Day 7: Abu Zenima – El Tor: Breaking Point
Friday May 27, 2011, 120 km (75 miles) – Total so far: 706 km (439 miles)
The plan for today was to head for St.Katherine’s monastery. I planned to head south along the main road for 55km before taking the Wadi Feiran turn off up into the mountains towards St.Katherine. I would then camp along this road before continuing on and descending to Dahab the next day. I was still feeling shaky in the morning but not as bad as last night so I felt good to continue. I hoped to take a rest day if possible in Dahab where I could recover. So 20km down the road in Abu Rudeis I stocked up on enough food to last me the day and night aswell as 7 litres of water.
After Abu Rudeis I turned away from the coast and started climbing. Like yesterday once in the foothills the scenery was pretty good. It was tough but rewarding work in the intense heat.
After a nice bit of gradual climbing I arrived at the St.Katherine turn off. As I crested the hill above the turn off I could see the police station below me aswell as the police checkpoint in front of it. This checkpoint stands at the intersection so all traffic whether it is going along the main road to Sharm el Sheikh or turning off to St.Katherine can be checked. There seemed to be a bit of a problem though seeing as there was a big backup of traffic at the checkpoint. As I reached the back of the cars I saw what was unfolding. 20-30 bedouin had taken over the checkpoint, many of them armed with large rifles. To make things more interesting they were firing gunshots into the air every minute or so. There were several policemen standing outside the police station but they were powerless against so many armed bedouin. I had now cycled straight into one of the bedouin protests I had heard so much about.
I decided to hold back and stay at the back of the queue so as not to draw any attention to myself. I was the only foreigner here, even on the buses everyone I could see was Egyptian. I wasn’t sure how the bedouin would view a foreigner trying to get through, I didn’t know what could potentially happen. So I held back and (over the sound of gunshots) got talking to some of the Egyptians at the back of the queue to get a better idea of what was going on. The general advice seemed to be to stay back and under no circumstances talk to any of the armed bedouin! They said though that as a foreigner I wouldn’t be targeted. Because the bedouin depend so heavily on tourism they would never harm a foreigner. Although this was a relief to hear unfortunately it seemed that the road was going to be closed for the day. This was bad news as it meant I was trapped this side of the road and would have to camp nearby or head back to Abu Zenima before trying again tomorrow. With my sickness growing steadily worse and my time schedule to get to Amman for my flight already under pressure, this wasn’t really an option for me.
A bit ahead of me in the queue I could see a few of the cars were being waved forward towards the front. I edged a bit further forward and asked another English speaker what was happening. It seemed the cars with women and children were being waved forward. These cars would then be let through the checkpoint to the Sharm el Sheikh road before the road was completely closed. This was my only chance. I edged a bit more towards the front and waited for the bedouin checking the cars to pass. Once he had passed I slipped forward into this queue, shielded from view by a people carrier. A few seconds later the unarmed bedouin at the front of the queue raised the barrier and started waving the cars with women and children through. Feeling like the guy in the Titanic (that guy who snuck into the women and childrens lifeboats), I continued forward keeping the same speed as the cars. I made sure I was shielded from the view of all the bedouin to my left. The one bedouin to my right assumed I had been waved forward by the other bedouin who was checking the cars. It was an iffy plan but it worked, I slipped through unnoticed and was now onto the Sharm el Sheikh road! If I was caught out I would have just been turned back by the bedouin so it was definitely well worth the risk to try sneaking through.
I continued onto the end of the queue at this side of the checkpoint before looking back. More gunshots were being fired into the air now, it was building up to a climax. Tyres were quickly placed in the middle of the road by the bedouin and set on fire. With the tyres alight and the smoke rising high in the air the road was now completely shut. There was no way back, St.Katherine wasn’t an option anymore. I now had no choice but to take the coast road south along the tip of the peninsula to Sharm el Sheikh and from there continue north to Dahab. It was a long round trip but it was the only option. I snapped a quick photo from a safe distance so it wouldn’t be heard or seen by any bedouin. An Egyptian saw me taking this however and over reacted. He berated me and told me I should turn back to Sharm el Sheikh and get the hell out of there as the road was now shut for the day! I assured him I knew what I was doing, that I was well out of view but he still seemed annoyed at me. I don’t think it was wrong of me to photograph it, any event like this should be documented and as long as I wasn’t seen by any of the bedouin I couldn’t see the problem. After this flurry of excitement I set off towards El Tor 65km away, the only settlement between here and Sharm el Sheikh. (News story of the incident here: http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE74R00L20110528 )
As I set out on this road my health started getting progressively worse. The adrenaline of the last 10 minutes had let me forget it but now the bug was striking back yet again! A combination of piercing stomach cramps and diarrhea meant I was in a bad way. Aswell as this the early stages of heat exhaustion were starting to set in. There was no relief from the sun, no shade at all in this desert so I had no option but to continue on in this 40Â°C+ heat.
I continued on for another 20km. With the wind behind me it was tough but managable. But then of course the wind turned and the heat exhaustion really started to kick in. With 45km to go I stopped. I was very low on energy and knew I needed to eat but everytime I tried to I felt like I was about to throw up. I managed to stomach half a biscuit and that was it. Not wanting to throw up and add dehydration to the growing list of ailments I had no option but to keep away from the food for now. I mixed up 2 dioralyte satchets I had in my first aid kit into some of my (now boiling hot) water and hoped that would keep me going for now. I got back onto the bike and ambled onwards into the headwind with 45km still between me and El Tor.
There was barely any traffic on the road now as news had filtered through that the road was blocked. I was mostly alone out here. At one stage an ambulance passed as I was doubled over in pain at the side of the road. The crew reversed back to make sure I was ok. I asked did they have anything I could use to cool me down. I then noticed they actually had someone in the back of the ambulance though and immediately waved them on, feeling bad for holding them up. I was badly suffering from piercing stomach cramps and heat exhaustion at this stage and had nothing to cool me down. The temperature guage was again reading 49Â°C and all my water was boiling hot, the bottles even hurt to touch! As I was sitting here feeling the effects of the heat a bedouin pulled over and asked whether I needed anything. He saw a nearly empty bottle of water in my hand and handed me an ice cold bottle through the window. He then refused payment for it, wished me luck and disappeared into the distance! My faith in the bedouin was now restored! I downed a litre of it in one go. I can’t describe how good it felt to get this down me. With a bit more motivation now I got back on the bike and started pedalling into that headwind again. There was now just under 40km to El Tor.
I can safely say that those 40km into a strong hot headwind in the scorching hot desert were the toughest kilometres I have ever cycled. I was averaging 10-14km/h, so with rest stops to make sure I didn’t overheat completely it took me 3 and a half long hours to reach El Tor. I still couldn’t get any food into me so I was running on empty the entire way with strong stomach cramps, diarrhea and heat exhaustion to deal with. I asked myself over and over again why I was doing this, it was pure misery. But I just had to put my head down, stop complaining and get on with it. To experience the heights of euphoria that come with cycle touring in these parts of the world I guess you will also have to experience the depths of despair and that’s something I just had to push through.
Eventually I slowly ambled into El Tor before dark and quickly got a hotel, again I didn’t bother to haggle and went straight to my room. Here I got some more cold water down me aswell as another dioralyte satchet. I also had a small bit of food which I was now able to stomach. After this I collapsed on the bed and was out for around 3 hours. When I awoke I still felt like shit. I knew I couldn’t survive another day like this in the scorching desert so I headed for my first aid kit again. I had brought antibiotics as a backup, the nurse who had given me the necessary jabs had insisted I bring them just in case. I had left it the last few days hoping my body would sort itself out but this sickness was just getting worse and worse and was weakening me by the day. So with nothing to lose I started the 3 day course of antibiotics, got a small bit of food into me and went straight to bed.
Whatever I had picked up from the water/food back on the first night was slowly finishing me off. It was weakening me day by day and made this desert cycling tougher than I had ever imagined. I usually have an ok pain barrier so I’m surprised that this affected me so badly. As I have said I try not to complain or whinge too much as I’m lucky to have the opportunity to cycle in the Middle East but I’m trying to give an honest account of the trip so unfortunately this comes with it!