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25th November 2012

The Desert Diaries

When I signed off my last blog post saying “the adventures are just beginning”, I had no idea just how quickly that would prove to be an understatement. I set off on Wednesday morning bright and early at first light (6am), hoping to dodge the worst of the Cairo traffic. Stressed as ever at the prospect of the ride ahead, Donkey persuaded me to splash out a tenner on a cab to lead us all the way across the city to the Western Desert road, as without GPS and with very poor signage across the city, it seemed likely we would never get out this century unless we outsourced the mapreading. This proved to be a good strategy but nevertheless the ride required one and a half hours of wide-eyed riding with more than the occasional blast of the Suzi’s horn.

Eventually though we escaped the city limits and soon enough, the traffic petered out to a much calmer, thinner stream of vehicles heading to the Oasis. It was to be a 200 mile ride to arrive at the first oasis (Bahariya), and in my naivety I had imagined that I could stop off within the first 30minutes somewhere to have a coffee and a spot of breakfast. Alas, silly Claire, it turns out that a desert is called that because it is pretty much, well, deserted, so any hope of a roadside caff was completely misplaced. Worse still, it soon became clear that there was also no-where to answer nature’s call when the need arose, not even a rock to hide behind. There was simply one black ribbon of asphalt heading southwest and a whole lot of sand. I really didn’t want to just stop right there on the roadside either to stretch my legs or attend to any other matters, not least because drawing attention to myself as a lone, single, female biker on this remote stretch of road really didn’t appeal. Regrettably however, in time there was no choice and I had to stop. Within minutes of stopping, a white pick-up truck with two men in pulled up next to me. One of the men leapt out, came over to me, stood closer than I felt was really comfortable and started asking me where I was from. Something about the look on the man’s face told me this wasn’t a good situation, I felt threatened in the pit of my stomach and knew it’d be best to get out of there. So, while he made some gestures to suggest that he’d like my mobile number so that we could make like 2 index fingers lying against each other (no imagination required there), I concentrated on saying “no”, getting my helmet on, swinging my leg over the bike and getting the hell out of there. Problem is of course, on a road that only has one destination, I knew these drivers would catch up with me soon, and with 100 miles to go before we got there and very little traffic on the road, this might be trouble. Sure enough, within a few minutes they caught up with me and overtook me. I hoped that would be the end of it, but instead of continuing at a good pace, they gradually started to slow down from 90kph they had been doing down to 80, then 70, forcing me to slow down too. I didn’t like the feel of this. “Come on Suzi, work your magic”, I said to the bike as we roared past the now gesticulating and protesting men in the pickup and raced down the road.

This was not a great feeling. I had quite a few more miles to go til I arrived at Bahariya and more to the point, I needed to answer nature’s call. The only thing for it was to blast as quickly and safely as possible down the road, get as much distance as possible in from the pickup truck and hope to find a rock to crouch behind. Unfortunately a rock did not appear so when I could wait no longer, I had to stop the bike, run to the side of the road, check nothing was coming, do my stuff while all the time obsessively switching my still helmeted-head left to right like a demented owl, watching out for any sign of an oncoming vehicle, then dash back to the bike and blast off again down the road. My heart was thumping and I dreaded seeing that pickup again, but fortunately I made it to Bahariya without further incident.

The oasis itself was not quite the Paul Coelho inspired dream that I’d been hoping for, it was just like any other small town that just happened to be in a desert. That wasn’t a problem though - at this point, I was shattered after the very early morning and 7 hours of nonstop riding in the heat. Bahariya itself was surprisingly devoid of tourists - I’d hoped to find a cheerful bunch of backpackers or something but even the Lonely Planet’s recommended lunchstop, misleadingly called “Popular Restaurant”, turned out to be empty. Bit of a shame as I would have loved to chat with some other people and laugh off the day’s experiences, but it wasn’t to be.

Next day, I filled up with petrol and headed off on the 100 mile stretch to the next oasis, Farafra. I was still being very careful about my stops but this time, trouble came while I was still riding my bike. A truck with a cab full of young men provided me with this day’s hideous game of cat and mouse as they kept pulling up next to me doing 70kph or so, leering and heckling, shouting words in arabic and gesturing that they would like to take a photo. I would shake my head firmly and with no-where to go apart from straight on, would just pin it down the road. Why they thought I would ever stop on this deserted road for a cab full of truckers I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to be inimidated and give in, even if I was terrified. Eventually I arrived at Farafra, easily found the hotel I was looking for and checked in. Again I was disappointed to find that the hotel was a ghost-town as I was the only guest. Deciding to head off into town to see if there were any souls about, I set off on Suzi but within minutes slid in a surprisingly treacherous mudheap and hit the deck. It was very slow speed and a very kind passerby helped me pick her up, but I was shaken all the same and worried about any damage I might have done. On investigation it turned out there were no tourists to be found in town, so I returned to the hotel and passed out on the bed.

A few hours later I woke up scratching my arm, only to find that a mosquito had helped himself and bitten me about 30 times over my arm, foot and face. Feeling rough, I headed out of my room and came across - shock of shocks - another tourist! While I had been asleep a 68 year old German man had checked in, and after a brief chat we decided we may as well have dinner at the same time later on in the restaurant. While I was grateful for the company, this man was hardly the jolliest of souls and loved nothing more than to bang on about the gender divide in Islamic Egypt. This depressing monologue continued on for most of dinner. Despite repeated attempts to change the subject, he kept returning to the subject of how the locals must view me as a single female traveller, which I hardly wanted to be reminded of.

Next morning, after a quick breakfast and a regrettable appeal for my mobile number from the hotel manager, I headed off on the next 200 mile push to Dakhla with a heavy heart and a worried mind. I was filled with anxiety - who would come and hound me today? Would Suzi get me out of trouble this time? What if the fall the day before had done some real damage? The constant stream of shredded truck tyres along the side of the road prompted further fears. What if I get a flat tyre? I keenly listening out for any change in the engine note and handling, any wobbles to suggest a puncture. I knew that after the first 100 km or so of perfect asphalt, the road would start to deteriorate into a scarred and gravelled twisting mess. I just hoped she would cope with it. And that no-one would come and trouble me over the course of the next few hours. I approximated it was going to take about 6 hours of riding at 45kph - I had to ride slowly because there are real petrol supply issues at the oases and so even though its cheap as chips when you can buy it, you can never be sure quite when that might be. These 6 hours were some of the longest of my life. The desert is a big old place and while it is strikingly beautiful and while it does vary in form dramatically over the course of a few hundred miles, for me that day its harsh desolation was the very mirror of my own mind and there was little comfort in its beauty.

Mercifully there was no trouble from passing traffic that day (in fact I only remember seeing 2 vehicles for the entire period), but unfortunately it was all waiting for me at Dakhla. Exhausted after this 6 hour ride, I pulled in at a recommended lunch stop for a late lunch and asked if they knew where the hotel I wanted to stay at could be found. The owner told me that the hotel was closed (this turned out to be true) but that he knew of a good alternative, and duly got out his mobile and rang his friend. Immediately I felt uncomfortable - I didn’t particularly like this restaurant owner and certainly didn’t want to be tied into staying at a hotel I hadn’t chosen for myself. I made my excuses and left, riding into town to see what I could find for myself. Unfortunately I rode straight into the spider’s web. The hotelier who had been rung by his restauranteur friend came rushing out onto the street when he saw me (I wish Suzi and I weren’t so distinctive!) and cried “welcome, welcome!”. Something about this man made my skin crawl. Get away from here, I thought. “No, I’m not stopping, I’m looking for my friends” I began, but the man stood in front of my bike. “Oh really? Who are your friends? Perhaps they are already here. We have 2 germans and 2 people from Holland. The Germans are on a BMW and a vespa, they are bikers too!”. In my exhausted state I wanted to believe him, desperately wanting the company of likeminded folk to take the edge of this few days. “OK”, I said. He led me upstairs and showed me the room - it was pretty dark but looked basically ok. I was so tired, all I wanted to do was sleep. I unpacked my bags and checked in. Signing the visitors register, I spotted that the last person to have entered their details was 6 weeks ago, with no sign of a German or Dutch name in sight. The warning bells were ringing but I tried to ignore them. Exhausted, I headed upstairs to my room where the light was now on, and crashed out on the bed. That was when I noticed the shoe boxed sized gap just above the door. My heart sank. This was not good news. Next came a knock at the door. Pulling myself off the bed, I opened the scarily flimsy door to be faced with the slimy manager again. “Would you like to take a welcome drink with me downstairs?”. My stomach lurched. “No, my husband wouldn’t approve”, I answered primly, but I felt afraid. I tried to rest again but my mind was too troubled to sleep and within a few minutes, my light went out. I looked for a light switch in the room but couldn’t find it, so went into the corridor. The manager was there. “Where is the light switch for my room?” I asked. He smiled a creepy smile. “Ah, it is here” he said, pointing to a switch in the hallway. “I just turned it off as I thought you were sleeping”. My stomach tightened and I headed back to my room.

I knew I had to get out of there. Despite my complete and utter exhaustion, I just knew I had to do something. Leaving my things where they were, I made for the exit, charged up Suzi and headed off without a clue where I was going. Spotting a rare sign in English for an internet cafe, I decided that would be the best place to research an alternative hotel and pulled in. Walking into a little garden just off the busy main drag, I was met by the owner, Abu Mohammad, who smiled at me very kindly, and welcomed me into his cosy little red-brick shop, which carried a heart-breakingly comforting smell of home-cooked food. For the first time in days, I felt safe and not preyed upon. He invited me to take a seat at his computer. “Beer?” he asked with a gentle smile. With that, I just started to cry. “Yes thanks”, I snuffled, trying to hold back the sniffs and the tears but failing completely, “that would be great” I wailed. Abu Mohammad opened a cold beer and passed it to me. “Why you make sad?” he asked with a worried expression. “I’m so tired”, I said between gulpy breaths, “And my hotel”, I went on “I just don’t feel safe there.” His face darkened. “Is it Anwar Hotel?” he asked straight away. I nodded. “You must not stay there, bad people there, they not let you sleep and the owner, he make trouble with you.”

Over the course of my beer Abu Mohammad explained that the hotel was run by the worst family in the town who regularly cheated tourists and abused their position. Abu recommended another place, the El Forsan, which I then visited and immediately felt entirely welcomed. The only problem was, my stuff was still at the Anwar. I decided to leave Suzi at the Forsan and get a taxi back to the Anwar so that I could dive in, pick up my stuff, chuck it into the back of the waiting cab and get out of there. This plan worked well, though as I was loading the taxi, the manager spotted me. He wasn’t happy when I told him I was leaving and he realised I hadn’t paid. “You owe me money!” he yelled. Suddenly feeling a surge of strength, I countered him “I owe you nothing - you lied to get me in here!”. He faltered for a moment, then came back; “You slept here, you showered here, you owe me money”. I was having none of it and looked him straight in the eye. “I did not sleep here and I certainly didn’t shower here - check the towel for yourself, its still dry. I am paying you nothing”. With that he turned on his heel and marched back into his hotel.

On the short ride back to the Forsan hotel, the taxi driver turned to me. “This man”, he said, gesturing back towards the Anwar, “Very bad man. Make trouble for all in Dakhla. You very strong, good, good!” and then high-fived me! I had to laugh - this had been a truly hard couple of days but at last I felt like I was meeting some of the good guys and suddenly this town was starting to look like I might be able to make it home for a few days as I recuperated. Its 2 days on now and I feel a lot better, but tomorrow (as long as I can get petrol, Inshallah as they say here), its time to get back on the road. I’m scared of what might lie ahead and at times in the last few days, I’ve questioned whether I can really go on. But of course the answer is yes. Every time yes. I will not give up. I’ve accepted that its OK to be terrified of what comes next and if I wasn’t, that would probably be a bit odd. I’ve also learnt that I am brave, but not in the way that I used to define it. Its not fearlessly going out and doing something bold, its being terrified and doing it anyway. There are some good people in the world as well as a few bad ones, but my gut will help me tell the difference and next time, I will listen to it more carefully. There are some cultural differences that I had underestimated, like how I dress (I thought that a long sleeved shirt and trousers would be conservative enough, having asked for local advice it turns out my hideous multi-purpose trekking trousers are in this country considered to be pornographically tight. Strange but true.) Thats OK though, I can change what I wear, it won’t change me on the inside. Even though its harder at times than I ever knew I could take, I’m still lucky to be doing this. While I have my health, my passport in my pocket, a Suzi that works and a Donkey for morale, I’ve got all I need, and I’m going to keep going. Thats all for now.