricky option as the post is so unreliable here - they could really improve things here in the village. Hesham also finds me a lot of recordings of Nubian music which is beautiful and eerie. I learn a few phrases of the Nubian language. Hesham does not like Arabs - he says they smile and lie at you and hassle the tourists. Nubians have drawn the short straw in Egypt. Their entire homeland was flooded by the High Dam here at Aswan, the first cataract of the Nile, to create Lake Nasser in the sixties.
The Nile-ometer on Elephant Island, Aswan, with Victorian, Pharoanic and Arabic measure markings
Mohamed and Hesham, Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan
Eating with the Nubians at Hesham's place on Elephant Island

Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan

Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan

Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan
View towards San Simeon monastery, Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan
From the village, I find a little boat to take me to the west bank of the Nile and I walk up to the Monastery of San Simeon. A world away from the noisy city. I can picture the austerity of the monks lives out here, an tiny mudbrick island lapped all around with rolling sands.
Boat to West Bank, Nubian village, Elephantine Island, Aswan
San Simeon Monastery, Aswan
From there I enjoy the solitude walking across the waste to the Tombs of the Nobles where the tourist tout smell catches up with me again. They want me to pay him 70 pounds to see a tomb even though the lights aren't working.

The Temple of Isis on Philae Island is in a gorgeous setting but mostly ruined by hordes of selfie monsters.
Temple of Isis, Philae Island, Aswan

Temple of Isis, Philae Island, Aswan
Temple of Isis, Philae Island, Aswan
A quarry with an Obelisk they never finished is quite a sight. How on earth did they ever imagine they could move such a massive object?!
Unfinished Obelisk, Aswan
I can see the marks of workmen from more than 3000 years ago, chiseling lines of holes, filling them with wooden staves and then soaking them in water so that they expand and split the massive rocks.
Quarrying marks, near Unfinished Obelisk, Aswan
The old Fatimid tombs in the nearby cemetery are cosy with little pointy corners.
Fatimid tombs, Aswan
I take a day trip back north to Kom Ombo. Here they worshipped crocodiles and mummified hundreds of them. Their tombs were almost as elaborate as those for people.
Heiroglyphs, Kom Ombo

Heiroglyphs depicting surgical instruments at Kom Ombo
Nubian Tahtib dancers and musicians, Aswan Festival of International Culture

Musicians and dancers from India, Aswan Festival of International Culture
Sign outside Madrasa, Aswan

Fish shop, Aswan
Nubian inscriptions, Nubian Museum, Aswan

Feluccas, Aswan
Abu Simbel

I immediately feel lighter as I saddle up and head out of Aswan, leaving the bureaucracy and grifters behind. It's a straight and peaceful swoop to Abu Simbel which greets me with friendly smiles and I find myself a niche camping in the garden of Eskaleh Nubian House by the lake.
Camping by Lake Nasser, Eskaleh Ecolodge, Abu Simbel
Eskaleh is owned by Fikry Kashef, an internationally renowned Nubian musician who has returned home to run this ecolodge. It's one of the few places that you can actually hear real Nubian music performed and I am very lucky to catch it on a big festival day - the birthday of Ramses II, when the sun pierces the interior of Abu Simbel temple at dawn and illuminates the statues of the pharoah. Many of Fikry's musician friends from Sudan are here for this and we have an electrifying evening of music on the terrace sitting around with some amazing singers and Oud players, including Mohamed Noordin. Anbari Abdullah is a lovely old Sudanese man who gets both of us a bit drunk on his homemade date whisky and from time to time gets stirred by the music to jump to his feet and shout "Mamluka!" (Kingdom!) much to everyone's amusement. There is a high proportion of Nubians here and they clearly have no time for either the leaders of Egypt or of Sudan and consider themselves very much a separate nation in waiting.
Abu Simbel
Well before dawn I unzip my little tent, rub my eyes and drift along the causeway to the temple. There is an absurdly slow ticket queue - the guy has a table overflowing with a mess of banknotes and every time he has to give change he must search through it painstakingly. I arrive at the temple with about half an hour to go before sun up but clearly I am not the only one who wants to see the tricks the sun plays on this special day. There is the most insane crush of people, very poorly managed by the army and it's only because of the warm feeling in the crowd that noone gets trampled. There is a drone overhead and the constant strobe of phone flashes and as the crowd surges I feel myself utterly at its whims. It is the least spiritual experience of the temple you can imagine, and yet somehow I enjoy the absurdity of it all, an out-of-body experience and the grandeur of the temple itself is so overwhelming as to transcend even this. On the way home, I visit the little visitor centre where they explain the unbelievable lengths that the world went to to save the Nubian and Pharoanic monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser in the sixties. They actually cut them into blocks and moved them to higher ground. For Abu Simbel it took 4 years. It's a testament to what humans can achieve when they work together every bit as much as the amazing structures themselves.
Ramses II birthday at dawn, Abu Simbel

Ramses II birthday at dawn, Abu Simbel
Ramses II birthday at dawn, Abu Simbel

Ramses II birthday at dawn, Abu Simbel

Hathoric capital, Abu Simbel

Soldiers, Abu Simbel

Small Temple, Abu Simbel
That evening, a TV director comes to me and says that he has heard I am "Mohandes Saut" - a Sound Engineer and he ropes me into recording a performance for Aswan's channel 8, with another performance by Mohamed Noordin. It is a classic absurd shoot. 1 minute into the first song the clouds of insects kamikazeing into the one light causes it to explode and we take a long break while another light is unearthed. The director, Ismail, is a classic. He reminisces about his past as a Shakespearean actor. He has not the foggiest idea how sound works and is confused why I want to have a brief soundcheck to check the recording will not be overloaded. "But you can just fix that afterwards" he says. "La'a, Mustahil!" I say ("No, impossible!") but he insists on starting without any further ado. Some things never change.
Mohamed Noordin, Channel 8 performance, Eskaleh, Abu Simbel

Fikry Hashef, Channel 8 performance, Eskaleh, Abu Simbel

Director Ismail and camera crew, Channel 8 shoot, Eskaleh, Abu Simbel
Fikry's lovely son, Shedi, very kindly copies me a lot of Nubian music, including Hamza Ad-Din and his father's work and I listen to it, in all its spectral beauty, as I sweep across the desert to Amada temple on a hot and sandblown day. It is actually two temples and a little tomb and all are beautiful and well-worth the lonely trek across the wastes.
Road to Amada temple
Amada Temple

Amada Temple

Temple of Derr, near Amada

Temple of Derr, near Amada Temple

Bird nesting in tomb near Amada temple
Abdil, the caretaker then painstakingly makes me Jebana - Nubian coffee made with ginger. He makes a little fire and roasts the beans in a tin can on a stick then pounds them with some ginger in a mortar and boils water and serves me the delicious concoction in tiny cups. He brings me a 2 year-old crocodile to play with and shows me his lemon trees and herb garden. It's the perfect goodbye to Egypt.
Abdil making Jebana
2 year-old crocodile

Near Amada temple
In the wee small hours I break camp by torchlight and hand my numberplate to Hamada who is Kamal's friend, here to smooth my path through the Egyptian side of the border. We take the ferry, along with 4 or 5 heavily loaded lorries, and it splits into two ferries which race each other to the other side of Lake Nasser. We pass islands covered in Pelicans and arrive at a forlorn little spot that appears to be precisely nowhere.
Ferry landing, Lake Nasser on way to Sudanese border
From here, the new road takes me 35 kilometres south to the border. Hamada walks me from office to office to get all the various stamps that make Egyptian officials so happy. It's pretty low-stress and I am glad I have paid someone to take the brunt of it all. Just before I head to the Sudanese gate Hamada ushers me into his office and quickly palms me the numberplate. I put it in a zip compartment in the inside of the back of my jacket and head to the gate. Egypt's parting shot is a strange spluttering that comes from my engine just as I slow in front of the gate. I find Mazar leaning through the gate and asking me for my documents. He takes them over to the guards and a few minutes later I am through the gate. Or I would be if my motorbike was actually working. I struggle with it a little and finally coax it to kangaroo into Sudan. I park my disobedient steed by the customs office and go have a shai while Mazar takes care of everything.
Guy and Mazar at Sudanese border
Already, in the little cafe I suddenly feel I am finally really in Africa. It's the faces, the feeling of time slowing, running as it always has, the corrugated iron walls, the soft looks that ask why, who and the slender lady who makes me tea in diaphonous scarves and angular cheekbones.

I lurch into Sudan on my spluttering motorbike, a solitary dot beneath huge twisted rocks, my ill-gotten gains secreted in my clothes and know I have found a special place, a wild place. Far from home.