18/10/91-20/10/91

FRIDAY 18 OCTOBER – SUNDAY 20 OCTOBER  There isn’t a lot to do in Farafra. On our first day, a funny little guy called Saad (the owner of the eponymous restaurant) took us for a drive to fetch his camels. We drove his truck back to town while he rode his camels, then we spent the rest of the day propped up in the shade swatting flies.

And Saturday was the same: a few hours of pleasant cool from dawn until about 10 a.m. then baking heat (this is winter!!) until around 4 p.m. when the sun dips swiftly towards the horizon casting cool shadows over the town and the surrounding desert. As darkness falls, the people venture outside: the men sitting in small groups talking, clusters of children squawking and playing, and weary tourists making their way up the hill to Saad’s Restaurant for the nightly ritual of food, cold drinks and backgammon.  There are several interesting locals to be found at Saad’s at night. A friendly school teacher, a man from Cairo who lives here for the peace and quiet, and a tall thin man who everyone calls Dr Socks because he sells socks, gloves, vests and scarves when he’s not working at the local hospital.

And thus we spent our time in Farafra. On Sunday morning I went for an early walk out into the desert where I sat up on an eroding pinnacle of sandstone and watched the sun ease itself over the horizon ready for another day’s travel across the great blue dome of the sky. Later on we packed our gear and settled down to await the bus to Dhakla1.

A Swiss guy rode into town on a bicycle at 11 and I spent an enjoyable hour talking to him about his many adventures in Asia and the Middle East. The bus launched into town at ten to four and, as usual, everyone in town turned up to watch. Four more white folks got off and we got on, found  a seat each and settled in for the 4 hour journey to Dhakla Oasis.

The sun had begun to lose its we set off out across the desert, stopping every now and then to pick up and sit down passengers. A few miles beyond Farafra there is a large development going on around a supply of subterranean water. Canals  are being built and sand is being subdivided and irrigated and the beginnings of a new Oasis planted. But it will be a long time before the desert is made to bloom in that flat, baked landscape.

The bus  jolted on as darkness fell and about 7:30 we pulled into the town of Mut, the main town of Dhakla Oasis. The resthouse in the centre of town was full so we set off to walk the 1 km to the Government Resthouse. When we got there we were greeted by a balding man with glasses and a smile just a little too wide to be genuine.

“Do you have a room for two people,” I asked

 “How did you get here?” was his reply.

 “By bus from Farafra,” I said, sensing an officious air behind the glasses.

“Let me see the tickets,” he said, holding out his hand.  I gave him the tickets and he studied them with elaborate deliberation.

“There is only one ticket here,” the smile said. Patiently, I leaned over and sorted the pieces of paper into piles. He seemed pleased and handed the tickets to one of the several men lounging around in the foyer.

“How many nights?” he asked.

 “Just tonight,” I said.

 “But, you know, there are many things to see in Dakhla,” said one of the other men.

“Perhaps we will stay tomorrow as well,” I said. “But for now we will just pay for one night.”

The room rate was E£1-83 each with E£4-30 “Government Tax” added. The  balding man began talking with the other men in the room. An old man came in and paid E£2 for a room and had his details recorded in the register. The  bald man continued to talk. Time passed. I begin  to stare at him. 

He paused in his argument and said “passports,” then carried on talking while he opened them and studied them, again with great, almost exaggerated deliberation. Then he stood up and left the room. We sat and waited, determined not to get riled up. After about 5 minutes the man returned.

“There is a problem,” he said.

“Is there?” I replied sarcastically. Sarcasm is lost on Arabs and he continued. “The other people in the room have gone out and taken the key.”

“No problem,” I said. “We will just leave our gear here and go for something to eat. Perhaps you could record our details in the register.”

The bald man began to copy things out of our passports, stopping to talk to the others in the room and to ask questions.

“What is your nationality?”  

“It’s written in the front of the passport.” 

“What is your place of birth?” 

“Again, it is in the passport.”

Eventually, these pointless formalities were completed and we left our packs in the corner then set off back into town to get some food. We ate at a place called the Desert Paradise Restaurant owned by a man called Abdul (what else!) who pestered us with details of all the little jobs that he could do for us.

After  our meal, we walked back to the Resthouse and went up to our room – tiny, humid, four beds crammed in – which we were sharing with an older German couple. The man had the same personality as The Terminator. Surprisingly, there were no mozzies in the room and we spent a reasonably comfortable, if hot, night.

1I mis-spelled the name Dakhla in my diary.

17/10/91

THURSDAY – CAIRO TO FARAFRA  We were up and packed ready to leave at 6:45 and after checking out of the hotel, ignoring the waiter’s demand for bakshish, we walked up to the bus station near Midan Ataba, about half a mile away. The bus left on the dot of 8 but then for some inexplicable reason spent the next hour and a half driving in a circle around Cairo and back past the bus station several times. Eventually though, we left the city which immediately gave way to flat featureless desert. The road snaked ahead of us in a black ribbon on the off-white sand and inside the bus everyone lit up a cigarette and began coughing and spitting.

After 5 hours we stopped at a dusty little town called Bawiti for lunch, then carried on across the unchanging desert. We passed a steel mill not long out of Bawiti: it’s position marked by a grubby brown area of polluted sand and wrecked trucks. Out on the flat landscape, pinnacles of iron ore began to rise until soon we were travelling through terrain resembling Monument Valley in in Arizona. The day drew to a close as we watched a raucous and badly acted Indian video while outside the sky changed from pink to an eerie orange. When the sun disappeared, the sky and land were bathed in an otherworldly orange glow and it was hard to believe that we hadn’t passed through some invisible barrier and into another world or out onto the surface of an alien planet.

The colour soon faded, however, and was replaced by the smooth, blue black of the Egyptian night. The movie reached it’s tacky conclusion about 20 minutes before we arrived in Qasr al Farafra, the main town of Farafra Oasis.

There were three white folks sitting watching the arrival of the bus so I asked them where we could stay. They  pointed us to the rest house next door where we paid two Egyptian pounds each for the night. There were four restaurants in town and we chose to eat at Saad’s Restaurant up the hill near the centre of town. A meal of beans and courgettes, washed down with Coca-Cola, cost us a mere E£3-75.

The Western Desert

16/10/91

WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER – THE PYRAMIDS

There’s a pyramid in my head,
There’s one underneath my bed,
And my lady’s getting cranky… 
– The Alan Parsons Project, Pyramania

We were away from the hotel by 7:15 AM and after spending a frustrating hour cashing a traveller’s cheque, we caught a minibus from Maidan Tahir out to Giza. A guy on the bus showed us a quick way to get to the pyramids area and although he had a Tourist Friends ID¹ and seemed genuinely interested in helping us, we didn’t trust his motives. Sure enough, he took us to a perfume shop. However, as we had intended to buy some perfume (Egypt is one of the world’s leading producers of natural fragrances) we took the opportunity to purchase some Jasmine oil for E£100. Our “guide” then introduced us to a livery stable owner who hired out horses so we paid E£30 each for a 2-hour ride around the pyramids.

We set off on a couple of very skinny horses, accompanied by an equally skinny guide on a lame mount. As we started up the first sandy hill to a viewpoint overlooking the pyramids, the guide’s horse broke down so we told him in no uncertain terms to take the poor thing back to the stables and we would wait at the top of the hill for him to return. 

And what a sight from the top of that hill! Before us, standing rigid in the heat and dust as they have done for 4 ½ millennia, were the great pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerenus. There is no sight on Earth to compare with them – monuments to the achievements of a civilization that thrived while Britain and Europe we’re still populated by savages living in mud huts and hunting mammoths to survive. While the future brokers of power and culture languished in the faceless squalor of prehistory, the people of the Nile were writing and inventing and building lives that no men have seen or will ever see again. And now it is all lost save for this giant legacy of stone.

Our gallop around the base of the pyramids was pretty uninspiring, our guide not being able to tell us much we didn’t already know. The  sphinx was surprisingly small and we were only able to view it from a distance before we asked for tips and hustled back to the stables.

 We sat in a chay [tea] house for a couple of hours then, as afternoon began to give way to evening, we walked out of town and climbed the low hill near the pyramids. It was quite hot but it soon began to cool as the sun dipped towards the hazy horizon.  The sunset wasn’t much but just to sit there and watch darkness fall on the pyramids was pure magic.

A wheezing old bus took us back into town for 50 piastres each and we had a Coke at a sidewalk chay house on the way back to the hotel. We ate at the Falafel Garden again in the evening.

¹Tourist officials had badges to identify themselves but, as with almost everything else in Egypt, these could be easily forged.

15/10/91

We wasted a whole day trying to find the Kenyan Embassy which had moved from the address given in our Lonely Planet Egypt guidebook. We eventually tracked it down after about 3½ hours of searching and by the time we had been granted our visas, and then walked back to Talab Haab, most of the day was gone.

We rested for a while in our room then went out to a restaurant called The Falafel Garden for ice cold beers and some vegetarian food.

14/10/91

MONDAY – CAIRO We were up fairly early and after a showered packed our gear and left. We walked up to Midan Tahir, the transport centre of Cairo where buses and taxis whirled and roared in an endless stream , then up to Midan Talab Haab. After a bit of a search we found a hotel with rooms for E£11 and checked in. The Hotel Minerva was old and quaint, each room having a balcony and several pieces of timber furniture.

CAIRO

We relaxed for a while then went out to attend to some business. At the EgyptAir office we confirmed our onward flights to Nairobi on the 4th of November then we entered the formidable Mogamma Building to register with the police. 

We spent the rest of the day in the Egyptian Museum after using the trusty old “student” scam with our YHA cards to get in for half price. The museum is huge. Its ground floor is filled with stone statues, tomb facades, solar barques and myriad things taken from the cities of the great civilization that ruled Egypt 4½ thousand years ago.  

But on the second floor there is treasure! The tomb of the boy-king Tut-Ankh-Amun was excavated in 1922 and its incredible contents can only make one wonder about the fabulous, long-gone wealth looted from the tombs of far greater Pharaohs. The two main features of the 1,700 funerary items are Tut’s famous gold mask, inlaid with jewels and precious stones and the inner coffin (there were 3 coffins, 4 gilded wooden shrines and a stone sarcophagus) which is made of an incredible 110.4 kg of solid gold inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones.

When we left the museum, we wandered back up to the hotel and showered then went down to the restaurant where we had an unexciting meal and a few cold Cokes. We finished our first day in Egypt sitting out on our room’s balcony, talking and swatting mosquitoes while the orange ball of the sun subsided into the hazy pall of dust and smog hanging over Cairo.

13/10/91

SUNDAY – LONDON TO CAIRO We were up early packing our gear and sorting out our money. Gabriel [the boy Linda had been nanny for over the summer] was running around like a mad thing getting in the way but we managed to get it all packed up in the end. I have got almost 30kg of gear!

We pottered about for an hour or so watching TV then bundled our stuff into the car for Angie to drive us out to Heathrow. It was strange and somehow sad to drive out of London for the last time – almost like leaving home or taking leave of an old friend never to return. As we drove out along Chiswick Road I thought of all the things we had done in the city since we first arrived on a cold and rainy spring day 2½  years ago. The air was hazy with heat and smog as we sped along the M4 and turned off towards Terminal Three.

We checked our packs in then went to the bar for a few drinks and to wait for Jules [our friend Juliet] who had said she would come out to see us off. I changed some pounds for US dollars, rang Ann and said goodbye and we had a couple of Burger King cheeseburgers. When Jules arrived we talked over drinks but all too soon it was time for us to go. Juliet was quite upset and in tears again so we said our goodbyes quickly and lined up at the departure gates. Angela and Gabriel waved us through and we weren’t without tears in our eyes either at the last sight of our English friends.

But then we had to concentrate on the exit formalities; bags x-rayed, then finally, the immigration officials. A hastily made up excuse about why our visits had expired (“THE HOME OFFICE TOLD US NOT TO WORRY ABOUT EXTENDING THEM BECAUSE WE ALREADY HAD OUR DEPARTURE ARRANGED”) mollified the office who questioned us and just like that we were in the no man’s land of the departure area and we were officially out of England.

Our phone card still had 16 units left on it so we rang all the people we could think of and said goodbye or left goodbye messages. I tried to get a VAT refund on the cost of Linda’s engagement ring but we’d been in the country too long to qualify. 

Finally, we boarded the EgyptAir Boeing 600-A300 and 20 minutes later we lifted off the runway and were gone from England. As the jet climbed into the haze we looked down for the last time on the green and pleasant land of Southern England. The M4 motorway snaked off towards the West Country while below us, the small lakes surrounding Heathrow sparkled in the sun.

We crossed the coast high above Bournemouth, the town’s twin piers clearly visible jutting out from the long sweep of white sand, and soon the island that had been our home for 2 1/2 years was lost from view – swallowed up in the haze and gone forever.

The flight was good. There was a good movie – James Belushi in Filofax – and the food was excellent. A bit of turbulence over Southern Europe had a few people reaching for the spew bags but we were fine. We crossed the Pyrenees at 33,000 feet: a spectacular sight with fresh snow covering the granite bulk of the mountains, then flew down the western side of Italy as darkness fell.

We landed at Cairo Airport at 9:00PM local time and went swiftly through customs. We are met by the usual crowd of dishonest touts peddling “cheap” hotel rooms and taxi rides but as it was late we accepted one of their offers and spent the night in a a tiny, pokey, cramped, oven-hot room in some half-built shit-hole hotel which cost us E20 each. Such are the joys of travel!

OCTOBER 1991

And so we spent our last evening in England…

It rained the night we stayed at Sandybrook Hall and the night was black. Black as a shroud. Black, black, sloe black, crow black, bible black, like the sky above Dylan Thomas’ fictional Milk Wood. 

We came to Sandybrook Hall near the end of our time in England. Linda finished her job as a nanny in London on the same day that I finished working for John Hayward at Knoll Farm in Hampshire where I had spent the summer driving a tractor for harvest. We stayed with Alan and Stuart at Codford while we said our goodbyes to Ann, Betty, and the Wylye Valley then went over to Wales and spent a couple of nights with Janice and Brian. While we were there we went for a drive up over the hills to the little town of Hay-on Wye where there are twenty or more second-hand bookshops. 

When we left Wales we stayed the weekend with John and Sally then drove north up the M1 to Derby and out to the town of Ashbourne, on the outskirts of which lies Sandybrook Hall. The present owner of the house, Tony Gather, wasn’t home but a chap living in one wing of the house that has been turned into flats offered us his spare room for the night. 

So, we stayed in the house built by my ancestor Sir Matthew Blakiston, 3rd Baronet of the City of London on a wet, dark and windy night. There was no presence to be felt; no traces of the Blakistons of the past; no ghosts; no feeling of a return to my roots. It was just an old, creaky house.  

Sandybrook Hall

Next day, we met Tony Gather and took some photographs of the house from various angles. Mr Gather had a book with a small history of the house which read:

“In 1812, Sir Matthew Blakiston, 3rd Baronet, purchased the estate from the Hayne family. The house, completed in 1815, has a well-proportioned West front of 2 full height (2½ stories), canted bays either side of a Tuscan porch leading into an elegant hall with a Hopton Wood floor [Hopton Wood is not a timber. It is actually a type of limestone quarried nearby at a place called Hopton Wood] and a cantilevered stairway at the end with a delightful wrought iron neo-Grec balustrade of interlaced loops and a Gothic [sic] window above. The South front is less felicitous, being of five bays, the central one pedimented. There is a pretty stable block to the north, c. 1775 which boasts a lantern and a clock tower by Ellerby of Ashbourne. The estate seems to have been too much for Blakiston and was thereupon let to Archibald Douglas of Derby, followed by his heirs, the Coopers, but by 1841 Lucius Mann, Blakiston’s nephew, was installed. The Blakistons re-occupied it until 1883. Peverill Turnbull was the next tenant, followed by his widow. It was finally sold in 1946 to the late Mr G.E. Gather, succeeded by Mr A. Gather [the current owner]. Part of the house has been converted into flats since 1963 but it has lost none of its charm in the process.

In the Ashbourne church there is a marble plaque to Sir Mathew Blakiston, 3rd Bt.,  but of the rest of the family nothing remains. We visited Trent College on the way to Stratford with the idea of seeing the rugby memorabilia and sent them of black is British Lions days, but it was all in storage pending the building of a new sports wing. We did, however, meet the rugby master who showed us the school’s rugby records back to 1911 –  none too impressive either!!

We stayed the night in a camping ground in Stratford on Avon and next day we returned to London for the last time.

ERIC

The nurses put us up for the night and after an early tea I caught a bus into Piccadilly and from here to Hammersmith where I went to see Jethro Tull at the Hammersmith Odeon. They were brilliant as ever: the stage was set up as a small cafe with the antics of Ian Anderson et al backdropped by tables and chairs, with various waiters wandering on and off the stage throughout the performance.

On Thursday we visited Juliet at her work then spent the afternoon trying to sell Eric to dealers down the East End1. No one offered us more than 75 quid so we offered it to Alex smart for 120 pounds. She accepted.

On Westminster Bridge

On Friday we moved over to Angela and Andrew’s place at Leamington Road villas and spent the day buying foreign currency and doing last minute things. Saturday was our final full day in London and after we had delivered Eric over to Alex we caught a bus up to Westminster and I ceremonially threw my old faithful sand shoes2 into the Thames off Westminster Bridge.

We spent the afternoon and evening with Jules, Slob, Emma and some others from Fulham Road at a pub down by the river called The Dove. Juliet ended the evening in tears after her ex-boyfriend, a total fuckwit called Chris, with whom she had high hopes of getting back together with, dumped in no uncertain terms. Cunt!

We were all extremely drunk and on that hot London night we walked along the streets in the darkness singing songs and clowning around. And so we spent our last evening in England:  with  our friends, having fun…

1In London’s East End we had tried to sell Eric Escort to a few car dealers, none of whom were interested. When we suggested to one guy, an East End wide boy in a pork pie hat, that we could maybe park outside a car auction and try to sell it there he said: “Yeah, I wouldn’t do that…they’d come out and belt ya!”

2I’d bought my Aerosport high-top sneakers in Melbourne a few days before we left Australia bound for Britain. They had been through Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Nigeria, C.A.R, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Turkey, and had been my footwear of choice throughout our time in the United Kingdom. They had travelled well…and I consigned them to the Thames to continue their travels.