Egypt

A free armed guided tour of Egypt (whether you like it or not)

Posted by James Anderton on February 1st, 2020


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For more detail on Egypt you can read a blog of my time there

Egypt sadly is not a country made for cycle tourers. Sure, some of the cycling itself is excellent. The mountains of South Sinai, the Red Sea coastline, the hustle and bustle of life along the Nile. Even the vast expanses of desert offer up a tranquil beauty at dawn and dusk that only the desert can provide. There is a problem though. The police. It's not that cycling is illegal in Egypt but it can at times feel that way. The police are simply concerned for your safety. They want you where they can see you. Unfortunately this involves following you at all times.

Cycling Egypt Police Escort Sinai

A regular scene cycling in Egypt. This was first thing in the morning after I'd managed the rare feat of shaking my tail the night before and camping in the desert.

It is not that Egypt is especially dangerous for cyclists. I never felt unsafe or sensed any trouble. The country has been stable now for a number of years. The police however are paranoid about any incidents involving tourists that would setback the recovery. After the 2011 November revolution and the ensuing, albeit brief, rule of the Muslim Brotherhood tourist numbers almost dropped to zero. The tourists have started to come back but still not in the numbers prior to the revolution. Going further back tourism in the country took a long time to recover from the tragic events in Luxor in 1996 when 70 people were killed, mostly tourists, by an Islamic extremist group. The police are, perhaps understandably, a bit jumpy and over-zealous in their desire to make sure you are safe. This though does not make for a very enjoyable cycle tour.

Cycling Egypt Policekids

The policekids were always a good laugh

For me, one of the primary joys of this cycling life is the freedom to go where you want, when you want and to generally make it up as you go along. To improvise and be spontaneous with your route. To camp in the middle of nowhere, far from the madding crowd, under a million stars. None of that in Egypt. The police regularly sat on my back wheel. All attempts at camping were firmly rebuffed. All efforts to take the minor roads and dirt roads away from the traffic were doggedly resisted. Attempts to get me in the van to hurry me to the next checkpoint were constant. I did manage to drop them a couple of times. I've seen enough films to know how to shake a tail and gave them the old one-two in traffic when they were being particularly irritating. I even managed to drop them in the desert of Sinai when they got complacent and went on ahead. I seized the opportunity to nip down a dirt track for a cheeky wild camp. They found me back on the road first thing the next morning and seemed seriously troubled about where I had spent the night.

Cycling Egypt South Sinai Katerine

The road on the way to Mount Sinai and St Katerine in South Sinai

At times the constant attention would get to me and I would give the police a hard time but I always regretted it. They are under orders and just doing their jobs. Many of them were good company and always at pains to welcome me to their country. 'Welcome to Egypt, passport please’ is something I heard a lot. They were curious and reveled in the opportunity to converse with a foreigner, use their limited English, tell you all about Mo Salah and find out a little about you. They wanted to make me feel safe. Of course the fact that they feel it necessary to follow me at all times with big guns slung over their shoulders didn't exactly make me feel safe. At each checkpoint I was plied with chai. Often they would come up alongside as we went along and give me oranges and water. I was forever posing for selfies whilst we waited for my next escort to show up as I was relayed down through the country. After a while I became used to their presence and at each handover I would made a point of profusely thanking my last escort and warmly welcoming my new escort no matter how unwanted their presence was.

Cycling Egypt Police Van

Occasionally they managed to get me in the back of the van

Why bother writing about a country that is no place for the independent cycle tourist? Whereas I highly recommend you avoid Egypt for a stand alone cycle holiday. You may well find yourself here as part of a continent long cycle adventure. The east of Africa is a semi-popular undertaking for the intrepid cycle explorer. If this is your route then Egypt is pretty much unavoidable. If you are coming from the Cape, and can feel the achievement of cycling a continent within your grasp, then the last thing you want is to be bundled into the back of a van by the police. Fortunately with a bit of persistence this can be avoided. You are allowed to cycle in Egypt. It is not against the law. They cannot force you into the van against your wishes. They will suggest, recommend, plea, endear, pretend you must, supplicate, cajole but at the end of the day if you stand firm and politely, or not that politely, refuse they will eventually shrug their shoulders and let you cycle, and then follow you. The only exception to this was in South Sinai where security is even tighter and there was one section (unfortunately a mountain descent) where they simply were having none of it and I had to get in the van. South Sinai though is not en route for anyone cycling Africa from top to bottom or bottom to top. Just smile and say No. Eventually they will cave.

Cycling Egypt Nile Donkey

Sunset on the River Nile

What of the actual cycling in Egypt? The best cycling is in South Sinai particularly on the climb to St Katerine. A small town nestled below Mount Sinai where a man named Moses received the Ten Commandments. I enjoyed the cycling along the Nile which runs all the way down through the middle of the country. Peaceful and quiet it is not but as a snapshot into how the majority of Egyptians live outside of the big cities it was great. Rickshaws, horse-carts, tuk tuks, cars, motorbikes, heavily laden donkeys and me all competing for space. Cairo is not a great place to cycle but that won't come as a surprise to anyone. The chaos I don't mind. I quite enjoy it but the air quality is poor, breathing is unpleasant and the constant sound of car horns can drive you up the wall. There's some excellent Red Sea coastline dotted with affordable resorts. If you are cycling the coast I definitely recommend cycling north to south. The prevailing wind is consistent and strong. The vast majority of the country is desert. The police may leave you alone here but I wouldn't count on it. With it's world famous archaeological sites and vibrant culture Egypt has a lot to offer a tourist but for the cyclist who values his independence it is best avoided.

Cycling Egypt Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Roads:

All sorts. All main roads are paved but there are excellent dirt tracks that head off into the desert. The tracks can get sandy at times so expect a fair amount of pushing.

Wild camping:

Yeah good luck. The police will not let you camp and they are hard to shake. I managed a couple of cheeky wild camps but this only caused the police consternation. Camping is not understood in Egypt. The police do not like the idea of you being out there all alone at night. There are no outdoor equipment shops in Egypt. In Cairo there are three Decathlon shops where you may be able to pick up basic gear. They do not however sell camping gas. I never saw any screw top (or pierced) gas canisters anywhere in Egypt.

Security:

If having an armed police escort makes you feel safe then great. If the fact that the police consider an armed escort necessary concerns you then not so good.

Visa's:

You will need a visa to visit Egypt. You can do it online and costs $25. The e-visa website has more bugs than a Delhi hotel room so patience is required. There are insurmountable bugs on the mobile site and different insurmountable bugs on the desktop site but between the two you can manage it. You will need a passport photo less than 500KB in size. I use Pixlr Photo Editor to reduce the size of photos. You can pay iVisa to remove the agony of getting through the official site but they will charge you an extra $30.

Border Crossings

I arrived on a boat from Aqaba in Jordan to Nuweiba. The ferry is expensive $75 for a 2 hour ride. It runs every day. Leaving at 11pm and arriving at 1am. There's a ticket office in Aqaba here. It's cheaper just to cycle through Israel. It's only 30km from the Jordan/Israel border to the Israel/Egypt border but you run the risk of getting an Israeli stamp in your passport and you have to pay $30 departure tax out of Israel.

I left the country on a boat from Safaga to Duba in Saudi Arabia. You can't get tickets online. You need to visit the Namma Shipping Lines office on the opposite side of the road to the port entrance. There are 3 boats per week (usually): Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Although as the boat actually leaves at 1am you could say very early in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It costs 1100LE with cabin. 900LE without cabin.

Bicycle Shops:

Cycling is not especially popular amongst Egyptians but there are lots of basic shops about. Especially in Cairo. Do not expect quality parts. Decathlon in Cairo may be your best bit but I never went so I can't say for sure.

Tips:

Cash is king in Egypt. Basic hotels everywhere do not accept cards and only supermarkets in Cairo will. ATM's are plentiful and reliable however.

When to Go:

Anytime. I cycled in January. The coolest month in Egypt but the temperatures were perfect for cycling. 20 degrees C and clear skies every day. Nights could be a little chilly at this time. Especially in the mountains of Sinai but as you will probably be bundled into a hotel every night it doesn't really matter. Summers are hot especially in the south. September to April is the best time to cycle.

Wind:

It's pretty windy in Egypt. There's not a lot of protection from it. In my time it either came from the north or the west

Costs:

Egypt is cheap. This made the fact that I often wasn't allowed to camp bearable. You can find basic hotels for less than $10 in most towns outside of Cairo. Don't expect Wi-Fi and a couple of times the bed/pillows were so hard I camped out on the floor of my hotel room. Cairo is a little more expensive except at the Pyramids where supply now outstrips demand and you can get some good deals. Food is dead cheap everywhere. Meals for $1-2.

Food:

I loved the Kushari. A popular cheap meal of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. Great bakeries everywhere.

Cycling Egypt Kushari

Kushari

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.