Day 1,436: See You Tomorrow, Indiana Hughes…

Thu 06.12.12:

Day 7 of my epic journey home from Juba began incredibly well. I called the Egyptian embassy and the nice lady told me that they were going to let me collect my passport with the visa in it this morning rather than this afternoon. I didn’t have to be told twice. Jumping in a taxi, by 10am I was triumphantly marching out of the Egyptian embassy, passport in hand. Even if the Sudan embassy decided to drag its heels and not give me my transit visa until tomorrow afternoon, I’d still easily hit my target of crossing from Wadi Halfa to Aswan in Egypt on Wednesday morning.

So it was with a sense of triumph that I arrived at the Sudanese embassy. I know now that that sense of triumph was greatly premature. After all, This Is Africa.

After filling out the required forms I handed in my passport together with all the other junk required of me. They had kept me waiting for quite some time, so by now it was approaching midday.

‘And the hundred dollar fee…?’

Crikey. $100 for a frikkin’ TRANSIT visa? No wonder Sudan gets less tourists than Chernobyl. Oh well, cheaper than flying. I suppose. I had over my emergency Franklin and am told to come back that afternoon. If the guy’s boss gives the approval…

What? Approval?? Since when? The guy shuts the window. Why leave it at that? A tense few hours are going to follow. What if I don’t get approval? My scheme comes undone. I won’t be home for Christmas. All my meticulous planning would have been for nowt. And Casey.. I made a promise, goddamnit.

I trudged to the minibuses going back to Kazanchis and clambered aboard. It was beginning to spit with rain and damn it was cold. Given the clear blue skies that greeted me from my slumbers this morning, I didn’t bring my jumper. I sat shivering on the bus thinking of other ways to get to Egypt… the only other viable option being a ship from Djibouti. Then my phone rang. It was the embassy. They wanted me to come back.

This could be a good sign. I hoped it was a good sign.

Not wanting to prolong the agony, I opted to take a taxi back to the embassy. I walked inside, went to the window and was promptly handed back my passport, photos and $100 bill.

‘The boss says you need a Letter of Invitation from Khartoum.’

I argued my case, but it was to no avail. I stepped outside the embassy and let loose the loudest expletive since Brian Blessed accidently slammed a supernova on his thumb.

Okay Graham, think think think…

I texted Casey and Dino and ask them to start looking for ships from Djibouti. Dino’s going on his honeymoon on Sunday, so he only had a little bit of time. He wrote to our friends at Dioryx Shipping to see if they were still doing the Djibouti > Jeddah > Suez run that I hitched a ride on three years ago.

The answer came back almost immediately: no they were not. Casey had about the same amount of luck: CMA-CGM, Maersk, MSC, PIL, Hamburg-Sud: nothin’. If anything I’d have to transfer in Jeddah, which, considering last time it took me 6 weeks to get a visa for Saudi, was completely out of the question.

It truly would be Sudan or bust.

I called my mum and got from her the number for Midhat, the tour operator in Khartoum who I had contacted back in September – the one who told me that getting a transit visa would be ‘straight forward.’ I rang Midhat and explained the situation, could he get me a Letter of Invitation for tomorrow…?

No chance. Being a Muslim country, Sudan’s weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday. It would be Sunday before Midhat could even put in the application (all Letters of Invitation must be approved by Sudan’s Ministry of Silly Walks) and then it ‘could take a few days’ to come through. This was not good. A fourth Christmas in a row spent not in Liverpool with my family and friends. I should also let you know that Casey and I haven’t even kissed yet, if that gives you some more of an inkling as to why I’m so desperate to get home as soon as humanly possible.

I could use a good kiss.

Midhat then told me something that stirred hope in my forlorn little ginger heart: he had a friend in the embassy. He’d make a call on my behalf.

I headed over to the Wabe Shebelle for what felt like the longest lunch of my life. Sadly, even the food was against me: the lamb was as chewy as an old boot. At 2pm I made my way back to the embassy at Midhat’s behest, with instructions to talk only to Mr Mohammed Al-Watiq and nobody else. I got within a hundred metres when it started to teem down with rain. I ran into an abandoned building (which turned out just to look abandoned) to take shelter, thinking it would go off in a short while. At 2.45pm I couldn’t wait any longer and did the 100m dash in Addis in the rain. Given the pavement was like a river and as broken as full of unexpected pitfalls as any African sidewalk you’d care to mention, I arrived back at the embassy in sopping wet shoes (my shoes fell apart 3 months ago, it’s only dental floss keeping them together) and shirt soaked through to the skin.

I asked to speak to Mr. Al-Watiq and was told to wait. So I waited.

At 5pm I was asked to the window. Mr. Al-Watiq (I think) came over, asked me some questions and then went away. One of the embassy girls popped up and asked me to write my name down on a piece of paper. I did so and was then asked to come back at 11am the next day.

Ah, but was that the end of my stress?

Nah.

I jumped the minibus back to Kazanchis and logged-on at the local internet joint. I double-checked all the shipping timetables, but there really is *nothing* going from Djibouti to Europe these days.

Then my phone rang. It was Midhat.

Are you in your own car?

No.

Then you have to fly. Fly to Khartoum and take the bus up to Wadi Halfa.

No, You don’t understand: I can’t fly.

They won’t issue you with a visa.

Sorry, so if I buy a car in Addis, I can drive it to Khartoum, but if I want to take the bus I’m not welcome?

That is correct. They think you might write bad things about Sudan on the internet.

*Graham thinks damn right I’ll write bad things… IF they don’t issue me with this visa!*

Midhat, you’ve been to my website, check my blog. I’ve written nothing bad about Sudan at all.*

I’m sorry, then you have to get a Letter of Invitation…

After I hung up, I put my head in my hands and started to think. THINK. Like when I was a kid, playing all of those LucasArts adventure games… there’s always a solution… always a way… you just have to THINK.

Then it came to me. Midhat is a tour agent, right? My remit is to take public transport where available. In this instance, it is not available. I said I’d get back to the UK without flying. Okay, I’ve made it this far without taking private transport over major distances but the reason for the ‘no private transport’ rule is that Guinness can’t be seen condoning or even acknowledging road races – it’s one thing risking your own life to set a GWR, it’s quite another to put others (hapless pedestrians for instance) in harm’s way. The thinking is that if I’m using private transport I might be tempted to pay the driver a bung to break the speed limit (the irony here being that when I was in Nigeria I was desperately trying to bribe the driver to slow the f— down). In this instance it really doesn’t matter whether I take public or private transport – it’s not going to speed things up at all, I’ll have a day spare to get to Wadi Halfa either way.

So then. Last roll of the dice. Can Midhat send a driver to the border to pick me up, make sure I don’t take any pictures/videos/girl’s virginity that I shouldn’t, take me to Khartoum on Sunday… and I’ll get the bus to Wadi Halfa the following Tuesday?

I called Midhat and put the proposition to him. He said he’d pass it on to Mr. Al-Watiq.

Exhausted, physically and mentally, I trudged back to Tadi’s place in wet socks. I missed the opening of that coffee joint.

*this may not be strictly true

Day 1,437: Now Let’s Blow This Thing And Go Home

Fri 07.12.12:

And? Okay. Here’s what happened. Arrived at the Sudanese Embassy at 10.30am, a little early, but I figured it could do no harm. Was told to sit. So I sat. And waited. By 12.30pm they wanted to close for lunch. Told me to come back at 2.30pm. I met Tadesse’s mate Tsegaye for lunch and we returned to the embassy at 2.30 sharp to sit and wait. Tsegaye left after the first half an hour. I didn’t blame him. I remained, sitting and waiting.

As the minutes ebbed away, so did my belief that I would make it home for Christmas

Then, at 5pm, the embassy closed for the weekend. There was a commotion behind the desk. I was called up and handed a new application form. The lady sitting at the desk in the waiting room filled it out for me. Religion? ‘Christian’ I lied, no time for theological discussions here, I just need that damn visa. I hand it in, with my photos, passport and $100 bill.

‘I will now start the visa process. Maybe we can get it finished today.’

‘Maybe.’

It was now 5.22pm. They wanted to lock up the waiting area and so I was shepherded through to the office side and told to sit. It was an experience not unlike waiting outside the headmaster’s office. I sat, trying to look relaxed, but my insides were twisting. Come on, come on, come on…

The guy comes over to me.

‘You have been to Sudan before?’

It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. I had told him this the day before and shown him my old visa. I showed him again, smiled politely and sat back down. He went back to his desk and continued shuffling paper. Come on, come on, come on…

At 5.42pm he came back over to me, holding my passport open on page 16.

‘Here… your visa for Sudan.’

I have never had to stifle the urge punch the air and scream F— YEAH! so much in my life.

I thanked the guy profusely and ran out of the embassy (via the back door – the front door was closed and locked). Between me, my mum, Midhat and some canny planning, I had snatched the last tricky visa of The Odyssey Expedition from the jaws of defeat. I called Tsegaye and arranged to meet him over at the Piazza area of town – where I could get purchase the bus ticket for tomorrow morning’s bus up to Gonder near the Sudanese border. We met at Tomoca and walked around to the ticket office, arriving at 6.31pm. The cleaning lady was mopping the floor. We tip-toed over the moistened tiles to the ticket lady who was just packing up for the night. The office closes at 6.30pm. Again, I had inadvertently made it by the skin of my teeth. After one speedy financial transaction, Tsegaye and I were down the road enjoying a (rather quite delicious) pizza of VICTORY!

Later, Tsegaye and I shared a beer or two whilst watching some traditional Ethiopian dancing at the Yod Abyssinia restaurant. I got an early(ish) night: I had to be up for 4am, I had a bus to catch and a promise to keep.

It was over. I won.

I *will* be back for Christmas.

2.45pm on Saturday 22 December 2012 @ The Pier Head, Liverpool. Be there.

Day 1,438: The Camelot of Africa

Sat 08.12.12:

Before Addis Ababa was founded around 100 years ago (Addis meaning ‘New’ and Ababa meaning ‘Flower’), the capital of what we now call Ethiopia had a tendency to move around a lot, much in the manner of the baddie’s castle in Krull. In fact, from around 1270 to 1636, the capital was wherever the king rested his weary head, much to the chagrin of the hapless locals who would have to stump up the readies to look after him and his extensive court should he turn up unannounced on a otherwise unremarkable Thursday afternoon.

Then in 1636 Emperor Fasiladas decided to break with the old ways an established Gonder as the new permanent capital of Ethiopia. The two hundred years that followed were ones of great architectural, culture and artistic endeavour, while also being a time of Machiavellian plotting, court conspiracies and some rather brutal assassinations that make Game of Thrones look a bit tame. Maybe Harry Lime had a point after all…

This morning I was up for 4am and heading over to the bus station to catch my ride north. Gonder awaits! The journey was great – spectacular scenery as we weaved our way through the northern highlands. I sat at the very front of the bus for much of the journey, chatting with the driver’s mate and gathering footage that I wished looked as good as what I was seeing with my eyes (I’m so getting a couple of wireless CCDs put in my eyes one day).

We arrived at sunset, which was a shame as I didn’t get to have a look around The Royal Enclosure; a walled collection of castles, temples and churches from when the kingdom of Gonder was at the height of its powers. It’s a well deserved UNESCO world heritage site and the fact I didn’t have time to go exploring gives me a great excuse to return to Ethiopia some day. Not that I really needed a excuse: Ethiopia has, without a shadow of a doubt, muscled into my top ten favourite countries, which, at current standings (and excluding the UK, for the sake of fair play, I mean, come on, the UK) are:

1. Palau
2. Egypt
3. Thailand
4. Bolivia
5. Madagascar
6. Iran
7. Ethiopia
8. South Korea
9. Nepal
10. Colombia

I arranged to be picked up by a minibus to the border at 8am the next morning, checked into the Belegez Pension (Birr115 for a single), found somewhere that was showing the footy (everywhere was showing the footy… the cinema was showing the footy) and settled in for the evening with a bottle of St George’s Ethiopian beer.

Day 1,439: The Invasion of Khartoum

Sun 09.12.12:

Odyssey rules state that I’m not allowed to use private transport over large distances, and so far I haven’t. But there has to be exceptions made here. Of course, I’ve already successfully completed The Odyssey Expedition, so in a way the rules don’t apply, but I still want to keep to them as best I can so if I decide in a few years (when, say, Greenland or Bougainville achieves independence) to re-active The Odyssey and travel to those countries from the UK without flying. The rule is there to stop me (or any who come after) intentionally breaking the law by speeding.

But here’s the Catch-22: in this situation I can’t take public transport without breaking the law. I am mandated by the Sudanese authorities to be ‘escorted’ in a private vehicle to Khartoum. Never mind, this journey is about taking public transport where available, in this case (for me) it’s not available and I’m not missing yet another Christmas with my family for the sake of a technicality. Bear in mind this will not speed up the journey at all: I would get to Khartoum with a day to spare whether I took the chicken bus or drove a Ferrari. The ferry over Lake Nasser from Sudan to Egypt leaves once a week on Wednesdays and nothing can change that fact.

So it was a minibus ride to the border, of course we got a flat tyre and of course the spare was flat as well (I love the way the bus boys always act surprised at this painfully predictable chain of events), so we didn’t get to the border until 1pm, but that was no problem. Nazar, a colleague of Midhat, was waiting for me on the other side and once I was stamped in I was introduced to his driver, Asir, and we began the journey to Khatoum, which took about 6 hours, stopping on the way for a bite to eat in one of the collections of concrete hovels that constitute human habitation here in the desert.

You simply couldn’t have imagined the difference in terrain, landscape and temperature compared with this morning. I went from a pleasant spring morning up in the rolling green hills of northern Ethiopia to a hot, arid, dusty afternoon along a flat, straight road through the litter-strewn desert. I saw some men praying at the side of the road and wondered what they might be praying for. ‘To get out of here’ would be a reasonable response.

It was dark before we arrived in Khartoum. Once there, Nazar helped me get a local SIM card and we set off to find my CouchSurf hosts. Casey had sorted me with a place to stay with the family of Ahmed, a Khartoum CSer who is currently in Germany. I was met by Ahmed’s brothers Yahia and Hamed, and after saying my goodbyes to Nazar and Asir, we grabbed a shwarma on the way back to the family home. There I met Mr. Mohammed, the kindly patriarch of the household, and after explaining (over a nice hot cup of tea) that I wanted to go and see the Meroe Pyramids tomorrow – the southernmost reach of the great Egyptian Empire. We formulated a cunning plan…

Day 1,440: Tomb Raider

Mon 10.12.12:

The Meroe Pyramids mark the southern extreme of Egyptian influence as you follow the course of the Nile river south towards its source. After the glories of the New Kingdom had faded, the great Egyptian empire fell into an era of in-fighting which culminated in the Balkanisation of the realm into smaller (usually warring) entities – one of which was the great Meroitic dynasty that ruled this area of the Nubian Desert from 592 BC to 350 AD. Although the pyramid tombs they left behind are nowhere near the gargantuan majesty of the Great Pyramids of Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza (Cheops’ Pyramid is 146.5 metres tall, the Meroe Pyramids barely make double figures), they are still definitely worth a day trip, situated four hours north of Khartoum.

However, this being Sudan, getting there is only half the problem. To travel anywhere or take photos of anything (you can forget about video) you need written permission from the Ministry of Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife. The reason for this (and the reason I wasn’t allowed to make the trip from Gallabat to Khartoum under my own steam) is that the leader of Sudan is a wanted war criminal. That is all I have to say on the matter, although in general I will use this opportunity to reiterate my belief that if you’re going to have a revolution, revolt, war, insurrection, coup d’etat whatever, your best bet for a freer, wealthy, more egalitarian state would be to rid your country of not just the President, but the whole godforsaken institution of the Presidency entire. Three words for you my friend: Parliament, Parliament, Parliament. All else will follow.

There has been a time in pretty much every republic of Planet Earth (including the US, fact fans!) has had a known criminal in charge of the government, military and country. This is not the best of all possible worlds, believe me.

After dropping his daughters at school, Mr. Mohammed took me to the Ministry of Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife and we got my application processed, culminating in me having ten copies (for any police checkpoint that wanted them) of my permission to travel to and take pictures of the Meroe Pyramids. Overkill? Well, I guess it depends where you’re coming from. For a North Korean, I’m sure it would feel like a breath of fresh air. For me, I felt like I was in North Korea.

Mr. Mohammed was good enough to drive me over to the Atbara bus station, and from there I jumped the next bus headed north. It took a good four hours to get to the Pyramids, and I arrived at around 2.45pm, the only person getting off the bus at this point along the lonely highway. It was then a 700m hike across the stony desert to the Pyramids themselves.


“Had the place to myself. Felt very Indiana Hughes.”

From The Meroe Pyramids, Sudan, posted by Graham Hughes on 12/16/2012 (76 items)

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2


It’s a testament to Sudan’s burgeoning tourist industry that I was the only person there. Maybe if they didn’t make it nigh on impossible to get a visa…

I left the site at around 5.30, the sun hanging low in the sky. I stood at the side of the road for an age with my thumb out waiting for somebody to stop, which thankfully they did before the sun actually set. Only they didn’t take me to Khartoum, or even to Shendi, the nearest outpost of civilisation. No, they dropped me at a deserted desert rest stop. The people there (predictably) wanted me to stay the night, but that wasn’t going to happen: I had to be on the bus to Wadi Halfa in the morning – I needed to get back to Khartoum.

So I started walking along the highway, firm in the belief that somebody – anybody – would stop and pick me up. They didn’t. It grew dark. I walked for over an hour. Eventually I came to another rest stop and started asking around. One guy wanted 100 Sudanese pounds to get back to Khartoum. Although this equated to about $20, I thought it fairly reasonable, I was tired and I wanted to get back as soon as possible. But then he pulled the old ‘Oh no, I meant 100 dollars’ shite that I’ve had to put up with so many times it has definitely ceased being funny anymore, not that it ever was in the first place.

Eventually I found a trucker willing to take me to the next town, Shendi. He wanted 100 Sudanese pounds too, but considering Shendi is not even halfway back to Khartoum, I flat refused to pay anymore than £50. That didn’t stop him attempting to dive his hand into my shirt pocket every ten minutes in a crappy attempt to grab another fifty. I arrived at Shendi around 9pm and waited at the police checkpoint for the next bus to Khartoum. Incredible: my last night in Sub-Saharan Africa and I finally find a use for all these damn police checkpoints – the buses have to stop!

It was 11.10pm before I got back to Khartoum. Mr. Mohammed, being a good soul, came to pick me up from the drop-off point, bringing his son Hamed with him. That night I grabbed a couple of hours sleep on the roof of Mr. Mohammed’s apartment block. There was a cool winter’s breeze, a portent of what was to come as I climb the latitudes north-north-west.

Day 1,441: Halfa Way Home

Tue: 11.12.12:

My phone alarm was set for 2am, as Mr. Mohammed told me that the bus left for Wadi Halfa at 3. Thus began a very long day in the life of The Odyssey Expedition. Mr. Mohammed and I arrived at some dusty corner of Khartoum where the bus was due to stop and waited. And waited. A bus came at 3.30am, but I was told it was the wrong one. Just after 4am another bus came and this was, apparently, the right one. I thanked Mr. Mohammed profusely for his spectacular hospitality and patience with my short but rather eventful couple of nights here at the confluence of the Niles. Staying with Mr. Mohammed and his family marked a high point in what was otherwise a remarkably expensive and frustrating trip through this barren and unforgiving land.

I clambered on the bus and took my seat, assuming that, since it was 4am an’ all, the god-awful music being blasted out of the tinny speakers installed above every person’s head would come to an end sooner rather than later. It didn’t.

For those who have come late to this blog let me explain that I am a music Nazi. There are two types of music in the world: the stuff I love and the stuff I hate. And there is very little in between. Whenever I find myself subjected to the stuff I hate (which is pretty much anything from the 80s), it tends to put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. When I find myself subjected to that godawful nasal drone of elongated consonants that are so popular in these parts, sung so out of key it makes Paris Hilton sound like an opera singer, sung by a man with the charisma of a bowl of cold porridge and played at ear-splitting volume at four in the morning, it tends to put me in a bad mood for the rest of my life.

You should understand something: to many Muslims this, this life, this planet, our home, is hell. Something not to be enjoyed in any way, shape or form. This world is merely a stepping stone to the next, and the worse time you have here, the more enjoyable the afterlife. Once you understand this fact, it all makes sense, the way that North Africans and Middle Easters seem to strive to make their lives as unpleasant as humanly possible: living in a bleak, inhospitable desert, eating the blandest food known to man, only listening to the musical equivalent of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. All the great joys in life: sex, alcohol, drugs, dancing, rock n’ roll, great food, even a decent night’s sleep… all seemingly forbidden, all beauty to be covered and shunned, all earthly pleasures condemned. Content to live in a vile and violent never-ending hamster-wheel of dictators, tyrants, religious zealots and genocidal maniacs.

This couldn’t be any further removed from the way I see the world. I love this crazy planet and all the joys – great and small – contained within. I’m not here to muddle through until I die, I’ve got too many things to see and do. Sorry Sudan, but the sooner I get out of here the better, you’ve not sold yourself well. When there is so little to brag about (continued border skirmishes with South Sudan, the genocide in Darfur, falling out with all of its neighbours and having a wanted war-criminal as president is not the best of starts) I expected a little more in terms of people just being nice. But as the woman in the seat behind me woke me up every half-hour (yes I can sleep through deafening dins, it’s one of my superpowers) to complain about my broken chair automatically reclining ABOUT AN INCH back from perpendicular, I’ve lost my rag with the place.

Just leave me alone, Sudan? Can you do that? Please? I’m leaving tomorrow.

I spent the majority of the bus journey up through the featureless desert sitting on the dusty step next to the driver, watching the long flat road stretch to the horizon, all hope of getting any sleep beaten out of me.

We arrived in Wadi Halfa at around 3pm. I grabbed my backpack from under the bus and headed over to the hotel I stayed at when I was here in January 2010. My ability to remember this stuff is kinda freaky. Don’t forget – I got here from Durban in South Africa via Juba in South Sudan without a map. But all the memory skills in the world didn’t make the hotel any less full. I called Mazar Mahir, the brother of Khartoum’s über-fixer (and saviour of The Voyage Home) Midhat Mahir and resident of Wadi Halfa. I asked him what I should do. He said to wait for him and he’d be along in an hour or so. I grabbed some chicken n’ rice lunch with Danny and Jill, a British-Irish couple who had just valiantly spent 8 months driving a old Land-Rover around Africa down the west coast (brave!) from Morocco to South Africa and then up the eastern side of things to Sudan.

We shared war stories and battle scars. Afterwards I settled in at the café across the way from the pyramid-shaped hill that Alistair and I climbed when we were here last. In the event, Mazar didn’t show up, it was now 9pm and I had nowhere to stay. Getting a little worried since the night before the weekly ferry leaves for Egypt the hotels always fill up and as Sudan has no international ATMs my readies were running lower than a George Lucas’s post-1981 imagination, I was steeling myself for a chilly night under the stars (I *really* need to buy myself a coat in Egypt) when a guy turned up on a crazy motorbike accessorised with an even crazier sidecar. He smiled, pointed at the sidecar and told me to get in. I thought he was just being weird so I gave him the universal look of ‘are you being weird?’ and continued on walking. He followed me along and asked if I did not want to get into his sidecar why did I ring him?

‘Mazar?’ I asked.

‘Yes!’ He said, beaming, ‘get in!’

I’d never been in a motorcycle sidecar before, it was a rather bizarre experience. Mazar drove me to his place a few kilometres out of town. Damn it was cold. We arrived and drank tea. Mazar would sort out everything I needed to do tomorrow, including buying my ferry ticket and registering my presence with the police (you have to register within three days… I would be here for four. It’ll cost me $60, that’s on top of the $100 for the transit visa and the $GodKnows for getting picked up at the border last Sunday.). In terms of money spent for the amount of days here, Sudan has proved is the most expensive country in the world – costing more than my Interrail ticket that saw me visit over 45 countries of Europe in three weeks. Needless to say, when I get back home, the first thing I need to do is get a job – something that will be the subject of my next blog, Graham Hughes’s Development Hell http://www.dev-hell.com

Mazar kindly offered me a bed for the night and by 11pm I was sound asleep. Remarkably, it’s been just over a week and a half since I left Juba. In another week and a half I’ll be home.

Day 1,442: The Battle of Lake Nasser

Wed 12.12.12:

It was an early start as Mazar left to go help fix what – if it works – could herald a new era for trans-Saharan travel. Today he would be attempting to get a backpacker truck from Wadi Halfa to Aswan USING THE ROAD.

The fact that the only legal way to cross the 1,275km-long imaginary line in the sand that constitutes the border between Egypt and Sudan is over this damn lake is one that is as ridiculous as it is typical of this part of the world. Why should this be the case? Well, because the guy who owns the ferry boat pays off the Sudanese government to not open the road, the road that was built TWENTY YEARS AGO linking the two countries. So instead of, you know, simply hopping a bus to Aswan (a journey that would take 2 hours), we have to go through the rigmarole of getting on a filthy, cockroach infested hulk of a ferry boat and spending the night crammed in trying to find a space on a bench (or the greasy floor) like we’re in a f—ing refugee camp. And to think in the UK we worry about the humane transportation of cattle.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that its same guy who runs the GRIMaldi ferry from Italy to Tunisia as well as the Greyhound bus company in the US.

I can only assume that the bad ship Sinai will continue plying its way across Lake Nassar until it sinks, killing everybody on board. Then maybe – just maybe – they’ll think about opening the road to all.

After a wash and a cup of tea I could have jumped a rickshaw to town, but it was a cool pleasant blue-sky morning so I decided to walk. I followed the old railway tracks, now sadly defunct. Since the road to Khartoum was sealed, the old train doesn’t chug up and down from Wadi Halfa once a week any more. The dream of the British Empire was to build a trainline from Cairo to Cape Town. Here we are 130 years later and that dream seems as far way as ever. Frustratingly enough, it’s 90% there: apart from a short break between Aswan and Wadi Halfa and then a slightly longer one between Wau on the South Sudanese border and Gulu in Uganda, there is an unbroken line that runs from the Mediterranean coast down to the Cape of Good Hope – passing through Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. But to make an international rail network succeed you need investment, political will and a general lack of corruption. Sadly, Africa is in desperately short supply of any of these things.

It took me an hour or so to ramble into town and once there I took up residence at my usual café in the market area of town. After a few hours, Mazar rang and told me to make my way to the ship. I asked how much the ticket cost, he told me it would be 221 Sudanese Pounds. I checked my readies. I had 224 Sudanese Pounds left. Thinking it would be a good idea to keep a couple of quid for water, I opted to walk across the desert to the port.

Lake Nasser is the third biggest artificial lake in the world. It arose as a result of the Aswan High Dam, constructed in the 1960s at the behest of Nasser, Egyptian first ‘elected’ tyrant (see: all Presidents ever). It seemed like a good idea at the time – it would give the Egyptians control over the annual floods. However, the whole thing has been an environmental disaster on a scale that makes the disappearance of the Aral Sea seem like small potatoes. The dam stops the silt, crucial for keeping the land fertile, from proceeding downriver. This has resulted in increased desertification and, of course, created a need for artificial fertilisers – fertilisers which poison the river and kill the fish. You see very few fishing boats on the Nile these days. It has also been a disaster for the Nubian people whose homeland was flooded (Wadi Halfa is a new town built by the original inhabitants of Halfa, which is now submerged beneath the lake), not to mention the countless archaeological discoveries that will now never see the light of day. The colossi of Abu Simbel as well as the temple of Philae had to be shifted, brick by brick, with the assistance of UNESCO. The nearby temple of Kom Ombo was erected in ancient times to give praise to the local crocodile god – but there are no crocodiles there any more – they can’t get past the damn dam.

Arriving at the port I met with Mazar who told me to wait at the gate while he sorted out some paperwork on my behalf. It was now coming up to midday and it was getting devilishly hot. I tried to sit with the guards in the shade of the gatehouse, but they wouldn’t let me (Sudan again not selling itself very well) and so I sat for 45 minutes with the blazing heat of the sun doing its best to turn me a delicious shade of boiled lobster.

Eventually I got into the immigration building. After the usual African scrum n’ stamp madness I was one of the first on board the ship. Having been on this ship twice before I knew exactly where to go: the bench under the plug sockets. Not just offering me free electricity, it is the closest you can get to the exit when we arrive. I staked my claim and wouldn’t be shifting for all the gold I could eat.

All was going swimmingly until about 10pm. Earlier, I shared dinner with a Syrian family from Aleppo who where travelling around Europe and the Middle East until the fighting ends. Just one family out of thousands forced from their home, businesses, everything, for the ego of one man, one ‘elected’ tyrant (see: all Presidents ever) whose criminal regime is being propped up by the despotic slugs that currently run the horrifically authoritarian kleptocracy that is modern Russia. I spoke to a Russian journalist yesterday, carefully evading any questions about Russia – I didn’t want her to be imprisoned for ‘treason’. ‘Treason’ to the foul leeches that conspire to suck all life and joy from the otherwise good Russian people, can be defined as ‘speaking to a foreigner who says disparaging remarks about the ‘elected’ tyrant (see: all Presidents ever) in charge.’ Technically, if I say that Putin is a greedy evil manipulative paranoid goatf–ker (which he is) and somebody in Russia reads this blog, they can be thrown in jail. Or a gulag. Whatever. Putin’s noble drive to ensure Russia’s place as the most miserable place in the world is one he’s been working towards for almost twenty years now: fending off stiff competition from the likes of Belarus, Paraguay and Pakistan.

Quite why Putin hates Russians so much is anybody’s guess. Maybe he’s secretly Georgian. Like Stalin!

Anyway, Russia provides the banking for the Al-Assad clan (who have been raping Syria’s riches since the early seventies). They keep supplying his regime with weapons and helicopters to more effectively slaughter innocent women and children. They purposely derail anything the UN attempts to do in order to help restore peace to the region. They do this openly and in plain sight, while the good folk of the internet age spout gibberish about lizard-men, moon cheese and global conspiracies, blissfully unaware that when a superpower wants to do something monstrously evil, they just kinda do it. The reason being that as ‘elected’ tyrants (see: all Presidents ever), these guys are immune from prosecution, they are above all law – national and international – and, surprisingly(!), don’t give a f— what you or I think of them.

Well, that’s unless you happen to mention what you think of them to a Russian citizen. Then they spit the dummy out of the pram.

I watched the sun set and the stars come out, good old Orion standing sentinel everywhere I go. I returned to my speck, watched over by the kindly old Sudanese guy who was going to Aswan for cancer treatment. I quietly read my book until it was time to get some shuteye.

I was snoozing, happy enough on my bench when some Eddie Murphy-lookin Nubian git starts clicking his fingers in my face. I groggily offer a ‘wha-’ before being shoved upright and this scumbag sitting next to me. I didn’t know the Arabic for ‘do you mind f—ing the f— off’ so instead partook in the age old African/Arabic tradition of SHOUTING STUFF AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS over and over again. I’ve seen this done on pretty much every single bit of public transport I’ve ever got on board in this part of the world and it seems to work quite well. But, as I was to discover, it only works quite well if you actually speak Arabic, Swahili, Zulu, whatever. He just sat there, despite my very vocal protests. I had been there since 2pm for heaven’s sake.

After I realised I was getting nowhere by ranting I tried a new tack. You know what? If I’m not going to sleep, you’re not going to sleep either. And so I started talking VERY EXCITEDLY like a giddy schoolchild and prodding the guy (lest he dosed off) while reeling off the kind of stream-of-consciousness gobbledegook that makes Joyce such a darling amongst English teachers that hate their pupils:

“…and do you know why the sky is blue it’s the cobalt effect oh no that’s what makes Sonic The Hedgehog blue everton are the blues founded in 1878 Einstein born a year later he’s a Pisces as St Domingo’s FC Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic not to be confused with Dominica which is another country whose capital is Roseau I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin who did the West Wing with Martin Sheen whose real name is Martin Estevez Emilio Estevez hasn’t been in anything for ages has he I wonder if he’s still alive I’ll tell you whose not alive any more Patrick Moore he was mates with Arthur C Clarke the guy what wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey which was directed by Stanley Kubrick here’s a list of Kubrick’s films The Killing Paths of Glory Spartacus Dr Strangelove or How I Learnt To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb 2001: A Space Odyssey A Clockwork Orange Barry Lyndon The Shining Full Metal Jacket Eyes Wide Shut he was going to make AI but he died so Spielberg made it instead and gave it a lousy ending you know what had a good ending Inception great ending did you know that Inception was ripped off a Donald Duck cartoon strip I shit you not you can Google it when I left school in 1997 Google didn’t even exist hardly anyone had mobile phones and only total nerds had email addresses and Pluto was still a planet the moon of Pluto is called Charon he’s the ferryman takes you over the river Styx that’s why they put coins on dead people’s eyes to pay the ferryman Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart at the River Styx was a reedit of the Shogun Assassin series and was banned in the UK for ages along with 80 odd other socalled video nasties politicians think that violent films make people kill each other which is ironic really when you think that politicians are usually the ones who order people to kill each other I mean have you ever stopped to look at the rogues gallery that constitute the political elite of Africa all a bunch of brick-thick maniacs who condemn their citizens to death every day through enforced poverty squalor diseases and bad sanitation AND ANOTHER THING…”

This went on NON-STOP for TWO HOURS.

He didn’t budge and I didn’t shut up. I could – and would – do this all night. Luckily (for the Eddie Murphy dick) one of the guys who worked on the ship came down and spoke to me. After agreeing that Mr. Trading Places over here was being unreasonable, the ship worker offered me a CUSHIONED bench of my very own up in the canteen.

That’ll do nicely, thanks. I grabbed my bags, stuck my tongue out at Bowfinger and had what I reckon was the best night’s sleep anyone has ever had on the damn Sinai.

Will I miss this when the road finally opens?

No. No I won’t.

Day 1,443: His Dark Materials

Thu 13.12.12:

According to some, in an alternate reality the path I’ve chosen through life puts me in a very different place. Somewhere in the multiverse there’s a Graham who is sitting on this bench in Aswan’s Botanical Garden, his sassy Australian girlfriend Mandy by his side, laughing and talking like we did on this very same bench 13 years ago. But not in this reality. In this reality I’m sitting here on my own.

But maybe it was always supposed to end like this: maybe whatever path I had chosen Mand and I would have split up. Say I had moved to Australia and got a job shelling prawns in the local prawnery (foreigners aren’t allowed decent jobs in Oz, and in any case the strength of the Aussie dollar makes TV and film production vanishingly unlikely as a viable career). Would the gruesome waste of my unique and incontrovertible talents drive me back to Europe anyway? What if Mand had come to the UK for good, would the distance between her and her family drive her back to Oz? I have little reason to doubt it. The more I think about it as I sit on this bench in this shady spot of serenity, the more I think that all roads led here. Some things just ain’t meant to be.

But I have little to grumble about. Last August might have been the end of Act II, the point at which all is lost, but now we’ve passed the dénouement and to the victor goes the spoils. I gambled everything on the successful completion of this journey: last August you might have been fooled into thinking that the whole thing was in folly. I have to admit to having some long dark nights of the soul myself: I had lost my girlfriend of over ten years, after burning my bridges with the mmmmms at mmmmm, mmmmm and mmmmm, the chances of me working in television in the UK was pretty much nil, the powers that be (evil) had stitched it up so the second series of the TV show would never see the light of day and that the first series will never be shown on British TV or made available on DVD (I can only assume that’s because I might actually get a cut of any DVD profits). Furthermore, I couldn’t even put the footage I had filmed after the completion of the first TV show ON YOUTUBE. And to add insult to injury, I was so low on funds that I had to beg my friends for the money to get home to see my dad before his heart operation and, don’t forget, at the time I still had no confirmation that Costa would let me on the cruise ship to Maldives and Seychelles.

If there was light at the end of the tunnel, I was probably the only one who could still see it.

One of the things I always took solace in was that I had inspired people all over the world to pick up a backpack and go travelling. I know this because they write to me, something that buoyed me up during days that I was banging my head against the wall saying ‘what the hell am I doing?’

But now I have a new story of inspiration for you. This isn’t just about travel, this is about pursuing your dreams no matter what. No matter how many people tell you to give up, come home, get a proper job. Because – and pay attention to this – if I had given up last year after my sister died and Australia was conspiring to crush the reckless ambition out of me, I would have left this whole expedition with just some wonderful memories and some great new friendships – but The Odyssey Expedition would have been not much more than a jolly (albeit an admittedly epic one).

But I didn’t give up. I saw it through to the bitter end – and, in that, I have no regrets. Because this is what I have to look forward to in 2013:

• Being signed up by one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood
• Presenting a travel show for NBC America
• Giving a TED Talk in February
• Casey

In short, I gambled, I gambled everything and I won. I won big. I slayed the giant (which may or may not have been a windmill) and, unlike the Man of La Mancha, actually won the girl. In a year’s time I’ll be in a position to reward all the people who stood by me, worked with me, gave me a helping hand. I’ll be hosting CouchSurfers of my own in Liverpool, London, New York or LA. I’ll be working my way up the ranks of Hollywood towards my dream job: shooting movies loaded with aliens, monsters, zombies, explosions and impossibly good looking people hanging off helicopters. And, most importantly, I’ll be with Casey.

So while I sit on my own on this bench, in this botanical garden on an island in the middle of the Nile, the very bench upon which in a previous millennium asked a cute Aussie girl if she knew what was brown and sticky (a stick!), my nostalgia ebbs away in favour of excitement for the future. In just over a week I will be home. I’ll be surrounded by my friends and family. I will spend my first Christmas back in Liverpool since 2008. I will *finally* get to kiss Casey (three months of text messages and Skype can feel like an eternity). And in the New Year… well, I can only imagine what dreams will come.

Day 1,444: I Predict A Riot

Fri 14.12.12:

Yesterday the Sinai arrived in Aswan without too much fuss. Danny and Jill, the couple I shared lunch with in Wadi Halfa, slept the night on the deck in front of the bridge. They must have been freezing. After disembarkation we got chatting outside customs to the Aussie girl who had just, with the help of Mazar and Midhat Mahir, taken the first EVER tourist bus into Egypt from Sudan USING THE ROAD. This is no small achievement and paves the way for much easier travel through Africa for all us overlanders. The Sinai doesn’t take cars: you currently have to leave your vehicle in Wadi Halfa or Aswan for the barge to bring over a few days later.

Danny, Jill and I shared a taxi from the port into town. Wow it’s grown in the last 13 years. In the afternoon I had just an hour to catch up with all my emails which had back-logged since I left Ethiopia before heading over the river to spend some time in Lord Kitchener’s Island, the botanical garden in the middle of the Nile where Mandy and I walked together for the first time back in the heady eclipse-dominated summer of 1999.


From Aswan Dec 2012, posted by Graham Hughes on 12/18/2012 (28 items)

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2


Later, I jumped the night train to Cairo, an 18-hour journey which cost me about £6 in British money: ie. About how much an overnight train journey SHOULD cost, EUROPE I’M LOOKING AT YOU.

I arrived in the great stinking noisy dusty concrete hell-city that is Cairo around 3pm and headed straight for Tahrir cinema in order to meet Kendra, my Bostonian CS host from last time I was in Egypt. She was a bit late and I ended up chatting with Christian, a British guy who had been travelling since I was a wee nipper. (Having a toilet seat strapped to your backpack is a great conversation starter.) We shared tales from the road and I was happy to have him pick my brain about travelling around Africa on a shoestring and without flying as that’s exactly what he planned to do next.

Kendra rucked up fashionably late and after dropping my stuff off at her gaff (and grabbing a much needed shower) we headed out to meet with Midhat Mahir – the Khartoum tour agent that I owe for getting me safely in and out of Sudan. If it wasn’t for Midhat, I’d still be in Ethiopia right now. Honestly, if you’re planning on going to Sudan, or even transiting through, contact Midhat first. He’ll tell you everything you need to know. The fact that it was he and his brother Mazar who were responsible for getting that tourist bus over the border yesterday speaks volumes for his ability to get stuff done in a country notorious for making things as difficult as possible for us hapless wayfarers. Good on ya, Midhat!

Afterwards, Kendra and I jumped a taxi to the famous (and also quite marvellous) Café Riche near Tahrir Square. It didn’t take long before we were boozing and putting the world to rights. Tomorrow is a big day for jolly ol’ Misr (as the Egyptians call Egypt), they’re having a referendum on a constitution that 40% of the country can’t even read, the other 60% can’t understand and that will invest even more power in the hands of the ‘elected’ tyrant (see: all Presidents ever) who currently runs this corrupt, dysfunctional and bizarrely impoverished corner of Africa.

You see, the mistake they made in February 2011 was getting rid of just The President.

They should have got shut of The Presidency.

The new president is a religious fundamentalist (oh yes, the world needs more of that lot…) called Mohammed Morsi. Like all ‘elected’ tyrants (see: all Presidents ever), he is Head of State AND Head of Government as well as being in charge of (*ahem*) the army, the navy, the air force, the police force, the judiciary, the civil service, the tax collectors, the border security, customs, the sea ports, the air ports, Egyptian embassies abroad, the postal system, anything that’s been left nationalised, the oil, the gas, the Suez canal, the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the remains of Tutankhamen, the bleaching of the Red Sea coral, the dust in the Egyptian museum and that bloody awful new library in Alexandria (hey Christers! Do us a favour – burn it down again!).

Last week his police force shot dead eight people outside his ‘palace’ (does anybody else understand why the ‘elected’ representative of the people gets to live in a palace?? Hmm? And don’t be playing with semantics – The White House is a f—ing palace too and you know it). Their crime? Well, you know: protesting against him. Morsi then went on TV to apologise and singularly failed to apologise. I mean, they had it coming, how dare you protest against your Fuhrer (*cough*) I mean President?! The irony being that Morsi only became president as a result the job vacancy left in the light of of last year’s, erm, goddamnprotests.

I love it when ‘elected’ tyrants (see: all Presidents ever) get stuck into the job straight away, murdering their own and changing the constitution to make themselves pharaoh. It warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it.

I’m sorry if you think I’m labouring the point here, but I firmly believe that Presidencies are deeply flawed systems and are responsible for horror, warfare, murder, poverty and social dysfunction on a par with (and in some cases surpassing) the deeply flawed systems of fascism and communism (I’d throw the childish notions of anarchism and libertarianism in that pot as well). Here is a list of the top ten most democratic countries in the world:

1 	Norway		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

2	Iceland		9-10	Full democracy	
        Parliamentary republic and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

3	Denmark		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

4	Sweden		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

5	New Zealand	9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

6	Australia	9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, constitutional monarchy & parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

7	Switzerland	9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, directorial system, bicameralism

8	Canada		9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, constitutional monarchy & parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

9	Finland		9-10	Full democracy	
        Parliamentary republic and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

10	Netherlands	9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

In ALL of these countries, Parliament has sovereignty, not the Head of State. Yes you’re right, nobody has ever erected a statue to a committee, but at the end of the day there simply aren’t enough so-called ‘Great Men’ left in the world to justify presidential systems – systems that are abused wholly, completely and without remorse by almost every man who gets the job (invariably by imprisoning, killing or out-spending the other guy). Countries which embrace such madness are in need of some serious time on the naughty step.

Incidentally, although it’s not exhaustive, ALL the bottom fifty on the Democracy Index http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_index have ONE MAN in charge of everything. What a surprise.

Day 1,446: 29.9792°N, 31.1342°E

Sun 16.12.12

So long as the world continues spinning and the sun continues to shine, there will be days. There will be happy days, sad days, rainy days, days in the sun, wasted days, salad days, dog days, birthdays, stay-in-bed days, days when the world is your oyster and days when you lose your shirt. But every so often you have a perfect day. A day in which it all comes together. It might be something you’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It might be a childhood dream you never thought would actually come true. It might be a day when you finally win the lottery. Or it might be all three at once.

Today was all three at once.

I love Egypt. Okay, I’ll poke fun at the place as I would a younger brother, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the bones of the place. I’ll always come back here and as I’ve said before this, for me, is my travel Ground Zero, the place I first fell in love – with backpacking, with a country, with a girl. Through everything, everywhere I’ve been, Egypt has remained in my top three countries in the world.

The second time I came to Egypt was in December 1999. I stayed with my friends Paul and Mary (who, gawdbless’em, are still together) and we attended the Jean-Michel Jarre concert at the pyramids together to see in the new millennium. Yes, that’s right, I saw in the year 2000 watching French electro-pop from the 1980s. But I don’t care, it’s still cooler than anything you did that night.

But what I really wanted to do was to climb the Great Pyramid and watch the first sun rise of the new millennium from the top of the last Great Wonder of the ancient world. (The others being – off the top of me noggin –The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Golden Statue of Zeus, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. (I’ve been to the sites of those last two, but there’s nothing there anymore.))

A couple of decades ago, people climbed the Great Pyramid all the time, it was just something you did. But then, like Uluru in Australia, a few too many people were getting themselves killed, bringing bad luck on the Aboriginals and the possibility of law-suits from those ever litigious cousins of ours from across the pond. On millennium night there were hundreds of people knocking around the plateau – security, musicians, random Egyptians with flashlights – and (possibly more importantly) nobody I was with at the time fancied attempting it.

Not wanting to see the dawn of the new century alone (or in a jail cell), I elected to stay with my mates. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great night, maybe one day I’ll post the video on YouTube, but that longing – the desire to just, you know, climb the damn thing, stayed with me.

Exactly 10 years later I was once again at the Pyramids for New Year, this time meeting Mandy after the first year of The Odyssey Expedition. I wish I got there a little earlier (I arrived at a couple of minutes past midnight) and had climbed up the pyramid with Mandy. But in any case we had Matt the cameraman tagging along, so it wouldn’t have been very romantic, plus I had my backpack with me: not gear you want to lugging up all 146.5 metres of Cheops swanky-assed burial mound.

So my second opportunity to climb the big boy passed me by.

But not this time. This time nothing would stop me.

With the possible exception of a guard with a whistle.

It was around 4am on Saturday morning before Kendra and I rolled into her place. The sad news was coming through of yet another high school massacre as America’s deadly love affair with the gun continued its unrelenting rampage through the corridors of innocents. Americans just cannot grasp how damn uncivilised it makes them look when they talk of ‘freedom’ but what they really mean is ‘the freedom to kill 20 children in 10 minutes – try doing THAT with a knife, Fu Manchu.’

In my country we don’t have the ‘freedom’ to do that. We couldn’t even if we tried. When I have kids I’ll be able to send them off to school with a 100% certainty that a nutter with two assault rifles and a handgun isn’t going to burst into the classroom and spray 300 bullets a minute at my little boy or girl and their classmates.

Now that, my Yankee cousins, is FREEDOM.

The freedom to relax. The freedom from paranoia. The freedom that comes from living in a land which does not allow idiots, morons, psychopaths and sociopaths easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

After a few hours shut-eye I was up and plotting my course back home to Liverpool in slightly finer detail. I had already announced in South Sudan that I’d be back on December 22 and, thanks to a few outrageously good chess moves while in Ethiopia, I’m on schedule to his that deadline. I’ve even got a bit of redundancy built in, but more about that later. That afternoon, Kendra and I headed out to first of all check out Tahrir Square (there were a few tents and things, but not much going on, which was surprising as the referendum is today) and then met up with a couple of her Egyptian friends, Mohammed and Mohammed, and started looking for a leather jacket so I don’t FREEZE TO DEATH when I get back to Europe in the middle of the coldest winter since the last one.

At first they were taking me to fancy shops, jackets costing up to £200. That’s British pounds, not Egyptian. Ever so slightly out of my budget of a tenner. Once they understood that I couldn’t afford these crazy prices and didn’t want a fake leather knock-off from the street stalls that ran down the sidewalk, we headed over to the market where our Egyptian friends were mortified to see me rifling through the second-hand jackets looking for the perfect fit: soft leather, not too busy, not too pricey… No, really, second hand is fine. We call it ‘vintage’ in the UK and charge way over the odds for it. A bit like the trains and organic vegetables…

I have to say that Egypt isn’t the trendiest place in the world (you could probably tell that from all the revolting gold chintz they sell), and so it was a tough old rummage. In the end, I must have visited about 50 shops and stalls and rifled through about 1000 jackets. And then, in the last shop before the shops ran out, I found it. An old Hugo Boss number, no crazy zips everywhere, not stitched up like Edward Scissorhands, wonderfully soft lambskin leather, a little bit scuffed, but then I’d do that to it within a week anyways, How much? “120” (GB£12) says the man. “I’ll give you 100” (GB£10).

Done.

Mohammed later laughed at me for not haggling more. But sod that – I know a bargain when I see one, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth eh?

After coat we met with Mohammed and Mohammed’s friend, Mohammed, and sat for a tea on the Nile. It would have been nice, perhaps some traditional Egyptian music quietly carried by the breeze as we sat under the stars. But no, This Is Egypt and the music simply must be annoying, repetitive, played on a kazoo, sung by a tone-deaf hyena and played SO LOUD IT DISTORTS like a teenager in his Mum’s Fiesta. Empty ‘party’ boats sit forlornly along the riverside blasting this crap out quite possibly scaring away any tourists hapless enough to still be here.

Did I mention there are hardly *any* tourists in Egypt at the moment? Surprisingly, protesters being shot dead and holiday-makers do not make happy bedfellows. Quite how President Morsi has been allowed to get away with ruining the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of his citizens (sorry, ‘subjects’) is beyond me. Egypt has lived off tourism since before the days of Herodotus and to scaring those tourists and their much-needed dollars away is not what the leader (sorry, ‘fuehrer’) of Egypt should be doing.

After tea Kendra and I said goodbye to Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed and headed back to her place. I got a couple of hours sleep as tonight was the night.

Tonight I would *finally* climb The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Kendra climbed the smallest pyramid, Mycerinus, back in 2010 with one of her mates. When I told her a few weeks ago that I would be returning to Cairo I also told her that this time we would be climbing the big one. I knew that Kendra, the girl who waited in line for 3 weeks to be the first to watch Star Wars Episode I, would not say no to such a proposition.

Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed were also up for it. It made me feel a lot safer having Arabic speakers with us, although they told us that if we got caught, Kendra and I would have little to worry about – we could just act like dumb tourists – Mo, Mo & Mo didn’t have that luxury. They could get into some serious shit for doing this.

But we figured that tonight of all nights, the Pyramids would be under minimum surveillance as this constitutional referendum took everybody’s eye off the ball.

We reunited at Kendra’s flat at 2am. Mohammed bought us all special pyramid-climbing gloves which made me feel like a proper cat burglar.

We drove to Giza in Mohammed’s car and arrived at the infamous KFC by The Sphinx sometime before 3am (I know this because it doesn’t close until 3am. I bought myself a piece of chicken). This was were I met Mandy at the end of the first year of The Odyssey Expedition. Now it would mark the beginning of our journey to the summit of the most famous building in human history.

How To Climb The Great Pyramid of Giza

If you’ve ever paid the scumbags who run the camels and horses to take you to see the pyramids at night, you’ll know where we went, but for uninitiated, you need to go clockwise around the plateau from the KFC. The track is well marked by camel tracks and horse shit.

There’s usually nobody about at this time of night, but we had the misfortune of walking through the Gizan backstreet when the last remaining nutters were leaving an Egyptian wedding, setting off fireworks and shooting their guns up in the air. We just walked on as though we were supposed to be there.

Once past the small cemetery, turn clockwise 90 degrees you’ll see the parameter fence to your right. Follow it along until you get to the place where the late-night horse rides end – on the sandy bluff from where you can see all three pyramids. It’s the spot Mand and I sat during the final credit sequence of ‘Graham’s World’. There’s a little shelter there at the top of the hill.

Make sure nobody is about, If it’s late enough, there probably won’t be, Don’t trust the horse and/or camel guys: don’t forget it was them who charged into Tahrir Square in February 2011 and set about beating women and children. If they see you climb the fence, there’s a good chance they’ll report you in order to take a cut of the ‘fine’.

Getting over the fence is a doddle. Between the panels there are metal poles. In some places these are missing and the side bolts of the chain-link fence provide splendid footings. Don’t worry about the CCTV cameras – they’re not on.

Your biggest problem is going to be the pyramid dogs. They’ll bark at the merest hint of a person walking about at night and once one starts barking, they all start barking. They won’t run over to you, which is the good news, the bad news is that if there is just one guard on duty, you’re going to get caught.

We crouched as we made our way across the plateau towards the smallest pyramid, that of Mycerinus. This was the one that Kendra had already climbed. It’s nearest the fence and it’s unlikely that any dogs will notice you on the way over. We did our best to go around any ridges, we didn’t want to get skylined. We were also lucky to have a moonless night: it’s the darkest you can hope for given Cairo’s substantial light pollution.

Once at Mycerinus we proceeded around the left hand side of the pyramid towards Chephren, the middle one. A few dogs started barking and howling, but nobody came. We were very cautious on the way in. We had a choice of which way to go around Chephren, but we decided to go around the left side again, since on the right (Sphinx) side, there was a whopping great floodlight that could cause us grief.

The direct way to Cheops requires a little bit of climbing, but soon enough we were near the south-west corner: the best place to climb.

There was only one problem. The pyramid dogs were going BALLISTIC. There most have been a couple dozen of them, all running around in circles, screaming “People are trying to climb the pyramid!! People are trying to climb the pyramid!!” in their own little VERY IRRITATING doggy way.

We ignored the dogs and started to climb. We had made it this far, hadn’t we? Half expecting to shrill PEEEEEEEEP from a guard’s whistle at any moment we started to scramble up the big one. I have to admit, the dogs freaked me out. My heart was beating nineteen to the dozen.

The lower stones are the most dangerous. There’s a lot of rubble to slip on. Things get easier the higher you go. If a stone seems a bit too high to climb, then just walk along your tier until you find a better proposition – you invariably will. As I said, the south-east corner is the best to climb, the stones are well placed and you get some cover from the other two pyramids.

In the event, all the barking in the world wouldn’t have stopped us. There was nobody there. Literally not a single soul guarding what I regard as the important buildings in the history of mankind. Once we were halfway up, the barking died down and from then on up it felt like an enjoyable hike to the top of a comparatively small man-made mountain.

The View From The Top

It took 20 years to build The Great Pyramid of Giza. It took 20 minutes for Kendra, Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed and I to climb. The massive capstone was stolen a long time ago and so there’s a flat area at the summit measuring around 5 metres square: plenty of space to move about and admire the view from the top. Cairo spread out below us like the whore she is, polluting the night air with dust, petrol fumes and yellow phosphorus light, while taxis tooted mercilessly in the distance. The stars were bright. The Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, pointed straight down towards Mycerinus and of course Orion, my faithful travel companion, was there too: he didn’t want to miss out on all the fun.

Well, we made it. The worst they could do to us now would be a fine once we got back down, so we took a stack of photographs, the flashes no doubt signalling to anybody in a twenty mile radius that there were no good hoodlums monkeying around on top of the last great wonder of the ancient world. And yet nothing. No whistles, no shouts, not even a dog barking.

We stayed up there for about an hour, marvelling at both the view and the sheer majesty of these bombastic, iconic and timeless monuments – monuments that we had all to ourselves. Then, just before dawn, the city below us crackled awake as the muezzins sounded their ghostly call to prayer. When your hotel window is right next to a speaker, being woken up at the crack of down by this tuneless warble is a nightmare. But up here, with the murmuring cacophony going off in every corner of Africa’s biggest city far below, it sounded amazing: a harmonious drone like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed got down to pray. Kendra and I sat nearby and kept respectfully quiet. When they were finished, with the morning sun fast approaching, we figured it was time to leave.

We clambered down the south-east corner, nice and easy. I kept surveying down below, to see if anyone was waiting for us, but there was no-one.

Once on the ground we walked back to the fence, this time using the Sphinx side of Chephren and Mycerinus. Unlike the journey to the pyramid, we used torches and spoke openly: by now we were pretty confident that there was literally nobody here.

It was fairly light by the time we got back to the fence. By the time we got back to the car it was broad daylight. The night was over. We had done it. We had climbed The Great Pyramid of Giza.


From Climbing THE GREAT PYRAMID!, posted by Graham Hughes on 12/18/2012 (21 items)

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