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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Blister In The Sun*

WAY back in Morocco, it became something of an unwritten rule that at no point in the months ahead would we moan about being hot.

As we were buffeted by record rainfall which left us cold, wet and if not miserable, at least a little fed up right into the Western Sahara, sun seemed like a distant dream and think the only words Ale muttered to me in the opening few weeks were “I’m cold”**.

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Sand Trap – The Pyramids of Meroe

The mention of the word Chefchaouen conjures up not images of the town’s lovely mountain setting, labyrinthine old streets, lovely tajines we found in a tiny backstreet restaurant and blue-painted houses, but of the downpour which accompanied pretty much all of our one full day there.

Quite who decided it would be a good idea to ignore the taxis touting for business and walk up the long hill to the campsite amid the torrent is up for debate (it wasn’t me), but not sure my long black trousers have recovered.

Not that the state of long trousers matters much now, tucked (stuffed) away as they are at the bottom of my rucksack with no chance of seeing the light of day as the thermometer has been cranked up for the final leg of the trip.

All a far cry from those opening few weeks and enough for us to forget any pacts not to moan about the heat.

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Price You Pay – Ale finally catches me taking advantage of her handing me her camera

It is – and has been for the past week since we left Ethiopia – very hot. Very, very hot.

Our hotel room for our first night in Egypt (which seemed so far away on those soggy opening days and marks the start of the final two week run-in to Cairo) is pretty basic and has three blokes sharing, but it has air conditioning and a working (very full) fridge.

And at the moment, you cannot ask for much more.

There is some debate as to whether the past few days in Sudan have been the hottest of the trip or whether the airless oppressive heat as we sat and waited to cross the Nigeria-Cameroon border edges that title.

Without access to regular temperature checks, we will never know, but for a sheer sustained blast of heat with little or no recourse to any form of shade, the past week wins hands down.

We were advised early in the trip – just as we left the opening deluges behind and headed into warmer climes – that drinking four litres of water per day was essential for our physical and mental well-being (not downing enough, evidently, leading to attacks of grumpiness, making “Drink more water” the standard response to anyone showing signs of being miserable).

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Sunset – The sun goes down behind the pyramids. Didn’t get any cooler

My water intake yesterday came in at somewhere around eight litres. Some of it plain water, some of it flavoured with orange powder and some of it with one Berocca tablet too many. Not enough of it cold as unless you down it all in one go, it is hard to finish even a small bottle direct from an eskie packed with ice before it starts to warm up.

Throw in more than the occasional Coke and 7Up from amid crowded eskies (and the Sudanese helped keep them packed with drinks and ice, no matter how far we wandered off the beaten track, although the colour of some of the water looked like it had come straight off the beaten track) and you would think that would be enough.

Apparently not, given the distinct lack of need to go to the loo as it sweats and evaporates away, although my feeling rough as we crossed the Nubian Desert may have had as much to do with the sugar highs and crashes from all those soft drinks as any signs of dehydration.

It has certainly not been easy. At times it has been a struggle, especially with thoughts turning increasingly to home with the 31st and final African border crossing behind us.

But Sudan, like so much of this continent before it, has done enough to charm and beguile us. Amid all the sand and heat that is.

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Middle of Nowhere – Another pyramid. Not our last

All a far cry from our parting shots in Ethiopia, the prospect of a week without alcohol sending most of the guys scurrying to one of our hotel rooms for a movie night designed to work our way through as much of the remaining booze on the truck as possible.

We made a fair indent, but have to admit the prospect of finishing off my bottle of Jack Daniels after our meal the next night – a lovely buffet accompanied by a side order of traditional dancing – was not an appetising one. And besides, talk to the right local and even in Sudan, you can get a drink. Although date vodka is not something to be tried too often.

Our final exit from Ethiopia took us away from Gondar and through some spectacular mountain scenery, before dropping down towards the border and stepping into the furnace from almost the moment we stepped across onto Sudanese soil.

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Aerial View – The group settles down to enjoy the view at Meroe

The first night (spent at a desert bush camp populated largely by endless armies of grasshoppers) was not too bad, courtesy of a refreshing breeze, but by the time we rolled into the Blue Nile Sailing Club in the capital Khartoum the next day, the first concerns were not the customary (“Is there wi-fi?”) but the practical – “Where’s the shade? (limited) and “Where’s the cold drinks?” (cheap, copious and just over the car park).

While there was not that much sign of sailing at the club and the adjoining river is more a muddy brown than blue, it was a pleasant enough base to explore the capital. At least it was once we had discovered the pool next door (women only allowed in the morning) and we convinced them to open up the new shower block and toilets (albeit with irregular water supply) rather than rely on the fairly agricultural old ones – described as the worst in Africa, although we could draw up a substantial list of competitors.

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New Neighbours – The local camels (and their owners) ply for trade in camp

The searing heat was not enough to deter us from heading out to explore Khartoum the next morning, our little raiding party walking the 90 minutes or so (complete with diversion around the Presidential Palace, where walking across the view of the Nile is banned) to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles.

Or the brown and slightly different brown Niles if you prefer.

No pictures of that – and there’s a man with a big, if ageing machine gun by the bridge, just in case you forget – but plenty of our port of call for the next night, the ancient Royal Cemeteries of Meroe.

Not the final pyramids of the trip and certainly not the biggest, but very cool they were too amid the sand dunes where we camped by the cemetery gates and prepared dinner watched by the local camel herders, keen for us to ride their lugubrious steeds. So keen they returned for breakfast to transport some willing volunteers.

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Rare Interruption – One of the old stations which occasionally break up the endless sand in the Nubian Desert crossing

That was hot, but merely a warm-up for what lay ahead over the next two days as we crossed the Nubian Desert.

With the temperatures cranked up and any breeze that blew through the back of the truck (complete with sand) merely turning up the heat even further, little wonder the main activity was reaching for a cold drink from the eskie.

For the second day, we did not even have the luxury of a road. That runs out at Abu Hamed, to be replaced by desert tracks along the old railway line or, in an attempt to miss the worst of the sand dunes, a rather more direct – and bumpy – route through the wilderness.

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Tempting – One of the least agreeable batches of truck water

Thankfully we made it in almost one piece (one tyre shredding under the strain, although it did get us to our destination at Wadi Halfa – another of those places which sticks in my mind from Michael Palin’s TV travels) and got some relief today in the most unusual of surroundings.

Border crossings are not normally things you want to drag on, but not too many of us were in a rush to move on from the air conditioned waiting rooms on the Sudanese side. Even less so from the cafe serving cold drinks as we waited for the truck to clear Egyptian protocol.

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Cooling Down – While most of us raided the only shop in the Nubian Desert with cold drinks, Reto got the locals to tackle his sand issue

But finally, after a little more than five hours, we rolled through the gates of our final border and broke new ground for Oasis, entering Egypt by a land border via a new road, rather than taking the ferry from Wadi Halfa to Aswan (not always accompanied by the truck).

And with the air conditioning on full in our Abu Simbel hotel room – reached via a much shorter ferry ride across Lake Nasser – we are more than happy to be ground breakers.

* That will teach me. Taking not much of a flier on it being hot in Sudan, the title for this blog post was worked out before even entering the country, once the Violent Femmes’ indie classic popped up on my iPod (and for anyone wondering, most of the more obscure post titles are song titles or lyrics). The sun bit was a given. Could have done without the blisters which came with it on the lengthy walk to the confluence of the two Niles.
** She has said plenty more since.

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Not A Mirage – Our first sight of Lake Nasser (and any water for a few days) at Wadi Halfa
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Sticking It To The Man

CHANGE of plan. Forget journalism, my future lies in running a meat on a stick stand.

Not since Joe bounded on the truck and shouted  “Goats In Trees”* in southern Morocco has one phrase prompted so much excitement as “Meat On A Stick” (not even “free wi-fi”, although the use of the words hot and shower in close proximity can spark a near stampede).

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Fast Food – Meat on a stick. Exactly what it says on the tin

With a distinct lack of care for health and safety, men stand sizzling chunks of meat (often unidentifiable, but usually beef, chicken or goat) on wooden skewers over hot coals which, at a matter of pence each, the meat eaters on board snap up gleefully.

For the vegetarians – and those looking for an accompaniment to straightforward meat – there are chapatis, often filled with eggs, and no shortage of fizzy pop to wash it down.

Three sticks of beef, a chapati and a Coke for US$5. The ultimate fast food for less than a Big Mac.

Surely there’s a market for something like that back in Gloucester (may have to replace the chapatis with Focaccia when expanding to Cheltenham), although not sure they can match the colour, chaos and assault on the senses of the street food markets which peppered our route across Uganda and back towards Kenya after our brief loop out to Rwanda.

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Maribou and Coke – A stork waits for the scraps from the meat market

There may be less mud on the streets of a British city and doubt you will be accosted by so many people waving lumps of meat at you as soon as you step off the back of the truck. There certainly won’t be any giant maribou storks perched on the roof of the stores and snaffling up any scraps of meat thrown in their general direction.

It’s the perfect lunchtime snack for the hungry office worker – the transformation back into which is looming increasingly large on the horizon as we head out on the final leg of the trip, northwards through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

There has been a distinct feeling of a watershed in the trip over the past few days after that trek back through Uganda and Kenya before sweeping away from the much-travelled East Africa overland route and back onto the path less travelled.

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North South Divide – Crossing the equator (again) in Uganda

It has also prompted a return to bush camping – three nights out in the wilds of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia mixed with long days on the truck watching some superlative countryside roll past promoting a feeling of well-being and scrubbing away any lingering feeling of campsite-induced lethargy.

We have certainly waved farewell to our last bunch of fellow overlanders between now and Cairo.

They were given a crash course in life on the Trans Africa as we rolled into the car park next to them at Jinja, overlooking the River Nile fairly near its source at Lake Victoria.

Faced with a well-stocked bar with a spectacular view (showing almost non-stop rugby for those of us in need of a fix) and the prospect of a Booze Sunset Cruise, most of us did what came naturally – opened up a bar tab, cracked open a couple of cold ones and took our places on the boat.

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Room With A View – The Nile stretches away from our campsite

Details of what followed must remain hazy. Mainly because they are.

What is clear is that it was a very pleasant trip up the river and back, the beers rolled down very nicely, the food followed suit, it is quite difficult to get out of the River Nile after backstroking to shore, red sambucas and blood can be difficult to tell apart, at least three people needed carrying to bed (one of whom later failed to find the strategically-placed bucket, another choosing the wrong tent altogether), carrying people to bed can spell the end of your flip-flops, changing clothes will not help you avoid detection after breaking a toilet if you do it in front of the security guard and a Kiwi and a bloke from Gloucester will watch televised rugby until well after the bar was supposed to have shut.

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Watching The Sunset – Yep, that’s what we were doing…

Not surprisingly, things were a touch quieter the next day, bar a bout of using the slip and slide into the Nile, before large chunks of the group headed out on our final day to do what you would expect at a place called Nile Explorers and went off to explore the river. Often up very close, by means of a raft, canoe or body board.

Some of us just opted to run up that bar tab a little higher and get wet merely by walking out into the afternoon downpour which is so regular in these parts.

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…OK, maybe not

Fuelled by an early breakfast from the chapati stand outside the camp (there must be a market somewhere back home for that), we ate up the final few miles of Uganda and, sticking close to the banks of Lake Victoria, pulled up in Kisumu, Kenya.

Celebrations for Reto’s birthday would have been a touch rowdier than they were if the bar had stayed open beyond 9pm and we were not keeping one eye on the shore – just yards from the tents – for any stray hippos emerging from the water.

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Shower Curtain – One of the camp showers overlooking the Nile

The wildlife has played a huge role in this trip since we arrived in Namibia on our way down the west of Africa, but while we were short of too much hippo action – a few snorts and splashes rather than too much visual contact – there was one last chance to get out on safari as we rolled into Nakuru (via a quick stop-off to check out one of the huge tea plantations which line the roads through the hills).

Lake Nakuru National Park is famed for its huge flocks of flamingoes, which were distinctly reduced in size as the water level remains pretty high, and both black and white rhinos, the latter of which popped up after a relaxed lunch looking out over the magnificent landscape to complete my personal iSpy list of Africa’s major animals.

It would have been nice to spot a leopard a bit clearer than the amorous ones silhouetted in a tree in the Serengeti, while the rest of the big cats also kept a distinctly low profile, but with no pressure on to spot any creatures with time running out, it was a relaxed farewell to that side of this adventure.

IMG_0863And so, boosted by our final arrival Vance, but shorn of five passengers forced to fly ahead of us to Addis Ababa by the complexities of visas, we rolled out of Nakuru and out onto the final leg.

What lies ahead promises to be very different.

* Spotting goats anywhere unusual still provokes a strange surge of excitement around the truck. Our collection of pictures is such that the Trans Africa Goats On Things calendar will be available sometime after we get home.

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Fond Farewell – Scenes from our final real safari of the trip at Lake Nakuru
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