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A reflective night out in Egypt’s endless desert

Sunset. The world rolled to a halt. I dismounted and stood looking about in the grey dusk. The horizon’s rocky fringe still glowed in the west, beyond where lay Cairo and the mouth of the Nile, still a couple of hundred miles away. My trouser legs flapped in the breeze. All else was quiet on this road, a detour that spanned the peninsula’s uninhabited interior, away from the goods traffic that made its way to and from the capital further north.

I pulled from my head the sleeve of cotton that had been protecting me from the elements – a useful freebie from some sponsor, long ago. With the sun growing stronger as I drew south, and the desert wind and dust tormenting my skin, I would soon need to find a proper sunhat. I was sure that I’d be able to find one for a dollar or two in some Egyptian souvenir shop.

A faint set of tyre marks plunged off the road and into the sand to the north, disappearing behind hills of crumbled rock in the middle distance. I wondered whether or not to follow them. At best, they might lead to some huddle of workers or other – a quarry, perhaps, or a mine – and the men (they would of course be men) would welcome me to stay the night; another memorable punctuation mark in my new routine as a solo bicycle traveller. At worst, the trail would lead to a concealed patch of desert in which I could camp undisturbed; just another hidden spot that I would make home for the night. There must be thousands of those scenes playing out this very instant, unseen by the rest of the world – solitary figures setting up canvas and poles in the twilight, the orange glow of petrol stoves coming to life, peace returning as the fires fade away into darkness, and then the deep sleep of physical exhaustion. The same figures would be up before dawn, boiling water for tea as the tent was packed away, and then the wind in their tangled hair and tarmac crackling beneath their tyres as they hit the road to do it all over again.

I glanced back along the fading road; looked again at the tyre marks, shrugging off that familiar but subsiding twinge of fear. Well – given the choice between two options, I reminded myself, I might as well take the more interesting one.

I followed the trail towards the rocky hills, the road a receding line across the sand in the distance. The tracks skirted behind the shadowed eastern side of the hills, and as the road disappeared from view behind me, I saw – as predicted – a tiny cluster of low, makeshift buildings. A single earthmoving machine was parked beside the biggest hut, and next to it a trailer-tank. I leaned my bike against the tank and gingerly knocked on the door of the hut. But all was eerie and quiet.

Then I heard a faint cry. Looking round, I saw a solitary figure trudging through the sand towards me. The man was dressed in a desert robe of faded grey, a neat bundle of white wrapped tightly around his head above his ears. As he came closer, I began to make out his features in the failing light – creased eyes, kind but serious; a broad nose; a black moustache streaked through with white; some days’ stubble framing his mouth. Unhurried and quiet, he shook my hand, took a brief look at my bicycle, and wordlessly beckoned me into the hut.

I sat quietly on a heap of folded blankets in the corner, while the man sat on the single mattress opposite, pulling a bag of bread from its hiding place, unscrewing the cap of a large plastic bottle and decanting some of its contents into a china bowl. He gestured at me to eat. I tore at the bread, shaping it between my fingers, and then the smell of the dark syrup in the bowl hit me: molasses, the by-product of Egypt’s vast sugar-cane industry. The usual game of interrogative charades was never attempted, and we ate in silence in this little corner of light in the darkness – not exactly basking in the pleasure of each other’s company, but at least agreeable, on some wordless level, to the idea of seeing the evening out together.

After we’d eaten our fill of the bread and treacle, the man switched on a dusty old radio, so established in its place that it seemed until that moment to have almost melted into the wall of the room. Strains of music floated into the air, a crackling, wailing ode to some person or sentiment long since passed. Then he brought forth a small water-pipe and sat tinkering with its tubes and valves, and the room was soon rendered vague and dim with smoke.

I sat back on the blankets, watching this old Egyptian man. Somewhere in these hills, or perhaps in a town or village, this man had a family – a wife, maybe two or three; and children, or perhaps they’d now be adults too. In any case, here he was; a man displaced from these things, doing what he could to find some solace in his solitude. And maybe that was the thing that lay behind the strange bond I felt with this man: the knowledge that whatever was said or done, it would be said or done in loneliness. His was the loneliness of having been dragged away from those he held most dear to serve time in this hut. Mine, on the other hand, was self-imposed: the loneliness of the dream-bound traveller, questing in solitude towards some imaginary goal. No matter how enlightening or meaningful or humbling this quest might turn out to be, I would do well to remember that – for as long as it may continue – I would still sleep alone.

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike. This vivid account of a long-distance bikeride has also been made into a film. Buy both or just check out his website for some travel inspiration.

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