So… did we do Turkey for Christmas? Alas No.
Syria and Libya were descending into civil war and chaos, all the ferries from Egypt had been cancelled, and Fanny was not allowed to ride or drive a vehicle in Saudi Arabia (not for being Chinese, but because she’s a woman!).
Also, the prospects of motorcycling in Europe during the freezing cold winter were not particularly appealing to either of us and so we decided to stay in Dahab, a small and beautiful town in the Sinai on the west coast of the Gulf of Aqaba….at least until the end of February when, one way or the other, we would have to get our KTMs and ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe.
After a moderate amount of hassle and a few long detours to various government offices in El Tur, Cairo, Sharm El Sheikh and Nuweiba we extended both our Egyptian visas and our bike permits for a few more months. This included Fanny, because she is a Chinese citizen, having to be interviewed by the head of the Sinai’s “Security Police” which involved Fanny not being interviewed at all, and the Chief and I swapping police stories over tea in his office for several hours.
The force is strong, young globetrotter.
Whilst we were in “form filling” mood Fanny also managed to extend her British visa in Cairo and so Dahab with its sunny weather, reasonably cheap accommodation and Red Sea activity is where we slummed out Christmas, Chinese New Year and the worst of the northern hemisphere winter.
We also managed to extend our stay at our apartment at a fraction of what similar accommodation would have cost anywhere else in the world. We chose a German owned apartment as opposed to any Egyptian run place because Fanny is allergic to sewage coming out the shower head and being electrocuted by all the appliances. She’s fussy like that.
We also got our bikes serviced at the very impressive KTM service centre down in Sharm El Sheikh and they did an excellent job, although the bike service parts and oil are hard to come by in Egypt because of high import taxes and a loused up economy and so it was not cheap.
More details on all the technical stuff of our bikes and kit in the “Bikes and Equipment” page of this diary.
So what have we been up to? Well serious idling of course. When there was nothing on Fox Movies (the only English TV channel) and nothing to do to the bikes, we mooched about town chatting to people and wandering around.
Fanny became immersed in local life and community and was greeted with “ni hao?” where ever she went and occasionally “konnichiwa,” which she wasn’t so keen about. Through her Chinese websites she had become “our woman in Egypt” and was an unpaid ambassador and fixer for the increasing number of visiting Chinese to the Sinai peninsular.
I kept myself reasonably occupied and did manage to get my PADI Open water, and indeed Advanced Open water diving qualifications. Swimming with the marine life in the Red Sea is fascinating, unworldly even, but the real joy of diving is that you don’t have to listen to or talk with anyone for 50 minutes while you bob about underwater looking at seaslugs, coral and your depth gauge.
Fanny persevered and mastered windsurfing, but I abandoned learning to kite surf.
Whilst I am pretty good at handling and controlling kites and parafoils–through many years of paragliding I suppose–no amount of time was going to keep me upright on a wake board on top of the sea and I got fed up being dragged through the water inhaling plankton …and so I jacked it in. A man’s gotta know his limits. My other activity was annoying the local police on my KTM as I cruised about in my standard Sinai biking configuration of flip flops and shorts, refusing to stop and refusing to pay bribes.
The incompetence of the local old bill was only matched by their colleagues in the ubiquitous Egyptian military. How they must miss their despot dictator, but at least Mubarek told them which end of a falafel to start eating and stopped their incessant bickering. Now they wander around like lost souls with only calls to prayer and loading their AK 47 rifle magazines to occupy them. Pointy ends forward, chaps.
As well as practicing my sand riding and off road motorcycling, I decided to get back into serious running mode, get fit and so found some amazing runs in the desert mountains that surround Dahab. The only fly in the ointment was that I became aware of a creature called the Burton’s Carpet Viper that makes its home in south Sinai.
Damn those Wikipedia people — I was quite happy in blissful ignorance. Apparently, this evil viper is a monster of legend and is lurking in every nook and cranny and under every stone in the desert, poised to give anyone who crosses its path an agonising death.
If I am to believe the numerous emails from my friends and former colleagues in the Big 4 forensic accounting practices and consultancies around the planet this might be preferable to going back to work, but even so, evil vipers that one doesn’t share children with? It doesn’t bare thinking about.
In the interest of my continuing pursuit of Mandarin fluency, I continued to work on my Chinese everyday and wrote some rather basic articles for various magazines and websites which seemed to be appreciated by my three followers. Fanny was also very busy with articles for various publications and continued in her attempt to secure sponsorship to cover the pricey entry fees for both of us and our KTM bikes to enter into China, but times are tough and I suspect that the funding will never materialise. I am inclined to miss out riding into China and finish our trip in Europe unless Fanny achieves the impossible. She is very determined though, has a following of more than three million people and has some influential people and Chinese PR companies on the case so you never know. (Note: we did ride 13,000 kilometers across China in the end .. but on CF Moto 650 TR motorcycles which were excellent)
Video links to China and Africa below-
It seemed I was not the only Englishman to find refuge in Dahab during the winter months and we became close pals with two others. One a retired and rather smashed up former 22 Regiment Special Air Service non-commissioned officer in his 70s from Merseyside and the other a chap about the same age as myself from East London who was studying for an Anthropology degree at Oxford University and in the distant past would have been a Metropolitan Police C11 (flying squad) target.
So… an ex special forces soldier cum dive master, a London blagger cum academic, a Chinese intelligence specialist cum biker chick and a Hong Kong cop cum forensic accountant … what an eclectic bunch to hang out together drinking Bedouin tea and putting the world to rights.
Occasionally when the internet was running I would chat with friends around the world on Skype, including my friend, Nick Dobson and his Dad, Chris, a former Daily Telegraph war correspondent, war historian and author. On one call Chris Senior reminisced back to the late 60s and early 70s when he rode on the back of an Israeli tank through many of the places we had ridden our bikes in the Sinai.
Amazing tales. So, friendly and chaotic Egyptians running Sinai, or grumpy and efficient Israelis? Seems you can’t have everything in life… but perhaps the Egyptians have it. We like friendly.
I also spent time with an old colleague from my Arthur Andersen days who has now become a serious motorcycle fan, with five very nice bikes in his garage in Kent, UK and an assortment of off-road and track courses under his belt. Apparently arriving to work in Surrey Street, London on my Suzuki GSXR 1300 Hayabusa one day sparked off his interest in bikes. And quite right too… awesome bike.
Andrew came out to Dahab for a few days vacation, mainly to scuba dive, but we took the KTMs out for a spin to Saint Catherine’s monastery– which lies just below Mount Sinai where the Old Testament says Moses received the ten commandments.
Although it was very a bright and sunny day in the desert, it was uncomfortably cold on the motorcycles in the morning shadows and I should have worn many more layers of clothes. However beautiful the surroundings, it really is miserable being cold on a motorcycle.
We toured around the fascinating monastery buildings and then on the way back to the coast I had a big wobble on a bend in the middle of the desert.
I initially thought I had veered into one of the large cracks that the desert diurnal temperature difference makes in the road surface through continual expansion and contraction. But after wobbling to a stop I discovered that I had in fact picked up a six inch nail in my back Pirelli tyre.
To exacerbate my misfortune I had left all the tyre levers, the air pump and puncture repair kit back in the panniers back at the apartment in Dahab and so we managed to flag down a Bedouin pick-up “bakkie” and load my bike onto the back and return 100kms + to Dahab. It required manoeuvring the bike from a small sand embankment onto a flat back truck and then pushing the bike off the flat back onto the back of the pick up and securing it with my tow rope.
Like my home in the small village of Arniston on the southern tip of Africa, each day in Dahab was like an episode of BBC Radio 4’s “The Archers”, but without all the British mealie mouthed political correctness and popularized deviance.
Always some minor drama that got all the locals excited and yet in the big scale of things, irrelevant and unimportant. The real troubles in Cairo seemed a long way away.
I am not sure how long one has to stay somewhere before a place becomes “I lived in” rather than “I stayed at”. Perhaps being given the local “German Bakery” coffee shop discount card was a defining moment in permanent residency.
Fanny got heavily involved with helping visiting Chinese find accommodation, transport and general assistance in return for them bringing in supplies from China. Such supplies included a new Canon camera to replace the one I dropped, a helmet video camera to replace the GoPro that was stolen outside the Mosque, and an intercom set kindly donated by a Chinese OEM manufacturer. We also got very welcome supplies like Chinese spices, chili sauce, green tea, food ingredients and daft but useful things like flip-flops.
I checked out a few more dive sites in the Red Sea and got into the swing of scuba diving, free diving and snorkeling, but was getting itchy feet to go exploring again and so I decided that since we were unable to travel through Syria on the bikes that I would hike through Jordan and Israel and to the Syrian border to do a recce and generally do the tourist thing.
Fanny was not really interested in backpacking and sleeping rough in ditches (no idea why), and had friends coming over for Chinese New Year and so she decided to relax and hold the fort in Dahab. I packed a very small rucksack lent to me by our lovely landlady, Beatte (from Germany) and took an early local bus to Nuweiba where I hoped to catch the ferry to Aqaba in Jordan, which is just north of the border with Saudi Arabia.
I very much wanted to ride my bike but the temporary import duties and custom fees for Jordan and Israel were far too expensive, especially the fees to get back into Egypt and so I decided to travel light and use public transport instead. When I got to Nuweiba it was full of Syrian trucks queuing up to take the ferry to Jordan.
I wandered through the port and up to the ferry which was moored up and chatted with various drivers who all seemed very friendly and told me all about their woes in Syria. I was very disappointed we could not travel through Syria and as each day passed the situation seemed to get worse and worse.
Two hours after the ferry should have set sail we were invited to board and my passport was checked and I was sent back to immigration as somehow or another I had managed to navigate myself around every single security, customs and immigration check point in the port during my walkabout.
Passport now stamped with an exit chop I boarded the ferry and after settling down I realized I was the only non-Arab passenger on the ship.
As we cross the Gulf of Aqaba we sailed close to the deserted coast of Saudi Arabia, a country that looked, at least from the sea, pretty much like other parts of the Sinai. However, because of the restrictions imposed by Saudi’s ultra extremist inhabitants could have been the far side of the moon.
As I scanned the deserted coast I pondered that the diving must be absolutely glorious because Saudis just hang about in air-conditioned shopping malls and rarely venture away from creature comforts. It seemed strange that it is a land that Fanny is not allowed to ride her bike in. Indeed I don’t think women are allowed to do very much at all except hide in the shadows and make new little Saudis.
On arrival at Aqaba port I was given a free visa, but I had to wait for an hour as the immigration officer had left his post and gone AWL. As the only foreigner, and indeed only person left in the terminal I paced around looking at the numerous pictures of King Abdullah II Al Hussein that adorned the walls of the arrival hall. In fact his portrait is all over Jordan and he always looked cheerful and well dressed in western suits, Arab finery, or more often than not in various types of military uniform with a chest full of medals that he had actually earned through military service as a young man.
The King is a well-educated chap and has been recognised for promoting progressive policies, economic growth and social reform since he came to the throne. Rare qualities in a leader and a stark contrast with Jordan’s neighbours.
As I exited the port I was descended upon by a huge number of touts and taxi drivers and to their surprise I sprinted away into the darkness of the desert. My escape and evasion was successful, but a few minutes later I realized my mistake as Aqaba town was actually about 8 kilometers away from the port and so I orientated myself, programmed my GPS and started my hike along a well made but deserted motorway into the town.
Actually I had walked only a few kilometers when a friendly bus driver picked me up and dropped me off in town by the biggest flag pole I had ever seen with a tennis court sized flag billowing in the wind… a flag I would later see from miles away on the Israel side of the border.
I wandered around town and found a restaurant that served excellent sheesh kebabs and barbecued chicken, after which I wandered around a bit more looking for a place to rough camp in my sleeping bag.
The town was very modern and had lots of bars and clubs and fast food outlets, but there was something strange about Aqaba that I could not immediately fathom and then it dawned on me. There were no women. I suppose there were woman, but definitely not on the streets after sunset.
I inquired about staying in a hotel and found out another interesting fact… it is bloody expensive in Jordan and so I found a quiet bit of beach, unpacked my sleeping bag and went to sleep. One of the joys and freedoms of traveling alone.
I woke many times in the night as you do when you are roughing it on an uneven surface and was quite pleased when I saw the red glow of dawn and got up and headed to where I had been told the mini buses go to Petra. I found one, but it was not moving until it was full and the only occupant so far was a Chinese guy from Canada called Yee.
We decided we would upgrade and share a taxi and entered into negotiations with a local driver. Eventually we agreed on a trip to Wadi Rum, where we would stay for half a day to look around and then continue on to Petra. I found out that Yee also lived in Shanghai and worked for Disney Education.
Whilst Yee could also speak Mandarin he seemed more comfortable in English, although he spoke with exactly the same accent as Agent Smith in the movie “The Matrix”. When we were chatting about previous work and things he said ‘Oh, yes, the famous OORTHOOR ANDERRRSEN’, which made me snigger out loud, and so I had to tell him.
Wadi Rum is an absolutely stunning bit of Planet Earth. Beautiful.
On reflection even better than Petra which is pretty damned amazing in itself. We hired a Bedouin guide and a rather ropey 4×4 “thing” and toured the famous landmarks, including a Spring named after Lawrence of Arabia who camped there, allegedly. Our guide pointed in the direction of a gloriously picturesque open valley that disappeared into infinity and told us that Aqaba was three days camel ride away. Now that would have been an adventure and in retrospect I wish I had been impulsive and just done it, camping each night Bedouin style by a fire with the camels under the stars. It would be damned good fun on a KTM 450 EXE as well.
I was wishing Fanny was with me and could see the desert. If she had been we would have probably have been impulsive and done the desert hike.
It was a crisp day, dry as a bone, the sun was blazing in an otherwise azure blue sky with just a few whiffs of cloud here and there. The desert colours were truly breathtaking and so we hiked around a bit taking in the amazing scenery. We were shown a small mountain with high sand dunes and our guide said he would meet us on the other side, no doubt so he could save fuel and whittle away some client time as we climbed the rocky hill.
Yee was not a Bear Gryls type of person, in fact far from it and he struggled a bit in his totally unsuitable shoes but eventually we made it to the peak and slid down the dune to the other side and carried on with our hike.
I was regretting not being in the more flexible position to change my mind and spend the whole day hiking about and then camp up at night in the desert by a Bedouin fire, but I had a taxi driver waiting and a companion who was keen to get on to Petra.
After getting back in the taxi we had another 100 kilometers to drive to Petra and slowly climbed up into the mountains to an altitude of about 2000 meters. As we drove along deserted roads high up on the plateau I had to double take at the surrounding hill tops outside.
The pink landscape was dusted with white snow and ice!
I hadn’t seen snow since the summit of Mount Kenya but a bracing stop to take pictures brought it all flooding back. Bloody hell it was cold. Freezing my nuts off on the equator in Africa and now re-freezing them in the middle of the desert in Jordan.
It’s not what you expect.
As we got nearer to Petra I could see the deep valleys that the famous pink rock-hewn churches and monasteries were cut into. I could also see hundreds, if not thousands of caves where the ancient troglodytes had lived, and some Bedouin tribes still do. A bit drafty, I thought.
Both Fanny and Yee had researched and recommended the same backpackers to stay in called, for some unknown reason, The Valentine Inn and that is where we decided to go.
When the taxi arrived I saw that the Valentine Inn was decorated with lots of red hearts like a garish brothel in Kowloon Tong. Oh Lord. But as it turned out it was actually a pretty decent hostel, warm, with very reasonably priced dorm rooms, and with an excellent and very reasonably priced evening meal and breakfast.
On arrival Yee applied all his attention to a young Korean lady from New Zealand who lived in Hong Kong teaching music, and I was left on my own, as indeed middle-aged sole travelers usually are in such places. Glad I had a book.
The next day I escaped from the prowling guides and touts and blagged my way into the grounds of Petra for free using the remains of someone else’s three day ticket thus saving a staggering 70 UK pounds!
It was also the first day of the Year of the Dragon and so there were hundreds of Chinese on holiday to annoy and impress with my cunning linguistic skills. As I was wandering about I bumped into a Hong Kong movie star wearing an Indiana Jones hat… de rigour attire for all the well-heeled tourists in Petra.
I tried out my Cantonese on Mo Lan-yung, or whatever he was called, and he asked me, how come, since I was a former Royal Hong Kong Police officer, my Cantonese was so rubbish. A bit blunt I thought.
I was quick to retort and he seemed a little taken aback when I suggested Cantonese in this day and age was as much use as Welsh or Afrikaans and was therefore a language destined for extinction and thus pointless making any effort to learn or remember. I waffled on about how I thought the only languages worth learning were Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and English.
He was no more impressed or convinced by my argument than my Boer or Welsh friends.
Petra is quite an amazing place, especially the rock formations and colours. It was bigger and more dramatic than I expected, but unlike my fellow tourists I refused to ride a donkey up the 800 steps to the famous monastery at the top of the mountain and so I yomped up.
There were many sheer cliff walls with long drops and of course no western style “health and safety” fences to prevent people inadvertently cliff diving off the edge. At the top on a precipice was a small hut with a breathtaking view over the valley and deserts that stretched out towards the horizon.
There was a Bedouin man warming himself by a small fire inside the hut and I asked him if there was an alternative route back rather than hiking along the well trodden tourist path. He said there was, but I would need to employ a guide. There was no way I was going to employ anyone, but it did mean it was possible. ‘How long would it take?’ ‘About three to four hours’, he replied.
Of course, that meant it would take two hours. Everyone always exaggerates, I thought, and so I disappeared quickly before his sales pitch could start and I scrambled down a cliff path into a dry wadi that suddenly fell away to a sheer drop of about 4-500 meters.
‘kin ‘ell. I looked back up at the Bedouin guy and he looked down at me and we both contemplated the situation and then he disappeared and I escaped before he could appear and say he told me so.
Through trial and error I tried every path I could see and could not for the life of me find the alternative route down to the valley. And then I saw it. A goat path zigzagging along steep slopes above more sheer cliffs. I nearly gave up, but then I thought bugger it, don’t look down and take it steady.
And so started my rock climbing challenge for idiots without proper kit. It seemed I was steadily climbing higher and higher rather than going down into the desired direction of the valley ….and then it happened.
The path momentarily disappeared and started again a few meters away. Between was a crevice of only a meter or so, but a seemingly infinite way down. Nothing I thought. Pretend its just a short stepping stone and jump.
But I hesitated.
I was suddenly flushed with a severe bout of acrophobia. What if I fell? That would be it.. game over. Worse… what if I fell and got stuck 127 hours style?
And then I just did it. I jumped and felt elated for a nano second until I realized my surroundings and discovered I had in fact jumped onto the top of a Wile E Coyote cartoon type column of rock.
For crying out loud.
Breathe deeply, gently turn 180 degrees, focus on a landing spot on the other side of the chasm and leap.
Except I was still completely frozen on the spot …on all fours. Petrified in Petra.
And then I thought through the indignity of being rescued … probably by some “I told you so” Bedouins on mountain camels that would tip toe along the narrow and precarious mountain ledges.
Before I could think too much more I was back across the void and scrambling away the way I came. Thank fuck for that was my only thought.
When I got back to the wadi the Bedouin fellow was waiting for me and I flinched and cowered in embarrassment as he said, ‘Not that way- it’s very dangerous’….. ‘That way’, and he pointed to a glaringly obvious well trodden path that had somehow been invisible before. ‘Oh yes’, ‘just looking around’, I lied, ‘ Thank you…’ and waved as confidently as I could and started along the “correct” route which took pretty much four hours of hiking, exactly as he told me it would.
While I was hiking back I managed to see some amazing temple ruins and caves that were off the tourist trail and also passed through the local village known as “Little Petra” that appeared very run down and very poor.
I smiled at some small grubby children who were playing in the road and they looked up at me in astonishment, burst into tears and started howling and so I quickened my pace and checked frequently over my shoulder to see if an angry mob with burning torches was in pursuit.
As the sun was setting I entered the common room of the Valentine Inn and could see my traveling partner, Yee still trying his luck with the Korean girl, but clearly getting nowhere. He was waffling on about reading palms and deciphering human auras and the girl was doing a really bad job pretending that she was interested.
I wondered whether I should intervene and help him out, but I decided chatting up girls is something he is going to have to work out by himself and so I left him to it and set about planning my route to Jerusalem.
The next day Yee, two Japanese guys and I shared a minibus to the Jordanian Capital, Amman from where we intended to get another bus to the King Hussein border and into Israel.
When we arrived at the Jordanian side of the border the crossing was thankfully very quick and we took a bus for another 5 kilometers across no-man’s land to the Israeli border which is called Allenby.
There were many rather striking Israeli female soldiers in combat uniforms with M4 machine guns and punk haircuts manning the checkpoints and public areas. As expected the security was tight, but the immigration and customs process was pleasingly efficient and quick.
I had heard you could get an Israeli immigration stamp put on a piece of paper as a stamp in my passport would prevent me from entry into Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, and perhaps Iran and Pakistan.
They interviewed me politely and were very interested in our adventure, especially our trip through Sudan. I waxed lyrical about how amazing the country was and what wonderful people the Sudanese were, and did they know Sudan also had pyramids like Egypt? Blah Blah!
What I had realized throughout the trip was the quickest way to get through immigration and customs was to bore the officials to death so that they would quickly process the papers.
They did ask me if I wanted a piece of paper stamped, but I said ‘No’, I didn’t see why I had to pander to childish and petty political nonsense. However, I had an ulterior motive as this would give me justification to apply for a second passport from London.
I had tried unsuccessfully to get a second passport from the British Consulate in Hong Kong and now I had a plan.
In any case, I have been to Sudan already, Fanny is not allowed to ride in Saudi Arabia, my connections at the border with Syria told me it was about to descend into civil war, and at the time Iran and Pakistan were at risk of being nuked by Israel and the US.
I managed to lose my Japanese fellow travelers somewhere near Syria and Yee had stayed in Amman, and so I got a cheap mini bus back down and through towards Jerusalem which I was thoroughly looking forward to.
Israel already looked the most advanced country I had been to since South Africa. Trees everywhere, smart shops, well-built cream coloured stone houses and offices, and generally a feel of being well organised.
The most striking initial impression was that there were military personnel everywhere, mostly young teenagers armed to the teeth.
The second was that it is a smorgasbord of races and religions. The most obvious are the Haredi or ultra orthodox Jews who scurry about in their black uniforms, eccentric hats and religious paraphernalia. They were not very friendly, I guess because they make a serious effort to isolate themselves from everyone and look disapprovingly on anyone else’s lifestyle.
There were also a lot of Palestinian, many more than I expected to see and many were quite aggressive looking and again, unfriendly. Adding to the mix of cultures and beliefs were lots of orthodox Christians and pilgrims from Greece, Turkey, Russia and Armenia.
With such a mixed and eclectic population, and with such a long and violent history you would expect Jerusalem to be a tinder box, and I think it is. It felt edgy and hostile, but the police and security forces looked professional and well able to deal with it.
With all due respect to the Israelis, I think it is fair to say it is not a particularly friendly place, in fact many of the people I met were rude and overly aggressive.
There were also a lot of tourists milling about, especially Americans who were noticeably absent in most parts of Africa and the Middle East that we had traveled through thus far.
Some of the tourists I met were open-minded, moderate and interested in visiting the epicenter of the Holy Lands; others were clearly barking mad religious extremists who were engaging in some kind of spiritual orgy.
Still, each to their own. So long as they don’t make it compulsory is my attitude to religion.
I stayed at a very well run and clean backpackers in the middle of the city called Abraham Hostel
It offered a very good breakfast, cheap dorms, good facilities and a travel center that could arrange all sorts of tours, including the free Old City tour that I went on the next morning. A bit of an evangelical happy clappy youth missionary feel about it, but then Israel is what it is, the 51st State of America and so I suppose it was to be expected.
Whilst the tour was ostensibly free, Naomi, our four foot tall and four foot wide tour guide reminded everyone on the quarter of the hour, every quarter of an hour that she survived on our tips and our generosity-–just like those irritating waiters we Brits have to suffer every time we try to eat something in America.
“My name is like Chuck and I’ll like toadally be your like toadally tax dodgin” wayda and like interrupt you like toadally like through your toadally like entire meal …like”….. “Have a toadally like nice day like”.
Anyway, despite being in the middle of winter, it was a sunny and stunningly beautiful day and we were shown around the maze of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish quarters of the ancient city.
We were also given an introduction to the incredibly rich and complex history of Jerusalem, much of which was new to me and I have to say absolutely fascinating. I actually spent quite a bit of time researching and reading up about places I visited, although getting a secular or independent version of events was not that easy. Most people are already indoctrinated and convinced of their own point of view that little they see or experience is going to change their mind.
For me my visit to Jerusalem has strengthened my view that all the religions are manifestations of superstitions that play to the frailties of human beings and have been used very effectively by the powerful to control other human beings, and for the powerless to tolerate being controlled by other human beings.
Whether there is in fact a God or Soul of the Universe I still don’t know …but the reality is neither does anyone else. I feel there is, but such beliefs are private matters and not to be inflicted upon others.
People who know me will be astounded that many years ago as a small boy I was actually an Alter-boy and I used to serve at Mass at Saint Joseph’s Church in Burton Upon Trent in Staffordshire.
On occasions, usually Good Friday, we used to perform a Benediction Mass and “Stations of the Cross”, a service that requires a meditation at each of the 14 stations that feature around the inside walls of all Catholic Churches. Now in Jerusalem I was able to follow the real thing up to the The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
At the 11th Station there was a small stall renting out wooden crosses to pilgrims and even some shops selling crowns of thorns and little baby Jesus dolls. I knew Filipinos were prone to mixing up their Catholicism and Austronesian superstitions and were particularly fond of a good torture re-enactment when the supply of Virgin Mary-like tree stumps and mud fish was running low, but I was surprised such superstitious devotions occurred in Jerusalem.
Of course I had to try one out and immediately thought of the Monty Python film, “Life of Brian” with all those great sketches and stir it up blasphemies. The crosses were all half scale sized, either for crucifying dwarfs or because the Israeli department of health and safety was worried about tourists putting their backs out.
As Naomi was telling us about a recent punch up between Greek and Armenian Christian monks outside the site Jesus was allegedly crucified, I was caught singing and whistling, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” with the cross on my shoulder and was immediately admonished and left in no doubt I was in disgrace by everyone around me.
No sense of humour some people.
So what else was there to see?
Well no trip to Jerusalem is complete without a visit to see the West Wall which in itself is just an old wall, but the wailing and head nodding by the faithful was mildly interesting, if not rather bizarre.
I had to buy a Jewish skull-cap to go in and look at the wall myself, so I bought one from a stall that was selling an assortment in different colours and patterns. Some had Rastafarian colours with five leaved plants on them (?), some with pictures of Homer Simpson (??). All very at odds with what I thought the point of the bodily adornment was for in the first place. Anyway, I found the perfect skull cap…. embroidered with the Chelsea Football Club badge. It looked great and I thought might come in useful one day if I am ever granted an audience with Comrade Abramovich.
I also saw the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount.
We were told we would not be allowed bring in any Bibles or engage in any praying at the Temple Mount and this prompted a huge Texan in our group to ask if he could bring in his iPhone as it had a Bible App? This caused a bit of a debate as I think the Romans, the Knesset, Mohammed, King David, Angel Gabriel, Herod and the whole bunch of humans who make up these rules had overlooked the possibility of this technological advancement.
The foundation stone in the Temple Mount is believed by some, including many in our tour group, to be the first ever rock from which the world was created and so arguably the most religious site in Jerusalem, if not the World.
I was reliably informed by my Jewish guide, and this was confirmed by a lady from the fundamental autonomous region of South Carolina that it is the oldest thing on the planet… and therefore about 5,000 years old.
Huh?, I thought. My mother’s pug dog in Abbots Bromley is older than that!
But there was no point arguing the toss. It seems that Jerusalem has been argued over, conquered, knocked down and re-built over and over again throughout its 3,000 year old history. It’s difficult to keep track of which religious group or sect owns which bit. According to Wikipedia Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
Enough religious stuff, it was now time for a bit of shopping, not that I could afford much. I wanted some Israeli Defence Force T-shirts for Fanny and as presents for friends. An Israeli flag to stick on my panniers to match my Israeli stamp in my passport. I also wanted to replace my punctured inner tube as the bastard Sinai 6 inch nail had done a bloody thorough job making several large holes. I had in fact patched up the inner tube but I had nagging doubts about the quality of my handiwork.
The T-shirts were easy to find from one of the many army surplus shops in the city. I got the inner tube from KTM Jerusalem, which didn’t have many KTM bikes or parts because imports are taxed sky-high in Israel, but they did have a 150/70 -18 ultra heavy-duty tube and so I took it. My efforts to find an Israeli flag sticker were not so successful so I bought a Palestine Liberation Organisation one instead. No one will know the difference.
For me, two days in Jerusalem was enough. I am glad I went, but wont be disappointed if I don’t go again. It’s like being a kid and living in a household with parents who fight all day. Tense, miserable and damaging to the soul.
I wanted to leave Israel by the Eilat/Taba border back into Egypt, but also wanted to stop off by the Dead Sea for a swim. The buses took a bit of juggling but I eventually found one and was thrown off at a place called Ein Gamph, right next to the salt encrusted shores of the Dead Sea where the water is ten times more saline than normal sea water.
I wasted no time and I stripped off down to my underpants which really needed a wash anyway after five days hiking and jumped into the water which turned out to be warmer than I expected and had a sort of slimy feel to it– I think due to the salt rather than my underpants.
Of course, the oddest thing is the incredible buoyancy and you float on top of the water rather than in it. No Dead Sea swim is complete without getting some water into your eyes which is excruciatingly painful. It also burns your tongue if you stick it into the water, which of course curiosity dictates we all have to do.
After a dip in the water and a wallow in the medicinal mud, which is supposedly good for one’s health and skin, I got out feeling good, but no different to how I normally do and went to the bus stop and waited optimistically for the No.444 bus to Eilat which eventually came 2 hours later and swished by me without showing any inclination whatsoever to stop.
It was the last one and so when my jaw lifted and my mouth finally closed I accepted that I might be staying a bit longer in Mein Kampf. In fact another 14 hours until the next No.444 came by at 8.00 am the next day.
I thought how lucky we were to have our “go anywhere” bikes on this trip and really missed my KTM which would have been great fun in Israel and wouldn’t have left me stranded.
Anyway, there was no point blubbing by a lonely bus stop and so I wandered around for a while, found some crisps to eat for dinner and watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on my laptop whilst wrapped up in my sleeping bag by the shores on the Dead Sea…. as one does.
I had a good night’s sleep under the stars at 480 meters below sea level and despite a very rare rainstorm during the night I stayed warm and dry in my sleeping bag. As the sun was rising I had a dawn dip in the Dead Sea and later found a fast food kiosk that opened up early, made me coffee and some toast for breakfast and had an interesting yarn with the ever so slightly insane owner.
I then went to the bus stop and boarded the bus which arrived at exactly 8.00am and then I got dropped off at 11.30am in the sunny and very touristy southern Israeli town of Eilat. It was from here I could see the huge Jordanian flag in Aqaba on the other side of the gulf.
I arrived at a completely deserted border crossing as all the officials had either gone off to prayer or to have a midday snooze and when they arrived back I breezed through the Egyptian border town of Taba. Again as far as I could tell I was the only tourist at the border crossing and I was the only person to board a mini bus that took me down the beautiful Sinai coastline, and by 3.00pm I was back in Dahab.
After telling Fanny about my adventures over tea and falafels I spent an afternoon wrestling my tyre off the rim of the rear wheel and fitted the new inner tube I bought in Jerusalem. I thoroughly cleaned both bikes, re-greased and oiled whatever parts required and pretty much got the KTMs looking like new, although I had to admit both could really do with new tyres.
After 23,000 kilometers both sprockets and chains looked in great order. That proved we had the bikes perfectly set up and our campaign of reasonably limited hooliganism had been successful.
We also had some more visitors to Dahab– Andrea and Gary Corbett from Derbyshire in England. I went to school with Andrea in Staffordshire back in the day and she is a Ducati Monster rider. Her husband, Gary, comes from Scotland and is a fairly recent convert to motorcycling and rides a Yamaha XJ 900.
They are both big climbers and ex mountain rescue team members in the Derbyshire Peaks and they had come out to Dahab to join us in some diving, snorkeling, biking, running and of course idling about.
As luck would have it, their visit coincided with Dahab’s once a year storm and so they endured not only the less than perfect weather but my constant reminders that the weather wasn’t normally like this and that it was very sunny before they arrived.
The politest way I can describe Andrea is that she is vertically challenged and this clearly annoys her because her feet cannot touch the ground on 95% of all motorcycles. This meant that Gary, with much less motorcycling experience than Andrea would have to ride Fanny’s KTM with Andrea on the back as pillion. She was not happy about this at all.
As we went for a ride we used Fanny’s new Chinese helmet video camera and managed to record Andrea looking absolutely terrified perched up on the back of the pillion seat. She was especially displeased when we decided to do a bit of off roading and racing about, particularly when Gary decided to steeply lean the bike around corners despite me warning him that the tyres really were on their last legs.
We left Dahab at the end of February with mixed feelings. It’s a beautiful place, and we enjoyed the laid back life by the sea, but we had both started to get itchy feet again and wanted to move on. Fanny had been told that China Shipping had a Ro Ro (Roll On Roll Off) leaving Alexandria on the 28th and we aimed to put our bikes on it and take a flight to Istanbul and then take a bus to Mersin on the south coast of Turkey to meet the ship a week later.
China Shipping promised to pay all the fees at the Egyptian side, a promised they later reneged on and in the end we had to cough up. Not sure what went wrong, but for other potential explorers coming through Egypt please note that everything to do with customs, immigration and import and export of vehicles in Egypt is hideously expensive, risky and uncertain, and will take considerably longer than anyone tells you it will. Copious amounts of patience, good humour and good luck is needed.
Like any good plan, always have fall back options and contingencies. Since we had seven days to ride to Alexandria we decided to spend a few days on the most southerly tip of the Sinai, called Ras Mohammed. A diving paradise and a beautiful place to camp and relax. After we left Dahab we got there fairly quickly and had a chance to dust off the gear and do some snorkeling in some of the best coral reefs on the planet.
While we were camped on the deserted sandy beach I actually decided to sleep outside the tent under the stars and give Fanny a break from my feet. There was no one around, we were on the isolated southern tip of the Sinai peninsula and because of the dry air and lack of pollution the northern hemisphere constellations were crystal clear and an amazing finale to our unintended five months stay in Egypt.
The next day was gloriously sunny and I decided to go snorkeling right in front of our tent and bikes. The water was a degree or so warmer than Dahab and that made all the difference. Once inside the water there were initially only sand beds but in the distance I could see an underwater coral island teeming with every fish in the Red Sea “Marine Life” book.
I knew it would be my last chance for a while, if indeed ever again, and spent a good part of the day free diving down to join by far the best life in Egypt. We spent another glorious day at Ras Mohammed and then we then decided to join up with John and Jan, fellow KTM 990 Adventure riders from Sharm El Sheikh and take a few pictures and join them at the local English pub for a very well attended boule competition.
Given the number of evenings I have played this game with my cheating friends in Arniston on the cliffs above the bay with a glass of cheeky I breezed through to the semi finals, but ultimately it was not to be my day and I was beaten by determined local talent.
Jan very kindly put us up at his villa on the cliffs above the harbour with his five dogs. A beautiful house from the days when style was en vogue and dustmen were in employment in Egypt. On the way to Jan’s house we had to ride the bikes precariously close to the edge of the crumbly cliff. As I had been drinking in the T2 pub and Fanny had not I decided to ride the bikes. Naturally.
Bright and early the next day we set off north to Port Said on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the port closest to the mouth of the Suez Canal. Although we had about 600 kilometers to ride we were in no real rush and I savoured probably my last ever view of the Sinai, the Red Sea and the desert mountains. It really is a barren, but beautiful bit of Planet Earth, spoiled only by us, its human inhabitants and our debris, pollution and trash.
We stopped off for lunch at the best falafel restaurant we had been to in the whole of Africa, at a place called Ras Sedr just south of the Suez tunnel. Falafels, bread, salad, tahina and bedouin tea with mint… the whole lot for a quid. Very very delicious and made a very slight credit to our “being ripped off on the trip” account. Huge debits are to come later on in Alexandria. Oh well, one should enjoy the little victories when one can.
We had a bit of a refueling crisis after lunch as Egypt, which sits on huge oil and gas reserves and has oil refineries polluting the environment up and down the Red Sea, often has no petrol at its own fuel stations.
My particular theory is that this fuel shortage is due to the urgent demand for oil to make gel and hair products for Egyptian men. Anyway, this particular town had not only run out of 95 octane which our bikes like, but had no petrol whatsoever.
After a frantic double back along the road we had just ridden we found 90 octane at a grubby station and so I thought it wise to add the remainder of our octane booster additive as I really hoped that would be the last that we would need it, going to Europe and all.
That said we kissed goodbye to 15-20 pence a liter fuel and braced ourselves for the most expensive fuel in the world…Europe, and in particular, Turkey.
As we approached the Suez the military presence got heavier and heavier with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and armed soldiers at every junction. They never gave us any problems and always waved cheerily at us, and if we did get stopped went through their usual practice of asking pointless questions and giving our bikes a cursory “look up and down”.
Not once did they ever check what was in our panniers or perform a proper check. If I was their commander there would have been some well delivered lectures and quite a few “bollockings”. But it’s not my problem and never will be. We are just guests in a country going through a very turbulent and often violent transformation. The best one can do is keep the good-humoured smile going, despite one’s mind thinking otherwise.
While we were in Port Said we went to visit and say thanks to Mr. Xu (徐先生), the Chinese Ambassador in Alexandria and Port Said who also happened to be the head of the Chinese state-owned firm, COSCO in Egypt. He had been kind enough to help us with various things and had got to know Fanny very well.
He lived and worked out of probably the nicest house is Port Said, an art deco palace of sorts that used to be an Italian residence in better times.
After drinking tea in the Ambassadors office we waved our goodbyes and headed off along the International Coastal Highway to Alexandria which was about 250 kilometers from Port Said. The coast was not that pretty and the towns were chaotic and run down.
When we got to Alexandria I was a tad disappointed. Its glorious Greek, Hellenic, Roman, Ottoman, and British history, architecture and monuments had been obliterated over the years and what we found was a crumbling version of Bognor Regis surrounded by a sea of rubbish and environmentally hostile factories and grubby warehouses.
What a karsi.
Whilst in Alexandria we stayed at the Union Hotel, which was not bad and had great views over the harbour, but it had no car park or secure parking and so we had to park our bikes outside the front door on the pavement and pay a watchman, who subsequently disappeared, and so Fanny and I maintained a vigil on a bench in our sleeping bags throughout most of the night.
Despite our efforts we found in the morning that both bikes had been subjected to minor acts of vandalism such as pulling off indicators, bending mirrors and peeling off country flag stickers from the panniers. Some people, huh?
Later in the day we were met by one of Fanny’s Facebook motorcycle buddies, called Omar, who had ridden a Honda Africa Twin across Africa in 2009. We were later to accept his kind hospitality and stayed at his house on the outskirts of the city where, importantly, we could safely park our bikes and have peace of mind.
Whilst riding with him through the city I quickly discovered that I had got a puncture in my rear tyre. It was very soon after we set off and so I do not think it was an accident, but rather another act of mindless vandalism as a small nail had clearly been pressed into the rubber tread and I suspect while it was parked overnight outside in the street.
So, I set about repairing the puncture near a busy road junction and I quickly got the tyre off and found that the inner tube I had bought in Israel was seriously perished and had a huge tear where the small nail went in. This inner tube must have been on the shelf in Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate was a boy.
It was too big a hole to patch up and so I threw it away and replaced it with a normal gauge (thin) inner tube that we carried along with other spares in my panniers and which is better suited to riding on the tar roads ahead anyway. AND SO…. was to begin our day(s) from hell in Alexandria.
After wrestling the beading of the rear tyre back into place with water, washing up liquid, blowing it up to 3 bars and bouncing it about I put the wheel back on and I discovered that I had lost my sunglasses. Not only that, one of the legs of my only trousers had finally given up the ghost and literally fallen off, but worst of all I found that the rear WP shock absorber of my 9 month old 2011 KTM 990 Adventure R had failed.
Luckily, unlike a BMW rear shock that will collapse, the WP shock on a KTM will support the weight of the bike, just, but there is no rebound and so it will bounce about and bottom out very easily. It is just about ride-able on very flat and smooth surfaces and very slowly, which of course is nigh on impossible in Egypt.
The suspension was now extremely spongy and research through KTM forums on the internet suggested that the gaskets had failed and the nitrogen and oil had probably escaped. Clucking Bell. What else could go wrong? Clearly a lot– there were still a few more hours left in that day for fate to ruin the day even more.
I contacted KTM in Cape Town, from where I bought the bikes and from where over the years I had spent in excess of half a million Rand, and they said the shock absorber was not covered by the warranty and further added its to be expected on a trip like ours and best that we ride to an authorised dealer to get it repaired. Wonderful advise, thank you so much.
So to all Cape To Cairo potential explorers make sure you are always near an authorised dealer, and carry a clean handkerchief and don’t talk to strangers. Deep breathes and relax… aaahhhh!
That said one must note that the Long Way Down team on their BMWs had several suspension failures and so it happens to all the best adventure bikes I suppose. Still, the reason why I chose KTM was that this should not happen. It’s a hassle of note, and a very expensive one which will make a huge dent in the expedition budget.
We were also very excited to find out through various forums and from Omar that a new ferry service was being introduced between Alexandria and Mersin and that the first would depart Alexandria on the 28th. Of course we were very keen to get on as it would be quicker, cheaper and easier than the RoRo cargo ship from China Shipping… but sadly like so much good news in Egypt that wasn’t going to happen… not for now anyway. Oh well, 没办法。 http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/hubb/middle-east/trying-reach-turkey-egypt-any-62770#post368714
The next day whilst enduring yet another day of bureaucratic purgatory and being shunted from one squalid “government” waiting area to another I was to find out that the offer of free shipping for our bikes by Mr. Mohamed Roshdy of China Shipping Line wasn’t free after all either. In fact, we had to pay everything at both the Egyptian and Turkish sides.
Certainly, if I had been on my own, I would have risked riding through Syria at that moment. In fact, all in all I regret that we did not make a run for it. It was still in the early days of the civil war and we could have made it over the Jordanian border and skirted the trouble zones up to the border with Turkey.
Or we could have got shot or captured by Syrian rebels or Government forces. Either way we would not have had the chance to actually enjoy Syria or see Damascus which was on our list of things to see.
The whole idea of riding to Alexandria rather than going through Jordan and Syria was predicated on the fact that Syria was risky and China Shipping Line had promised Fanny they would help us cross the Mediterranean for free.
Of course, I was annoyed about the extra expense and paying ten Egyptians to a do a job that doesn’t even need doing by one person, but what upset me the most was that Fanny was extremely upset and hurt by the whole incident and had lost face. A very bad thing for Chinese people.
As far as bureaucratic red tape goes, the whole Egyptian leg had been seriously time-consuming and ten times more expensive than all the other African countries we had been through put together. It is very fair to say that Egypt is a complete rip off and in all honesty I cannot recommend that anyone brings in their foreign registered vehicle, unless they have serious money to burn and have some sort of perverse masochistic streak.
I was reminded of the German expedition we met just south of the Sudanese border who were fuming about how they were treated in Egypt and now I knew how they felt. Scuba divers and sun-seekers on a package holiday to Sharm El Sheikh may not know what really goes on under the surface of Egypt and they don’t really need to.
They breeze in on Easy Jet, get picked up by a charming hotel driver from the airport and are deposited on their beach deck chairs and then a week later they go home with pictures of Bedouin fires and stripy fish, whilst clutching a stuffed camel.
Any foreigner living in Egypt for any length of time will know all too well what all the negatives, dangers, and inefficiencies are already, and for those that don’t live there they will not stay long enough to worry.
But I will say that for a country that sits on oil and gas reserves, generates huge revenues from the Suez canal and is blessed with both natural and historical wonders you would think Egypt has it made. However the reality is that it is quite the opposite.
Five thousand years of civilization … in reverse.
Anyway, suffice to say after 5 months a move was well overdue and we were very exited that we were moving on to Turkey and Europe.
Predictably, I suppose, the ship never arrived on the expected date and so we had no choice but to leave our bikes in a customs warehouse in Alexandria in the hope that three days of excruciatingly painful and expensive paperwork will see them eventually loaded onto the cargo ship, the MV Grand Napoli on the 1st or 2nd of March.
This cargo ship, once it actually sets sail from Alexandria, was scheduled to arrive ten days later in Mersin on the southern coast of Turkey from where we planned to collect our motorcycles from the port. We were to take the short cut and fly to Istanbul and after a few days take a bus across Turkey to the south coast.
I am pleased to say that we eventually managed to get both motorcycles’ carnet de passages (trip ticks as the locals call them) signed off by the authorities and we were both very relieved to get our passports returned to us.
Assuming both bikes actually arrive, as there is always a risk, my KTM 990 Adventure R will go into the KTM garage in Mersin where the mechanics will attempt to re-build the shock and then we will ride along the southern coast in early spring, an area of Turkey that is supposed to be amazingly beautiful.
(Post Note : KTM Turkey did an awesome job and rebuilt the WP like new and shipped it to Mersin where it was expertly fitted by the local KTM garage… job done) 永不放弃 or perhaps 愚公移山