Traverse of the Theban Plateau, Part Eight: The Expedition (4)

Soon after reaching the flat valley floor the realisation overtakes me that the 11km remaining to be walked across the flat sandy plain constitute about a quarter of the whole walk. Almost the same distance from where I had gone wrong to the place I now sit. And if I’d not gone wrong I would almost be with the boys by now (I had told them to expect me any time after 4pm). Instead, even walking flat out it was going to be dark before I got to them. There is only time for a short rest, a bite to eat and some water, and to put a plaster on a blister that had developed on the sole of my right foot. But I do allow myself a moment to take in my surroundings, which are sublime; the line of limestone cliffs off to my right, especially, inspire awe. It is obvious why this place was sacred to my Ancient Egyptian predecessors who came here from their homes in the Nile valley to be at one with Hat’hor, goddess of desert mountains. And of love.

Then it is off across the final flat sand walk-out in a race against the setting sun. The track along the valley floor is not particularly distinct but it is obvious which way I have to go; it’s essentially a case of following the GPS. Sometimes I follow a vehicle track; at others the original camel trail is on firmer ground. As I get beyond the penultimate spur the ground becomes more level, but also more variable, and at times I curse as my feet sink into soft sand. The rocky promontories to my left look wonderful with the sun setting behind them. I may be tired and aching, but this is my kind of desert landscape, and it still thrills me.

All along the trail are the footprints of the wolves or jackals that come down from the upland wadis into the valley at dusk; perhaps the feeling that they are hard on my heels is another contributor to making my best pace of the day on this final stretch. After a few adjustments, the route after F14 is fairly straight. But it is determined walking, ignoring the pain, occasionally cursing soft sand, hoping for no last problems. By F15 the moon has risen as darkness descends. I switch on my head-torch, not because I need its light but so that Hamdy and Mohsen can hopefully see my approach. From 15a, after passing a small brick building on the right, it is straight along a recently-made vehicle track. Ahead I can see the lights of vehicles on the desert highway between Cairo and Aswan. The end of the journey is in sight.

Approach to pick-up

Final walk-out across sand and gravel plain to destination. F14, F15a, “Road” and “Pick-up” waypoints marked. 5km scale.

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Looking back from the final gravel plain towards the plateau which I have spent the day crossing.

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The setting sun casts a long shadow as I take the final photo of the day, of the moon rising in the east. My destination is still 9km away to the left of the photo.

As I get closer to the road I can see the headlights of a stationary car in a position that would correspond with the pick-up point. My heart starts to beat faster. A little further on I get my first mobile phone signal and at the second attempt manage to make contact with Hamdy. There is a great outburst of emotion as they realise I am almost with them and, on my part, at the great effort almost being over and the anticipated joy of being reunited with my new friends. As a final check I get them to switch the lights off and on -it’s definitely them!

As I get closer to the highway the volume of traffic becomes apparent and the rush and honking of trucks is the first sound I have heard for twelve hours. Also apparent is the lack of any verge or hard shoulder, and what a menacing proposition is the final few hundred metres’ walk to the pick-up point now it is in complete darkness. Concerned for my safety walking beside the highway I call Hamdy again and, with some difficulty due to intermittent reception, ask him to drive towards me. I think he has understood. I wait at the end of the track holding my head-torch for identification. I stand there for some minutes but there is no sign of a vehicle. I call Hamdy again. When I get through, his voice is flat and without emotion, in complete contrast to the unbounded joy of a few moments before.  “We are talking to the police.” The signal breaks up.

I start walking along the road towards the pick-up point. It is everything I was trying to avoid by finishing the expedition in daylight and is easily the most frightening part of the undertaking. Occasionally I can make good progress along the edges of fields; in other places I am clambering in the darkness over hillocks of rubbly sand, all the while trucks rushing past me, often (in the Egyptian way of things) with no lights on. Eventually the arrow on the GPS points to my left, indicating the pick-up point. My first thought is to wonder at the accuracy of being able to follow a 40km trail across desert mountains to this very spot by the side of a busy road. My next thought is to getting across the busy highway in one piece.

Standing with my head-torch in hand at the turn-off which was the original pick-up point, for the first time in the day I feel truly vulnerable, vehicles careering past at high speed along an unlit highway in the country with the worst road death statistics in the world. The car is not there. After some five minutes a vehicle with high-mounted headlights takes the turn-off and heads straight for me; I jump to the side and it comes to a halt. It is a bulldozer, of a type commonly used in Egypt for sand-clearing work, its cab in the form of a cage. To my surprise the voice of a young man in the cage calls down to me.

“You Briddish?”
“Sorry?”
“You Briddish? You with Egyptian men?”
“Er, yes”. My heart is pounding.
“Passport.”

Things are getting worrying very quickly. I fumble in the top of my rucksack and – somewhat dazed – hand the document up to a part-obscured digger driver. I think: that’s my passport, what am I doing…. what’s happening? Who is he? I feel partial relief when he hands it straight back to me. But not for long. Across the road I see a pick-up truck slow to a halt, closely followed by what I recognize as Hamdy’s Toyota saloon. The pick-up door opens and one of a type of Egyptian young man appears; slim, in over-tight quasi-military clothing. He looks both ways before crossing to my side of the road.

“Get into the car please.”

 

 

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