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The Race Home for Christmas

Day: 255

KLMS: 40,539

With the Africa leg of our journey completed, it was now a race against time to fulfil our promise of being home by Christmas. We had decided that the best route home would be to catch a boat from Israel to Italy, using Grimaldi, a reliable Italian cargo company rather than trying to face the nightmare of shipping out of Egypt.  So with a few days to kill before our ship sailed, we ventured off into Israel, with no GPS or road atlas just a topline map I’d torn out of a tourist guide!

We drove up through the Negev desert, which has to be hands down one of the most beautiful deserts we’ve driven through. Huge mountains and deep canyons provided a spectacular backdrop as we made our way up to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at -420m! A number of flash resorts and spas line the ‘shoreline’’ but the only camping option was in a carpark, but with the mountain backdrop and a view of the sea, it was actually rather lovely as carparks go! Despite the cool, overcast weather, we were both dying to jump in and test out our ‘’floatability’’ in the Dead Sea. We giggled like small children as we bobbed around like corks in the extremely salty water and for Richard who has not floated since he was foetus it was all rather exciting.

Bobbing about in the Dead Sea

Bobbing about in the Dead Sea

From the Dead Sea we headed inland towards Jerusalem, although neither of us are particularly religious, we were fascinated to see the most fought over city in the world. As we entered into Jerusalem, sans map, we were unaware we would be driving through the huge West Bank wall that separates the Palestinian and Israeli areas. As we approached the wall, we were soon flagged down by the army to pull over and there were tense moments while our car was surrounded by soldiers and security checks were done on our car. We were soon cleared to go, but the intense security surrounding the city was unreal.

The West Bank Wall

The West Bank Wall

We drove to the walled Old Town, which despite its small size contains the highest concentration of significant religious sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Inside the walled citadel, the warren of tiny streets lead you from markets to hidden churches to open piazzas – it is absolutely beautiful and completely mesmerising watching so many different religious followers rush about their daily rituals,  seemingly oblivious that any other religion exists but their own. The bells of the Christian church chime at the same time the Coptic prayer calls begin, which crackle loudly over the speakers to try and drown out the Muslim prayer call from the far side of the city. It is a total melting pot of religious beliefs, all of which are competing to be the dominant faith and so despite its beauty the ancient city felt very intense.

Young Jewish boy

Young Jewish boy

 

We decided to follow the Via Dolorosa – the final route Jesus took through the city with the cross. It was a fascinating journey through time, finishing at the Church of Redemption (Holy Sepulchre) which marks the spot where Jesus died and is buried. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of those around us, as we watched as people deep in prayer pressed themselves down on the marble stone said to be where Jesus body was laid out after he died. As we moved through the church we came through to the tomb itself, where queues of people waited for hours to go inside, most were deep in prayer, some quietly weeping. Feeling slightly fraudulent that we were in the holiest of places, and not part of a religious pilgrimage we didn’t stay long!  For us, it was an intensity level beyond what we were comfortable with and we found the whole thing rather unsettling. Travelling through so many different countries, we have seen the many ways in which religion is used and how beneficial it can be in bringing together communities, providing support in times of need and peace in troubled times. However in the holiest city in the world, it felt like the most divided and intense place we’ve ever been. As we crossed over into the Jewish Quarter, through yet another line of armed soldiers and security scanners to see the Wailing Wall, we felt very uneasy.

Walking the Via Dolorosa Jerusalem

Walking the Via Dolorosa Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

After our foray through the ancient city, we decided to head out to Bethlehem – afterall it was nearly Christmas. In my mind I was still expecting the nativity scene, but there wasn’t a manger or a donkey in sight. The church of the Nativity now marks the spot where Jesus was born and queues of 2 hours long waited to go down into the room, where a marble cross marks the exact spot where Jesus was born. We wondered around the church and were allowed to go down an alternative set of stairs and skip the queues into the lower levels to see where Jesus was born. We stood back and watched as people pushed and shoved their way through to touch the stone that marks the exact spot. It was certainly a fascinating and eye-opening experience.

By the time our shipping day arrived, there was a huge sense of relief to finally be onboard knowing that we’d completed the hardest section of the journey and from here on in, it would be plain sailing so to speak. Our home for the next 5 days would be the Grande Europa an enormous, 50,000tonne car freighter ship which although designed for cargo shipments has had a number of cabins converted for passengers – although on this voyage it would just be us and 25 crew. For the first time in months we could sit back and let someone else worry about where we were going, what food we would eat and resolve any mechanical issues – bliss! We had a steward to look after our every need and a fantastic Italian chef preparing 4course meals for Breakfast, lunch and dinner! However, as we headed out into the Mediterranean the seas soon began to swell and as we tried to relax in our cabin that night, the boat began to lurch heavily over the waves. We awoke to the news the next morning that the Port of Alexandria had closed due to bad weather and so we would have to wait until the storms cleared. We spent 4 days at sea, enduring gale force winds and crashing waves. Despite the size of the boat, felt like we were on a small dinghy. The waves throwing us upwards, before falling back down 20-30m into the trough of the wave. Our saving grace was to be able to pass the time lying down watching back to back episodes of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones – we day we hit a new record of 10hours straight!

Our Med Cruise ship

Our Med Cruise ship

A better day at sea

A better day at sea

 

By the time we reached Salerno in Italy we were 4days behind, so there was no time for sightseeing. We just wanted to get home. So in 3 days we drove the length of Italy, up to the snow covered Alps into Switzerland and the wine regions of France and onto Calais to catch our next ferry. Expecting more delays due to the bad storms and snow, we actually made such good time that caught the channel ferry a day early. We were exhausted and bleary eyed and having expected that our first sight of the white cliffs of Dover would be an emotional moment I think we were just too tired to really register what was happening.

Nearly home - very cold crossing the English Channel!

Nearly home – very cold crossing the English Channel!

 

As Kylie’s wheels touched down onto English soil, it was a big moment, the phone calls and text messages soon started and we drove onto London in a haze of excitement, relief, sadness and anticipation of seeing our families again. Initially a welcome home brigade had been organised to meet us on Tower Bridge the following day, but having arrived earlier than expected we were happy not to have a public fanfare. Just us, finishing our journey together, an incredible moment that was almost too much to take in. As we pulled up alongside Tower Bridge, our journey from Sydney to London was complete, 40,539kmls, 21 countries, 255 days one hell of an adventure!

We’d bloody done it! And sadly, although all good things come to an end, to make it back in time for Christmas with our families was the perfect ending.

Kylie and the Queen

Kylie and the Queen

We hope you have enjoyed following our adventures – you’ll be pleased to know there are still more stories to tell and trip summaries to write – so don’t tune out yet!  We would like to thank all of you who helped us make this dream possible. From our families who gave us continued support and never said ‘Don’t go’ despite what things looked like on the news, to those who helped us out of sticky predicaments – towing us across deserts or digging us out the mud, the mechanics that kept our old girl Kylie going,  our fellow adventurers who kept spirits high on the road,  the motivational messages, kind words  and comments from friends across the globe and of course the generosity of so many people who welcomed us  with open arms and showed us the real Africa.

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Out of Africa

Day: 242

KLMS: 37,597

Egypt was the first country we’d been rather sceptical about visiting. With the ousting of Morsi only a few months previously and violent protests still occurring across Egypt the instability and unpredictability of the situation had made us question whether we should be attempting to drive across. However, from other travellers and local information, we learned that although protests were unpredictable, they were contained to central city areas so easy to avoid and unlike previous ’uprisings’ in Egypt, this time it was very much an internal political battle and tourists were not being targeted. Upon arriving in Egypt our main problem was that that due to the lack of other tourists we got a lot of hassle from local hawkers, desperate to sell you a boat trip, a horse and carriage trip along the Nile or invitations to see a shop filled with random tat, but with the promise that ‘’looking is for free – but I give you very good price if you want to buy something.’’ It was relentless and very trying at times. In Aswan, the road along the Nile was lined with forlorn looking malnourished horses and empty carriages and the river banks were filled with empty Feluccas and numerous huge floating Nile cruise hotels with no one aboard. The impact of the ‘Revolution’ on an economy reliant on tourism has been disastrous; the situation all felt very sad.

Empty Nile Cruise boats

Empty Nile Cruise boats

Hundreds of empty boats in Aswan

Hundreds of empty boats in Aswan

We were welcomed where ever we went, people were so happy to see tourists. We were constantly reassured ‘’Egypt is safe, our problem is with Morsi, no trouble for tourists!’’. However in their desperation to make us feel welcome, take us to nice places, help us spend our money and prove that Egypt was still a great place for tourists, the relentless attention didn’t make for a pleasant or relaxing experience.  Combined with the hangover from previous terrorist attacks on tourists during the last 15 years, every tourist area is heavily guarded by armoured vehicles, machine gun wielding soldiers and ‘’special police’’ with handguns wedged down the back of their trousers like something out of Miami Vice. Apparently it’s there just to reassure tourists, but it just made us feel uneasy!

Filling up - yes thats a tank on the right and a sniper on the roof top left

Filling up – yes thats a tank on the right and a sniper on the roof top left

So as planned, we took the most direct route across Egypt. Fortunately they have stopped armed escorts along the majority of our route, but we had to pass through numerous, pointless, check points, having to present passports, licences and insurance documents at each one and answer the same question of ‘Where you from’ ‘Where you go’…it was very tedious. We took the new desert road towards Luxor, something which also caused much debate at the beginning check point as to whether tourists were allowed to drive alone on this road. We asked if it was safe and they said yes, so we asked why we couldn’t drive on it – they didn’t know. They then thought they might need some dollars to allow us to pass, but fortunately a senior officer came to our rescue and with a big smile allowed us to pass.  We continued towards Luxor, before turning off towards the Red Sea coastal resorts. Complete sacrilege, I know, for not staying in Luxor and seeing the incredible sites but we’ll keep that one for our retirement when we are too old to overland and have instead switched to cruising, when we can just float down the Nile, sipping G&Ts and being taken to all the wonderful historical sites under someone else’s steam!

Big guy not looking so big anymore

Big guy not looking so big anymore

The desert drive lead us to the red-sea resorts on the Egyptian mainland. Vast, monstrous complexes of unfinished, half built tacky resorts that stretch for miles and miles. We were dumbfounded that the demand was ever so high as to require so many hotels and apartments?? To break up the journey we stayed in a couple of these tacky resorts, cheap last minute bookings made for great deals at 5 star hotels, and although splashing out on a nice hotel room was a welcome break from camping, we both struggled to comprehend how people can sit in these resorts for weeks on end – unless you’re a diver – what would you do?

Give us wilderness, camping and wildlife any day! We continued on, sticking closely to the coastline and crossing through the Suez tunnel underneath the canal and into the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai has been a hot bed for unrest and terrorism since time began and although the trend for kidnapping tourists seems to have abated, a recent spate of attacks on soldiers and police, mostly in the North, included a car bomb that had recently been detonated at a checkpoint we’d be travelling through. The adrenalin was pumping as we began the next section of our journey. We passed through the many checkpoints around the Suez with no problem, half expecting someone to tell us we couldn’t pass through into the Sinai but we were waved on without mention of armed convoys or security problems. We began to relax. The road was good, so with cruise control on (yep, it still works!) we felt relieved that the journey down the Sinai Peninsula would be over in a few hours. However, about half way down as we slowed down at another police check point we were asked to pull over and wait. They couldn’t speak English and we don’t speak Arabic and not being able to understand what was happening made us agitated; after all, being held at check point was probably the most dangerous place we could be! As we waited, we realised that all passenger vehicles were being held and after an hour, over 50 vehicles had joined the group with armed police heading up the front and chasing the tail of the convoy. We didn’t understand if there was a problem ahead, or where it was dangerous, or where it would end, but suddenly all engines had started and it was go, go, go!

Lining up for convoy - that's Miami Vice man on the left

Lining up for convoy – that’s Miami Vice man on the left

Convoy line up beginning to grow

Convoy line up beginning to grow

Driving in convoy through the Sinai

Driving in convoy through the Sinai

The convoy was a farce form the word go. It was like the whacky races as mini buses, lorries and cars flew past us, no one wanted to be at the back! Neither did we! So we sped up and to our surprise Kylie comfortably reached a new record cruising speed of 110km/hr which allowed us to maintain a ‘sheltered’ position within the middle of the pack. We passed through 2 more checkpoints, each time we were held while the convoy regrouped before being allowed to progress again. It was intense and pretty draining and by the time we reached Sharm El Sheik we were exhausted and certainly not in the mood to be told by police that we couldn’t take a car to our hotel in Naama bay. Tempers flared and the words ‘’I’m a tourist, not a terrorist’’ may have escaped my lips once or twice. But, since the car bomb attacks in 2007, no cars are allowed near the hotels so we had no choice but to park up the car and walk to our hotel for our last night Egypt and our last in Africa. That night we celebrated in the rooftop pool at our hotel, the barman was kept busy all night. We had made it across Africa, in a car that many said wouldn’t make it and this moment was something neither of us had dared to imagine until we were actually there. The cocktail of emotions was immense, elated to have achieved something so huge, relieved to have made it one piece combined with the sadness that the adventure was coming to an end…but we were still a long way from home.

The next morning, with raging hangovers, we drove the remainder of the Sinai Peninsula and headed towards the Israeli border at Taba. In a hazy state we somehow managed to drive straight through a checkpoint, so in dramatic fashion were chased down by police and ordered to go back. As punishment they decided they wanted to search everything in the car, which took over an hour and an half while they pulled everything out, disrespectfully rummaging through our personal items. I took great delight when the officer found my ‘She-wee’, in not telling him what it was until he’d fingered it for long enough trying to work it out. He dropped it like a hot potato when I told him it was a ladies urinating device. He then tried to confiscate our pepper-spray, Leatherman, GPS (which he claimed was a satellite phone) and binoculars(!) which were classed as ‘white weapons’. We declined his offer, took back our things and said thank you to the unpleasant, gum-chewing, ray-ban wearing, did you see my gun in the back of my jeans, self-important police officers, for making us feel so welcome in their country and got on our way. Finally we reached the border, which went surprisingly smoothly on the Egyptian side and we met our first friendly officials since we’d arrived in the country. The customs police wanted to search the entire vehicle once again, but after explaining that this exercise had just been completed 20km down the road, including being searched by sniffer dogs they seemed happy to let us go. Of course, they wanted a bribe for not searching us again, so we cunningly offered them some Israeli Shekels which they were very quick to refuse! The haphazard approach to security on the Egyptian side was laughable, yet infuriating but things suddenly got a lot more serious as we drove through to Israel, where security levels were beyond anything either of us have ever seen. As we approached we were held between two barriers, while I can only assume checks were being run on the vehicle as we were surveyed at a distance. Above us, manned look out points watched our every move, while casually dressed, athletic men paced around in front of us, talking urgently into their ear-pieces whilst clutching their lightweight hi-tech M16’s.  When finally it was deemed we were no threat, the barrier in front of us opened and we were allowed to drive into the central area. We were greeted by an unexpectedly stunning, dark haired, dark eyed, petite woman who walked up to the car to welcome us and talk through the next stages of the procedure. We were going to have to completely strip the car, and send everything through their scanner, before the car would be taken off for a further search, scan and x-ray. Trying to attempt the Israeli border with a hangover was probably not the best idea, but the fact that the officials were so pleasant and apologetic made the whole process much easier, not to mention the fact that everyone was incredibly good looking! We managed to strip the car and scan everything in fairly good time, but once customs was complete, Immigration wanted to know more about the Sudanese stamps in our passport. They took Richard off for more questioning and a number of questions seemingly related to emails in our account, which they must have been able to access having provided our email address. You could only wonder what information they had on us and how they were able to access it all! By the time the searches were complete, the interview finished and the car put back together, it had taken 7hours! And just like that, we were out of Africa!

Kylie Unpacked in customs

Kylie Unpacked in customs

Made it!

Made it!

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