Date With The Night to Deado

BACK in the early days of this blog, an appearance by Echo and the Bunnymen prompted a recollection of my first proper gig (excluding, on musical grounds, being taken to watch Culture Club a few years earlier).

As well as triggering my teenage obsession with the Bunnymen (which still surfaces reasonably regularly and had me wallowing in the peerless B side of Ocean Rain just a few days ago), their Songs to Learn and Sing tour stop-off at Gloucester Leisure Centre was also the first live experience for actor Simon Pegg.

That confession also came with a recollection that those of us who were likely to don long black overcoats and spend hours dissecting music and lyrics by, to quote John Peel, ‘white boys with guitars’ were not overly well-served with live music on our doorstep in Gloucester.

SongsToLearnAndSingWhich is what prompted a bit of a telling off.

Still stick by that assertion, but a long-time friend who appears to be a relatively loyal reader (which rather narrows it down somewhat) was at a lot of those same gigs and remembers it rather differently.

She reeled off a list of gigs she had been to at the same venue – several of which had totally passed me by, either through lack of attention or some musical snobbery – and it was fairly impressive.

It was just compiled over the best part of a decade when those of us compiling a soundtrack to our teenage lives could have done with far more regular live outings and somewhere to see smaller, newer bands we had read about in the NME but were never going to fill the large box which was the sports hall at the Leisure Centre.

We eventually got one in the shape of Gloucester Guildhall – the old Mayor’s Parlour where generations of city children had assembled for their one invite to the annual Christmas Party, converted into an arts centre – which provided regular Friday night live music as my teens rolled towards an end and beyond (there’s a story about EMF and their video for Unbelievable, but we’ll get to that at some point, never mind an argument with the keyboard player of a minor indie band during their set).

And the Guildhall still offers an eclectic mix of live music and somewhere which needs frequenting a bit more often.

It also offers something the Leisure Centre never could – decent sound.

Far from flawless (but who needs Carnegie Hall at small live venues), but certainly much better than that echoey box – built for badminton and five-a-side football, not music – with the sound bouncing back off the walls end echoing around the walkways above.

Had no idea of this at first (certainly not as the Bunnymen were luring me into their web -warren?), but as my musical knowledge (and, let’s be honest, snobbery) took hold, it became ever more noticeable.

Didn’t stop me enjoying some great gigs there, mind.

Pixies
Pixies

And very near the top of the list of gigs there lie the Pixies. Suggest only The Smiths and the Bunnymen are alongside them in the top echelon (Radiohead took their place among my top gigs at later outings, not supporting James).

Pixies stand alone, however, as they got round the sound problems by being just so bleeding loud. And the word bleeding is used advisedly.

The only bands that can compete on volume are the Red Hot Chili Peppers (seen rather accidentally and who had to be loud in the vastness of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium) and Sugar, who seemed much louder but it was in a much smaller venue. Basically rather like being upstairs in a pub.

In an interesting take on their trademark, much-aped sound (which is what Kurt Cobain was trying to do when he wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit), they were quiet, loud, quiet, incredibly loud.

And they were fantastic.

Apart from the volume, the fact Frank Black (or whatever name he was using at the time) came across fairly unhinged and Kim Deal was… well, Kim Deal, two things stick in my mind from that night.

Firstly, the band opened behind a curtain which dropped at the end of the first song (Cecilia Ann?) into a thunderous Allison and, secondly, one of our group lost his watch and only recovered it after my full-blooded rugby tackle on half of the mosh pit.

All this – as any regular reader knows, if they are not too busy disagreeing with any of the above – acts as a preamble to working round to mentioning the latest batch of songs on the journey from A-Z on my iPod, which is sort of the whole point.

The latest section took us from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (one of those bands which many other people seem to rate much higher) to Stephen Malkmus (who deserves to be rated much higher by many other people), via plenty of Day and Dead songs.

Among them, of course, was Pixies’ Dead (the video at the top may have tipped you off on that one) from their classic Doolittle album (which may well pop up again in the next entry, as anyone with a working knowledge of its track listing should be able to work out).

They Might Be Giants pre-show coffee
They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants popped up with a, rather different, song of the same name, while there were some more interesting Dead songs, notably Dead Letter Office from King’s Daughter & Sons (ensuring the Americana quotient was sustained) and Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.

Not just The White Stripes’ version, but also a lovely acoustic rendering from a young singer songwriter, Juliana Richer Daily.

We’ve stumbled across her before on this trip, the regular videos she used to post on YouTube having popped up on my screen when looking for a version of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up (used in the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are) to use as background music in a video and getting diverted to hers.

More established artists popped up –  The Jam’s David Watts, the Guildhall-bound Wedding Present (twice) with Davni Chasy from their Ukrainian period, The Beatles, three times, with Day Tripper, which also (minus the space) reappeared by Otis Redding, and Billy Bragg’s Days Like These and its American version.

All together now… “Wearing badges is not enough, on days like these”.

 

 

 

 

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D&P Blues to Date With IKEA

BACK in the midst of time, back when my journalism career was no more than an impending work experience spell at what became my first paper, back in my teens, back even when my body could withstand a game of rugby, a poor refereeing decision cost us a place in a cup final.

There may have been other factors, but let’s put it down to the ref. It seems to be the fashionable thing to do.

It was a close tussle in a second team semi-final against local rivals, a place in the final at Kingsholm – Mecca in terms of rugby in Gloucester, if Mecca was overlooked by a cathedral – up for grabs in my first season of senior rugby.

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Forget Twickenham, the real home of rugby

If memory serves, we (actually, think it was probably me) were penalised late on at either a ruck or a scrum, the opposition kicked to the corner and, eventually, turned pressure into points and snatched a lead we didn’t have the time or opportunity to regain.

And that is as close as my playing career got to Kingsholm – thankfully, my journalism career went there and a lot further – and in the list of great rugby heartbreaks, it doesn’t really register.

Nor do my experiences match up to those of the experts who have spearheaded the criticism of referee Craig Joubert after Scotland’s rather more high-profile loss to Australia in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

Yes, Joubert was wrong to run off the pitch without shaking hands with the players. It is one of the key tenets which rugby holds onto as part of the mutual respect among all concerned (regardless of what some of the physical battering involved may suggest) that it believes (rightly, much of the time) elevates it above other sports.

And he was rightly castigated – although ex-internationals, generally with a Scottish accent, suggesting he should “never referee at this level again” within minutes of it happening, did little to uphold the traditions of the game they claim to be defending.

Why Joubert ran off has not been proved. Suggestions have ranged from the need to use the toilet to fearing for his safety – amid isolated reports of a bottle being thrown at him – but they need to learn the facts before making quite such outlandish reactions. Especially one persistent rugby irritant.

But, more worrying to rugby’s image – both of itself and from the watching sporting world – is the way so many experts, ex-players, fans, keyboard warriors and, most worryingly, World Rugby, dived into the torrent of abuse and blame Joubert has received in the minutes, hours and days following his award of the deciding penalty against Scotland.

Let’s look at this coldly.

World Rugby took 24 hours to review and assess the controversial offside decision before categorically stating Joubert was wrong (an appalling decision which far outstrips any mistake made by the South African).

Experts either made their judgements from the safety of the stands – a long way at Twickenham – or, having seen the replay from every available angle and speed. They could not agree on anything other than Joubert should have gone to the video referee (TMO), something he was not able to do in that situation and which, for the first few games of the tournament, they had been telling us was being called upon far too often.

The Twitterati didn’t bother too much with any evidence (rather like the despicable cowards who attacked Wales wing Alex Cuthbert after their defeat to South Africa).

Joubert had one view, very little time and no confession from Aussie scrum-half Nick Phipps that he had intentionally grabbed at the ball – an act which, in the letter of the law, would turn the penalty into a scrum.

No, Joubert had no help but made a perfectly justifiable decision based on the evidence in front of him – and how on earth is he supposed to judge what was going through Phipps’ mind, especially as the player himself was appealing for the penalty?

Not Phipps’ fault, nor the unfortunate, penalised Jon Welsh, nor Joubert. Right or wrong, his decision was perfectly understandable. Unlike the reaction of his bosses at World Rugby who should not be pointing fingers, but looking at how they could help him.

Less technical laws relying less on interpretation and more on hard evidence for starters. More convenient, more efficient TMO rules for seconds.

And all that from a decision which would have been forgotten if it had happened at any other stage of the match – rather like the other decisions which are now being pored over (and spuriously tweeted out by another former international) from throughout the 80 minutes.

Take it to extremes, there was a case for a knock on in Scotland’s ultimately winning try against Samoa in their final group game. Rule that out and Japan qualify, not Scotland.

Didn’t hear too many complaints about the referee then.

That’s extreme and, to be honest, absurd. That’s sport with all its infuriating frailties which somehow add up to the drama that makes it special.

The result stands, whatever evidence anyone comes up. Or at least until some bright spark with too much time and money comes up with the idea of a legal challenge, based on a verdict on Joubert already delivered by World Rugby.

But above all, Scotland did not lose solely because of that decision or any other made by Joubert. They conceded five tries, they threw a risky lineout to the tail when defending a lead in the dying moment, they conceded 30-plus points (which would have been a lot more if Bernard Foley had been on form with the boot and Australia had played anything like they can) and over the course of 80 minutes, made other errors.

As did Australia, as did Joubert. And that’s sport. Why the best team doesn’t always win and why we can’t always pick the winners.

Unless you are betting on Southern Hemisphere teams that is.

The rugby has been supplying much of the soundtrack of the last few weeks, but there’s also been the little matter of starting out on the D songs on the A-Z iPod Challenge.

And wading into the shallows of a new letter has been distinctly uninspiring with plenty of less than great album tracks and little to really grab the attention from Uncle Earl to Pavement.

There’s been a few exceptions, the ever-reliable Ryan Adams popping up (twice) with Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains) while the Dan section produced several listenable tracks, most notably Johnny Cash’s reading of Danny Boy and Daniel by Veronica Falls, one of those bands who keep going up in my estimation as this trek goes on.

Unlike an awful lot of rugby fans.

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(A) Touch Sensitive to Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues

TIME for a catch-up.

For those who have forgotten in the year it has been away and anyone who may have stumbled across it via the Trans Africa blog which has superseded it during that time, welcome to the A-Z iPod Challenge.

The whole point sounds pretty simple, listen to the contents of my iPod in alphabetical order – from A Day In The Life to < (OK, it’s A-Z and beyond).

And, along the way, this blog reveals any number of tales which spring to mind on hearing those songs. Or any random ramblings which seem worth sharing.

There are rules.

  • My iPod decides the order – It’s in-built alphabetising system determines the running order. Some of the alphabetising is a bit weird, especially with definite and indefinite articles.
  • No skipping – To count, the song must register as having been played in my iTunes library, which means playing it until the end. Long silences at the end of songs test patience.
  • Tracks count, not songs – Multiple versions of the same song all have to be listened to. The most found so far is five – one cover and four of the original in various different guises. That’s five tracks to be listened to all the way through.
  • No revisionism – There’s some rubbish on there, no hiding away from the fact. But nobody put it on there but me (even if the reason is lost in the mists of time), so there’s nobody to blame. It has to be listened to before moving on.
  • Breaks are allowed – Let’s be honest, two years or more without any new music or being able to choose exactly what to listen to is not really an option. This is a challenge to be paused and picked up again from where it was left off.
  • New additions count – This remains an evolving collection, so when something is added and drops into the list before the current point, at some point there will be a catch-up session. Plan is to do this at the end of each letter by running through the last played details on iTunes and find out what is missing or out of sync.

And, having finished off the Cs, that last one is where we are, wrapping up the long list of ABC tracks which have been added amid the big musical catch-up since returning from Africa.

Initially, the plan was to continue the A-Z alongside the missives from the trip, but the technicalities (particularly the little playlists which sit at the bottom of each entry) and purely keeping track of it on the road and keeping up with it amid intermittent wi-fi meant that plan never survived until Morocco.

When this musical journey started, it was 11,235 songs long, it is now 12,107. The song which, in the last entry, was the 2,000th (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles) is now the 2,049th – the 2,00th landmark now falls to Crawl by The Wedding Present.

The influx of new material comes from a list drawn-up while away, sprinkled with advice and obsessions from my brother-in-law (a sort of spirit guide for this while process), carrying us on a trip of 75 songs from (A) Touch Sensitive from Super Furry Animals (a band my brother-in-law rediscovered in my absence) to Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues by Sun Kil Moon, an obsession all of mine over the past year.

Most entries came from Ryan Adams – now the biggest contributor to this whole idea – courtesy of me and my completist tendencies falling for his whole deluxe multi-CD Live At Carnegie Hall thing (although have so far resisted his Taylor Swift covers).

New versions (yep, occasionally multiple on the same purchase) of Heartbreaker classics Amy, Call Me On The Way Back Home and the truly wonderful Come Pick Me Up, plus an excellent cover of Bob Mould’s Black Sheers of Rain and more snippets from his bulging back catalogue – complete with his between-song ramblings which sometimes pushed the listening to the whole track rule to the limits.

There were more old favourites, notably The Decemberists, Jason Isbell and John Grant, all of them producing new albums to follow previous outings which were on heavy rotation for the whole journey around Africa, plus Sufjan Stevens, Mercury Rev, Wilco and New Order, all fairly regular points along the route.

Throw in new(ish) discoveries like Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee and Hooton Tennis Club and a few that are still in the worth investigating but not totally sold on category – Beach House, Young Fathers, looking at you – and we are fully up to date.

We’ve learned our ABCs, just D-Z (and beyond) to go.

We might be a while.

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The Crapsons to Cygnus Vismund Cygnus

COMPARED with a lot of what has gone before over the past year, sleeping on a sofa with ready access to hot water, clean, flushing toilets, electricity and hot food without building a fire is a major luxury.

Even if going to bed each night generally starts by fighting with a large black Labrador over the prime spot (generally in a losing cause) – still far easier than blowing up an airbed which, by the end of our African adventure, needed topping up throughout the night.

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My roomie

Heading back to the real world has not been a complete culture shock – we were sort of eased back in by increasingly frequent beds over the closing weeks when even the electricity, if not the wi-fi, became (sort of) reliable – but it has taken some readjusting back to life at home.

Not helped by living in a state of limbo (a word which has appeared in my vocabulary over the last couple of months, along with, for some reason, mate. Where did that come from?) and still out of a bag until my future becomes a bit clearer.

Homeless, jobless and largely rootless on my return from Africa, it was time to throw myself on the kindness of others – my sister and her family homing and feeding me for the last two months, my old firm taking me back on a freelance basis, originally for the odd day, then supposedly for three days a week which very rapidly became five or six days.

My bank manager is eternally grateful.

That state of limbo (see, keeps popping up) is nothing new. It has sort of existed, in some form or other, for more than five years.

Since first quitting work in Cardiff to go travelling early in 2010, there’s never been a sense of permanence in my life. It took a bit longer than originally planned, but there was always another lengthy trip looming on the horizon.

It was supposed to be London to Sydney in 2012, but that one fell through (unused Indian and Nepalese passports sit in my old passport) and something similar always looked favourite before the Trans Africa grabbed my attention. And never let go.

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About to pop something in the oven

But at some point heading down West Africa – there was a lot of time to sit and think on the back of the truck – the decision was made that after reaching Cairo, it was time to head home and stay put for a while. Put down some roots somewhere familiar and get back to the career which was put on hold in Cardiff, working with some form of thought to future progression, rather than to future travel plans.

Not that travel is off the cards. Doubt there will be another trip of anything approaching this length, but the spotlight will switch to more shorter journeys – allied with a determination that at least one weekend a month will be dedicated to doing something, going somewhere, even if it is just following Gloucester to an away match. If nothing else, need to fit them all into annual holidays and as many lieu days as can be racked up (once the freelance gig is switched to something more permanent..

There’s plenty more American trips on the list, the remaining 11 states to tick off, Route 66 to drive and more soaking up of the familiar in Boston, New York and elsewhere. Further afield, there’s a few more sofas to be slept on in Australia and New Zealand (although that one will have to wait at least a couple of years), while Cape Town and more time in the rest of South Africa head the list of spots for an African return.

And Europe is, relatively speaking, on the doorstep.

For now though, the focus remains on life back home – settling on something more secure for work, somewhere to live and taking control of my life, rather than relying on the kindness of others.

And, of course, making the most of those little things we take for granted but which became more of a luxury the longer we were away from home.

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Handy for digging, not that good for cover

Not that we minded being without – bush camps with a total lack of facilities, other than a shovel, were one of the mainstays of the trip and one most us relished, at least in the dry – but it is nice to have constant electricity you can rely on not to cut out constantly (one poor musician in Calabar, Nigeria, never made it through a single song without it cutting out on him), wi-fi that doesn’t take an age to load each page and showers. Hot or cold, we really didn’t mind after a while.

Cold beer and hot pies have to appear on that list as well, but top of the list has to be proper toilet facilities.

Some of the toilets we encountered – when there were any at all – were the stuff of nightmares, but when you’ve got to go…

And while the current night-time trip to the loo may involve trying to let sleeping dogs lie and not let cats through the door to start chaotic pet wars, that pales into insignificance to rooting around for a head torch and picking your way to a suitable spot.

At bush camps, that suitable spot (for the boys at least) was often just round the back of the tent. At campsites, whether you risked that or made the trip to the toilet block generally came down to whether there was a security guard with a gun in the vicinity.

But back to the familiar it is and, for me, that means back to the A-Z trawl through the contents of my iPad.

Picking up where it left off 12 months ago, the first job was to complete the final furlong through those starting with C, which took us from Pulled Apart By Horses to The Mars Volta and through the 2,000 mark (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles).

Fittingly, it was back to a lot of hugely familiar songs and artists – Crash by The Primitives, Creep by Radiohead, Creme Brulee by Sonic Youth, Crocodiles, Crystal Days and four versions of the The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen, Cruisers Creek by The Fall, The Crystal Lake by Grandaddy, Cut Your Hair by Pavement and Cuyahoga by REM.

And that’s another long journey which can continue as normality returns…

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Long Way Home

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QUITE late into the 278th night in Africa, the bags were packed, the last goodbyes had been said, the last hugs released, the last promises to keep in touch made and the door of my Cairo hotel room was shut.

Kept open for the last bit of packing (or, to be more accurate, shoving in my bags) and to allow those not leaving ridiculously early the next morning to wander in and bid farewell – to say nothing of allowing some form of breeze in a room with faulty air-con in blistering heat, even this far after dark – the door finally shut.

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Splashing Time – Chilling out by the pool at Masar Alam

Not just on the occasional welcome waft of breeze from the nearby lift shaft; not just on those returning from a trip to the night market across town; not just on any temptation to delay sleep any longer and pop down the road for one last late-night shawarma and cold drink.

No, this door shut on what my life had become over the previous 40 weeks and 45,000km, the grand African adventure which – by dint of its sheer scale – became a way of living as much as a way of travel.

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Quart Into A Pint Pot – Ale attempts to pack all her shopping. Karla catalogues (I hinder)

Spending all day sat bouncing around in the back of a big yellow truck, cooking on a fire for up to 20-plus people, sleeping under canvas or the stars in fields, quarries or wherever else we could find – on an airbed making it through a dwindling amount of time before needing more air – and rising with the sun (something which would astonish anyone who knows my normal morning self ) was my, our, life for all those weeks, all those miles, all those countries.

To say nothing of the remarkable list of places, experiences, sights, animals, moments and people we had seen, met and shared – some of them easy to share, recall and explain to those back home, many of them hard to comprehend outside the collection of individuals who came together into one, mostly harmonious, group. You weren’t there, man….

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Morning after the final night before

When that door shut again, far too early and after far too little sleep – not helped by that malfunctioning air conditioning – it shut behind me on the first steps to the airport and back to normality (whatever, or wherever, that is). Back to the real world. Once it had opened briefly again  for the traditional last-minute panic that something had been left in there, other than the stuff which had been left deliberately because it simply wouldn’t fit in my bags.

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No Cliche – Yes, we all think we know them, but the Pyramids are still jaw-dropping

And, two months on, the journey back to normality has, almost, been completed.

Not totally. The airbed, for now, has been replaced with a sofa and most of my clothes – bar some rescued from storage in my sister’s garage – are largely still out of the same bag that was my personal HQ for the previous 10 months.

But a new way of life, a new routine, has been established. Work – freelance for now, but watch this space… – life on the sofa with my ever-accommodating sister and her family (complete with labrador, my new roomie over on the other sofa or, at this 150moment, stretched out snoring alongside me on this one) and plenty of rugby, although less said about anything not Gloucester-related the better.

The flip flops have been replaced by shoes – even socks – the shorts by long trousers (usually a pair of jeans, four inches shorter than the ones which left England with me, but are tightening enough to act as a reminder that the African weight loss cannot be taken for granted), the T-shirts, more often than not, by shirts and the ubiquitous hoodie by, well… another, cleaner hoodie. There was, very briefly, even the sighting of a suit.

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The Last Photo Op

The bangles and bracelets on my right wrist, already thinned down by the end of the trip, are down to just one (bought from a rasta on a beach in Cameroon and which can’t really be taken off without cutting the string for good) and even the beard was finally scraped off, leaving me clean shaven(ish) for the first time since Ghana, way back in January.

Getting used to having a shower every day, even if it does reveal that the tan is fading.

158Even finished organising, collating and, let’s be honest, nicking from other people’s Facebook pages a collection of almost 8,000 pictures from those all those times on the road around Africa.

And, finally, my mind is unscrambled enough to sit down and write this.

Lost count of how many times it has appeared at the top of the still ever-present to-do list but has been pushed back, partly
due to being out of the writing routine (and 161staring at a screen all day at work), partly due to a need for a break from it and, largely, just because my thoughts on what had gone before needed processing a bit.

More will follow over the coming weeks, more final thoughts which are becoming clearer with time and distance, a few lists and best/worst ofs to answer the most oft-asked questions (“What was your favourite…”), spotlights on specific places and aspects of the trip and a few articles offering advice for anyone thinking of following in our footsteps or anyone preparing to do just that.

166Not surprisingly, there’s a list for all that.

But belatedly – told you my mind was all a bit scrambled – let’s wrap this piece up in traditional fashion and head back to where the last entry left me, sat by a swimming pool in Luxor, nursing a purple toe and doing everything we could to keep cool.

What followed over the final week was a continuation of what was, in comparison with most of what had gone before, a two-week holiday through Egypt, mainly in relative comfort and bidding farewell, for a while, to the Nile and making our way up the Red Sea coast.

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The Sphinx

It was a week of relaxing, farewells, packing – easier for those of us who opted to upgrade and dump all of our gear in our rooms or had not bought too many souvenirs – and last times…

The last night out in Hurghada (which started just after lunch), the last ice and beer run, the last full drive day, marked with a few beers, regardless of how rough some people felt post Hurghada (very in some cases), which culminated in the last bush camp, something pretty much all of us relished and sought to make the most of (even the long-awaited emergency tinned burgers), even the last use of the shovel… before that last drive to journey’s end in Cairo and the last unloading of Nala before she headed off to catch the ferry home from Alexandria and, finally, the last group meal (complete wth the last attempt to tally the bill).

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The Last Group Shot

There was one more event on the itinerary, the closing trip out to see the Pyramids – magnificent, however much of a travel cliche they may be, however hot it was and however we were distracted by the last group shots, the last selfies, the last pictures of Ale and Karla in front of something – the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum, worth the trip if only to see the truly spectacular golden mask of Tutankhamun.

But when we wandered off the bus back to our hotel, that was it. End of the road. Joe was finally off duty and we were, if not on our own, left to our own devices, first among the shops, restaurants and shawarma stalls of Cairo and, gradually over the next few days, back to our normal lives with a few tales to tell.

Until the door opens on another adventure…

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The Last Few Miles – Our last day on Nala on the road into Cairo
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