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Sunday, December 4

Luxor, Western Desert and Cairo

Brett: We had a last lunch with Dee and James in Aswan and headed north along the Nile; the road had a lot of traffic, speed bumps and checkpoints with no police. We stayed at Rezikis Campsite ($7pppn) in Luxor, and chatted to the owner over tea and beers. Last time we were in Luxor, we hired bicycles and explored the valley of kings and queens – this time, we stuck to Karnak’s Temple ($10pp), which is brilliant, especially the Hypostyle hall, crammed with massive carved pillars. There were plenty of people trying to show us where the best photos could be taken from for baksheesh, and a few tour groups, but it was much quieter than normal. Luxor seems very peaceful, but there were a lot of police sitting in their vehicles on the sides of roads, waiting for something. While we were in town, we realised we had stumbled upon another public holiday – Islamic New Year – and lying in the tent we could hear what sounded like a carnival going on in the streets until about 3am. In the morning we checked the news and it turned out to have been protestors. We managed to catch up on some chores and got a load of washing done – amazingly it was only the second or third wash in a washing machine in 6 months.

The next day, wanting a break from people, we drove into the Western Desert. The roads through the desert are good tar and were mostly empty. We had a bunch of recommendations of campsites in the oasis towns along the road, but decided free camp in the desert instead. Freecamping is really easy in the Western Desert – our first camping spot was just after Dhakla, behind the biggest dune (N25 23.162 E30 27.249) we could find in the area. We had fanta-shandy sundowners at the top of a nearby hill (all we had left – doesn’t taste as bad as it sounds). In the morning we climbed the dune for sunrise.

The next day we decided to take it easy and find a camping spot earlier so that we could spend a few hours relaxing while the sun was still up – sunset is around 5:15pm! After a lunch of Mary’s Thai Salmon Soup, we set off to look for a good spot. We thought we had found a good area and pulled off the road into the softish sand, heading out away from the road and down the hill, but before we knew it we were bogged to the axles in the most amazingly fine soft sand. There was a thin layer of normal yellow sand on top as a decoy, but underneath it was just deep layers of what felt like fine ash. We started digging the Beast out, which was actually very easy because of how soft the sand was, and managed to find some stones to put behind the tyres. After lowering the tyre pressure even more, we managed to get moving and were very proud of the Beast’s performance in getting back to the road despite the steepish hill of soft stuff – what a legendary car! A couple of kms further down the road we found a fantastic freecamping spot (N25 59.358 E27 58.818) on hard sand, which we have nicknamed the Bonfire Campsite (since we finally used the last of our Kenya firewood up in a massive bonfire). It was near a waypoint we got from someone else but quite a bit further into the desert until we were about 1.5kms off the road among some rocky dunes - it was so well hidden that we could have had a massive party there and nobody would have spotted us. In the morning we put the laptop on the tailgate and did a  Billy Blanks Tae-Bo workout – our performance was so extremely professional, coordinated and elegant, that we looked like two choreographed gazelles (if you can imagine gazelles doing tae-bo). You’ll get to see the video we made if we ever manage to hold off laughing enough to edit it.  

Mary: We stocked up in the oasis town of Farafra and ended the day in the White Desert, camping behind some of the tall chalk formations on the west side of the road (N27 20.536 E28 05.845). It was a little spooky with massive, eerie columns of white rock around us. We were woken early by some strange noises and poked our heads out of the tent to find a tiny fox walking along the nearest chalk formation trying to catch a crow. I grabbed my long lens and managed to get some great photos, and after a few minutes the curious little foxie had become so used to us that he actually came right up to us and the Beast to investigate. After a photo-walk round where we had been camped, we headed over to the Sculpture Garden on the east side of the road. Here the chalk formations are really densely packed and many of them are over 30m tall.

After spending the day wandering around the White Desert we headed on to camp in the Black Desert (N28 06.551 E28 43.519), where we thought we would treat ourselves to a warm water bucket shower (still freezing because of the wind). We had cheesy pasta using up the last of our Saudi perma-cheese* and Coketails (coke shandy, what on earth have we been reduced to :-) ) and caught up on photo editing.

(*Saudi perma-cheese, what can I tell you about that that won’t make you think we have been travelling too long? well we bought it in Sudan, thinking it was normal cheddar, but it turned out to be a pretty bad-tasting processed cheese imported from Saudi. It survived the whole 8 days of the Wadi Halfa barge with the fridge off, with daytime temperatures in the high twenties, and still tasted the same as the day we bought it – earning its nickname “perma-cheese”. It didn’t melt no matter what you did to it, so we were careful to cut it up into very small pieces before eating it. On reflection, it’s possible we have been travelling too long…)

On the main road through the Western Desert there are lots of army checkpoints, but you don’t need to take a guide unless you are going to the Siwa Oasis. The army guys didn’t speak much English and it took us a while to figure out what they were asking us, but the questions were the same at all the checkpoints so pretty soon we had the pattern worked out.

ArmyChap: “Where did you come from today?”
    Us: "Luxor"
ArmyChap: “Where are you going to?”
    Us: "Farafra"
ArmyChap: “What nationality? French? Italy? Germany?”
    Us: "Jenoub Afriqya (South Africa)"
ArmyChap: “Ok, but what nationality?”
    Us: "Jenoub Afriqya!"
ArmyChap: “No really – what is your nationality?”
    Us: "Jenoub Afriqya – Bafana Bafana! Nelson Mandela!"
ArmyChap: “really? two of you? but you are white – where were you born?”

Brett: As we drove towards Cairo we saw the edge of the city approaching – it looked like an impenetrable wall of unfinished apartment blocks. We got takeaways on our way to the Salma Campsite ($5pppn), where we met Rob and Esther from Netherlands (http://goinglocal.nu/) who are just at the start of their journey south. It was great chatting to them – we really haven’t bumped into that many overlanders on our trip. In the morning, we did a drive-by of the pyramids (we saw them up close last time we were in Cairo) then headed out of town via Dandy Mall. The mall was a complete culture shock – by far the classiest shopping centre we have seen on our travels (even the Nairobi shopping centres weren’t as sophisticated), with European designer clothes stores, Movenpick icecream, Starbucks and a massive Carrefour supermarket. There was even a Claire’s accessories and a Body Shop! It was actually quite overwhelming, and it felt like we had been teleported to some brightly lit European airport – there was even an “airport” PA system which went “bing bing bing!” followed by some unintelligble announcement! Bizarre. Mary just about went mental when she saw that the Starbucks had their Christmas cups out, getting all teary-eyed and insisting on a double-hazelnut-grande-soya-latte-with-cream. (Mary: actually it was a tall vanilla latte, and I had some dust in my eye…). After a big stock-up we set off for  the tunnel under the Suez Canal to the Sinai Peninsula and a new continent.

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