Chapter 35 – Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka –a tropical island off the south coast of Indian and famous for Ceylon tea, Tamil Tigers and Arthur C Clarke. A lot of people who have visited have been singing its praises, but what’s it like to explore on a motorcycle?

Picking the slightly out of season period of early July, Fanny and I flew on the surprisingly good value Sri Lankan Airlines from Hong Kong to Colombo, and then took a taxi from the airport to a colonial style house that Fanny had booked on the outskirts of the Capital.

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Srilanka

Our motorcycle route… mostly the south west, south and central highlands ….still a few places to visit in the future.

 

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Yasmine’s house on the outskirts of Colombo

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Yep… all to ourselves.

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My new friend … guarding the pool

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Sri Lankan breakfast

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Fanny and our lovely host, Yasmine

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Lush tropical gardens

 

OK…. so enough holiday snaps of Rupert and Fanny idling about and stuffing their faces … for now!

What about the motorcycles?

We searched online and found a place renting out scooters not too far from the airport and we arranged to hire two Honda XR 250 Bajas… an iconic bike and one I have seen being ridden very successfully in remote parts of Africa.

Austin Vince would no doubt approve because its a small 250cc Honda and I can see the logic for having such a bike for a long expedition. I think they look like classic adventure bikes, and I really like the two big headlights and gold wheel rims.

Honda XLR 250R Baja

The Honda XLR 250 Baja … our choice for the Sri Lanka trip

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The actual bikes we hired… the pictures not doing justice to what dogs they really were.

 

I hired a modern Honda XR 250 for a tour of Thailand a few years back and it was in good condition, well looked after, and everything worked. I really liked it.

These bikes were not in good condition, but they were reasonably cheap at US$21 per day. I was assured they were road worthy, although it was obvious that if you actually owned either of them you would have to spend hours in the garage with a full list of repairs and maintenance to do.

Fanny’s bike was slightly lower in the seat than mine, in slightly better condition, but the handlebars had slipped in the triple clamps and were a few degrees out which is something I find incredibly irritating.

Fanny on the other hand didn’t seem to mind…. after all she had ridden across the whole of Africa on a KTM 990 Adventure that had “out of true” handle bars after she crashed her motorcycle spectacularly in the remote deserts of Namibia.

To start the the Baja required a contortionist effort to pull up a broken toggle above the carburetor and engage the “choke”. The bike simply would not start without doing so. With practice I got used to this, but it meant I started the day rolling around on the floor and getting my hands covered in oil and grime. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.

After a good nights rest we took a tut tut scooter taxi from Yasmine’s house all the way up to Negombo in the north where the bike shop was located. It was further than we thought and took a couple of hours, but it did give us a chance to look around and alerted us to the atrocious traffic conditions in and around Colombo, and indeed across Sri Lanka.

 

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I smashed the opaque yellow plastic obscuring the digital display… so I could see the speedo and odometer. It didn’t seem to distract from the overall run down look of the bike. The black bungee held my iPhone in place so I could follow the GPS. It worked “OK”

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Fanny collecting her bike from the shop.

 

We were told by the owner of the shop that we must both get Sri Lankan driving permits and that could take a few days.

Oh?

Or….. we could risk it and deal with the police as and when?

OK, we’ll do that.

We wanted to get on and I was confident I could handle the local rozzers, who seemed to be nice British Colonial types, like I used to be. How hard could it be?

I handed over a deposit and Fanny paid for for 13 days bike hire and we got going along a back lane route I set around the outskirts of Colombo back to Yasmine’s house on the east of the city, in a vain attempt to avoid the heavy traffic.

I was a bit nervous that Fanny had not been riding much over the last year or so, but she quickly got back into it and we both navigated and weaved through the appallingly bad traffic with no problems at all. In fact, the Honda Baja seemed perfect for Fanny.  I had to remind myself that this is a woman who has ridden around the world on every surface and in every condition Planet Earth has to offer.  Fanny is perfectly fine.

I had downloaded an iPhone App called “Sygic” and also the maps for Sri Lanka. This meant that unlike Google or Baidu Maps we could navigate without having to be online. Much like digital cameras put Kodak out of business, these new GPS apps are a free alternative to a Garmin or Tom Tom GPS.

I also bought a Sri Lankan 4G Sim card with internet access for 2 weeks at next to nothing and despite my reservations that there must be a catch, it worked perfectly for the whole trip and the signal coverage was pretty good. I was able to use the online maps as well and tether my phone to Fanny’s iPhone so she had internet access the whole time as well. Isn’t technology great?

The only issue was that the bracket I bought in China to hold the iPhone onto the handlebars?  It was still on the kitchen table in Hong Kong!

Like many occasions on our motorcycle adventures we came up with a work around and I used some bungees and strapped the iPhone onto the dash over the instrument panel that I couldn’t see anyway because the plastic was now opaque yellow.

Fortunately there was a USB power socket that I could power up the iPhone battery … otherwise it would only last a few hours with the bluetooth or GPS activated.  I did have to turn off the headlights as the electrics and battery were a bit dodgy.

Normally you cannot turn off motorcycle headlights, as its a safety feature, but we were in Asia and safety comes second to practicality and so the owners had fitted an on/off switch to save power.

Anyway, bikes and navigation sorted, ready to go.

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Fanny is a really good bike rider and the Honda 250 was perfect for her.

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Blue helmet, blue tinted glasses and headlights on full beam to “try” and scare the locals … all good.

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My Honda Baja had a particularly uncomfortable seat so I bought a seat cover!  A toilet seat cover to be accurate.  Nice.

 

During the trip I carried all the luggage and used my Givi water proof panniers that I had bought in the UK,  and our waterproof North Face day sacks. We were traveling light… just how we like it.  I think we could have gone even lighter, although not much. We wore our light weight motorcycle jackets for protection from sun and because they have a bit of armour inside. Perfect.

After about 50 kilometers in the saddle I came to the indisputable conclusion that my bike had the most uncomfortable seat I have ever sat on. Where was my black sheep skin cover when I needed it? Ah yes….on the kitchen table in Hong Kong with the iPhone bracket. Ta Ma De !

So, I made an emergency purchase (30 UK pence) of a rather lovely toilet seat cover, that whilst not being anywhere near as comfortable as a sheep skin, was Ho Gwoh Mo (better than nothing).

It did mean we had to stop quite often so I could get off the bike and walk about, or stand on the foot pegs for the blood to start flowing into my aging numb bum. Also, it was very hot and quite humid so we needed to stop and take a drink. I have learned from past experience that dehydration creeps up on you quickly on biking expeditions and so water discipline is vital, even if you are not thirsty.

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Bikes parked outside our room at Yasmine’s place in Colombo

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All ready to go …..but first more tea …. my passport says I’m British and it is Ceylon after all!

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Off we go…. a nice anti clockwise trip around southern Sri Lanka

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Not something you see everyday

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And coming to a grinding stop …. less than 50 kilometers into the trip to get carburetor jets cleaned by side of road. And a piece of wood wedged in to stop the plastic panniers melting on the exhaust. See we have done this before!!

 

 

The route out of Colombo and onto the coastal road to Galle, about 170 kilometers away, was like many we had done in third world cities where the locals drive badly and the police don’t care.

Slow and steady wins the race, keep away from nutters, animals and moving lumps of metal, and shout a lot. The shouting is actually pointless, but makes me feel better. Even fanny does it now in various languages.

Our host Yasmine had warned us that the driving could be interesting, and that the arch deacons of terrible driving were the buses.  My goodness, how right she was.

There were two types of bus… a blue one with a man hanging out the door waving his arms and shouting a lot, and a silver one with lots of chrome and lights … but without a man hanging out the door.

They are both awful, but the blue bus particularly so.

I don’t know what the Sinhalese or Tamil is for, ‘get out the friggin’ way… we’re coming through’, but I guess that was what the “hanging out man” was employed to scream at everyone as the bus continually cut everyone up.

It was difficult to get really road raged at Sri Lankan drivers whatever road genocide they seemed to be up to because they were so damned friendly and smiled all the time.

There was quite a lot of Indian style wobbly head, arms waving, and shouting things like ‘What for you kicking my dog calling him fuck off‘ … but in a very friendly and smiley way that immediately dampened any annoyance and made me laugh…even as they attempted to impale us on their front bumpers.

For Fanny?  Nothing unusual… just like a normal day riding in Shanghai. I think she was enjoying it!

About half way down the coastal road my bike stopped and I could see petrol pouring out of the carburetor and dripping straight onto the red hot engine. Holy shit?

After standing well back, scratching my chin and thinking aloud, ‘that’s not good’ over and over again a crowd gathered. After a general consultation with most of Sri Lanka in several languages I didn’t understand, it was opined that the jets were blocked.

We were told that for about 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (a quid or so) any street side mechanic, of which there seemed to be many, could fix it …and that’s what happened. Bike sorted…off we go again.

My bike was not a good specimen of motorcycle. It was 1990s purply blue in colour with those daft graphics they used in those days, and everything was in poor condition. The clutch, the brakes, the engine, the suspension, the bearings, the tyres, every cable, the bodywork, the pegs, the levers, controls, hand grips, ….. everything. I had to keep saying to myself, ‘its still going and its not mine’,  ‘its still going and in 10, 9, 8, etc… days I will never see it again’.

Fanny on the other hand seemed to really like her bike with its non perpendicular handlebars and bent levers.  ‘How’s your bike?’, I would ask her all the time.

‘Fine’, came back the answer every time.

As far as Fanny is concerned, she rarely gets upset by anything… all part of life’s rich tapestry is her mantra. If it goes… all is fine.

I did, however, have to rescue her a few times at traffic intersections when her bike stalled and she couldn’t get it started again.  These Hondas will only start in neutral, not as KTMs and most other bikes will do with the clutch engaged in any gear. The gears were so clunky and stiff to click up and down, and with no green neutral indicator working, it required some serious manual labour and bikers tradecraft to locate neutral and get going again.

The Baja engine is a single piston 250cc, has a simple carburetor,  the frame is quite big in size, and to be honest more than fast enough for everywhere we went to in Sri Lanka. Its just they were both in such a shabby state that I thought mine was going to break down all the time. It also sounded awful…just like a motorcycle about to break down… but it didn’t.

One of the reasons for the noise was that the drive chains were bone dry and hadn’t been oiled, ever.

We were explicitly told not to oil the chains, the reason given that they had ‘O’ rings that would get damaged by oil.  Of course, this was nonsense.

I was unable to tune out the dreadful noise my bike was making as its crunched, screeched  and scraped along and so as soon as I could I put both the bikes and ourselves out of our misery and doused both chains in oil.  Lots of it.

Better.

 

 

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I don’t think elephants or human females should have to wear body covers and masks.  A very bling burka nonetheless.

 

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Sri Lanka … a colourful surprise around every corner

 

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Demonstration ….  “Elephant lives matter”.

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A bit of gravel

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A quid to fix the carburetor and clean the jets

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The Baja is a great bike. Good engine. Some strange quirks, though. For instance the engine oil is poured into a filler in the bike frame near the handle bars… never seen that before.

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Arriving in the Old Fort at Galle on southern coast.

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Street dancing procession… very lively, colourful and loud!

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One of many temples we saw here and there.

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Fanny and her silver XR Baja

 

 

We arrived in Galle by late afternoon and rode around looking at the ancient walled fort, built by the Dutch many centuries ago.

When we got there it was packed with tourists, many from China who were doing the things Chinese seem to do everywhere. Posing for photographs in borrowed traditional clothing, doing ‘V’ signs (??) and repeatedly jumping in the air to get that “joyous jumping in the air” picture to put on Weibo (Chinese Facebook). One person does it… they all do it.

We thought of booking a place in Galle, but the few rooms we saw were a bit grim and expensive and so Fanny found a really nice hotel about 10 kilometers out of town that had a seafood restaurant serving the Sri Lankan specialty of chili mangrove crabs.

A very very happy Fanny indeed.

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Lots of churches

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Galle lighthouse

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Pretty streets and historic buildings in old Galle

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Exploring the walled fort

 

After Galle we headed along the south coast road to Dickwella. Not the greatest name I have ever heard for a place, but as it turned out it was a small coastal town with a beautiful beach in a secluded horseshoe bay. Fanny again did her research magic and booked us into a boutique hotel called “Salt”.

Here we idled about, swam in the sea, read books, Fanny had some body massages, we ambled about on the beach and along trails, ate every hour, and drank continuously.

The rooms at Salt were very tastefully designed with open to the elements bathrooms and semi open bedrooms, in the sense they only had three walls. Quite a few mosquitoes so the fan and mosquito net was really needed.  Sort of luxury camping.

On the top floor was an open plan lounge/bar that served very tasty meals and drinks by very attentive and friendly staff. Simple and stylish. Web link below.

http://www.salthousesrilanka.net/

I am not much of a beach person, nor is Fanny, but we can say this is one of the best beach locations we have ever been to and we will definitely go back for a short break in the future, provided that the commercial developers don’t ruin it.

We discovered the Indian 傻逼 who got me fired from my job in Hong Kong a decade or so ago was building a resort in Dickwella to add to his collection of Monopoly board hotels around the World. Would I like to send him a message, Fanny asked me?  No I friggin’ wouldn’t.

 

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Dickwella…. Horseshoe Bay

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Fanny starts her transition from a light skinned person to a very dark person within 48 hours. I on the other hand went from light pink with red spots to dark pink with red patches.

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For some bizarre reason … the dogs found me and followed me around for the whole stay. To Fanny’s amazement this always happens where ever we go…from China to Asia to Africa.  I had a pack of pugs follow me for 3 days across Sichuan and Yunnan once. Pugs!

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Warm sea, blue skies, the sound of breeze in palm trees, a book, a hammock, shade and beer….  Idling 101.

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Tea, fresh local fruit and buffalo curd… nice

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Breakfast looking at us

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A particularly gormless expression … That’s me .. not the dog.

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Ms Fang enjoying herself

 

 

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Yes… I have barely moved

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Like Thailand 30 years ago

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Tea anyone?

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We ran into a 3 meter snake on the road. I was jumping around  and screaming like a 3 year old girl as it slithered over my flipflops. The snake didn’t seem to care.

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Time to get going again after a relaxing beachy thing and head to Yala…. a large National Park in the south of Sri Lanka

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More elephants…

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South Coast

 

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‘That will be two bananas for guarding the bikes’

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Hello

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Wild coastline near Yala… reminds me of Overberg in South Africa where we have a house

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The pool at our place in Yala

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Going for a drive in Yala Nature Reserve… lots of elephants and a few leopards

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Even on the beach

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Packed his truck for the seaside

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Huts we lived in on beach near Yala

 

 

 

On the way to Yala National Park we ran into a police road block. As we approached a police officer noticed us and he raised his arm, and so thinking on my feet, or my numb bum more accurately, I employed Rupert’s police avoidance technique and waved enthusiastically back at him and smiled inanely.

As we passed the rather astounded and clearly flustered officer I allowed Fanny to pull up along side me and instructed her, ‘Don’t stop’ and we sped up somewhat as I plotted an escape along less obvious roads to Yala.  I never pay bribes.

We found a pretty swanky apartment right on the beach next to the main gate of the national park, again found by Fanny using online accommodation apps like Expedia and Air BnB. Always much cheaper to book online and you can check the reviews.

I did some investigation near the entrance of the game park and found some local boys who would give us a safari tour in a game viewer at a fraction of the cost being offered by the hotel.

Having been to Kafue, South Luangwa,  Chobe, Okavango Delta, Masai Mara, Etoshe, Kruger, Serengeti, Lake Charla, Ngorogoro Crater, Kilimajaro, etc… we were prepared to be a bit underwhelmed, but to our delight the park was really good.

Yala is mainly famous for leopards and Asian elephants. Alas,  we didn’t get close enough to see any leopards, but there were lots of elephants that for some reason in my mind I thought would be more even tempered than their African cousins.

Much to my absolute delight, and I have to say one of the funniest things I have ever seen, we spotted an elephant ambling along on a beautiful beach. This was too much of a photo opportunity to miss and a bus load of Fujian and Zhejiang peasants (Fanny assured me they were from their appearance and accents) rushed up to the elephant and started snapping away and making a lot of noise.

The elephant clearly took exception to these ivory and rhino horn smuggling 傻逼 and let out a roar that would put its African cousins to shame. It then started chasing after the Chinese whose little legs couldn’t move quick enough in the sand.

Cameras and selfie sticks went flying as they ran away in panic to their bus. The local tour guides rushed into action to shoo the elephant away as I was wiping tears from my eyes. This is too good. I couldn’t help myself as I told one group of thuggish looking Fujian “xiang ba lao” dog eaters that it was karma for all the environmental plunder and ivory smuggling they inflicted on the planet.

They looked absolutely crest-fallen…. not least for being laughed at by a Chinese speaking European.

Brilliant…

The safari got even better as the sun started to fade and we saw other animals emerge from the bush and many beautiful indigenous birds. What could be better…. Chinese being chased by elephants and seeing a beautiful green Sri Lankan Bee-eater swooping the skies catching,  bees, I guess.

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Yala beach house

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Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) , perched on twig in forest, Yala West National Park, Sri Lanka

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Visit by a monitor lizard while we were having lunch

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oink oink

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Bit of lunch and time to move on to the mountains

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One of many waterfalls we see as we climb up to over 2000 meters into the central mountains

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Stopping off for coffee in a place called Ella in the hills. It was full of the hippy traveling types that you always encounter in certain parts of Asia. Lots of banana pancakes, lardy pretend effnic food, body piercings, tattoos, Bob Marley on the stereo and more baggy bright hippy uniforms than you can shake a stick at. Not my cup of tea.  Nor fanny’s … so we move on!

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Funny Fanny

 

 

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Not a bad view …Ramboda

 

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View from our hotel room window in Ramboda

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Looks like the Lake District in England.. or Wales perhaps. It is raining after all.

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Long hike up the hill in the rain to the Mackwood tea plantations

 

 

The ride from the hot sunny south coast of Sri Lanka to the cool misty mountainous interior couldn’t have been more dramatic. Within a few hours we rode up nearly 3000 meters, and the temperature dropped from 35 degrees to about 14 degrees….and it started raining. All in 200 kilometers. Some of the time in thick cloud as we rode up and down the twisty roads surrounded by lush green tea plantations.

We stayed at a hotel in Ramboda perched on the hillside with spectacular views of waterfalls and valleys.

The food in the hotel was the usual tourist buffet fodder and so we explored the local villages and ate authentic local dhal, roti, pol sambol, rice noodles, veggies and curries. As usual we had to persuade the waiters and shop owners that we wanted the real deal, not the tourist slop. ‘Are you sure?’, they would always ask. ‘Absolutely… don’t spare the chili and spice and leave the heads on’.

One of our greatest joys traveling around the world is eating local authentic food and its one of the reasons I would struggle living back in Blighty again. I know I always make a fuss about western food being so bad, but with rare exceptions it usually is. The vast majority of my countrymen treat mealtimes like some unpleasant chore and feel guilty for being hungry. They make one concession to healthy eating… the salad.

By contrast, eating in Asia is a joyous occasion and Asians treat food very seriously. With the exception of the Philippines (yes, you know its true), food across the whole of the Asia Pacific is exciting and delicious. I have tried to educate my western friends and relatives about the merits of authentic Asian cuisine but they usually respond with exaggerated theatrics, glaring accusingly at their huang hua yu and yelling, ‘Its looking at me’, or  ‘I ate a chili –I can’t breathe’.

This all said, I would like to point out to my sister Amanda, and her daughter Sally, that my disdain for western food does not apply to cake…. or pudding.  Heaven forbid.

We explored the local tea plantations and at one place called Mackwood we saw how the tea was made and sampled a few cups of rosie leaf, with chocolate cake. There was a flow diagram on the wall of the factory that explained the eight stages of tea production and I am almost sure its the same chart Ms Hingorani, my school teacher at the Holy Rosary Primary School, used in a lesson about tea manufacture some 45 years ago. Maybe there are somethings that never need to change.

We had taken a tut tut scooter taxi up the mountain as it was a fair hike and raining hard, but on the way back we decided to spend the whole afternoon hiking 15 kms back to the hotel through the tea plantations and alongside the waterfalls. Very interesting.

The following day we decided to ride to Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka and have a look  at the temples and Buddhist relics and then ride along the country lanes back to Colombo. Our advise to anyone wanting to do a motorcycle ride in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else for that matter, is to set the route to all the “B” roads or less. This can be done on some GPS navigation programs in the route menu, but its better to plan the route ahead by setting way-points to avoid congested and hectic main roads. You see more and its much more enjoyable.

The bikes were still ticking along OK, although no more comfortable, but they had done the job and so far nothing had crashed into us, despite a few close shaves.  As we took a break I asked Fanny what she wanted to do for the next few days. She said she wanted to return the bikes and go back to Yasmine’s house and relax.

Wow… just what I wanted to do too.

We telephoned Yasmine and she had a couple from Canada in the guest house we had stayed in previously, but she said we could stay in a spare room in the main house…a beautiful room like the rest of her house. Very stylish and tasteful.

The bike shop we hired the Hondas from were less than accommodating and said, ‘a contract is a contract’,  and they would not return the balance of the rental. Really?  Yes, really.  After so many years I should have realized what these types are like. Always friendly when taking your money… not so much if you ask for it back.  Suan le ba?

So, the rest of the few days we had in Sri Lanka we relaxed in the peaceful gardens of Yasmine’s home and explored around Colombo, eating chili crabs and mooching around the shops and back streets.

Sri Lanka is a great place. Very friendly people, some absolute gems of places to see, tropical sunny weather, lots of elephants, cheap and excellent food.

Would we do it on a motorbike again? Perhaps not. But thanks to the British Empire and its talented Victorian engineers if we ever came back to Sri Lanka we will get around like the locals…..  by train.

 

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Nice view from the bog.

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Goodbye Bajas… you made it…just

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My riding partner

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Back at Yasmines with Kumari, our excellent chef. Thanks Kumari.

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Oh go on… another meal!

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Bit of warm rain from the monsoon that was affecting the west of Sri Lanka and India

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I have no idea what Fanny is doing. Sitting on a throne?

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Exploring Colombo

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Buying tea

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Colombo … will not look the same in 5 years for sure.

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Wandering around Colombo

 

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Sundowner in the sky lounge of a hotel in Colombo

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Our last sunset in Sri Lanka … for now

 

 

 

Next Chapter ….. Colorado and Utah BDR on a Honda Africa Twin

 

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – 西藏 Tibet

When we rode through Tibet (西藏) in September 2012, the People’s Republic of China was restricting access to Chinese citizens only. The only exception being that a “Tibet Travel Permit” might be granted to a foreign tour group, provided they all come from the same country, that their itinerary is organized and strictly supervised by an approved Chinese travel agency and they are accompanied by a guide at all times.

All very bureaucratic, restrictive and undoubtedly expensive.

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

So, how could we ride into Tibet on motorcycles? For Fanny? No problem. Unlike the rest of the world she can move freely about China with her Chinese travel document, bian fang zheng ( 边防证)。 As for me?  I could exploit a very slim loop hole in the current policy as I am a permanent Hong Kong resident and hold a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Identity card. The reality is of course that the Chinese consider anyone, not ethnically Chinese, a “foreigner” and so using my Hong Kong ID holder status was at very best, “tenuous” and would mean I would have to be a bit lucky and apply whatever charm and wit I could muster to pass through the multitude of road blocks and security check points to get from one side of Tibet to the other.

We had already ridden about 6,000 kilometers from eastern China through the central and southern provinces on our Chinese made CF Moto 650 TR motorcycles and now we were entering the truly spectacular province of Tibet from the equally impressive province of Yunnan. It is a vast region on the far west of the PRC that averages 4,900 meters in altitude and shares the highest point on Earth,  Mount Everest  ( 珠穆朗玛峰), with the Kingdom of Nepal.

Video at https://youtu.be/jZK3Jv1g9ng

Tibet

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The reason why very strict travel restrictions were in place is that this so called “autonomous region” of China is in dispute and many of the indigenous Tibetan people want independence and greater freedoms. However, China keeps a vice like grip on the territory. China increasingly calls the shots in the new world order and pretty much does what it likes.

It is fiercely patriotic and defensive about what it calls domestic issues and sovereignty issues concerning Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet), Taiwan, Diao Yu Dao and Xi Sha Qun Dao are not for discussion… especially by foreigners. The current situation and history of Tibet is extremely complex and its well worth actually visiting and studying its long and complicated history before forming any opinions ( http://www.tibet.org,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibet  or http://www.dismalworld.com/disputes/tibet.php).

Despite the geographical splendour, fascinating culture, friendly people and some of the best adventure motorcycling I have ever experienced, our ride through Tibet was one of mixed feelings. Relatively speaking, I would probably have felt more at ease had I ridden through Vichy France in 1943. It was without doubt one of the most thought provoking places I have ever been to.

Like many parts of China access by foreigners to many of the historical sites or places of natural beauty is highly restrictive or unreasonably expensive. I wonder what Chinese visitors to the UK would say if the British authorities banned them from visiting Scotland or Wales, or charged them twenty to thirty times more than local people to visit tourist sites and attractions. I think they would protest loudly that its 不公平 (unfair).

 

Leaving Yunnan and climbing up thousands of meters into Tibet

A bit muddy and rocky in places … no real problem though. Our bikes are not true adventure enduros like our KTMs, but these CF Moto 650s are very decent long distant tourers and seemed fine with everything that we came across.

Steep drops and spectacular views.

3,000 – 4,000 meters towards Mang Kang. We have started taking Chinese medicine called ” hong jing tian” for altitude sickness.

A bit like Ethiopia … we shared the road with many creatures… but none as dangerous as “Fujian peasant”  in his Toyota 4×4 with Shanghai racing circuit diagram on the back window, a years supply of instant noodles on the back seat and Mrs Fujian constantly throwing rubbish out the windows into the Tibetan lakes and streams. They did it all the time.

There were many cyclists on the Kunming to Lhasa road. An amazing feat and respect to them. When (and if) they complete the arduous ride and get to Lhasa they usually ship the bikes back by the very efficient Chinese postal services or Kuai Di. We saw very few bikes going the other way, and virtually no bicycles beyond Lhasa. I think we saw a couple of local small cc motorcycles and absolutely no other foreigners beyond the famous tourist attractions in Lhasa where they were being shepherded from site to site like sheep.

The CF Moto 650 TR bikes have been awesome… a big surprise. I would use them again if I did the same ride, or perhaps the Royal Enfield …. after all it is the Himalayas. 

In eastern Tibet the road goes up and down between 3,000 meters to 4,000 meters  – many times.  The roads are often carved into the side of very steep slopes and sometimes the road has completely or partially collapsed or has debris strewn over from landslides. It was a bit nerve wrecking on our bikes and I cannot imagine driving one of the trucks with the wheels hanging over the side. We did see some unlucky ones that had gone over the side.

Fanny cautiously looking over the edge of the road. Much more precarious than the impression given by the photograph.

The roads wind up and down for hundreds of kilometers. Some have dozens and dozens of hairpin bends and make European switchbacks look positively tame. I’d like to see the Top Gear guys try this…

We rode through massive pine forests around the 3,000 meter mark for hundreds of kilometers. So much for the deforestation debate. Seems  Chinese forestry is as advanced as that in Bavaria or Canada.

A typical Tibetan farmhouse in the eastern side of the province.

Our first 5,000 meter pass… many to come. The last time I was at 5,000 meters was on the summit of Mount Kenya and I was out of breathe then too.

Taking refuge in a local shop during a flash storm. The storm charged through the valley with lightening and thunder crashing around us and then disappeared as quickly as it came. We became all too aware how quickly the weather could change in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.

I thought we had it bad going to school by Stevenson Rocket… these kids got dropped off to school soaking wet in an open tractor trailer

Yaks milk tea …. takes a little getting used to. Not sure what smelt more lively.. my wet sheep skin seat cover or the tea.

I told Fanny it would make her eyes water. 

Our kind host… but no more yaks milk tea for now … thanks

Storm rapidly approaching down the valley. Like something out of the film “The Mummy”. Within minutes we were in the middle of a storm with lightening and thunder crashing around us. I have developed a particular fear of lightening having narrowly escaped being zapped in the Nubian desert whilst riding my motorcycle across Namibia. Here high up in the mountains I felt particularly exposed again.

Being probably one of few foreigners in Tibet at the time and stretching the rules somewhat, Fanny told me to cover up as I walked about the first sizable town we rode into, called Mang Kang. As I walked about in my masterful disguise people would greet me and say, “Hello foreigner”  and I would say “Ni hao” in reply. I’ve seen the film, “The Great Escape” and know how Donald Pleasence got caught out…

Gazing out of our hotel room at yaks wandering through the town center. As we got deeper into Tibet Fanny became more anxious that I should conceal myself. I was the only foreigner in this town, and indeed only saw other foreigners when we got to the capital, Lhasa. Even then they were in a tour group and being herded about under strict supervision. Luckily most of the time I was in riding gear with a crash helmet and riding a Chinese registered motorcycle … with a Chinese woman.

Back on the road having managed to get through the first real challenge at a security check point on the exit from Mang Kang. I think it was the “Hong Kong Pacific Place Cinema Movie Magic discount card” that got me though or my ”警察兄弟“ patter… probably the latter.

Entering town called 左贡。。。Tamade…. this time there were 特警, 警察, 军人 at the security post. Until this point we had ridden around them, under the barriers and confidently BS’d and smiled through the previous security check points.  This time they were not impressed with my selection of Hong Kong discount cards and so we were detained. Two hours later after boring the pants off them they let us go… with a proviso that I shut up.

Like much of our expedition, the bikes always got lots of attention, as did Fanny。

Whilst pondering whether we will run into another road block we saw some Lamas sitting by the side of a river in a very peaceful and idyllic location. We asked if we could camp with them and they said kindly said yes… and so started a lovely two day chapter of our adventure where we forged some wonderful friendships.

We were putting up our little expedition tent, but the Lamas gave us this much more impressive one to use.

Fanny wrapped up in her North Face expedition sleeping bag together with our bikes inside Lamas’ tent. We were at 4,400 meters and it was bitterly cold during the night and I discovered that drinking beer at altitude gives you the mother of all headaches. Lesson learned, and clearly forgotten as later on in central Tibet at 4,900 meters we drank a bottle of champagne next to Sky Lake (Nam Tso) to celebrate.  So!!!!   Word to the wise… don’t drink alcohol at altitude. In fact, just drink the local tea. The salty sweet earthy tasting yaks milk brew found everywhere does help with altitude sickness, as did the Chinese medicine we were taking.

Our idyllic camp site with the Lamas

Giving one of the Lamas (Si Ba) a ride up to the temple higher up the mountain so he could charge his mobile phone… somethings are the same where ever you live.

A visit to the Lamas’ temple with our friend Si Ba.

Fanny and I … still laughing after 18 months on the road together

Fanny interfering with the cooking plans….

We moved to our own tent so the Lamas could prepare for the special visit of 小活佛 (little living Buddha) from Lhasa. During the night we could hear the Lamas chanting and playing drums, cymbals, trumpets and the eerie repetitive low bass of the Lama long horn… As they say, you have to actually be there to truly experience the ambiance and spirituality. We were very privileged and this bit of our trip will always bring back fond memories.

The next day we were invited to join the festivities. Unlike the monks I lived with in wu wei si in Dali, Yunnan, these Tibetan lamas are not vegetarian. They do eat meat and yaks meat, yaks butter, yaks fermented cheese, and yaks yogurt seemed to be staple foods, along with fresh vegetables from the local area. I am eating for the first time yaks yogurt and rice…. a sort of variation on the famous British rice pudding. The taste is somewhat challenging, as is eating it with chop sticks.

Little Living Buddha … 小活佛。 A very shy boy who bears a striking resemblance to another shy boy I know when he was the same age. Our friend Si Ba is one of the Lamas who looked after him and ensures he receives the correct education and upbringing.

We were constantly reminded of the Chinese influence in Tibet by the new middle class Chinese exploring the mountainous province in their Hi-Tech 4x4s, the young cyclists performing the Kunming to Lhasa right of passage, and more acutely by the extremely long military supply convoys that sometimes consisted of a hundred army trucks heading back and forth to Lhasa. These convoys are often used in propaganda films as they evoke images and impressions of “Long March” heroics.

A picture paints a thousand words

I politely declined to participate in the Lama tug of war games for obvious reasons.  Right next to the temple (sen above) the Chinese authorities are building a new four story concrete police station with all the architectural splendour and creativity used in every second and third tier cities we saw across China… i.e. zero.  A slightly disturbing sight to my mind, but the explanation given by the omnipresent plain clothes “protector” person was that for the first time in centuries the temple was being burgled and so a police presence was needed. Really? I doubt it.

 Happy peaceful people.

The bikes always popular with everyone.

Little Living Buddha (小活佛) has a look at our bikes with the other Lamas. 

Lounging about after lunch by the river. This young fellow was a real character. His only English was “Let’s Goooo!” which he used often and between the many chores he was given he would spend time with us.  Little living Buddha is seated in the background. The contrast between the lives of both “Lama” boys who were about the same age was immense.

Eventually we had to go and all the Lamas came out to bid us farewell. It was a bit tearful as I think Fanny had made a real impression and they seemed extremely fond of her. Fanny, is extremely smart, gregarious and easy to get on with whether you are from the east or West. She is a true ambassador for all that is good about China and should be in their diplomatic service.

As we rode along the beautiful river path towards the main road that will take us to Lhasa, two hoopoe birds flew alongside us with their crests extended as the Lama’s waved goodbye…. if that isn’t spiritual I don’t know what is…..

Riding along generally good tar roads, with occasional potholes, and stretches of gravel, mud or water flowing from streams across gullies. Biggest hazard is other drivers. This guy in front is on pilgrimage to Da Zhao Temple, Lhasa and every few steps lies prostrate towards direction of Lhasa. Some of these pilgrimages can take years and occasionally people die.

Ran Wu …. Tibetan side of town

The Chinese side of Ran Wu …. nearly every small village and town in Tibet has a Chinese garrison regardless of how pristine or historically relevant the place may be. There are thousands of uniformed and plain clothed security police, army and often huge barracks for the military supplies conveys. Invariably ugly, intrusive and looking like an unfinished construction site. No National Trust in Tibet, nor any architects apparently. Rubbish and sewage strewn everywhere. Nearly every Chinese person we saw just throws rubbish straight into the lakes and streams or throws them out the windows of their vehicles onto the hillside. Everything is slovenly…..and with no respect for the environment, nor with any real respect for the indigenous people. The Chinese government needs to start acting responsibly.  

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Ran Wu.. with beautiful lake, although waters have receded for many reasons, including climate change and hydroelectric projects upstream.

There is definitely a live goat at the bottom of this Tibetan building, but I am not sure about the other one up in the rafters!

The geography of Tibet is always spectacular, fresh and BIG. Its pleasing that it will be there long after man has gone.

I am reliably informed by a Hong Kong friend, Franki  that these are Char Char stones. If anyone knows anymore about what they are and for please leave comment.

Under ever nook and Fanny are tiles carved with Tibetan prayers.

Its as heavy as a BMW or Triumph, but handles better off road

One of the photos that was sent to us by the travelers we met en route. Their cameras often better than ours.

Riding towards Lhasa high up on Tibetan Plateau… Beautiful lakes and forests.

We did the back of the RMB 20 note in Guilin, now the back of the RMB 50 note in Lhasa.

Riding about in Lhasa

Be a good citizen and make sure you are flying a crispy new red flag.

The most sacred “Da Zhao” Temple in Lhasa

Our Lama friend Si Ba outside the holiest temple in Tibet, “Da Zhao” in Lhasa.

Lhasa back streets

The Tibetan’s have a very different language, customs, appearance and way of life to that of the occupying Han Chinese.

Some beautiful alleyways and courtyards in Lhasa.

In addition to road blocks and security posts, garrisons and army barracks in every town and village in Tibet, there are police checkpoints on every street corner in Lhasa and Tibetans, particularly Buddhist lamas, are constantly stopped and searched. Whilst spending an afternoon with our friend Si Ba, I noticed he was constantly stopped and frisked by Chinese authorities.

Keeping a close eye on the “lao wai” who didn’t appear to be in a supervised tour group.  Some of them friendly enough young lads doing their job, but….

This yak seems to be missing some major body parts

Local ladies walking through the markets and praying.

Lots of people walking clockwise around the “Da Zhao” Temple with prayer beads and prayer wheels.

Tibetan streets, Chinese flags and skyline dominated by the beautiful mountains that surround Lhasa.

The “Bu Da La Gong” can be seen where ever you are in Lhasa.

Fanny at “Da Zhao” Temple.

Lhasa

I lost my trainers and so I klomped about Lhasa in my riding boots… which got lots of admiring looks and comments from the local Tibetans.

Tibetans are very devoted Buddhists and can be seen praying at most times of the day. Many spend years on pilgrimage to Lhasa.

Exploring Lhasa with Fanny

Just to remind everyone whose in charge.

Goose-stepping down the main road. Always a crowd pleaser.

Who are you looking at?

Having yaks milk tea and walnuts in a local tea-house with our friend Si Ba.

Many of the Tibetans look very much the Cow Boys and Girls that they are.

Handsome people.

Si Ba and Fanny in the market buying incense for the temple.

An interesting picture on many levels.

These guys offered me their prayer beads to hold… so I did.

Si Ba getting stopped and searched again, and again, and again. I asked him how he puts up with it and he replied ” mei ban fa”.. (no worries)

The tank of Fanny’s bike sprung a leak because a rubber supporting mount was missing and after 6,000 kilometers “on road” and “off road” it vibrated a crack in the attachment. A bit dangerous,  especially as self immolation is illegal in Tibet. Therefore we had to ride with no more than 30% of fuel in the tank at all times which meant siphoning fuel from my tank for several hundred kilometers until we got a new tank in Lhasa sent from Hangzhou. All part of the testing program, I guess.

And so we set off from our hostel in Lhasa…

We continued with the totally ridiculous practice of having to fill the bikes with petrol in open watering cans, kettles and tea pots. Unsafe, annoying and a hassle that invariably resulted in our petrol tanks being not full enough, or with petrol left over in the tea pots that we would donate to a fellow biker. Invariably we got petrol over everyone and everything as we trudged back and forth from the pumps.  The logic was that nearly all motorcycles in China are peasant owned small engined machines that are neither safe nor well maintained and so prone to leak or even explode. The local authorities, therefore, stipulate that motorcycles and their cigarette smoking owners be kept a safe distance from the petrol pumps.  In most of China, and particularly the wild west, modern large engine motorcycles found elsewhere in the world are unheard of … and so given that they have two wheels are subjected to the same logic…. just like their ban on Chinese highways. I am surprised there isn’t a Chinese Chengyu (idiom) “Four wheels good… two wheels bad”.

Back riding with the big peaks again.

Beautiful roads weaving between peaks and rivers high up on the Tibet-Qinghai  Plateau.

Mount Everest (珠穆朗玛峰)… which I never saw because the authorities would not let me ride the 80 kilometers or so from Tingri to Base Camp. Despite having Hong Kong papers and documentation I was deemed by my fellow human beings to be the wrong race to look at the tallest mountain on our shared planet.   Fanny did all she could to help and support me but it was no good …. I guess we’ll see it from Nepal one day.

The sacred Sky Lake (Nam Tso) with 7,000 meter peaks in background.

Camping at Nam Tso.

Camping next to sacred Nam Tso Lake at 4,900 meters. The mountain in background is Yan Qing Tang Gu La  at 7,800 meters. There is a local saying that when you are here you never think of home.

Our remote campsite at Nam Tso

There were lots of semi wild, huge and woolly Tibetan dogs. During the night the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees and so the dogs slept right outside our tents pressed up against us… keeping us both a bit warmer.

A lot of Yaks … very likable creatures

Tibetan Antelope … quite rare ( near border with Qinghai)

Beijing to Lhasa Railway… at this point in north Tibet around 5,000 meters. An amazing bit of engineering on the perma-frost plateau

Hundreds of kilometers of good roads in north Tibet

Geographically, Tibet is stunning.

North Tibet…. remote, big, beautiful

We had snow, rain, brilliant sunshine, fog, and a mini tornado all in one day

Fanny cruising along at 5,000 meters

At border of Tibet and Qinghai. Bit cold and pleased I invested in the bar mitts. Fanny thought they looked daft but changed her mind in the snow and cold.

The last 5,000 meter plus pass before crossing into Qinghai.

Amazing skies, clean air, big spaces and long roads.

5,300 meters … high altitude lakes, snow peaks, and permafrost plateaus… quite stunning.

Chapter 10 – Egypt – (Part 2)

As we were now stuck in Egypt we thought we should make the most of it and see the country and take in its amazing culture and history. To do that we were going to have to extend our visas and also the permits for our South African registered KTM motorcycles, and that meant we needed to go to the capital, Cairo.

Riding a motorcycle into Cairo isn’t for the faint hearted. As we exited the Suez canal tunnel and found our way onto the correct highway into Cairo the peace of the desert finished and road madness began and got steadily worse until we were grid locked in the heart of a city with perhaps the worst driving on the planet.

All the signs were in Arabic and despite memorizing the hieroglyphs for a few words like Cairo, Suez, Alexandria, Port Said, entrance, exit, etc…  I was still having some problems making sure we were heading in the right direction. For a reason I was only to discover much later in our expedition, the GPS was showing the most basic of details in north Africa and was for the large part no more than a compass with a few out of date roads. In fact the Garmin Zumo GPS became more and more erratic and dangerous, to the extent that sending one up the wrong way of a Cairo street is pretty damned dangerous.

Again, we would get honked at, shouted at, waved at, and people would start animated and persistent conversations with us out of the windows of their vehicles that we could not hear in our helmets. Egyptian drivers might not think its important to look where they are going but my experience of motorcycling is that its a very good idea. The millimeter collision avoidance style of  driving could almost be described as skillful, but it would scare the hell out of me and so when we did arrive in Cairo we both decided to leave the bikes at the hotel and walk for most of the time. Occasionally we took a taxi which is an experience most people should also consider leaving off their “things to do before I die” bucket list, unless of course its the very last item on such a list.

We decided to head to the Zamalek area, an island in the Nile in the center of the city, where we heard there was a decent backpackers hostel called the Mayfair (http://www.mayfaircairo.com/). After riding along every single street in Zamalek, twice, sometimes three times, we found the hostel four hours later and then I had a pointless argument with their management and security guard about where to park our motorcycles. In the end I relented and moved our bikes all of three meters right into the middle of the footpath to where they said we should park them. Why?

I never found out, there was no given or obviously logical explanation for placing the bikes in the center of the footpath causing what looked like an obstruction. However, the night guard of the hotel,  at least a hundred years old, parked his chair under a tree right next to the motorcycles and waved his stick at anyone who dared to look at them.

We got to know many of the local people and soon after everyone in the immediate vicinity of the hotel got to know the bikers who had ridden up from South Africa and greeted us warmly whenever we walked up and down the street.

The motorcycles stayed in the center of the pavement unharmed for five days among huge crowds of pedestrians and protesters, not 50 meters from the Libyan embassy where celebrations started the day we arrived as Kadaffi had just been captured and summarily executed. The crowds were quite big and the noise they made was loud and unrelenting. We were after all right in the middle of the Egyptian “Spring” Revolution.  History was being made right around us.

 

Me and my bike at the pyramids in Giza, Cairo.

Me and my bike at the pyramids in Giza, Cairo.

The natural and the unnatural.

Hope it doesn’t roll off

Bikes squeezed into a space in Cairo

Bikes squeezed into a space in Cairo outside the Harley Davidson show room

I know him... lives in Hong Kong

I know him… lives in Hong Kong

 

Fanny making friends as usual

Fanny making friends as usual

 

Tahrir Square with the building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side

Tahrir Square with the government building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side of the photo.

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Zamalek and Old Cairo reminded both Fanny and I of Shanghai–a lot.  Splendid British colonial architecture that had either been restored by the new elite into hotels, clubs and apartments, or more often than not, allowed to decay and left to deteriorate.  By far the nicest places were the embassies and consular homes in the diplomatic quarter. Many of the building had classic Art Deco style lobbies staircases, windows and verandas, including the Mayfair hostel we lived in. Many of these large houses had beautiful gardens right in the middle of prime real estate. All very impressive, but many had seen much better days.

Perhaps the most ostentatious and vulgar symbol of the huge gap between the “haves” and “have nots” was a golf course right in the middle of Zamalek. At first I assumed it was a public park, but as we tried to go in we were herded away by dozens of white clad security guards. Later, I peered through the fence into a huge expanse of privately manicured grass that had a total of two people wandering around wearing ridiculous golfing clothes and pulling along their golf bats in shopping trolley things. Perhaps in this post Mubarek era it will be turned into a public park that more people can enjoy? It seemed there were many places that were private in Zamalek and off limits to riff raff like us.

The main reason to be in Cairo was not to allow Fanny to eat at every street-side store, although she tried, but to keep up efforts to get to Europe and extend our visas and motorcycle permits. We also wanted to see the pyramids and the Egyptian museum, both very much highlights of our trip to Cairo.

The pyramids in Giza really are on the edge of the city and its quite an astonishing surprise to see them looming up above the buildings and houses of Cairo as you approach them from the city center about 10 kilometers away. Some people literally have them as their next door neighbours. As we approached the pyramids on my motorcycle I had to be careful not to stare at them too long and get distracted from the important task at hand of proactive impact avoidance.

When we arrived there were some security people manning various gates and so I parked up my bike next to the security gate and Fanny and I went in and wandered around. The pyramids are quite the most amazing human constructions I have ever seen. Firstly, they are absolutely huge, the largest being made up of 2.3 million limestone blocks and nearly 500 feet high, and secondly they are some of the only structures that have survived over four thousands years of modern human history. You are mesmerized just looking up at them. Also, like much of ancient Egyptian antiquity they are extremely accessible and I was surprised that we were allowed to climb and scramble over them.

Unlike more famous motorcycle adventurers who have visited the pyramids we did not go inside them. There was a fee for doing so for a start and both Fanny and I suffer from claustrophobia. I was of course interested to know what was inside these gargantuan tombs, but not so much that I would ever venture inside and so we spent the morning hiking around the two huge pyramids, one medium sized one and three small ones.  We could also see the Sphinx from a distance but it was much closer to the built up part of Giza and so we decided we would go back to our motorcycle and ride over to it for a better look.

I was surprised to see that the Sphinx was not only much smaller than I expected, but also very badly eroded and it seemed to be crumbling away. Our attempts to ride up to it on my bike were thwarted by being stopped and detained briefly by the police. We were actually very close to being arrested but managed to talk our way out as a crowd of increasingly agitated officials started to gather around us. All of a sudden I caught a glimpse of a very angry and obese senior police officer waddling towards us waving his fist, shouting and swearing and so we decided that was our cue to escape. I slide the bike around 180 degrees on the soft sand to a roar of Akropovik exhausts causing the crowd to rear backwards and in a cloud of dust powered our way back through the gates with Fanny hanging on for dear life.  It was a close shave as it would have been an excuse for the authorities to confiscate our motorcycles and no doubt squeeze some cash out of us. Thank heaven for donuts.

Dash in and ride around the pyramids .. or not? decisions decisions

Dash in and ride around the pyramids .. or not? decisions decisions

Just gone out for a ride on the bikes... What did you see?  Oh just Table Mountain,  The Great migration in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, Zanzibar, the Big 5, Mount Kilimanjaro, largest sand dunes in world, Okavango Delta, Mount Sinai and Moses, Red Sea, Sahara, Nubian, Namib deserts.... and .. oh yes the Great pyramids at Giza..

“Just gone out for a ride on the bikes…  Table Mountain, The Great Migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara, exotic Zanzibar, the “Big Five” animals, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Mont Blanc, Mount Everest, the largest sand dunes in world in Sossusvlei, the Okavango Delta, remote African tribes in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization, the great lakes of Africa, Great Wall of China, Rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Mount Sinai and Moses, The Red Sea, The Nile, the Sahara, Nubian, Kalahari, Namib and Gobi deserts, the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, the Himalayas, lived with Tibetan lamas, saw the source of the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers, ruins of Pompei, the Colosseum,  Stonehenge, the Arab Spring uprisings, …. and .. oh yes the Great Pyramids at Giza.

Chased away by police

Riding around the car park at Giza pyramids

Uck the Police?

Walk like an Egyptian with a crash helmet.

Walk like an Egyptian.

Don't climb on the wonder of the world... doooh!

Don’t climb on the wonder of the world… doooh! You’ll notice I didn’t climb very high up…

Right, English slave ... I want that stone put at the very top.

Come on, English slave … there’s one missing at the very top.

Fanny wondering what sort of tourist site this is without any food.

Fanny wondering what sort of tourist site this is without any food stalls. Must have been at least half an hour since she ate something.

Look Fanny ... mini pyramids

An idiot abroad.

我饿死了

我饿死了 .

In Egypt, Fanny is a popular name ...

In Egypt, “Fanny” is a popular name … ( and doesn’t mean a bottom or another body part)

An aerial picture of the pyramids showing how close they actually are to the urban area.

An aerial picture of the pyramids showing how close they actually are to the urban area.

The Sphinx .. much smaller and eroded than I expected.

The Sphinx .. much smaller and much more eroded than I expected.

Having been thrown out by the police

Having been thrown out of the Sphinx enclosure by the police I find another place to try and take a picture.

Can I stop here and take a picture?  No?  OK I'll move on..

Can I stop here and take a picture? No? OK I’ll move on then.

Iconic

Motorcycling in Egypt

Extended visas .. good for another month or so. Now we have to go to the airport to get customs to extend the motorcycle import permits and endorse the carne de passage

Extended visas .. good for another month or so. Now we have to go to the airport to get customs to extend the motorcycle import permits and endorse the carne de passage and we are done.

Fanny wandering around Cairo

Fanny and I wandering around Cairo

I actually think Cairo has some wonderful architecture .. not just the pyramids Looks very much like the British and French Concession areas in Shanghai in places… I guess due to the British colonial influence.

P1040149

Egyptian museum

Egyptian museum

Fanny outside the Egyptian museum

Fanny outside the Egyptian museum with a burnt out building from the riots in the background.

Egyptian Museum

Inside the Egyptian Museum.. quite possibly one of the best I have been to. Later we also went to the British Museum in London which was also excellent. However, the joy of the Egyptian museum is everything is very accessible. You can get right up and touch the exhibits.

Tutkankhamun mask very accessible inside the museum

The magnificent Tutankhamen mask. I have actually seen it before when it was exhibited in London many years ago. But on that occasion it was a long way away and surrounded by guards, fences and huge crowds. Here in its home in Cairo you can get very close and inspect the workmanship and see how it was made.

Roundabout statue

Roundabout statues..

Egypt meets England

Egypt meets England

Interesting architecture

Interesting architecture, but sadly some of it falling into disrepair like this one.

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To get our visas extended we had to go to the huge and chaotic immigration building in Tahrir Square right in the middle of the city. We had been told by many people not to walk there, and in particular to avoid going passed the central television station building, and so we ignored them all and that is exactly where we went.

We walked across the bridge from Zamalek over the Nile and as we got closer to Tahrir Square we saw that the streets were lined with hundreds of black clad tactical police officers and soldiers who were guarding the damaged TV headquarters that had previously been the focal point for protesters during the early stages of the revolution. Across the street were thousand of people, some of them presumably protesters and some just people going about their normal business. So we walked between the two lines waving and smiling and everyone waved back at us and shouted “Welcome to Egypt”

For the police and army, I supposed, any distraction from their boring duties was welcome and they engaged in light hearted banter with Fanny and myself as we walked by. Fanny was as usual eating local street food and they were asking if she liked it and were delighted when she gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

I was looking at the riot police and reminiscing back to the days when I was in a similar position. As a young policeman in London in the early 1980s my colleagues and I had to deal with violent riots in Tottenham, Southall, Brixton and Wapping. Later as a police tactical unit commander in Hong Kong I led my platoon during the taxi riots in Mong Kok and Yaumatei. The Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham, north London I remember very vividly as they were extremely violent and destructive and one of my colleagues from another district, called PC Keith Blakelock, was hacked to death by murderous thugs as he was protecting the fire brigade .

People forget that the police are human themselves and just doing their job, usually a thankless and sometimes dangerous one. But things were not always violent. During the Miner’s Strike in the UK during the early 1980s Metropolitan Police officers like myself were sent to the mining communities “oop north” to assist the local constabularies with public order duties. For my part I spent most of my time asleep or standing around a coal brazier at a picket line outside a colliery together with decent down to earth miners who were striking to protect their livelihoods. We were thrown together by circumstance and most of the time chatted amicably about sport, politics and the usual subjects men talk about.

Now in Cairo in the middle of the Egyptian revolution Fanny and I were walking between the ranks of the police and the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like my experience on the “Miners Strike” nothing particular was happening and so the press and media had nothing to report. I wanted to take some pictures, but security aside I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, and so we waved and smiled to both sides and they waved cheerily back at us. Everyone was friendly and some Egyptians came up to us, welcomed us effusively and thanked us for visiting Cairo.

After we had got our visas extended, quite quickly I might add, at the huge passport and immigration center we decided to explore the rest of the area and visit the famous Egyptian Museum which, like the government offices, was right next to Tahrir Square.

Before going into the museum all visitors were subjected to body and bag searches. I had forgotten that inside Fanny’s bag was our arsenal of self defence kit and was not sure what to do with it all. We could hardly hide it, throw it all away or hand it in and so we nonchalantly walked through the x-ray and scanner machines with a bag containing pepper spray, a 1.5 million volt zapper and my trusty catapult. I felt a pang of  “Midnight Express” panic when the buzzer went off and our bags were searched. The security officer rummaged through Fanny’s bag and took out our camera and placed it in a locker for safe keeping as photography inside the museum was forbidden. The rest of the booty, including our camera phones (?) were left inside and we were allowed to proceed.  I made a mental note to dispose of our arsenal before we entered Europe. As lax as the UK Border Agency appears to be I did not want to take any chances.

We thoroughly recommend the museum. Simply an amazing and very accessible collection of some of the worlds greatest treasures, including the famous Tutankhamen gold and a huge collection of ancient statues, paintings and Royal Mummys.

Now that we had our visa extensions we needed to extend the permits for the bikes which were stamped only to the end of October. After a few inquiries I found out this would have to be done at Cairo airport so we decided we would leave Cairo and go back to the Red Sea, via the airport and perhaps rent an apartment for a few months in Dahab.

We checked out of our hotel, loaded up our motorcycles and again got lost and spent a couple of hours trying to escape from the center of Cairo. The GPS was still playing up and had no idea about one way streets, of which Cairo has many, and so we went round and around in circles until by chance we found a sign with a picture of a aeroplane and followed it to Cairo International airport.

We found the car customs department at the airport fairly easily, once of course we had managed to navigate through some shocking traffic jams. As we were parking our bikes outside the car customs offices a man came up to us and explained he was a customs agent and could help us if we had the correct documentation. We did, and after negotiations we settled on a very modest fee and he set about his work while Fanny and I waited with the customs officials and shared cigarettes, cigars and soft drinks and joked about…. Fanny being her usual loud self, laughing, guffawing, and generally amusing everyone.

Waiting around at the customs offices at Cairo Airport for our motorcycle documents to be processed.

No idea what it says but it looks official and allegedly allows our carne de passage to be extended. Phew.

The impounded vehicle park full of cars covered in dust. There were Bentleys, BMWS. Mercedes and also one or two motorcycles. Each vehicle having a history of misery for the owners who did not complete the correct import procedures for Egypt. Each would later be sold at a ‘closed’ auction.

Thanks to our customs fixer at Cairo airport we have documents sorted out for another months or so.

Fanny and I with our customs fixer at Cairo airport

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Whilst looking down upon a huge car park of dust covered impounded vehicles, that included a disproportionately large number of German and South African registered luxury cars,  I found out how “the big customs scam” operated and worked.  I have been in the business of investigation and intelligence for many years, often leading teams on complex financial enquiries and so I guess I am quite good at interviewing and finding things out. A little immodest granted, but with my weaknesses, of which I have many, I know my strengths, and at my best I’m pretty good at getting people to tell me things.

Why tell someone something anyway?  Well, everyone likes talking and everyone weighs up the net gain advantages of engaging in any activity against the risks of doing so. My Arabs customs friends realized we had the correct papers and that our engine numbers and documents matched to the digit, found us reasonably amusing and non threatening, and had made a few bucks through their fixer and our fee ….and importantly they were bored and were showing off to a fellow member of the cloth how they made substantial profits at the expense of dumb foreigners.

Anyway… we got the carnets, import receipts and other documentation, bade farewell to our amusing hosts at Cairo airport customs and headed back along the highway to the Suez canal tunnel. I cannot tell you how happy I was to be seeing the back of a very congested and hectic city and heading back into the desert and towards our target destination of Dahab by the Red Sea… a none too shabby place to mark time while we considered and researched our options.

After going through the tunnel yet again and waving at all the soldiers we got to a major junction in the road. The left fork took us across the Sinai through Bedouin bandit desert lands, and the road ahead took us back down the 400 kilometer road to Sharm El Sheikh. My lying gypsy Garmin GPS  showed that the route across the Sinai desert was off road and so I stopped and asked Fanbelt which way she’d like to go.

‘Is there sand?’, she asked.

I looked left and the top bit was azure blue and the bottom bit from horizon to horizon was white. ‘Might be a bit’, I answered honestly.

I think it was the prospect of staying in “The Shining” hotel again that swayed Fanny to choose the desert route and so we blasted off eastwards knowing we would not get across by night fall and so I would have to keep a good look out for a place to bush camp off the desert road. That would be fun.

Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo

KTM Cairo... no servicing though Servicing and bike maintenance is done a thousand kilometers away in Sharm El Sheikh

KTM Cairo… no  servicing ….. bike maintenance is done a thousand kilometers away in Sharm El Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula

Fellow bikers in Cairo

Fellow bikers in Cairo

A armoured personnel carrier at a road junction in the middle of the Sinai

The Sinai

Having a rest stop

Fanny in Sinai again... taking a break

Fanny finding a secluded spot for a “rest break”.

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Back in Dahab

Back in Dahab

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The road was actually OK, with a few sections of gravel and sand where it was under repair. There were very few vehicles on the road that continued right across to the desert to Eilat in Israel at the border with Aqaba in Jordan. The riding was absolutely glorious and we watched as the sky put on a display very few people ever see, unless of course they are in the middle of a desert as the sun goes down. Blue, violet, green, turquoise,  purple, yellow, pink, purple, black.  Quite stunning and surreal.

I saw a great place to camp in a wadi about a kilometer off the road, and importantly saw a track to get there. I did not want us to be observed riding off the road and told Fanny that we should ‘get the cluck on with it’ when the time was right and get out of sight.  Fanny was not comfortable riding on the gravel and down the embankment through sand and so I rode my bike first, parked it near to a suitable secluded camping spot and then hiked back to the main road to get Fanny’s bike.

As I climbed back up the wadi embankment to get Fanny’s bike I saw a pick-up on the main road bridge stop, reverse and disappear backwards. Not good.  No more than three minutes later a white pick-up truck suddenly appeared above the wadi and five men, all wearing Yasser Arafat gear looked at us and entered into a discussion among themselves.  Again I felt uneasy about this, my defence instincts were heightened and I felt particularly uncomfortable about the whole situation. They never bothered to engage us in any conversation and then they drove off.

Fanny was tired and wanted to rest and set up camp. It had been a long day, but I broke the bad news that we should go. Paranoia?  Perhaps, but it did not feel right.  Again I worried that we may have a middle of the night visit and I wasn’t going to spend all night on guard duty brandishing my Masai warriors sword waiting for whatever. If I had been on my own I would have ridden much further into the desert, found a secluded spot and been quite at ease. In this situation I had a responsibility towards Fanny and to err on the side of caution was the right thing to do.

As we rode off the sand track and back onto the road, I looked back and was fairly disappointed that the human risk element had prevented us enjoying a camp fire in the middle of the desert under the stars. In Sudan it would have been no problem, in semi anarchic Egypt not so sure.

The sky was now quite dark, but after thirty kilometers I spotted another potential bush camping site and rode off the road down a sand bank and then beckoned towards Fanny to follow. After some hesitation she did, and as she descended the sand bank I clearly saw her touch the front brake with the expected result that the front wheel washed out and she dropped the bike on the slope. Damn. I knew that was the last chance.

Fanny is very capable of handling the bike on most surfaces, she has proved such on the expedition, but along her biking evolutionary scale she had reached the level many very experienced riders reach and often stay at… a complete fear of sand. To move on she will need to do some off road courses with Leon and team at Country Trax in South Africa or perhaps the UK Yamaha adventure riding team in Wales to get her over this hurdle and then she’ll be fine.

Earlier on our trip in Kenya, we met two BMW riders from England, Russ a thoroughly nice guy and all round gentleman and his bullying and arrogant companion, Darren, a thoroughly selfish and unpleasant individual who reminded me of a colleague I endured at Arthur Andersen a decade ago who was a weekend warrior and a bit of a “merchant banker”. Darren commented that Fanny could not handle the large and powerful KTM 990 Adventure and was critical of me for allowing her to do so. He was even more critical of me for my robust and none compromising encouragement when she occasionally eefed it up. Little did he know that Fanny is made of much sterner stuff and can handle her Mad Max riding companion perfectly well, the KTM and still have time for noodles and tea.

Fanny is one of the strongest and toughest people I have ever met and dumbing down to an F650GS is not in her nature. She insisted on the KTM as it is clearly the best adventure bike there is and has an enviable reputation throughout China because of its Dakar heritage. I am quite sure a week or so throwing a smaller KTM, CF Moto 700 Adventure or a Yamaha enduro around some sand dunes, through woods and up and down the hills in South Africa or Wales with a good instructor will set her up for anything. She has the attitude, determination and strength and the skills can follow in good time. I also accept I am not the person to instruct her. Anyone who has tried to teach their wife to drive will know full well its a futile exercise, especially if you have the instruction style of the drill pig in “Full Metal Jacket”.

Anyway, back to the Sinai desert and a KTM on its side and nose pointing down a sand embankment.  With some effort, but by now quite well practiced, Fanny and I hauled her bike back up the sandy slope and we had no option but to carry on to the next town, some hundred kilometers away, or push on towards Taba and Eilat in Israel, or even through the desert roads south east to Nuweiba . The sky was now pitch black and filled with tens of thousands of stars. In South Africa I was used to seeing the southern hemisphere sky filled with stars above my house, but I was unfamiliar with constellations of the northern hemisphere sky. In England, Europe, China, and Hong Kong where I have spent most of my life there is too much ambient light and air pollution to really see the stars clearly. Here in the heart of the Sinai desert it was absolutely spectacular.

We pulled the protectors off our headlights as the orange glow ahead was just a bit too… well… orange. There was not too much on coming traffic, but the few there were could be seen for many miles ahead and as they passed us they rarely dipped their headlights which was a tad annoying and uncomfortable in the pitch darkness. Actually, we rarely rode at night on the Big Bike Trip as its considered a big “no no” in adventure riding, but we were in middle of desert on a good road, and despite not being able to see much we had to admit we loved every minute.

We eventually arrived in a dimly lit small town called Nakhl right in the middle of the Sinai which was full of soldiers and tanks. I have done some boring jobs during my early police force career, but sitting on a tank in peace time in the middle of the desert struck me as particularly dull by any standards.  They all seemed quite friendly though, and very interested in our bikes and Fanny whose name we learned is popular in that part of the world.

They told us there had been very recent skirmishes with Bedouins who had been robbing travelers and raiding Egyptian properties.  Apparently, these itinerant desert dwellers felt that in the new post Mubarek era they had remained excluded and dis-empowered and were not happy. Everyone seemed to agree we had been lucky not to get robbed, although I thought this is was perhaps an over exaggeration or a ploy to frighten off travelers. That said, I looked back to our experience a few hours earlier in the desert and the non too friendly Beduoins who pitched up and I thought we made the right decision not to camp in the desert on this occasion.

We stayed in the only hotel in town, despite many people telling us there wasn’t one. It was a truly awful place and basically a construction site, but we got something to eat and a place to park our bike in the corridor right next to our dreadful room where we set up camp with our much used and treasured mosquito net.  Where mosquitoes come from in a dry desert I can only guess, but they are persistent little buggers and can ruin a nights rest. We did not hang about the next day and got up very early and rode to Nuweiba through amazing mountain passes, deserts and palm tree lined oasis.

Trying to learn to kite surf and wake board in Dahab

Beautiful sunsets in Dahab

Fanny walking to our apartment along the beach… happy days

Fanny's daily windsurfing lessons

Fanny’s daily windsurfing lessons

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

Relaxing evenings after windsurfing or snorkeling. I could snorkel for hours and often did.. immersed in a parallel universe of strange and beautiful creatures. I later learnt to scuba dive, but I far preferred the peace and unencumbered freedom of snorkeling. And the Red Sea is one of best places to do it.

Relaxing evenings after windsurfing or snorkeling. I could snorkel for hours and often did.. immersed in a parallel universe of strange and beautiful creatures. I later learnt to scuba dive, but I far preferred the peace and unencumbered freedom of snorkeling. And the Red Sea is one of best places to do it.

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We then descended out of the mountains into Nuweiba where the ferry departs to Aqaba in Jordan. After a spot of lunch/breakfast at a rather deserted, but pleasant beach resort we then turned south and back into the mountains and coastal passes towards Dahab.

Dahab is one of the best water sports and diving centres in the world and if we were to spend two months there we needed to occupy our time with more than just idling about and trying to work out logistics to get across the Mediterranean sea.  The last time we stayed at the Ghazala lodge and this time we took a more modest, but pristinely clean room at the German run “Sunsplash Lodge” which was next door and run by the überragend Anita, an adventurer and diver of note. http://www.sunsplash-divers.com/eng/start_e.htm

We then started looking for an apartment to rent and, like house hunting, we saw some great places that were out of our budget and thoroughly nasty places that were in it.  Eventually we found a small one bedroomed apartment right next to the sea. It wasn’t great, but the landlord told us it had TV, internet, fresh water and a kitchen. The selling feature was the garden which was essentially a private little beach with four massive date palm trees that swayed in the sea breeze.

Mohammed, the landlords son who dealt with us, was either a complete idiot, or thoroughly untrustworthy, I suspected both. He looked 45 but was actually 22 and his attire would swap between orthodox Islamic white robe with matching red Yasser Arafat headgear to the laughable clothes that lead actors in Bollywood movies wear with slicked back bouffant hair, tight jeans, garish shirt opened to his navel… ooh and a few gold medallions. Its not a great look.

At Mohammed’s insistence we handed over the cash (including water surcharge) and later found out there was no internet, the water supply was in fact sea water and the TV gave whoever changed the channel an electric shock. Fanny and I would endure the many local channels that showed real time images of pilgrims walking round and around the big cube at Mecca for hours and hours until we managed to suss out how to change channels with an insulated stick as we never ever found the remote control and we got fed up repeatedly asking our landlords idiot son to give us one. But all these things were minor as we were living next to the stunning Red Sea with the majestic Sinai desert mountains behind us. Not too shabby at all.

Our apartment.. nothing worked in it and it was a health and safety nightmare .. but it was right  next to the sea and the views were amazing..

Our apartment.. nothing worked in it and it was a health and safety nightmare .. but it was right next to the sea and the views were amazing.

Our garden

Our garden

The reef outside our garden … with our friend Tony Noble worrying the fish

Fanny has found herself a furry friend.. or is it sweet and sour goat night?

We don’t know where your kid went … honest.

The rubbish collectors

The rubbish collectors wandering through our garden

The serious rubbish collectors

The serious rubbish collectors

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Our neighbours were either local Bedouins, beach bum kite surfers, serious scuba divers or hippies with loads of kids. Not those cool 1960s type hippies with colourful tie dye clothing and affros, but the 2010s grungy types with ugly cloths and grumpy disapproving faces full of studs and tattoos. These hippies all looked the same to me because in their attempts to non conform they all conformed to the same uniform you see worn by hippies the world over.  At least Fanny was not the only person in Dahab wearing “effnic” MC Hammer trousers with a crotch below the knees. They were the only ones in KTM orange though.

I got to know one of our immediate next door neighbours when I was engaged in a bit of panel beating in our garden in the middle of the afternoon. As I was applying hammer to one of Fanny’s metal panniers to try and knock them back into shape a head appeared out of an upstairs window next door and shouted,’ I’VE GOT A BABY’

‘What?’ I shouted back

‘A BABY’

‘What kind of baby?’ I answered

‘HUH!?’

‘Yes, what kind of a baby? ‘If you have a baby West Africa Black Rhino then I’m interested, otherwise I’m not’, and I carried on panel beating

‘Its sleeping’, ‘Babies like sleeping in the afternoon’

‘And I like sleeping at night. Is it the same baby human that howls all night?’

And with this harmonious neighbourly relations were firmly established. Actually, I finished panel beating pretty soon after,  just as afternoon calls for prayers from our local mosque had started.

‘HAAAAWWWWAAAAAHHHH  AKBAAAAR’ —-The panniers now looked as good as new and the next door baby started crying.

Not too shabby

Eel garden

Fanny learning to windsurf in Dahab

Fanny giving the Russians a lesson in how to play beach volleyball.

Our bikes parked next to our apartment

Local transport

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Both Fanny and I took kite surfing lessons for a few days in the lagoon, an ideal location, but we soon gave up. I hate giving up, but Fanny was having trouble controlling the kite and I spent the whole time being yanked under water inhaling plankton. Whilst I could handle the kite easily enough, years of paragliding I guess, I could not stand up on the wake-board how ever much I tried and I was running out of money and my instructor was running out of patience. I even tried wake boarding behind a boat to try and hone some skills and even that instructor gave up on me.  So we decided on windsurfing lessons for Fanny and free diving practice for me. Despite the perfect location, I had little interest in scuba diving and even less bobbing around underwater with all that restrictive diving clobber and so I invested in free diving fins and a mask.

Both of us became quite good at our new hobbies.  Our days of idleness were interspersed with researching how we would proceed further on the Big Bike Trip –applying for visas and permits,  planning routes, and getting the bikes back to pristine condition.  Fanny perfected her sleeping expertise and got better and better at wind surfing and the rest of the time impressed all with her beach volleyball skills. I went running everyday to get back into shape, practiced Mandarin with Fanny and studied my Chinese lessons.  Occasionally, I would run up into the mountains whilst studying Chinese being careful not to fall into one of the many gullies and have to cut off my hand to escape. The rest of the time I went snorkeling and free diving right outside our house.

Free diving was introduced to me by Alexey Molchanov, a Russian and world champion who was training at the nearby famous “Blue Hole” that goes down to a depth of over a 120 meters. His mother is the women’s world record holder and I have actually seen her featured on the Discovery Channel a few times diving to incredible depths wearing a huge mono fin. Its an amazing and rather scary sport and requires more skill than you would think. Alexey can hold his breathe for 8 minutes, 31 seconds in a zero exertion submersion situation. He can also swim ten laps of a 25 meter pool underwater. My pathetic efforts improved somewhat and I was getting down to about 15 meters and holding my breathe for about a minute and a half. Not that impressive, but my main objective was to be able to go snorkeling and hold my breathe long enough to enjoy the amazing coral reefs and swim with the incredibly colourful and varied marine life of the Red Sea.

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Tony Noble teaching a Chinese girl how to swim

Aswan 15 … my bike

Some of the restaurants along the Red Sea at Dahab

Relaxing next to the sea at one of hundreds of restaurants and coffee shops along the Dahab front

Fanny relaxing next to the sea near our apartment

Taking the horses for a cool down. Not sure what salt water does to a horses skin, but they seemed to like it.

Got to find something to do in the evening as the TV electrocutes us each time we touch it.

Got to find something to do in the evening as the TV electrocuted us each time we touched it.

Next …. Chapter 11… He’s not the Messiah … he’s a very naughty boy.   (more goings on in Egypt and also Jordan, Israel and finally leaving the African continent for Turkey)

Chapter 10 – Egypt – (Part 1)

The “Night Boat” up the River Nile to Aswan was anything but luxurious, but we were very pleased that everything had gone according to plan and we were on our way to Egypt. We camped for eighteen hours on the hard deck of the ferry and our carefully chosen spot was quickly hemmed in with bodies of all shapes and sizes. This ferry crossing from Sudan to Egypt had to be the most inefficient and ridiculous ways to cross a land border and I could only guess that some money making cartel was behind such an illogical bottleneck along a huge land border that stretched from Libya in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

If one looks closely at Google Earth, as I have done on many occasions, you can see newly built roads meeting each other along the desert border all the way to the coast. I asked many people why it was impossible to use one of these roads and never got a straight answer.

Just after entering Egypt the sun started going down and so we were unable to properly see the ancient temple of Abu Simbel which was on the left hand side of the ferry.  As night settled and the sky became ablaze with stars the boat and its occupants soon settled into organised chaos and when most of the passengers weren’t kneeing down or bent over praying they were eating. The only other distraction was a very disorderly queue to get passports stamped by the on-board customs official.

By late in the evening the only two people, it seemed, who hadn’t had their passports stamped were Fanny and I. Fanny because she had some funky diplomatic visa that they hadn’t seen before and thought should be left to more senior officials in Aswan to deal with, and me because I didn’t have a visa.

I was a tad concerned about this but we were assured everything would be OK in the morning and so we settled back down to a hard but reasonably comfortable night under the stairs on our camping mattresses, alongside about a hundred other people. Below deck in the cabins were about another hundred and fifty people who had paid considerably more than us. I thought we had the best deal though, fresher air and a much better view.

We woke at sunrise and we were impatient to get off and get going but still had a few hours to sail into Aswan.  When we did see the town in the distance I was very keen to locate our motorcycles, eagerly scanning the moored barges until I spotted them. What a relief.

When we arrived, with of course the customary Arabic faffing about, Fanny was whisked off the boat to see a senior customs official for tea in his office and I was left on the ferry, the very last person, whilst waiting for my visa.

Sunset over the Nile in Aswan, Egypt

Sunset over the Nile in Aswan, Egypt.

The desert sun setting for another day

Goodbye sun and another day

Ferry from Wadi Halfa in Sudan up the Nike to Aswan in Egypt

Ferry from Wadi Halfa in Sudan up the Nike to Aswan in Egypt

Abu Simbel Temple along the banks of the Nile

Abu Simbel Temple along the banks of the Nile

Approaching Aswan

Approaching Aswan

I have spotted our KTMs on the deck of the barge moored up at Aswan port.. what a relief.

I have spotted our KTMs on the deck of the barge moored up at Aswan port.. what a relief.

Keeping my eye on the bikes and now wondering how I will get them off and what hassles lay ahead with the authorities.

Keeping my eye on the bikes and now wondering how I will get them off and what hassles lay ahead with the authorities.

Where there's a will.... there's a family

Where there’s a will….

Thinking about riding them off the barge onto the jetty, but not doable so in the end five of us literally lifted each bike up and carried it .. with all the kit and full panniers.. easy in the end.

Thinking about riding them off the barge onto the jetty, but not doable so in the end five of us literally lifted each bike up and carried it off .. with all the kit and full panniers..

They had to be carried because there was a big metal post

Now my bike.. They both had to be carried because there was a big metal blue post in the way.

Fitted with Egyptian plates..

After clearing customs and immigration our bikes are fitted with Egyptian plates.. Aswan 15 for me and Aswan 3 for Fanny … Looks like 10, but Arabic numerals have a zero looking character for 5.

We had to take ferry up Lake Nasser (dammed upstream) of the Nile from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt. I would have loved to have ridden this part of north Egypt, but the human inhabitants have some scam going on so that you cannot actually ride across the border. In Egypt we would run into literally hundreds of police and military road blocks across the entire country.  we would

We had to take ferry up Lake Nasser (dammed upstream) of the Nile from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt. I would have loved to have ridden this part of north Egypt, but the human inhabitants have some scam going on so that you cannot actually ride across the border. In Egypt we would run into literally hundreds of police and military road blocks across the entire country. we would

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Eventually I was given an official looking shiny sticker in exchange for eleven Egyptian pounds and told to affix this visa onto a blank page in my passport. Some Arabic was scribbled over the  top allegedly specifying I had a month of stay. As all this was happening I watched with amusement as fifty or so people with bags, boxes and other cargo tried to squeeze through the exit door at the same time and they were not giving in to anyone, a scene reminiscent of old Cantonese crones elbowing their way onto the mass transit railway in Hong Kong.  Amongst goats and dodgy looking piles of cargo piled up on the dock I had to find and employ a local agent to help me negotiate getting our bikes off the barge which was moored inaccessibly between other barges a couple of hundred meters away, and later help us through the inevitable inefficiencies of Egyptian customs. There was no other way.

Two hours later, after paying a small fee to every man and his dog to move the barge to a more suitable location, I had to manually lift the bikes off the barge with help from a couple of hired hands as they weighed more than 280 kilograms each. Whilst the fee I paid them was not a lot, I thought the amount of time being wasted was far too long. These people could get a PhD in faffing about and squabbling.  Freddie Golbourne (my grandfather who happened to be in north Africa in the early forties) told me about his Egyptian colleagues when I was a small boy. Seems things hadn’t changed.

I was told, however, that I was lucky as it was not uncommon for foreign vehicles to be held hostage for days, weeks, or as we would later see in the Egyptian custom department’s impounded vehicle “grave yards”, indefinitely.

The penny had dropped. Now I knew why Egypt demanded ridiculously high deposits for the Carne de Passages— its a huge scam.  For slight infractions of the ridiculous Egyptian red tape vehicles were confiscated for un-affordable ransoms and later sold at “fixed” auctions where the spoils were shared among the corrupt officials. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw all the expensive foreign cars and trucks covered in dust at Cairo airport in the foreign vehicle “graveyard of misery”. Suitably imbued with charm and supplied with cigars and soft drinks my newly acquired friends in the customs department later told me exactly how the scam operated and how they shared the spoils, and by the way,would I like some Hasish?  Some people, huh?

With both KTMs now on the slipway and Fanny still being entertained by the head shed at immigration, probably fretting she was President Hu’s daughter or something, I checked over both KTMs and they were in perfect order. No worries at all.

My recently hired local agent told me there was still more fun to enjoy and so my day out with Egyptian customs and immigration was to continue for another three hours or so, with a subtle threat that if I make any fuss whatsoever they will make it two days, or even three.  And so, I filled out more forms, signed Arabic documents that could have been confessions to drug trafficking for all we knew, photocopied more documents, handed over more cash and in return got a wad of paper and two sets of  Egyptian motorcycle number plates to affix over the South African ones. Aswan 3 for Fanny and Aswan 15 for me.

Whilst we were waiting around next to some bored teenage soldiers with heavy weaponry, Fanny mastered how to read and write the Arabic numerals, and I concentrated on trying to be a good boy, smiling sweetly and keeping my mouth close.

Its always tea time in Egypt. Love it.

Its always tea time in Egypt. Love it.

Time for a haircut. How do you say … “a little off the sides please” in Arabic

Lost in translation so for the first time in my life I have been  shaved completely bald

It seems there is just one haircut on the menu. Apart from looking like a boiled egg its very comfortable, especially inside the helmet

Outside our hotel, The Hathor in Aswan.. a very reasonably priced and very decent hotel.

Aswan as seen from our hotel room

Aswan skyline … tall minuets

Camels in the back of a pickup heading north (like us) towards Cairo

Riding along by the Nile

Riding along by the Nile

One of many tourist carts being pulled by scruffy ponies in Luxor .. not for us thanks

Ancient Luxor

Wandering around the back streets of Luxor

Doing the tourist thing

Posing against the ancient statues in Luxor near the valley of the Kings.

Fanny posing against the ancient statues in Luxor with the Valley of the Kings in the background.

Lots of touts in Luxor ... all good natured banter, but wasting their time with us.

Lots of touts in Luxor … all good natured banter, but wasting their time with us.

The Nile .. our companion for many weeks

The Nile .. our companion for many weeks

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We had arrived at the port in the early morning and we managed to escape by late afternoon. As we left the customs area we were immediately stopped at a heavily armed police roadblock, one of literally hundreds we got stopped at during our stay in Egypt. Some were literally just a few hundred meters apart and it took considerable restraint not to point this out as the authorities re-checked our passports and driving licences again and again and again.

A policeman with AK47 variant of an assault rifle looked us up and down and then asked, ‘Where you come from?’

Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’

Policeman ‘What in bag?’

Me ‘ Our things’

Policeman ‘ Open up’

Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’

As I was getting off my bike to take off all the straps and open the panniers the policeman then said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha…’ and then added, ‘ Anything nice for me?’

Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…

Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’

Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’

Fanny ‘China’

Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’

I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’

Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’

This encounter was reasonably common, although using my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and of course the language barrier prevented us actually handing over the prerequisite fifty pounds that many of the local Egyptians, expatriates and fellow travelers had to part company with all too often. Fanny maintained that I am a scary mad bugger and that most people are just happy to see the back of me. Well that’s a good thing.

Fanny in Luxor

Out exploring the sites in Luxor

All noses cut off statues .. why?

Stopping off for lunch by the banks of the River Nile

Stopping off for lunch by the banks of the River Nile

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We rode past armoured personnel carriers, tanks, dozens of soldiers on every corner and crossed over the heavily guarded Aswan Dam and into town which was very touristy, with Nile cruise ships moored end to end along the banks of the river. And then I saw them, glowing down at us, the golden arches… Ah!… McFul. Yum.

Some Germans we met in the desert in Sudan recommended an excellent hotel right in the middle of Aswan and we found it easily enough and managed to park our motorcycles safely around the back and were given a very decent room at a great rate.

The tourist industry was still reeling from the Spring revolution, the economic downturn and the repercussions of blowing tourists up with fire-bombs and so good deals were to be had, but on the negative side the touts in Aswan, and especially Luxor were swarming like flies and descended upon us whenever we stopped and were relentless in whatever pitch they were pitching. Felucca rides across the Nile and horse and cart rides through town being the most common. We even got asked if we want a taxi whilst sitting on our bikes. That’s desperate or dumb.

This was the first time for a while we saw, how do I put it, “common people”. Most of the tourists we had seen so far were the adventurous interesting types and people who get off the beaten track and read the travel sections of  the colour supplements in the broadsheets. Here in Egypt there were the sort of tourists who were too old to go to Ibeefaa, too fat to get on the rides at Alton Towers and were too slow booking themselves and the kids, Chesney and Tracy into Butlins at Skeggy. You know, Man United Torremolinos Watneys Red Barrel chip eaters with annoying regional accents. A snob?, I sincerely hope so, but mainly I just don’t like them or their vulgar ways– and don’t want the touts to keep bugging me as if my first name was Wayne.

Aswan, as well as having the American fast food chains, also had an HSBC bank and their cash points to completely empty my account, ice cream parlours, chip shops, a bazaar selling mostly Chinese tack, mosques on every street corner and a Catholic church. The latter, we enjoyed visiting, but I spared my heathen travel companion from having to attend a full Mass.

Aswan was also the location where extremist Muslims burnt down a Coptic Christian church, sparking a huge demonstration in Cairo that resulted in 30+ deaths. I even went for a haircut and my attempts to ask for a little off the sides were lost in translation, and for the first time in my life (as I was born with a long barnet) I had a completely shaven head. It was very comfortable but did look more William Hague, than Jean Luc Picard.

Most importantly there was 95 Octane petrol in Egypt and it was as cheap as chips, less than 8% of the price that people in the UK have to pay at their pumps. Since all oil actually costs the same for a barrel the variance between countries is due to the tax that governments levy so that revenues can be raised, for instance,  to fund aid payments to Africa where a lot of oil comes from in the first place. What a strange world we live in.

Crazy politics and economics aside, it meant we could ride our motorcycles cheaply throughout Egypt, and we would, putting thousands of kilometers on the clocks as we zigzagged across the country and back and forth across the Sinai peninsular, a particularly stunning and interesting part of the world.

But our next stop was Luxor, arguably Egypt’s most important city historically and so we followed the Nile northwards along rather shabby roads, and in a high state of alert as Egypt may very well have the world’s worst drivers. They are absolute shockers, worse even than those in China or India. We both found the atrocious driving standard very stressful and very annoying.

Local farms by banks of Nile near the Valley of the Kings

Faluccas sailing down the Nile near Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings, Luxor

You don’t see those everyday when out for a motorcycle ride

Still taking in the sites … a motorcycle is definitely the way to do it and avoid the touts and go where you feel like.

Ancient Egypt at night

Ancient Egypt at night

Ancient ruins in Luxor lit up at night

The ubiquitous Peugeot

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Maybe the ubiquitous old Peugeot cars are to blame for the poor driving, but most likely its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones as they drive along.  I even saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted on the wheel and the other stubbornly clutching the telephone to his ear. Rather than putting the mobile phone down to use both arms to control the car he preferred to continue talking and veer off and into some pedestrians on a footpath. Every car we saw, whether new or old, is covered in scrapes.

White lines, it seemed, are for aiming along rather than delineating lanes to drive in,  and vehicles always swing left before turning right and visa versa. Unexpected U-turns, stopping in the fast lane, speeding, drifting, macho acceleration, erratic maneuvers, double and triple overtakes, and a complete disregard for other road users is common place.  There were even young children recklessly driving old Fiats and Peugeots with their foot constantly buried into the accelerator and their hand glued to the horn.

Often vehicles would draw up along side our bikes while we were nervously riding with inches to spare and the driver and occupants would just grin at us like idiots and ask  questions that we couldn’t hear in our helmets.  And the worst for a motorcycle, being converged on from the left and the right at the same time causing nerve-wracking evasive action to prevent a collision. And yes… our headlights are always on… no need for everyone to keep telling us by waving and miming to us to turn them off. We call it a safety precaution in developed countries so that motorcycles can be seen.

It seems if its Allah’s will that one should crash and die–then so be it. Insha’Allah (إن شاء الله)

When we got to Luxor we searched around and found a marvellous little hotel in a very moody narrow lane in the old town called “Happy Land”, — www.luxorhappyland.com

The motorcycles were parked under our balcony in the street and apart from the occasional kid who would sit on them, or use them as a background to take pictures, they were safe and secure. I also got a chance to do some routine maintenance in peace such as chain adjusting and oiling.  The bikes were absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with them, although the front off road M/T 21 tyres really needed changing back to the 50/50 Pirelli Scorpion M/T 90s, which I would do later.

We took the Adventure R (my one) and Fanny rode pillion as we explored the sites of Luxor, museums, temples, and over to the west side of the Nile to explore the Valley of the Kings. Again we paid for nothing as we rode around famous statues and monuments, occasionally chased off by security people who would make some half hearted effort to catch us.

The only tourist site we actually paid for in Egypt was entry into the Egyptian museum in Cairo which was absolutely awesome.  I would like to know why all the statues have their noses missing. Theories include Alexander the Great defacing them, the style of sculpting and conspiracies against black Africans (yawn).  A prize of a mystical healing crystal pyramid to the person with the best answer in our comments.

After a few days of playing the tourist we were getting a bit bored and I had been pouring over the maps wondering whether to follow the Nile to Cairo or head east to the Red Sea.

‘Where to then, Fanbelt?’ I asked.  Red Sea was the reply and so we turned right at Qena and very soon left the greenery of the Nile and back into the desert… our destination Al Hurghada.

Typical stretch of Egyptian highway.. not that busy here… but around Cairo and the north very hectic.

Hurghada and chips

Cruising across the rocky desert towards the Red Sea coast

Cruising across the rocky desert towards the Red Sea coast

Never Eat Shredded Wheat .. sun sets in west so must be heading north (ish).

Never Eat Shredded Wheat .. sun sets in west so must be heading north (ish).

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As we approached the coast we descended through some spectacular mountains and then we saw the sea, an amazing turquoise blue that stretched from north to south as far as the eye could see. The town of  Al Hurghada was stretched along the coast and as we got nearer it looked like a construction site, or perhaps, as I suspected, an ambitious tourist industry project that ran out of funds. There were miles and miles of unfinished hotels and resorts, concrete skeletons stark against the azure of the water. There were also high end tourist coaches, with curious occupants, mostly European peering down and pointing at us as we roared passed them on the bikes. I presume they had been picked up at the airport and were being ferried to their resorts. Their journey being considerably shorter than our own.

We continued following the signs to the centre of town and it was even more touristy than Luxor or Aswan. Hurghada was a location one sees posted on the windows of UK high street travel agents, except it became obvious that it was probably advertised much more in Moscow or St.Petersberg. There were Russian signs everywhere and we were to see many Russian shot-put figured women and some more svelte like glamour models with their James Bond baddie boyfriends.

We stopped off at a roadside cafe in the bustling high street and had a late lunch and thought about what to do next. Finding a place to stay seemed logical and Fanny used the free WiFi which was everywhere to research budget hotels and we found the perfect one. The Sea View Hotel http://www.seaviewhotel.com.eg/ in the old town area and when we found it we booked into a very clean and simple room.  In fact all the Egyptian budget places were superb when compared with those we had seen in Ethiopia or Sudan. I would have much preferred to camp, but in this part of north Africa it seemed this wasn’t a common option.

At the request of the hotel owner, our bikes were parked outside on the pavement next to the entrance, much like Chinese mansion gate lions. The owner was a larger than life character with mannerisms and an accent that reminded me of one of the Greek or Egyptian entrepreneur types characatured so well by Matt Lucas and David Walliams in their comedy sketches. He did run a very good place and had very friendly and helpful staff, especially the manager. Sea View was a good choice.

We were persuaded to book a whole days snorkeling on a cruise boat for a total of ten Euros each and so I was not expecting much, but we were taken by a very competent crew, on a top quality diving boat to several of the best reefs in the area. This included the snorkeling equipment, a water guide, lunch and at the end of the day an impromptu party and dancing.

I actually hate organised trips of any kind and especially boat trips. In Hong Kong people would often hire a junk and spend the day cruising the islands around the territory, swimming, partying and drinking beer…finishing off the day with a seafood dinner at one of the restaurants on Lamma Island, Cheung Chau or Lantau.  Whilst this may sound a great way to spend a weekend for many, I hated such trips and used to count down the seconds until I could get off the boat and go paragliding in Sek O, go running, or ride my motorbike.

In the Royal Hong Kong police we would have a day off each year to take our respective teams or units that we commanded on the “Annual Launch Picnic” that involved taking the team off on a boat to some government facility on an island where the team would play Mahjong, drink beer and eat strange things incinerated on a barbecue.  I enjoyed the company of my colleagues and especially seeing them enjoying themselves. It was good for morale, team spirit and esprit de corp, but I secretly hated every minute and longed to be back on the streets and back alleys with triads, bank robbers and investment bankers.  Its a strange thing I know, but I really do not like boat trips.

Fortunately on this boat trip it did not last long before we got to the snorkeling sites which were superb. I hadn’t been to the Red Sea before and I have to say it was one of the best places in the world to scuba dive, snorkel or just wallow about in the sea. Most importantly, Fanny was enjoying herself and that made up for everything.

Fanny and I going on a day trip snorkeling in the Red Sea near Hurghada… stunning water and amazing marine life and coral.

Getting ready for snorkeling

Getting ready for snorkeling

Very reasonably priced days out on a boat to go snorkeling in beautiful seas

A very reasonably priced snorkeling trip to some beautiful reefs and coral islands.

Hurgharda diving and snorkeling

Lots of other diving boats doing the same thing.

Diving boats

Quite busy,  but a lot of fun for 10 Euros

Crystal clear waters

Crystal clear waters

Our KTMs together with Miquel and Alicia’s BMWs outside our hotel in Al Hurghada

Miquel and Alicia from Spain outside our hotel… BMW meets KTM

Alicia and her globe trotting BMW GS800

Alicia and her globe trotting BMW GS800

Alicia's BMW GS800 lowered for her.. Not much ground clearance

Alicia’s BMW GS800…..not much ground clearance for those rocks later on in north Kenya…!!

Saying farewell to Alicia and Miquel who were heading off south on their loaded up BMWs. They were two of a few globe trotting adventure bikers we met on our own big bike trip.

Soldiers across the road … they were everywhere in Egypt

Fanny and I riding about exploring the area on my R … there were lots of unfinished hotel and holiday complexes throughout Egypt and some resorts had more unfinished projects than competed ones.

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Whilst on the boat I saw my first Egyptian “duck“, not the feathered kind but the gigolo type. This particular chap had got charming middle aged and rather unattractive ladies down to a fine art and on this occasion he was with an exceedingly “plain” looking middle aged British woman. I guess it was the opposite way around to the western old farts one sees in Thailand, the Philippines etc…with their young female chickens.

I have nothing against this entrepreneurial activity at all, provided consent is mutual and age is appropriate, and on this particular occasion his lady seemed to be having the time of her life, being given all the affection and attention any women could possibly want and probably hadn’t had in a long time. I guess its not only the sun that makes a perfect holiday.

Whilst we were in Hurghada we tried to get a ferry across to Sharm El Sheikh which is on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsular and apparently much better than Hurghada in terms of beauty and marine life. However, despite the distance being less than 20 kilometers, all the ferries had been cancelled and the only way was to ride over a thousand kilometers all the way to Suez, go underneath the canal and then back down south again to Sharm El Sheikh. So that is what we planned to do  in a few days time, and in the meantime we would explore Al Hurghada on our bikes and enjoy the many wonderful seafood restaurants and tea houses.  

Whilst riding back to our hotel, no helmet, wearing the classic motorcycling attire of  shorts, flip flops and an Arabic headscarf, I saw two BMW adventure bikes, all kitted out with the latest accessories by the side of the road. I stopped and introduced myself to the two riders, Alicia and Miquel, two Spanish riders who had just arrived from Italy and were looking for a place to stay. The hotel they were looking at was over three hundred pounds a night and I recommended our hotel, which was less than a quarter of that price and so they followed me back and booked in. It was great to meet them and a very welcome opportunity to chat with fellow bikers and swap notes.

Miquel told me they were riding around the world and following the routes of Spanish explorers over the ages. After being educated where most of these places actually were it seemed that they were embarking on an adventure of considerable note. It was a well planned expedition, perhaps better than our own and certainly better financed as they had secured sponsorship from many different motorcycle and accessory companies, and a major deal with the accounting firm, BDO.

I must say I was a bit down when I reflected upon the fact we had managed to secure no sponsorship or help whatsoever from anyone, save two water proof bags from a generous manufacture in China.  In fact, I had no idea how to go about publicizing and marketing our trip and indeed whether there was any commercial value to any organisation in doing so. Miquel, however, was an expert at sponsored adventure motorcycling and also the author of four travel books and this particular trip was providing the material for a fifth book. His website is at http://www.miquelsilvestre.com/

Of course they were riding BMWs, an enormously successful automotive company that has a global network and very a well oiled marketing strategy. BMW motorcycles were reaping the rewards of successful campaigns like the “Long Way Down”, “Long Way Round” and “Race to Dakar” TV series and also the adventures of real riders like Miquel and Alicia.  Through their adventures mere mortals could live vicariously and emulate their lifestyle by owning a BMW adventure motorcycle and of course other accessories such as enduro jackets, trousers, boots and helmets.

I actually think BMW make quite good bikes.  I wouldn’t mind a GS 1200/800 Adventure or an S1000RR myself… I would also like a Yamaha XT 660/ 600/500,  a Triumph XC 800, a Ducati Multistrada 1200, a CF Moto 700 Adventure and a classic Honda Africa Twin 750. I like all motorcycles and have owned many different types of the yars.  However for what we were doing I really think our KTM motorcycles are the very best on the market and are designed and engineered to go anywhere and ride on any surface. Real tough globe trotters.

Alas, KTM are not that great at marketing nor very interested in people like Fanny or myself. Unless you are going to win the Dakar or a Rallye Raid in the Atacama desert KTM will not sign you up for sponsorship or assist in anyway.  Maybe with the release of the new KTM 1190 Adventure they may be able to haul in BMWs dominance of the market, but I suspect without a shift in their marketing strategy and an improvement in their global after sales support it will be unlikely…. sadly.

Relaxing in Old Hurghada and having our lunch with some delicious Bedouin tea

Superb seafood restaurants throughout Al Hurghada

Fanny chilling out.

Fanny having an in growing toe nail removed by a local doctor .... ooow!

Poor Fanny having an in growing toe nail removed by a local doctor …. Ouch!

Out about town for lunch

Out and about town and trying out more of the delicious Egyptian food

 

Our bikes

Our bikes loaded up and ready to ride

 

Another road block

One of hundreds of police and army road blocks we had to ride through. For many of us from the west we take for granted our freedom to go where we like.

 

Idling in the day and idling at night... Shark Bay

Idling in the day and idling at night… Shark Bay

Shark Bay

Our hotel room and view at Shark Bay

Snorkeling with my Go Pro

Snorkeling with the Go Pro camera (before it got stolen outside mosque)

Our hotel at Shark Bay in Sharm El Sheikh

Our hotel at Shark Bay in Sharm El Sheikh

Off roading

Off roading in the desert… My bike in the distance dodging the litter.

An Egyptian tank in the desert ... there were lots

An Egyptian tank /armoured personnel carrier in the desert … there were lots

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Anyway, we were back on the road again and heading north along the east coast of mainland Egypt … the Red Sea on our right and the rose coloured rocky mountains on our left. The scenery would have been quite pleasant if it wasn’t for the numerous oil fields and the noxious smells coming from the refineries. Not very pleasant, but it does clear the sinuses. Egyptians, like the Chinese actually, have a habit of throwing their rubbish in the streets, by the side of the road or into rivers and canals and so any areas with populations nearby always had lots of human detritus everywhere which was a bit depressing to see.

As I was riding along I reflected upon the fact that Egypt is actually a very lucky and privileged country. It sits on huge oil and gas reserves and has some of best tourist sites in the world. The beauty of the Red Sea and surrounding deserts is unmatched, and of course it has the legacy of Ancient Egyptian and the wonders and treasures it left behind.The Suez canal generates incredible revenues due to the huge commercial shipping traffic that uses it as a short cut between Europe to Asia. Whats more, and probably not appreciated by many people in the world, the Nile Delta is one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions in the world. I really hope following the over throw of the Mubarak regime that it remains accessible to people like us, secular and tolerant… unlike some of its middle east neighbours.

As we were heading north along the coast of the Red Sea we thought we would stop in El Gounawww.elgouna.com a new development aimed at the well healed who want every convenience and luxury right on their doorstep without having to leave the pool. To get there we left the main coastal highway and rode eastwards along a dry sandy track and then through some gaudy gates…. and then we saw it… brand new, soulless and expensive. Definitely not our cup of tea. It was one of those plastic resorts that the new moneyed adore and old money hates. Disneyland, the Stepford Wives and Discovery Bay (Hong Kong) all rolled into one.

We had a drink at a bar that could have been anywhere in the world, looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and both said in unison  ‘Let’s get out of here’.

Because of the stop at El Gouna and because we had failed in several attempts to camp in the desert, having been chased away by soldiers and police, we had not made the progress we had hoped for that day. Just after it had got dark we arrived in a very small town called Ras Gharib and booked into the only hotel, right next to the petrol station. In every respect the perfect adventure biking resting place…. cheap, good food, a secure corridor inside the hotel to park our bikes, some interesting people to talk to and a petrol station outside selling 95 Octane fuel at 40 cents a gallon.

Later in the evening, whilst eating some excellent fish, we met the owner of the hotel, who, if he had been wearing a Fez, would have looked like one of those Egyptian police characters in a Peter Sellers movie. He was an interesting chap though and very well traveled with a home in Germany and several in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. He was quite an entrepreneur and visionary and knew very well that Chinese tourists and businessmen were coming to Egypt in increasing numbers and so he had set up a small stall selling instant noodles. ‘I buy them for five pounds and sell them for eleven– good,eh?

‘Yes, they like noodles’, I replied ‘You’re going to be a rich man’. This endorsement of his cunning plan by two people from China really seemed to cheer him up.

The next morning we continued our ride towards the tunnel under the Suez canal and after more army and police check points we were in the Sinai. For the first time in a while we were heading southwards with the sun setting to our right hand side.  We got to Sharm El Sheikh in the late afternoon after some pretty fast and enjoyable riding along very good tar roads with only a short stop at an oil refinery town along the way for some falafels and bedouin tea

Sharm El Sheikh, at the most southerly tip of the Sinai peninsular, was a pretty impressive place with many high end hotels, luxury resorts and beautiful beaches. It was also one of the world’s greatest diving locations and after following the GPS coordinates for the town’s seemingly only camp site we arrived at Sharks Bay. Unfortunately the GPS information was four years out of day and the area had been developed into a resort. It appeared that there were no camp sites any more in Sharm and as it was late we checked into one of the rooms and stayed for three days, mostly snorkeling and idling about. Wish I had something more interesting to report but that was basically it. A typical beach resort holiday.

The room was nice, but we were both getting a bit bored and it was costing too much and so we rode about 70 kilometers north to Dahab and found a very peaceful and beautifully located former Bedouin fishing village, now one of the best diving and water sports locations in Egypt. We checked into Ghazala http://ghazaladahab.com/ , a very laid back and pleasant beach side lodge and after a day of idling about started thinking where we should go next and how.

We have been exploring all sorts of options to get from Egypt to somewhere in Europe. We were very nearly successful as the Chinese Ambassador to Egypt stepped in to help Fanny and arranged a COSCO cargo ship to take us from Port Said in Egypt to Piraeus port in Greece. The arrangement needed approval from COSCO’s headquarters in Beijing and when we heard it had been granted we had to get to Port Said as soon as possible to prepare the paperwork and get the bikes loaded onto the ship.

We decided that instead of taking the same highway back to the Suez Canal that we would ride across the desert and see Saint Catherine’s monastery on the way.

The road from Dahab to the monastery was motorcycling heaven. Long stretches of twisting and turning tar through desert mountains and valleys. Stunning colours, blue blue skies and a perfect temperature. Both Fanny and I were riding quite fast, but I had already changed my front tyre back to the M/T 90 Scorpion semi road one. Fanny on the other hand still had the knobbly M/T 21 rally cross tyre on her front wheel and so cornering at 180 kilometers per hour was not a good idea.

I was thoroughly enjoying racing about and would blast ahead and scorch around the bends, accelerating out of the apex in the power band causing the wheel to rise up and then to over 200 kilometers per hour before finding the line through the next corner. Great fun, but at these speeds the 150 kilometers was covered in no time at all. It might sound irresponsible to ride at such speeds, but there is always a time and place for everything, and if I am going to meet my maker, then the oldest working monastery in the world and where Moses received the Ten Commandments was probably a good place.

Fanny was uninfluenced by my biker hooliganism, quite rightly she rode at whatever speed she thought was safe and appropriate for her regardless of what I did.  Often I would take a break and wait for her to catch up and we would carry on. Both of us reduced speed considerably as we cruised into the spectacular valleys below Mount Sinai. Wow!

Mount Sinai is not the highest mountain in the range, but it is a truly special and spiritual place and one I remember learning about from about the age of six or seven. At this impressionable age, I was fortunate to attend The Holy Rosary Primary School in Burton Upon Trent, Staffordshire, right in the heart of England. It was here that Miss Hingorani, Mrs Nelson and their colleagues forged lasting memories about Greek mythology, the Holy Lands, ancient history, inventors and their inventions, and instilled in me the fascination for geography, travel and natural history that I maintain today.

Now many years later Fanny and I had ridden all the way from our home in South Africa and were in the Holy lands staring up at Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherines monastery was situated in the sort of location I would build a monastery if I was so inclined. I had been to Buddhist monasteries in Yunnan and Zhejiang in China and it seemed that beautiful, remote and peaceful locations is a common theme in the grand scheme of selecting a location for a monastery. Fanny and I explored the buildings, but on this occasion we did not see the icons inside because it was closed. It has been a working monastery since 300 A.D so I guess a day off is taken occasionally.

The monastery is named after the Christian martyr, Catherine of Alexandria who was tortured on a wheel and then beheaded. The Guy Fawkes, November the 5th “Catherine Wheel” firework is named after this grisly bit of human ingenuity. It is said her remains were taken by angels to Mount Sinai and later found by the monks in the monastery below.

Fanny of St Catherines

Fanny of St Catherines

The Sinai desert

The Sinai desert

Rupert & Fanny in the Sinai

Rupert & Fanny in the Sinai

On the way to St Catherines across the Sinai desert

On the way to St Catherines across the Sinai desert

Mountains in the heart of the Sinai

Fanny and I leaving Ghazala Hotel in Dahab… little did we know we would return and spend months living in Dahab

Riding through an oasis town in the Sinai

Always glorious sunsets … each evening the sky passed through the many colours of the rainbow until it was pitch black and studded with the light of countless stars and galaxies

St Catherines Monastery

Mount Sinai

St. Catherines

Riding about in the Sinai desert

Fanny peaking out of the monastery

Fanny peaking out of the monastery

Middle of the Sinai

Middle of the Sinai with impressive mountain cliffs and sand dunes

Me at St Catherines

At St Catherines Monastery with Mount Sinai behind me

Fanny and I riding around Dahab

Fanny and I riding around Dahab.. Nobody wore helmets in Egypt and neither did we as we pottered about on the bikes in shorts and swimming gear … armed with snorkeling kit. If we went off road riding in the dunes or if we went for a longer ride we would get the protective gear on again.

Dahab

Dahab.. our home for four months….

Bikes parked up in Dahab

Bikes parked up in Dahab just before headed off…

Wandering around Dahab

Wandering around Dahab

The fine art of idling (Dahab)

The fine art of idling .. Bedouin style

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Since we had to be in Port Said early the next day we had to press on and so we rode across the Sinai desert, passing through oasis villages lined with palm trees. One oasis that we sped through was called Ferrari, a good name for a village to race through.

As we neared the coast we suddenly rode into a sand storm which was quite a scary experience on a motorcycle and a bit claustrophobic. Due to the strong winds, the bikes were riding at a considerable lean and sand was blowing through the cracks in my visors and into my eyes and mouth. I was worried it was getting into the engine air filters and we had no alternative but to slow down considerably. I realized we would not make a further 200 kilometers to Port Said and so we stopped at a small town and booked into the first hotel we saw.

‘How much for a room?’ I asked the manager

‘Three hundred’, came the reply

‘Sorry, that’s too much’.

‘How much you want to pay’, he quickly said as we were turning around.

‘I was thinking fifty’, I answered hopefully

The manager made a sort of disapproving snort, but we made an agreement and I was handed the keys to a pretty decent room overlooking the beach and Red Sea.

As I was filling out the registration forms in the reception I suddenly realized we were the only guests in a hotel that had a potential capacity of over a hundred. The sun had gone down and the manager, the only person we saw,  disappeared after taking our cash and photocopying our passports and I suddenly thought of the hotel in the movie,The Shining.  It was slightly spooky to be the only people in a fairly sizable hotel. Joking to Fanny that there was not a scary maze outside did not calm her nerves.

About an hour later Fanny received a call from Mr. Xu from COSCO shipping company in Port Said stating that the Greek authorities in Piraeus were demanding a pointless and unnecessary “indemnity letter” from COSCO. Unfortunately, being a Chinese State Owned shipping company COSCO could not provide us with one as we were not their employees. They were just trying to help us, but the Greek authorities were being awkward and inflexible.

Fanny had a Schengen visa for all EU countries for a year and as I am British I held an EU passport which Greece was still a member of at the time. We had Carne de Passages for both motorcycles ( which were not required for Greece anyway), we had European motorcycle insurance, and we were riding Austrian motorcycles that adhered to the strictest EU emission controls. If we were to arrive at a Greek road border on our bikes there would be no issue and so we were confused why this demand was being made and annoyed the well intentioned plans of the Chinese authorities to help us had been scuppered.

Mr Xu was sorry, but he said we would not be able board the ship and so we were back to square one as Syria was in the early stages of a civil war and was no longer issuing visas. In any case Fanny is Chinese and China were supporting the Assad regime and I am English and the British were supporting the rebels. Between the two of us we would no doubt upset everyone in Syria. We could not go east either as Fanny, being a woman of course, was not allowed to ride a motorcycle in Saudi Arabia, and we could not go west as Libya was in the throes of armed rebellion.

We were stuck.

Egypt – Part. 2 to follow…..