Cairo – El Saff (70 km)
T.I.A. This is Africa. Things work differently here and our first day of cycling has already been an adventure.
The first thing we had to decide was which route to take… the Red Sea or the Nile. This question was flipping around in our minds for a while. We switched between the two options with ever changing information given to us and we finally decided to take the Red Sea. We cycled out of Cairo (an adventure in itself) on Friday morning – the traffic is low at this time, like Sunday mornings in Europe, and the streets of Cairo were almost enjoyable!
We followed the Nile and just before we took a turn towards the East, we stopped for a final decision time. the Red Sea, the Nile, the Red Sea, the Nile…. Of course, it was always going to be the Nile! So we carried on straight – bracing ourselves for potential police escorts, possible shouting and physical abuse from locals… All the lovely stuff people told us to expect.
We were told by another cycle team that they had police escorts all along the West Bank of the Nile. So instead, we tried the East Bank and passed our first security checkpoint about 30 km south of Cairo. They seemed to have not even noticed us as the policeman was chasing a guy out of the checkpoint while throwing a glass bottle at him. The bottle went flying passed Simon’s face and smashed on the ground. ‘Let’s not disturb them’, we thought, and quickly carried on cycling. About 20 km later we passed another checkpoint. The policeman, who had a Kalashnikov pointed directly at the passing vehicles (and us), gave us a big smile and thumbs up while we breezed passed him. Okay? Even though we had two more encounters with the police, they did not mention an escort. It seems the police on the east side (or this far up the Nile) don’t care much about convoys. We will have to see what happens farther down the river.
The first day of cycling up the Nile was filled with friendly people and children, waving and shouting “hello”, “welcome”, “how are you?” and sometimes “what is your name?” and “where are you from?”. As soon as we stopped somewhere on the street, people surrounded us out of amazement and kids gaped at us. I guess they’ve hardly seen many tourists come this way.
The farmland along the Nile is bright green with palm trees. So far in Cairo, we’ve only seen brown, brown and more brown but now along the Nile the tall palm trees and bright green crops stand out next to the brown desert sand. This is truly the lifeblood of Egypt.
We passed many donkey carts carrying crops and often traffic had to come to a halt when boys crossed streets with their donkeys and horses. Tuks tuks flew passed with teenage boys driving and beeping away at us… Often riding next us to speak the five English phrases above.
Unfortunately, wherever you are in the world, there can always be a few bad eggs. One guy followed us for a long time on his motorbike. He was asking Tanya awkward questions and eyeing up Simon’s bicycle. At one point Tanya was really trying to get rid of him while a police van came passed at the right moment. It was almost comical what happened next – the police driver intercepted him by opening his door and cutting him off with his car so he couldn’t ride away. The policeman then jumped out immediately while we cycled on. Some time later, the guy on the motorbike passed us and shortly behind him was the police car that hooted happily at us while we thanked them. We were very lucky they were around because we could not get rid of this guy!
We had another bad incident later, where two teenage boys were following us in their tuk tuk, mocking us in Arabic and laughing at us. They disappeared for a bit and then a few minutes later came racing past and slapped Tanya full force on the back. We pulled over a few minutes later to find our position on the map and the rascals were still following us. Tanya quickly told them she was calling the police, since her phone was already in her hand, and they quickly got the hell out of there. We never saw them again.
After 70 km up the Nile, we tried to look for a place to stay. After searching a few towns this turned out to be much, much more difficult than we thought. There are NO hotels in this area unless it is a very large town. The Nile is also so densely packed that wild camping here is impossible. We went into one town and were soon surrounded by kids again. Some villagers came out of their house to see what the commotion was about. They knocked at the church for us and an elderly man came out. We told him our predicament but he refused to help us. The Catholic church turned us away! A nice man came who knew more English came to us. He clearly wanted to help us but couldn’t. We gave him one of our cards and afterwards he sent us a message explaining:
“I apologize that I could not host you. The security situation in Egypt is unstable and I could have been subjected to legal accountability. I wanted to tell you that it was out of my will.”
After being turned away from the church, local people and not being able to find an open mosque, we decided to turn around and cycle 5 more kilometers back to the police station.
When we got there, the police didn’t help us. This was our last hope as it was getting dark and we had now run out of options. To make things a bit more crazy – it felt like the whole village had come out to see us and kids and teenagers surrounded us and our bicycles, looking very inquisitive. Even the adults telling them to go away didn’t help. We sat down at a local tea store and a very kind stranger called Fox came to our rescue. A friend of his had seen the commotion in the village and called him to come and help us.
Fox has spent many years in the UAE working and speaks English extremely well. It was like a breath of fresh air meeting him and somehow we knew we would be okay. He took care of us from that point on and we followed him to his mobile phone shop with a train of kids following behind us. We took refuge in his shop from the kids and later he took us to his home, where we met his family and enjoyed their amazing hospitality.
His mom fed us a delicious home made meal with more food than we could eat in an entire day. On the menu: spicy mini lemons, aish bread, fries with spices, rice stuffed cabbage, orange and jam cakes and some hot tea to wash it down. All of this we enjoyed with some comfy round cushions seated on the floor. After a hot shower, we were watching Dracula Untold with a cosy blanket, some freshly pressed orange juice, chocolate, bananas, nuts and Egyptian coffee prepared by Hala, his wife. Fox’s brother took such good care of us as well and another round of food followed later at which point we really tested our stomach capacity. It’s safe to say, we were pretty satisfied when we went to bed. You can’t even get this treatment in a 5* hotel and we are SO grateful to Fox for helping us when we were so lost!
For more photos from Egypt, see here.