During the rest of the walk across the plateau there is unfortunately little time for taking real pleasure in my surroundings. Following the initial disappointment that I am yet to make it to F5, my first ‘unreached’ waypoint on the plateau, it is a case of making a good pace from one waypoint to the next. Disappointment is soon followed by the realisation that the journey to F6 is one of the longer legs of the expedition. In the back of my mind I am also wary of getting too tired mid-plateau so I make sure I make regular use of my various energy snacks.
There are one or two moments on the way to F7 where the way isn’t absolutely clear, and I find myself mildly cursing my earlier error, but generally I remain positive, determined and level-headed. From my desktop surveys on Google Earth I somehow expect the way from F7 to F8 to be clearly descending, and possibly with the final spur visible from a distance, but neither of these is actually the case on the ground. To all intents and purposes, it appears that I am still heading into endless flat terrain and I realise how great will be my relief, rather than the elation I originally anticipated, when I do finally reach the end of the high desert before descending once again into the Nile Valley.
On the approach to F7a the route goes along the side of a small tongue of wadi and then up over a small hill and again I find myself mildly cursing that the trail is not as distinct as I would like. This is one of a few moments on the way across the plateau where I tell myself that I am ‘not out of the woods’ yet. Before going over the hill, I take advantage of some shade from a small overhanging rock, refuel and take a couple of photos. It is the first time since going off course that I allow myself to be immersed in the experience. The silence is total. It is one of the main things that has brought me here. On setting off again, at a small section of soft ground I come across the only set of footprints I have seen apart from my own, almost certainly those of the German, ‘Faruku’. This is the other reason I am here: to experience complete solitude.
As the ground does begin to lose height, the descent towards F8, the final waypoint on the plateau proper, is not quite the ‘coming down from the mountain’ experience I had imagined. I am also surprised that Gebel Roma (the name the American archaeologist Darnell gave to the final spur) is not as distinct as I was expecting from both his photos and those of ‘Faruku’. In fact, I only notice its distinctive summit block when I have passed it, possibly distracted by the immense scatters of ancient pottery that cover the ground at this end of the trail.
Nor is the descent from Gebel Roma as straightforward as I had imagined it to be, again highlighting the limitations of ‘exploring from the air’. Although there seems to be a rather indistinct track off to the left, I follow the arrow straight down the spur to my final upland waypoint, expecting a relatively easy descent. Instead, when I meet a path again, it is hugging the edge of the cliff, just like the one along which Almasy carries Katherine to her final resting place in The English Patient. Below is a drop of some twenty metres, and after a minute or two of shuffling along the narrow path it comes to an abrupt end.
Turning back up the rocky spur I give inner vent to my frustrations: “You mean, you’ve come all this way – you’ve walked for almost ten hours – and the path ends in a fucking sixty-foot drop?!! I can SEE the flat valley floor below me but there’s a sixty-foot drop??” It isn’t long before I remember that this was a trail used for centuries by armies of men, horses, and camels. There must be an obvious turn-off that I have missed. Again.
As the sun starts its descent behind the cliffs and I contemplate being benighted at the very physical end of the hills, I am close to the emotional end of my tether. But a clear head is needed as I scramble back up the rubbly slope. Halfway back up the spur I notice that the loose rocky ground, indicative of a trail, is heading off to the right, though again it appears to be heading straight for a cliff. But the sun is getting lower and I must take it, must take my chances. Remarkably, when I reach the rocky band where the trail appeared to end I find that there are steps cut into the rock. Steps wide enough to allow the horses of Tutankhamun’s armies to pass this way. My head reels. Within another five minutes, at twenty past four in the afternoon, I set foot on the valley floor and kiss the ground in thanks.