The wind had dropped and the weather cleared so the passage to Damietta was relatively calm, which was re-assuring considering all twelve drivers on board were locked in a small section of the vessel. It contained our bunk rooms and a mess room where a random collection of films continually played in Arabic. I shared my room with a Turkish driver who was going to Saudi Arabia, didn’t speak any English and had a bizaare preference for sleeping on the small sofa rather than in his bed. There were two other English drivers on board, Paul and Andy, also driving their trucks to Saudi Arabia who regaled me with their exploits throughout the middle east. In the afternoon the third officer kindly invited me onto the bridge to have a look around. It was a relief to get out of the cramped drivers quarters for a view and some fresh air. That evening we arrived in Damietta but the wind had picked up again so the Captain decided to wait until the morning for berthing. Despite doing a lot of reading on the situation in Egypt I didn’t know what to expect upon our arrival. Paul and Andy had told me about their experiences in Port Said where bullets had a tendency to ring off containers around them.
Berthing the next day was a torrid affair as the wind caused the ship to hit the berth snapping a mooring line that smashed into a car on the dock. Hany Ismail from WORMS greeted me off the ship and I went to their offices to sort out paperwork over a cup of tea. Eventually we began to disembark, driving Delilah into a private warehouse where she would sit until passing customs clearance. Thereafter Mahmoud El Sisi took me to the small seaside town of Ras El Bar directly on the eastern confluence of the Nile and the Mediterranean sea. A peaceful little town it was far from the image of Egypt that had been painted in the media. Remarkably deserted during the day, it appeared solely populated by suspicious groups of cats sat around bins plotting the overthrow of their masters, snapping to attention when interrupted. At night the town came to life as Egyptians emerged to fill the restaurants, coffee houses and shops lining the banks of the Nile. The next two days were passed slipping in and out of these coffee houses, catching up on sleep, and swimming in the sea. Since Friday was a day off customs wouldn’t resume until Saturday. By the third day I was itching to get back on the road and keen to get cleared from customs before Eid began on the Monday. Saturday and Sunday were spent camped out in a coffee house within the port as we waited for the final paperwork from customs. Here I met Ben, a fellow overlander running a Dragoman truck down to Sudan, and Hisham Shalay my guide to Aswan. Admittedly I was resistant to the idea of a guide paranoid it would ruin the essence of the trip by entering the realm of the bleating tourist, herded around monuments between meals. My family concerned about the security situation in Egypt had offered to pay for a guide so it seemed wise to accept their offer albeit reluctantly.
Previously the plan was to avoid Cairo and take the Western desert south via the White desert and Farafra Oasis to Luxor and Aswan. However, Mr Shalay informed me the Western desert was too dangerous as 90% of the weapons in Egypt were being moved into the country through the western desert from Libya. Instead we were to drive to Cairo and follow the populous Nile valley down through El Minya. On Sunday we just made it through customs, shortly after which they closed up shop for Eid and went home. Unfortunately Ben wasn’t as lucky, being left stranded for another five days so we left him and headed for Cairo. Back in Damietta Delilah had her Egyptian license plates fitted to her bumper and a man offered to ‘fix my steering wheel’ (put it back on the left side of the car). We set off down the motorway across the Manzala lake to follow the Suez canal under the bridge to the Sinai peninsula. The Egyptian army had closed half the motorway since an RPG attack on a ship a couple of weeks ago creating a five hundred metre no man’s land full of military hardware. The first checkpoint felt like a scene out of ‘Apocalypse Now’ amidst soldiers and tanks, punctuated by a short flyby by three fighter jets. Mr Shalay proved his worth immediately going to work charming the officials and getting us through with minimum hassle. A couple of checkpoints later we merged into the melee of Cairo traffic slowly falling into it’s momentum, finding order in the chaos. We were briefly accosted by some street kids whilst trying to grab some dinner but the Owner chased them off and we emerged an hour later to find her badly keyed (every panel scratched!) and the restaurant Owner engaged in a standoff with the same kids wielding bricks. Mr Shalay advised me that much of the trouble in Cairo had been caused by street kids who were given weapons and money by the Muslim brotherhood to stir up trouble and create an image of unrest.
The next day after a confused start and the very regrettable experience of a dog running under Delilah, we started our tour of Cairo at the stepped pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara. Built in the 27th century BC by Imhotep, vizier of Djoser, it stood in the desert on a hill overlooking the lush palms of the Nile valley below. Afterwards we set off to the Great Pyramids of Giza, shortly stopping in the middle of a four lane motorway arguing about reversing one hundred metres in the wrong direction to save five minutes. The situation at Giza really highlighted the plight of the tourist industry in Egypt with desperate touts and guides shouting, yelling and hanging off the side of Delilah asking for business and then money. Within the pyramid complex it wasn’t so bad but it wasn’t devoid of pushy Egyptians. This experience couldn’t detracted from the grandeur of the pyramids that stood proud and timeless against the backdrop of the city. We looked at going to see the mummies of the Egyptian museum but the whole of Tahir square was surrounded by the army so we abandoned our attempt to get in and went back to the hotel. On the day of the big feast we departed Cairo which was a nightmare as the whole city was on lock-down with road blocks, tanks and barbed wire everywhere; finding ourselves sandwiched between the army and brewing muslim brotherhood protests. Adding to this spectacle was the slaughter of cows and sheep along the roadside for the big feast. Navigating through the backstreets finally brought us onto the southbound motorway.
Between Cairo and Beni Suef we drove through another muslim brotherhood protest holding up their placards of Morsi and waving four fingers at us whilst shouting “welcome to Egypt”. With Eid the roads were relatively clear however an abundance of invisible speed bumps seriously limited our progress to such a degree even Mr Shalay went against his own advice and we ventured onto the Eastern desert road. Here, speed bumps melted away and Delilah came to life in the heat hitting speeds she’d previously struggled to achieve. Adrenaline running high helped considerably with the sixteen hour drive and it was evident emotions were also running high with Hisham, who was very uneasy about the sparsely populated desert road. The long time spent in customs had curtailed our time between Damietta and Aswan so a decision to skip Luxor was made and we pressed on for Aswan. Asking for directions after dark from strangers was somewhat worrying but we eventually found the right motorway. Leaving the last checkpoint before Aswan the police officer made the rather ominous comment that we would beyond help if anything happened to us between here and there, as we were supposed to wait until the morning for a convoy. Anyway with just three hours to go we sped on, making good progress towards Aswan with Hisham pointing out Isna and Idfu as places where ‘bad men’ lived. Reaching Aswan at 10pm we meandered through horse drawn carts and street boys for some koshari before hitting our beds.
In the morning we did a brief tour of the unfinished obelisk, high Dam and Aswan Dam, where we were apprehended by the military for taking photos. The army officers were very civilised despite their stern faces and we were released fifteen minutes later after being made to delete the photos. Since the overthrow of Mubarak the police have regained the respect of the Egyptian people acting on their behalf rather than as president’s personal security attache. That afternoon a relieved Mr Shalay confessed to me how worried he’d been about our trip with his friends and family calling him telling him not to do this trip. The stress explained the tense atmosphere at times and the teasing comments about my ‘English driving’. Nonetheless his companionship, help and insight into Egyptian politics over the last couple of days had proved invaluable. We swapped contact details and I bid him farewell as he returned to Cairo and his family for the last day of Eid. The next morning I picked up Richard from the airport struggling through the checkpoints, without any Arabic, to find him tea in hand happily immersed in conversation with the local taxi drivers. Detaching ourselves, we set out to the Nubian side of Aswan in search of ‘Adam’s home’, a civilised Nubian courtyard run by the dynamic duo of Sammy and Mohammed. Sheltering under the eaves from the intense midday sun we met three bikers (Chris, Bret and Ron), who had gone through Tunisia and Libya and a British couple (Morag and Hugh) who had spent the past few weeks in the Western desert much to my jealous dismay. Shortly after sunset we re-convened for a couple of cold beers swapping stories of our latest exploits until a wedding party arrived and Mohammed invited us to join them. Nubian music filled the courtyard with a throng of people dancing and waving their whips in front of a small stage. Initially watching on, smoking our shisha, we slowly got up the courage to venture into the throng of bodies. At about 2am a big scuffle broke out as someone got a little enthusiastic with their whip and once the commotion had died down things wound up at around 3am.
Over the following days a group of four cyclists arrived (Kyle, Cidro, Niamh, and Sadhbh) who had traversed the Western desert and had a nasty run in with the “bad men” between Isna and Idfu. In addition a Brazilian couple in the process of driving around the world arrived with their young son and daughter. The preceding days were spent exploring the Prince’s tombs, sorting out our ferry to Sudan and looking around town, as Morag and Hugh directed beer supply. One afternoon we decided to treat ourselves to lunch in the Cataract hotel which had a fabulous balcony overlooking the Nile and its little islets, incidentally the home of Agatha Christie’s ‘death on the Nile’. Throughout our visit the Nile stood out as the crowning gem of Aswan with the green banks and golden sands of the surrounding desert starkly contrasting with the deep blue emanating from its depths. At sunset the felluccas with their bowed sails silhouetted against sky mysteriously glided over its dark waters. We’d settle down in the evenings to drink beer and enjoy the company of our fellow travellers and the jovial Mohammed biding our time before the ferry to Wadi Halfa.