In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle
17 minutes reading time (3429 words)

Stage 13: From Red to Dead & Rising again…

Dahab to Tel Aviv, 1st -18th April,  990km

The route for this stage would take me along the northern most part of the Great Rift Valley from the Red to the Dead Sea and north along the Jordan Valley. Named as such for geological reasons by the 19th Century British explorer John Walter Gregory, it has also sadly marked somewhat of a political & religious rift through the ages. What better time to visit than during the Jewish Passover & Christian Easter…?

You don’t need be a geologist to appreciate that such a valley is probably going to be hilly. I hadn’t been able to find a suitable topographical map so was again relying on motorists’ observations for the week ahead. Most drivers that I spoke to agreed that the first day to Nuwebia involved a decent climb. This was to be my last day in Africa (if you can include the Sinai in Africa!) so it seemed appropriate to have my dad on the back. After all, it has been his idea back in 1972 to drive down through Africa in a VW campervan with a willing wife as a companion. Their trip was the initial inspiration for my own.

When the heavy breathing started behind me soon after Dahab despite the chill (6am start) & gradual ascent, I realised we might be in for a long morning! To Dad’s credit, despite an obviously uncomfortable posterior and tired legs, he battled all the way up the hill (800m vertical in 50kms) and was ‘rewarded’ with a 75 km/h descent on the other side. We were also treated to some magnificent scenery and a pleasant cup of chaai in a roadside shack near the summit.

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Near the top of the hill on the first day.

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The early origins of the trip, before the author was conceived….

There were 6 potential stokers for the week from Dahab (Red Sea) to the Dead Sea, with this making up the Block/Wakefield family holiday leg. Bucking the trend apparent in European tourists to avoid the Middle East, it was a great time to visit some of the wonderful sites in the region. With a rotation system in place, my sister took over for the descent to Nuwebia (she would more than pay 2 days later!) with her husband Tim taking over for the climb to Wadi Rum from Aquaba. With the delayed ferry, we only made it half way up in daylight and welcomed a lift for the last 30km rather than braving the desert highway in the dark. We arrived at the campsite in Wadi Rum at 8.30pm, tired and hungry after more than 14 hours of travelling.

Arriving anywhere in the dark (especially when asleep!) makes waking up the next morning even more intriguing. My family had kindly organised the itinerary and I therefore arrived in Jordan with little expectation. Wadi Rum would have smashed any expectation for scenic beauty and I would certainly reiterate guidebooks’comments that this is one of the most magical deserts in the world, made famous by our very own Lawrence of Arabia. The region was underwater a ‘mere’ 100,000 years ago, giving the sandstone rocks formations the appearance of being created by an ancient dribbling & drunken giant.

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My Neice Alice at Wadi rum  - beautiful mountains surrounded by deep red sand.

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A camel or duneboard is the best way to get around in this environment. Cousin Harry & Neice Daisy

When the lonely planet talks up a place as one of the most spectacular deserts on planet earth, it is going to attract tourists, irrespective of its proximity to Syria & Egypt. Enjoying another dramatic sunset that evening, I was disappointed to hear an English couple nearby discussing the similarities between the slate formation beneath us & the latest John Lewis bathroom tiles. Oh dear!

‘I wish the sun would hurry up’, someone else chirped up, obviously more interested in her gin & tonic being chilled back at camp. ‘Don’t worry, Sky + will soon be available for real time consumption’, Tim replied.

Earlier in the day, another tourist jeep had pulled up alongside us at the ruins to Lawrence of Arabia’s desert house. A Chinese lady sat in the back wearing a dust mask despite non-existent wind. ‘Try cycling through the Sudanese desert during a sandstorm’, I thought to myself. ‘And hang on, what about living in Shanghai!’ Meanwhile, her Aussie companion asked their guide to take a photo of Lawrence’s house because she couldn’t be bothered to get out of the jeep. Her action became a running joke for the rest of the week.

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The team enjoying Wadi Rum in the back of the jeep. Please note that we got out to take photos!

On the following day, we transferred to Petra, made famous partly by another Hollywood movie. I’m embarrassed to say that it was Indiana Jones rather than the true history that came to mind as I approached the iconic treasury at this most amazing ancient city.

I was joined by 3 stokers en route, in descending age. Mum joined for the first 25km from Wadi Rum to the main highway, becoming the oldest female stoker on the trip so far.  Mothers can be nervous passengers at the best of times so I was happy that the road was 1) flat/downhill & 2) relatively quiet. I employed my usual technique of cycling in the centre of the road to slow traffic down from behind before pulling back towards the shoulder when I deemed it safe for them to overtake. I explained this to Mum, but was shocked when a local decided to undertake me on the rough shoulder just as we were being overtaken at the same time. I shrugged it off as casually as possible, happy that Mum couldn’t see my nervous face!

My sister then took over, just as the day was warming up. We had been warned by Akmed, the campsite manager that the desert highway climbed steeply before the turnoff to the famous Kings Highway. With 10km to go before the turnoff, Sod’s Law ensured that the hill started just as the sun hit its highest point for the day. An hour later, we turned off to the Kings Highway, some 700m climbed with Nic having determinedly pulled her weight all the way. But there was clearly little left in her tank at the top.  That night, my poor sister was taking on fluids through an IV drip!

Fi Prohpet, the only non-family member on the trip then took over for the next day and a half of riding to Dana some 100km along the magical & historic Kings Highway. The Bible notes that Moses attempted this route whilst heading north with the Israelites. It also served as an important ancient trading route. It is blessed with breathtaking views and rich historic sites from biblical times to the Crusades.

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The Kings Highway - a route rich in history: at the Crusader Castle half way to Dana

Despite the physical serenity of the region, guidebooks also warn cyclist to be weary of kids throwing stones. I had experienced some of this in Egypt so knew the signs to look out for (kids attracting your attention whilst their mates bend down to innocently pick up rocks from the roadside). So when we came across a big group of kids sporting army fatigues (either this was the school uniform or they were cadets – I didn’t stop to enquire!), I sensed we might be in trouble. Fortunately, we were on a downhill therefore were cruising at 45km/h in any case and so just accelerated. Coincidentally, Top Gun was playing on Thandie’s music system. It felt like a scene out of some crass Hollywood war movie, weaving in and out of young arabs in uniform, trying to avoid the odd missile. ‘Goose, I’m switching to guns…’

We had a most relaxing day in Dana’s nature reserve, an area that somehow combined the Welsh Black Mountains in summer (rugged but green with narrow single track road) & the French Provence (olive trees enjoying the dry heat).

The restful day set up nicely for the final push of the family leg to the dead sea. With around 150km to pedal, my sister & I made an early start, creeping out of our tents at 5am. By 8am, we were enjoying breakfast at 1500m with most of the day’s climbing in the rear view mirror and building up to what would be an exciting 17km decent of nearly 1800m vertical to the Dead Sea. The hairpins made for some spectacular views but when I found a couple of kilometres of straight, steep road, I cried out to Nic to keep still & her head down. Meanwhile, I prayed for no potholes or burst tyres and let the brakes go…

Lets just say that I only showed her the bike computer once she had a warm cup of tea in her hand!

 

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She told me she always trusted me to keep her safe…

By 11am when we hit southerly point of the Dead Sea, more than 100km were on the clock and we started wondering what had happened to the fun bus/support vehicle. Had they somehow managed to get lost on the way to Dana. ‘Not again’, I thought. Would it be another case of Thandie supporting the support vehicle…?

Eventually it arrived. Cousin Harry, still suffering a bit from too much sun/local food, took over for a couple of hills before Tim finished off the ride and we enjoyed reflecting on a fun 3 weeks together from Luxor.

After a celebratory dinner, the token mud rub & float in the dead sea, the fun bus pulled off the next day heading for the airport, leaving me to cycle solo into Israel. The family holiday had marked the end of my African adventure and the start of the homeward leg to London. Plain sailing, I contently thought as I pedalled towards the King Hussein Bridge, which marks the border between Jordan & Israel. I love cycling over bridges given that their association with history and the view of the river or valley that lies beneath them. Had the famous Jordan river really dried into little more than a flow of sewage in the dry season, as I read earlier in the week? Jordan would run out of water in 20 years, according to some experts.  

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Floating in the dead sea..

Cycling 2 kms would usually take 5 mins. 4 ½ hours later, I was finally allowed to cross into Israel.

I sensed it wasn’t going to be straightforward when I was stopped at the Jordan side. Having picked up my exit stamp (on a separate piece of paper to allow me to return to certain Arab countries after Israel), I was ready to get back on my bike to cross to the border.

‘You can’t cycle across the bridge!’ declared Saddam Hussein, the official whose name I would later learn.

‘Take a seat, you can come with me!?’, I offered, smiling. Such offers had regularly worked to placate officious policemen at checkpoint throughout my journey.

He retained his serious look, which answered my question.

“Why not?” I was feeling bullish.

“They will shoot you…”

‘Ha Ha, Who will shoot me?’ My attempt to laugh it off wasn’t working.

‘The Israelis – you know: snipers’. Saddam cocked his thumb/finger into the shape of a gun to emphasis the point.

‘You must take the bus’. ‘OK’, I reluctantly conceded defeat.

Saddam was actually a very nice guy and we chatted whilst waiting for a big enough bus for Thandie. He was named after the brutal Iraqi dictator and had even called his sons after Sadam’s brothers. I decided not to voice my opinion on the late leader, reflecting on how he has obviously been portrayed in very different lights in the West versus parts of the Middle East. He also helped me negotiate with the angry bus driver who tried to charge me the equivalent of 10 suitcases for Thandie.

The painful border crossing was just beginning, however.

Israeli security glanced me up and down and took the view that my beard and Sudan stamp could mean that I was a Palestinian sympathiser, especially when I failed to pronounce Haifa correctly – one of the places I suggested I would be visiting.

But they eventually let me through after an hour and breathed a sigh of relief having seemingly managed to answer their questions satisfactorily. I chose a kind smiling woman at the passport control, assuming this would be a formality. The questions began again, especially after I asked for a stamp on a separate piece of paper.

‘Why?’ ‘Well, I might want to return to some of the Arab countries that I’ve visited’. Where?’ ‘Egypt, Jordan’ … ‘You can do that with our stamp’’ Ok, Sudan?’ ‘Why’. Her quick tongue and monosyllabic tone implied that her smile wasn’t so fair after all. ‘It’s a lovely country’… with people much nicer than the Israelis I’ve met in the last 2 hours, I thought silently.

‘Do you plan to visit the West Bank?’. ‘Um, maybe…’ I was going to be cycling around the country so it is sort of inevitable.

She disappeared for 5 mins before returning with a form for me to fill in and pointed towards a seating area occupied by a group of Asian & Arabs. ‘Please go and wait over there’. I was panicking – had I said the wrong thing, would they let me in. I had told Hagai, my host in Jerusalem that I’d be there sometime that afternoon. A couple of Irish guys were also waiting an English Guy, Ed Russell, who assured me it was normal…. to wait for a few hours L

Time was ticking and by the time they eventually let me through, the prospect of making it all the way to Jerusalem – only 45km but 1200m of vertical - were fast receding.

I said farewell to Ed and pedalled off hopefully. When I was turned back at the final checkpoint for not having the right paperwork, I despaired but I eventually made it out just before 4pm.

The combination of gradient & strong afternoon sun meant that it was never going to be realistic to get to Jerusalem. I conceded defeat at 6pm, 25km short & started looking for a place to camp. I rode past a place called the Good Samartian. If there was a time, this was it. Maybe God was guiding me to this place: it was just a place name! It was the Passover holiday so it might be tough to find a place. Ed had talked about plenty of Bedouin Camps on the way up but, whist probably overblow, everyone at the service station where I eventually stopped warned me against trying. Cycle forums of brave campers in the area told stories of being woken up by a M16s belonging to inquisitive IDF soldiers. I prefer to wake up with the sun.

Having communicated to Hagai on the sat phone (buying a SIM card is not as easy as Africa!) that I wouldn’t be arriving that night, I discovered a semi –formal camping spot just off the road. David, a local Jewish settler with a vision to bring all people together through his campsite, has set it up 2 days previously. I ended up meeting a lovely family camping next to me and shared dinner with them. Tamir, the father was a keen cyclist, taking an interest in my trip. 4 days later, I would be enjoying wonderful hospitality with his in-laws in a kibbutz just south of the Sea of Galilee. It is funny how these things work out, I thought to myself that night, enjoying my first night back in my own tent since Luxor. For the first time in 2012, I heard the soft pattering of rain on my tent in the middle of the night. The weather had changed, signalled by a very strong wind in the early evening. It meant for a cooler and more pleasant cycle up the hill in the morning.

 

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Wailing at the Western Wall...

The next 10 days cycling around Israel and the Palestinian territories reinforced two views. Firstly, that this is one complicated region. As an outsider, it is easy to sympathise with both sides & I really hope that a peaceful solution evolves. But how Tony Blair, responsible for an illegitimate British supported invasion in neighbouring Iraq, got the job as special peace envoy, God (or someone in Washington?) only knows. Secondly, on a more positive note, it reinforced my firm belief in Humanity. Whatever colour the skin or flag, height, shape of nose or bum (I only say this because certain tribes in Africa could tell themselves apart with this metric!), 99% of people are kind and generally willing to help outsiders, especially in the developing world. In both Israel and the West Bank, Mike Biggs & I, my stoker from Jerusalem to Nazareth, would meet wonderful people, despite the obvious animosity between the two sides. ‘Israel is a developed country with a developing people’, someone had informed me in Uganda. Interestingly, Uganda was one of the candidates for the new Jewish nation state post the Holocaust.

 

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Hagai Mayer & Mike BIggs enjoy a traditonal passover meal. Can you spot the bread?

ow I’m running out of time to finish this blog. ‘Thank goodness’, I hear you say. Well done if you’ve made it this far. The Jersualem Post did an article on the ride which helps! I’ve just started the Dallagio & Flintoff Cycle Slam. The Cranleigh parent who is overseeing the ride wants to average more than 150km per day. Luckily, I’ve got my very own bamboo bike, with the frame built by Zambikes, who we partnered with for the group ride ride last August. It has managed 300km in 2 days and is a great ride. Lawerence Dallagio told me yesterday that he wants one. He also asked me how much I value my beard… oh dear.

Thandie gets an upgrade! Dallagio tells me he wants to buy a bamboo bike....

 I’m therefore going to try and summarise in a few bullet points the highlights for those interested. As a teacher, this is what I tell my students when they are running out of time to finish an essay in an exam!

-           Understanding the traditions of Passover with Hagai’s family in Jerusalem and visiting the Holocaust museum there. Such museums are so important to help the human race avoid such terrible genocide in the future.

-          Drinking tea and playing cards in a traditional tea house in the old town in Nablus in the West Bank with Mike Biggs.

-          Cycling through the lush agricultural valleys near the Jordan Valley and the vineyards on the west coast.

-          discussing the history of Neve Ur Kibbutz with Sholomon’s family..

-          Observing & trying to understand the histories of the three Abrahamic religions at such a holy time for two of them with Easter & Passover happening during my visit. So many deaths have occurred due to the division in this region since the time of old testament. But do we not all believe in the same God?  

-          Drinking a beer on the beach in Tel Aviv and forgetting about politics & the previous point. They say Tel Avivians live in their own hedonistic bubble. It is therefore somewhat ironic that I ended up eating my emergency ratio pack (carried all the way from South Africa) on my first night in the ‘city that never sleeps’. The whole country respectfully closes down to pay its respect to the Holocaust victims one day each year.

Thanks a lot to my wonderful hosts & people who have helped me in the last 10 days -  apologies if my spelling isn’t quite right & the people that I missed out: Tamir & family on the first night; Hagai & family in Jerusalem; Shalomon, Lea & Noga in Neve Ur; The guys at Fauzi Azar in Nazareth (a very cool place to stay & chill in Nazareth) Simon from Blackburn (!) for the beers in Caseara; Yuval & Liat in Kadima, Moshe Kalige and Michal & her family in Tel Aviv.

Some Highlights of Israel & the Palestinian territories. (clockwise, from top left) Cows in a Kibbutz, the closed market at Nablus, Visiting the holy sight and some big hills below sea level....

 

 

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