Sunday 25 March 2012

Odyssey farewells Africa (for now)

And here we have the final updates from Rogan and Alison after their epic Cape Town to Cairo journey.  We (Pete and Kirsten) would like to say a huge thank you to both of them for everything they have done to make this another great Odyssey Overland expedition.

Farewell from Al...

You may by now have gathered that Athena didn’t make it in time to come with us to the Western Desert, which unfortunately meant Rogan couldn’t come either, and so we had to make do with a mini-bus for 4 days. Furthermore, we went the long way round as a section of road was rumoured to be closed. This meant we didn’t make our planned destination for the first night, and ended up staying in Kharga Oasis – the first of the oases on the desert loop. It seems Kharga only has about 3 hotels, and all of them look like they haven’t been stayed in for years. Dust has settled, plaster is coming off the walls, no signs of life bar the caretakers who appear after some time spent looking for them, and then ask a price far higher than the room is worth. Anyway, we settled for one of these hotels for the night (didn’t have a choice really) and went out for a local meal in town, followed by our police convoy that had now joined us.  This has happened to us previously in the Western Desert – you have to report to the tourism police and then they seem to accompany everywhere you go – last year they even slept in their cars next to where we were bushcamping for the night.

Anyway, an early start the next day took us on through Dakla Oasis, with a stop to explore the medi-evil mud settlement in Al-Qasr (and a longer stop queuing for fuel, which Egypt seems to be short of ‘since the revolution’), and then through Farafra Oasis and into the White Desert. Finding where our Bedouin-type camp had been set up for us, behind all the rock formations in the White Desert, without phone signal, proved a bit difficult, but we got there, arriving at sunset to a great fire and a wonderful set-up under the stars. A brightly decorated enclosure, with carpets, mattresses, blankets and 1 long low table to dine around – it was magical, and worth the 2 long days to get there. And great to be able to sleep out under the stars.

The White Desert is full of interesting mushroom-type rock formations, great for exploring, climbing and experimenting with photos as the colours and light change. After the White Desert comes the Black Desert, less impressive but the rocks covering the sand really are black.

For our last night in the Western Desert, we were at Eden Garden Camp near Bawiti. It has a hot spring right on it’s doorstep, with a warm (if orange) swimming pool, hot showers, flushing toilets, even toilet paper (these things that make all the difference!), and 2 lovely areas to chill in – an open area with shade and cushions and low tables for the day, and an enclosed carpeted tent with a fire place in the middle for the evening. Our host, Talaat, who had also arranged our camp in the White Desert, laid out a wonderful spread for us and organised live Bedouin music as the entertainment for the evening. A great night with dancing, shishas, and an attempt at waking up Jonny on his birthday by barging into his room at midnight, only to find that he’d called our bluff and wasn’t there! Thanks to Talaat and his team for the wonderful camps and warm hospitality.

And so, on day 139, we headed for Cairo, and as we entered the chaos and traffic of Cairo, first we glimpsed the pyramids, the next landmark was Athena outside our hotel, and then Rogan (and yes, it’s getting cheesy and sentimental).
Cape Town to Cairo complete.

Farewell from Rogan... 
OK, so you've all read what the rest of the group has been up to moving onto up through Luxor and out into the Western Desert before arriving in Cairo.  My end of things saw a lot of waiting around in Aswan constantly finding out updates of low water levels, high winds, holy days and a host of other reasons why the truck would still be just another few days.
Getting very used to walking along the Nile hanging out with Felucca Captains who reminisce about the "old" days when tourists used to find them for a trip to Elephantine Island and the partying on Hotel roof tops to these days when they have to practically pray upon them. Gotta feel sorry for those over here who struggle to make ends meet after the recent revolution has put a huge strain on visitor numbers.
Eventually we find out we can free the trucks from barge captivity on Saturday morning almost 2 weeks since we arrived in Wadi Halfa only 400km away as the crow flies, but unfortunately for travellers there is no road route open for us only for cargo trucks! Head down to the port with local fixer Mohammod and Ollie (one crew from a Dragoman truck also waiting for his truck). Getting the truck in requires: compiling two folders of loads of paperwork relating to Egyptian number plates, driving licences, customs taxes, insurance etc and takes almost a whole day. 
Eventually we are allowed to get Athena off the barge so we head down to start getting stuck in literally. With a bit of towing to get the Drago truck back up after grounding out the rear end we were on terra firma and in Egypt!!

A few more hours tinkering with the truck thanks to Athena getting bogged in deep mud in the loading process (due to lower water levels) and getting towed out by the Drago truck before reloading on a proper jetty! The result was front brake drums full of mud and stones resulting in some awful noises as I drove her into the customs area. So a few hours wiping off wheels and cleaning it all up and a bit of grease here and there saw us with new Egyptian plates in our hands to hang front and rear. Done sorted and we're allowed to escape the port and hit the road, feels good to get rolling again after so long hanging around, Ollie and I head north and stop over night in Luxor. 

The next day sees an early start delayed by Ollie's truck refusing to start so, unwinding the hand brake and more towing and we swing out of town and head through some amazing desert scenery on our way up the Red Sea highway towards Cairo. 
The first night saw us queueing for fuel for a hour or so as there is a massive shortage in the country at the moment with all fuel stations either totally closed or with large queues snaking down the road; surprising for a country that produces a fair amount of oil and surrounded by neighbours who supply the world.  Motel for the night as camping on side of the road wasn't too tempting with no where to shelter from the crazy winds, no wonder as far as the eye could see are wind turbines; so a night in the not so fancy Sahara Motel for us.
An early morning start after a quick but very windy oil change on Athena and another tow start for Ollie saw us wind our last 300km or so into Cairo just after midday. A bit of dancing and excited cheering behind the wheel from us as we passed the final toll gate welcoming us to the city. 

Cairo for those who don't know is home to the most frantic horn bashing drivers you can ever experience. A city with a population that swells to almost 25 million during the day where 5 lane roads mean 8 abreast where anything goes, amazing that you don't see more crashes although even the shiniest Mercs have dings and scrapes upon closer inspection.
Its a good feeling to finally park up at the hotel, its been a long drive from Cape Town but it definitely beats the alternative of a 6 hour flight! There have been long days and short days, rain, sun, sand and mud, even no roads at times but Athena has done us all proud once again. As our trip t-shirts say on the sleeve (courtesy of Mike) Athena's Last Dance; don't know much about dance moves myself but lets just say we've waltzed into Cairo the Odyssey way. 

Even beat the rest of the group who arrived later in the afternoon after their chilled out time living the bedouin life style camping out in the dunes.
Good to kick back in a really nice hotel with a roof top view of the pyramids complete with a swimming pool in a boat (maybe a tad chilly for a dip). To group headed out the next day to explore the pyramids and dig deep into Egyptian history and get up close and personal with Mummies in the Museum. Our final night we headed down town to a excellent Lebanese Restaurant where we shared a great last night.

These trips do sound long when you think that for 5 months you'll all be stuck together bumping along in the back of a truck but when you finally reach that destination you've been aiming for you think what happened? That was quick! You reach the halfway mark and time just starts accelerating, and then bang, you are in Cairo. But when you look back on everything that we have seen, done, eaten and the places we have had the privilege to bush camp, at the people who we've met along the way, you think yeah actually we've done a hell of a lot.

I've rambled on enough now and most have probably stopped reading, but anyhow hope you've all enjoyed the journey as much as we have! 

Farewell from Athena...

The facts:
15 Countries 

140 days

21,437 km

One final note important to some of those in the truck. Just need a mention for a person who has not once upgraded to a bed even when free of charge, who has roughed it in his tent the whole time (not even moved the tent under a shelter in strong rain). Martin wins the award for toughest camper followed by Graham.  Well done guys.

Monday 19 March 2012

Hot air balloons, feluccas, souqs and feasts in Egypt

A couple of days in Aswan saw most of the group visiting Abu Simbel, half way back down Lake Nasser, but by road this time. Some also saw the Philae Temple and the High Dam, and the Nubian Museum. Most of us experienced the souq – to a greater or lesser degree. While the Egyptians are very hospitable and are forever offering cups of tea or kakadeh (hibiscus tea), I think they give the most hassle of any of the places we’ve been. Everything is negotiable, looking is free, ‘no hassle’ is advertised, but surely when you start a sentence with ‘no hassle, I promise,’ it’s already begun? There are a lot of quirky sales pitches like ‘I don’t know what you want but whatever you need I have it’, but there are also the cheesy/sleezy pick-up lines and they never seem to give up or take no for an answer. Nonetheless, there have been some successful purchases in the souqs – silver, papyrus, new T-shirts.

For us overlanders staying in the more budget-end of accommodation, it is sometimes nice to see how other people do Egypt. The recently refurbished Cataract Hotel, featured in Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’ provided some the opportunity to be transported to a different world for an afternoon or evening. Massive chandeliers, low lighting, canapĂ©s and sangria, good service and a wonderful view of the Nile. That doesn’t quite do it justice, but I’m sure you can imagine.

Next up was a day and a night on a felucca sailing slowly down the Nile during the day, and sleeping on deck at night. You have to forget about time, and just chill – play cards (or learn to play backgammon), listen to music, read, swim, have a couple of beers, and get served delicious Egyptian food by the crew. It was a new for Odyssey this year but I think a highlight, and definitely to be repeated when we come back! That took us in the direction of Luxor – though only a few km’s out of Aswan in reality.

From there we made a stop at Edfu temple before arriving, pretty hungry, in Luxor.  Another souq, more hassle, but once you get past that, heaps to do. Formerly called Thebes, this area is rich in history. Karnak and Luxor Temples and various museums are on the east bank, while the west bank is where the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, Nobles and Workers are – tombs and burial chambers of the Pharoahs, among others. Visiting these ancient tombs and chambers that are carved into the mountain, some with long passages, it is amazing (and sometimes questionable) that some of the painting and engravings are so well preserved, still with bright colours – 3500 years down the line.  And  archaeologists are still discovering and uncovering more.

Egypt seems to be the cheapest place in the world for hot-air balloon trips – you can get in a hot air balloon for about 40$. Mike, Jane, Jen, Pete and Kath were wise enough to go at the first opportunity they had, and it didn’t disappoint, but this morning saw 13 of us up at 5am for a balloon ride but unfortunately it was too windy to fly. Enshallah, tomorrow – though that means another early start!

We’ve also had some fun and interesting nights out in Egypt. There was a visit to a Nubian village across the river in Aswan. A relaxing afternoon-evening, with a boat trip up past Elephantine Island and the first cataract to a village on the west bank. Again, delicious Nubian food and warm hosts.

Then there was the belly-dancing bar/brothel in Luxor. Most of the Egyptian women we have seen thus far are covered from head to toe, not much of their body exposed, so it’s a completely different side at such a bar, where the women aren’t wearing much. Afraid I wasn’t there so you’ll have to hear the stories and see the pics from those went.

We’ve also found an expat-side of Luxor, with a variety of restaurants offering international cuisine. While it’s good to embrace the culture and eat locally, I think 19 weeks down the line, many people welcomed pub food last night – and the happy hour cocktails...

We are missing (in all meanings of the word) Athena who is still busy crossing Lake Nasser. There were delays for her barge departing Wadi Halfa as it was still full of cargo from the inbound journey, and then once it was ready to sail there have apparently been strong head winds and bad visibility causing very slow going.  Enshallah she arrives today in Egypt and her and Rogan catch up with us in Luxor for our final stint in the western desert, otherwise we’ll be doing it with a bus not a truck – taking us back to our ‘Bearing days’  in South Africa.

PS - The group has now all been reunited in Cairo for their last day together on their epic journey from Cape Town to Cairo.

Friday 9 March 2012

Is it a truck... is it a train?

Hey folks just a quick update on where we are and where we've been the last week or so. Having left the highlands and mountains of Ethiopia behind us we now cruised along and up through Khartoum where we stopped off for a couple of days camping on the edge of the Blue Nile. Everyone had a chance to explore the souks across the river in the Ondurman area where all manner of items were purchased from huge metal trays by Di and Jonny to surf down the sand dunes on, to swords, old Sudanese coins and lots of kaftans for the ladies. We also got the group registered at the Aliens department another of the hurdles we jump through in Sudan. 

Passports back in our possession and we headed further north for some more stunning bushcamps out in the desert as we wind our way up following the East Nile to start before veering north towards Wadi Halfa or as Abby still calls it, Wadi Halfy.

Our first detour from the tar was to head off down the sandy tracks towards the temples of Naqa and Musawwarat dating back to 270AD, actually still in very good condition these two sites offer people a unique opportunity to experience these sites out in the sticks. Sand piling up on the side of the walls where the desert winds blow, its great - it's nothing like turning up in a tour bus filing out through ticket gates, we even had to get the spades down from the roof to dig and sand mat our way across a very sandy dried up river bed washed through by last seasons rains.

 A quick stop the next day in Shendi, now a small market town and a good spot to stock up on ice and essentials like soft drinks to keep a thirsty truck moving along. You wouldn't know it but Shendi once used to be the biggest market town in Sudan before Khartoum took over the mantle, its biggest trade being in slaves heading out towards the coastal port of Suakin and the onto Jeddah and Cairo, they even had three days trial and return policies.

Just a little further up the road our next ancient historical site all to ourselves perched up high on the sand dunes is Meroe. An burial site that houses over 100 tombs of Kushite Kings and Nobles dating back to 800 BC influenced heavily by the Egyptians style of building.  These pyramids shaped tombs are a sight to behold, we bush camped  tucked up close to the sand dunes for some wind protection, a chance for the "sand trays" to get used. Unfortunately the trays did not hold the promise we thought they would, you guys probably aren't surprised! 

Being so close to the pyramids folks were able to sneak in over the dunes to snap an amazing sunset over the ruins, special stuff.

Our path further north presented two options, option 1 a tar road that follows the course of the Nile smoothly all the way to the ferry at Wadi Halfa or option 2, tar for half the way and then a route following the train tracks out and across the sands of the great Nubian desert. After chatting with the group we chose option 2, what a hard core bunch hey even after 18 weeks on the road!

So we drove north to Abu Hamed the next day where we stocked up on water and snacks the perfect partner for a desert crossing. That night we passed our first station no.10 (will be doing the count down to 1) we heading out to find a sweet bushcamp tucked up behind some massive rocks.  A windy night was had by all as the rocks failed to offer protections they appeared to offer! 

We journeyed further into the desert passing station 9/10 (they do half stations over here) before the winds picked up again and slowed down progress a bit as visibility reduced, luckily not for long until we had stunning blue skies again and jaw dropping desert scenery to keep us occupied as we ticked stations off our list. 

By the end of our first day we'd covered over 230km of sand following the train tracks and telegraph poles that appear seemingly never ending as they wind their way off into the distance. 

We'd passed and survived the stint between station 4 and 5 that was rumoured to be the deepest sandiest section, with a combination of skill and luck (I say skill others argue against that); we did make an impressive sprint across thickening sand to make it back and up onto the tracks for a km or so. But Athena the train saw us all the way into another brilliant bush camp, surprisingly without big rocks this time hardly any wind so following a mad hatters party and egg baps the next morning we were on our way heading in a relaxed fashions for the last 3 stations and lunch time arrival in Wadi Halfa.

But before we hit town a stop at station 2 rewarded us with the opportunity to revive a handcar train thingy (please look up official names on internet) that had been left upside down on the sand. The guys got it back onto its wheels and we had a great time pretending to be in wild west movies chased by indians or something gallivanting up and down the tracks.  Jonny and Martin once back on the truck regret not rolling the last 47km into town riding it, but does give them an excuse for a return trip one day!

The next few days were spend hanging around town waiting for the once a week passenger ferry to turn up and our barge to take Athena northwards and onto the final country of our trip Egypt. Everyone checked into our luxury hotel for a good wash after the run of bush camps, luxury in here means mud brick building  with string beds and a bucket shower. These simple amenities though are very welcome so African Tans down the drain and we all got a chance to eat some good local food. Falafals, fresh bread, fool, mystery meat and also with an assortment of hot sauces good simple food and cheap!

Sudan is always described to people in guide books and by others on the road as the friendliest country in Africa and once again it doesn't disappoint . When leaving Ethiopia you have to remind yourself that if someone here greets you and asks you how you are and where you're from it won't be followed with "give me money", but instead would you like some tea, come and meet my family. Its a brilliant place with the warmest folk whether they can speak English or not and vice versa our lack of Arabic you will always feel very privileged and welcome to travel through their country.  Always a sad country to leave, but there is always a flip side and this time the word on some people's lips (no names - Martin), is BEER!!! Not far off now after just under two weeks.

Waiting over in town and time to hurry up and wait down at the port for immigration and customs before staking our claims to deck space for a night under the stars as we cross Lake Nasser. A few hours into the trip we are treated to the spectacular sight of Abu Simbel illuminated, it feels just for us! Will have to pop back down on by bus to get a closer look in the coming days.

After docking in Aswan, clearing the border formalities we're all set up in a hotel for a few nights, giving people time to explore the local area before the group loads onto a couple of fellucas for an over night jaunt up the Nile towards Luxor. Where hopefully I'll drive up to in a few days once we get the truck across from Sudan, Inshallah. (If Allah wills it) as everyone keeps telling us.

Then once we get our wheels back we'll be rolling out into the Western Desert for our final bush camping under the stars before we arrive in Africa's most hectic city where the hooting and tooting of car horns never ceases, Cairo!