Cairo to Algiers: Part 1
Welcome to Sallum!
The usual Egyptian greeting was the best thing about this place. The north coast of Egypt was a bit like the Nullabor in Oz, days of nothingness...
But back to the start. You might think that riding a bike in Egypt is around 8 or 9 on the 'crazy' scale, but a bike rider fares a whole lot better than a car driver or pedestrian (and way better than a rider in Sydney, Oz for that matter). Strange but true. Egyptian drivers seem to have a sixth sense to avoid slow moving 'obstacles' – tho the smashed up state of their vehicles and the number of wrecks that litter the sides of roads would suggest that this sixth sense doesn't always function... Anyway, clearing Cairo was easy, more than likely cos I chose an early start on a Friday and the ride to Alex (Alexandria on the map, Dreya to taxi drivers) was enjoyable. The usual waves, horns and lot's of good-natured banter - well I'm going to assume that it was good-natured, my Arabic is basic to say the least! Plenty of tea stops, easy accomodation options to make a two day trip out of the 200 or so k's made the ride a good one. Alex was a bit overwhelming tho. It's a big, bustling place with a lot of narrow roads as you near the coast, lots of traffic lights and confusing direction signs. I spent a few days in Alex, with the trike safely parked in a hotel garage
From Alex, the plan was to make slightly longer riding days heading westward towards the Libyan border. I couldn't dawdle too much as I had to meet a pre-arranged Libyan guide at the frontier in a few days time, a rather expensive proposition, but it was the only reliable way to ensure a Libyan visa (at least that didn't require hanging about Cairo for weeks and weeks) So, the idea was to go via El Alamein, about 100 k's from Alex, then to Mersa Matruh, about 140 k from El Alamein, from Matruh to Sidi Barani, another 120 k's and then 100 k's to Sallum before the shortish final 10 or so k's to the frontier. Nice do-able riding days...
As with all plans I didn't end up following this one. Leaving Alex was as confusing as entering, at one point I followed a stream of traffic into a U-turn on a causeway (no-one cared about the No U-turn sign!) but eventually I was heading westwards, the road lined with either giant billboards advertising beachfront resorts or the 'resorts' themselves. This section of the coast is 'development' gone wild, with new vacation oriented 'beaches' seemingly popping up everywhere, massed compounds of multi-storied 'developments' squashed cheek by jowl and used by Egyptians (and Libyans) for just one or two months a year, so when I passed by in winter they were all a bit desolate (and a bit sad...) Alamein was a pretty easy day's riding. A totally unremarkable overnight and onwards to Matruh
Don't mean that Alamein isn't worth the trip, it is. It's a sobering reminder of the 1939-1945 war that should resonate with Australians at least
As with Alamein,-, I'd last been in Matruh twenty years before and had good memories to entertain myself as I rode past more of these incongrous billboards and unorganized tourist 'development' on the sea-ward side. And the land-ward side? Nothing much, a few truckstop type places (many with piles of bright foil wrapped tyres - tires - nearby) a few painted Bedouin houses, a few olive groves but mostly just sand and rock. Traffic was pretty light too; some heavily laden trucks, quite a lot of buses (all with window curtains firmly closed) a few police and military 4WD's and that was about it. The road seemed to have a slight incline, I seemed to be pushing harder than I ought... or maybe I was just getting bored? There was none of the good humoured horns/waves that I'd found on the Cairo - Alex road here, even the stops at the cafés for tea seemed a little joyless, in comparison to what I remembered at least. And talking of remembering, I hardly recognised Matruh! The sleepy, slightly down at heel place of twenty years ago has morphed into a big, brightly lit 'tourist' town. Still it was easy to find a hotel (even if I was the only guest) and I spent a convivial night at an outdoor tea shop after a cheap meal of fish (what else!) Being the only one at a (very early) breakfast the next morning was a plus, instead of a boiled egg I was presented with an omelette and Egyptian omelettes are a joy! Plus I was presented with an omelette sandwich "for later" That morning I experienced the good humoured honks/waves as I hit the road towards Sidi Barani
And this is where the plan ended... As I headed out of town I pulled into a servo (read service/gas station) to check on a softish off-side front tyre (tire) and in the course of doing so, from the customary crowd of curious onlookers came a question of which I understood a couple of key words, meshi wen - loosely, translates to "where are you going?" Knowing my poor language skills I opted for the simple answer, well I thought it was simple, and so I replied jamahiriyya libiya al–arabiyya (short version = Libya) which resulted in a few 'sharp breath/raised eyebrow' type reactions before another enquired al yom ("today?") to which I could only say la, la, la ("no, no, no!") to the great amusment of all. After some more of this sort of pidgin chit-chat, one of the younger men pushed forward and said to me, in perfectly enunciated English, that his uncle was going to Sallum and would I care to join them in his car? At this point everyone seemed to lose interest and (most of) the crowd dissolved. The 'car' turned out to be a small flatbed van of a hitherto unkown, at least to me, Indian manufactuer and so the trike was hoisted into the back to share the small space with a couple of other passengers and I was ceremoniously squeezed into the cabin up front. Of course the van was something of a micro van and squeezed hardly describes the situation. But, over the surprisingly load roar of what I understood to be a 3 cylinder engine, we fairly zipped along the road with only minor inconvenenience to my knees as we didn' t have to change gears all that often... As with all road journeys in Egypt we stopped often; a tea stop here, a prayer stop there, a stop at a servo for more gas, a stop in the middle of nowhere for one of the passengers to get off and so- on. Each time we stopped, whether for tea or gas, I tried to do the right thing and pay but each time my offer was firmly and repeatedly declined, I even tried to get in early at the gas station and pay the attendant up front but even this was rebuffed. We spent all day, well, almost all day, getting to Sallum and in the end I didn't actually arrive with my benefactors
Just ouside Sallum is one of those large arches, actually, multiple arches, that Egyptian authorities seem to like, spanning the roadway and this arch had a roadblock manned by both uniformed and 'plain clothes' police. To cut to the chase, it seemed as if the 'plain clothes' police weren't all that thrilled to see me and we were all waiting and waiting and waiting and a bit of traffic was building up behind us by this stage, so, by mutual agreement, my 'friends' departed on their business while I and the trike waited at the roadblock for resolution of whatever it was that needed resolution. I had a nice time, drinking tea chatting and so-on while a policeman trawled thru my passport examining all the visas (except the Egyptian!) I sat in the little office for about half an hour until another policeman came back in handed me my passport and bade me a good trip. I never did find out what the problem was, then again, I didn't ask much about it either ...
So, here I was in Sallum. And, thanks to the lift, I was a whole day too early to cross into Libya. Sallum isn't really the end-of-the-world but it is relatively small and there's only one hotel (which is definitely an end-of-the-world place) and so I just killed time. Nice looking beach, freezing cold water tho, a few very optimistic 'souvenier' shops, a few eating places and that's Sallum from the front of the teashop. Of course, the looming escarpment which dominates the western horizon may have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm for the place
And yes, when I did leave town, that 200 metre 'mountain' was an absolute bastard of a climb first thing in the morning!
When I arrived at the frontier some 12 or so k later, it was an absolute zoo! At least on the Egyptian side. I had no idea that there was so much movement between Egypt and Libya, a heap of trucks carrying great slabs of stone and a zillion vans and pickups loaded to the max all coming from Libya into Egypt, tho there wasn't a great deal of traffic heading west. After a fairly cursory 'inspection' of the trike and it's panniers I was handed a small, ragged piece of paper with totally unintelligble scrawl on it and pointed off to passport control where there was a bit of a crowd so I piggy- backed on a group of German adventurers who had their own massive vehicles and were almost through the process and so in next to no time I was riding the half a kilometre to the Libyan frontier post ( still with that scrap of paper by the way). The Libyan post was tranqil by comparison and in less than 5 minutes I had met my guide, my passport had been stamped with the elusive visa - well actually, it was a yet another scrawled number rather than a stamp - and the trike was again in the back of a pickup and I was heading towards another 39–45 war site, Tobruk
A bit later as the vast empiness began to impinge I was quite glad I was 'cheating' by taking a lift; as I've said before, those cyclists who ride the whole way along the route are to be feted, it's an epic ride!
But that's another story