It Begins

We’re two days on the road now. Yesterday, day one, we gather by the big truck. There is a febrile tension in the air; this is what we’ve come for; this is what we’ve been waiting for; what we’ve been so apprehensive about. We are at the start of our four-month pilgrimage into the unknown.

We begin in convoy to the pyramids at Giza. It is dawn and we are here on our own, an invading army in uniforms of blue and yellow and red lycra topped with polystyrene helmets. We look dutifully, make the comments that all tourists make, mug for the cameras as all tourists do but we’re too anxious to be off to let the pyramids whisper the secrets of the past into our ears. Now, finally, it is time to leave.

It is, however, a “Phony” start. Hardly are we on the bikes then we’re off. We clamber onto a bus to get us beyond the anarchic Cairo traffic. We are dropped off at the side of a large six-lane expressway. Surprisingly, there is on either side an extra lane—for bicycles. We clamber onto our bikes and everyone sets off, each at their own pace. I am one of the slower ones. I’ve been training indoors and its quite a few months since I’ve done any distance on a road. I’m grateful that today is a short day: only 80 kms. The next day will be almost twice that distance. I don’’t think about that yet.

At 40 kms the road curves to the right, now no longer an expressway; a two-way highway. But, suddenly, there it is: the Red Sea, as if the theatre curtain has been drawn on the drama. It is not a prepossessing sight. There is a shabbiness to the desert that edges to the sea and stretches to the horizon on our side of the road. There is none of that austere beauty that I have seen in the Sahara or Death Valley, a beauty that makes harsh demands on you, scouring the soul so that one is almost tempted to an anchorite life. Here it is different, as if the raw unfinished or crumbling structures of Cairo have extended their domain to the land itself. Yet it is the Red Sea. It takes my breath away. More even than the pyramids it evokes a hidden past that lives in me. I remember the dream I had as a young man and that has never left me.

I had always been subject to a recurring nightmare of being pursued by unknown forces. In this particular dream I am running for my life, as usual, but I jump a fence and jump into another dimension, another world. I am in a barren land of sand and dunes rolling down to a sea where in the distance I see a tribe mingling among their tents. A great peace comes over me. I am home. It is the first time I have ever been home. Intimations of that other time and place flash in me as I swerve around the corner and the Red Sea is luminous in the early morning sun.

It is not something I can take a picture of. I ride on. I am mainly on my own. The road has its own reality and rhythm. I will leave that for another time. At the end of each day, we emerge from our cocoons of the road. There is the dust of the road to wash off, bikes to be adjusted (by our quiet but brilliantly efficient Alaskan mechanic), briefings and dinner and packing and repacking the bags to be ready for tomorrow’s 5 am start.