The truth is, after years of planning, I didn’t feel the traverse presented any great risks. It was simply that, if anything DID happen, I was on my own. I was under no illusion, in a country where walking off the beaten track was not a popular pastime and in many places like this was positively discouraged by the authorities, that if I got into difficulty anyone would be in a hurry to help me. However, the bare minimum by way of precaution seemed to be that if I failed to get to the other side I should be reported missing. Accordingly, in the lead up to departure I gave my wife details of the British Embassy in Cairo, with instructions that if she hadn’t heard from me by the evening following the expedition – there was always the possibility I might be forced to spend a night in the hills – she should alert the authorities as to my probable whereabouts.
At a late stage in planning I came to the reluctant conclusion that for Pauline to be able to do anything at all in these circumstances she would need a local contact in Luxor. I decided to ask Jenie, a Scottish ex-pat with a background in university administration like myself who I had got to know, first on a ‘friends of Luxor’ internet forum, and then on visits to Egypt. As far as Egypt was concerned, we were kindred spirits. The message I sent conceded that in many people’s eyes, including my wife’s, what I was doing was reckless and I would fully understand if this was a responsibility she did not want to accept. But this was always the dilemma: as soon as I made the decision to tell anyone about my plans, they were emotionally involved. Even if Jenie said no, she would know I was out there. I knew this would put her in a difficult position and this is what held me back from making the request for so long.
Jenie’s response betrayed her concerns. She told me security in the hills had been stepped up and it was possible that I would be barred from making the attempt. Under no circumstances should I undertake the walk without a mobile phone. She asked whether I had taken advice from people on the ground and let me know that there was no longer a British Consulate in Luxor, before finishing “Of course give Pauline my number.” I thanked her and told her that if I was stopped from going up onto the plateau then that would be it as far as I was concerned, but at least I would have tried. I sent her an electronic copy of my route map to which she responded “I am full of admiration for your plan and I quite understand about following your dream. Go for it. Take care. See you soon!”
Then it was back to practicalities. By early 2017 there were no longer any direct flights from the UK to Luxor so I would have to fly to Hurghada on the Red Sea coast. This had been conveyed to me the previous autumn by Tracey, a friend married to Emad, eldest son of Mohammed Snake who therefore travelled frequently to Egypt. Though I knew Emad quite well I was reluctant to contact him directly as I knew he he would voice objections to the expedition, as he had in the past. In the event, Emad contacted me and, as expected, warned against the undertaking, not only on general security grounds, but on the basis that there had been a recent shooting in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi on the northern side of the bend and there was a possibility that the perpetrators had fled to the hills. That the hills were full of bandits, escaped prisoners and general renogades, was a powerful Egyptian ‘myth’ which seemed unlikely in my opinion to have much basis in reality; it was pretty much impossible to hang out in the desert for any protracted length of time and, anyway, modern Egyptians have a particular aversion both to walking long distances and spending any time in the desert.
For her part, Tracey reminded me that Emad’s brother, Hamdy, worked as a tour guide and suggested that he and their cousin Mohsen could pick me up in Hurghada and drive me to the Nile Valley. I had met Hamdy once before at the family restaurant and this was soon arranged. It also got me thinking. Though my initial plan was to be completely self-sufficient on the traverse and either hitch a ride back to Luxor when I got to the road on the northern side – or at least to the train station at Nag Hammadi from where I could take a train back – I now considered asking Hamdy if he and Mohsen would pick me up on the other side. I decided I would check them out on the way over from Hurghada and if I thought they might be up for it I would ask them when we got to Luxor and I had had a day or two to get to know them.
The day after arriving in Luxor in early February 2017 I arranged to meet Hamdy at an outdoor cafe not far from my apartment. Knowing how his brother had reacted to my plans I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive he was, but in the full knowledge of the potential consequences. He asked about my level of fitness and checked that I understood the scale of the undertaking. When he was assured that I did, he looked me in the eye and said he would do everything he could to help me realise my ambition. At this stage my only remaining doubt was to the practicalities of the pick-up, especially as there might be problems with the mobile phone signal on the more rural northern side of the bend. I tried to make sure we were both clear as to the location of the turn-off from the main road where they would wait, by reference to the distance along the straight road and its position relative to the hills. Then I had a sudden thought. My plan had been to take both of my GPS units with me, one as a back-up just in case. But it made more sense to give it to them. Hamdy said he was happy to take it but calmly told me of his back-up plan: if I couldn’t find him when I got to the road I should walk to the nearest ‘ambulance point’ and ask the attendant to call him and explain where I was.
In the evening I met Hamdy again, this time with Mohsen who was keen to know exactly why I wanted to do the walk. He thought he knew but wanted to hear it from me – was it, perhaps, to get a better understanding of the geology, or because I would be writing about it in a book? His questions were searching and intelligent. For his part, Hamdy was more of a mind in which he saw that it was something I wanted to do and he would help me achieve it. He assured me that my safety when I was in Egypt would be in his hands. I told the cousins there was the outside possibility – for example if I sustained an injury that slowed my progress – that I might have to spend the night in the hills. If I got to the northern end of the plateau but was incapacitated I would give the international distress signal – six pulses of light from my head-torch at intervals. I told them not to wait beyond 7pm (it got dark around 6) but they both said they could not leave me up on the mountain. With hindsight I should have pressed this point, that they would come back for me the next day, but I probably wasn’t in the frame of mind to dwell on potential negatives. I was focused on the goal ahead of me; my plans were effectively complete.