Cycling Plus #28:
The Final Chapter
Sinai Desert, Egypt. Travellers hangout of the Middle East, Dahab's Red Sea waters are home to a myriad of marine life. Amidst a throng of divers, I sign up to explore Thistlegorm, a British supply ship sunk in WW2. Thirty metres down, I ease my way through darkened doorways, sweeping a torch beam into shadows, exposing motorbikes and jeeps caked in coral, like a set from a Bond movie.
Back on land I meet Marco, on a week's holiday from Milan. Built like a Roman gladiator, Marco's a former professional triathlete, the gruelling 'Ironman' event his specialty. Clad in lycra, a hydrapack strapped to his back with a change of clothes, more lycra, a toothbrush and a handful of energy bars. Over a hearty bowl of kocheri, a local concoction of pasta, pulses and fried onion, we plan a tour of the Sinai Desert.
Stowing panniers, we set off on a hardpack trail that skirts the Red Sea. Soon we're cutting inland, joining a smooth Tarmac road that climbs towards Mount Musa, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Consulting our map, we gamble on a shortcut, bravely straying off the main road in lieu of a tangle of jeep tracks. La fortuna ayuta gli aydaci! (Fortune favours the brave!) Proclaims Marco with a flourish. Into the heart of Sinai, we struggle valiantly through soft sand under a beating sun, only to re-emerge hours later, doleful and exhausted, scarcely a kilometre down the road.
Submitting to nature, we're back on the tract of asphalt unravelling before us, winding through dry valleys, rocky outcrops and oases. Riding hard, we reach a plateau as the last rays of sun catch the mountaintops. The temperature plummets and we rest in a simple Bedouin truckstop where kids with matted hair run barefoot on the rocky ground. Offered a tent by these nomadic people, we huddle round a fire, peering out into the cold air to gaze at the night sky speckled with stars.
Abruptly, silence is broken by the incongruous arrival of a camel, Bedouin music blaring from the stereo slung over its hump. Its rider pulls up, pitches us a camel trip, then disappears once more, noisily into darkness. Two more young Bedouins emerge and join us to sip tea, wearing tweed jackets over their white robes. They introduce themselves with a smile, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix! Speaking excellent English, they tell us about their new life as camel guides to backpackers, as well as the local tradition of marrying four wives. 'I think Israeli women are the most beautiful in the world. I would like four Israeli wives!' declares Michael. 'I think one wife is enough. Sometimes more than enough!' refutes Jimi.
Meanwhile, fighting has broken out between Israel and Palestine and a boat ride to Mediterranean Europe from Haifa is no longer feasible. There's no alternative. Somehow, here I am on a plane, flying out of Sharm el Sheikh, after thousands of kilometres cycled, propelled into wintry France. It's a saddening experience, but I console myself with the incredible memories that crowd my mind. 'Expect some moisture in the air,' reads Dan's email, braving the floods that have drenched Europe to join me for this very last week, as we ride the winding backroads and refuel on hot chocolate and croissants.
Two years to the day after leaving Sydney, we arrive on the fair shores of England. I ride with Trystan, last seen on the descent from Tibet into Nepal, for the final day on the saddle. After over twenty five thousand kilometres, across twenty countries, the sign posts count me down. It's the real thing. Five, four, three, two, one. At last ...London.
It's been a long ride home.