Mediterranean Cycopaths

Chaotic Cairo

26th February 2007 

A predictable title for this entry and I’m more than happy to oblige. We arrived in the Egyptian capital covered in dirt from head to toe (a dry day, so it was all pure smog and dust from the road) after fighting through heavy and wildy unpredictable traffic the entire way from Alex. If one single driver used mirrors or looked over their shoulder when merging into or out of traffic, then I didn’t see it.

Filthy and Gorgeous

Happy to be in Cairo (and out of the traffic)

Cyclists are generally ill-equipped to compete with their motorised road ‘sharing’ brethren so a bit of defensive riding goes a long way to ensuring safe passage, but that’s not always possible for a proud man like myself. I challenge anybody to cycle through that traffic without letting fly a gesticulative, expletive laden, panel slapping outburst every 10kms or so (except for Sean who seemed to manage it without any problems). I only hope it doesn’t adversely affect local opinion of my native New Zealand too much (I’m always a Kiwi if there’s any chance of negative publicity).

The various tourist touts in the city are a source of constant humour. While we fully expect that they all know someone from Cygnet in Tasmania and are therefore prepared to allow us special access to the Government papyrus shop which is having it’s annual sale for today only, some of the other attempts are downright insulting – not least of which is the “Psssst, Sssssssst” that many of them use to try to get your attention, as if they’re instructing a donkey.

Combatting them has become a sport of sorts. The look of confusion on their faces never fails to amuse when they are invited back to our papyrus factory, or you tell them in clear English that you don’t understand what they are saying and can they please repeat it in Arabic.

A previous visitor to the city, Sean took the opportunity to relax and recuperate for a few days, whilst taking in the Islamic area, while I, somewhat reluctantly, was obliged to run around and see the more mainstream sights of Cairo and the Nile Valley when all I really wanted to do was nothing (where’s that violin gone?). This resulted in a whirlwind trip to Aswan, Abu Simbel and Luxor, which I won’t bore you with, but will post a few pics. It was pretty spectacular.

So, after some spare parts finally arrived in Cairo, precipitating an unbelievably complicated collection at the Post Office (not going to go into details, we are both still shocked and appalled at the level of incompetence and bureacracy) we leave tomorrow, headed for Suez and Sinai.

Jon

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/

February 26, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dashboard – Week 5

  • Days Cycled – 4
  • Distance Covered – 664km
  • Cumulative Distance – 3244km
  • Record Day – 220km (!)
  • Consecutive Days without Alcohol – 25 (!!)

February 21, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Siwa Oasis and the Fading Stars

18th February 2007

After 7 days straight on the bikes, some more fruitful than others due to tough conditions and my dodgy stomach, we stopped for a couple of nights at the Egyptian port town of Marsa Matruh. From here we took a (long) bus ride to the desert oasis of Siwa, which bills itself as the world’s oldest tourist destination (Alexander the Great visted circa 330 BC to have his fortune told by the local oracle). It is an amazing place and after strolling leisurely around the temples and various springs during the afternoon our day was capped off by a stunning sunset (see pictures).

The cycling in Egypt has been a bit of a change from Libya, with the big new hotels and apartments juxtaposed against the local towns and villages affecting our experience – i.e. we cycle into a small village and ask for a funduq (hotel), they think we’re lost and direct us down the road to the the big package holiday resort complete with armed guards at the front gate. In Libya, they would be falling over themselves to have us stay at their own house.

My faith was soon restored when we stopped at a service station. I went into the building to ask for a map, only to find it empty. I heard some sounds coming from the adjoining shed, so stuck my head through the door. As my eyes became accustomed to the light, I see this guy (ethnic Berber I think) sitting on a blanket tucking into a massive bowl of spaghetti. He looks up, sees me and, without even blinking, picks up another spoon and ushers for me to sit down next to him and join in. Brilliant.

In general the Egyptians are extremely friendly (nothing at all like the Libyans told us they would be!) and I’m happy to report that we are still capturing imaginations across the region (and then releasing them unharmed). One particularly funny incident occurred when we were simply walking along a Marsa Matruh street in casual clothes not looking extraordinarily out of place, in my opinion. We had a faint feeling of being watched by a couple of people, which we ignored, until we hear this big crash and thump from behind – a guy carrying a load of hot bread on a bicycle had crashed into a telegraph pole sending himself sprawling and scattering pita all over the street. Thus another potential slogan for our mooted t-shirts was born – Team Cycopath: Remember to look where you’re going while you’re staring at them.

Another thing missing from our time in Libya is the TV cameras. This has hit Sean pretty hard as he immensely enjoyed pandering to them. The last 2 nights I have heard him sleep talking, interviewing himself in a different voice and then answering in his own – apparently pretending that he is still the international sporting hero of last week.

We have made good progress across Egypt so far and with the trip exactly one calendar month old we were 20 kilometres shy of the 3000km mark – something we wouldn’t have dreamt of at the start of the trip. That milestone, since passed, was celebrated in Alexandria with our first beers in 25 days. The second ones followed very shortly thereafter.

Jon

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/

February 18, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Exit Libya

14th February 2007

Our last stretch in Libya proved that the more things change the more they stay the same. The new experiences were our first real mountain stages in the picturesque Jebel Akhdar (literally Green Mountains) and genuinely cold weather – it apparently snowed 2 days before we arrived – both of which contributed to some ill-health on my part.

Of course we were still hounded at every turn by security checkpoints, every man and his dog that owned a camera (see ‘Sights From the Saddle’ blog, below) and cars that, failing to stop us, would follow slowly behind for no apparent reason. We had to constantly remind ourselves that they meant well, but it really tested the patience after 3 weeks.

We did manage to incorporate worthwhile stopovers at Cyrene and Tobruk (see pics), before we finally departed on the 13th.

Seeing that we will be returning to Tunisia, Libya is the first country to be completely ticked off the list and, considering the length of the coastline, the visa / touring difficulties (another guy we know of got stopped from cycling Tripoli to Benghazi last week) and the hassles, it was two very relieved cycopaths eating felaffels in Sallum, Egypt, that evening.

Jon

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/  

February 18, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dashboard – Week 4

  • Days Cycled – 6
  • Distance Covered – 677km
  • Cumulative Distance – 2580km 
  • Succesive nights free accommodation – 6

February 13, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Benghazi: Bad Boyz & Bootleg Booze

10th February 2007

Our arrival in Benghazi was a watershed moment of the trip – the conquering of the Gulf of Sirte – and we were glad to get here. It also heralded the transition from the well-educated, well-dressed and well-spoken middle-aged ‘minders’ of Tripoli to a younger, hipper and more westernised outfit.

The undoubted leader of this pack was the levi-toting, mobile wielding, handsome and charismatic Hamdi*, a former cycling star (a fact he patiently waited 45 seconds to divulge). Hamdi acted like a magnet for a whole raft of impressionable young men, and of this entourage his most constant companion was a solid unit with a gruff voice by the name of Abdullah*.

It was this duo who greeted us in order to provide a motorised escort into the city and subsequently turned what should of been a straighforward spin into a real life smash-up derby. Before our unbelieving eyes Abdullah proceeded to slam his car into multi-lane roundabouts, block slip-lane entrances to motorways and skid to a halt across the path of oncoming traffic. This insane performance, enacted to provide us with a safe and clear passage downtown, merely resulted in wildly unpredictable traffic movement – the fact that a wing mirror and front fender were the only victims of the ensuing chaos was surely the Middle East’s latest miracle.

For our remaining 2 and a half days in Benghazi, Hamdi and Abdullah orchestrated a ‘tagging’ performance that would have made Tony Libretore (former Australian Rules Footballer) proud. Whilst Team Cycopath is not usually dismissive of undue attention, the constant prescence of these two attempting to impose their “programme” upon us was a source of intense frustration. They would pop up unexpectedly – to the extent that I was surprised not to find one of them proffering the toilet paper on visits to the bathroom – and insist that we were safer locked inside Abdullah’s deathtrap than walking the streets alone. The irony was not lost on us.

Neither was the irony that when travelling with Abdullah we were hurtled forward at dangerously high velocities to get nowhere in particular (perhaps Abdullah subscribed to the belief that it is the journey rather than the destination…). Indeed Abdullah’s favourite pastime appeared to be gunning his car for small children standing in the street – I couldn’t help imagine another hobby being pulling the wings off defenceless insects. Our multi-lingual requests to slow down (the instinct for survival improving our Arabic dramatically) were invariably met with a manic laugh and the cranking of Bon Jovi’s early 90’s hits to well beyond industrial decibel limits.

Meanwhile, with a decent grasp of the English language, Hamdi’s communication difficulties were not so much lingual as the fact that the bloke never bloody listened. So instead we were fettered with an incessant smattering of “No problem,” “Don’t worry,” and our personal favourite “Small time” which could involve anywhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours of standing around listening to other people’s animated Arabic conversations**. When we did manage to slip their net and meet some real Libyans down at the local souq or felafel stand the relief was sheer bliss.

The culmination of these shenanigans occurred after visiting a hotel when Hamdi asked us if we would like to drink (alcohol). We duly replied that we understood alcohol was prohibited in Libya and didn’t need a drink; we duly added that of course if there were drinks on offer we would happily accept – as long as no-one was going out or their way or would get into trouble; Hamdi, of course, replied with the standard “No problem – Don’t worry”. Plans were set for the following evening and I went to sleep fascinated by the intricacies of a bootleg alcohol supply in Libya and, even more so, excited at the opportunity to reveal these intricacies to the scores of you at home pondering this very same conundrum.

I should’ve known better.

On the night in question Abdullah was in fine form, brushing 150kph in 50kph zones – this is no exaggeration, I was stealing glimpses at the speedo as I contorted my body behind him, attempting to adopt the best position to use this lunatic as a human airbag. On the outskirts of town we picked up two more passengers: Yousef* (who would have looked more at home in an Oxford schoolboy choir than in the badlands of Benghazi) who seemed to not only be organising events but also to have already performed some quality assurance on whatever viscious, home-brewed rocket fuel we were about to sample. The other was a shadowy figure referred to only as “Commandere” – a Kyrgistani pilot who when he (rarely) spoke did so with all the stereotypical tonal dread of Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV).

Over the next hour or so we were propelled in our sardine-tin-rocket from derelict warehouse to high-walled estate as Yousef employed phone calls, horn toots, secret knocks and even jumping to what I thought was certain death, over a wall to waiting canine howls; all events unfolding as Jon and I sat munching chips in the relative safety of Abdullah’s temporarily stationary vehicle. As timelines continued to be put back we decided that even for our “journalisitc purposes” enough was enough and requested to be returned to the hostel. Yousef’s enthusiasm failed to be quelled however and we left with his parting word’s ringing in our ears “Call back in half an hour. I’ll get girls as well. We’re all guys right?”

And so it was with a feeling of liberation that I took my first pedal strokes out of Benghazi (after we firmly asserted that another motorised escort was not required). In the delusional joy with which I headed east my mind interpreted the arabic road signs as the literal translation of my very own thoughts:

“Benghazi: Glad to get here; Ecstatic to leave.”

Sean

* Names altered to protect identities
** I figure the ratio of time required to say anything as 1:5 english:arabic

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/ 

February 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sights from the Saddle – Uncut

9th February 2007 

Whilst quite comprehensive I believe Jon could of expanded his update to include:

Sounds from the Saddle:

Jon ‘DooLittle’ Gourlay invariably conversing with every single animal we pass. The most protracted (and amusing) being the enraged dogs with whom he is known not just to deviate from the path but to turn back to continue the argument. I just keep pedalling and hope that the local conflict mediator isn’t called in to further delay our progress.

Smells from the Saddle:

Whilst adjectives elude me, let’s just say it is best not to spend too much time downwind of Jon after his daily consumption of harissa (a hot red curry paste). Unfortunately this strategy isn’t always possible in the confines of a smell tent and thus a chilli ban has been imposed.

 Sean

February 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sights from the Saddle – Libya

9th February 2007 

While Sean puts his head down and pedals furiously trying to keep pace with me, I always have my senses on high alert to take full stock of the surroundings, garnering a unique insight to a country that only this sort of grass roots travel affords. So what does this approach yield in Libya?

The most striking observation is the cacophany of noise from the road. Aside from the wind, engines and the self inflicted MP3 tunes, there’s the sounding of horns that persists from every other vehicle until you raise a tired hand to acknowledge the driver (and his 8 passengers). The charismatic truck drivers are the most accomodating and excitable of road users – they will move their rigs right across into oncoming traffic to give us as much room as possible, while at the same time jumping up and down on the horn until they get a wave.

Towing derelict cars to no particular destination for no apparent reason appears to be a national pastime – “Hey, Ahmed, wanna tow this wreck to Al Hishah and back? Hazard lights? You bet!”

The feral dogs run recklessly, yelping, into the road looking at any moment like joining the ranks of their countless fallen comrades that have been hit and left to rot in the gutter. Although easily the most prevalent, the canines are far from alone: carcasses of donkeys, goats, sheep, cats and camels litter the highway, assaulting the senses, the stench of decompostion often preceeding the sight depending on the wind direction.

There’s the distinctly coloured travellers from neighbouring Niger, Chad and Sudan hitching for a lift, the disorientated long haul truck driver who has pulled over to pay homage to Allah but, by my calculations, has his bum facing Mecca.

When the breeze picks up, sand is blown over the road at an ever increasing velocity and is invariably followed by a short but intense rain squall that sees us scrambling for the rain jackets. Sleet stings the face as it comes in at a 45 degree angle.

As we roll into another town, a camels (detached) head stares at us from the local butchery. We sit down for lunch and a small crowd gathers at the bikes. Before long, Sean is tracing them through our route on the map. Everyone has an email address and others, most of whom we haven’t even met and can’t speak English, are falling over themselves to divulge their mobile numbers and requesting ours (you can just imagine the conversation if they ever called).

They love their Mobiles. A grown man, at least 45 years of age, moves towards our table brandishing his and films 2-3 minutes of the scintillating action of us eating lunch, muttering the word “sorry” as he pans in for some close-up chewing time. He then reviews the tape, twice, while sitting two metres away. Somewhat disconcerted, we call for the bill, only to find it has already been picked up by the well heeled man in the corner. He probably likes Sean’s beard.

Once in a while we have also been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Libyan yeti. They lurk in the aisles of supermarkets, slink into the shadows of darkened streets – the distinct, but rare sight of a veiled head is the giveaway: A woman. We love a bit of male bonding, but the ‘sausage fest’ of Arabic society is a step too far. As Sean, a sensitive man at the best of times, commented back in Tunisia “I miss having women around, just to talk to”. I have since purchased a violin and play it every time I sense his spirits flagging.

Jon

February 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dashboard – Week 3

  • Days Cycled – 5
  • Distance Covered – 698km
  • Cumulative Distance – 1903km
  • Traffic Accidents caused by Escort Vehicle – 2

February 6, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Broken Men and Wheels of Fortune

5th February 2007

The plan to have us accompanied across Libya by cyclists from local clubs was doomed from the start.  The coastline is some 1800 kilometres long with our bikes and gear tailor made for such hauls.  The locals, with their racing bike / back pack combination, had no chance of making the distance … and so it proved.  A day and a half after leaving Tripoli, the representatives from ‘Al Madeena’ Club, Nasser and Rabbir, were broken men and had to be packed off back to the Capital in a bus (after presenting us with wrist watches on behalf of their club).

That left Sean, the bikes and I, just the way we like it – a big cost saving, no need to run our plans by anyone and, best of all, no-one taking pictures everytime we scratch our backsides.  As long as we could charm our way through the ubiquitous security checkpoints, then there wouldn’t be any problems.

There are about 10-12 checkpoints between Tripoli and Benghazi and there doesn’t appear to be a standardised process for dealing with Australian (no, not Austrian) cyclists.  A simple “Marhaba” and a wave sometimes suffices and we are through without even stopping while the confused soldiers are still taking in the sight.  On other occasions we have to stop and show our passports, but they are so interested in the map and our route that they soon forget their official capacity and wave us on excitedly. 

Others are a bit more rigourous to the point where we had been kept at one for 20 minutes while they tried to work out what to do with us.  One of the brain surgeons repeatedly asked if we were from Bulgaria despite having our passports right in front of him (refer to recent news re. Bulgarian nurses in Benghazi).  It was a big change from being treated like royalty everywhere else in the country so Sean lets rip with: “Listen guys, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we’re kind of a big deal around here” (that will mean a lot more to those of you that have seen Anchorman).  It went straight over the top of their heads (mainly because they didn’t understand English), but it provided some comic relief for the two of us while we waited for them to finally wave us through.

While Sean enjoys the fine art of Truck Surfin’, my seafaring background ensures that I prefer surfing of the wind variety.  With our route necessarily tracking the coast, wind is a constant companion and our fortunes on any given day are inextricably linked to Mother nature and the assistance or resistance she provides.  A case in point – the final 145 kms to Sirte we had strong head winds the entire way resulting in a demoralising 8.5 hour battle that ensured the rest day we had been contemplating, was taken.  Two days later, we had a tail wind and knocked off 208 kilometres in a day.  With the weight we’re carrying it feels like you’re riding a motorbike in those favourable conditions (no Mum, I won’t buy a motorbike).

So, with more good fortune than bad, we have arrived in Benghazi, after 8 days cycling.  Stay tuned for my ‘Sights from the Saddle’ column which will become a regular feature of the Blog!

Jon

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/

February 6, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments