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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Green And Pleasant Land

WHAT are your perceptions of Ethiopia?

Famine? Drought? Scorched earth and malnourished children? A mysterious land that avoided colonisation by European powers and evolved a different culture to the rest of Africa? A Christian stronghold that gave birth to the Rastafarian religion and provided a communist foothold in East Africa? Or a country of long-distance runners?

Hands up, that’s pretty much my knowledge of Ethiopia before arriving here. How wrong can you be?

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Regal Sight – One of the castle in the Royal Enclosure at Gondar.

Like most of this, at times, baffling continent, it is hard to make judgements, generalisations or sweeping statements without far more study – go round the corner and there is somebody waiting to disprove any theory – but this is a land that has enchanted and surprised at pretty much every turn.

For a start, it is beautiful. It is green. And, as we can testify, it is wet (at least it is at this time of year when the BBC World weather map, available in our Gondar hotel when the power is on, even has rain falling on the Sudanese desert which lies ahead – right next to a temperature of 42 degrees C).

All a far cry from the Ethiopia of popular perception which has been coloured by the images of starving children and rake-thin adults which ended with Bob Geldof swearing at us and demanding we send money.

The 30th anniversary of Live Aid coincided with our stay in Lalibela, home to a collection of churches hewn out of the rocks of the surrounding hillsides.

And for those of us of a certain generation, that is the abiding image of Ethiopia.

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Bridging The Mile – The view back down the Blue Nile Gorge

It has been a pleasure to have those preconceptions washed away (literally, given the almost daily deluges which have become a part of our stay).

Not that things are perfect here. Much of the country can hardly be described as affluent and is living hand to mouth, but on the whole, things here seem to work. Well, most of the time. And for large chunks of Africa, that’s quite a claim.

Driving through the countryside, the main impressions are that it is a land stuffed full of stunning vistas – especially when rolling through the mountains – and is surprisingly verdant. Any preconceptions about an arid land are washed away by green hillsides carefully cultivated to prevent repeats of those crippling droughts.

Not that it is without barren patches. There are certainly plenty of dry areas strewn with stones, which come in handy for another unique side of travelling through Ethiopia, a worrying side effect from the amount of handouts they have received over the last few decades.

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Calm After The Storm – Our tents lined up on the banks of Lake Tana. Not jumping over each over in the storm

We had been warned to be on the lookout for anyone throwing stones, the remedy for which is to wave enthusiastically at the potential thrower in the hope they forget what they are about to do, drop their missile and wave back.

But when dozing in the back of the truck on a long drive day, that sort of information rather slips your mind. Right up until a stone the size of a golf ball lands in your lap, thankfully just off to the side and missing anywhere that really would have hurt.

Witnesses suggest the person who threw it had been waving at us, right up to the moment we rolled past without showing some charity.

While the vast majority of people we have driven past over the past nine months have waved and smiled enthusiastically, they have been dotted with the occasional less than friendly gesture.

And the more than occasional request for a handout.

It is a rule not to give anything away off the truck, be it money, food or the oft-asked for pens, as it will merely encourage the culture of expecting westerners to act as travelling cash machines and food banks and exacerbate the problem for future trucks – something which is very hard when we pack (or worse, throw) away food at lunch with children standing yards away watching us.

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Drawing A Crowd – Just three of us watched the cricket. This lot turned out to watch a kickabout each morning in Gondar

Cries of ‘Cadeaux, Cadeaux’ and ‘Money, Money’ have been commonplace for much of the trip, but Ethiopia has taken it to a new level and if they do not get anything, the rocks are their form of payback.

Walking down the street can become a bit of a gauntlet and, as mentioned in a previous post, you become wary of anyone who wanders up to you.

Many will want something – like Matthias, the suspiciously old schoolboy who wanted me to buy him text books from the Gondar shop he just happened to be hanging around outside every day – and make you wary for others who seriously want to help, such as the woman Ale and I tried to shrug off when visiting Gondar’s Royal Enclosure, but who was actually explaining the prices for guides and what our admission fee got us.

But that (and the sudden appearance of ‘Faranji’ – foreigner – prices when it is time to pay a bill) should not overshadow what has been a fascinating, enjoyable stay amid a unique culture.

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History Boy – Some bearded bloke avoiding locals at the Royal Enclosure

Having settled into life in the capital Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopian cuisine went down well (especially the spicy tibs, albeit with some lingering repercussions for one or two of us) we headed out into the countryside and an afternoon and evening clinging to the side of the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge, where the thrill of navigating the winding mountain road was multiplied by herds of animals being walked up the slopes right in our path.

Having weathered the nightly storm at our bush camp, we had to dodge an even bigger one on the banks of Lake Tana at Bahir Dar – the Ethiopian Riviera – the next evening, although most of us (bar the unfortunate souls on cook group duty who saw their fire floating away at one point) rode this one out from the safety of the restaurant.

While the poor waiters had to brave the elements to keep us stocked with beer and replace the chairs we somehow managed to break, we eventually had to pull ourselves away from our drinks (briefly) when reports came in that some of our tents had not weathered the storm so well.

Pegging out was a rapid, necessary job to prevent any of our homes for the night disappearing into the lake, as was the post-deluge setting up of a spare tent once the rather large puddles in mine had been discovered. After it had been retrieved from where the wind had blown it.

Excuse, if any was needed, for a few more drinks at the bar, which continued on the truck as the onerous task of downing the remaining alcohol on board before reaching dry Sudan began in earnest.

Which all added up to a few sore heads for the next morning’s boat trip across Lake Tana – source of the Blue Nile – to one of the many monasteries which dot the islands and peninsulas.

Like the country, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has evolved without too much outside interference and the ancient paintings which illuminate the church provided a more than worthwhile outing.

There were more churches on offer in our next port of call, the ones at Lalibela having the distinction of being hewn out of the rock – rather more solid than the state of my stomach, which meant straying too far from camp was not that good an idea.

Our final, current, destination has seen most of us holed up in Gondar for the past few days – bar those who headed off to trek the Simien Mountains – where we were probably the only ones excited to find out we could sit in the hotel bar all day and watch the Ashes.

Mind you, watching it with an Aussie has been enough to send the rest of us diving into those drinks reserves.

Sudan beckons.

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