Month: January 2019

Breaking News: Bypassing Kartoum!

We are leaving Egypt: the land of a million Police Check Points.  The hope of the Arab Spring is all but forgotten. General Sisi’s  hold over the country seems to be persevering  since the removal by the military of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.  “This country needs strong leadership to counter the natural state of corruption”, is the opinion expressed to us by more than one national we have spoken to.  Lesser evils.  

Ahmed from Cairo has been cycling with us for the last week, as he has done at the invitation of TDA for 6 years now. He has recently moved to Germany for work, but even now maintains the position that the rest of the world would be better off with security checks in every town and public area.  He talks candidly about this after a “warm up” session. Catch our conversation here:

 

Ahmed is intelligent and content like most of the people we have encountered in Egypt (although in many cases with more than a hint of resignation). Clearly we have different outlooks on the outward appearances of a “civilized” society, but listening to his conviction it is also obvious that we need to have understanding. South of our Canadian border there are calls to arm school teachers.  Ahmed might agree, but only on the basis of what he knows from his upbringing here. He was raised in a country which has gone far beyond those measures.  

Tomorrow we cross our 1st border into Sudan. Social media sights have been shut down in that country due to political unrest.  We just learned at our rider meeting that a planned rest day in Dongola has been cancelled to give us time to circumnavigate the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.  TDA has deemed that city too dangerous at the present time.

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Safety on Tour

The legal system in Sudan is based on Islamic sharia law.  Stoning and crucifixion (!) remain  judicial punishments in Sudan. Flogging is legal. Sudan’s public order law allows police officers to publicly whip women who are accused of public indecency.

Sudan is currently ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. The country’s economy has deteriorated over the years, with soaring inflation of 70 percent and regular bread and fuel shortages hitting several cities. In the last months, with his political allies defecting, economic turmoil worsening and street protests erupting across the country almost every day, President al-Bashir is seeing his power slowly ebb away.

TDA Cycling sent us a series of bulletins in the weeks prior to our arrival in Cairo.  The “racier” ones came after they had our payment (or so it seemed). Here is an excerpt from the bulletin entitled “Safety”:

“Prior to the running of each tour, we conduct an internal review of the risks involved. This review often results in logistical changes in advance of the tour or even during the tour when the situation requires it. These changes are often minor but sometimes major changes are needed. Here are two examples of major changes that have occured on previous editions of this tour:

  1. Deciding before the tour began not to cycle in Ethiopia on the 2017 edition of the tour due to civil unrest and protests
  2. Deciding while the tour was in progress not to cycle through Kenya on the 2008 edition of the tour due to post-election violence”

The reality is there are risks in any and all countries, any outdoor activity, and any physical pursuit. We do our utmost to mitigate risk and create a safe environment for all clients, but risks do exist. Most of the risks are not easy to categorize, and cannot be predicted far in advance, but the items below are some of the most likely risk areas that you should be aware of:

Conservative clothing (especially for women) in Muslim Egypt and Sudan. Women should also not ride alone in these countries.

Beware of rock throwing children and young adults in Ethiopia.

Beware of bandits along the East Africa Highway in northern Kenya.

Beware of elephants and lions along the Elephant Highway in Botswana.

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We have had a wonderful day touring Ramses II’s monuments dedicated to his queen Nefertari: tombs actually disassembled and rebuilt further up the banks of Lake Nasser which was created by the construction of the Aswan dam in the early 1960’s.  The temples would otherwise  been lost.

It was a comfort to see that an in international effort of archaeologists and engineers could work with the Egyptian government and Unesco for this cause – safe keepers of  antiquity and the chance for others to experience what we have in Egypt.

Now  our journey’s 1st wrinkle – nothing to worry about, but a possibility that we will not be blogging any time soon.

Thanks for reading.  To be continued . . .

Going With the Flow

desertcamp

Desert Camp at dinnertime

Our desert camp last night could not even provide a “bottle shower”.  Enter The Body Wipe –  an oversized moist towelette created as a shower replacement. Our homework before we embarked on this journey  promised good results.  We had doubts.  Mercifully, it did the job!  We are being thrown new challenges every day and are taking them on one at a time, going with the flow.

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In ancient times, the predictability and fertile soil of the Nile  allowed the Egyptians to build an empire based on agricultural wealth.  As we rode our bicycles south from Luxor, against the flow of the Nile,  we passed through villages with teeming populations whose farming activity form a large part of the economic backbone of the country.

The Nile is the longest in the world at 6,650 km. It’s drainage basin covers  10% of the African continent over 11 countries, 4 of which we will be traversing on this tour: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. By comparison, geography buffs might be interested to know that the 3760 km Mississippi drains 40% of the continental United States.

The farm country was a welcome change from the 1st few days in the open desert.  As we rolled into villages children ran at us hoping to get a “high five” as they tested their english – “Hello!”, “ What is you name?”, “ I love you!” And the occasional “Money! Money!” Donkey driven carts laden with the alfalfa that is currently being harvested join tuk tuks and assorted other vehicles on the imperfect roads, forcing us to be vigilant.  Farmers tending to sugar cane, bananas, onions, cauliflower, cabbage and even rice crops respond with big grins to our easily offered waves.  Most of them are thrilled to pose for a photo.  Any group of cyclists pulling over for a coke stop (critical tour d’Afrique term for cold drink and snack opportunities) brings about a flurry of attention. We are undeserved rock stars. 

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Pulling onions for our inspection

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Nile farmer

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Happy to “talk”

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Herding

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A Day in the Life

TDA runs a tight ship to everyone’s benefit.  Just over 30 is a large group. Schedules must be respected.  “Going with the flow” is a requirement.  Here is the agenda for a day on tour:

Before breakfast each person’s 90 litre bag must be deposited outside the overlander transport vehicle for transfer to that night’s campsite ( FYI we have another 90 litre “permanent bag” to which we only have access on rest days). This means a 5:00 AM alarm in our case, allowing enough time to deflate sleeping pads and pillows, dress, pack clothes,  camp gear, electronics, tear down tent, load bikes with necessities for the day’s ride, initiate navigation “toys”, and take care of personal hygiene.

Breakfast – 6:30 AM, preceded by coffee at 6:15.  Hygiene is critical in this closed society. A visit to the handwashing station before every meal is obligatory.  Dishes and cutlery undergo a traditional wash/rinse/bleach washing process before and after meals with each participant washing their own. Finally, an industrial sized ladel’s worth of porridge is served up cafeteria style, into which riders introduce a myriad of sweet or fruity enhancements. Yogurt is also available.  

Departure – riders leave camp any time after the leader’s vehicle has has a chance to go out and hang biodegradable orange flagging tape at route junctures. The “rabbits” are the 1st to go.  Yours truly are middle of the pack types. On some days we are advised  to cycle in groups, but we are left to our own discretion.  Over time the group’s will sort themselves out, either along lines of friendship or survival.  Watching this is part of the fun.

Lunch – usually just past the half way point of the day’s distance (average 130 km).  So far – always in the middle of nowhere.  There is a check in with a TDA staffer    stories of riders who have gotten lost are in the vault for now.  The group will have to prove itself before the leaders start “sharing” more.  We are still rookies.  A sweep rider ( back of the pack) from TDA is there to pick up the pieces should any difficulties arise. Same sanitation rules apply at a pull-off in the desert. Food buffet style.  “Dine and dash” at one’s own leisure. This is often a good time for a walk into the sandy beyond with a shovel in hand. 

Camp – check in. A restorative soup (a signature feature of all TDA tours) is available every riding day as we pull in. Set up camp, conduct any required bicycle maintenance, laundry as necessary, shower/“bottle” shower/giant wet-nap clean up.   The tour mechanic and medic are available for consults according to posted hours.  The rest of the afternoon, which may be hours for fast riders or nonexistent for those who have spent more time cycling or site seeing on the road, is unstructured. We try to hustle when there are things to see and do.  At Aswan we hired an old style a felluca with its skipper Abdullah for a sail on the Nile which provided us with a view of the Temples of the Nobles high above the river banks.

Rider Meeting – precedes dinner,  5:30.  A white board outlines the upcoming day’s route which we copy “old school” onto paper for mounting on our front panniers (most reliable way to get to camp). A photo also does the trick (until a battery runs out). Our leader Tallis tells us what to expect and briefs us on any issues of concern.  Today our doc, Jennifer reviewed our malaria regimes and informed us about symptoms which may befall us once we hit the danger zones despite the (imperfect) protection.

Dinner – 6:00. Riders get 1st crack – served buffet style.  Staff are next, then “open kitchen” is called for any leftovers. Chef Mark works summers at a Relais and Chateaux property in Anchorage.  His “bulk food” capabilities are very good as well.  3 riders are selected in rotation to clean pots and other kitchen items.

Lights out – whenever, but shockingly early by our home life standards!

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Aswan Felluca with Abdullah

We are headed for Sudan.  Life is good.  Thanks for tagging along.

Valley of the Kings and Queens

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From the Red Sea to Qena

A list of reasons some find this  journey to be pure folly begins with incomprehension when it comes to sitting on a bicycle seat for long hours (” Doesn’t your rear end hurt?”). Next in line on the items people can’t get their head around is the idea of camping . . . ever . . . let alone for 4 months. (“You know there is such a thing as a hotel . . .  right?”).

Well, we are happy to report that our bodies are holding up after 6 riding days from Cairo (699 km) preceding today’s off day in Luxor.  That said, the tour medic fully expects to be having a look at the saddle sores of a majority of riders before we reach Capetown. We are tired, but that is to be expected when trying to figure out how to live in a totally different manner than we are accustomed to.

 

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Endless highway in the Sahara

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Pulling off for lunch

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Camels leading the way

On the camping front, we were spoiled with our early sites on the Red Sea – including one right on the beach property of a hotel with a couple of rooms made available for showering. Things turned Tour d’Afrique style after that with a night at “Police Camp”. This random roadside spot in the desert offered all night trucking traffic, police sentries guarding the perimeter with the usual automatic weapons, dogs, no electricity, a 2 liter per person water ration for bathing after 145 km in the saddle, and finally a selection of shovels to take into the desert as nature required. With all this bounty no one uttered a word of complaint.  This is what we signed up for – are paying for! The dinner presented in this spartan setting consisted of bbq’d chicken, lentils, sweet potatoes and coleslaw. Impressive and delicious. Who needs the Ritz when most of us are in our tents counting passing vehicles and dreading the early morning calls to prayer by 7:30?  You can find a short video of the police camp at the bottom of this post.

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Arrival at police camp messages

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Police camp – the lime green tent on the right with bikes is our set-up

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Early morning call – police protection at camp

 

Luxor

Riding  in the desert is all about endless sand and gravel and wide open skies.  Long stretches of very good road surfaces and minimal navigation clear the mind. The group is settling into patterns. We spent about 40 km in a pace line (drafting off the rider in front of us) to ease the load on a high mileage day. This isn’t something we are accustomed to, or even like to do (full concentration is required so earbuds and photography are out), but it may make a big difference as the days get warmer and the body starts to complain.   We emerged from the desert quite suddenly into great concentrations of brutalist style concrete housing complexes on the outskirts of Luxor.  It was nice to see happy childrens’ faces as they vied for our attention.

 

Luxor is the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Waset, known to the Greeks as Thebes. It has frequently been characterized as the “world’s greatest open-air museum”. Our in flight magazine on Air Egypt stated that 30% of the world’s monuments are to be found here! Hard to imagine? Every time someone sticks a shovel in the ground there is a new discovery, so much so that in the past year the military government has decreed that some sites are to be “left for future generations to unveil”.

Our tour organizers arranged for a local guide to help us make the most out of our short time here.  We visited the otherworldly Valley of the Kings where our entry allowed us access into 3 tombs, although not that of the famous King Tut (which has been stripped of its artifacts in any event).  We also spent time at Karnak Temple and Pharoah Hatshepsut’s Temple.  The scale and beauty of these works, many untouched for 3000 years, must be seen to be fully appreciated.  We are lucky to be passing through.

Thank you for reading.

Pharoah’s Delight

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The world’s largest architectural museum is under construction in Cairo.  The superstructure looks big enough to house the pyramids themselves.  It is 6 years behind schedule.  In the meantime,  the day we visited the Tutankhamen exhibition at the current Egyptian Museum painters were teetering on an iffy scaffold within toppling distance of the Boy Pharoah’s glass encased iconic gold mask – an unbelievable affront to an artifact which has travelled the world and been admired by millions. We left dirty, fascinating, wonderful and chaotic Cairo 2 days ago. We were invited to the homes of our taxi drivers for tea and helped across 8 lanes of traffic by a good samaritan who served as a human shield for us. The government is supplying our tour with a police escort all the way to the Sudanese border to guard against the bad press that would result from any incident. The whole country seems to be on board in an effort to win back  the tourist dollars lost to the Arab Spring.

30 cyclists from all over the world in our group were treated to special access cycling through the Pyramid complex early on the morning of our departure.   What a thrill to be there in the absence of the hoards. Yours truly were interviewed for Egyptian television so watch for that!

Over the next 4 months we will cycle along the Nile past ancient temples, through the Sahara in Sudan, up and down the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, over the equator in Kenya, past Mount Kilimangero in Tanzania, on to one of Africa’s Great Lakes in Malawi and “Mosi-ao-Tunya” (The Smoke That Thunders) which is the native description of Victoria Falls, along the edges of the Kalahari and Namib deserts before finishing our journey in Cape Town, South Africa.

The tour  is divided into sections which begin and end where there are airports.  TDA Cycling has labelled the 2365 km 1st leg of our journey Pharoah’s Delight.

pharaoh's delight

On our last day in the city we braced ourselves against a sandstorm in Tahrir Square that made it easy to understand how so many monuments and artifacts have been lost to the expanding desert.  Fortunately the weather has been favorable since then – single digits early morning rising to mid teens by afternoon.  It has been a “soft start”  compared with what lies ahead: good tarmac, shoulders, helping winds and some of the only hotels we’ll enjoy. Our room last night came equipped with a prayer mat. We knew exactly what to do with it because the Red Sea is the divide between Africa and Asia and on the opposite bank to the south lies Mecca – the target when rolling it out.  The 5 times daily calls to prayer let us know when to act. We’ll need to work on other local customs  – Lenore has been in the lead (ahead of Gerald) on her bicycle more often than not and that is most certainly not in compliance with how things are (still) done here.

We headed out of Cairo to the Red Sea and are now following the coastal highway to Safaga. The right turn at the sea was indicative one of the things we love about cycling: the gradual unveiling of geography at a speed and with exposure to terrain and the elements that allow it to be appreciated. The Red Sea rift which underlies this inlet of the Indian Ocean is part of the Great Rift Valley, a continuous geographic trench that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique. It will account for some spectacular scenery as this journey unfolds southward.

We will be climbing inland next to meet the Nile River at Qena and travel on to Luxor where we will have our 1st day of rest to take in the sites. We will report from the Valley of the Kings.

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Magical moment

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On to the Red Sea

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Lunch in the desert.

Early Morning start.

Early morning start.

stage 2

Our mission for the day

Greetings (مرحبا) From Cairo

 

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After 9 months of preparations, we have arrived at the starting line.`New bikes, updated gear (none the 4 tents we already had met the requirements), visas (2 trips to Ottawa to meet the all important gatekeepers of The Sudan and Ethiopia), vaccinations, insurance, exercise, packing, more vaccinations, repacking, 2nd guessing everything and on and on have come to an end.  This adventure is about to get real, inshAllah.

We have 3 days to acclimatize here in Cairo.  We gained entrance to our modern hotel in the Giza district after our airport transfer van was cleared by police sniffer dogs and our  luggage and persons passed through airport style scanners.  A taxi driver today explained that the AK-47’s seen everywhere here are the outcome of the “accident” in 2001 – the one with the planes – and that all of this is to make tourists feel more secure. They do anything but, instead serving as a constant reminder of the dangers lurking here according to Canada’s own travel advisory website and just about everyone else.

1st order of business in this city was to visit the Pyramids of Giza.  My (Gerry’s) father had photographed them many years ago and I recall showing the 2 1/2 inch slides  with an old style projector as a grade 8 geography project (every 2nd one inverted because they had to be inserted one at a time, upside down and backwards and I was a nervous one). I had been so impressed with these images of antiquity that when Miss Kajaks asked for background on the monuments on the screen I had little to add as it seemed to me that they spoke for themselves!

Having now visited the pyramid complex on our own – the Great Pyramid of Khufu together with those of his son and grandson,  kept safe under the watchful gaze of the mighty Sphinx – and reflecting that these wondrous feats of architecture were imagined and realized while the rest of the world was hunting wild beasts and sheltering in caves, I would say that I am  as much in awe as my earlier self.

The 1st official orientation meeting for tour participants was this morning at 9:00 AM.  We awoke at the stroke of 10:00  and were the butts of the 1st communal jokes as we sauntered in late.  A repeat performance on a riding day would mean that we would miss the luggage truck departure deadline and would each have to carry our 70 pounds or so of camping and daily kit on our bikes!

Time to get serious. Sleep.  Thanks for following.  Next news from the road.

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السلام عليكم – “السلام عليكم” (Peace be upon you).