Whilst the streets are chaotic and it demands all your attention, traffic accelerates and brakes in the space it is given and as we took our place in the flow we were, for the most part, seen and respected.
Over the course of the morning we moved from city streets, to eight-lane highway, cycling over the Nile, past the Pyramids, out of Cairo and into the suburbs towards the half-built 6th October City. A government planned conurbation designed to relieve some of the stress of urbanisation from the capital, 6th October is an eerie place, miles from anything and with few noticable services; it looked like a failed 60s council estate even before completion.
Beyond 6th October the traffic diminished considerably. We were taking the thousand-odd kilometre Western Desert Road which connects a series of oasis towns until it rejoins the Nile near Luxor. The first town after leaving behind Cairo and 6th October City is Bawiti in the Bahariya Oasis - 375km along an empty, scorched road.
Some people skip this first section, hopping on a bus to Bawiti to avoid the chaos of escaping Cairo and what is thought of as a less beautiful stretch of desert. But these first difficult few days were an incredible experience. We pushed our way through a landscape we'd never seen before. The earth rushed off to meet the sky at the horizon with little or nothing in between to distract. The colours were pared back to muted yellows and browns, bright blues and whites, and of course the long black strip of tarmac which rolled out ahead.
This part of the desert was desolate yet busy. We could draw to a pause and hear nothing but the wind and cast our eyes for any sign of movement without success bar the scattered road side rubbish fluttering in the breeze. But then trucks would rumble past, we'd arrive at a gatehouse to nowhere, or an isolated railway station with a solitary guard that in four days only saw a single locomotive come by.
For some stretches we were joined by swallows making the same journey south, our migrations overlapping. They inspired and humbled us, a joyful connection to familiar nature in an alien place. I hope we provided them with a brief grin and distraction on their epic journey.
We made very grateful use of a distance table downloaded from the cyclingegypt blog. At the end of the first day we rolled into our first Asaaf (Ambulance) Station. Soon we'd be arguing over the finer architectural details of these places, equipped to spot them from miles off, as they became our essential retreat from the elements all along the route.
Established to respond to accidents on this remote road, the paramedics who staff them work 'two-week-on-two-week-off' shifts and with only one or two call outs a month spend most of their time battling boredom. These men (they were all men) were without doubt some of the best people in Egypt. Warm and funny and welcoming, we spent many very happy hours shading from the sun, filtering water, cooking food, sipping tea and chatting in broken English and very broken Arabic with them.
Diaa in particular was exceptional company. He had taken advantage of Mubarak's fall by growing a beard favoured by more committed followers of Islam, beards having been banned under the now-imprisoned dictator's rule. This gave him a slightly intimidating first impression but he had a wicked sense of humour, was a patient arabic teacher, and spoke with ease in warm philosophical terms. We were like migratory birds, he told us. 'You don't pass often but when you do people are always pleased to see you.'
'Macdonald - you are my brother in humanity.'
Whilst we spent our first night in the first Asaaf Station, coming to terms with what we'd embarked upon, most nights we cycled until around 5pm, searched for a spot to drag our bikes off the road. We slept in our tent without the flysheet, able to fall asleep to the sight of a sky thick with stars.
The harsh terrain brought the best out in people. With temperatures hovering between 38 and 44 Celsius no one wanted to be left without water, and everyone understood how seriously safety must be taken. We were offered water, chai, food and lifts (!) countless times by passing strangers. Hannah rightly observed that there is a unexpected, empathetic connection between truckers and cyclists. They were certainly the most jovial of the wavers and honkers- the shared understanding of difficult long days on the road creating a kind of solidarity we didn't expect.
Towards the end of the third long, hot day through striking but monotonous terrain we happened, without fanfare, upon our first hill. At the brow we were unexpectedly swept down into a transformed landscape of exquisite beauty; a long ridge of hills smoothed and swirled by the wind rose up from banks of sand to mark the horizon. The afternoon sun created shadows and silhouettes framed by rich oranges and reds. It was stunning.
At the bottom of the hill I free-wheeled to a stop and turned to watch Hannah coast up beside me. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell to the ground. The desert makes constant demands of you; the landscape, heat, isolation and exhaustion combining to deliver a deeply emotional response. Not for the last time in our three weeks in Egypt's Western Desert, Smithy had been moved to tears through the simple power of its beauty.
After four testing, rewarding days, the first oasis opened up around us and we eventually rolled into Bawiti. Typical of Bedouin hospitality, two people had stopped their cars along the way, given us their contact details and invited us stay with them when we reached town. Incredibly, one, Araniya, was waiting for us at the edge of town when we arrived, having picked up news on our location from minibus drivers. In what was an unbeatable end to dusty days on the road she led us straight to a hot spring where we immersed ourselves in the water. We spent a day in Araniya and her husband Hamada's home - rested and resupplied and headed south towards the White Desert.
The Black and White Deserts should be as famous as the pyramids. What was unchanging before, was constantly evolving and dramatic now; the dry land left and right rising up into rock formations and racing over in vast swooping bowls of stone and sand to meet the sky. The names are not deceptive - the iron in the rocks of the Black Desert gives the landscape a dark and ominous hue. The limestone chalk of the White Desert in places resembles an alien fall of snow and in others has been carved into breathtaking towering shapes by the wind.
We spent a night in this most magical of settings; completely alone in a place so beautiful I've delayed writing this blog because the task of putting words to its wonderfulness was so intimidating. We sat on a slope of sand, surrounded by curved white rocks, and with dusty hills lined up in rows towards the horizon. The only footprints were our own, the only sounds our breathing. We cooked as the sun set over this empty wilderness. We ate as the sky filled with stars. We slowly tidied up the camp as a full moon rose red and massive into the night sky. I've never been somewhere more special.
Waking before daylight we made porridge and brewed up some coffee. We sat on a ledge to watch another day start, feeling the first creaking rays of sun on our faces as the cool air began to slow-cook once more. We packed up our tent, lathered ourselves in suncream and dragged the bags and bikes back to the road.
Further south the traffic died away almost completely, and we saw nothing else on the road for hours at a time. Between two oasis towns, 300km apart we had to travel 94kms before we reached a checkpoint with a water supply. At these times, after 600-700kms and over two weeks in the desert, you pass the day in simple ways...
Stare ahead towards the point on the horizon where the road disappears from view. Head down, watch the tarmac scroll past the spinning pedals. Glance in the tiny rear view mirror at the sky over the place you've come from and Hannah a few yards back. Check the kilometre count. Turn round and look hard for trucks coming into view. Throw head left and right at the passing sand and rocks, noting the constantly changing landscape. Keep the legs turning. Fix a point in the distance, see how it evolves over ten minutes as you get closer to it, then pass it. Pick another point. Keep the legs turning.
Those desert days were parceled up into small comprehensible chunks. The first easy hours before the sun gets hot or the wind too strong. A stop for a snack mid-morning, noting your progress. Back on the bikes, trying to get more than halfway before lunch. Finding a shady place - hopefully in the company of paramedics - to cook and eat. Working through the post-lunch slump and hottest part of the day, trying to get within spitting distance of the day's kilometre count. Entering the last hours when the heat is dropping and we start eyeing up places we could drag the bikes and pitch a tent hidden from the road.
The rest of the journey through the desert was marked by constantly rewarding interactions: young army kids cooked us dinner, lorry drivers fired up shisha pipes on the side of the road, strangers with no english called friends with a few words to interpret our ramblings and then went out of their way to deliver any assistance we needed.
The relief of sleepy oasis towns gave us the respite we needed to push on and the desert and its people never lost their beauty. But the days got harder. We'd been fairly lucky to get either no wind, tailwinds or crosswinds most of the way from Cairo. But as the road turned eastwards for the last 400kms days became slow battles into a strong breeze, turning 25km per hour into 12-14km per hour.
As any of you who cycle will agree, head winds are way worse than hills. Hills have a top, and when you get there you feel great, and get to go downhill. Headwinds sap your energy with no reward, no end in sight and no predictability. The last days' effort to get out of the desert and back to what we'd now built into an Eden-esque paradise of the Nile valley were brutal. The final stretch should have been a long slow descent but the wind was blowing strong. Now, its one thing for a headwind to buffet you as you go along the flat, or torture you on a climb, but stealing away a downhill is soul destroying.
The last 60kms to the Nile we had to battle our way downhill - the desert's last trial. We had become so normalised to the tarmac, sand and sky vistas that the wide swathe of green that we slowly edged towards brought disbelieving grins to our faces. We'd had a glorious, unforgettable experience in the desert but we were exhausted and very ready for the comforts of Nile life.
We turned left at the Luxor road junction and headed north towards the home of the Valley of the Kings. Suddenly the mood changed. After over 1000km without a cross word, on this 30km stretch into town we got stones thrown at us, repeated demands from money from people we passed, and a man riding in the back of a passing veg truck hit me on the waist with an aubergine. As difficult as life in the desert was, running the gauntlet of the Nile route seemed worse. Egypt's tourism industry should bring in 20% of the nation's income but has shrunk dramatically since the revolution. The country is incredibly safe and an enchanting place to visit. But the desperation of the traders and others who rely on tourism has caused them to pester tourists in a way that will only further discourage visitors, with Luxor home to by far the worst offenders. Cynicism with tourists seemed to have spilled over and bred a resentment we'd not seen before.
But these small frustrations are dwarfed by the gifts that Egypt and her people gave us. Three of the most arduous and awe-inspiring weeks of our lives through the desert. A privilege we'll never forget.