In Tandem with Africa and Asia
Stage 12: Operation Carry Ben Collins…
Luxor to Hurgarda, 290km March 19-21st
I have endured some tough physical challenges on the journey so far: the hills & dirt roads of Kenya, the heat in South Sudan & headwind in the Nubian desert. But when Ben Collins, founder of Beyond Ourselves, announced that he would be joining me for a few days in Egypt, I knew I’d need all the strength & support I could find….
Ben is a man with a huge heart. I’ve really enjoyed working with him & his family run charity Beyond Ourselves over the last couple of years (his sister Jodie is now director). It was in 2008 that I started talking to him about getting involved in their work in Zambia. In 2009, I committed to doing a cycle ride between Zambia & the UK over a steak and beer at his home in North London. It seemed appropriate therefore for him to be on the back of Thandie for the final stretch on the main African continent.
Ben’s heart is proportional to the rest of his body:
‘Blockie, don’t worry mate’, he told me on the phone a few week before arrival; ‘I’m the lightest I’ve been since getting married.
‘Training going well? I thought I should ask. ’I’ve done one spin class at David Lloyd earlier this week’.
A challenge shared is a challenged halved. For such an operation, military, legal & family support always help. I was therefore delighted to be joined by Major Jon Lowe of the Army Air Corps, retired barrister, Tim Wakefield, with experience in personal injury & medical negligence & next of Kin to Ben, Duncan Collins. With my own training in first aid, we had most bases covered. To be honest recruitment for this leg had been difficult, limited by the security situation in Egypt. 4 westerners had been kidnapped in the Sinai in February. We therefore shelved plans for a bigger group ride in the Sinai on advice from the Foreign Office:
“There is a high threat from terrorism throughout Egypt, including in Sinai. Security is tight throughout the country, especially in resort areas. There is a high risk of indiscriminate attacks including public places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers, including but not limited to resorts, hotels and restaurants”.
The guys flew into Hurgarda and drove to Luxor where I had been enjoying a week of R&R after the 3 weeks cycle from Khartoum.
A week with in Luxor with Abdul (centre). Clockwise from top left. Final French concert in front of colossi of Memnon; temple of Hutshetsut; first beer in a month with a couple of mad Norwegians; Mohammed our guide for the various temples.
The drive allowed the guys to observe the road and check if there was anywhere to stay in the Eastern Desert that we’d be cycling through. Jon’s hand-drawn map spoke volumes for the quality of training at Sandhurst, with every landmark meticulously recorded along the road.
‘Mostly downhill’, Ben optimistically informed me when we met up at the hotel in Luxor. Judging gradient in a car is difficult. My GPS reckoned Luxor sat at some 350m above sea level so net net, we would be descending to the sea but not a lot. If their description of the road was right, I suspected that we’d be climbing quite a bit before the final descent.
All set are raring to go
Luxor is described in the guidebooks as the world’s best open air museum. I’d visited the legendary Valley of Kings & Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (fondly known as ‘hotschickensoup’) with Adbul’s cousin Mohammed but saved Karnak Temple until the arrival of Ben & team. Karnack is awe-inspiring, started in 1500 B.C with architecture not matched in Europe for some 3000 years. Hypostyle Hall, just one part of the temple is the same size as Notre dame, composed of 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters. Hatshepsut’s obelisk, shipped a couple of hundred Kms down the Nile from the quarries at Aswan, is nearly 30m high and weighs over 300 tonnes. Mohammed told us that the Queen wanted to make her obelisk the biggest ever built, to show the men that women can be equally as strong: sadly, sexual equality is still somewhat of a foreign concept in most of modern Arabia.
Karnak Temple. The second picture shows how the Ancient Egyptians managed to build the Obelisks…
Although we only had 70km to do to get to Qena where we planned to spend the first night, the visit to Karnack meant that we finally set off at midday, having picked up some sandwiches from Abdul’s restaurant, situated right opposite the impressive Colossi of Memnon. Our efforts to get the ride underway were further frustrated by an early puncture. Thandie had done nearly 10,000km and had suffered just 1 puncture, thanks to some bulletproof tyres, kindly donated by Schawlbe. By the time we would reach Hurgarda, both the single bikes would have already picked up one each. Nonetheless, having passed the entrance to the valley of kings and Howard Carter’s house – he had discovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 – we made good progress out of Luxor along the desert road to Qena, arriving with an hour of daylight remaining. Ben showed good power on the back of Thandie and I kept him going with the thought of a cold beer at the other end.
The bicycle is the best way to see the sites in Luxor. Parked up outside the Collosi of Memnon.
Our first puncture 5km into the journey
A welcome bit of shade in the middle of the desert road to Qena. 70km wasn’t enough for Major JP Lowe…
Mohammed had kindly helped to source a local hotel for us in town. Sadly, his original suggestion was fully booked. In contrast to Luxor, this is not a tourist town and thus the demand is driven by the local economy. Perhaps it was enjoying the post revolution freedom, we pondered over a massive meal in a local restaurant for roughly £2.50 each, before retiring to the ‘New Palace’ hotel. No tourists meant that we got a good sense of a real Egyptian town but it had its downsides. Firstly, there was nothing new or palatial about the hotel. Secondly, there wasn’t a beer in sight, although I suggested that this might be a blessing in disguise with two 100+km days ahead of us.
We had provisionally organised with a gent called Yousuf to camp next to his shop, some 90km from Qena. Driven on by Major Lowe and a surprising tailwind, we arrived there for a late lunch, despite the best efforts of the local police to keep us at their checkpoint for the afternoon.
The fugitive’s name is....
Operation Carry Ben Collins continues on day ii...
With Yousuf not to be seen and his cousin’s offer of a space on his shopfloor not that enticing, we decided to push on, with the team keen to experience a night ‘camping sauvage’ in the desert under the stars. It was my task to identify a safe camping spot off the road. It wasn’t as easy as Sudan with more people on the road and the challenge of hiding our support truck as well as 3 bikes. My first suggestion looked good until some locals drove past on the track I had chosen and told us that we were likely to be robbed if we camped there. As night approached, I decided it might be better to seek hospitality and found it with a welcoming family living in a couple of huts well hidden from the road. They greeted me with the kind of hospitality that I’ve become accustomed to in this region but their kindness clearly moved the others. I explained the trip and what we required with a mixture of Arabic, English & signs and they let us sleep in a hut next to theirs. We enjoyed some chaai with them and gifted them a big box of local cakes that we had purchased in Qena.
Our Campsite in the desert
Cooking dinner of boil in the bag
After some army rations of boil in the bag, we settled down for a restful night, all cuddled up together. Duncan was the first to pass out and we all followed despite his best effort to keep the rest of us awake with his snoring. But he’s not a heavy sleeper: at about midnight, he eventually managed to wake me up on the third attempt. ‘Blockie, I think we’re about to get robbed!’… A car had pulled up and there was some confused and seemingly distressed conversation going on outside. I had forgotten to tell Duncan that one of the boys in the household was deaf and sounded a bit distressed whenever he talked. As it turned out, some friends of the family must have turned up for some late night chaai.
With Adala. He was deaf but this didn’t affect his ability to understand my map and signs that I drew in the sand to help explain the journey.
On the final day, we calculated that we had just over 100km to Hurgarda. With the promise of half of it being downhill, we set off in good spirits, looking forward to lunchtime celebratory beers in Hurgarda. We averaged some 30km/h before 9am, broken up by a relaxing breakfast in a roadside café. The morning mist (or was it sand?) made for an eerie atmosphere as the road wound its way down through the mountainous & barren landscape.
We took breakfast in good spirits but the wind was clearly picking up and the final 20km descent to the coast was effectively like pedalling along a flat road despite genuine downhill on good tarmac. Duncan was on the tandem at the time and we agreed that it was likely that the wind was being funnelled up the valley from the coast. As we hit the coastal road at Sagara, the wind showed its true force.
Ben & Jon battling into the desert headwind on day III.
A relaxed breakfast stop…
45km into this headwind was going to take 4 hours in the saddle and we quickly put back our ETA for Hurgada. The headwind put a big dent in team moral. Ben later told us that he was ready to let Duncan take on some of this stretch. But thanks to working well as a team & fuelled by some cold boil in the bag (yum, yum), we made it to Hurgarda by mid afternoon. The final road had certainly been type II fun (no fun doing it but fun reflecting on it!), we agreed over a couple of Stella (local Egpytian brew).
Hurgarda is dominated by Russians, attracted by the cheap flights and winter sun (Europeans can no longer afford it!). It seemed that we were the only 4 flying the British flag in the hotel. Nonetheless we managed to battle our way to some sunloungers for a day’s R&R and enjoyed an amusing night in a basement nightclub with no sign but for a bright orange door! Ben, Jon & Duncan then flew home whilst Tim & I headed on to Dahab where I’m currently enjoying a week’s holiday & windsurfing with our families. Our attempt to cycle from the airport where thwarted at the first police checkpoint, less than 10km from the airport. ‘Not safe to cycle, you must go back to Sharm’, declared an over-zealous police officer running the checkpoint. He didn’t look like a man to mess with, with his handgun ready on the hip. Nonetheless, his junior recruits were nice enough and helped us to hitch a ride on the back of a pick-up. Not quite what we had planned but our mission ‘Carry Ben Collins’ for the week had at least been accomplished.
What happens behind the orange door?
Sadly, the police didn’t let us cycle the final stretch to Dahab… TIm seems happy enough not cycling ;)