I woke at dawn in a drainage channel beneath a main road. It was 90 kilometres to the port in the south of Jordan, from where I would take an overnight ferry the short distance across the Gulf of Aqaba to Nuweiba, on the Sinai peninsular of Egypt.
The outside of my tent was crusted with ice. I packed my things and struggled up the bank to the road. It was 6:30am and I pedalled hard to warm up as the day broke. Then the wind began.
I had been pedalling into a headwind on all but one day since I began riding in Turkey. Sometimes it had been vicious. The previous day, despite pedalling as hard as I could, I was making no impact on the long road that lay before me. My legs burned and eventually wouldn’t go round any more. I’d covered a pathetic 25 kilometres in nearly 5 hours of struggle. I got off the bike and delivered a primordial scream of rage into the empty landscape. I simply couldn’t handle the prospect of another day battling in vain against the weather.
Before I left England to hitch to Istanbul and resume my biking, I often worried that I would freak out once I was moving under my own steam. Not so much as losing the plot, I was afraid I would bottle it, lose focus, or come up with rationalizations for abandoning my plans. In short, I had doubts about my mental ability to deal with travelling alone.
The hitching experience was good practice. Far more so than cycling, self-motivation when procuring a lift was critical to my success. By the time I got back on the bike, I had dragged myself from a state of fear and doubt to one of excitement and zeal about what I was about to embark upon.
I now regularly pedal well over 100km between dawn and dusk, but 60 or 70 would have been a normal day’s riding back when I was in a pair or group. Part of it is because I have ruthlessly cut back my luggage to the bare minimum, and partly it’s because I’ve been riding through increasingly featureless and unpopulated landscapes.
But it’s mainly because my objectives are now fundamentally different. I used to relish ambling slowly off the beaten track. I had no commitments or deadlines, I was living well within my means, and what I was experiencing had great value. I needed no grand plan, daily target or final destination to give meaning to what I was doing.
Now, each day on the road is a day closer to my reunion with Tenny. This thought does not occupy my every waking second. If it did, it would render my journey pointless. But I am far less likely to dawdle if I know that I can push a little harder, wake up a little fitter than the previous day, and shave a little more off the journey back to Iran.
I’m not avoiding invitations to eat and to spend evenings with locals, because this is an experience in which few other than bicycle travellers are lucky enough to have the opportunity to take part. But now I’m less likely to slam the brakes on when I see a cup of tea being waved aloft in the distance.
My fitness is rapidly increasing, at a rate where I can feel and see the changes in my body over a period of a few days. My daily distance range gradually increases with the available daylight and with constant training. Now I can ride 120 kilometres into the wind and only have to stop because of growing darkness.
So a kind of freedom I had before has been lost, but it’s been replaced by a willing commitment. When I’m sailing through miles of empty desert, I’m dreaming of the future, but experiencing the present. I focus on the day in front of me, but just behind it is the light at the end of the tunnel. I have found a balance between progress and procrastination.
By the time I reach Iran, I want to feel that I have a better idea of what I’m capable of. Perhaps this is unknowable. Within reason, anything can be achieved given sufficient determination, but determination alone does not justify every endeavour. But this challenge is mine alone; a challenge in which I am not only the sole participant but also the sole judge.
So I pedalled into the wind for yet another day. I was fed and watered throughout by policemen, shopkeepers and restauranteurs. Despite the gruelling day’s riding, the support of the local people was at it’s peak, and helped me reach my destination for the day. In Aqaba I chanced upon no less than four other cyclists, and heard tell of others in the region. They were all couples, and I remembered how different their shared experience would have been to my solitary little road trip.
Now I’m in Africa. Cairo, after crossing the mountainous desert of the southern Sinai and taking a couple of days off in Dahab. The Red Sea coast was one big building site, and tourism underpins the economy of the Sinai more visibly than anywhere I’ve been, but the natural beauty of the mountainous desert roads and a spectacular beach camping spot made up for this. I’ve also found really welcoming hospitality from a handful of Egyptian Arabs, though I have learnt to be on my guard as rip-off merchants do sadly come thick and fast here.
I hitched the final 50 kilometres into the city on the back of a pick-up truck, as I judged the combination of a side-wind, bad visibility, heavy traffic and a narrow hard shoulder too dangerous to be endured out of pure stubbornness. “The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.”
Tomorrow morning I find out if my application to visit Sudan has been successful. Hopefully the wind will be at my back as I ride south. Wish me luck!