We complete Cape to Cairo!
January 31, 2002
We're in Cairo!!! We've been here nearly a week, but every time I think about it, I go WOW again! We have actually managed to drive a vintage Volkswagen bus all the way from Cape to Cairo!
We have driven 21 500km in the six months since we left Johannesburg. Over the whole distance we had no punctures and no (mechanical) breakdowns. The most serious car repairs we had to contend with were a cracked cooling fan, some cracks in the bodywork, a dead battery and a few oil leaks!
Cairo is filthy and chaotic, and the driving and traffic in this city must be experienced to be believed. We are avoiding driving here and have become quite adept at getting around on the public transport. The Pyramids road in Giza is plied by a fleet of VW Kombi taxis from the 1970s, which has been a lot of fun for me. And much to our surprise, there is also a metro rail system in Cairo that looks and feels very much like the Paris Metro.
Egyptian drivers are crazy! They overtake without regard to oncoming traffic, switch lanes suddenly and without warning or checking if anyone else is already occupying the space, and the only traffic signal they use is to make liberal use of their hooters. Egyptian drivers are also very big on energy conservation. At least that's the conclusion I have come to about their refusal to drive with lights on at night. After dark they might switch on parking lights, but many drive completely unlit. They warn one another of their approach by flashing their high beams just before they pass oncoming traffic! And this love of driving blind is officially approved: one night while driving in Luxor, we were stopped by tourist police and told to switch our lights *off*!!! Maybe Egyptians have super-X-ray night vision?
We are staying at a campsite in Giza, in sight of the great pyramids. I have heard so much abut the pyramids and seen them in pictures and films, but nothing prepared me for seeing them in real life. I was speechless. The ancient Egyptians produced so many monumental works, and the temples at Luxor and elsewhere bowled me over with their massive construction. But the pyramids at Giza make everything else in Egypt look like Lego structures. They are HUGE!
We have been issued our visas for Tunisia, and now we are waiting for visas to cross Libya. The Libyans are notoriously difficult when it comes to issuing visas, but so far so good. It looks like they are being more sympathetic to us than to Europeans because we are Africans. As soon as we get the Libyan visas, we will leave Cairo and head into the desert to visit some oases where there are hot springs, and to visit the white desert, before crossing into Libya, insh allah.
We had been running very low on money before we arrived in Egypt, and in fact my own cash ran out just before we left Sudan. But fortunately both my mother and my father lent us some cash, which should see us through to London, where I intend to sell the ZebraBus for enough to repay my parents and settle my overdraft, which has grown alarmingly since my bank misplaced a large payment that was due to me and that apparently was paid, but never reached my account, and which I have been unable to track down from Darkest Africa.
We had been thinking we would have to drive straight through Egypt without visiting any of the historical sites because they are rather pricey, but getting access to more money meant we could enjoy Egypt to the full, as a kind of celebration for completing Cape to Cairo. After Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, we spent a few days on the Red Sea coast, at Sharm el Naga south of Hurghada, where we splashed out and went scuba diving. What an experience. Fabulous coral reefs teeming with multicoloured fish. It has been one of Gisela's dreams to dive in the Red Sea, and I was really glad to share it with her.
Until now, the Tanzanians had been the friendliest people in Africa and the Sudanese the most hospitable. But the Egyptians combine friendliness and generosity in a way one is unlikely to find anywhere else. We were a bit nervous about Egypt before we got here, because many of the overlanders we had met on route who had travelled through Egypt had mentioned how terrible the Egyptians are. But I guess it's all about what you put out, because we have had nothing but friendliness and amazing kindness in Egypt (except in business!). It started with Abdallah in Aswan, after which we made several unforgettable friends in Luxor, and the same again in Sharm el Naga and now Cairo.
As an example of Egyptian hospitality, Gisela and I were standing on the street discussing what to do next after a photo place had not delivered some passport photographs at the time we thought had been agreed. Because of a language barrier we had been unable to establish when they would be ready or to communicate that we needed them urgently. While we were working out what to do next, a young man approached us and asked if we needed any help, and we asked him to assist in our communication with the photographer. It turned out the photos would be ready in the evening, which did not suit us, and the shop opened too late for us the next morning. The young man, Ahmed Said, offered to collect the pictures in the evening for us and we could get them from him at a time that suited us the next morning.
We met him at the agreed time and place next morning and he had the pics for us. He had been working the night shift in an all-night restaurant, and was clearly very tired, but he insisted we have breakfast with him at the restaurant, and then would not let us pay the bill. Afterwards we were planning to go to the Tunisian embassy, and he insisted on accompanying us to help us work out the public transport, and then would not allow us to pay our fares on the taxis. When we said we were uncomfortable with him paying for everything he said it is his country and we are his guests and he will not allow us to pay! He showed us the routes we needed to take on the minibus taxis, taught us the correct rates on the meter taxis (we had been paying the tourist rip-off prices until then, even after hard bargaining!), assisted us at the Tunisian embassy, then left us after buying us tickets on the Metro and seeing us safely onto the correct train. We traded addresses, but we parted knowing we would probably never see one another again. We were just two strangers he had accosted in the street, but Ahmed Said put himself completely at our service and wanted absolutely nothing in return!
We have had similar experiences with nearly everyone we have met in Egypt. I have never experienced generosity like this anywhere else (except Sudan). And these were not wealthy people, just regular working folk; people who materially have very little, but who are quite prepared to give it all away to a complete stranger and expect nothing in return. And life is especially hard for these people at the moment -- most Egyptians earn their livings directly or indirectly from tourism, but the tourist trade here and elsewhere in Africa has collapsed since last September 11, as a result of America's anti-Arab and anti-Islamic propaganda leading many Americans and Europeans to be fearful and stay at home. Instead of fearing and hating what they do not know, those same Americans and Europeans (and South Africans!) can learn a lesson or two from Muslim people -- since we entered Islamic North Africa we have experienced a kindness and concern for other human beings that is notably lacking in our western city lifestyle.
A South African who we met briefly at the border between Kenya and Ethiopia emailed me today saying he knows the counsellor at the SA embassy in Cairo and that he has briefed the counsellor about our journey and the counsellor is awaiting a telephone call from us! I will phone the embassy first thing in the morning and we will see what transpires ...
The ZebraBus and the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Giza.