On our journey up the west coast from 2013-16, I tried to weave context throughout my stories, to post my observations about the interesting people we met along the way against a backdrop of African history, to try and gain some perspective on their lives. Here on the east side through 2018, having relapsed in the European winter of 2017, I was no longer able to sustain much interaction with the world outside the truck. I also stopped typing notes, so I am working now from the scrawl in my diary, which was mostly documenting my struggle to survive.
(N.B. This is an almost unbearably bloated blog – I started writing Egypt up over 18 months ago and I’m afraid the pain of this long drawn out process is all too apparent. Please bear with me as I try and get back into my groove. Thanks to those who have stepped up to support me on Patreon; your belief that I can close the circle means more than I can say.)
When you get this chronically sick, you lose the capacity for the meta-narrative. The physical horrors of your daily life are so great, the emotional toll is too demanding. Just a harsh word from a loved one can sledgehammer you for 24 hours; so you can’t take on thinking too deeply about Brexit or Yemen or impending climate catastrophe, else you’ll end up sinking into the slough of despond.
You rather retreat to the company of fellow sufferers on Twitter, and prop each other up with sheer marvelling at surviving each day. You are like a band of traumatised refugees trudging the long lonely road together, struggling along with no end in sight, holding each other up with soothing lies:
“There’s still hope. Out there, there must be somebody in power who cares.”
“They’re coming to save us, to save the children. They might ignore us, but surely they can’t leave the children like this…”
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On Jan 6th 2018 severe ME patient and advocate Anne Ortegren, of Sweden, chose euthanasia after 16 years of chronic illness and pain. Her suffering was beyond what most people can imagine. Like most people with ME she had lost her capacity for temperature regulation. But while I have drenching sweats whenever I get cold, her hyper-reactivity caused an immuno-allergic reaction that was next level: for ten years she suffered with constantly burning skin that couldn’t bear the touch of clothes or bed linen. Sheer unrelenting torture. This is the letter she left for us, as finely wrought as antique French iron gates, painstakingly forged in the fire of her experience.
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On Jan 7th, the day we left Red Sea Diving Safari at Marsa Shagra, Sampson was fighting off a 24 hour bug that had him so sick he crawled back into bed in the tent after breakfast and slept till lunchtime. But back in the truck on Jan 8th he was up early, banging about and raring to go. I exploded – had he forgotten already what being dreadfully ill felt like for him yesterday morning? The way it is for me every morning? I had to spell it out: it’s like the worst hangover in the world plus the worst flu. So stop brutalising me with noise in the first hour I’m awake – carelessly banging the door, slamming the fridge, clattering crockery. It’s cruel! It hurts. It makes me want to throw up. And if you can’t grasp this, I’m going to have to live on my own.
I wasn’t proud of my outburst. My shouting woke the kids and used up most of my energy for the day. But if watching the M.E. movie Unrest had helped them both realise that this is real and happening to me, why can’t – or won’t – he? For me, losing 2 or 3 hours sleep due to the dog barking means taking 2 to 3 times longer to get up. And I was feeling way too dizzy to leave quickly – I had to work up the strength to do T’ai Chi to calm the vertigo down enough to enable me to sit up in the front.
The first ever Africa Clockwise Instagram post was taken that day: a beautiful empty shot of the desert just past Barramiya, perfect for the final cautionary frame of the Saving Water with the Sampsons video. I started Instagram as way of my people far away being able to keep up with glimpses of our daily reality despite me now being so behind in the blog.
That day I had moments of appreciating the beauty of shadows cast by lone acacias amidst desert expanses of charcoal, red and gold; I felt extreme gratitude for exchanging the drudgery of routine at home for this experience. We even held hands across the cab for a moment. Sampson admitted that he was having nightmares post-Unrest, that, most unusually, he couldn’t describe. (Sigh. So he did feel something – just not for me.)
But the fallout from the vibration of driving was dire.
I took a preventative Ibuprofen after lunch in an attempt to head off the worst of the inflammation, but still, when the engine stopped, I had to go lie on the bed for an hour till the world stopped spinning. Again it seemed just being in the cab while driving, despite being wedged in with a travel pillow, was giving me too much brain rattle to cope.
My journal records I had a moment that evening when I felt my heart was not right, overly strained at rest: “I reckon that, when my time comes, it will be my heart. It’s comforting perhaps, that it should be quick, not long drawn out, but still a bit frightening. I would like to discuss it with my partner, but I can’t. I know it would frighten him too much. It’s like having three children to protect. I have to face this alone.”
That night I cooked for stroppy teens and fell asleep exhausted at 9pm.
“But Monte’s so freaked out to be in a new place, his barking woke me three times before midnight. I was so so deeply asleep; it was sickening to be wrenched out of it. I told Mark I shouldn’t have to feel this level of pain (I normally sleep through the most intense period of PEM). I don’t want or need a guard dog and if it happens again, he must go out and sleep in the tent with him.
It did, he has, and now I’m too upset to sleep. He came in to get dog food and left without saying a word. It’s ridiculous what we have become. I hate it; hate he chose this, hate he refuses to acknowledge the impact of it.”
I finally got to sleep about 3am and was woken at 6.40 by Monte barking again. Weak and dizzy as all hell, and now with a raging sore throat, I was scared to be feeling on such shaky ground. Only two sleeps out of Marsa Shagra and already I was back to this. I couldn’t get out of bed. Too cold, too wretched, I lay waiting for the spinning to ease while the kids got up.
I told Sampson I couldn’t carry on like this; a few more weeks or months, I could be back in a wheelchair or worse. There was no chance of me seeing Luxor properly in this state. Most of all, I was gutted that his decision to keep the dog was stealing my limited time with my daughter. I felt at a crisis.
Should I go back to Cape Town next week with Ruby for a couple of months to recover (or at least sleep) till Monte was over his puppydom? But I couldn’t leave Zola to homeschool himself, and we couldn’t afford to fly me back, let alone both of us, with Ruby’s school fees due – never mind the carbon footprint. I felt trapped in a vortex of circumstances beyond my control.
* * *
Lying on my bed in the back, I missed the transition from the desert into the Nile Valley, and felt cheated when Sampson told me about it. So after lunch, despite pain and dizziness, I strapped myself in the front. I didn’t dare take another Ibuprofen, as daily use would be far too much for my stomach.
Outside was suddenly a different world: Upper Egypt is GREEN! It’s the agricultural heartland of the country, spreading out from the Nile, and its lushness has had a critical influence on the country’s history.
And – in a change from the cities and towns we had driven through from Alexandria to here – suddenly there were WOMEN, everywhere! Egyptian men were generally very bloody wearing: there were too many little boys throwing stones, mocking teens, lairy young men pulling all nighters or old men sat around in hookah cafes with their feet up on benches (while somebody else was cooking for them) – spoiled princes all. It was such a joy to see female people back on the streets. Walking in groups: shopping, trailing toddlers, coming from school.
Lower Egypt, with the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, is considered more affluent, more sophisticated. Urban middle-class Egyptian women tend to live life behind closed doors, confined to the house for the vast majority of their time. Upper Egypt might be more rural, more ‘common’, but it definitely felt more comfortable for us girls.
Egypt’s range of people was as varied as the country’s range of landscapes: from the modern sprawl of Cairo, to the empty desert of Marsa Alam, from the colourful coral reef of the Red Sea to the luminous fertile green of the Nile valley. As we sat in the truck on the side of road surveying the passersby – some dark skinned, some light brown, some very pale – Ruby said “Wow, people look so different. Just like South Africans”. Admiring a woman sporting a leopardskin coat, green patterned legwarmers, Nike trainers and a replica Louis Vuitton bag with chutzpah, I had to agree with her.
Generally, clothing in Upper Egypt was much more traditional than in the cities of Lower Egypt: men were wearing long charcoal grey or brown robes; older ones with white turbans; most with moustaches, on donkeys. People were much friendlier, and often very excited to see us – there were hardly any tourists round here.
Edfu was crowded, and it got a bit scary trying to find our way to the Temple of Horus with the truck squeezing through narrow roads in the centre. At one point a whole posse of guys helped Big Reg turn around under low wires; a kid leapt up onto the front bonnet, pushed a broom underneath them, lifted it and scampered along the length of the roof! So it was especially surprising when we finally found the Temple and saw the size of the carpark:
The Temple of Edfu was so much more… everything than I could have remotely anticipated. More HUGE. More architecturally impressive. More modern-looking. Despite being built between 237 and 57BC by Ptolemaic kings during the Greco-Roman era.
The temple was dedicated to the falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky and of kingship, son of Isis and Osiris. It is covered in hieroglyphics relating the age old conflict between Horus and his fratricidal uncle Seth, god of the desert.
It’s the largest temple dedicated to Horus and Hathor. Each year, a statue of Hathor travelled south from her temple at Dendera to visit Horus at Edfu; this event marking their sacred marriage was the occasion of a great festival and pilgrimage.
Over centuries, the temple became buried in 12m of desert sand and Nile silt. Locals even build homes on top of it. Only in 1860 did the famous French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette begin to uncover it. Wikipedia describes the temple as “one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt”.
The temple fell into disuse following the banning of non-Christian worship across the Roman Empire in 391. We could see damage to reliefs done by Christians; the blackened ceiling of the hypostyle hall was a result of arson attempting to destroy religious imagery considered ‘pagan’. Some figures on the outside had the surfaces of their faces, arms and legs chipped away:
A guide explained it was the fault of the “Romanin” – Romans conscious of the ‘sacrilege’ of the art felt no qualms about stealing the gold leaf. And then there were the more modern graffiti artists:
Referencing my obsessive diary habit, Sampson joked that one of 9 side chambers (which was smaller than the others, with no figures of gods pictured) had hieroglyphics so densely packed, it should be named “the Sam Pearce room”.
As we exited the temple in the perfect golden light of afternoon, I felt utterly overwhelmed. Humbled and enthralled in equal measure. Full of gratitude for this astounding day in my life and appreciation for achievements of our Hellenic/Ancient Egyptian/African ancestors which have endured 2200 years. All hail the Ptolemies!
Check this Temple of Edfu reconstruction video showing how it might have looked to contemporaries.
Fascinatingly, an industrial family in Leeds, UK, were inspired to build the Temple Works flax mill in Holbeck in 1840 with columns in the same style as the courtyard of the Temple in Edfu. Their building did not endure as well as the original – a pillar in the façade collapsed in 2008! Ambitious renovations are underway.
* * *
Walking around the temple for just over an hour hadn’t made my Big-Wobbly-Head-Puppet dizziness any worse but inevitably I was shattered and knew I was going to pay. I’d planned ahead and cooked in advance so Ruby only had to reheat our leftover supper as risotto.
We drove a little way out of town looking for quiet place to sleep and pulled off onto a side road next to an irrigation canal among sugar cane detritus. Sampson set the tent up far away to ensure I had a quiet night to recover. I felt bad for him because it was shockingly cold: I was using two sleeping bags and even Ruby requested the pink fleecy blanket. (We were still very much in the northern hemisphere at this point, so despite the sunny days, January was deepest winter with overnight single digit lows.)
We’d seen some very narrow gauge tracks nearby and when Hub said “What’s that?” I replied without thinking, as a bit of a joke, “It’s the sugarcane train!” Still, when the very thing came clattering right past the truck just before 9pm Sampson sent me a shocked text message – he’d been worried it would blow the tent over!
At 3.50am, a group of men with torches came back pushing a couple of empty carriages along the tracks and started loading cane. What a time to start work. But I’d slept solidly in between – a miracle. I felt so much better after a chunk of uninterrupted sleep, it was a different world. Pain and dizziness were so diminished, I was able to doze on till 7.30 and got up in glorious golden light when the train carts were nearly full.
The gratitude I felt for not feeling utterly wretched was as wide as the sky.
After another fab breakfast, I strapped myself in for the drive alongside the Nile on the ‘Road of a Thousand Speedbumps’: Sampson had to brake every 100m all the way up the west bank to Esna. It was exhausting and I was frustrated with my constantly blurry photos. I missed some classic pics: today, an embroidered Rikki tuktuk taxi motoring along with 2 giant cabbages bouncing on the roof; yesterday, a colourful calèche or hantour, set against our first glimpse of the Nile. My reactions were too slow to catch them, but I wrote it down to remember my delight.
I was loving the vibe of the little shops; preferred paint colours seemed to be lilac, dark pink and Cape-Town-municipality aqua.
On the other hand, tractors heaped with sugar cane were always painted in a combination of blue/red/orange/yellow, with hearts at the front. It was so difficult to take a decent pic of them while bumping along in the truck, but I tried:
At every police road block, there were at least 5 guys, half with machine guns or rifles, all grinning, some mere lads, conscripts. They became noticeably friendlier as they became noticeably poorer. I was loving the feel of being back in Africa, small shops piled high, horse-and-carts, the aluminium-pots-and-pans man, the feeling of Less Stress.
At Esna, we crossed a bridge back over the Nile and took a much bigger easier road to Luxor, though still scattered with speed bumps. We arrived at 3pm and were shocked to find that the Temple of Luxor was bang smack in the middle of town.
We drove round the city centre twice trying to find parking.
The Temple of Luxor was far less well preserved than Edfu, but much bigger and older, having been built around 1400BCE. Unlike other temples in the the ancient city of Thebes, this wasn’t dedicated to any particular god but to the rejuvenation of kingship itself – it is suspected that many of the pharaohs were crowned here.
There are chapels built by Amenhotep III, and Alexander the Great. Other parts of the temple were built by Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. During the Roman era, the temple and its surroundings were a legionary fortress and seat of government.
It was fascinating to read that originally there were two obelisks flanking the entrance that weren’t the same height but looked the same due to the illusionism employed in many Egyptian temples. I would have liked to test this theory, but one of the obelisks was transported to Paris in 1833 to decorate the Place de la Concorde – in exchange for a French mechanical clock which has never worked. ACT UP covered it with a giant pink condom for World AIDS Day in 1993. An exciting life for a hunk of rock.
The colossal seated figures of the deified Ramesses II were cult statues of the king as embodiment of the royal Ka.
There was a varied array of artisanal penises on display – an old man lurking in an inner chamber posing as de facto guide was pushing young women tourists into “touching them, as a prayer for strength”. I declined. I was quite strong enough already.
Most extraordinarily, there is an active Mosque of Abu Haggag within the temple grounds – built on the ruins of the ancient temple which was originally converted to be a church by the Romans in 395AD then to a mosque in 640 – resulting in more than 3400 years of continuous worship. This makes it the oldest religious building in the world.
Check out the Temple of Luxor reconstruction video.
More than 50000 stone fragments now stored in the Luxor Temple block yard were once part of the decorated walls of the Luxor and Karnak temples. They were reused as building materials in the medieval period. Many fragments were uncovered in the 1950s during excavations around the old Sphinx road.
* * *
“I dreamt all four of us were sliding down grassy hills covered with shiny brown straw bits (like the dead leaves and sheaths of sugar cane too slippery to do T’ai Chi on yesterday) as if we were sledging. I was in the lead, managing to pull off increasingly difficult and dangerous turns, manoeuvring surprisingly well until, speeding up and beginning to get out of control, I suddenly hit a mogul and leapt almost vertical. I found myself going so high there was complete silence – – – then I was plummeting, coming down so fast I was convinced I could not but die on impact. I turned to see Ruby and Zola behind me looking fine, I knew they would cope, so I faced front, gripped Monte’s bed tighter (only then did it become apparent what I was sledding on) and prepared for a big shock impact… But I soft bounced like I was weightless, fell with no pain – and woke up.
My heart was racing so hard I thought I might die.”