1.2: Egypt - The Sinai desert
Loading the machines into the bus to the Sinai was quite dodgy. "No, don't put it on the rearmech!", but how do you say that in Arabic?
We had waited for almost an hour on the dusty parking lot where people who saw our bikes for the first time without seats and with the handlebars skew, were having heated discussions about how these machines work.
They might as well have been spaceships. Someone makes the sound of a motor. We shake our head and point at our legs: "this is the motor". With one foot up and ostentatiously gesturing steering with our hands under our hips we describe how our pride and joy really works.
When we were putting the bikes in working order after the bus ride from Cairo we had lots of company, grown men laughing like children at the idea of us on the machines before them. While Bram concentrated on the job at hand, ignoring the commotion around us, I used the few words of Arabic I knew to figure out how we would get to the village centre and to agree with the words of praise from the Egyptian men eyeing up the machines.
I even used the last phrase Bessaam had given me before our departure from Cairo: "leave my bicycle". Too many interested hands almost toppled the machine over, but the surprise at those few awkwardly pronounced but effectively spoken words of Arabic was stronger than the curiosity and Bram could work on quietly.
Half an hour later we rode of amidst cheers of "Yallah!" and "goodbye!", as much due to our own as to our audience's delight in the recumbent position.
The first six kilometres in the Sinai, from the bus stop to our bed for the night were an absolute joy. After being cramped up in the bus for over eight hours, to sit back, stretch out and move our legs was exactly what we needed. The next thing we craved was a good bed and we found one at 'Safetyland', a lodge named thus by its Egyptian owners without any intended irony.
After a day of snorkelling in Sharm ash Shaykh, at the southern most tip of the Sinai desert we left for Dahab, 120 kilometres further north on the coast of the Gulf of Aqabah. The first 20 kilometres we rode on a big dual carriage way to the local airport. It was a very tough start, too much head wind, too much heat, too many cars and trucks who honked at us as if we were an Arabic wedding party.
On this hard stretch we met three Italians on mountain bikes sporting T-shirts with the inscription "Sinai '99". The young men had no luggage, just a bottle of water each. After a brief chat they soon disappeared in the distance ahead of us.
One hundred and five kilometres further down the road at sunset we would come across them again. Pushing our way up one of the longer and steeper up-hills at the end of a long day, we were passed by their support vehicle, bikes on the roof rack and lots of shouting out of the windows. I was proud to be pushing then... not much later I would have to swallow my pride and hitch a ride for the final ten kilometres of the day.
But first we still had to encounter the desert. As we were about to turn of the busy main road I got of my bike briefly to get a soft drink. When my feet hit the ground I felt my ankles tremble, then the feeling rose through my calves and shins into my knees, it continued through my thighs and into my torso and head. It was as if my whole inside was shaking, too much adrenaline from pick-up trucks passing too close, or are these the side effects of time travel?
After the traffic, the luxury hotels and service stations on the main road, the shadeless coastal plain of the Sinai hit us hard. The monochrome landscape was dotted with mountain tops more reminiscent of molehills than the biblical mountains I was expecting. Aridity, dust, heat.
My courage was burning up fast and if I was not careful my nose would be following suit soon. I did not take well to the conditions and the head wind seemed to turn every stretch into an up-hill one.
"I am too hot. I must be mad. There is no one here, there is nothing here. I've got to get out from under that burning star above." Tears welled up and stayed with me for the whole fourth hour of the ride. Bram, worried, suggested we take a break but I could not imagine ever stopping, not before we found somewhere to cool off. I would not rest all day if necessary, not before I reached the only and ultimate goal: a spot of shade.
Only fifteen kilometres further, a single tree finally appeared, one of those typical umbrella ones. The land mines we had been warned about were no longer a worry and we crossed the 20 meter stretch from road to tree with a great sense of relief. We drank some water, ate a bit, rested and put another layer of factor 35 onto every exposed bit of our pale central-European skin.
Where there are trees there are people. In the desert everyone needs the same, shade and water and where there are trees there is usually both. Just a few kilometres from our life-saving umbrella tree, there was a small Bedouin settlement and by the road side a flat roofed tent with a little wooden construction along side it.
In front of the tent a bottle of mineral water and a crate of soft drinks announced this was the pit stop we really needed. Here we would be refreshed by the wonderful tea, some of the old man's lunch of beans and bread, a soft drink each and most of all by the sun in this man's eyes. What a way to smile, I don't even know if the corners of his mouth moved at all but his eyes glowed full of radiant sparkle and once in a while he would flash them at us, opening them wide, raising his eyebrows and positively shining.
The next 40 kilometres went by in no time at all, the mountain tops had come closer to the road now and the wind was less fierce. A stretch going somewhat downhill made us feel we might make it to Dahab despite the excruciatingly slow start.
We took a short break after which things got harder again. There were more and more slopes in the landscape, longer and harder up-hills and as dusk fell we needed to get our lights up and running. Every hill became a challenge, the last, I hopefully imagined.
"Because Dahab is by the sea and we've been going up-hill a lot, it all has to end in one beautiful last down hill" I reasoned. But at the bottom of the hill we had just climbed, there was only the next hill and by then I knew that meant pain.
After 110 kilometres the first day turned out to be just ten kilometres too long. It was the first and the last time I was in pain on the Street Machine but it was so bad that we decided it would be wiser for me not to continue but to save myself for the days ahead. We stopped the next pick-up truck which dropped me of safely a few kilometres outside of Dahab where I did not have to wait long for Bram to arrive.
Read more on Agence Future's adventures in Egypt: