Egypt Border Crossing
[Jeff 04.04.2017] Eventually, through he haze of the sandstorm we catch our first glimpse of the border post. There’s a fork in the road and as usual no sign posts to clue us into which way to go. I pick the right hand route, but this leads us into no-mans land under the scrutiny of the gun wielding border guards (oops), but the sand laden air is working to our advantage for now and it looks like they don’t see us. Quickly turning around and taking the other road before we come to their attention, we approach the entry of Sudan’s exit post. Three guards walk briskly over to block our path, checking our passports (we’re still a hundred metres from the buildings, why stop us here, we're wondering), and handing them over to a man in a plain gallabiya (the traditional one piece coverall) who motions for us to follow him to the buildings. Inside, the immigration and customs agents all surround us at once and we hand over our passports, carnets and customs declarations that we received when we entered Sudan. The guy who took our passports at the front gate then motions for us to follow him and takes us to a cafeteria where we sit down and wait. At this point we realise that he’s a fixer, which immediately annoys me, and he can see it. Border crossings don’t have to be complicated, it’s just the same 2 or 3 steps, requiring patience but there’s nothing difficult about it. We’ve never needed a fixer before, now we have one that we didn’t ask for. Further, if I was to engage a fixer, I would only take one who spoke reasonable English, this guy barely speaks it, and understands almost nothing of what we’re saying.
Various people keep coming to ask for bits of paperwork, such as our drivers licences and insurance. Since we’re now leaving the country I don’t understand why they need all this, after all they didn’t even check our licences or insurance when we entered Sudan, so what are they going to do now if it's not valid? Doing things that have no logical connection has a rather upsetting effect on me and does nothing to lighten my mood.
It takes 2 hours, including the time when all the staff disappear to go to prayers, but eventually we have our passports and carnets back and are told that we can leave, however as we’re about to mount our bikes a policeman comes over and wants to see our carnets, he then says to follow him back inside. In the customs office there seems to be some confusion (and our useless “fixer” is nowhere around), we gather that for some reason they think we want to stay at the border tonight and are surprised when we say “no, we’re going to Egypt right now”, so they let us go. We get stopped once more to check our passports as we’re going through the exit gates and we're finally free......for 100 metres.
It’s a shame that the final taste of Sudan was made unpleasant thanks to that fixer, I’m sure it would have gone much smoother without him as the immigration and customs people all seemed fine to deal with directly, and, yes we did end up having to pay for his “services” after a bit of an argument.
I liked Sudan, although the country is hot and flat, the people were the most welcoming, friendly and helpful that we have met. We never felt unsafe or threatened and when people grouped around us it was always with the intention to ask if we needed help, which was always given freely and willingly without any hint of expecting a handout.
This is a new border crossing, Argeen, it’s only been open since last October. There are two other options available but both involve boarding a ferry, one with a long ride up to Aswan and the other a short ride across to Abu Simbel. Both of those, and Argeen, are clustered around the bottom of Lake Nasser, the worlds biggest man made lake formed when the construction of the Aswan high dam in Egypt flooded the valley. The other two borders are known to take almost a full day to get through, apparently Argeen takes about 5 hours.
The Egyptian side is 100 metres along the road, but the gates look firmly closed. It’s not a good sign. In all of Africa, Egypt is renowned for being difficult and bureaucratic to bring a vehicle into, it’s the only country to strictly enforce the use of a carnet de passage (although there’s always rumours that there’s a way around it but no firm reports of anyone managing it yet). We know we’ll get there, we’re prepared for a difficult time of it, just hoping to get finished in time to ride the last 150km to Abu Simbel in daylight, it’s now 2:30pm.
As we arrive at the gates three guards come out asking to see our passports and bike paperwork. They look grim at first but brighten up when they see that we have carnets (I guess some people still try to get in without one). “Yes we have carnets and yes they are registered in the same country that the bikes are from”. We have to make two separate payments, one for EGP270 (USD15) and one for EGP60 (USD3.50) before we’re even allowed through the gates. We get a bunch of 10 tickets in return, still have them and still have no clue what they’re for.
We’re allowed inside the gates but don’t get far, being made to park and go through a luggage search. There’s are two, almost universal rules during baggage searches on the bikes.
- Our tank panniers (those that hang on the fuel tanks), are invisible. No one has ever paid any attention to them, even though they bulge with stuff.
- If it takes more than 10 seconds to access, they lose patience and tell you not to bother.
To this end, by the time I’ve taken off the various nets, ties and cables to open my rear roll bag, he turns to Sally’s bike and asks if it’s the same - “Yes”. "OK, I don’t need to see in it". We’re now allowed to go to immigration and get started. It takes three hours, but nothing about it was difficult, the police were the most fun to deal with, they were quite enthusiastic about the bikes and getting us into the country, even asking for a photo shoot at the end. We left with shiny new Egyptian number plates and a couple of hours daylight left.
Ancient wonders and flat tyres
The wind and sand has calmed down in the meantime and we make a good fast run up to Abu Simbel, reaching the outskirts just as the last of the light fades.
All of a sudden we find ourselves firmly back in the throes of a more developed country, even the petrol stations have paved forecourts - and petrol! Hotels in Egypt are cheap at the moment for what you get, thanks to the tourist industry tanking, there’s so much choice and it’s easy to get a 5 star hotel for USD40 a night - they even have bars, but no sign of a bacon butty yet.
In the morning, wandering past the bikes we notice that my back tyre is completely flat, unbelievable, she made it all the way through the sandstorm and border crossing and our two week deadline in Sudan to give out in the comfort of the hotel carpark, I'm not complaining. It was always in the back of my mind what a pain it would be if we had a breakdown in Sudan - or Ethiopia. Anyway, I’ll fix it later, we want to go into town and get some cash and Egyptian SIM cards. Asking the hotel desk staff about SIM cards they “lend” us one of their men and the owner of the hotel says we can use their little van if we want, so Sal takes the wheel and we trundle into town. Thanks to our helper we return in record time, we then want to visit the temple and again the owner says that our helper can come with us - he can’t speak English but he’s a nice guy and shadows us constantly anyway so why not.
The temple is very impressive, but it also has an incredible back story in recent history. When the Aswan high dam was built in the 1960’s and the waters behind it began to rise, there were many ancient sites that were going to end up under the lake. Egypt made a plea to UNESCO, who rallied experts across Europe and Scandinavia and began a massive project to move the temple to higher ground by cutting it into pieces and reassembling it on higher ground.
Later, back at the hotel, it’s time to give the bikes some TLC after their run through the sand. The air boxes are coated in a sticky mixture of oil and sand (oil comes from the coating of the filter element). It takes some time to clean it all out. The next morning we put the air boxes back together and fixed the puncture in my tyre which seems to have been caused by a tiny piece of wire piercing the tyre, most likely from one of the many disintegrated truck tyres littering the roads. Our “guide” and constant shadow busied himself making sure we had shade, tables and something to sit on until the bikes were surrounded by half the furniture from the patio and pool areas.
Heading North, our first stop will be Aswan at the top of Lake Nasser. We get about 50km out of Abu Simbel before being stopped by our first police checkpoint. Until late last year it was required that you join a police escort on the road between Abu Simbel and Aswan, you signed up with the police and they formed a convoy with all the Northbound vehicles. It's no longer necessary and the police let us through, but a while later as were thinking of looking for somewhere to take a break we ride past a mosque where there's a police car about to pull out, glancing in my mirror I see he's coming in our direction but don't know what to make of it so we just continue until we spot a roadside tea shop and pull in. The police car pulls in beside us and four policemen get out, we're not quite sure what to make of it as they just stand there, eventually we turn to the chief and ask if they wanted to talk to us about something, which prompts him to say welcome and shake our hands. He follows us into the tea room and waits at another table while we have coffee. When we go to leave he also makes a move and it becomes clear that he wants to escort us. As I take off up the road and accelerate away, I suddenly get an intercom call from Sal, "Aaarghh, my bikes wobbling all over the place . . . aaaarrrgghhhh". She comes to a stop - thankfully upright. As I go back it becomes clear that she's had a front tyre blowout, doing well to keep the bike upright as the tyre has deflated so fast that it's broken the bead and almost come off the rim. The cause is pretty obvious, a big screw right through the middle of the tread. As I'm fixing it the police chief wants to take photos with Sal and the others "help" me with the tyre, inadvertantly proving to be a massive hinderance and just getting in my way. To fit the wheel back on I ask Sal to push her way in to give me a hand, we've done it many times now and make a good team, doing it so much faster and easier together than with anyone else "helping".
Our police escort continues to follow us, but I feel less safe as they're sitting right on my tail, sometimes even to the left or right of my back tyre. After 20km or so we pass a petrol station which has another police car sitting in it. The escort disappears for a few kilometers but soon we're joined by the new car, he isn't as dedicated though and turns around after a short while. We're left alone and can stop for another short rest. As we're sitting in the broken up rest area, we don't feel at risk at all, passing drivers wave at us and there's no one else around, we still have no idea what the police think will happen if we're left alone for too long.
Arriving in Aswan we're led through quite a serious military checkpoint where they pull us aside and want to check all our bags (yes, including those roll bags that take several minutes to extract from the tangle). I guess they're checking for explosives, as we ride in over the top of a sort dam wall / bridge arrangement, but not the main Aswan dam.
Sal always dreams about being able to pull into a hotel, eyeball the parking spot immediately, park and be ushered up to the room. This is hardly ever the case, this time is no exception. We always try to make sure that the places we stay have secure parking for the bikes, and on this occasion in Aswan the hotel fronts a busy street, there's no obvious sign of where we can park. A bell man comes out as we pull up and welcomes us, when we ask about the parking he says we can park "inside" after we check in. Sure enough they move some tables and chairs around and we get the bikes up the steps and into the hotel.
First thing to do in Aswan is get something called a "Traffic fine certificate" which will be needed later to export the bikes. It's a piece of paper stating that we haven't been given any fines, but according to Egyptian logic we have to get it in the south of Egypt.....at the beginning of our trip.......before we export the bikes.......at the other end of the country......1000 miles away. It's a pretty dodgy affair, getting dropped off by a taxi in a rubble strewn slum, being ushered up a dank stairwell into a dingy little office, so we're actually surprised to find that we are indeed in the right place and they produce the piece of paper that we need.
We do a little sightseeing around Aswan, seeing the Aswan high dam, Philae (a 380 BC temple situated on an island), and the unfinished obelisk which was abandoned by the builders 3500 years ago, it would have been the largest one ever made but it cracked during construction and provides a fascinating insight into how these structures were built, extracted from the surrounding rock and transported.
From Aswan we're heading to Luxor. The ride proves a bit of a drag, lots of trucks, lots of speed bumps and lots of police checks. As we pass through the fairly large town of Edfu, the highway disappears, it's blocked off with construction vehicles and there's no obvious detour. We've only been staring at it for a few moments when a young man on a motorcycle passes and looks over his shoulder asking if we want help to get to the highway, so we follow him around some backstreets until we end up in the middle of a market, there are two large tourist buses looking completely out of place and he says "follow them, they'll get you to the highway", then spins his bike around and disappears into the traffic. It's a real crush of people, motorbikes, buses, cars and a type of vehicle that's a cross between a motorbike and a donkey cart. There's inches to spare and people keep squeezing past, tapping us on our backs, arm and helmets, just to say hi.
About 100km from Luxor we're pulled aside at a police checkpoint, they're not too interested in our passports or documents, but invite us to stop for a coffee at a shop next to them, in fact they seem very keen that we should stop and take our time. It's a bit weird, but we'd been looking for a break anyway and so gladly leave the bikes at the checkpoint and go to the shop. The reason they were so keen slowly materialises when a bus turns up and a bunch of Chinese tourists get off. We're approached by the equivalent of the Egyptian KGB (black leather jacket type), and the shop owner who asks us which hotel we're staying at in Luxor. We say "who wants to know?" (because this line of questioning is usually leading into a scam where they can track you down later to suck you into shoddy tours and so on). We then realise that leather jacket is a policeman and it's him who wants to know. It's looking like they wanted to delay us long enough for him to show up which is why they were so interested in us stopping for a break here. Then the Chinese tour groups guide gets involved and a big discussion entails which involves the police wanting us to go in convoy with the bus and a police vehicle the rest of the way to Luxor. All of a sudden they want us to hurry up and get on the bikes. We're a bit sick of it all and still have no idea what they think the risk is of us travelling alone, so we oblige, get on the bikes and burn off into the distance before the police car or bus is ready. We get all the way to Luxor on our own - Ha! A small victory, but quite satisfying.
There's a lot to see in Luxor, but the main attraction is the Valley of the Kings, the burial complex from the Egyptian New Kingdom from the 16th to 11th centuries BC. It's not allowed to take photographs anywhere, a change from when I was here last in 1999, but after a while we find it's not strictly enforced, except for inside the tombs.
Before leaving Egypt we want to take a breather at one of the Red Sea resorts, so we book four days at one near Hurghada. The ride there is a nice run through the desert, but as usual the police have some ideas of their own. We get through a couple of police checkpoints that show little interest in us but inevitably as we pull into a later one, a policeman stops us and hurriedly organises an escort. This one drives in front of us and goes annoyingly slow (60 - 70kmh in a 100 zone), after 5 minutes I'm sick of him and burn past, they quickly vanish behind us. Another 5km down the road, and as we round a bend there's a policeman standing in the middle of the road waving frantically at us, as we approach he legs it back across the road and jumps in his car motioning at us to follow. His comrades scramble to jump into his police car, one only making it as far as hopping onto the rear bumper and he clings onto the roof as this driver does the exact opposite of the previous one and speeds off into the distance. It's a lovely curvy road and I'm happy to have someone to play with for a few minutes but we're leaving Sal behind, who's going at her own pace (rightly so!). I drop back to let Sal catch up and the police vehicle keeps going, losing us before long.
We get stopped once more and they organise an escort, but we leave before they're ready, I think they followed us for a short while but quickly lagged behind until they were out of sight. Just before getting to Hurghada we go through some construction where they're watering the road to keep the dust down, getting us nice and mucky head to toe, so that when we pulled into the resort they were very suspicious of us, making us pull to the side and giving us a complete run down of passports, licence check, bike registration and luggage check. I guess we didn't look like the typical guests. It's an all inclusive resort, so I'm happy enough in the knowledge that my payback for this treatment will be in copious amounts of beer and gin in the next few days.
A few days later, suitably refreshed, we head North wanting to follow the Suez canal its entire length from Suez to Port Said at the Mediterranean. It's only possible to catch glimpses of it as there's a high wall along side but every once in a while there's a surreal view of a ship gliding past through the buildings. At Port Said we can't find a hotel with parking but we do find one where the manager is happy for us to bring the bikes inside, although we don't bother after he says that they have 24h security, so we just squeeze them together nose to tail on the pavement in front of the hotel and cover them up with our disintegrating bike covers. We drop our gear and take a walk to look at the end of the canal.
We now head along the Mediterranean coast to Alexandria, crossing over the Nile near where it exits into the sea, but we must confess to not bothering about riding down to actually see the place where it spills out into the Med, we had been rained on twice today and were rather focussed on getting to Alexandria.
In Alexandria we have to switch our riding style to "Ride like an Egyptian".
This means having eyes in the back and sides of our heads because the 'rules' seem to dictate that every inch of space must be occupied, the only crime here is to leave a gap.
Bikes on a boat
We find our hotel, one of the few in Alexandria with secure parking nearby, check in and take the bikes round the back to the carpark. We'll base ourselves here for a few days to get the bikes shipped to Italy. I've already got a booking with Consolidated Freight Services, which was recommended by a couple of other overlanders and we've already paid for the shipping by bank transfer. The bikes will travel this time by sea on a RORO (Roll On - Roll Off) ship, meaning no dangerous goods certification, no draining of fuel and no dismantling is necessary. We take our documents, including that Traffic Fine Certificate that we got in Aswan to the CFS office and spend the morning with their representative. First we have to go to a chaotic office where we 'line up' with about 100 Syrians trying to secure the right to stay in Egypt - at least it would be nice to imagine a 'line', the reality is that it's just a crush of bodies which the 4 of us (we're joined by a Swiss guy, Iwan who's importing his 4x4 heading south), attempt to jam into any gap that appears - yes, it's a lot like the driving.
The purpose of all of this is just to get a stamp in our passports to prove that we're still in Egypt, so when our CFS rep finally gets to the window we each take turns thrusting our heads through the Syrian mosh-pit towards the window so that the woman can see it's us and give us our stamps. Iwan leaves us as this is all he needs to do for now and we head off to the court office to get a letter of authority for CFS to act on our behalf. At least we can take a seat here but it takes hours to wait our turn, eventually we're set free and all that's left to do is deliver the bikes in a couple of days' time.
At the hotel we prep the bikes for shipping, moving valuables into the hard panniers and making sure the roll bags are as secure as they can be, theft is apparently a problem at the docks and on the ship. Not really been looking forward to riding in Alexandria again, but the next day we must deliver the bikes to the port early, so we take off into peak hour traffic jostling for position and making sure not to offend anyone or offer temptation by leaving the slightest gap. Inevitably Sal and I become separated but we remain in contact over our headsets until the last minute when I arrive at the CFS office. I expect Sal to arrive in a minute or two so I park on the street where she would see me, 5 minutes goes by, then 10, I'm getting worried so I try to call and text, not expecting an immediate answer as it's impossible to answer in a call on the headset in that kind of traffic. A man comes out of his flower shop which i'm standing next to and offers me a seat and a cup of tea, I politely refuse. It's been 15 minutes now, I try to pair our headsets again, they have about a 400m range, this time it works and I can hear Sal, she doesn't sound happy at all, having missed the slip road at the last minute and, there being no second chance exits on this road ended up shot out of town on a long detour to get back.
We move into the CFS driveway and we can see the parking attendant isn't happy about it, prancing around jibbering and waving his arms. Add Arabic to the six other languages that I can say "YOU CAN'T PARK HERE!" in. Sal doesn't want a bar of it so I maneuver both bikes to a spot that calms him down a little.
Ashraf and Muhammad from CFS meet us and after a quick discussion Muhammad hops in a taxi for us to follow down to the port. After over 15,000km and 151 days this is our last 3km on African soil....and we're introduced to a new game - follow the Egyptian taxi. The port gate is chock full of traffic trying to enter, Sal's in front and I pull in behind. A guard is there inspecting vehicles for bombs, the next thing I see Sal jerk and start slapping and punching him. I didn't see what happened and I'm still on my bike, pinned in with a car at my elbow. There's a short fuss and the guard apologizes (insincerely). Muhammad and the customs agent are embarrassed and give him a dressing down too. I'm fuming when I find out he groped her chest, but don't know what I would have done if I'd seen it, probably for the best considering that it's a charged atmosphere and they all have weapons. It puts a blight on the rest of the day. They won't let us into the port, so we have to finalise things with the bikes like shoving our jackets into the panniers, and hand the keys over to the CFS agent at the port, who rides our bikes in.
We're expecting our bikes to be at sea for 2 to 6 days, so in the meantime we intend to go to Cairo for a couple of days before flying to Rome, taking a couple of days there and then making our way down to Salerno to collect the bikes. When I get an email the next morning stating that our bikes have already left and will arrive the next day we go into a mild replanning frenzy. We don't want the bikes to sit at the port for any longer than necessary, but then we find out that Egyptian customs are hanging onto our Carnets still and CFS will send them to us by courier we decide there's no advantage to hurrying.
Final days in Africa
We were going to catch the train to Cairo, but the hotel has a deal for a taxi ride for just $20 door to door, by the time we added the cost of the train plus bus, taxi or uber rides the cost is only a fraction more for the hotel taxi, so we decide to take it. The ride takes just over 2 hours, the driver sitting at 160kph at times while fiddling with his phone, nevertheless we make it unscathed.
The next couple of days we visit the pyramids and the museum. Egypt has changed a lot since I was last here in 1999 - 2 revolutions and terrorist attacks have resulted in the tourist industry going from a US$15 billion business down to US$4 billion. Personally I think it's so much better for us, my overriding impression from my last visit was of lots of hassle, lots of scams and lots of crowds, there's none of that now, even the camel ride operators and street vendors are very much subdued. The tourist industry is apparently recovering now, but there was 2 terrorist bombings on the day before we left Egypt, the one in Alexandria was very close to the port where we shipped our bikes from. The target was Coptic Christian churches, not tourists and we never felt in any sort of Danger.
We aimed to get to the airport early, not knowing what affect the bombings would have on security protocols and crowds, however the airport was pretty quiet and we breezed through formalities. Arriving in Rome we put the Aussie passports away and fish out the Brit ones, the immigration gates are all automated so we get through without even facing anyone in person. There's a booth selling SIM cards, we're shocked at the price, but the salesperson says "This is Europe", which we don't accept as an excuse but we end up being talked into it anyway. We should have known better and she completely misrepresented what the SIM's features were (for example she said we could use them to hotspot, which later we find out isn't possible). In Africa a SIM cost less than 1 euro and a Gig of data was about 1 euro, the European SIM cost 130 euro with just 5 Gig of data. We're going to take this further with that company and with the airport who have a charter governing these booths and shops.
Sal's found a neat little hostel right next to the Vatican for a couple of days. We're so enthralled with having a nice city to walk around that we don't bother getting the metro to visit the sights, we walk everywhere and cover 12km before we know it. With the exception of Egypt, in Africa we were careful about going out and night and when we did it usually only involved a sharp stroll back to our hostel for the night, in Africa we stuck out and attracted too much attention everywhere we went, so we were always the subject of stares, catcalls and unsolicited helpers. We're loving the freedom and being surrounded by other people doing the same - just walking because it's a beautiful city to do so.
We stroll over to St.Peter's square in the Vatican and then walk to the Colosseum, the crowds at both are too huge for us to bother going in but we walk right around the square and right around the outside of the Colosseum, then make our way back to the hostel the long way round through a park with stunning views of Rome.
The following day it's time to get the bus down to Salerno and see about being reunited with our wheels. We're dropped off by the bus 2.5km from our hostel, there's no sign of any taxis, so we decide to trudge over on foot, wheeling the $10 suit case we bought in Cairo to hold our riding gear over cobbled streets. We didn't know much about Salerno, to us being just a port to collect our bikes, to our surprise it's one of the most appealing towns we've ever visited. Our hostel is a converted convent with a fountain in the courtyard and situated in a restricted traffic zone of tiny alleyways and archways, pokey little cafes and bars on every corner.
We haven't had great correspondence from the clearing agent at this end, but at least now that we're in Europe where businesses have addresses and streets have names (even the ports address in Alexandria could only be expressed as "across the road from the mosque"), we have no trouble in finding their office. From there it was a pretty quick process of showing them the bill of lading and walking a few kilometers to the port where the security guard organised for someone to pick us up and drive the 100m to the auto cargo office, and there were our bikes sitting outside. We checked over the bikes and found a few small items missing, mainly some bangles we had collected from the rare occasions we had bought from street touts and hung them on the bikes rather than wearing them. I found this level of theft really pathetic, not understanding why someone would find the need to do that. The rest of our luggage looks completely untouched, like the customs officers in Egypt didn't bother looking at anything. The customs officers in Italy just wanted to check the bikes VIN numbers, we paid €141 for each bike in port fees and we were good to go. All in all, very easy and only took about an hour.
In Africa it wasn't so obvious just how dirty our bikes and riding gear were (everything else around us having a degree of filth of it's own), now that we're in Europe it's rather embarrassing, we've gone beyond looking rugged and well-travelled and now we just look like squalid vagrants who've been sleeping in a bush. Even we don't like touching our own riding gear.
Riding the bikes back to the hostel, I found that I had a problem as soon as my bike warmed up, it was idling much too fast - around 2500rpm, not ideal for slow riding and maneuvering the tight alleys. I pulled over to have a fiddle but was reluctant to do too much because of the thundering exhaust noise in the confined space. I had a thought later that afternoon as I went through the symptoms in my mind and went out to check it. Sure enough the choke was sticking on thanks to the dirt around it, a quick clean and it was all fine.
Back on the road again
It's the Easter weekend and we leave Salerno to head towards Pompeii via the Amalfi coast, a stunning piece of shoreline but the road is too narrow for the tourist buses that are on it and they cause long delays and havoc at every tight corner and tunnel. After the town of Atrani the buses thin out and there's much less traffic, still the road is so narrow in places that constant vigilance is required in the corners. We eventually make it into the town where we have a B&B booked but come to a halt in a tiny alleyway with no idea where the place is, we're looking around and a car pulls up, the driver says something in Italian and we follow him around a few more corners in and out of tight courtyards and eventually to the B&B. He's the owner and recognised us immediately - sometimes it pays to stand out.
The next day it rains heavily, Sal and I take advantage of the brief dry spells to dash outside and run a cloth over the bikes to help the rain wash them, it gets rid of some of the dirt at least.
The day after the weather has cleared up and we plan to visit Pompeii for a couple of hours before heading further north, but as usual when we've settled for a couple of days it takes us a while to get moving and by the time we get there and do a tour it's mid-afternoon. Pompeii was fascinating and seemed to be a very advanced civilisation for 79AD when it was buried under 6m of volcanic ash by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The remains are remarkably preserved and there are splendid examples of mosaic floors, frescoes and water fountains including the lead piping that carried the water source. When we were finished we decide that it was a little late to move on so we pitched our tent in a campsite next to Pompeii and took a long walk to the adjacent town to find something to eat.
The next couple of days we skirt around Rome and take a meander through the Tuscany region avoiding the motorways and sticking to the backroads and small towns. We've been riding on straight roads in Africa for so long that it takes some time to regain my handling in the twisties, not to mention that our tyres are flat-spotted in the middle, hopefully we can get some wear on the edges while we're here.
We arrive in Formigine, near Modena and will spend the weekend with an old friend, Carlo who we met 10 years ago working on a project in Sydney. We spend a very agreeable Saturday around Carlo's home town visiting the sites and taking in the atmosphere of a perfect Spring day in the piazzas and arcades of Modena, naturally we visit the home of Ferrari which Modena is famous for, finishing at the supermarket for the ingredients to make a feast traditional for the region. Carlo is a biker too and knows all the best roads which we go over on the map during the evening and again in the morning, with this knowledge in hand we head off on Sunday heading first for Venice and then for the Dolomites which will take us through numerous mountain passes eventually to Switzerland. The only concern is the weather, there's another cold snap coming bringing with it snow and sub zero temperatures, not the best time to be in a mountain area best known for it's skiing.
It's an easy run up to Venice and we find our way to a campsite and pitch the tent again. The next day we catch the bus a short distance to Venice and spend the day wandering around the city, visiting a couple of churches and piazzas where scenes from Indiana Jones were filmed, in one of these churches there's an interesting exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci's work including mock ups of his inventions. We finish the day at St.Marco's square and, although we're aware of the exorbitant prices charged at the eateries around it decide to treat ourselves to a glass of wine as the sun goes down. Nevertheless, we're still taken aback by a "music charge" of €6 each when get the bill!
Taking the advice from our chats with Carlo, we head into the Italian Dolomites. The first day's run is straightforward, except when we come to an automatic toll point. It's a ticket system whereby you're issued a ticket by a machine at the entry point and in the end you pay at the exit point which is also automated. The hitch comes when Sally rides through the entry point with me without collecting a ticket. Later at the exit point we decide to just go through together as well, but an operator sees us side by side at the pay machine and comes over desperately gesturing and trying to make sure we understand that we must go one at a time, as I'm feeding coins into the machine. The boom gate opens and to a last ditch round of gesturing and shouting we barrel through together without looking back. We get to Cortina d'Ampezzo which is a small ski village surrounded by mountains with snow still on their peaks.
The following morning we gear up and get away before any rain starts, however 5 minutes up the mountain it starts to snow, we press on for a short while but it's now snowing heavily and there isn't enough traffic to clear the road. We turn around and leg it back to the hotel to see if there's an alternative route. Back at the hotel Sal checks the maps while I chat to a couple of British cyclists who are scoping out the hotel for a tour they're going to do in the summer. Sal and I decide the best thing to do is head for a lower altitude which means making out way back the way we came and taking the motorways towards Milan.
On the way it rains steadily all day and we arrive at a hotel outside of Verona soaking wet and cold. We quickly turn our hotel room into a Chinese laundry but with a special smell coming from our riding gear. It's not supposed to be this cold and wet in April, so the hotels have all turned off their heating systems for the season. The next morning we have the pleasant experience of climbing into our still cold and wet riding gear to get ready for another day on the road. The cold and wet is also affecting our bikes and equipment. The main beam of my bike's headlight isn't working, Sally's heated seat has blown (burning a hole in the seat in the process), my intercom isn't working and Sal's intercom is speaking to her in Spanish.
One more stop in Italy before we cross into Switzerland at a hotel in Lomazzo, between Milan and Como. We're looking at the forecast between us and Zurich, it looks doubtful, snow and maximum temperatures of -7℃. I call our friend in Madiswil (Switzerland) where we'll be staying and agree that it's best to wait until the cold front passes in another day. But....we never really take a day off, so we do a few odd jobs on the bikes, I check out my headlight and found the bulb is blown (it's a high intensity HID bulb, so finding a replacement might not be a simple task), Sal checks out the damage to her seat and adjusts her headlight, which was pointed too high and causing oncoming traffic to flash us at night, and we tighten our chains. Sal's intercom recovers after a thorough drying, but mine now talks to me only in Russian.
Old friends and good times
What a difference a day makes, the next day it's beautiful clear skies and not as cold. On the way out of Italy we stop at the border to get our Carnets stamped, they're not required for Europe but customs used them when we were at Salerno, apparently it streamlines the import process but now we must make sure that we get them stamped out of Italy. It's easier than I expected, the customs officers at the border knew exactly what to do and they got pretty excited never having seen a Carnet from Australia before. We also walk over to the Swiss customs office to buy passes for the motorway, it's €40 each, normally we could've avoided this as we prefer to take the back roads, but there's no choice today with the motorway being the only way open due to snow. We enter Switzerland and take the 17km long Gotthard tunnel, emerging out into snow covered hillsides and jaw dropping views of the mountains. The last part of the ride is through picturesque Swiss countryside along narrow roads to the idyllic hamlet of Madiswil where our friends Peter, Susan and their three boys live. Over the next few days we enjoy settling down, eating and drinking well, it's fantastic to see our friends again, it's hard to believe that it's been 8 years! Other friends Patrik and Maryanne, who we haven't seen in 2 years since they moved from Sydney, also make it over and it's so nice to see familiar faces and catch up with old friends after 16 months on the road. Peter and Susan kindly give over the use of their washer and dryer for two whole days so we can clean our Klim riding gear, this is a real treat for us, it hasn't been washed since South America.
From Madiswil we head into Germany, cutting the corner across Austria as we go and stop for a quick tour of Neuschwanstein castle which anyone familiar with Walt Disney films might recognise. It's bitterly cold and we're getting regularly soaked on our rides, where is the European Spring? We pass through Munich and spend the night to visit The Hofbräuhaus where we have a couple of beers and meet a young American who we chat to for a couple of hours. German beer must adhere to a standard called the Reinheitsgebot which stipulates purity and limitations on ingredients, it makes a difference to the morning after and we wake up no worse for wear. Next we ride to Rothenberg Ob Der Tauber, a medieval walled city where we browse around the crime and punishment museum for some light afternoon entertainment.
Over the following few days we press on towards Calais via Luxembourg and Belgium. Just as we're leaving Germany there's a large group of bikers assembled in a pub carpark who wave as we roll by into Luxembourg. It's immediately apparent that they've come from that direction in order to sample Germany's perfectly smooth back roads. As soon as we're across the border the road surface deteriorates to the point where a change is riding style is required. The surface appears to be made of the old ripped up surfaces of 100 different roads to form a patchwork quilt of bitchumen. The backroads of Belgium aren't much better however the highway is fine, which is ok for us as we decided to use it to get from A to B quickly because it was cold and wet again. The small towns on route are sometimes very quiet in the middle of the afternoon and all the restaurants and cafes seem closed, besides we're trying to travel on the cheap, so we stop at a supermarket and buy some chicken and bread for lunch, which we eat in the carpark while it drizzles on us.
Our Eurotunnel tickets are booked for the train in a couple of days' time, so put the kettle on and stock up on bacon, Britain here we come!