Cairo to Casablanca
Well, actually, Cairo to Algiers, so, let's keep the alliteration and call it:
Alexandria to Algiers
But whatever it's called, one of the consequences of the so-called 'Arab Spring' has been the closing of more borders and restrictions on visas and the like which renders much of this page as 'historical' interest rather than practical info...
This is a ride of almost mythical proportions, it's the journey that's said to be near impossible: visa problems, closed borders, Islamist 'terrorists', long distances and all the rest, but I gave it a go anyway
Tho, how much do you have to ride for a journey to 'count' as a bike tour ? You see, in Libya I virtually didn't turn a pedal, so, does this still 'count' as a bike tour?
The received wisdom is to ride from east to west (the wind direction apparently) and that's what I did, so the planned route crossed Egyp, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria before reaching Morocco. In the end I called it quits in Algeria, partly cos the Algerian - Moroccan border has been firmly closed for over a decade and so the only way between these countries is by air or by ferry via Spain and I couldn't be arsed with a ferry trip by then and partly cos the mountains and rain were getting to me and partly cos I was having such a good time in Algeria that I wanted to explore it a bit more
Don't ask me how far I rode cos I don't know. After Syria and other places I stopped being paranoid about little things like removing the bike computer every time I stopped, and yes, you guessed it, almost the first time I left the trike for 30 seconds in Cairo the bike computer went 'missing' Cairo is like that...
Getting ready to go:
The logistics were a tad daunting, starting with visas
Visa: From east to west the route crossed Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria before reaching Morocco and so there were a heap of potential visa problems
Egypt: even tho Australians (and lots of others) can get a visa on entry, I got a multi-entry visa before I left Oz. A multi-entry visa is valid for 3 months but only gives 30 days in Egypt but extensions are really easy
Libya: BIG problem! Altho things have changed - for the better - since I last tried to ride the trike in Libya, the visa situation is still pretty difficult for cyclists
The Libyans have reinstated the requirement for a translation of the passport ID details page into Arabic. For those in Oz who need the magic stamp, I found a good, same day service, tranlator who'll do the job for 60 bucks - email me for contact details
They have also reinstated the requirement that all travellers be part of a group (of four, minimum) but a good agent can work around this - at a price naturally!
Anyway, there are still the two basic choices:
º hang around Cairo for a month and hope to get a transit visa, or,
º buy exhorbitantly expensive tourist visa
The scuttlebutt on the net is that transist visa do happen (at least in Cairo) but that they take an awful long time to come thru and then give a mere 7 to 10 days to ride from border to border
The other option is to arrange a visa thru a Libyan tour operator. Even to travel agents can 'fix' a visa for solo travel trying to find a tour operator willing to assume 'responsibility' for lone travellers that goes with sponsoring the required visa without actually having someone tag along a bit difficult. This of course makes the visa expensive as in effect you get a visa thrown in with a bespoke tour for one
While the whole point of trike touring is not to rush just to accumulate kms or to say I've 'done' a place, rather it's to travel at a human pace and experience what there is to find in a 'strange' place, for Libya no matter which visa option is chosen, it ends up to be a 7 to 10 day dash from border to border. Ho hum
Tunisia: as there's no Tunisian embassy in Oz I could pick up a visa on arrival. As well as at Tunis airport, this actually works at middle-of-nowhere frontier posts too, tho at the frontier posts they seem to expect you to have correct change in Tunisian currency which could be a bit of a catch 22 . I wasn't paying attention when I got the visa and instead of the 30 days I was expecting, I got a 7 day visa which caused some hassles at the other frontier when I tried to leave cos I'd 'overstayed'- I guess the moral is, pay attention at the frontier!
Algeria: not as bad as Libya but still pretty daunting... A 'certificat d'hebergement' plus full itinerary details - on a bike? - details of even long dead parents and so-on
Morocco: Australians (and lots of others) can get a visa on entry. As the Algerian - Moroccam border has been firmly closed for over a decade, the only way between these countries is by air of by ferry via Spain and I so planned on taking ferries from Melilla to Oran via Almeria
Spain: as Spain is a member of the Schengen states Oz citizens going to Spain as tourists don't have to worry about geeting a visa prior to arrival
Maps: I have an ancient VWK Africa 1:4, 000, 000 North and West Africa map - got me to Timbuktu so I hope it'll get across the North African coast - I also have an equally venerable Michelin 154 Africa: North - East 1:4, 000, 000 plus of course I still have the Geoprojects 1:1, 000, 000 map of Libya and a Freytag & Berndt 1:800, 000 map of Tunisia to help out and, for Egypt, I had hoped to use GPS for my mobile(cell) phone but I simply couldn't get a 'lock' on a satellite in Egypt, wonder why?
B/trike: it's getting harder and harder to transport the trike from Oz by plane, so, I took the (expensive) option and freighted the trike. Somehow, I always get to use the most expensive option ...
Vaccinations: I took a side trip to Sudan (and Yemen too, both without the bike) so I needed to get a Yellow Fever vaccination but as for the rest I didn't bother
Once you're there:
Accommodation: Varies from place to place, mostly it's easy to find cheap and cheerful hotels, although not all towns where you may expect to find a hotel in fact have any - look for hammams and/or mosques to ask about a room for the night, invariably works!
Prices for hotels are usually set by the 'season', the tourist season that is. There can be big differences between high + low season prices. In January/February I was able to stay in relatively upmarket places, even in heavily touristed areas, at very reasonable rates. Nothing like a bit of luxury after a day on the bike...
In general, the hotels got better (compared to Egypt that is), even Medina flop houses, the further west I travelled
Food: In general, food is great! Not just cheap and filling, but tasty too! Tho you'd also best like spicy food as well, as harissa, a local hot stuff, is hot hot and also ubiquitous over much of the region, appearing at breakfast, lunch and dinner
If you have a sweet tooth, you'll be in paradise with honey or syrup soaked pastries filled with nuts or creamy sweet cheese. The patisseries also have a brilliant assortment of pastries and cakes
Bottled water is available cheaply, everywhere as are fresh fruit juices. Tea and coffee vary over the region, I had some of the best coffee ever in Algeria and the mint tea there is also awesome stuff. Beer and quite palatable wine are also available in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria - tho the wine in Egypt was less than brilliant. Non-alcoholic beer is widely available in Libya and Egypt too.
Money: Again varies from place to place, changing cash wasn't hard, but with travellers cheques, not all banks etc dealt in them; they're really not worth the bother anymore
Credit cards were sometimes easy to use and sometimes a hassle, tho they were generally OK in more upmarket places - and of course in the well-defined 'tourist' places
ATM's were reasonably well distributed throughout the region tho not always connected to the 'wider' world, but where they were, they sometimes gave the option of withdrawing 'local' currency or US dollars
Roads: I mainly used highways and they were mostly well paved and often there were nice verges but there were also plenty of times I rode pretty rugged pavement, no verges and sizeable drops (in Libya, up to 10 cm - that's about 4 inches for the metrically challenged) off pavement edges
There was a lot of construction work on the principal roads everywhere, including a lovely looking 'super highway' being built by thousands of Chinese workers in Algeria, and naturally, the extensive diversions around these roadworks were inevitably pretty crook for riding
Of course out in the backblocks everywhere the roads are more like a collection of patched potholes
Traffic: Despite the usual exotic traffic hazards, like camels on the road, getting around wasn't too bad
Compared to Sydney drivers, most drivers in the region were extremely well-mannered and polite, even the taxi drivers
In the towns and villages, there were plenty of other slow movers - camels, donkey carts and other exotica - and drivers were accustomed sharing the road. Traffic cops were almost always unbelievably friendly and helpful, even at the many roadblocks
The bits I didn't like? Horns!
Smoke belching vehicles of all descriptions were too common, not pleasant when you're sucking down air trying to pedal up an incline, and some of those climbs were awful
Ran into a couple of sandstorms which were problematic more for breathing than in relation to traffic, but on occassion, visibility got down to less than 100 m, and that was scary. Even scarier was the time it was raining during a sandstorm, the flying mud made visibilty even worse
Any speed or yield sign was usually taken as advisory rather than mandatory...
The most frequently asked questions:
By folk outside the region: Why?
Short answer = seemed like a good idea at the time!
So, what's the ride like?
Again, short answer = bloody hard!
The distances between sleeps (or even 'water stops') are indeed pretty big and for great stretches of road there's nothing much of interest to see - even more boring than the Nullabor in Oz - plus the 'red tape' was daunting, there were roadblocks in every country and while the police manning them were inevtiably friendly, each stop took a lot of time while they carefully inspected my passport/visa/'permission letters'. I spent a lot of time getting photocopies of my passport or visa or 'permission letters' (that in themselves sometimes took forever to orpganise...) leaving a trail of copies at each checkpoint. In the west, the day temperatures were already climbing, but towards the east, the rains came, as landscape changed from flat desert-like to more mountainous
All in all, it's a demanding ride and I salute those hearty souls who do it all on their bike - I 'cheated', I took the easy option, using a car for long and boring bits (like the Gulf of Sirt in Libya, which re-defines 'middle of no-where')
By folk in the region: Why?
Short answer = seemed like a good idea at the time!
As seems usual by now, just as I was embarking on my journey there was yet another 'flare-up' in the Middle East (Israel attacked Gaza, or the Palestinians in Gaza attacked Israel ‑ choose your own preferred option... ‑ at this time) and this latest incident formed the central point of interest in most interactions with locals