The Final Chapter: The Middle East and Home
It's hot and agreeably chaotic at the Syrian border. Under the watchful eye of President Assad, opulently framed above the doorway, I squeeze my way through a wall of bearded men, gamely clutching my passport aloft as I slowly inch forward. For all its bureaucratic mayhem, I have learnt to love the transition from one country to the next: the look of complete disinterest perfected by border officials, watching my name meticulously inscribed in a strange new language, and finally the triumphant stamp in the passport that announces, I'm here!
I arrive in Aleppo. Beneath a hazy sky tinged with pollution, along streets crammed with outdoor trade, I struggle behind a wake of yellow Buick taxis, easing my bicycle along back alleys clogged with Suzuki vans. This is the Middle East that I envisaged. On cue, a wave of darkly veiled women bustle past and an old man beckon me over, calmly puffing on his nargela - water pipe - oblivious to the orchestra of car horns around him. A friendly bystander guides me swiftly through this lively chaos to a quarter specialising in tyres, ball bearings and cheap hotels, where I've arranged to meet my brother Nick. Joining me for the ride to Damascus, it's wonderful and slightly unbelievable to see him, here in a Syrian backpacker hotel of all places. Adjusting our minds to this new land - currency, traditions, and language - we delve into the Souk, the covered market that sprawls like a living maze, sampling the life cycle of one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. We unearth the perfect eatery, where chicken kebabs roasts over a spit and platters of flat bread line every table, beneath a wobbling fan that tempers the hot Middle Eastern air. 'Welcome to Syria!' exclaims the large and sweating local, rooted in the far corner of the restaurant, as distant azans call the faithful to prayer.
Away from the city, backroads lead us from village to village; past a child on a decorated bicycle, a knot of men in animated conversation, a Bedouin woman with tattoos gracing her eyelids. Those we meet seem refreshingly open and unhurried, hailing us down for tea as we cycle pass, inviting us into their homes for falafels, watermelon, even a haircut, before we continue on our way once again. One morning, we breakfast amongst men in chequered head-dresses, wearing robes squeezed by leather belts. 'Tomorrow, I get married,' announces the lawyer sharing our table. 'We will marry in the evening in our mosque and then we will dance. There will be lots of kissing,' he assures us.
Beyond, our barren surroundings are marked only by rocks, gauzy scrubland, mosques and slender minarets, preluding the desert ahead. The oasis town of Palmyra is a scattering of pillars and archways, tombs and tunnels, hinting to the Roman empire that once prevailed. It's our last chance to stockpile on fresh dates and pistachios before Damascus, where we arrive exhausted but enthused with memories of Bedouin hospitality, technicoloured sunsets and an empty, endless desert road. Sadly, it's time for Nick to make his way home and I feel a rare a moment of loneliness on this well-trodden backpacker trail. Nevertheless, on the roof of the ramshackle Al-Rabie Hotel, I encounter Leo, riding a recumbent from the Hague to the Pyramids. We swap travel tales; Leo's last trip in the Middle East came to an abrupt conclusion in Kuwait at the outbreak of the Gulf War, when he was impounded in Iraq for four months.
Crossing the Jordanian border, the road climbs arduously from the dry valley's of Jaresh to Amman, a cosmopolitan Arab city with a backdrop of billboards familiar the world over - Macdonald's, KFC and Burger King. Leo and I are soon riding once more in search of desert silence, camping on a ledge overlooking the Dead Sea, before spiralling down a trail that twists and turns through rock hollowed by wind and sand. We stop to bob in its salty waters, the lowest point on earth. As the sun sets, we continue across the desert beneath a full moon, lighting the way like a planetary torch. Only a few mighty lorries laden with cargo's of Dead Sea salt, thundering into the night, disturb the serenity of our surroundings.
Heading south, we soon reach the ancient city of Petra. Intricately carved into sandstone and once settled by Bedouins, today's Petra is ruled by tour groups, shuttling between the country's capital and this extraordinary open-air museum. After so many years of obscurity and isolation, locals have adapted quickly to this unexpected income. An enterprising Bedouin approaches, brandishing a fan of steel blades, surprising me with his perfect cockney accent: 'Knife for the wife?!' Knowing I am apart of this social change sits uneasily within me, yet despite the swarm of fellow tourists, I can't help but feel overwhelmed by the network of carved facades, set in this rugged and towering landscape.
The Read Sea marks the southern most tip of Jordan. Ports seem always to attract the strangest of characters and there's time to share a bowl of humus with an Iraqi sailor, who extols the beauties of Holland to Leo - 'Like heaven on earth!' - before declining the last offers to exchange our bikes for camels. Catching the ferry to across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt, I bid farewell to Leo, continuing on my way to the traveller's hang-out of Dahab. There, I plunge into clear waters, exploring the wreck 'Thistlegorm,' a British supply ship sunk in WW2. Thirty metres down, I work 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 cyclist Marco from Milan, a professional 'Ironman' triathlete built like a Roman gladiator. Together, we set off into the heart of Sinai, reaching a plateau overlooked by Mount Musa, as the last rays of sun catches the mountain tops. The temperature plummets and we rest at a simple Bedouin truck stop, where kids with matted hair sleep soundly on the rocky desert floor, under a night sky speckled with stars. Abruptly, silence is broken by the incongruous arrival of a camel, Bedouin music blaring from the stereo strapped to its hump. Pulling up, its rider unexpectedly pitches us a camel trip, before disappearing once more noisily into darkness. Two more young Bedouins soon emerge and join us to sip sweet mint tea, wearing tweed jackets over their starched white robes. With a smile, they introduce themselves: Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix! In excellent English, we're told of their new lives as camel guides to backpackers, as well as the local tradition of marrying four wives. 'I think Italian women are the most beautiful in the world. I would like four Italian wives!' declares Michael. 'I think one wife is enough. Sometimes more than enough!' refutes Jimi. Rioting has broken out between Palestine and Israel, and a boat ride to Mediterranean Europe from Haifa is no longer feasible. As much as it means to me, there's no alternative but to cut my journey short. 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, a myriad of people, places, cultures and hospitality, that crowd my mind. Braving the floods that have drenched Europe, a friend from home joins me for this very last week, as we cycle the winding back roads 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 milestones count me down. This time, it's the real thing. Five, four, three, twoŠone. I can hardly believe it. London, at last. It's been a Long Ride Home.
About the ride: Over the course of Cass's 25,000 kilometre journey, Ł24,000 was raised for the small British based Children With AIDS Charity (CWAC). This money has gone directly to CWAC's own Dippy Duck Appeal. The appeal aims to help fund holidays for children and their families infected and affected by AIDS, allowing them to escape the stresses of their everyday lives. 'The Long Ride Home' was also a means of creating public awareness of this issue. The charity's contact details are available at http://www.cyclesydneylondon.com
Cass would like to thank everyone for their support of the ride throughout the two years, including his father for his unfaltering commitment and logistical help, and webmaster Baz for maintaining The Long Ride Home web site. Sponsors of this ride include Rough Guides, Psion, Ericsson, Terra Nova, Michelin, Wheelie Serious, Security Despatch, Garmin and HSBC. Thanks must go too to the many who have offered such warm hospitality all over the world.