In October, 1981, Ben Stout and I mounted bicycles on the outskirts of Cairo and headed for the Sudan. Two months later we pedaled wearily and warily into Dubai, having traversed the Arab world from west to east, from Cairo on the Nile to Dubai on the Gulf. In between, we discovered the Arabs.
To many people, the idea of traveling thousands of miles by bicycle probably seems ridiculous. But it's certainly nothing new. In 1894, for example, three Englishmen named Fraser, Lunn and Lower vaulted aboard their cycles near St. Pancras Church in London and set off in the rain to ride right around the world, in what a Cycle touring review of Around the World on a Wheel said was "... one of the most remarkable cycle rides ever."
It was probably not the first around-the-world ride, the review went on, but it was to be the longest ever undertaken up to that time:"... more than 30,900 kilometers (19,200 miles) of actual cycling through seventeen countries, on roads that more often than not were the roughest of tracks and through countries where very few inhabitants had ever seen a bicycle..."
Our plans were more modest: from Brescia in Italy to Bombay in India, a distance of some 11,140 kilometers (6,500 miles), covering a total of 11 countries. But biking is still a grand way to see the world and the cycling is nowhere near as difficult; compared to the 1894 sturdy, one-speed Victorian bicycles used by Fraser, Lunn and Lower, our lightweight, 10-speed bicycles were like motorcycles. We could manage all but the steepest inclines easily and were able to cover 100 kilometers a day.
Naturally, we kept our gear to a minimum: 20 kilos (45 lbs) each of clothes, tools, spares, a small, multi-fuel stove, cooking utensils and sleeping bags, plus a dome-shaped, self-supporting tent (by means of fiberglass poles) that we could put up anywhere: on concrete, on sand or, on one occasion, halfway up a stairwell. We carried that gear in four panniers - two on the front, two on the rear on each bike, dipped onto special frames that permitted us to pack up and be off in about 20 minutes.
By the time we reached the Middle East - from Italy, via Yugoslavia, Greece and the Mediterranean - we had fallen into a rough routine that varied depending on terrain and weather. We did have a schedule, but we were not in a race, so it was only rarely that we had to push ourselves; there is something intrinsically pleasing, after all, in riding bikes through the countryside and meeting and speaking to people, all at a pace allowing you to absorb everything that is going on. Indeed, our daily rhythm was tuned to the progress of the sun, since neither of us wore a watch.
Cairo, our first stop in the Middle East, was striking: full of people, full of dust and full of character, its streets a chaotic bustle of horse carts and donkey carts and a staggering array of rickety buses, trucks, pre-war English motorbikes and other veteran vehicles disguised with layers of grime. Nevertheless, it was a relief when, on a hot October morning, we left the city behind and headed for Luxor.
Originally, we had planned to travel south into The Sudan and sail from Port Sudan to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, but as Sudanese visas proved difficult to get, we revised our plans: after Luxor we would retrace the 60 kilometers (37 miles) along the Nile road to Qena, ride across the Eastern Desert to Port Safaja on the Red Sea coast, north to Suez and then sail to Aqaba, Jordan.
First, though, we had to get to Luxor and we did, after a leisurely, pleasant ride during which we began to see why the Arabs are famous for gracious hospitality. A few days down the Nile road, for example, outside of a small cafe, we were introduced to the "hubble bubble" pipe and entertained by a man named Salah, who, Ben Stouf s diary records, "was truly gargantuan and at one stage entertained us all by flexing his bulging pectorals."
A day or so later, near Asyut, we were sitting on the western bank of the Nile canal when a distinguished local man invited us to lunch and, since he lived on the other side of the canal, loaded us, bikes and all, aboard an old, wooden boat which a young boy ferried across to us by pulling on a fixed wire runner. Once over, we were led to our hosfs house on a large, well equipped farm, where the children laid out cushions for us, served us hot goafs milk and large, juicy pomegranates - the start of a great meal that eventually included soup, a great steaming bed of rice topped with succulent pieces of lamb, freshly baked bread and tea, after which we re-crossed the canal and started south.
In Luxor, we arrived late one afternoon just in time to find a hotel and ride to the Son et Lumière at Karnak temple, three kilometers north of Luxor, a show so effective that you can feel yourself going back into the Egypt of millennia past.
Next on our schedule was the Valley of the Kings on the western side of the Nile. But in lieu of the paved road to the valley—the site of the famous tomb of Tutankhamen—we decided to climb a mountain track on our bicycles. It was not an unreasonable proposition, despite the pressing heat, and we did actually ride a few hundred yards along the ridge that separates the Valley of the Kings from the river side.
From Luxor, in accordance with the new plan, we headed for Qena, bought supplies to sustain us for the day and a half's ride to the coast—potatoes, oranges, bananas, grapes, bread and water—and pedaled out of town. We weren't sure what to expect, because one friend had described it in grim terms: "100 miles of nothing, where water tankers will run you off the road and you'll be chased by mad desert dogs."
Actually, it was lovely. The road climbed gently for 96 kilometers (60 miles) and we felt an enchanting harmony between the silent progress of our bikes and the vast stillness of the desert—though in Safaja the following day, our friend's forecast proved more accurate when several dogs began to chase us. We managed to out-pedal them, however, and rode on to Suez.
En route to Suez, we made a two-day excursion to St. Paul's, a Coptic monastery, 19 kilometers (12 miles) off the main road and up a very rough, gravelly track. It was dark when we arrived and there was only the faint glimmer of candlelight through a window high up one of the monastery walls. We pitched our tent outside, and in the morning one of the monks showed us around the monastery; pointing out the vital well, the only source of water for the monks and for their gardens and the mill that ground their grain.
From Suez we sailed—on the El Arish—to Aqaba in Jordan, steaming southwards down the Gulf of Suez, around the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula and then north up the Gulf of Aqaba. From Aqaba we rode north along the scenic, but very hilly, Kings' Highway to Amman, an idyllic tour; the road was good yet carried little traffic and the scenery was breathtaking, with the highway twisting, turning and dipping along the top of the mountain range which falls away to the west to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.
One highlight, of course, was Petra, with its famous al-Siq defile, a narrow, winding mile-long gorge, only 4 or 5 meters wide (13 feet) with the symmetric and almost parallel walls rising up some 24 meters (80 feet) to the sunlight. On the walls, at roughly hip height, is a carved-out channel, a conduit for water, and at the end of the defile the visitor is rewarded with an interesting site: "The Treasury," one of the magnificent buildings sculpted out of Petra's sheer reddish rock.
In Jordan, we encountered our first major mechanical problem. North of Shaubak, my wheel shed its tiny ball bearings all over the road and we were suddenly faced with a very tricky repair. Although a bicycle is, in principle, a simple machine, it has hundreds of moving parts and sometimes, just occasionally, something goes wrong that is best repaired in a properly equipped workshop. This was one of those occasions.
Before starting, of course, we realized that workshops dealing in lightweight bikes would be few and far between in the desert, and so we had brought the necessary 60 or so spare ball bearings. It was a painstaking job to place them one by one into the freewheel body, but we eventually managed it and continued on the trip.
Another highlight of Jordan was the ride through the Hasa and Mujib wadis, two immense dry river valleys cutting across the mountains to the Jordan Valley. They are absolutely massive and, on a bike, terrifying to descend and grueling to climb.
On the other hand, whooshing down a steep slope on a bicycle is one of the great thrills in bicycling. The sense of speed is tremendous and all that's between you and the road is a frail 13 kilograms of thin steel tubes, wire and rubber (28 pounds) as, at 80 kilometers an hour (50 mph), you ride around curves sharp enough to induce a heart murmur.
Still, we had decided to try it and so, slowly, we climbed the Mujib. Just before beginning the descent it began to rain and a woman invited us into her house for a cup of tea. That day, Jordan felt almost like England; the weather was wet, misty and cold and water for tea was on the boil.
By the time we had our tea, the weather had cleared and there we were at the top looking down on that daunting valley. It was steep—so steep that our fingers cramped from braking. Luckily, there was little traffic, so we could use most of the road—swinging wide and low around the corners. On the fastest sections, though, we wondered: what would happen if the steering froze? Or if a front tire burst? Or if the thin cables that work the brakes suddenly snapped?
At the bottom of the valley, the gradient eased, the road straightened and for a short while we were able to coast. Then, as our speed slackened, we saw a small truck caught in the sand off the road and we stopped to help. The driver, very pleased, offered us a lift and, when we declined, shook his head in disbelief. Surely, he was saying, we didn't intend to cycle up there? Six miles?
We did, of course, intend to do just that—a full hour of hard, head-down, sweat-sodden riding. A gang of road workers watched us—wondering, no doubt, about the two idiots sweating their way up the road. At the top, panting, but euphoric, we sat down and looked back over the valley. It was an awesome sight, the huge wadi with the thin scar of the road fading out of view.
In Amman, Jordan's capital, we were delighted to get a transit visa for Saudi Arabia. There was a problem: we had to pedal 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) in only a few days. Just over the border, therefore, we hitched a ride with a British truck driver named Bob "the Glob" Hedley en route to Damman with a cargo of machinery. He was driving the road that parallels the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.
For us, it was a luxurious change to sit in the air conditioned cab, listening to stereo cassettes as the gently curving road unwound, mile by mile, beside the ever present pipeline. Bob, however, who had been driving the Europe-Middle East run for some time, wasn't quite as impressed; he told us what it was like to drive long distances, work long hours and face hazards of accidents and breakdowns in wild sections of Turkey or, for that matter, in Saudi Arabia's deserts. It was, he suggested, an arduous life.
To us, of course, it didn't seem arduous at all. Roaring along the straight black strip of asphalt was hypnotically pleasant, and camping at night in the silence of the desert under the stars was sheer joy. Furthermore, we covered 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) in 33 hours and when Bob dropped us off at the road to Qatar we felt so good that instead of waiting for another truck we cycled off towards Doha.
By then we were feeling rather pleased with ourselves; Bob and another long distance driver, Dick Snow (See Aramco World, November-December 1977) had indicated that we might be the only cyclists ever to use the Tapline Road. In all their years of driving, they said, they had never seen or heard of any others on that highway.
After 16 kilometers (10 miles) we were lucky to be swinging aboard a second truck and heading towards Doha. It was late by then and in the darkness we could see the flares at oil installations—flares, we learned, that would soon go out forever when Saudi Arabia's great gas processing program (See Aramco World, November-December 1982) was completed.
In Doha, we were interviewed for the local radio and newspapers. After a few days in Doha, we moved on to Dubai and got involved in, of all things, a bicycle race when an English friend, a keen racing cyclist, decided that we could not leave the Emirates without taking part in one of the regular weekly races, an 80-kilometer time trial (50 miles). A time trial is a race against the clock only—the riders set off alone at one-minute intervals—and we were not completely taken with the idea; we could do that in England. Nevertheless, we did participate—as Dubai's daily paper, the Khaleej Times, made clear:
Dubai Protectol Cycling Club members refused to cancel their 80 km time trial despite the very strong winds and rising sand which blew across the course on the Bayadat Road on the weekend. High spot of the day was the surprise entry of two cyclists who had ridden from the UK on their way to India and Pakistan. Ben Stout and Tim Gartside had the fitness but not the speed to match the race-trained members of the Protectol Club. They both, however, put up fine performances with Tim Gartside running the last 3 kilometers with his cycle over his shoulder having decided with a puncture so close to home a tyre change would have cost more time.
One of the most attractive aspects of cycling is that a traveler on a bike is unrestricted. He—or she—with a tent is completely independent. Ben and I, for example, meandered where we wanted, stopping as the whim took us. Furthermore, we got great response; people everywhere seemed to respect the effort that went into our travel by bike—although they didn't always fully appreciate the rewards.
We were, though, limited by our funds; on a couple of occasions, usually when we were depending on a ferry, we had no option but to move on. One example was the Dwarka, the ferry from Dubai to Karachi, a monthly service. Though we could have easily spent more time in the Emirates, we had to catch the ferry or wind up with only one month on the Indian sub-continent, our final destiny. Thus, exactly two months after our arrival in Egypt, we left Dubai for places like Agra and its Taj Mahal, bringing with us memories of hospitality, stunning scenery, marvelous weather and some of the most fascinating archeological sites in the world.
Tim Gartside, 26, began to ride a bicycle seriously as a nine year old news boy in Melbourne, Australia and later participated in the Great British Bike Ride — from Scotland to Lands End. On his return from Bombay he and a friend opened a "bicycle-taxi" service in London.