Emptiness of the Red Sea Coast

Cairo via the Red Sea coast

There was a sense of ‘journey’s end’ once across the Egypt/Sudan border and, with the bikes re-registered and fitted with Aswan number plates, our Egyptian driving licences packed into our document cases and the bikes loaded up, Cairo was little more than a couple of easy days away. You can ride the agricultural roads north along the Nile Valley, but this is an endless avenue of small trading towns, bus parks and – the motorists nightmare – speed bumps located 100  metres apart wherever there were small settlements on the road. So, we chose to cross the eastern deserts and to ride north along the coast of the Red Sea. At least the military convoy system out of Aswan has been dropped in recent times, and you can travel independently.

Speed bumps dominate the villages along the Nile Valley. We never met a single one on the Red Sea coast - but then the road ran through empty desert for much of the way, with the coastal towns off the road.

Speed bumps dominate the villages along the Nile Valley. We never met a single one on the Red Sea coast – but then the road ran through empty desert for much of the way, with the coastal towns away from the road.

This was long distance riding, counting the kilometre posts to Safaga and looking ahead over the rolling hills that mark what is a featureless land of nothingness. We rode a well-maintained tar seal highway that, for much of the way, followed the railway line to the coast. Traffic was light, but not as light as it had been in northern Sudan, and we were in amongst cars, trucks and buses from time-to-time. No speed bumps here and road speeds were high. The petrol shortages of Aswan and Luxor were of concern – the extent to which it may impact on the coastal road. But that turned out to be a non-starter, for we were able to fill up at the first petrol station we saw on the outskirts of Safaga – there was no hint of shortages. Now we had sufficient fuel to get to Cairo.

We had wondered about riding into Safaga but didn’t, reasoning that we wanted to get within a day of Cairo for arrival the next day – it was already past mid-day – so we continued riding north. We’d already had a brief swim in the pool at the campsite/motel in Luxor that morning before leaving, but who could resist a dip in this most exotic of holiday destinations – the Red Sea. Well, ‘exotic’ it may be around the main centres – Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Safaga, for example – but elsewhere the coastline was simply, well … desert – with small groups of oil platforms out to sea, the occasional and abandoned military depot (with those ubiquitous ‘No photographs’ signs) and equally dilapidated truck stops. There were also lots of ‘Don’t use your mobile phone when driving’ signs – mobile phone in a red circle with red diagonal through it.

So, we pulled off the road near to one of those ubiquitous truck stops, parked the bikes on the edge of the tar seal and climbed down to the rocky shore-line. A car with travellers had stopped to take in the view, but they quickly disappeared after a photo or two. We had the beach, coastline and sea to ourselves. It was a token dip; a first in the Red Sea.

Swimming in the Red Sea. Had we taken the Nile Valley Road, we'd have missed out on the experience of a sea-to-ourselves. It was warm and refreshing at the same time.

Swimming in the Red Sea. Had we taken the Nile Valley Road, we’d have missed out on the experience of a sea-to-ourselves. It was warm and refreshing at the same time.

This was bleak desert country on both sides of a fast dual carriageway with the separate lanes sometimes divided by a kilometre or more, and few turning places should you decided to return to where you have just come from. You could see where cars had simply bumped off the road, tracked across the packed sand and bumped up on to the road to return from where they had come. Perhaps that’s what the road designers had intended? However, not so easy to do with a truck and trailer unit.

Hurghada by the sea

One of the fastest growing cities in the country – well, before that friendly revolution 2011/12 – and with an easyJet link to Europe and a passenger ferry across to Egypt’s most famous of Red Sea resorts: Sharm el-Sheikh – Hurghada sprawled along the coast. For those riding by you couldn’t really see where it started and finished. There were construction sites just about everywhere. English and Arabic language road signs featured ‘Downtown’, ‘Airport’ and a host of neighbourhoods, and we could see the planes coming in, but not where we could go to gain a quick view of the place. There were large roundabouts with modern shopping malls close-by; this was a brief introduction to modern Egypt – focusing on middle-income Egyptians – and promoted for the longer-term tourist industry.

So, we turned off the main highway and headed downtown and then to the main port and then down a main, but traditional, commercial street that led from the port, but we did not find any of the more prestigious areas that would attract a foreigners. Hurghada from the main highway was a different image to that downtown. I guess we missed the modern tourist areas – for surely they exist somewhere – and probably in the ribbon development along the coast south of the town. The main town centre was typical well: ‘Egypt’ and far removed from similar and more spectacular developments that can be found, for example, along the Costa Brava in Spain and the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. It raises the obvious question – having bought your low-cost holiday home in Hurghada – what would you do with yourself each day?

People were friendly – as they are throughout Egypt – and started up conversations when eye contact had been made and asked the usual questions about the bikes – everyone rides Chinese-made bikes in Egypt (apart from those ubiquitous Vespas – should that be ‘Vespe’- and an occasional two-stroke Jawa of heritage era – remember those twin exhaust plumes of white billowing smoke when accelerating hard – fabulous). Foreign bikes are a novelty.

In Hurghada we stopped for a bite - sitting on the pavement just to the side of where the bikes were parked. We bought drinks in the shops behind the bikes and went back to the bar.

In Hurghada we stopped for a bite – sitting on the pavement just to the side of where the bikes were parked. We bought drinks in the shops behind the bikes and took them back to the bar.

We’d pulled over at a local restaurant on the main road out of town to eat a couple of breads stuffed with meat and salad. Bikes parked nearby, relatively open pavement, empty tables & chairs, umbrellas, etc. and waited for our food to be prepared. There was this sense of journey’s end to the riding. Were all those places – Kenya, Malawi and Namibia just a few kilometres back there down the road? Had we been there so recently – was this still Africa – it was a world apart from Egypt and the Red Sea coast.

Sure, you’re supposed to steer clear of the great unwashed meals, but we’ve typically found meat a less risky food than salads or uncooked vegetables. As usual, it was the drinks that were essential, but there are only so many sugary Cokes, Pepsis, Seven-Ups and Sprites that you can take. Every freezer cabinet from end-to-end of the country seems to be stuffed with soft drinks (but also water). And for those who don’t know – this is a dry country outside the main tourist hotels – there you can buy a beer or two.

Wall mural. Opposite the bar a mural was painted on the exposed side of a small apartment block. It looked beaten and worn and contrasted with the bright Nestle advertisement promoting ice creams.

Wall mural. Opposite the bar a mural was painted on the exposed side of a small apartment block. It looked beaten and worn and contrasted with the bright Nestle advertisement promoting ice creams.

Ras Ghareb

We had considered stopping for the night in Hurghada but Ras Ghareb up the coast was 150 km nearer to Cairo, and it was still early afternoon. An industrial town – the centre of the Egyptian oil industry – larger than Hurghada and just off the main highway; it sounded just the place and we got there around 4.00 pm. We had already appreciated that this was not a tourist destination, but it was clean and presentable with wide straight and empty streets, low rise buildings and a bar on the side of the road as we entered the town – time for yet another cold drink. No one spoke English, but we figured we could ride up and down and find a small hotel somewhere – only we didn’t; it took an hour or so to decide that we were getting nowhere.

We approached a number of drivers in the petrol station when filling up, and a couple in a car kindly volunteered to take us to the only hotel that they knew in the town. They were probably right too – for we never did see another hotel and you could figure that camping would not be an option – well, formal camping where we could find a shower. The hotel – a small businessman’s hotel – was a little way out from the centre, and we would have been lucky to have found it simply by riding up and down likely looking streets.

Amir Palace Hotel. Clean, presentable & reasonably priced; all that you could request after a comfortable day on the bikes. We were within a day of Cairo.

Amir Palace Hotel. Clean, presentable & reasonably priced; all that you could ask after a comfortable day on the bikes. We were within a day of Cairo.

The Amir Palace Hotel wanted E£140/night (about GB£14) – en suite, air/con, comfortable beds, clean, etc. – what more can you want. We bought breakfast at a local super-market – stacked it in the fridge in the room – and headed off on foot to find somewhere to eat that evening. Anna phoned Kristian – we were able to vouch that he was still in the land of the living. We were in bed by 9.40 pm – the sleep of the tired wind-blown, but clean, bikkies.

Wind power

That next revolution in power has to be those thousands of wind-generators that will eventually track the Red Sea coast from the Gulf of Suez in the north to the Elba National Park on the border with Sudan in the south – for these are some of the most reliable wind resources in the world – average 10.5m/sec. And the next day, riding to Suez, we passed through wind-farms with >1,000 wind generators marching alongside the road and up into the hills alongside. The majority were not rotating. Why? Who do they belong to? Read the blogs and you’ll note planning in hand for new investments for 7,200 MW capacity south of Suez and another 3,000 MW along both sides of the Suez Canal. Egypt is already considering 20% of energy requirements from renewable resources by 2020.

Paradox of wealth creation and unfinished potential

Riding the Red Sea coast was a choice well made – and we counted down the kilometres as the Cairo signs flashed past. Long distance riding with only the wind to content with – but what a wind; hard and unrelenting for the entire distance from Safaga where we had left the desert for the coast all the way to Sukhna near Suez. The closer to Suez the more pronounced the ribbon development of beach parks, hotels, shopping malls and holiday homes – kilometre/hectare after kilometre/hectare – thousands of partially completed buildings surrounded by construction sites, with the modern north-south two lane highway skirting everything. Here you are little more than two hours from Cairo by road. With Egypt struggling economically to come to terms with the social revolution of the past 18 months, now would be a very good time to make an offer on that holiday home on the Red Sea that you have always fancied.

No issue that we were en route to Cairo - for the signs were at regular intervals along the entire road.

No issue that we were en route to Cairo – for the signs were at regular intervals along the entire road.

And if the buildings are not abandoned, they have at least been left in limbo as one more feature of a country coming to terms with a popular movement to change government and apportion blame for the inequalities between the masses and their relative poverty and the minority middle-classes/rich. Who will eventually occupy all that real estate? Who knows? Cheaper than Spain, of course, but further from Europe and more of a punt for your average middle-income German, Dutch or English family. So, are they there for rich Egyptians and others from the Middle East? It’s a difficult time to project personal wealth in Egypt – local or foreign; so those structures are probably destined to remain unfinished for some time yet.

That’s it – reached Cairo

Cairo was at the end of a fast and empty 100 km new motorway-standard road; you could see the original road running alongside – the one that still featured on our Michelin map ‘Africa North East – Arabia’. First time we had been asked to pay a toll too – US$1/entry and the same coming into Cairo. There was no ‘Cairo’ sign as such where the city began, so we missed out on that particular photo opportunity.

Main road to Cairo. New, empty and easy; our final few kilometres into Cairo. At points on the road, the builders had constructed 'ancient look-a-like' Egyptology monuments.

Main road to Cairo. New, empty and easy; our final few kilometres into Cairo. At points on the road, the builders had constructed ‘ancient look-a-like’ Egyptology monuments.

Earlier there had been the one toll booth on the road north along the Red Sea coast, but at that one the attendant had simply waved us through. Not so many bikkies on the long distance haul – in fact, perhaps one or two for the entire 500 km or so once outside the half dozen main centres. The new road ended abruptly too – clover leaf turn-round and you’re into normal city traffic with views over the city. Polluted air too – for those coastal winds  no longer featured.

Peter Steele

Cairo

6 June 2012

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