For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit: www.africantrails.co.uk

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

In-truck entertainment on the bumpy road in the Congo.



Homeless (Kyle Mijlof) & Berbs (Mark Kilburn) providing the action.

Full blog entry on Gabon, Congo, Cabinda (Angola) and DRC here: http://uta2010.blogspot.com/2010/08/gabon-congo-democratic-republic-of.html

 

Friday, 18 February 2011

Mama Kay dances with some Congolese dudes just after the border with Gabon.



Full blog entry on Gabon, Congo, Cabinda (Angola) and DRC here: http://uta2010.blogspot.com/2010/08/gabon-congo-democratic-republic-of.html

 

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Egypt Part 6 - Diving in Dahab, Shark Attacks in Sharm, The Blue Hole, The Canyon, El Bells & Nitrox!


(...Continued from Egypt Part 5)

Awesome photo courtesy of Allison Harvey and/or Jen & Jules
The drive from Mount Sinai to Dahab was only a couple of hours so we were at our destination (Seven Heaven Hotel – home of Divers Down Under) before mid-day – just in time for lunch.

As we tucked into some food there (calamari sandwich – awesome) we were briefed in by ‘Mustapha’ from Divers Down Under about what are options were for the week. They must love us overlanders as they would have raked the money in that week: Gab and Marjane were both very experienced divers (Gab being a Dive Master with over 800 dives to his name); Berbs and I had recently got our PADI Advanced Open Water in Zanzibar; Ish and Son did their Open Water in Lake Malawi and we were all eager to get some more bottom time. Kenji, Pat, Rob D, Tanja and Elisa were keen to pop their diving cherries too.  

After the brief and after giving our grub some time to go down, Son, Berbs, Marjane, Gab and I were right next door in the dive centre getting kitted up and ready for a shore dive to acquaint ourselves with the area. A short walk along the promenade and just over the footbridge and we were in the water with our regs in and giving the thumbs down.

The footbridge on Dahab's promenade.

The dive was ok – there was plenty of coral in all shapes, colours and sizes but little in the way of fish. I might have got to see more but Berbs and I still need to work on our air consumption as we only had about 25 minutes bottom time! (At this point, we’d barely done more than 20 dives between us.)









The following day was spent chilling out and/or exploring the town and reading the news that was unfolding about multiple shark attacks on tourists only 80km further south at Sharm-El-Sheikh. Undeterred, we (Berbs, Marjane, Gab and I) were taken out by Matilda (French Dive Master at Divers Down Under) for a night dive at the spot they call ‘The Lighthouse’. I got a little scare when my o-ring blew out as I bent over (no jokes, please) to pick up my fins but Matilda sorted it out pretty quickly.

Once we were underneath, the coral was again beautiful but other than a large school of small(-ish) silver fish, there wasn’t much to see. I didn’t care though, this was my second ever night dive and I was almost tripping out in a trance from the combination of the underwater tranquillity and the multiple torchlights beaming in all directions (down on to some lionfish, to the left on to some coral and straight ahead and beyond into the blue). Well either that or I was narced.

My air consumption was a little bit better this time around. Back on the surface and floating around in our BCDs I was talking to Matilda about my air consumption for a good few minutes before Berbs told me about a big line of snot that was hanging from my beard. A common occupational hazard for a diver, I believe. Pretty disgusting but thanks for the heads up, Berbs...

It was Sunday 5th December and back in the room (which I was sharing with Gab and Berbs) we got on to the wi-fi to check BBC news for the latest on the spate of attacks down at Shark-El-Sheikh. We were all pretty shocked to read that a fifth attack had happened – only this time fatal. The consequences of this sad news were that diving and swimming in the area had pretty much been shut down until further notice. This meant that the day trip we’d booked to go down there that Wednesday (8th Dec) and dive the famed SS Thistlegorm was to be cancelled.
We consoled ourselves the next day by spending the money we would have spent on the Thistlegorm trip on a PADI ‘Enriched Air’ (Nitrox) course which comprised of two dives at two very special and world-famous dive sites: ’The Canyon’ and ‘The Blue Hole’

We set off for the dive site early in the morning and stopped off at some weird Dutch or German guy’s place...he had the hippy/heroin addict/Rolling Stone roady thing going on and looked like he could do with a sandwich or two. Safe in the knowledge that this dodgy-looking guy had filled our tanks, we tested them for their nitrogen percentage...and in most cases the digital reader showed the incorrect mix. I’m not sure what happened next – whether we took different cylinders, re-calibrated the reader or got a new one – but eventually our Dive Masters and instructors were happy and we took off with our enriched air cylinders. (Thinking about it, I probably should have been more concerned.) After a further 10 minutes in the back of the Divers Down Under jeep, we were at the dive site.

The view of the Blue Hole/Canyon dive site from a restaurant balcony. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)
For The Canyon, we swam out against the current over a ‘saddle’ through the reef. We turned left (heading north) and soon came up to the top of the canyon and took it in turns descending 28 metres to the bottom. After a quick underwater briefing, we started swimming along it a short way and coming back out and over on the opposite wall to the one we came in over. At the very top, there was a massive moray eel peering out of a hole in the coral with its head bobbing up and down and its mouth agape. Like many other African residents we’d seen along the way, maybe this was the first time it had encountered a muzungu?

Back on dry land, we had a bite to eat, smoked the obligatory shisha and walked over to the start of our ‘Blue Hole’ dive at ‘El Bells’.  By the entry to El Bells we were given a morbid reminder of just how dangerous a place this can be to dive: the small cliff face behind us was peppered with plaques with epitaphs dedicated to (mainly young) divers who had died here.

Regardless of the dangers, we descended the chimney-like El Bells (named after the sound divers’ air cylinders make as they hit the sides of the narrow hole on the way down) one by one before coming out under a small arch at about 30 metres. We then swam our way back south along the reef wall before going over the saddle of The Blue Hole, gliding right past a large, solitary barracuda and across the abyss where many have lost their lives. (The sinkhole is said to be 130 metres deep and a lot of divers have been caught out trying to reach ‘The Arch’ that leads out to the open water at a depth of 56 metres. It’s regarded as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Dive Site’. For those of a curious nature and strong disposition, there’s a video on YouTube of a young Israeli-Russian diver called Yuri Lipski - taken on his own camera - who got caught out by the Blue Hole’s depth and died at 92 metres. BE WARNED: THE CLIP  IS NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.)

I’m fortunate enough to have dived or snorkelled in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cuba, Mexico, Madagascar, The Maldives, various sites in the Caribbean, Sharm-El-Sheikh and now Zanzibar too. Honestly? Although there were loads of them, I didn’t think that much of the variety of fish here in Dahab compared to a lot of the aforementioned sites. This didn’t put off the scores of other divers that invade the place daily (which is the only real drawback to this place) but then again, perhaps this week there were more than usual as they’d all fled the sharks down in Sharm. Regardless, the landscape (underwater landscape? seascape?) here was breathtaking and I could dive El Bells and The Blue Hole again and again before ever getting bored. 

Amazing.

The usual post-dive buzz followed and that night Gab, Berbs, Homeless, Marjane and I went out with the intention of painting the town red (with a diagonal white strip through it...joke for all you PADI guys out there). We had a few bevoirs and then returned to SevenHeaven with the intention of rallying up the troops for a night on the tiles.  The guys back at the hostel were in no hurry to move so we joined them to celebrate Finland’s Independence Day with Elisa – our recently joined Finnish co-passenger. Elisa had gone out of her way to write and organise a quiz/drinking game based on Finnish trivia. It was a good laugh, but it wasn’t long before I showed my age - the day’s diving caught up with me, my beer buzz faded and my bed started calling.

It may not have just been tiredness or old age as the next day (Tuesday 7th Dec) I was bed-ridden all day with some kind of lurgy. This didn’t last long and I was feeling better and back in the water again by Wednesday. This was to be our last SCUBA dive in Dahab (and indeed, of the whole trip) and through some good wheeling and dealing (no doubt because we’d spent so much money there that week!) the guys at Divers Down Under gave Berbs and I a free dive at the site called ‘The Islands’

It was a fun dive with large, free-standing coral formations (hence the name ‘The Islands’) jutting out in a maze-like arrangement. Again though, the fish were plentiful but nothing to sing and dance about – maybe I’m just too spoilt or full of testosterone, but I wanted to see sharks, rays, turtles, whales, barracuda, groupers etc. No such luck. The one consolation was that the dive was about 50 minutes long and Berbs and I finished on about 110 Bar each (we only surfaced as we were part of a bigger group with less experienced divers). Finally we were getting our air consumption under control.


That night, the majority of the gang took a fifteen minute stroll along the promenade to go to a trance party in a cave-like club. We’d been hearing a lot of hype about this party thanks to the student-like expats that were sprinkled here and there around the town handing out flyers. When we got there, the place probably had more bar staff than punters but a few us didn’t let that stop us having a good time. I can’t remember how I got home, but I’m told that the prizes for most drunk go to me (3rd place), Homeless (2nd) and Kimbo way out the lead in 1st place – she could barely walk by the end of the night!

The next day I woke up to have my suspicions confirmed:

I was not built for trance parties. 

I felt rough, but it was self-inflicted so I expected no sympathy. I got out of bed at about mid-day just in time to join Homeless and Berbs for some Chinese food across the road from SevenHeaven. Then I went back to bed for a few more hours and was only lured out by the opportunity to go for a snorkel (first of the week!) at the Lighthouse site (where we’d done our night dive earlier that week). Kenj, Berbs, Homeless and I made good use of some underwater cameras (which we’d been unable to use at the depths we went to during our SCUBA dives) and spent an hour or so in amongst the coral, the occasional puffer fish and a good few lionfish before calling it a day.



Homeless plunges to the depths.


If Jesus could snorkel...

Kenji - happy? Or suggesting we surface?

Dush!

There'd been a misunderstanding about diving Dahab's famous 'Canyon'.
Berbs
One of the many lionfsh we saw. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Berbs. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Puffer-fish. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Kenj  - The Bottom Dweller.

Puffer fish. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)




(Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)
Puffer-fish (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

 
Me, venturing off into The Big Blue.

Lionfish - jus' chillin'.
Red Sea 'anemone fish' (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

A pair of lionfish, just floating around in Dahab, minding their own business. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

This puffer didn't like the paparazzi. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

I rounded up the stay in Dahab with a gourmet burger at Chillax with Ronaldo, Ish, Son and a few others. We’d been there a few times that week, quite pricey, but highly recommended unless you’re a vegetarian...in which case your choices are slim. After that, we moseyed over to a restaurant called “Same Same But Different” where we made the most of the free wi-fi as we puffed on a shisha.

Dahab was also the place where we said goodbye to Jen, Jules, Rob D and Kenj. It was sad to see them go as they were all good characters – Jen and Jules made an awesome couple (and I wish them well for their wedding) plus Jen was Scottish which gets her bonus points from me; Rob D’s “Dark” (no pun intended) sense of humour and paparazzi talents were sorely missed after he left as were Kenji’s calming influence, laidback take on life and impressive culinary skills (the rest of the passengers dreaded the thought of me being left to my own devices to cook for them!).

Whilst saying goodbye to these guys, we got to say hello to the very last passenger to join our trip – Dan (from Oz). Dan joined us in a cloud of confusion: I think it was our penultimate night in Dahab when Marjane said “there might be a new passenger joining us tonight...but I haven’t heard much more about it so I’m not sure”. With that, Gab was packing his stuff up to move into the spare bed in Marjane’s room and leaving his bed (unmade!!) for this ‘new passenger’ to move into. (I’m still not sure why Dan couldn’t just move into the spare bed in Marjane’s room...)

Dan arrived from Cairo in the middle of the night and I pretended to be asleep to avoid an awkward introduction (nothing personal Dan – you know how it is!). The next morning, we got to know of Dan and his travelling exploits and it was easy to see that he’d fit right in with his easy-going demeanour. You can read about his adventures here: http://danielzito.travellerspoint.com/ - his blog with a difference focuses on making the most of organic food as he encounters it on his travels.

Thanks to the staff at SevenHeaven / Divers Down Under (Mohammed, Mustapha, Alain, Matilda, Lara and damn...can’t remember the Canadian girl’s name) and their relationship with Marjane and African Trails, we’d had a great time in Dahab. If you’re into diving, or keen to learn, this is a great place to go, but it has to be said that if you’re not into diving (like poor old Ronaldo) there’s not a lot else to do in town other than chill out and take in some sun. Sounds pretty bad, hey?

The next day we were off early to the small Egyptian port of Nuweiba. I’d been really excited about this part of the trip: I was soon to be joining the elite likes of Alex Reid, Gareth Gates, Dane Bowers, "Ace" from Gladiators (I don't know who that is either), Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and probably countless other Premier League footballers and minor celebrities...you guessed it folks, I was about to enter Jordan





Saturday, 12 February 2011

Egypt Part 5 - The Suez Canal, Sinai Peninsula, Mount Sinai and The Ten Commandments.


We left Cairo early in the morning and spent the whole day driving towards Mount Sinai. Along the way, we stopped at the seaport of ‘Suez’ (birthplace of the canal and the crisis) and said our final goodbye to Africa. We barely had time to reminisce on the good memories she’d given us before we jumped back on Roxy again and ducked into the 1.5km long Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel under the Suez Canal to reach the Sinai Peninsula (the Asian part of Egypt as far as geography is concerned).

We finally parked up at the foot of Mount Sinai after dark...and it was cold. If we were freezing our nuts off down here, what was it going to be like at the top??? Nobody likes getting to camp late, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The worst part about it is when you’re on cook group and all you want to do is get your tent up, get inside, wrap up warm and catch some zzz’s. This is where teamwork comes in – that night Ish and Allison were on cook group but everybody chipped in to make it go quicker. 

Over dinner, Marjane gave us the usual briefing for the next day’s plan and gave those that wanted to climb the mountain the bad news we’d been dreading: “So...yeah...if you want to go up to catch the sunrise, you should get up at about 3am and wrap up warm”. Balls. This better be worth it. No time for chitchat around the glowing coal-burners tonight. Early night it is.
So much for getting lots of sleep though – all the guides and touts started arriving in their cars and on their camels at about midnight and made no effort to be quiet. Car doors were slamming and unnecessarily loud conversations were being had right by our heads as we tried to sleep. (You COULD argue that it was our fault for sleeping in a car park, I guess.) 

Me 'n' my hideous ginger beard.
3am came and me and my hideous ginger beard stumbled reluctantly out of our tent like a bear coming out of hibernation. I wasn’t happy. We rounded all the keen and able up but somebody was missing: The Berbernator. I went to his tent to wake him up and he explained that he’d got up half an hour too early (he didn’t have a watch) and thought he’d missed us, so went back to bed. After a bit of convincing, Berbs got up and joined the rest of us for the two-hour march up the mountain in the pitch black, cold morning.

Before we could go on we had to register with the ‘Tourist Police’ in their tiny wee office at the start of the track and fork out 85 Egyptian Pounds (14.5USD) between us for our so-called guide. We weren’t sure why we needed a guide: the track was clearly marked and there were already dozens of people hiking up. Our protestations were useless and we had to take the guide anyway. Before setting off, we had to go through the scanner and have a quick frisk and bag check – as we’d seen in other Egyptian tourist destinations (i.e. Abu Simbel). The Egyptians took the threat of terrorism very seriously, particularly with regards to protecting the lucrative tourism industry. It seemed a bit far-fetched – after all, an open, isolated mountain can’t be much of strategic site can it? Well, I guess with hundreds of tourists on it, it could be...

Like the large majority of the tourists, we took the easier, shallower and somewhat slower route intended for camels called “Siket El Bashait(I think this is more for our local guide’s health than ours). The alternative route up was the ominously referred to as “The Steps of Penitence” – 3,750 steps all the way to the summit.

The route we took wasn’t too much to put up with but the incessant pestering from camel-owners was. Literally, every few steps “Camel,” “Camille”, “Camello”, “Camel ride”. Eventually I got the hump (...whythankyou!) with them and just responded with a scowl before plodding on. Our so-called guide barely said a single word to us the whole time, merely trying to keep up with us and on the occasion where he fell behind, he’d rush forward to walk along by our side in silence. On the plus-side, there was a large group of Nigerian tourists on what looked like a pilgrimage and they sang contentedly as they ascended. I took joy from their evident happiness, and had a momentary pang of guilt about my atheism every time I passed one of their crowd and they’d say “God bless you”.

We stopped off just before the last section (steep steps) for a wee pre-dawn coffee in one of the small coffee shacks that littered the path and then climbed the final steps (hardest part) just in time to get the sunrise. It was cold but not as cold as we’d expected – we were all wrapped up in big jackets and thermals and there were people snuggling under blankets that could be rented or bought at the summit. There were even signs of some people who had camped at the top.

Tourists were all sprawled out along the eastern-facing side of the summit and on a wall that came out from the Greek Orthodox Chapel that was up there. We clambered up to join them and found a secluded little spot, concealed on one side by a boulder, another by the belfry and another by the north-facing wall of the chapel. Out in front of us was an unadulterated view of the mountains of St Catherine. In essence, we had the Mt Sinai sunrise all to ourselves...well apart from a local guy who was sliming on to a hot Scandinavian MILF...but we paid little attention to that.

Ish poses for a photo (sunrise behind him) as Jules clicks away and I look on from the top of the boulder that concealed our gang from the rest of the tourists. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)



"Out in front of us was an unadulterated view of the mountains of St Catherine." (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)
We were 2,285 metres above sea level and as the big yellow ball crawled up into the sky, the Nigerian collective broke into a song of praise that echoed around the mountains. I reached for my hip flask which had been safeguarding the last of my Caol Ila and took a suitably over-the-top dramatic swig as if I really savoured and enjoyed the stuff. “Ahhh...that warmed the cockles.”
Perfect.

Berbs & I, taking it all in.


Me watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Sinai. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)


(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)




(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

Spence chilling on our boulder. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)


(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

Ish gets ready to fly...(Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

I’m sure Moses would have done the same – after all, this is the spot where Charlton Heston is believed to have received The Ten Commandments from God, right? (Is it ironic that his IMDB profile describes him as having ‘features chiselled in stone’? Much like The Commandments themselves.) Whilst we were up there, we couldn’t remember all Ten Commandments for the life of us, so here they are...

  1. I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
  3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
  5. Honour your father and mother
  6. You shall not kill/murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife nor anything that belongs to your neighbour
See? Nothing in there about having a cheeky swig of fine single malt Scotch at 5.30am!

Allison takes a swig from the hip flask at sunrise. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)
 
A couple of guys took the steeper route (those Steps of Penitence) back down (which by all accounts, was the better, quieter and more scenic route) but we were advised not to by our guide (again, I can only assume for HIS health rather than ours). Well and truly fed up with our non-English-speaking “guide” who had trailed five to ten metres behind us the whole trek, we made it our mission to get down the mountainside quickly and lose him.


On the route back down - that's Yoich and Allison on the left. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

If you’ve been reading the blog thus far you’ll know that a lot of us were by now all suffering from ‘religious monument fatigue’. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside another one for the time-being, so on the way back down I gave the Monastery of St Catherine the swerve and headed straight to the truck for breakfast (as did most of the rest of the African Trails ensemble). Over the space of half an hour or so everybody ambled back in dribs and drabs and sure enough, we were joined over coffee by our “guide” with his palm out and a sad look on his face. 

We all avoided eye contact and grumbled about not paying considering we didn’t need him, we told him that before the ascent and he made no effort to do ANYTHING for the money during the walk. After a while we agreed to at least put 5 Egyptian Pounds (0.85USD) in each...there were about eight of us so this gave him half the 85 he was supposed to get for his “services”....far more than he deserved. We were just giving it to him out of goodwill.

The cash (and the proverbial ‘buck’) was passed around and finally stopped at me so I gave the guy the money and he looked at me in disgust, barely able to string the words together in English to tell me this wasn’t enough. After telling him that’s all he was getting, he wouldn’t leave and threatened to tell the police, at which point Marjane jumped in and told him to do so.
He lead the way to the police office (where we’d registered to go up the mountain earlier that morning) and they heard the stories from both parties. The guide went first and the police officer’s smirks that followed the Arabic conversation were a sure sign that we weren’t going to get anywhere with the supposed tourist police (there to ‘protect’ us). To cut a long story short, we got nowhere and paid the full price...but only after I got called inside the office and given some stern words by the head honcho.

I know the whole thing sounds harsh: we’re supposed to be “rich” westerners (which maybe we are by their standards but most of us are anything but rich back in our hometowns) and they have little money, education or opportunities. But why “glam” up this role of guide? I’d happily rather just pay a higher than average entry fee and be told that a portion of the money would go to local communities but this way just seemed so contrived and convoluted. If you go there yourself you’ll see that you don’t need a guide and you certainly don’t need a guide that doesn’t talk to you, let alone guide you! We’d been in Africa for nine months and at this point, three weeks of that time had been in Egypt (since arriving in Aswan mid-November). No other country on the whole trip had been so full of touts, scammers, schemers and pests. Don’t get me wrong, we’d met loads of great Egyptian folk but these experiences were racking up in Egypt and threatened to tarnish the memories and opinions of the place.

Rant well and truly over, it was time for some R’n’R in Dahab. "Hasn’t the whole trip been R’n’R?" I hear some of you ask...



Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Egypt Part 4 - The Great Pyramids & The Sphinx at Giza and Cairo and its "Egyptian Museum".

(...Continued from Egypt Part 3)

As we came out of the Western Desert and approached Giza the difference couldn’t have been more stark to what we’d seen over the previous week: the cars whizzed by and tooted incessantly and unnecessarily, the city of Cairo sprawled out in front of us and the smog choked the air leaving a hazy stale yellow cloud above the city. The haze was so thick, we could barely see ‘The Great Pyramids’ that we’d heard would dominate the Giza skyline. Eventually we did get to see them in passing...again...

and again...

...and again as we got a little bit lost trying to find the right route to the campsite – “Salma Camp.”

Salma Camp was no oasis, but it did the job – hot water has proved enough for a place to get my endorsement. There were a few other caravans and 4X4 campers around...an interesting bunch actually: there was a wheelchair-bound British guy doing the route down the African east coast all on his own; there was an elderly Scottish couple bombing around in their Range Rover and doing their bit for the Scottish Alzheimer’s sufferers (I think it was Alzheimer Scotland – Action on Dementia - www.alzscot.org but I can’t be sure...and I mean that genuinely, not as some smart-ass joke about Alzheimer’s); there were also a couple of guys with cameras and a scantily clad model flashing various body parts...disappointingly, I never saw this but some of the other guys told me that they’re pretty sure this was part of a “romantic film for one” being produced on the site.

Not to get sidetracked, it was time for a “truck clean” on that beautiful sunny afternoon. I was gutted that Kenji and I were on cook group that night and had to leave the truck clean to the others and do an arduous cook group shop in town...

Truck cleans have happened regularly (roughly once a month) on the trip and normally take a morning or afternoon to complete. All the pots and pans are made spotless, the truck is cleared out, swept and all of the lockers are emptied, blitzed and re-organised. This is of particular importance when passing through the Tropics where the truck’s “kitchen” can quickly and easily become a breeding ground for germs.

As you can imagine, Kenji and I were thrilled that the truck clean hadn’t yet finished by the time we’d returned from the cook group shop so we were able to join in with the cleaning...and as soon as the truck clean was over, we were cooking up another one of the Kenji & AK fusion dishes: southern fried chicken with tempura vegetables.

We put on a good feed that night – not just for the rest of the gang, but also for the swarms of mozzies that seemed to love that campsite...and our blood. No joke, the place was teeming with them. So much so that the next morning, I opened up the flysheet and close to fifty of the little bastards rolled dead into the tent. Seemed a little weird getting so many of them after a relative respite (res-Bite) in Ethiopia and Sudan, but then again, there was a rancid canal right outside the back entrance to the campgrounds complete with a bloated and fetid donkey carcass. 

After a breakfast of champions (cereal with REAL milk rather than just the powdered stuff for once) we were off to see the Pyramids. Marjane took us there in the truck but due to a few diversions along the way, we didn't make it to the queue in time to get one of the 150 tickets to get inside the world's largest pyramid - The Great Pyramid - built by Pharaoh Khufu. If we did want to go in that day, we had to wait for the next batch of tickets to become available after lunch. Instead of waiting half a day, we snapped up some of the tickets for the smallest of the three 'Great Pyramids' (the one built by Pharaoh Menkaure) at a cost of 30 Egyptian Pounds (5USD) on top of the general site entrance fee of 60 Egyptian Pounds (10USD). There were a few grumbles about having to settle for the smallest one and a few more about how we couldn’t actually see the Pyramids because of the smog (which soon lifted over the course of the morning) but regardless, we took off to investigate these majestic ancient monuments. However...

We did it with a difference...

Not satisfied with just going to see them in our shorts and vests like all the other tourists, we reprised our Sheikh roles from Son’s birthday party back in Aswan and went dressed as Arabs – fully kitted out in our jellabiyas and keffiyehs. It was the Skommel Bros and Berber Dave who started it off and for a long time it looked like it would just be the three of them. I was hesitant at first as I didn’t want to offend the locals but in a last minute change of heart, I dived back into the truck pulled the gear out from the bottom of my locker and resurrected my role as Abu Hassan. As I did so, silent nods of understanding were shared with Ronaldo and Kenj and three Arabs became six. Before long, the entire gang was in Arab get-up and we felt like kings pharaohs

It just. 
Felt.
Cool.































Looking back out over Giza with the back of the Sphinx in the middle distance on the left.


Contrary to my concerns, the locals loved it and it was a constant ice-breaker with touts and tourists alike. With all of us climbing down from the truck (emblazoned with “London to Istanbul via Cape Town”) right outside the Pyramids, at one point it seemed like more people were taking photos of us than of the Pyramids. 


The locals loved our Arab attire.



The truck was parked right outside The Pyramids and got just as much attention.

"We built this city!"















"The Sphinx" at Giza

Pyramids? Whatever man.

A romantic gesture between two geezers (Berbs & Skommel Sr.).


We took our time to explore the site for a couple of hours before piling on to the truck again to take off to a car park at the bottom end of the site (down by The Sphinx). As if we couldn’t get any cooler, Son hit the truck’s stereo (at that point in time, my iPod) and failing to find The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”, put on “We built this city (on rock ‘n’ roll)” by Starship....very loudly. Lacking in any kind of Egyptian connection, it wasn’t quite as apt as The Bangles’ classic, but it worked. We felt awesome and we looked awesome. I’m pretty sure that at that moment in time, the several thousand other tourists at the Pyramids wanted to be us. 

The truck pulled up at the car park by the Sphinx and Kenj and I went to “‘ave a butcher’s” whilst the others went to find a decent place to take in a coffee and a shisha. After a few snaps of the legendary monument and fending off gangs of kids asking to take our photo with our cameras (and asking for our money for the pleasure), we wondered back to join the others.

Party time on the truck roof with the music still blaring out.










We made loose plans to “meet them at the best-looking shisha house they could find near KFC” and as soon as we neared KFC, we had no trouble seeing them. The Skommel Bros had draped the South African flag over the side of the terrace bar they were at and Marjane and a few of the others were waving. For anybody that's interested, the name of the place was Albadawia Cafe & Restaurant and we were told that the terrace provided prime viewing of the Giza 'Sound & Light Show' but without the fee!

Over coffee, everybody was beaming. I don’t think it was really spoken about, it just seemed like everybody wanted the sense of elation to just fill the air for a while of its own accord. We’d spent the morning marvelling and being marvelled at. After anywhere between two and nine months on the truck, it was the end of the road for some and the last true African landmark for all of us. We’d reached The Great Pyramids and the experience there really didn’t disappoint. I just don’t know if it was the place itself or the circumstances. 

What a morning. 

Another trip highlight.

Back at camp, Spence and Skommel Jr (Hendrik) cooked us up some fantastic burgers. I don’t know if it was Spence’s veggie burger cooking skills or (Skommel’s accusations of) Spencer’s meat sabotage, but that night we could have all been converted to herbivores. After grub, those that were willing to face the mozzie onslaught spent the night shooting the breeze either in the bar or on one of the campsite’s picnic benches.

The next day we darted off into the heart of Cairo for a week long stay over at the ‘Sun Hotel’ on Talaatharb Street by 'El Tahrir Square' (now famous as the 'Million Man March' on Feb 1st 2011) – a satisfactory little place with free wi-fi that had us bloggers salivating. The only downside was that the hotel was situated on the 9th floor of an 11 storey building. If you couldn’t squeeze into the tiny elevators and weren’t patient enough to wait for it to go up and come back down, you had to give your calves a workout.

After leaving Giza early to avoid the notorious Cairo traffic, we arrived at about 8am. The hotel was very well situated: there was a large, empty but secure parking lot within 5 minutes from the place, so the truck could stay there for the duration; we were less than ten minutes’ walk from the Egyptian Museum and we had my favourite shisha den in the whole of Africa right around the corner. This was going to be a good week...

Kenj, Pat, Son, Saffer Rob (Skommel Sr.) & I chilling in my favourite shisha den in the whole of Africa.
Once we’d settled in to the hotel , my room buddies (Son, The Skommelers, Kenji and Rob D) ventured out into the city...somewhere along the way we bumped into Berbs who had made a dash from the truck to go straight to the museum earlier that morning, (except it was only 8am when he left and nobody had told him the museum didn’t open til 9am!). 

We wondered around a bit, doing our best to fend off the touts – all of them opening with the “I’m just here to help a tourist” approach but inevitably finishing with the hard sell. After a small bout of indecisiveness (that only those who have ever tried wondering a city in a group larger than two people will know about), Son, the Skommelers and I caught a taxi to Zamalek (an apparently affluent and therefore, ‘swanky’ Cairo district) whilst Rob D and Berbs explored the unknown on foot.

The Skommel Bros had a ‘playboy/jetset’ cousin (or at least, that’s how his enviable lifestyle sounded) who had recommended the Zamalek district and in particular, a little-known bar called “Abou El Sid”. The taxi driver dropped us off at a spot he said was ‘right outside’ the place but when we couldn’t find it, we put the curse of King Tut upon him as we wondered aimlessly trying to find this seemingly mythical restaurant.

After doing a full circle of the area, we were back where we had been dropped off and looking back and forth between each other and the street sign saying “Abou El Sid” attached to a building with a clean but non-descript facade. Within seconds, the big studded doors that looked more at home on the Castle of Grayskull creaked open and a big Egyptian fella, having no doubt seen the confused look on our faces, asked “restaurant? Abou El Sid? Come! Come!

As a marketing guy, I kind of felt like such a place could be doing a little bit more promotion, but when we got inside, I figured out what it was all about. The whole ‘non-descript’ thing was all about keeping out the riff-raff (like us). The place had stunning traditional Egyptian decor and was full of a good blend of (mainly male) clientele that would have looked just as at home at an Egyptian gangster get-together as at a global peacetalk. How’s that for irony?

With such a secretive entry to the place (I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a secret knock next time I visit) and in this sort of company, I felt like James Bond...and when we heard the price of a Stella here, I very nearly fell to the floor clutching my chest like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. After recovering from the 31 Egyptian Pound per beer shock (that’s 5.3USD at time of writing), we decided the ambiance was worth it and ordered four, and since we were splashing out, we added the best shisha we’d tried yet to the bill. We went back to the hotel feeling thoroughly relaxed and kind of smug at having escaped the boisterousness of the city for the best part of the afternoon. We’d found a real gem that day (Jewel of the Nile, anybody???) and I’d highly recommend it to anybody visiting Cairo and needing an escape from kebabs, kushari and clamour.

The next day, we took off to the Egyptian Museum (60 Egyptian Pounds / 10USD) in a small troop and as soon as were inside, decided to split up and do our own thing – there was LOADS to see and it made sense to just take it all in on your own, spending more time on the exhibits that you find interesting rather than moving along as a group and skipping something you like or dwelling on something you don’t. 

As with "The Valley of the Kings" and "Abu Simbel", photography in the museum was forbidden but key highlights included: 
It was truly amazing in there, but there was just so much to take in and sadly, whilst it had some of the world's most important discoveries, it didn’t have the organisation to match. Admittedly, there were thousands of exhibits (there was a quote - apparently from the Lonely Planet - being retold over and over again that "if you allowed one minute to see each of the exhibits on public display. it would still take you 9 months to see everything") but you were lucky to find up-to-date labels on anything; there were artefacts missing (mostly because they were ‘on tour’, but some just didn’t appear where they were supposed to and there was no explanation why). There didn’t seem to be a designated/suggested ‘route’ around the rooms and halls. This made for chucklesome entertainment as you joined the rank and file of zombie-like tourists meandering aimlessly between the museum’s columns. Finally, there were the brazen toilet attendants demanding a tip immediately underneath the “do not tip the toilet attendants” sign.

Over the next couple of days everybody split up into smaller groups and did their own thing: a couple of people took the train to Alexandria; one afternoon a few of us took a 20 minute taxi ride towards the airport to visit the “City Stars” mall where we got our fix of Western influence (it sounds sad, but remember it had been a while for most of us); another morning we got walaid by a friendly guy offering us directions to the market who (predictably) ended up taking us to his shop ('The Lotus Palace' on Sha'rawy Street) and selling us some perfumes – which we were assured were better than the CK, YSL or Gucci ones that smelt the same as they were essences as opposed to extracts...or is that the other way around? We came away with the added bonus of learning a new phrase in Arabic: I'm not sure of the correct spelling, but the phnoetic spelling is "Anna mish kawagHa" which we were told means "I'm not a f**king tourist." A good one to use on the touts!

If we weren't out and about, we were up on the roof of the hotel at night taking the city's very own complimentary sound and light show. (The roof was also the spot where a couple of people whilst under the influence of some local delights, turned off the MASSIVE neon Coca-Cola sign...no names need be mentioned except Pasta and Rasta.)



Cairo by night.
The rooftop Coca-Cola sign that got turned off.

Cairo was also the place where the Skommel Brothers decided to end their northward journey from Jo’burg. For their last night (1st December) we were joined by a Canadian guy called Wes (whom they'd met at Lake Malawi) as we returned to Abou El Sid and splashed out on a selection of Egyptian dishes that I guess, closely resembled ‘mezes’. The same sort of clientele that we’d seen there the previous occasion were there again, but this time sprinkled with a few arrogant expats/travel journalist-looking guys (probably from The Telegraph) scoffing at our appearance and very presence in a place like this. The locals on the other hand, didn’t batter an eyelid.

To accompany the Egyptian feast, we had a couple of shishas, a good few beers and a healthy side order of laughs. Afterwards we stopped off at the shisha house next to the KFC next to our hotel (I would tell you the name if I could read the Arabic sign!) and had our customary coffee and shisha before bed...

Mid to late morning the next day we bid “Bon Voyage!” a les freres Skommelle who had provided quality company, great banter and good humour (not always intended) for their part of the trip and even before they joined us (when we stumbled across them in Uganda). We missed you boneheads after you left...arguments will never be the same unless they’re in Afrikaans and sound like somebody’s hawking up a furball.

But as they say, out with the old and in with the new - the same day the Skommel Bros left us, Pat's girlfriend Tanja joined us for the final six weeks of the trip and a direct descendent of Santa Claus joined us too...Elisa from Finland.

Elisa had a nice welcome to life in Africa when her luggage was held up at the airport...we were due to leave the next morning and couldn't hang around so Elisa (joined by Pat and Tanja) made plans to stay a little while longer in Cairo with a view to catch up with us for some SCUBA diving in Dahab...but that's after we visit Mount Sinai!