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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Punctured Truck Tyre, Desert Desolate

THE armed guard travelling as part of the, suddenly missing, convoy across the Egyptian desert is there to protect travellers from many things.

Almost certainly not somebody swinging a sledgehammer in your direction as you hold on to a crowbar as tight as possible.

Hot Work - Trying to reshape the metal to replace the tyre. In the desert. In the middle of the day
Hot Work – Trying to reshape the metal to replace the tyre. In the desert. In the middle of the day

But then, even on what is essentially a relaxing last couple of weeks on the road, that’s life on the Trans Africa.

To say nothing of near record temperatures, the slowest travelling we have done on the entire journey, getting firmly on the tourist trail and another possible medical first in my bid to limp around the continent and the penultimate week of the trip has had plenty going on.

Even if we have done our best to spend as much time as possible doing as little as we can.

Throughout all that, it has continued to be extremely hot as we have meandered our way up the River Nile.

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Back In Time – Early morning at Abu Simbel. Not sure what Reto is doing

Any hopes of any respite after leaving Sudan have long since vanished (although the wonders of air conditioning have at least provided some valuable relief) with Luxor allegedly clocking up the second hottest recorded day in its history as the thermometer reached 56 degrees Centigrade.

On the day we opted to walk across town to visit the Karnak Temple.

But let’s rewind to our first Egyptian port of call where it was – albeit by just a few degrees – a bit cooler at Abu Simbel on the banks of Lake Nasser.

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Clear View – Abu Simbel without us in the way

An early morning start saw us beat the tourist crowds (bussed down from Aswan), head back to the hotel for breakfast, raid the shops for as many cold drinks as we could lay our hands on and return to the temple to rejoin the convoy of coaches for the journey back across the desert to Aswan.

Which is where the plan went a little bit awry.

Overland trucks are built for many things – doubt too many of our travelling companions would have made it across the Sudanese desert in one piece – but speed is not one of them, so we were soon left behind as the day trippers were whisked back to their hotels in air-conditioned comfort.

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Assessing The Damage – Ripped tyre to the right, twisted metal to the left

One back marker did come past us, offloading their armed soldier to ride shotgun in the front of Nala as we brought up the distant rear.

And he, like the rest of us, was dozing off in the heat of the desert when we were all rudely awoken by a very loud bang, the smell of burning rubber and the sound of running water.

Having gone nine months with just one puncture, a second tyre had given way in the space of a few days, only this time in spectacular style – shredding in the heat to such an extent it took the mudguard and adjoining metal shelf (mainly used for storing firewood) with it, along with the tap off the adjacent water container.

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Everning Cruise – On the Nile at Aswan

So before we could change the tyre, we had to reshape the twisted metal to make room. Think the sun must be behind my decision to attempt to bend it back into shape with a crowbar while Joe smashed it with a sledgehammer – something we did not try again.

But, finally, with the armed guard watching on, smoking cigarettes and listening to his iPod in the middle of the road, we finally got the new tyre on and headed up the final stretch to Aswan, rolling over the low dam to our hotel on the banks of the Nile.

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Sunset On The Water – Out on the feluccas on the Nile

After certain members of the group failed to control their excitement at spotting both a McDonald’s and KFC – and when push comes to shove, the golden arches can be a welcoming sight, whatever your age – we headed out on a boat to our dinner destination for the night, a family home on the opposite bank just below the lower, older dam. Right after we had plunged into the river (just upstream from some swimming cows) to cool off.

There was little chance to cool off the next morning as a group of us headed out for a guided tour of the local attractions, most notably the newer High Dam and the Philae Temple, which had to be relocated to an island to avoid the rising waters of Lake Nasser created by the dam.

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Early Graffiti – A craftsman gets his message across at Philae Temple

A fascinating visit, highlighted by the last known use of hieroglyphics (basically, a craftsman bemoaning the death of his art by declaring he was the last person actually able to read it), before we headed back to the inevitable stop under the golden arches and, in my case, a race back to wallow in the small but welcoming hotel pool.

There was plenty more wallowing in water over the next couple of days as the pace of the trip slowed to a crawl – roughly 30km in the space of 48 hours – on board our two feluccas, small, local sailing craft which once crowded these waters.

Before the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution, which has left a marked impact on the country’s tourist trade, our captain estimated they made around six or seven trips like ours each month. Now it is about three a year.

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Sand People – Egyptian fancy dress night mixed with an attempt to sand board on the lid of the eskie at our base for the night on the Nile

The upside is that we were virtually alone on the river for much of the time, either lazing around on the mattresses which provided our dining room, living room and beds for our two nights as we tied up to shore, or cooling off in the thankfully crocodile-free waters of the Nile.

With a selection of well-stocked eskies on board to keep us refreshed, it was a relaxing couple of days which came to an end far too quickly as Gareth and Nala collected us and swept us through the red hot wind along the banks of the river to Luxor, centre of the ancient Egyptian world for so long and site of many of the great attractions from that period.

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Cheers – Toasting our time on the felucca

Not that we were that bothered on arrival, once we realised the Nile Valley Hotel comes complete with just about the best equipped rooms of the trip, as well as a very welcome (if warm) swimming pool. Which is beckoning off to my right at this very moment.

With a virtual free day on our hands, a group of us opted to spend the next morning exploring Karnak Temple. And well worth the exploration it is too, particularly the mightily impressive Hipostyle Hall with its 134 giant columns providing some much-needed shade as the heat reached new levels.

It was also where it dawned on me that my little toe was turning purple.

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Ouch – My toe loses a coming together with a safety barrier in Luxor

The blood on the end was no surprise, after all that had been pretty instant the moment it had made contact with the base of the safety barrier. But the livid purple bruise came as a bit of a surprise, prompting a rapid diagnosis from a passing nurse – of which this trip has been liberally sprinkled – of a break.

My first. Plenty of dislocations. Loads of injuries (back, shoulder, knees, take your pick). But never a broken bone. Until now. Maybe.

It is still purple and it still hurts, but there’s been plenty of ground to cover in the last couple of days, starting with another morning on the tourist trail, playing Rameses bingo in the Valley of the Kings as we explored the tombs of three pharaohs of that name before moving on to Queen Hatshepshut’s Temple and Habu Temple (built by one of those Rameses).

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Up And Away – Sunrise over Luxor with the Valley of the Kings off to our left

Thankfully, this morning’s activity was less stressful on the foot, a hot air balloon taking the strain as we flew across the air we had explored the morning before as the sun rose around us.

Not a bad way to start the day.

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