I am looking forward to a day of solitary cycling, after my dodgy night at the Zaafarana police station. It is around 6:45am when my luggage is packed and loaded on Rafiki. I get on the bicycle and cycle towards the checkpoint to access the road going south, to Ras Gharib. At the checkpoint, yesterday’s officer asks me to wait a few minutes again. He calls « the general » on the radio.
The reason why I decided to make a detour along the Red Sea instead of taking the more natural way along the River Nile, is because a section of the Nile route, situated between Cairo and Qena, is restricted for tourists. Taking that route would necessitate a police escort through the territory. Besides being constantly followed, having escorts would also prevent me from stopping when and where I would like to, and would most certainly impede encounters along the way.
A reply from the general soon arrives. « It’s OK, you can go », the officer translates, gesturing towards the road. Finally !
The air is fresh, the sun is shining, the tarmac I’m cycling on is smooth, and there is no traffic. It’s going to be a good day.
I reflect on how I had pictured Zaafarana while preparing this whole journey. I knew, as I had looked it up on Google Satellite, that the place only consisted of a few buildings. Yet, I imagined it would have a history of some kind, as Zaafarana, in Arabic, means saffron. Situated on the Gulf of Suez shore, I thought the name might have its roots in the spice trade happening between the Arab world and India or East Africa, via the Indian Ocean. I realise, now that I’m cycling away from the settlement, that I didn’t see anything of it.
The noise of an engine pulls me away from my train of thoughts. A police pick-up is driving behind me. It seems, after all, that this road is not escorts-free either…
Communication with the police men is very basic as, on one hand, I don’t speak Arabic, and, on the other, most of them only speak a rudimentary English. Also, and luckily for the policemen, escorts only follow me for about 20 to 40 km, after which another car takes the relay. I then have to show my passport again, and explain that I don’t want to load my bike on the vehicle. I might sound like I’m a bit difficult, but having to go through that process again and again, during nearly 750 km, can be somewhat annoying… Yet, as bothered as I am by the unexpected presence, I believe that the policemen are the ones who deserve sympathy. Who would want to follow a slow tourist on a bicycle during hours, under a hot sun ? I am annoyed by them, and at the same time feel guilty for breaking their perfectly fine day by having them escort me.
Some let me cycle freely by following from a distance, or pass me and park a few kilometers further, waiting for me to catch up, then pass me again a few minutes later to wait for me again further ahead of the road. Others are pushier, driving only a few meters behind me, or worse, ahead of me, releasing exhaust gases in the air I am to breathe. Some insist on loading Rafiki and Pumba in the back of the pick-up, arguing that traffic is dangerous, or even that there are terrorists further on the way. If I stop to have lunch, to rest, or for whichever reason, they will gesture a finger tapping on a watch and ask, or rather say: « 5 minutes ».
Even though I believe those escorts aren’t necessary – I would even argue that they reflect badly with the self supported kind of traveler – it is not entirely pointless that these measures are taken. Indeed, the tourism sector contributes handsomely to the Egyptian economy, and mainly consists of organised groups visiting the ancient pyramids, tombs and temples, and/or staying in all-in resorts along the Red Sea coast and on the river banks of the Nile in Luxor and Aswan. If anything were to happen to foreign cyclists, even by accident as a result of a traffic incident, dehydration or a sunstroke, it might make headlines for the national press of that particular individual which in turn would reflect badly on tourism in Egypt in general, and in the eyes of the potential mass tourist candidate in particular.
Anyway, the result of those escorts, is that my cycling days are longer and harder than expected as I am pushed to cycle faster, with shorter breaks, and over longer distances. As such, providing the effort when I’m on the bicycle is alright. It becomes problematic at the end of the day, when I start to get cramps in my legs. I tell myself I can reach that landmark or reach a round number on my bicycle computer or maybe cycle for 30 minutes more. When I reach my target, I look for another landmark, or decide to cycle 20 minutes more, and so on. Needless to say that the next morning, my legs hurt despite the stretching session I did when reaching my destination. Luckily, I feel the soreness fade away after 10 or 15 minutes of cycling. Yet, the accumulated distance results in cramps coming earlier in the day and being more painful than the ones I had the previous day. My muscles stiffen.
I reach Port Safaga in the late evening of 23 December, after having spent a day and a half with Simon & Tanya whom I met in Cairo (read Egypt #2 – Simon & Tanya), and their families, near Hurghada. As I slightly lean forward to unload the panniers off of Rafiki, a stinging pain shoots in my lower back, as if a thick hard needle, or a knife blade had been thrusted in my flesh. I immediately stiffen and get upright again. It’s a kind of pain I have experienced already. It is very painful for a few days, then gradually fades away. And if it doesn’t, the best remedy I found until now, is the intervention of an osteopath.
The next morning, I am to cycle across a small chain of mountains, to reach Qena, a town along the River Nile. I know, when I wake up, that I won’t make it, as I can barely come out of the bed. Every movement I make triggers a stinging pain in my lower back. The pain not fading away after having taken a hot shower and breakfast, I decide to stay another night, then a third.
I wonder how things will turn out, when I get on the bicycle on the third day, to leave Safaga. I feel a bit rusty during the first few minutes, but as I feel my body warm up and my muscles loosen up, I start to believe things could turn out alright after all. The mountains I have to pass aren’t too high with the summit at 640 metres of altitude. Spread over 40 km at an average slope of less than 2%, it, nonetheless, forces me to produce a constant effort. Once the summit is reached, I enjoy one of the longest descents I have ever experienced so far, before being stopped at a checkpoint at the foot of the mountains. A car is being called from another checkpoint to provide the escort. Meanwhile, I feel the pain rise in my legs, especially in the right one, during this one-hour break.
It is getting dark when I finally reach Checkpoint 67, situated at 125 km from Safaga and 67 km from Qena. My legs are sore when I wake up in the morning. I will definitely need another day of rest in Qena, before reaching Luxor, where I am to interview Kris Huybrechts about the work of Dar el Shifa – the House of Healthcare, in English.