We’d left Chuck the Truck in Salerno, Italy, to be shipped to Alexandria, so we flew from Rome to Cairo via Amman. This required a train to Rome and a further train to Fiumicino airport. Mostly, minor delays were all we had to complain about.
Cash-up at Cairo Airport
A couple of important tips I’ve picked up over the years:
- Always be sure of the exchange rate before you arrive in a new country.
- Never put your bank card in an ATM before you know exactly how much cash you are going to try to take out.
On trying to confirm the exchange rate, with my bank card already in the ATM, while being fed FX misinformation by a taxi guy – let’s call him Mohammed, as it’s a good bet – the machine ate my card. Imagine my dismay.
EE had kindly informed me that it would cost exactly one organ per minute to call local Egyptian numbers, so I asked to use the mobile of a guy at the nextdoor tourist desk. Mo was pointing to a 5-digit number on the ATM and telling me to dial it. I read “19000”, while Mo said “one nine five five five”. I looked at Mo with disbelief, wondering how he could get his English numbers wrong. He then pointed to each digit in turn and repeated “one nine five five five”. I pointed at the digits and informed him that they were, in fact, a nine and zeroes. For a brief moment I thought this was all a scam and I was being asked to dial Mo’s friend (also called Mohammed) who was inside the ATM. Mohammed (1) told us that Arabic numbers are different, which sounded plausible, so I dialled 19555, gave just enough information to allow them to help me and arranged to meet an engineer the next day. During this stressful call, the owner of the phone was persistently trying to sell me various tours, which I persistently declined. The mood in Camp Montgomery was, as Samsung would say, ‘true black’ by now.
Our first African taxi ride
We knew the taxi price was too high, but it was 1.30am and we weren’t confident there was a standard cab rank at that time of night (see also: our mood), so we accepted Mo’s criminal offer. Not happy with charging us too much, he wanted a tip, even though he was merely pushing us into a rickety old car with a driver who spoke English as well as we spoke Arabic. He didn’t know the hotel, or even the area, despite Tahrir Square being the best known part of Cairo, in ‘Downtown’. Was this really a taxi? Eventually, after he made some phone calls while driving ridiculously fast, he sped up markedly. I was confident he now knew where we were going, though not of us getting there alive. We did get there, though, so I mustn’t grumble too much. The things I thought so crazy during that first taxi ride would soon become the norm for us, as we realised things were just different here. TIA, as they say – This Is Africa.
Our first African hotel
As we rocked up outside what looked like a derelict building, our taxi driver implied that our choice of hotel wasn’t a good one. He was upset not to earn a tip. I wiped some dirt off what looked like a buzzer and pressed it. Eventually a man, who looked both distrusting and distrustful, appeared and led us up some stairs to a weird looking reception area. The City Hotel was full, despite our booking, but they would put us up at another hotel. While this all sounded mighty dodgy, any other hotel would surely be preferable to this one, so we loaded up again with our considerable baggage and re-entered the arena that is Cairo’s streets. Five minutes later, we were in an equally dodgy looking establishment handing over our passports and money. We stuck it out for two days in the Town View Hotel, and then treated ourselves to four nights at the Steigenberger in an effort to reduce our stress levels.
On our first morning we were freaked out by the normally simple act of crossing the road. Within 5 minutes we’d been told to “walk like an Egyptian” twice, as we stood ponderously, trying to pluck up the courage to just start walking across through the traffic like the locals do. But Egyptian roads and driving deserve proper attention, so more on the subject in another post.
We were like fish out of water without Chuck. Walking, taxis and hotels were strange to us and it took us some time to acclimatise. Even then we felt in limbo, our driving holiday in Africa unable to begin until we could get our truck back and get on the road again.
We walked around a lot, tried lots of local food (including a fantastic food tour with Bellies en Route), enjoyed a few beers and did the basic Cairo tourist necessities: the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum, Al Azhar Park and some restaurants and bars on the Nile. We spent a long time trying to find a battery isolator switch for Chuck, to fix the dual-battery charging system, and amazingly succeeded.
Cairo’s a full-on, crazy city, which excites and tires in the same measure. The sound of the city is undoubtedly the car horns, which was like another language we couldn’t understand. It’s a grubby place, as the sandstorms make it nigh on impossible to keep the place clean. That, and the general attitude in Egypt seems to be “spend loads initially; forget about it”, as proven by the pyramids being buried beneath the sand for hundreds of years.
After a week, we jumped on a train to Alexandria where we met our freight forwarder. More delays meant more time there than planned, and there’s not a huge amount to do there. The usual default of holing up in a bar is decidedly tricky as Alexandria only has a handful of bars, with most of them being in soulless, expensive hotels. We got to know many, many taxi drivers in those six days, and were continually amazed at their Uber app’s inability to direct them to the destination.
Top up with diesel and go!
After almost a week in Alexandria, and three days of bureaucracy at the port, I had a smile on my hairy face as I drove Chuck from the port to pick up P-Mon and finally get our roadtrip on. I stopped at the small fuel station next door to our apartment block and confirmed, via interpretive dance, that they had diesel but that I couldn’t pay by card. Chuffed with how well things were going, I popped over to the diminutive man who was filling the car – with petrol. Imagine my dismay. He had pumped about 50 litres of petrol into Chuck before I stopped him, and this was now mixing with the 75 or so litres of Italian diesel which was already in there.
The crowd grew as I tore my remaining hair out, and eventually the owner emerged to help – an Arab Steve Buscemi, I noted. After a brief conflab, the owner’s nephew explained to me in excellent English that they were going to drain the tank, separate the petrol from the diesel and put ‘my’ diesel back in Chuck. I had long since run out of alarm bells, but this didn’t sound right, so I checked with both Google and my dad. All three of us doubted the garage had the facilities to perform a fractional distillation, so I told Mr Buscemi’s nephew to keep the fuel. More chats and the new plan was that they would use the fuel mixture for cleaning engines out the back and take me to the closest fuel station, where they would buy diesel. It then became apparent that this station didn’t even sell diesel – the guy had just nodded enthusiastically when I asked if they had diesel, but hadn’t a clue what I was on about. Note to self: I must improve my interpretive dance.
By this stage, Patricia had lugged all our bags down from the 13th floor and was less than happy with the latest revelation. We were both given a drink, which was much too soft, and sat down by the pumps, which were now down to a single lane due to a large diesel vehicle blocking the other. The working lane had a queue of 20 yellow and black Lada Riva 2107 taxis. All petrol.
The cast had expanded and a tiny, jovial man was now crawling under Chuck, doused in fuel, as he removed the tank bung and let it drain into a succession of plastic containers. After about half an hour, three men poured half the newly-bought diesel into the truck, and half onto themselves and the garage forecourt. No-one was smoking, thankfully. We primed the pump, turned the ignition and watched as the big engine sucked the fuel through without as much as a hiccup. Moods all round were better and by this stage I’d made friends with the entire Buscemi family. They were absolute legends, I have to say.
Finally, we were off!
Our trip had begun! First stop was that diesel-selling station up the road, where we filled up with 123 litres for the price of a small round of beers in London. We quickly navigated out of Alexandria, taking two hours, and stopped with our new friend, Emad, who has a lovely house outside the city and on our route. It was then we realised the air conditioning wasn’t working again, after spending over 800 Euros on it a couple of weeks prior in Italy. It was quite hot as we drove into the Sahara.