The direction to ride after Cairo was uncertain. I’d been juggling the options for weeks. Previous attempts at the Nile had resulted in police convoys to ‘safer’ places. The Red Sea Coast route didn’t appeal to me after the ugliness and monotony of its opposite shore, and the Western Desert route, beautiful, quiet and remote, would constitute a long, if tempting, detour.
But in the end, it wasn’t ’til I was weaving through Cairo’s downtown traffic, Sudanese visa stuck firmly in my passport, that I made my choice. Despite the previous failed attempts, I would try and ride the Nile.
I set off down the corniche on the East bank of the river. Through the leafy Embassy district, suburbia and the industrial zone. The two checkpoints I passed were manned by obligingly-distracted traffic officers. I didn’t feel the need to alert them to my presence and silently rolled by. I’d escaped Cairo undetected, and I was out on my own.
I rode along the quiet road in the still, sunny afternoon. Lush palm groves dotted the patchwork of fields. The river slid past, glinting, a stone’s throw to my right. Old men trotted past on heavily-laden donkeys and eyed me curiously. Children, having finished their studies for the day, bellowed greetings at me (“HELLO!!!! WHATISYOURNEM!!!!!”) and thankfully refrained from following up with a barrage of projectiles.
Suddenly, everywhere I looked was life! People crouched amongst the crops in the sun, birds sang from invisible hiding-spots in the foliage above me, camels and donkey-carts transported huge piles of harvested greenery to places I would never see. After the previous weeks of aridity, this was a paradise for the senses. I rode slower and drank it all in.
After the town of Beni Suef, the road veered East, out of the shallow valley and into the desert. The dreaded headwind returned. I camped above the edge of the gorge behind a small and seemingly pointless wall which served to somewhat block the dusty wind. A kilometre or so away in the valley I overlooked was an expanse of palm trees and fields so vast that I could not see the far side of the valley as the sun sank into the evening haze.
Fuelling all of the life I could see was the Nile, snaking blue through the yellow sand, fringed with green, feeding an entire country of 80 million people. The well-known historical importance of this waterway suddenly made sense. The vitality imparted by the arrival of East African rains to this otherwise parched land was unmistakeably apparent. I had never imagined or experienced a mass agricultural operation on this kind of scale.
The following day I came to an unavoidable police checkpoint. They seemed surprised to see me. The wind blew hard in my face and I laughed at the irony of the situation when they let me continue unhindered. Suddenly, after all this time, I wanted to be put on a convoy, and here they were, letting me go!
About an hour later, a beaten-up navy blue Chevrolet pickup pulled over and the same officers got out, grinning. I had travelled less than 10 kilometres since I had seen them. I grinned back and a couple of minutes later I was speeding through the desert in the back of the truck. At the next town, Al Minya, I crossed to the West bank of the Nile after some discussion with a helpful local man about which would be the better side to travel by bicycle.
For the next two days I was accompanied by sporadic police escorts as I rode. I think I should have had them permanently, but I was joined by a fresh squad of bored traffic cops in a pickup every 15 or 20 kilometres, and some of them became understandably impatient with my leisurely touring pace and sped off to wait for me at the next checkpoint. Others they were vigilant to a ridiculous degree. At one point, I stopped to take a photograph, and they leapt out of the van, stopped all traffic in both directions and then forcibly held my hand as I crossed the road!
I discovered to my surprise that the mid-section of the Egyptian Nile is home to a large Christian population. The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has between 8 and 15 million adherents, depending on who you believe (pun not intended exactly), in Egypt. This is a far higher proportion than in the previous Arabian nations I’d visited. This section is also heavily settled, with no real discernable beginning or end to any of the villages, towns or cities.
I followed the small road along one of the canals parallel to the main flow of the river. I passed great tracts of banana palms, wheat, tomatoes, and vast fields of sugar cane, which was always undergoing harvest and being loaded onto donkeys, trucks or railway wagons parked up on narrow-gauge branch lines. Men, women and children grabbed canes from passing wagons and set to work ripping the outer husk away with their teeth to chew and suck on the sugary fibrous inner core. (I’m sure dentists do a roaring trade.) Every few seconds I would return a friendly but surprised greeting or have to apologetically deny another Egyptian the pleasure of my company for a glass of tea or coffee.
It was clear that foreigners were almost never encountered in these small and busy farming settlements. Sometimes, air-conditioned coaches sailed by, white faces peering out or (more often) buried in guidebooks as they headed for one of the temples or tombs that adorn the valley. No wonder I was eliciting such a strong reaction from the locals. Strong, but invariably genuine and friendly, I should add.
The only foreigner I actually met during the week it took me to cycle from Cairo to Luxor was Matthew, an American guy about my age who had come to work in one of the numerous Christian community centres. He’d been there for about 18 months and was as surprised as the locals were when my police escort dumped me on his doorstep as I searched for a place to sleep for the night.
I was evidently being stereotyped as a Christian by being British, for I was taken to no fewer than three churches to sleep during this part of my trip. Of course I accepted their delighted hospitality and enjoyed my time seeing this part of Egypt from the point-of-view of a minority group — a part of which I had previously been entirely unaware — but couldn’t help feeling a little guilty that I had been brought to them on an incorrect assumption about my religion. I have no religion, but trying to explain that, in this part of the world, is like trying to explain that you don’t have a heart, as one Syrian man put it.
I arrived in the tourist town of Luxor two days ago. I was cynical about what I would find there. I expected to wind up in a small, dirty, overpriced hotel room, and to spend a few days hiding there to escape from hordes of people trying to sell me boat/horse/camel trips or tacky souvenirs or food that I would previously have eaten for a tenth of the price elsewhere.
What in fact I did find was the only accommodation I have ever felt moved to actually recommend. Al Salam Camp can be found at the end of a dirt track on the West bank, well away from the centre of Luxor but close enough to be able to see across the river as the sun rises over the 3,400-year-old temple and the slightly newer Sheraton hotel. It’s run by an honest, friendly and well-spoken Egyptian man and his family (who also live there). It’s quiet, peaceful, remote without being inaccessible, and at $4 per night it is within my means to support his business.
I’ve had my usual equipment explosion in one of the small huts that surround a courtyard, discovered that my pen-knife and bike pump have mysteriously vanished from my pannier. It must have occurred during the day’s ride from Naga Hamadi (the last time I used them) to Luxor. It is too much of a coincidence (and the road too flat) to assume that they ejected themselves from the side pocket simultaneously as I rode along. This was the only sour point of a week which has otherwise been so unexpectedly packed with delight and inspiration.
Yesterday I left my things at the camp and hitched a lift the 350km to Aswan to buy my ferry ticket to Sudan. The ship sails every Monday and is the only legal overland route between the two countries. On the train back to Luxor I sat next to a member of the plain-clothes tourist police who operate undercover on the tour bus network in the country. He told me of the Luxor massacre in 1997 in which 63 people, mostly tourists, were gunned down by an Islamist terror cell at one of the historical sites. Egypt’s tourist industry understandably suffered greatly in the following years, and as one of the most important sources of income for the country, I began to understand why the police are so protective of their visitors.
Over a million British people alone visit Egypt every year. Add to that the countless visitors from other Western countries and the scale of tourism in Egypt begins to become clear. Most of the tourism centres around Ancient Egyptian historical sites, and as well preserved and beautiful as they are, and as inexpensive and accessible as Egypt is, it is easy to see the attraction. Cyclists, whose travel philosophy rarely ranks sightseeing at the top of the agenda, are obviously an anomaly and are treated as such by the authorities. I found myself giving my escorts a hard time on some occasions, but I can’t expect them to understand bicycle travel and its priorities.
I was fortunate to be able to ride this way. It’s been a spectacular example of simplicity, family and tradition in life which characterises all the Arab people I’ve encountered so far, but never more so than on the grand scale of the River Nile Valley. Egypt has surprised me at every turn. I knew nothing of what to expect, and I will leave the country next Monday earnestly looking forward to my next visit!
The next time I write, I will (hopefully) have made the desert crossing in Northern Sudan. This remote road is one that I have been anticipating with a mixture of fear and excitement ever since I made the decision to ride to Africa. Wish me luck!