As a general rule each day in France looked as if it were going to be a walk cycle in the park but turned out to be what Iain would call ‘a bit of a shlep’. This is in no small part due to Susie’s optimism about distance and physical ability.
To start Susie would generally wake us all up by throwing a bucket of water in our faces and make us tidy the camp or prepare our panniers for the assured easy 100-120km ride. In reality, Timmy would faff for a bit while Susie would get wound up about timing and we would set off around 9am after a hearty breakfast of pastries and coffee.
We would cycle for around 20-25km before finding a conveniently closed shop where we would be unable to buy drinks and snacks to see us through to lunch. After a couple of minutes the whip would appear from Susie’s left pannier and we’d be back on the road for another 20-25km.
Pace was generally set by the rider with the worst knees. So actually a reasonable pace of around 20kmh, as long as you weren’t the rider with the bad knee. Also we occasionally managed to get into a bit of a rhythm on the road and swap leaders in order to reduce drag for the others. Sometimes this would work really well, other times, when the wind was from the side or the road surface bad, not so well.
Lunch would consist of a selection of nuts and chocolate with numerous ham and cheese sandwich variations. Sometimes cheese, ham and mayo; sometimes ham, bree and mustard; sometimes even jambon, emmentaal, mustard and mayo if we were feeling crazy. Iain would now give us another of his seemingly infinite facts of the day and we would all discuss if it were true or not. Generally it would be almost entirely ficticuous.
It was about this time, as we looked at the map in a little more detail, we found we hadn’t exactly reached half way and it looked a little more like 130km. Still no harm done as Susie would remind us that the roads are great, not too hilly and that there would be practically no wind. At this point, Nial would generally suss Susie’s tactics and start to complain about ‘Mothergoose’, for some reason in an australian accent.
Then it would be back on the bikes for a slightly longer section as the revised distance calculation would mean we were a touch behind. Now the lanscape would change from slopes to hills and the wind would pick up and change direction. By the end of this session I tended to notice the saddle a little and breaking for second lunch was nice. Although stops were never long enough before the whip would re-emerge for the final push to our destination.
Throughout the day niggles increased, along with irritation at inaccurate signing. One sign would indicate 21km till we could stop, then 5 km down the road, we would still have 23km to go.
However it must be said that throughout France the scenery was nearly always there as a pleasant distraction from any small cycling concerns any one of us could be experiencing.
Also as a general rule the weather was in our favour and conditions were good. The last stretch of the day would again be slightly longer at about 25-35km as we could see the finish line.
Approaching our destination we would head straight for the nearest shut tourist office where we would be unable to find information on cheap hotels or campsites. If, on the odd occassion, the tourist office was open the information provided would inevitably turn out to be incorrect. Normally adding another few km to the journey.
When we eventually reached our destination (campsite or budget hotel), we would head straight for the shower and then track down food. Normally we would be hungry enough to do this by smell alone.
Finally we would be able to relax, talk about the day and discuss how many more times we would be gullable enough to believe Susie’s distance projections. Then there would be more factoids from Iain for us to ponder before it would be off to bed for a well deserved sleep.
Looking at the route Susie had planned gave us the first indication that she actually wanted to kill us. We thought the whip would be back out pretty sharpish but in fact, the road network in Tunisia basically gave us but one option to make our way to libya so we were forced to agree with the timetable.
The larger towns with places to stay were either too close for one days cycle or very far appart. The time constraints on our visas for Libya meant we had 5 days to get to the border. As such, we had no option but to do 4 long days of around 150km.
The idea was to get up a bit earlier to get the majority of the cycling out of the way before the African sun hit us. In reality we only managed to get out on the road early a couple of times.
We would rise from our run down hotel room about 6.30.
Sleep in tunisia was generally hindered by uncomfy beds, the call to prayer, temperature, mosquitoes or any combination of the above. Although the long days in the saddle meant some sleep was affected, comfy or not.
The day would start with a tired breakfast in the room, bought from a market the night before. Often bananas and yoghurts with a pastry or something sweet. Then we would pack up and hit the road.
We started out leaving late and gradually managed to leave earlier as we progressed. This was mainly due to the heat encountered during the day, trying to avoid it became more important than a bit of a lie in.
The road conditions in Tunisia were fairly good, neither particularly smooth but on the otherhand not covered in potholes either. We would cover around 25-30km before stopping at one of many roadside pitstops for a cold sugary pop and snack. By the side of the road would be makeshift tables with various fruit stacked out, typically a lad with just a bowl of almonds or figs for sale. As we approached Libya these fruit stalls were, less helpfully, replaced by stalls selling benzine. The extremely low cost of petrol in Libya meant people drove over the border with a full tank and then emptied them into plastic containers for resale and a nice profit.
None the less all the sellers were jovial fellas who waved at every opportunity. As did the rest of the population. At first it’s nice to wave back or even initiate the waving. As your feet get heavy and the heat drains your energy it’s much harder to wave at every other person you see. I’m afraid the Tunisians cheerfully waving at us post 4pm didn’t get as good a response as those we passed in the morning.
Mostly flat terrain meant we made good time. We would do another 25-30km and then take a break. Preferably in an air-con cafe. Not only to cool down and dry the sweat off but more importantly to stop the flies. Iain’s factoids were still coming strong. The topic depending on which podcasts he’d been listening to on the move.
After the next 25-30km the heat would start to rise and by the end of this section we would all be in need of some proper food. This was easily located as a multitude of roadside cafes, that also seem to be butchers, line the roads either side of any town or village.
Lamb is the meat of choice although we did see the occasional camel or goat head on display. Often the butcher would be preparing a carcass by the side of the road. At one point we saw a sheep being slaughtered right next to others teathered close by, looking on, unaware of their fate. Vegetarians might not do so well but for us it would be couple of lamb chops with potato and salad and we were almost ready to push on.
The weather conditions in Tunisia were, on the whole, favourable. The wind was more often than not behind us and we even had some clouds to guard us from the sun. Saying that, one afternoon we had a strong side wind blowing from the desert, making temperature regulation a bit awkward. Although we were all suffering, I suffered the most and almost melted. This however wasn’t typical and the wind would normally arrive from the Mediteranian Sea, much cooler.
Having covered around 100km by this stage we would split the remaining journey into two. On the second section into town the urban sprawl could be anything up to 15km. All of which was like dodgems. At least one hand had to be hovering over the break.
Particular things to watch out for were vehicles travelling the wrong way up the street, pedestrians walking out into the road without following the green cross code and cars pulling in directly infront of you. Note that nobody uses indicators and all drive so erratically that you can’t even try to work out what they might do. The only other thing to watch out for was Susie. Especially when Iain was close by and going slowly. At the moment Iain and I are more likely to be taken out by Susie in a low speed incident than any other vehicle.
After a few stops to ask for directions through the medina or a check on the map we would find a cheap hotel, unload the bikes and head straight for the shower. Then it would be off to find food. At this juncture, Iain would invariably flirt with the waitresses, telling them he was a speedo model. They would generally giggle at his best french attempts and then double check that we did infact want 5 main courses between us.
We would then grab some food for breakfast from a local shop, roll back to the hotel and prepare for a mediocre nights sleep. Bedtime would be around 10pm if we could manage to sort everything for the next day.
Our compulsary guide through Libya and his friend who accompanied us pushed the numbers back up to 5. The guides also sorted practically everything out for us. This changed our day considerably.
The increased cost of this part of the trip once again meant that Frodo (Susie) had planned some enormous days. Iain would act as a balast and push for more days with less distance. I would play a vital role in the negotiations and agree with both sides.
Having Lamin as our guide did afford Susie’s optomistic projections a slice of realism as our panniers could be bundled into the car. With this weight reduction and no need to find hotels or food, we were able to do more kms per day and shorten the time and cost of traversing Libya.
Accomodation in libya ranged from free camping to decent hotels and as such had no typical sleeping arangements. I’m going to write about a typical day when camping, as it was here that we really started to use the camping gear we’d been lugging round for three weeks.
The day would start with an alarm call from Susie at 5am. Now really getting into the early mornings.
We would shake off all the sand blown in from the desert and de-camp. Lamin and Mohammed would already be up preparing hot water for coffee and toast for breakfast. Easy camping for us, we could just sit back and enjoy our food, knowing we didn’t even have to wash up. As Lamin started to wake up he would generally have something nice to say to our ‘Queen’ and provide an insult or two for the ‘old tomato’ Iain.
I managed to stay under the radar and recieved neither insults or compliments. Instead, I would occasionally get some info on Lamin’s past romances or stories he felt inappropriate for Susie.
Chocks away by about 6.30am now. Again, stints of 25-30km before a reststop. On the desert road there was frequently nothing around so having the car full of drinks and snacks was a godsend. Lamin and Mohammed would provide comical interludes between the cycling, putting smiles on our tired faces.
Depending on the length of the day we’d cover around 100km by 1pm and stop for lunch. Lunch was definitely typical. Pitta and dips, mainly harrisa (a spicy chilly dip Iain used as a substituted for his addiction to tobasco sauce), soup, salad, chicken and rice. Iain would generally order another bowl of harrisa and Susie would forego the soup, I would finish whatever was left. That I can’t stand waste is my excuse, not that I’m a big fat pig! We’d take a little time for digestion and to let the midday heat pass before it was back on the tarmac.
The roads in Libya were either very good (brand new) or in pretty bad condition. More good than bad with stretches of new motorway left just for us to use as our private cycle path. These stretches were somewhat of a relief as they gave us distance from other road users.
Libyan drivers are quite simply crazy. Most gave us room, lorry drivers in particular I’m glad to say, but none will lift their foot off the pedal. Having no speed limits on the open road doesn’t help. Town drivers are not much better. There is very little adherence to the highway code, unless the highway code in Libya states ‘free for all’.
The shear lack of bikes in Libya means drivers do not know how to deal with cyclists. The only cyclists are in town and 95% cycle on the wrong side of the street hugging the curb. The looks we got seemed to suggest that they felt we were on the wrong side of the road, that or they were laughing at our helmets.
The terrain was generally flat and increasingly desertified, flat and yellow as far as you could see. Once over the initial awe at how vast it was it was actually fairly dull.
The few towns that did come along were a distraction but not neccessarily a good one. Apart from the frequent roadkill of camels, dogs and sheep, Libya is strewn with rubbish. Mostly around small towns. There seems to be nowhere for people to put their waste so it’s taken just outside town and dumped. The flat terrain means the wind then blows the plastic bags everywhere. A shame really because some of the best panoramas are ruined.
The conditions for us were again favourable. The earlier we started the better, as the wind would generally be non existant. Iain’s general factoids were now replaced by geographical ones. He explained that as the land heated and the sea stayed the same temperature an onshore wind would begin to pick up as the day went on. Astonishingly for one of Iain’s facts, this was indeed the case. Sometimes the wind helped, other times it turned the afternoon into a painfull slog.
The wind was Susie’s worst fear. Huge slopes, dogs or trucks passing just inches away don’t bother her but get a bit of a breeze in her face and her legs turn to jelly. Thanks to Lamin and Mohammed we also found out a couple of Iain’s weaknesses. Firstly and not so surprisingly he really doesn’t like Lamin holding his hand. The second, which makes him scream like a girl, I’m keeping to myself for either use at a later date or bribery!
Back to the typical day.
After Iain had been suitably ridiculed and Susie’s ego boosted by compliments over lunch we would do another 30km or so before a quick break. Us boys would be eager to finish the day and get out of the saddle. Susie would remain immune to any saddle problems. This I can only put down to her natural extra padding…
The guides would be sent ahead to scout for suitable camping locations and we would trundle behind. Sooner or later they would return with a fab spot to camp.
After setting up camp the solar shower would make an appearance. As long as it had been in the sun for about half an hour it would provide beautiful warm water for washing. It was so nice to be clean after a particularly long day.
Now clean and in fresh clothes we would sit and chat about the day or plot the next stage. All the while dinner would be being prepared by the top chef Mohammed, although Lamin would take credit in an instant. There would be just enough time before bed for Lamin to tell us one of his ‘true’ stories from the deepest darkest desert, or to spend some time insulting Iain again. Both were acceptable to Susie and I.
Without our guides we soon realised that the spattering of arabic that we’d learnt in Libya was about as useful as a fart in a blizzard. Not only is the arabic different but more importantly, we didn’t know any.
As far as the cycling and eating went the structure of the day pretty much followed the Libyan day. It seemed that in these conditions we were comfortable to leave early and do 25-30km stints between breaks, so instead of repeating myself I am going to focus on what made a typical day in Egypt different from previous countries.
In Egypt, Iain’s generally cherpy outlook turned into a public broadcast warning as he consistently told us to be wary of people trying to scam us. We tried to point out that no-one would suspect we wern’t locals and that many Egyptians wear lycra and cycle in the blistering heat but he was buying none of it.
We had all adjusted to the early mornings and these continued. Now getting away by around 6am. After the first morning when we were caught out by a town on the map consisting of 4 houses and nowhere to buy water we made sure that we stocked up with provisions. Iain invariably manages to drink about twice as much water as Susie and I.
Then the police joined us. Pretty much all the way into Cairo.
At first we saw that they were tailing us and thought they were bored or just wanted to check us out. In the end, having our own guard was a typical part of the day. The police would follow us then swap with a force from each new region we entered. They even helped us to find hotels. A great help concidering our poor arabic. After all the help and compliments from our guides in Libya the ‘Queen’ had become accustomed to this sort of treatment and I think actually thought it was normal to have 4 or 5 armed guards at her disposal.
We would rock up at a resthouse for lunch. Normally this would cause enough of a stir amongst the locals but this was compounded when the police would pull in next to us! With this kind of protection we felt pretty sure that we were getting a fair price. Iain had nothing to worry about.
The roads on the whole were in very good condition with a nice wide hardshoulder for us to get away from the traffic. There was much less traffic than Libya although it still followed the ‘free for all’ rule of the road.
Weather conditions were neither helpful or a hinderance but the heat was increasing slightly, making us stick to the early mornings. As such the going was tough, especially as we were once again carrying our panniers. At one point I thought Susie was going to ask the police to carry hers. She didn’t. I’m not sure how the guy with the AK47 would have taken that.
When out of the big cities the locals were friendly and waved, much like in Libya but not quite as enthusiastically as Tunisia. The streets were clean in comparison to Libya but still pretty dirty with plastic bags and rubbish strewn everywhere. The terrain was still flat but as we approached Cairo and the Nile, turned greener with more trees and shrubs.
When we’d reached our destination the police would ask where we were staying so that they could rejoin us in the morning. The reply that we hadn’t found anywhere yet led to them pointing us to a convienient place or running around asking locals about hotels. One day we even had the army give us a lift to an old resort way out of town. Great service!
Typically we would then head out to find food and go straight to bed to recoup for the next day. Iain had now turned back into his usual factoid branding, story telling ‘Flash’ and Susie had finally put away the whip. After the diversion round the plague and news about trouble in Iran her fretting over timing had been replaced by other worries. Finally Frodo had stopped plotting such ridiculously long days.
At least up to Cairo… I kid you not when I say the Queen was seriously tried to perduade me to do 285km in one day across the Sinai desert. I can only assume that the heat had got to her!