We set off into the uncertainty of the desert with our ten litres of water, 15 packs of instant noodles, two cans of quick cooking oats, a dozen pita breads, three boxes of Laughing Cow cheese wedges, two tins of tuna, a family-sized jar of strawberry jam and a handful of tomatoes my husband had nicked off a passing truck. Our throats might be parched, but our stomachs would be full.
Our destination was Egypt’s Western Desert, an area covering 700,000 square kilometres (almost equivalent in size to New South Wales) and accounting for about two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass.
Deserts are inhospitable places. Distances between settlements are long, water is scarce, and winds are fierce. Before setting out from Luxor for the 1,300 kilometre ride to Cairo, we sought out advice and information. A posting to a popular cyclist’s forum brought this response:
The only water sources available are at or very close to the oases, none between them. The distances are 200-300 kilometres.
Not exactly encouraging. But after 24 months biking through Africa, we were confident in our ability to endure most anything the continent lobbed our way. Most recently that had meant a long slog through Sudan’s Nubian Desert. At the time—late 2009—the main highway linking Sudan to Egypt was still largely unpaved.
The stretch of road to Wadi Halfa had taken on almost mythical proportions in cycling lore. There were those who claimed it was the toughest part of their entire Africa tour. Fellow cycle tourists wrote of heaving their bikes across seas of deep sand and days slogging through the empty desert without ever passing a single village.
Reality in the Nubian, fortunately for those of us disinclined to gratuitous suffering, hadn’t lived up to spin. And while bumping along the sandy track that skirted the banks of the Nile posed more of a challenge than say, cycling along the Danube, it was achievable. Passing through sleepy villages of mud brick houses, I might add, and happening upon a group of smiling Sudanese who invited us in for a cup of steaming chai and a plate of hearty foul, was downright pleasant.
Before that, our biggest challenge had been dodging the low-flying stones the children of Ethiopia are so fond of hurling. Usually their target is the livestock they tend, but a touring cyclist also constitutes fair game.
In search of one final challenge to bring our Africa circumnavigation to a dramatic close, we find ourselves surrounded by sand spinning our wheels towards Cairo. Where will we re-supply on water? Will our rations last? Is there a risk of kidnapping? So many troubling questions rattle around in my mind.
After 55 angst-filled kilometres, a cluster of buildings appears on the horizon: a police checkpoint. We approach cautiously, unsure whether these uniformed and heavily armed men are friend or foe. We’re met with warm greetings, broad smiles and great enthusiasm for my neon pink horn which the men take turns trying out.
A sigh of relief escapes. These military men are obviously bored stiff stuck out in the desert, checking for contraband and conspirators. A chat with foreign cyclists on a ride around the world is obviously a welcome distraction from their duties.
The young men manning the checkpoints, which we come across every 60 kilometres or so, become friends and allies over the next ten days. They gain our trust and affection through cups of sweet chai and bottles of refreshing water, through gifts of food and offers of lifts when they find us huddled behind a sand dune taking cover from the gusting winds.
Just north of the Bedouin settlement of Farafra, we camp amidst the eerie arctic-like rock formations of the White Desert. Their beauty awes and humbles me. During the night a bitter wind begins pounding us from the north.
The following day the wind has gained force. We struggle to move 10 kilometres an hour. Some 700 kilometres of desert separate us from Cairo, and that knowledge is daunting.
“I can’t take it anymore,” shouts my husband, a person who remained unruffled as he was threatened by a drunk and belligerent AK-47 toting soldier back in Equatorial Guinea.
“There’s no point in battling these winds. Let’s flag down a truck,” he pleads, shaking his fists like a madman. “Crank up the music,” I suggest, “it’ll block out the wind.” He plugs into his MP3 player, and the Kings of Leon magically calm his nerves.
For me, a truck to Cairo is unthinkable. After pedalling almost 50,000 kilometres how could I possibly give up on our Africa circumnavigation during the final stretch?
I contemplate all that lay behind us. The moments of euphoria, like conquering our first real mountain pass: Morocco’s Tizi-n-Test at just over 2,000 meters back in the scorching summer of 2006. I think of the times when I’d pushed beyond my limits, cranking out over 200 kilometres in a single day as we raced through the Sahara with the wind at our backs.
I consider the tough times that followed in the tropical jungles of Central Africa. The despondency that set in as daily downpours turned red-latterite roads into rivers of mud that clogged our chains as we wallowed through the muck and mire.
When our spirits were at their lowest ebb, something amazing always came our way.
We’d been wowed by the gaggles of energetic kids in Burundi willing to push our bicycles for long distances through the heavily-terraced countryside and then watch us swoosh down the descents. And when no kids were around to give us a hand, we’d given lorry surfing a try, imitating the local men as they latched on to a passing truck and were pulled up the torturous mountains of Rwanda.
In Botswana, we’d pedalled past herds of thundering elephants, loping giraffes and zebras and listened to hippos grazing outside our tent as we slept fitfully. And always, whether it was in Niger or Namibia, we were met with radiant smiles, warm handshakes and the offer of humble hospitality.
At the 30,000 kilometre mark, we cycled triumphantly into Cape Town, promptly turned around our bikes and began cycling furiously north towards Cairo.
The challenges hadn’t let up in East Africa. Near Lake Turkana in remote northern Kenya, we’d ridden through an area racked by inter-tribal violence. The lonely track we were attempting to follow continually branched off right and left, leaving us frightened and disoriented.
This, perhaps, was the scariest moment of the entire journey. We’d crossed no trace of humanity the entire day and were down to a quarter of a litter of water. In the end, we stumbled upon a murky desert oasis (dirty water never tasted so good!). It was a tough way to learn the value of careful planning and the reality of risks.
Now we find ourselves almost 4,000 kilometres to the north. Again, in a desert, but thankfully one with an actual road shooting through the empty terrain. Finally, the northerly gusts die down and we are again able to embrace the beauty, silence and solitude of desert riding. We camp under an ocean of stars and our battles with the wind slowly recede to the depths of my mind.
Ten days after entering the Western Desert, we are spit out into the chaos of central Cairo. Scooters, buses, and even overloaded donkey carts are firing at me from all directions. Elevated roads criss-cross the city, clogged thoroughfares branch off into congested alleyways and the din of Africa’s second largest city drowns out my flimsy pink neon horn. Africa, it turns out, has saved her biggest challenge for last.
Amaya Williams is on a quest to cycle every country on the planet. On the road since 2006, she has pedalled more than 100,000 kilometres through 92 countries on 6 continents. You can follow her round the world tour at www.worldbiking.info