I had stopped to cook lunch on a road that seemed to me particularly idyllic. Shaded by trees and running beside a waterway, the road had almost no traffic as I’d had to heft my bicycle over a broken (and impassible to motor vehicles) bridge to reach it. Privacy had been hard to come by in the densely populated Nile valley so I was enjoying the peace and quiet, sitting with my back to a tree and waiting for my pasta to boil.
I was feeling relaxed, and deeply contented. I had successfully evaded the police for almost three days and felt confident I could continue to do so. Egypt was beautiful, I had all of Africa ahead of me and I felt free and happy in the moment. Looking back now, it's amazing how fast things can change.
My pasta was just about done when trouble arrived in the form of two young men on a motorbike, who caught sight of me as they passed and then made a quick U-turn. Like most people I encountered in those remote parts of Egypt they wore expressions of incredulity, but unlike most others they did not return my smile when I greeted them. They were immediately aggressive, and the first thing one said was “passport”. The other immediately started inspecting my bike and trying to pick up pieces of my kit. They had come at the worst possible time – I was cooking and so my things were all over the ground.
The first one again demanded my passport, this time adding “police!” and a long sentence in Arabic. Staying calm and maintaining a friendly demeanour, I explained in my basic Arabic that I hadn’t understood as I only spoke a little Arabic. I told him that I was cycling to Luxor, introduced myself and asked his name. He ignored my question and again demanded my passport. I mimed that I wanted to see some proof that he was really with the police before I would show him my passport, and he responded by angrily shouting “PASSPORT!” point blank in my face.
Although obviously not a great position to be in, at this point I still wasn’t overly worried. The young men were both fairly scrawny and I felt that if the situation did get violent then I could probably handle myself against them. So when they kept more and more angrily demanding my passport I kept politely refusing. One started trying to open my bags, and whilst I was busy stopping him the other made a phone call. That was when things started getting bad. Within five minutes there were another four motorbikes and suddenly there were eleven of them surrounding me.
Numbers made them bolder. As well as my passport they were now also demanding money, more and more aggressively. Since the first two had arrived I had been trying to gradually get my stuff packed back up and to reload my bike, but it hadn’t been easy as they kept trying to steal things; even things they couldn’t possibly have a use for such as my stove windshield. At this point the situation had still not turned fully physical. I had made a conscious effort to stay calm, friendly and as reasonable as I could, and this had kept things from escalating.
I eventually managed to get everything packed up, losing only a cigarette lighter and a cheap plastic spoon. It’s funny the things that go through your head in stressful, high pressure situations – I distinctly remember thinking regretfully that my uneaten pasta was going to make a mess and so I’d wrapped my pot in a carrier bag. Sometimes I’m baffled by my priorities, my stomach really does seem to control me.
My bike loaded, I tried to gently push my way back to the road, hoping if I kept up my relaxed bearing they might let me through. It was not happening though and the group blocked me. Things escalated quickly from there. More demands were issued; for my phone, my watch – one kept saying “aglaa” (bicycle). The mood changed and they grew more physical. Several had started making throat slitting gestures. I was getting really worried at this point, and it was getting harder and harder to stay calm. I was getting angry too, especially with the first guy who kept trying to square up to me. Him, I REALLY wanted to punch. He had a very punchable face.
I knew I couldn’t though. Although no weapons had yet been produced, there were far too many to fight. There were no people around to help me, and no traffic to try to flag down. I was completely alone and now I was scared. The irony was not lost on me that after three days of working hard to evade the police I was now in desperate need of them. My only chance seemed to be to somehow escape.
I could see another bridge across the waterway a few hundred metres away and there seemed to be some people on it. I decided I had to make a break for it. The group were moving around and talking amongst themselves so I waited until there was only one between me and the road. Seeing the opening, I pushed him as hard as I could, knocking him to the ground, then sprinted for the road with my bike and swung into the saddle for a running start.
The group was immediately galvanised into action. Some ran after me and the others went for their motorbikes. One got close enough to push me, trying to knock me off my bike, but I just about managed to stay up. Then I was clear of the runners, and pedalling for my life. My heart was thumping and the adrenaline was pounding as I looked back to see bikes coming after me. I gave it everything, pedalling with all I had. It was close, but I just about made it to the bridge before they could cut me off and I charged up, wide eyed and frantic, to the man standing there.
“Help! I need help!” Part of me knew he wouldn’t understand, but I was fighting back panic. All I knew was that he HAD to help me. Remarkably, he spoke English, at least a little – a major rarity in that part of the world. I quickly explained what had happened. The group had all arrived and were standing just a couple of metres away, keeping their distance but watching intently. I was just praying that the presence of this older man would stop them from doing anything.
The man listened, then nodded. He said something to the group in Arabic, then told me I was safe. He said he would talk to the group, and that that I should continue on. I asked if he was sure, that I was worried I would be followed. He nodded. “It is fine. Go”, he said. I had my doubts, but what else could I do? I couldn’t sit on that bridge forever, so I got back on my bike and rode on, looking back all the while.
After a few minutes’ ride I thought I had gotten away with it. Then a new man, one I hadn’t seen before, overtook me on a motorbike and then turned his bike sideways to block the narrow road. He pulled out a beat up, heavily worn revolver and pointed it at me. A noise behind made me look back, and I saw the entire group riding up, laughing and jeering as they moved in. Some pulled out small knives. I was filled with dread and a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. I was surrounded.
So, how did I get out of such a hopeless situation? Honestly, I’m not sure. The gun and the knives changed everything. I was ready to give them whatever they wanted. I just wanted to get out of it alive.
My hand was going to my wallet when one of the bigger guys tried to grab my sunglasses from off my head. Without thinking I reflexively caught his arm and stopped him, and our eyes met. He was one of the original group and I had noted that he seemed to be calling the shots. They weren’t an organised gang so he wasn’t their leader per se, but he obviously had some control over the others. Seeing this early on, I’d made a special effort to be friendly, polite and respectful to him in particular. He had taken a fancy to my sunglasses from the start, and had tried a few times before to take them from me.
My hand still gripping his arm, we were locked in intense eye contact which lasted several long moments. The others fell silent. I don’t know what passed between us, but when he broke eye contact he also released his grip. He pointed to the sunglasses, then gestured onwards down the road. His message was clear: “give me the sunglasses and you are free to go.” Holding his eyes, I repeated his gestures, making it a question. He nodded. The sunglasses, for my freedom. That seemed to be the deal on offer.
I didn’t believe him. Not really. But he was going to get the sunglasses anyway. All I had to lose was something I would lose anyway. Feeling little more than blind hope I handed over my Oakleys, then looked up at him expectantly. He inspected the glasses, then said something in Arabic and gestured to me. The group looked reluctant but moved out to behind him. I was no longer surrounded. I couldn’t believe they were actually letting me go, but the man now wearing my sunglasses nodded and gestured again to the now clear road.
I thanked him profusely, realising somewhat wryly that I had now actually thanked someone for robbing me, and pedalled slowly off down the road looking back over my shoulder all the while. I still didn’t really believe that it was over, half expecting to find that the whole thing had been a cruel joke and that they would chase me down again. But they were clustered around my sunglasses. They had let me go. It was over.
I started hyperventilating as what had just happened started to sink in. So many emotions were whirling through me. First and foremost I was incredibly relieved to be unharmed and not to have lost my bike or anything vital. I was also scared. My perspective of Egypt as a calm, beautiful and peaceful place had been completely shattered, and I was greatly disappointed to find that the police paranoia from which I’d been hiding appeared to be justified. I made it to the next village and bought a cup of tea to help me process what had happened, and what to do next.
I know it’s an embarrassingly British thing to say, but in my experience a good cup of tea is by far the best way to deal with stressful situations. It forces you to stop, slow down and begin to relax. It gives you time to think and it calms you down. Cups of tea have got me through a number of tight spots over the years.
Sitting there drinking my tea I had to decide whether to stick to my plan and continue on the back roads, in order to continue evading the police, or whether to make a beeline for the highway where I knew I would immediately pick up a compulsory police escort for most of the rest of my ride through the country. The highway, police protection and all, would clearly be the safest choice, and an armed escort now had a definite appeal.
I knew, though, that it would be the wrong choice. That it would mean letting my fear control me. It took me several cups of tea, but as I forced myself to calm down I made the decision to keep going as I was before. I knew I would run into the police sooner or later and be forced onto the highway, but I wanted to savour Egypt’s beautiful rural areas for as long as I could. It was important for me to put the robbery behind me quickly, and not to let it change my outlook.
I pride myself on being governed by nothing more than reason. And despite what had happened I still reasoned that the risks on the back roads were minimal. When something bad happens you can either focus on the negatives or you can learn from the experience to better prepare for the future. If I hadn’t stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere, I’m quite sure that the robbery would never have happened. That was the main lesson I took away – that I should only stop, when in higher risk areas, in towns or villages with plenty of people around. Stopping beside the road for lunch had immobilised me, and that had made me a target.
Even now, I'm still not sure how I escaped so lightly, or why they let me go. Maybe I had endeared myself to the leader enough that he felt bad for me. Maybe the gun wasn't loaded, maybe they decided I wasn't going to be worth the trouble. Maybe they were just in over their heads, not bad guys but angry young men who had let themselves get carried away. I dont know exactly what happened, I just know I'm glad to have somehow made it through.
When something bad happens there are two ways of looking at it. I could focus on the fact that I’d been robbed and that I’d had a gun in my face, or I could be grateful that all I’d lost were my sunglasses, and that I was unharmed. Everything can be seen in a positive light if you set your mind to it, and it's absolutely vital to find the positives if you want to persevere on a very long term expedition like mine. Experience has taught me that positivity is easily one of the most important mental attributes anyone can hope to cultivate.
I had just had a very close call, and I knew I had been incredibly lucky to get away so lightly. I was shaken by what had happened, but not panicked. It was not the first time I’d felt like my life was in real danger. Back in Papua New Guinea near the very start of my ride I’d been faced with a situation where I was almost sure that I was going to get myself killed. I’d had to confront my fears in that moment and I’d come out calmer and more confident, having made my peace with the risks. And in spite of what happened I continue to maintain that the risks are relatively minimal.
Certainly I believe that cycling around the world is generally less dangerous than living in most of the world’s major cities. Gun laws being what they are, cycling around the world is certainly far safer than living in the United States at the moment. Traffic is statistically my biggest threat, but I suspect that I’d be more at risk cycling to work in London than I am cycling through rural Africa. Truly, the risks to my lifestyle are far less than people fear, and are outweighed by the rewards a thousand-fold.
It’s a strange thing, to genuinely fear for your life. Strange at least to someone like me who has spent most of his life in pampered, developed Western countries where safety is usually a given. But for many people around the world a genuine fear of death is part of daily reality; just as it has been for many people throughout human history. How lucky we are now to live in a world where that is not the case, where the occasional ‘fear for your life’ moment is enough to warrant a blog post. How spoiled we all are. How much we take for granted.
The rest of my ride through Egypt was uneventful. As expected, I did eventually run into the police and was immediately subjected to a police escort, despite my protestations. Riding on the highway was boring, and I was frustrated by the proximate presence of a police cruiser following impatiently behind. Egypt’s temples and tombs were magnificent, though spoiled slightly by the sheer number of tourists.
Despite what happened, my memories of Egypt will be mostly positive and I will always be glad for my time there. It is an incredible country full of wonderful people, and cycling through was a dream come true for me. I have no regrets, despite what happened. My sunglasses have a magnificent new home in the land of the pharaohs.