After the epic journey across Mongolia from last year, my memories of the magnificent Gobi desert remained very present inside me. There, we spent days that were as hard as unforgettable. I left with images, sounds (or complete lack there of) and sensations that were recorded in my mind forever. Sublime moments that make the mere experience transcend and stick it into one's body. The kind of moments that I live for. It is for this reason that during the days we spent in Cairo I was filled with so much enthusiasm for the upcoming ride across the most famous of all deserts, the Sahara. Enthusiasm and nervousness, not only because the very idea of cycling across it intimidates, but also for being the way of immersion into this whole new continent, completely unknown to me until now. Far from scaring me though, this is the elixir that feeds my spirit, and perhaps very few things I enjoy as much as feeling that itching inside the guts that the uncertainty for the unknown generates.
We waited until Friday to leave Cairo. Its traffic is not only hell on earth but extremely dangerous. Since Tehran that I cannot recall a city where I felt fear of cycling in it. Egyptians are truly charming people, but when they are behind the steering wheel I think they become a version of Meteor on crack with no brakes driving used European cars from the 80's. Friday on Muslim countries is what Sunday is to the rest of the world, for this reason and for leaving early in the morning when the city is still asleep, I was expecting the exit from town to be a little less stressful. It was, but partly so. It still took us two and a half hours to reach the Pyramids, the point where the city starts progressively to dilute into an ocean of sand, before completely disappearing after 6th of October, a ghost suburb sitting 35 km outside Cairo.
Ahead of us lied 380 km of absolutely nothing except for a couple of ambulance stations before reaching the first oasis. It is the end of March and the arrival of summer is imminent but the weather is still optimal, warm and dry but not overwhelming and we miraculously have tail wind. The long distance to cover and the impossibility of restocking along the way forced us to leave with our bicycles overloaded with provisions and water bottles. It had been long since I didn't feel my bicycle so heavy. I can feel the weight on my knees and my thighs, both struggling to push the 75 kg or so that I'm carrying. I know it is going to take me a few days to get used to the heavy weight again but at least the road is almost dead flat most of the time. Still, the worst thing is that during the first two days there is nothing beautiful about the desert. There is absolutely nothing around but there is so much traffic of trucks that it is unbearable at times. When passing by us, the gusts of wind result of the high speed spits sand on us. Those who go in our direction make us lose balance and fall while those who go in the opposite stop us with total impunity. This is certainly not the desert I was waiting for and after several hours on the saddle an annoying feeling of disappointment starts to disturb me. It was on the second night that I understood the origin of this traffic, when I looked around me in the darkness and I was able to see orange spots everywhere along the horizon. They weren't settlements but the flames coming out of the petrol holes dug on the ground. During the first nights we found refuge in the ambulance stations, which comprise a very modest house in the middle of nowhere, one or two ambulances and a personnel of two to four paramedics on duty. They welcomed us with open arms. I suspect they need us more to battle boredom than we need them to refill our bottles of water. They invite us for tea, for dinner, we play domino, cards and finally they give us a few mattresses on the floor to sleep. We spent a much better time with them than if we had camped during these boring days.
It is on the third day when everything starts to change and reality takes a different turn. Petrol is gone and with it, 95% of the traffic. We were left pretty much alone in this vast desert that becomes dazzling at a faster pace than one can possibly assimilate. I look all around and I can see ourselves like two insignificant dots rolling across this untamed ocean of yellow sand. Our fragility in this immensity must be so evident that every vehicle that passes us very sporadically, stops to offer help and water. They give us food too and they wish us the best of luck before speeding up again.
After almost 400 km in 4 easy days we finally reached Bahariya oasis. The impact, at least in this first oasis, wasn't the one I was expecting. It certainly doesn't have the image that one might have in mind of an oasis, the one we might have picked up from the books of stories of the desert, that of an idyllic place surrounded by palm trees swaying in the wind, camels, Bedouins, ponds. Quite the contrary actually, Bawiti is nothing but a dusty unappealing town of streets covered in sand where men walk around wrapped in their gallabiyas and turbans whereas women seem not to exist at all, you just don't see them anywhere. At least here, the true oasis lies within the houses made of adobe, with their vaulted roofs, their solid exterior walls preserving the privacy of their fresh inner patios filled with plants and bougainvillea and water canals running through. It was in Bawiti however, where we discovered one of the greatest treats (MANJAR) that would accompany us for the rest of our journey across the Sahara: dates. Impossibly delicious, they fall by the thousands from the beautiful date palms that sway with the wind all over. The people of this oasis have even pushed the deliciousness even further and created a delicacy of dates stuffed with roasted almonds. Needless to say they immediately became our daily dessert after dinner. Dedicating to taste this kind of local flavours and specialities is yet another of the daily pleasures of traveling the world. Two days of resting, water reserves fully refilled, food restocked and a couple of extra kilos of stuffed dates and off we were to one of the most awaited sections of this journey. After leaving Bahariya it only takes a handful of miles until being surrounded by desert again, and this time the presence of the nothingness become very noticeable. There is almost no traffic now, solitude begins to take over and the desert around us starts taking more and more extraterrestrial shapes. After a few hours the Sahara becomes the so called Black Desert, when the yellow of the sand becomes more like a toasted dark brown and mountains in the shape of truncated pyramids start shaping the horizon. But this is just a moment of transition.
Because here, the terrain expresses in shapes and colors the rigorousness of an inhospitable land. From one extreme to the other, we left the Black Desert and in a matter of a few miles it all becomes the exact opposite. We were finally entering the famous White Desert and as if nature itself has made the sign, it is a mountain that virtually indicates the beginning. Seen from afar, it looks like any other ordinary mountain, but as we get closer and closer we realize that it glitters here and there as we move around it. It is in fact no ordinary mountain, it is a mountain made of pure quartz and it is really stunning (even when the following photo doesn't show it properly)
When night finally set in, I confirmed once again the reason why I believe we should all travel and never give in to live our lives sitting in front of a computer screen during day to later fall apart on a couch in front of a stupid television. Because there is nothing more beautiful than lying on the ground, right there in nature and be the first to watch the best movie that you will have seen in your life. It changes every day and it never bores you.
The days that followed along the White Desert where the most similar to an otherworldly experience. Everything around us turned into mysterious forms that extended indefinitely, 360 degrees around us. Are we in planet Earth or are we simply cycling on the moon?
The daily temperature rose considerably reaching highs of 38 C. All the the yellow mantle of sand that surrounded us until then started to turn into a white so pure that made the reflection of the sun unbearable for the retina. Even wearing sunglasses I would have to frown when looking ahead of me.
The worst thing that could happen in the Sahara when reaching the middle of the day is to find yourself without refuge. With a sky so immaculate, the hope for some clouds is the closest thing to an utopia, more than an absurd dream, a hallucination. Clouds here are as real as the massive lakes of water that we see every day ahead of us while we are riding. No matter how we always keep moving towards them, they never ever become real. We are left with leaning (or sitting when possible) against whatever chalk-rock formation we find. The sun is almost perpendicular to the Earth now so the shadow space is minimal if completely non-existent. We lean against one and we have to move to the next one only minutes later. The sand burns, the reflection pierces the retinas and you just have to wait until the sun starts to go down once again.
During daytime, the White Desert is stunning, but when the sun starts to go down it is simply unforgettable. The chalk-rock formations rise notoriously wherever you may look. Centuries upon centuries of erosion have sculpted them exquisitely giving them shapes that defy gravity. They remind me of those at the Valley of the Moon in the Argentine province of San Juan, but those aren't as white as these ones that look closer to carrara marble. The fact that they are visible from the road is too enticing to easily let go, so we venture into the middle of nowhere. It is too tempting, they are the moments in which I can feel my body go crazy with the tingling all over it.
With the bicycles so heavy on load we are forced to push a lot on the sand, but in my heart I suspect the reward will be huge tonight. By the time we are already surrounded by these massive natural sculptures, I tell Julia: “let's keep pushing and find the dreamiest place to camp tonight”
And we found it. The sun finally set. To one side we have an Expressionist painting with purples, blues and whites, colors so cold that they go in direct contradiction with the intense heat the chalk-rocks emanate after a full day of being exposed under a blazing sun.
Behind me, I can see the massive towers that flank our tent. They are huge, they still rise after centuries of unforgiving wearing. Dusk brings an incredibly electric blue sky. We start cooking dinner in the most absolute solitude. The stove is so noisy and the desert so silent that I fear a Bedouin will eventually show up from nowhere to tell us to turn it off. We dine under millions of stars, the restaurant with the most magnificent imaginable view.
Once we are finally camped I set off to wander the area while I digest the food. The phantasmagorial shapes of the rocks cut out against a background filled with billions of stars, the skyline is as dazzling as spooky. I know nothing about the stars but I just know they hypnotize me. Some are so big that they look like planets, perhaps they are. I feel like a kid in a world of fantasy. I walk around the formations, they draw smiles on me and fill my mind with images that I will never forget. The temperature in the desert drops between 25 and 30 C at night but the rocks have absorbed so much heat during day that they emanate it for several hours well into the night. As I walk enjoying the fresh air I am suddenly hit by a torrid wave of intense heat coming from the rocks.
As I walk back to our camp, I stand in awe at the tent illuminated in the middle of nowhere, the rocks behind it, the stars above it. I say to myself: “what a blessing, Sahara”. Sometimes I find myself in such magnificent places and situations that I find it hard to believe that they are real and that I got there on my bicycle. The magic of the life of an adventurer at its best. It is for moments like these that I live for and for which I celebrate existence.
The White Desert extends until the very edges of Farafra, the second oasis. Far from everything, Farafra is also a dusty town mostly covered in sand, not particularly charming either, but at least in it, you can already get a sense of what life in the desert is like. It is so deep into the desert and so removed from the cities that the atmosphere is really different. Along its streets men walk wrapped in their gallabiyas and big turbans around their heads. Women don't seem to exist here either, this is a land of men of thick wrinkled skin and fairy tale moustaches. I enter a tea house and I feel like Han Solo coming into the den of Jabba The Hutt. It feels as though I'm in a Star Wars scene. I'm so excited that I think I'm not 35 anymore. The characters around me are simply fascinating.
In Farafra we met with Scott and Sarah from Canada and the U.S. They come from Cairo like us and we decided to continue cycling together for the next few days. Days of good company followed, sharing stories of the road, but most importantly learning a bit about cooking. Sarah is a chef, and with her we discovered that there's a possible world of cooking beyond rice and pasta, pasta and rice.
Far from finishing, the stunning beauty continues along isolated and fascinating roads. The beauty overwhelms me. The Sahara is immense, vast, with shapes that never cease to amaze me on both sides of the road.
However, while we are in the middle of the extasis, it reminded us that its nature is first and foremost wild and inhospitable. In a day that we will never forget, the temperature rises well above 40 C. A brutal wind blowing from the south transforms the experience into a bone-breaking exercise. Fighting head wind is horrible, it's frustrating, demoralizing and infuriating. If we add high heat into the mix it is asphyxiating. The wind is so strong that it stops our bicycles, leaving us cycling at a miserable 10 km/h and suffering the effort to stay at the speed. The gusts send millions of needles to my legs and I curse at the sky yelling: “WHO THE FUCK ORDERED THIS ACUPUNCTURE SESSION????” We didn't reach any possible place to rest but the four of us decided to just lie on the ground using our bicycles as shades from the sun and lunch dates. 5.30 hours have passed and we only cycled 48 km, with no wind and keeping up the same pace we would've cycled at least 200 km. After a pseudo resting time we couldn't stand the heat staying still for too much longer so we decided to continue. As we jumped on our bicycles again something truly unexpected happened. The wind changed direction 180 degrees as though the desert had appreciated all the painful effort we had done until then. Now we find ourselves flying effortlessly at 35 km/h. I look down at my feet pushing the pedals and I can see the entire road covered by thin veil of sand flying in the same direction. All my body hurts but I feel such relief that I cannot explain, I feel like crying out of joy. We did the following 55 km in less that two hours. However it all came at a price. The next day I wake up with my right knee feeling like a rusty old spring, I cannot extend my leg completely nor I can fully crouch. I suspect it's a meniscus problem that I have been dragging since Korea. It became evident now. Cycling the following days as I could, we reach Al-Qasr the third oasis and the most beautiful. Al-Qasr is finally what you always dreamed about fantisizing about what a oasis would be like. A green spot of fertility in the middle of the desert, date palms gently swaying in the wind, more men in turbans and gallabiyas, donkeys and a few cows. Flanking the whole oasis are some high mountains of sand that preserve the oasis from the ferocious winds of the Sahara. We didn't stay in the Oasis itself but in a small village on the edge of it, 6 km outside the center, where life stands still, it was magical. We decided to stay for 2 days and let my knee rest and hopefully recover.
There was little progress though. My meniscus is still evidently mad at me and refuses to rotate properly again but I do also refuse to give up this experience across the Sahara so I keep going as best as I can. We continued until Al-Kharga. This stretch of desert is now nothing but pure eternal sand. I feel that if for some reason I go off-road, the desert will swallow me and nobody will ever have a possible way to know what happened to me.
But I can't help myself, friends. I am an adventurer and I turn into a kid in a world of fantasy in a place like this. I ask Julia to wait for me while I go and play around the dunes to start saying good-bye to my 35 years. They are smooth as silk, I want to feel them under my wheels even when I can't ride on them. Generally speaking, we tend to associate sand to something very annoying. We have the image of being on the beach and having it all stuck on our bodies like if we were marinated. However, the Sahara desert redefines the experience of the sand. The weather is so dry that one can get showered in sand without having any single grain left stuck one the skin. No matter how hot it is, I spill it al over my body to see it slide gently all the way back down to the ground. It is wonderful, I could stay here playing all day building castles of sand and would never get tired of it. I have a regression to my childhood and I hope it doesn't have to do with the imminent arrival of my birthday, which will get me closer to my 40's than to my 30's this year. I stop thinking about it and I keep playing like a child when so many people my age are already playing with their own children. So what?
After Al-Kharga we split from Scott and Sarah and continued our way to Luxor alone again. There are only 300 km left but we have to climb about 900 m to reach a huge deserted plateau. The heat is already becoming noticeable. Spring time is nothing more than an anecdote in these lands and summer strikes faster than we can even foresee it. The end of the day keeps bringing us some truly memorable moments and I suddenly realize that my knee might be starting to forgive me.
The landscape up here is much rockier and less sandy but we set ourselves to make the most out of every minute we have left. Even me, that I usually live the present moment very intensely, I am already lamenting before it is over, it's just that this is so damn beautiful! Every night, every camp is a blessing. The arrival of the moon has certainly stolen a few million of stars out of our favorite TV show, but it allows us to cook and dine without the need of a head lamp or torch. Everything around us is completely visible right in the middle of the night. A couple of white foxes visit us during the night but they are so incredibly quick and shy that I don't have time to capture them with my camera. The time for digestion has come and it's time now to lay down on the sand and watch the telly. Tonight they play: “Millions of stars and the moon” I'm very excited, I love this show even when I watch it every night, it is always different. I look up at the stars lying on my bed of sand and I can't help but wonder why Hollywood has created that stupid stereotype of a romantic date involving a dinner with candles and red wine, cigarettes followed by a night spent on a bed sized to fit four elephants and silk sheets. Friends, if that's romantic I am certainly not romantic because I can't help but feeling that there isn't anything more romantic than these dazzling desert nights and just a few belongings.
After a few days we finally descended from the plateau and arrived at the first crossroads in a long time. From there, it is only one more day to reach Luxor, on the Nile, but now again with the unsolicited company of the heavy traffic of trucks, although after leaving the desert, everything seems heavy.
A part of me is extremely happy, my soul and my heart feel completely alive. This journey has taken me back to my favorite world, the one of adventures, the unknown and the uncertainty. Around 1400 km have passed since we left Cairo I feel that extremely rewarding satisfaction of having got over a new challenge. On the other hand, I know very well that once we reach the Nile I will yearn badly for the magic of the desert. With every new desert that I cycle across, the more I fall in love with this type of landscape. Desert is a word that usually brings up negative connotations. I believe that one has to experience the desert from the inside, feel the emotions it triggers, get over its rather violent slaps on the face, to ultimately realize that behind its inhospitable environment it is capable of arising some truly sublime emotions, a squandering of spectacular colors and shapes that only belong to it. As I said at the very beginning, the rewards for those who dare to take the challenge are big, really really big. We have just barely reached half of the whole journey across the Sahara and I'm really looking forward to the next stage.