Poll Star's Wonderings

Friday, March 21, 2008

Because it's clean

Day 60 Alexandria to Siwa
The housing and buildings are seemingly without end for an hour out of Alex. Staring out of bus windows is a great chance to reflect on things and I began to think there appears to be tension in Egypt: we saw kids throwing stones at a restaurant in Dahab, a ruck was developing round a taxi crash on the way to Siwa-so much so that we had to backtrack, reversing up the road and there just seem to be a lot of loud arguments in the street. The vibe is different to the rest of the countries I’ve visited. I’ve also seen more cars being pushed than the rest of the trip put together-it really is up to Allah if you get there or not. The Lonely Planet calls the economy a basket case. I may be imagining, but it seems more desperate than elsewhere.

I’m pretty sure I sounded like a pampered, impatient Westerner when the bus stopped in the one real town between Alex and Siwa and we were told that it would move again in an hour and 20 minutes. I double checked. Twice. To my mind, we had 2 drivers. Let’s have a piss and get on with it. The 9 hour journey time began to make sense, especially as the guy I met on the bus, who’d been to Siwa before, told me we’d stop at a café in the desert as well.

By this time there were just 3 foreigners on the bus; all the locals had buggered off, they presumably had better things to do.

One was an American girl, who was one of those very rare people with whom I am completely unable to communicate. She was quite monosyllabic, well in my opinion she had no conversational skills whatsoever: this doesn’t normally stop me, I’ll just talk for 2. But she had that air that made me tense and doubt what I was saying, which still seeming expectant of me saying something. She was the equivalent of someone saying, ‘so what do you want to talk about’, or ‘tell me something funny’. So I was grateful that David, a 50, maybe 60 something from Rugby was there.

Although David was a touch unusual too. He was teaching at a school in Alex, having retired from teaching in Bilton (freaky small world there). Nothing too odd there.

Within about a quarter of an hour I had the sort of conversation with David that you see only on screen when backstory, character and situation need to be explained in a hurry. The sort of thing that doesn’t ring true to real life. But now it was happening.

David had mentioned his girlfriend a few times and his kids, so I figured he was divorced. He’d mentioned the girlfriend was in Thailand so I was desperately trying not to jump to conculsions. Sudenly it all came tumbling out: he hadn’t wanted the divorce, prior to it he couldn’t have sat and chatted to me so easily, his wife had had the last child as a financial insurance, a guy at the chip had suggested he try a website thaitheknot.com I think and he’d signed straight up for gold membership.

There was a lot more.

And then he showed me the photo of his girlfriend. Not a wallet job, but a large wooden framed one that he drew out of his small bag. I didn’t know what to say. I thought she looked 20, 21. I think I wanted to think that. Christina and Breeze, who I met later, thought 15. I saw she was holding a pink stuffed toy dolphin, and went for ‘I bet you bought that’. David was very excited that I read people and things so well. I was relieved to have managed not to blurt out you have a 13 year old son and 4 children older than her.

We talked for a good while longer about a range of things; all the time I was trying hard to not think of Bob from Teachers. I was trying even harder not to say ‘Did you ever see Teachers when it was on Channel 4?’.

I later found out that David managed to accidentally throw his false teeth away in Siwa and had to retrieve them by clambering around in a bin in front of the Siwans. I had no difficulty believing this. I sincerely hope things work out for David and his Thai girlfriend, but I can’t help but think of Bob and doubt it.

I guess some people might be wondering just what sort of specialist vehicle it takes to get way out into the desert hundreds of kms from anyway. One like this will do

You can see above that we were in deserty territory. The Oasis took me by surprise. It was movie like as we turned a corner and there it was after miles and miles of just flat yellow landscape. Siwa is renowned as the prettiest oasis and it lived up to that billing.

I took this after climbing up the fortifications in the old town for sunset. Before I could do that I had to brave the donkey boys. The donkey boys have donkeys and carts and will take you round and about. They descend on the bus en masse to try and take you to your hotel or any other hotel who’ll make it worth your while. They were so thick around me that it took a while for me to get orientated-David had gone off to a distance to allow the American girl and me to experience the arrival. It was fairly tame stuff.

I was slightly concerned that Siwa might turn into another Wadi Rum-a bit expensive as I had to do things on my own in a setup that was more group orientated. It turned out I needn’t have worried. At sunset I made two discoveries, one of them great. A former Donkey boy, who initially called himself Ali (he thought this was easier to remember for tourists), used this as a good place to find tourists and get them on his trips. Now usually I would be very sceptical about this, but his price seemed OK (not too much, not tool little) and I saw the car and anyway 2 germans were coming and they asked questions and thought it was OK. Also coming was Achille.

Achille may be the first legend of this trip. He is certainly the biggest legend of the trip and I doubt anyone will take that away from him. He is a travel machine.

Most places Achille has visited he describes as ‘very nice’; this can be subdivided into ‘very nice, very nice people/food’, ‘very nice, not very nice people’. Most other things can be described as ‘is no problem for me’. Achille speaks some very good English, but is happier in French, which he says used to be the international language so we talk a fair bit of French-mostly when the English isn’t working. Achille travels 6-8 months a year and spend 2 months before each trip planning. He takes a LP for each country and is the most organised traveller I have ever met. He colour codes his Lonely Planets, has 1st 2nd and 3rd choice accommodation, daily budgets for each country (broken down into accom, food, museums and one or two other things), a detailed itinerary that he is prepared to deviate from.

Achille is 67 years old, but younger than me at heart. Achille has a wife who doesn’t travel due to her health.

Achille is Italian. Without any doubt at all, Achille is Italian and his surname is Lucchini, which ought to be a type of pasta. He made me laugh like a drain and by the time I left him in Bahariyya 4 days later, I loved him to bits and was hoping to see him again in Luxor.

Sitting at sunset I heard him talking about going to Bahariyya. I wanted to do this across the desert, but it’s pricey £1200-1500 Egyptian for the vehicle I had heard, so I couldn’t do it alone. Achille, of course, said it was no problem for him to go alone, but he hoped other people would come and split the cost. He was asking the Germans if they were up for it, and I went totally un-English and butted in saying I would like to. Achille had already done most of the groundwork, so we were just left to see if we could find some people to drop the price further. Achille had lined up £1200, so 4 of us would be just £300 each….

After sunset we headed down to Ali’s shop to copnfiem what we’d do tomorrow-trip into the great sand sea, dinner and sleeping in the desert. It wasn’t till the following day that we found out his name was somewhat different. Imagine Margaret Thatcher saying Far-tay and that's about it. Of course, it just does up as an affected way of saying fatty. After which you try not to call him fatty like he’s findouter and it sounds like farty instead. Maybe I see his point in using Ali.

Day 61 Siwa and the Great Sand Sea
You meet some characters in the desert. It sounds like the cast of Forster novel-American mother and daughter, ex pat teacher, Italian traveller, Englishwoman setting up a retreat and that's without casting yours truly. Maybe it’s an Agatha Christie. I met David for breakfast and he’d met some folk including Breeze and her mother Christine, who’d met Fahteh last night and were also coming out in the desert today and were up for Bahariyya.

At dinner I’d arranged to meet Achille to go and book Bahariyya, so Breeze came with us we got everything sorted including 2 nights in the desert over there. Logistics over, I did very little until it came time to head off. Incidentally at dinner David had worked out who I reminded him off; he’d been saying it was off TV and I was thinking if he says Clare Balding, there’s going to be trouble. But apparently I am like Trevor Eve in Shoestring-anyone old enough to remember?

We’d decided not to use Fahteh to go to Bahariyya, as he seemed a bit of a cowboy-OK to get us around the nearby, but dodgy in the depths of the desert where there can be over 100km between the military checkpoints. This turned out to be a good decision as in my opinion, 1 year on from driving in sand on Fraser Island, his driver is an accident waiting to happen. We hammered down a few dunes as you might in a sand buggy, but we were in a 4x4 tank. I hadn’t signed up for the adrenalin, but the peace and beauty so found this a rather tedious diversion.

We didn’t have to head out too far into the desert as you get away from the Oasis and it is proper desert. I took a video panorama at one point and for about 270 degrees all you get is sand being baked by the sun, but then you see the oasis: it gave me a slight feeling of what it must have been like for those lost, ragged, thirsty souls when they saw it and ran down the dune to it. Of course this is the only oasis for miles and miles and miles, so most of the ragged souls never got to it.

We started at a hot spring 10km away and I would say it was serious desert after less than a quarter if that distance.

Some of the dunes were picture postcard stuff

Scenes like this made it obvious why it had been dubbed the Great Sand Sea, which starts around the hot springs. Cool as this name is, it is worth stating that the Great Sand Sea is part of the Sahara, the number one name in deserts and clear market leader. It is an appropriately movie looking desert. Even day tripping with 2 and a half litres of water and a 4x4, you realise this is not your environment and you need to be careful to be safe.

After dinner I chose the tent option-I’ve two nights coming up Al Fresco

Day 62 Siwa
With a day to explore the sights in and around Siwa, I hired a bike and headed off to the Temple of the Oracle. Didn’t ITV’s teletext used to be called Oracle? It classical for them. Anyway, Siwa used to have a famous oracle. Famous enough for Alexander the Great to have made a special trip here to consult it; he never revealed what was said, but it is rumoured it told him he was the son of Zeus (and Sid Waddell would memorably reference him in his Bristow’s only 27 commentary). The Persian King Cambyses sent a force of 50,000 men to destroy the Oracle after it foresaw his downfall. They were consumed by the desert and no trace of them has ever been found.

In itself there wasn’t so very much to see, but there were some great views over the oasis.

I passed the temple of Umm Ubayda, which is in a pretty bad state

after an Ottoman governor blew it up for building materials, and made my way to the Cleopatra spring. I’d meant to go for a swim, but it was quite a long bike ride back and I eliminated the risk of chaffing on wet clothes by just sitting in the café and chatting with folks there. (Incidentally the café with the best music in the middle east). I was just about to head off when Breeze and her mum arrived, so after another prolonged bout of chilling we headed back through town to the Fatnas springs. This time the donkey boys ensured we bailed on swimming, so we did sunset with a drink and a Sheesha.

Day 63 Siwa to Baharriya
As we were meeting Ahmed, our driver/guide/cook/sex pest, at 7 I had time to see sunrise from my balcony.

The drive to Bahariyya was a long one-9 hours or so including an excellent lunch stop.

The 7 checkpoints (I still can’t see the point) dragged it a bit as well. Although the desert was fairly unremarkable, I was still glad to do it as the alternative route was 9 hours bus to Alex, 3 hours or so to Cairo, 5 or so hours to Bahariyya-at which point I’d have needed to arrange an excursion into the surrounding area. It seemed quite a journey and an effort for us, even though we’d just sat in a jeep. The distance is pretty much on the limit of a camel’s range before water is needed. Had you made the crossing pre road, pre GPS, pre satellite phone, you really needed to know what you were doing.

I found it a little strange that in Bawati, the settlement in the Bahariyya Oasis, it was a bit tricky to find ice cream. The first guy didn’t even know if he had any; eventually we found a place with some crushed cornetto rip offs buried under the frozen meat. Glad I wasn’t eating the meat as the ice creams weren’t the most frozen.

After a brief stop in town (for military intelligence and bureaucracy) we headed to camp in the desert where we had a lovely spot in a dune and a camp fire.

When it came dinner Achille, who had been talking of his hunger for a while, appeared gracious. ‘Women first’, he said; after the ladies had theirs, he continued ‘women first, then children, I am child’ and he was off. Top dinner and no meat in sight.

I timed my moments of consciousness in the night quite beautifully. I saw the red moon setting, the stars at their brightest when moon and sun were gone, a shooting star and dawn,

Day 64 The Black and White Deserts
In the morning Achille and Christine got stuck into some Tai Chi type stuff; it was a bit new age for me so I stretched and went off for a piss.

We noticed the foxprints from the night before, but it wasn’t until we were in the whit desert tonight that we saw a fox. We had to do a few things in Bawati before heading south, but the Black desert was our first destination of the day. The black desert is one of those formations that is a result of volcanic activity. We climbed up a surprisingly steep and tall black mountain/hill and as I looked across the black desert, I imagined Peter Jackson adding flames to create Mordor.

We managed a self timer team photo, which I love as I clearly from land of the giants

(the ground sloped and I still haven’t mastered the thing on my head). Once again at lunch, the food preparation fascinated Achille

At the start of the white desert (imaginatively named desert with lots of chalk formations) is the crystal mountain, which is really a big rock, glittering with quartz. It looked like a massive tub of glitter had been emptied on it and wasn’t so much my thing. I did manage to find an arch to stand in with my new turban look.

By now I am finding that some of the flies are getting almost Australian in their persistence and aggression, but fortunately not in their numbers.

We catch some sun set over the white desert,

which is not white in the setting sun. The other thing about the chalk base of the white desert is it means there’s not a great depth of sand, which makes it rather difficult if you’re trying to dig a hole big enough to drop something in, if you catch my drift.

Later on Ahmed is talking to me about the airport opening up in Siwa being a good thing-currently bus/jeep is the only way there and it is a long way. Reservations are expressed about the impact on Siwa, but Ahmed says that the language (Siwa has 25,000 natives with their own language) and culture will endure. I feel bad and cynical for initially doubting him, arrogant for initially thinking him naive. His quiet confidence seems well placed and I am convinced for a time. Later thought a few things change my mind and make me think that Ahmed, although he has travelled a bit, is not as worldy wise as I thought. I had been shocked when I got to Siwa how touristy it felt; chatting to Ahmed about this he says only 40 people work in tourism. He means only 40 people drive jeeps: I’m thinking about the hotels, of which there must be 20, 30 more-all with Middle Eastern sized staffing, the restaurants, internet cafes, craft/tat stalls, sand treatments for rheumatism, tourist info office, 7-11 type shops and donkey boys. When you then consider the jobs that go to supporting them and their building expansions and the ex pats also living here, Siwa’s economy is tourist dependent. Ahmed also started talking to me with childlike enthusiasm about WWF (or whatever they now call themselves); he is addicted to it on satellite. After a few minutes gushing he said, ‘but some people say it is not real’-I didn’t know what to say. He was clearly a believer. I don’t want to sound like I’m poking fun at a simple country boy, I’m just saying that having travelled and seen a few places, Ahmed is wrong: the airport opening will make Siwa a resort. Already he mentioned donkey boys weren’t bothering with education, just getting cash off tourists. Go to Siwa now if it interests you, it will change.

Then of course there was Ahmed and Breeze. Poor Breeze.

On Saturday Breeze had asked me to be her husband for the day after some guy in a palm grove had asked her mum if he could kiss Breeze; it turns out it would have been wise to extend this arrangement as Ahmed’s heart was racing. This was very awkward for poor Breeze (especially as Ahmed was totally impervious to anything subtle) and while it provided the rest of us (well mostly me) with quite a lot of comedy, it also proved to be a royal pain in the butt tonight.

Breeze had been asking for some chaperoning assistance, mostly from her mum. Ahmed had been getting more and more excited. At the crystal mountain, where there are big signs saying take nothing, he tried to give Breeze some rocks and stuff. She refused, but then he just gave her something in the car when he couldn’t put it back anyway.

Tonight it emerged he had a masterplan. He asked Christine if he could take Breeze for a moonlit walk. I’m far from convinced this was a wide eyed innocent request, but anyway Christine said yes, which Ahmed took as a blessing. Breeze meanwhile is rapidly canvassing to get as many folk on the walk as possible. To me it’s quite clear that we are heading off together. Ahmed however takes Breeze’s arm and all but runs off. I’ve no shoes and Christine can’t walk the fastest on the sand, so we are soon a distance behind. Before much longer we’re just following 2 shadows. Still feeling we should support Breeze I make a fateful decision: looking at where Breeze and Ahmed are heading and back to where we have come from in the moonlight, I realise that this is the point of no return. If we keep going, I can’t find the way back-we’ve got to keep with them. We’ve been following them (or their dust trail) so haven’t seen any real markers to get back. We keep on. We shout a few times, but to no avail. Finally in amongst a number of rock formations, we lose the shadows. I’ve my torch so we follow their footprints for a while-Christine asks if I was a boy scout. Then we reach some chalk base without sand on. It’s quite big and obviously has no footprints on it, we can’t follow any more. I harbour a small hope that this a gag and they’ll jump out on us, but no. So it’s time to follow the footprints back. Which we do until we come to another chalk base and can no longer find our footprints (plenty of other ones with shoes, but not ours).


We climb up onto a small chalk hill for a look. We see no people and Christine starts determining North and directions we should head in way that totally fails to persuade me. Then she spots a fire. That’s the one, head for the fire. We climb down, but can’t see the fire anymore. So I climb back to get a bearing on something we can head for.

We get close to the rock I was aiming for and there is no way this is going to be our camp. There’s also no sound of voices and no sign of a fire. For the first time I am a little concerned-we’re now way off course well away from where we walked if Ahmed cools his ardour and looks for us by retracing the route. I leave Christine to look quickly round the corner. It’s not our camp, but it is a camp. Result. Turns out this is Rachel’s camp, she’s from New York and has some lovely Friends. We get on nicely and had I been alone, I’d have been tempted to say I’ll stay and we’ll find them in the morning.

Her 3 guides (seemed a bit unnecessary, but then she wasn’t lost) started to try to help us. I described how we were in the new white desert 18km from the entrance, 3 km into the new white, just off the road, camped behind a rock like a camel. I had hoped that the camel would seal the deal-I really did think it looked like a seated camel and that’s what Ahmed had called it. I even animated my camel and mimicked the sitting and staring position. Blank looks. Oh well. More discussion, then one guide goes. ‘Ah, I know’.
‘You have two cars.’
‘No, one.’
‘It is red.’
‘No, white.’

We’d honked the horn of their jeep a few times, but this was beginning to fee like an impasse. They had lots of blankets and a big tent and they’d already offered us food, so it seemed not too bad a situation. Then we see a car driving round and assume it is Ahmed. Christine says this means he’s had to collapse the camp, I say it serves him right. It seems to take a lot of effort to get the car to come over and stop. That’s because it’s not ours and isn’t looking for us. It’s 6 guides on a joy ride. Still they cram us in and although they too have no idea where we are camped, we start touring about 4 or 5 camps. Eventually we go back to the start of the New White Desert and later still see Ahmed standing around waving a light.

Ahmed feigns incomprehension, says we went for separate walks and doesn’t understand how we got lost. I tell him he’s full of shit. I’ve been laughing ever since we found Rachel’s camp, but this makes me angry. He’s essentially run off with Breeze, which she hadn’t wanted, and abandoned the two of us to get lost in the desert and now he’s feigning all innocence. He challenges me on it and I repeat that he’s full of shit and lost us on purpose. Breeze confirms later that he opened up by saying ‘my plan is ruined, I wanted to walk alone with you, but now your mum and John are following us’. Like I say full of shit and potentially dangerous. Once we’d been lost, Breeze had a few hairy moments as she too had no idea where she was, he had the horn and was evasive about returning to base.

Breeze tells us the moment she got back to camp, where Ahmed had assured her we would be, the words from the Lonely Planet echoed in her ears-‘people die in the desert every year’. Once we found Rachel I knew we’d be OK, the others had no such consolation.

When everyone was reunited it was clear again that Achille was the wise one-he’d stayed behind and had been talking to the foxes.

Day 65 Bahariyya to Cairo
I’m not sure how long we spent in the White Desert the following morning, but I’ll leave it to the pictures

We stopped at a hot spring on the way back and I had a quick clean as I was still harbouring a lunatic hope of making the night train to Aswan. Once I was back in Cairo.

I’d made various efforts to get a ticket, including Breeze’s contact in Cairo, but it seemed I was going to need to be in Cairo to book a ticket. Our bus was at 3, Breeze’s contact told me there was a late train at 10.30 and the bus journey was described as taking between 3 and 5 hours. I will skip most of the tedious details, but I finally arrived at the station at 9.30 pm (not knowing why I bothered as I had no chance) to find the sleeper had gone at 9.10 and the two more regular type trains that hadn’t left were full. I know I was sweaty and gross looking, but the surly Egyptian way people tell you these things doesn’t make you relish coming back the next day for an actual ticket.

After disagreeing with the taxi drivers over the fare to the King Tut hostel, I took the metro and a walk. I failed to find King Tut (it was obvious in the morning), but had deliberately headed to a spot where there were three hostels adjacent. I plumped for the Claridge, which was pretty poor, but welcome none the less. It had been 3 days since I’d seen a bed, shower or toilet. I found some food and threw myself into bed. That was 9 hours after getting on the bus.


  • Bloody hell, that sounds like a bit of a nightmare... especially for someone as (and I'm sorry to say this) as essentially decent as you are. What a tosser.

    Other than that, it sounds brilliant in a kind of confused and chaotic way (the country, not the way you're visiting it) and Achille sounds like a proper legend.

    On a completely different note, try typing "Find Chuck Norris" into google and hitting the "I feel lucky" button. Well worth it.

    See you soon and keep us posted!


    By Blogger swisslet, at 9:51 PM  

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