“Now I’m stronger than yesterday”
– Britney Spears
Hard Times in Amman! An invite to the British Ball at the Sheraton Hotel and a disappointed British
Ambassador: my Christmas party schedule was simply too full to fit in his kind invitation to dinner.
Merry Making and Calorie Cramming all round. I found time to play backgammon and smoke a hubbly-bubbly waterpipe with a wise old Jordanian. He spoke of backgammon as a philosophy of life: it is black and white, you have no choice over what is dealt for you, or over what people do to you, but you play your own pieces as you wish and you can make the most of what you are dealt. My dice came up trumps:
my Sudan visa arrived! My excitement was measured though: now I have no reason to wimp out. I have
the visa; I’m going to have to tackle Sudan. There is no excuse now.
Two University friends, Arno and Simon, were going to join me for their Christmas holiday. One’s
preparations were unconventional and decidedly ill-advised. I am delighted to make public his personal
pain and shame: “Al: I am in pain. Please don’t tell anyone! Someone advised me to shave my bum to
make cycling less painful. But now I am sitting on hundreds of tiny, deadly needles of stubble. Please
Even without a newspaper to read, the lowest point on Earth was fun. We bobbed and floated and
giggled in the salty soup of the Dead Sea, donned fluffy white dressing gowns and gloated in the
generous, luxurious hospitality of the 5-star Dead Sea Spa Resort. Freshly shampoo’d and blow-dried the
three rugged adventurers left to camp by the seashore. Across the tranquil waters lay the less than tranquil
West Bank. So when soldiers found our campsite in the night they were naturally less than happy and
moved us on to rest elsewhere. We peered through their night-vision goggles at the grainy-green far bank.
Were the equally paranoid soldiers over there squinting back at us…?
Dana is the most beautiful place between London and Cairo. Christmas morning above the gorge at
Dana outshone even Petra, the famous rose-red city half as old as time. Santa hats, tinsel and very loud
Carol singing as we pedalled along the crisp, fresh King’s Highway. Never let the lyrics or tune get in the
way of high volume Christmas roaring! Local Muslims shared our high spirits. “Merry Christmas!”,
“Happy New Year!”, even “Happy Birthday!” they cried.
Petra provokes ambition and far-sightedness. It mocks the triviality of our “I want it now” lifestyles. It
gave me renewed strength: I can make it to Cape Town.
Where better to read TE Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (he really was a dangerous ‘dreamer
of the day’ as I wish to be…) than in Wadi Rumm. The vastness of Wadi Rumm reminds you of your
own insignificance; its timelessness highlights your own fleeting time flowing frighteningly fast. Lying
on the desert floor the black silence is so absolute that you can literally hear yourself blink. Its enormous
majesty of course provoked very childish naked running and aeroplane impressions.
We met an Irish conceptual artist. He was over here on business. With a disposable camera he was to
take 24 photos of 24 different Arabs writing Arabic on 24 postcards of London and mailing them to
another artist in Britain. The art? Sending a postcard of a place you have never been, to a country you
have never seen, to a man you have never met, in a language he will not understand. “Ingenious”, I lied.
To avoid a troublesome Israeli stamp in my passport I was forced to take a ferry across the bay to Egypt.
And so the unbroken tyre tracks, over 7000km long, stretching back to Calais and a very different me
have finally been broken. The ‘Slow Boat’ carried out its job brief magnificently, being so slow that we
disembarked in a chaotic Egypt a splendid eight hours late. And then I was alone again. Simon and Arno
have put me back on the rails; I have rediscovered laughter. Hopefully in return the difficulties of the road
have shown them that you only know your strength once you start to take the strain.
An easy ferry ride to Hurghada beckoned. It would save me 10 days of tough, unnecessary riding
around the Gulf of Suez. But if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it right, so I pedalled for days across
the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo directly back towards England. Not good for the soul. My water bottles froze
solid, my tent blew down, hailstones (hailstones?! This is meant to be a desert!!) bit my face. I fought as
hard as I could into the teeth of a gale. I screamed at the skies and shouted at everything I saw. Which wasn’t much as I was in a desert. The Middle East has been so lusciously kind to me that she wasn’t letting me leave without reminding me of something important, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” which also happens to be the motto of Stella, Egypt’s beer.
Across the Suez Canal. To the banks of the Nile. The haughty, hazy outline of the pyramids. I have
arrived in Africa. Hailstorms and headwinds, silent majesty and beauty, the ambition and perseverance of ancient peoples, Santa hats and bad singing: the perfect tonic to give me strength.