|Cycling the Great Western Desert|
|May 13-- Bahariya Oasis -- 119 Degrees
Left Bahariya Oasis town of Bawiti at 6 am with 5 gallons of water. Intimidated and nervous about the road ahead as next oasis is 200 kilometers (120 miles) away. Before dawn the temp is cool enough that we wear windbreakers, which we take off as the sun rises. Warm but pleasant cycling till 10 am, then change our jerseys and helmets for baggy long-sleeve shirts and big sun hats. Enter Black Desert with scattered mound-like hills covered with dark volcanic rocks. Dig out our Brunton compass with thermometer and are stunned to find it is already 104 degrees. With wet handkerchiefs around our necks and ride a moderate but steady pace as we hammer out the kilometers. Spectacular scenery. Our confiidence soars and we think we can pull this off.
Traffic averages about 1-2 vehicles per hour. Had planned on stopping by noon but no shade anywhere and temp in the sun on the road is 119 degrees. But when riding it feels like it is only about 100 with wind and a sheen of sweat on our bodies. We push on because we know about every 40 kilometers is a rest stop consisting of a single concrete bench and concrete awning. Brutal last 15 kilometers to the rest stop. We lay, delirious on hot concrete under the awning, napping and listening to Enya on the iPod. Very Surreal.
By 6 pm temp drops below 100 so we head out again. Every 60-80 kilometers there is a police checkpoint where we are always invited in for hot mint tea, which is surprisingly refreshing. When the police in Bawiti found out we were Americans they had two policemen follow us on a motorcycle to our hotel as an escort. They spent the night watching belly dancing on TV in the hotel lobby. That is when the hotel owner suggested we tell police we are from Canada if we don't want escorts. Doesn't make sense because only a few terroist attacks here in last 10 years and none targeted Americans specifically. But if feels too weird to tell people we are from Canada. When we tell poeople we are from America everyone is very friendly, although surprised. Americans here are rare, we have only met 3 others, all in Cairo and all visiting for only a few days.
Camp after riding 120 kilometers. Temp still in mid 90s after sunset. Finally at 10 pm a "cooler" breeze drops the temp to the upper 80's. By the middle of night we throw a light sleeping bag over part of our bodies to stay comfortable.
|May 14-- White Desert
Great night sleeping under the desert stars! Much warmer this morning than yesterday morning. Immediately enter White Desert with bizarre, sculpted formations of dazzlingly bright chalk-white rock. We are so excited to be out here, pulling this off in this heat. Stop repeatedly for photos and wet-down handkerchiefs, heads, and fronts of shirts. Yahoo!!
We were told of a spring next to the road where we could get water and our directions lead us straight to it. But our water filter suddenly decides not to work, which is a drag because there is lots of camel dung around the tiny pool. We spend 45 minutes trying to fix the filter in the broiling sun. Only able to get 3 water bottlles filled, not gallon and half we wanted.
After cycling 40 km we stop for tea at next police checkpont and guzzle tons of their unfiltered water. Ecstatic to find only 20 kilometers left to Farafra Oasis, not 40 we thought still to go. Our first big desert crossing is almost in the bag.
Tass bonks big time, flushed face and dizzy only 2 km from oasis. Heat stroke can come on so quickly, we really have to be careful. I splash water on her and we regroup and make it into the town. We check into the only cheap, clean hotel, move into our room and go to shower only to find a pipe has broken and there is temporarily no water. It is impossible to buy alcohol in most oasis towns, but we had read that beer and even wine was available at this hotel. Not true. Our dream of a celebratory beer will have to wait.
|May 15 -- No Policeman
Get up early to bike around Farafara Oasis. Two policemen "guarding" us at our hotel look horrified when we go to leave. One keeps saying "No policeman, no policeman!" He is all stressed and finally we realize he wants us to write out a note saying we don't want a police escourt, which lets him off the hook as they have no vehicle to follow us, or radio to call superiors to ask what to do. We quickly write the note and leave before they change their minds.
Beautiful oasis with hot mineral springs Romans used to make elaborate baths. Today people wash up in simple cement basins where water flows out of pipes. Lots of donkeys pulling carts loaded with alfalfa. Date palms everywhere, markets filled with melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and bannas.
May 16 -- Four Wheeling Fun
To get deeper into the desert we head out for two days in a 4WD vehicle with Badry, a Bedouin we met in Bahariya. We drive back into the Black Desert, which is way fun as the vehicle hits soft sand and drifts like we are in deep snow, losing speed and sliding sideways. Badry does high speed shifts into lower gears or into 4WD to keep up momentum, then shifts again and again as we pick up speed. We never go in a straight line for long, but always to left or rights as he picks best line through a landscape of jumbled rock and multi-colored patches of sand. As the day gets hotter the sand gets softer and he works like a rally driver to keep us from getting stuck.
The variety of rock formations is astounding, definitely one of the most beautiful deserts we have ever seen. We leave the Black Desert during heat of day and enter an area where the sand is light tan, almost the color of the hazy sky. In places the two blend together like a Zen landscape. Temperature hovers around 98 degrees, "Not too hot, just right," says Badry. We drive through deep sand around 40-foot mounds of fractured rock, swerving, swaying and skidding when the deep sand catches the tires. We are in a vast maze of shimmering heat.
Badry pops in a tape of Bedouin music and sings along, dramatically moving his hands like he is using finger cymbals. I ask him what the words mean. "It is a love song. The man says he is so in love he is crazy. I only think of you. When I close my eyes I only see you."
We enter the White Desert, a beautiful land of meringue-like formations, white waves on an ocean of tan and gray sand with other-worldly formations of scultped chalk-white rock. Wait until you see the pictures!! Badry sets up a Bedouin-style camp with a big rug on the sand and a colorful weaving forming a two-sided wind shelter. He cooks supper and we sit in royal splendor, drinking hot, sugary mint tea under a bright half-moon. I only wish everyone could experience such an evening under the desert stars.
|May 17 -- Americans Can Feel Very Safe
Up early before sunrise to finish exploring the White Desert with Badry. (Khozamteego33@hotmail.com for anyone coming to Egypt who wants an excellent English-speaking guide in the Western Desert. His hotel is Desert Safari Home in Bawiti, Bahariya Oasis which we also highly recommend. Friendly, cheap and clean with good food.)
Back in Farafara Oasis we pick up our bikes and sign another note refusing a police escort, then resume cycling south. The day quickly heats up and we have a hot headwind that fortunately is not too strong, because it sucks every ounce of moisture from our mouths, making it hard to swallow no matter how much water we drink.
Have yet to meet anyone with good words to say about George W. Bush. Amazing how many people know of various actions of our Sec of Defence and State, which they are also unhappy about. An elder Egyptian archeologist driving past stops on the road to see if we need water or food. He is amazed we are from America. He tells us "George Bush promotes terrorism. Even though we do not like your President, Americans are very welcome in Egypt. You must tell your friends at home that Americans can feel very safe in Egypt."
May 18 -- Speaking Arabic
We explore the town of Al Qasr in Kharga Oasis, which has an old part of the city with mud brick houses and narrow covered streets built by the Ottomans in the 1700-1800s. Way cool architecture that makes total sense in the desert, but sadly no longer being used today. Our hotel is so hot we sleep on the roof at night (10 Egyptian pounds each, about $1.70) where there is a hot, gusting wind, but still better than suffocating in the oven temperature of the rooms.
Our Arabic is still rather pathetic. We can count, somewhat, and know about twenty phrases. Yet we totally impress everyone here. Our Lonely Planet Kphrasebook is hard to use and the dictionary section is missing some very basic words (which we have learned on our own). The book is missing key questions like "Which way to the store?" and instead has numerous phrases that are totally ridiculous. We constantly joke to each other in English, asking some of the more bizzare phrases from the book, like "I am an anarchist" and "I don't like your government's policies on unemployment." But our favorite unusablel phrase is "Do you believe in UFO's?"
|May 19-- Dakhla Oasis -- In the Desert -- Getting Hotter
We ride through Dakhla Oasis, which is over 100 km (60 miles) in length. Lots to see and photograph, people working in fields cutting alfalfa by hand, others thrash wheat beside and even right on the road, loaded donkeys, loaded carts, loaded bicycles coming to and from market.
As the road turns east we again hit a hot, gusty headwind. In the town of Balat we stop to photograph old terracotta graves and then ride through the back alleys of the village, where the houses are all made of baked mud, many painted various combinations of wonderful colors--yellow, orange, powder blue and lime green. We stop to photograph houses, and soon are invited inside the home of a teacher and his family. We spend an hour having tea and making photos of the family and their home. We also show them pictures that we brought of our families and of South Dakota, which is a big hit.
In the town of Tineida we stop for one quick last cup of mint tea and fill all our water bags before leaving Dakhla Oasis. The temperature in the shade is 106 but we feel pretty good. We have ridden about 70 km, and decide to ride another hour before taking our big afternoon break for the hottest part of the day.
By 2 pm the temperature is 110 degrees in the shade, over 120 on the road (our Brunton thermometer only goes to 120). At a group of rock formations we find a three-foot wide band of shade, just enough room to get our bikes out of the sun (always a concern with the amount of film we carry in our panniers) and for us to lay next to the bikes to rest. Even in the shade the sand is too hot to walk barefoot, and we have to put out our thermarest sleeping pads to protects us while lying on the hot ground. We are so thrilled to find this little spot as the next probable piece of shade is a single cement awning beside the road at a "rest stop" that is still at least 40 km away (we never know exactly where they are but usually about every 45-60 km). Even in our band of shade we have to continually dab our faces and hair with water, and wear sun hats, long sleeves and pants to protect us from the reflective heat and light bouncing off the desert sands around us.
At 6 pm the temp in the shade is still 110, but feels so much cooler without the intense heat of the sun all around us. We load up the bikes and resume riding. Our legs feel great but our arms, backs and neck muscles are exhausted. But the wind has changed to a tailwind and we want to make time while we can ride so easily. We pass a Red Crescent ambulance waystation (usually about every 80 kilometers out in the desert), where we stop for tea and water. These aid stations are vital as any accident victim would most likely die in the sun if they had to wait for an ambulance to reach them from an oasis.
At 8 pm we stop for a quick snack. The temp is still 110 degrees! Although we are tired, we don't seem to be getting more tired than we have been the last few hours, so we keep riding. As the sun sets we ride by moonlight, which only works moderately well. We can easily see the road, but we don't see any of the big holes in the road until the last second, and often have surprisingly jarring shocks to our arms, not to mention the chance of flatting or even worse, bending a rim.
Many of the drivers don't use headlights when the moon is bright, but they do flash their lights briefly to let us know they see us in the road so we don't have to worry about being hit. As it grows darker a small truck pulls over and three guys in turbans jump out, repeatedly shake our hands, and offer us a ride. When we politely refuse they give us huge handfulls of appricots from the back of their truck. We fill our pockets, our handlebar bags, every available spot, but they keep bringing more and more appricots.
We ride another hour then find a place where the sand if firm enough to ride our bikes off the road and set up camp in a huge flat plain, about a quarter of a mile off the road. By 11 pm the temperature has dropped, to 107 degrees.
|May 20-- Cycling To Kharga Oasis
Hot gusting wind all through the night. Start riding before sunrise into the wind, which sucks every ounce of moisture from our mouths, eyes and noses. Beautiful sunrise but then as we are riding eastward we get a double whammy from the wind and the sun in our face. Temperature is still 107 degrees. At the cement awning "rest stop" we make breakfast, feta cheese and tahini (sesame butter) on bread with tomatoes and peppers. Within seconds of slicing the long thin bread loaves to make the sandwiches the bread is so dry that it feels like toast. Tass says "For food that tastes really bad, these sandwiches are actually pretty good."
We get out our Ipods and both listen to a pick-hit selection of swing tunes from Big Bad Voodo Daddys, Cherry Poppin Daddys, and Squirrel Nut Zippers as we ride. The music is the only thing keeping us going as the kilometers seems to just drag by. Again our legs are fine but it is our arms, necks and backs that are killing us from the long hours in the saddle. Tass says she can barely hold onto the handlebars.
I have to dig very deep to keep going. I am so impressed by Tass's strength and reslove. Each time I look in the rearview mirror she is right behind me, pedaling along without complaint. When we come to a little reed shelter beside the road, built perhaps years ago by a road construction crew (there is tar and oil spilled everywhere around it) I bonk and have to stop. But the smell from the tar is so strong we don't stop long, and head back out into the broiling heat.
We carry most of our water in mylar bags bungeed on the back of my bike in large stuff sacks. Once we put it in our waterbottles it heats up dramatically from the sun and wind. When we squirt it on our bodies it hurts for a few moments because it is so hot. The water is at least air temperature, which is back up to 110 degrees, perhaps hotter from the sun, so when we drink it the water is at least 6 degrees warmer than normal hot tub temperature.
We stop at the next cement awning and collapse. We had thought we would make it to Kharga today but we still have 50 km to go and our only thought it to get out of the sun. We have water but little food, just some bread and feta cheese, which comes in a little packet that doesn't need to be refrigerated. The cheese is of course also 110 degrees, and the consistency of runny cottage cheese, which we spread on the dry bread. In the heat we can hardly eat anything anyway so it is enough food.
Tass reads in the shade but I am so exhausted all I do is lay in a stupor of delerium for four hours. We discuss bailing out and catching a ride to Kharga but neither of us gets up to wave down one of the few passing vehicles. At 6 pm we decide to try riding again, and head back out into the strongest headwind yet.
An hour later a giant 18-wheeler truck with a trailer pulls over and the driver offers us a ride. But now that we have the option, we decide we would rather continue cycling and get to Kharga tomorrow. We want to camp one last night in the desert. We ride another hour and camp at sunset behind a small dune, and eat the last of our food, a single can of tuna and 8 cookies, but we are so hot we are not very hungry and it is enough. The temperature has finally dropped, down to 96 degrees. We each take a refreshing sponge bath and lay on our ground tarp, naked, looking up at the incredible desert sky, and feel so happy to be here, like we are the luckiest people in the world. We only have 25 km left to ride into Kharga in the morning.
|May 21 -- Police Escorts -- Muslim Hospitality
The eastern sky is a yellow-brown haze of dust as we begin riding before sunrise the last 25 km to Kharga. At the police checkpoint a truck with five policemen are not to be dissuaded from escorting us to the bus station where we are told the Kharga-Luxor bus has not run the last few days, and to try again tomorrow. The police follow us to a restarant, where the captain mediates our every interaction, which of course stiffles any chance of actually talking with anyone. When I go to hand the money to the owner to pay the bill the captain grabs the money from my hand and passes it to the owner, just one foot away. The change goes first to the captain, who insures we pay the local, cheapest price, then hands it to me.
All of this is done with politeness and we thank the police for their "help." It is never good to anger people with guns. And they have been helpful in figuring our odds of catching a bus tomorrow, and also giving us directions. But there is no way they are going to let us ride alone from Kharga to Luxor. The road has only been opened recently to foreigners at all, and now only on buses or in special taxis. Locals have no reason to go to Luxor, and never travel this route. So we leave town in one of the "special" taxis, which isn't special at all, just expensive and allowed through by the police. We ride almost two hours before seeing another single vehicle on the road.
The whole tourist police issue is rather bizarre, with various rules of what is or is not allowed often changing from one area or checkpoint to another. A bit of history... In 1997 a small group of terrorists shot some foreigners in a Luxor temple, and set off a small bomb on a bus in Cairo. Tourism dropped dramatically, the government panicked, and instigated policies to protect foreigners. I think this was done to not only save the lucrative tourist trade, but also from a sense of outrage that visitors would be targeted.
There is a strong Muslim tradition of showing hospitality and goodwill toward travelers, and this had been violated. It is also indicative of the fear many secular Muslim governments have toward Islamic fundamentalists. Sadly, I think isolating tourists from the locals only further builds walls between cultures. If people are that afraid of terrorists, they should stay home. For the rest of us, we should be allowed to go where we want. But the trend in Egypt, and to a lesser extent at home in the US. is to completely overblow the slightest possible terrorist threat, reduce personal freedoms, and give more power to the military and the police.