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.
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.
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….
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.
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 moment, 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.
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.
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 staring 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.
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.
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).
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…