6th December 10, 11:58 AM
El Kharga driving adventure
I'm back in Egypt for a week or so of field work in the Western Desert. We had an entertaining day last Thursday trying to get from Alexandria to El Kharga, an oasis town in the center of the western desert of Egypt.
I gave a talk to the Geology Department at Alexandria University on Thursday morning, and literally 10 minutes after my talk was over, we piled into a robust but somewhat aging 4WD Toyota for what was supposed to be about a 10 hour drive to El Kharga. The Desert Road from Alexandria (on the Mediterranean) to Asiut (on the Nile) runs south from the Delta just west of the Nile floodplain and parallel to the Nile. The N-S Desert Road intersects the NE_SW road from Asiut to El Kharga just west of Asiut. The plan was to turn SW onto the Asiut-Kharga Road and arrive in El Kharga about 10 pm. "The crew" consisted of Dave, a grad student of mine from Alexandria University, two geologist colleagues, and our driver Samir. And lots of field gear.
Things went swimmingly along the Desert Road. It got dark, and we stopped to get gas at the intersection with the Asiut-El Kharga Road. When we got back into the Toyota, it wouldn't start. So, we gave it a push start and headed down the road. About 10 km down the road, the engine started to run badly, and the only way for Samir to keep the engine going was to drive without the headlights on and flash them every little while to see where the road was. It was completely black out - no moon. Because we couldn't speak Arabic, we couldn't understand the exchange between Samir and one of the geologists, and Dave and I were getting a little panicky considering that we still had about 300 km to drive to El Kharga and we thought that Samir was going to drive all the way to El Kharga that way. It turns out that Samir was just as panicked, but he couldn't stop because if he stopped and stalled in the road and we didn't have lights, the next vehicle to come by would smash into us. And because of the nature of the desert on the sides of the road, he couldn't find anywhere to pull off the road. So we drove that way for about 20 km until we happened on an ambulance station (they are stationed about every 60 km along the road and they are literally the only thing along the road - absolutely nothing else, just desert). We pulled in, and the ambulance guys were really nice to us, brought us tea, and eventually offered to drive their ambulance all the way to Asiut and let us follow their tail lights. So, we jump started the Toyota again and followed the ambulance all the way back to Asiut.
So, the wrinkle was that it was a Thursday, and it was 11:00 at night. Friday in Egypt is like our Sundays used to be, and nothing is open on Fridays. So, we were anxious to get the Toyota fixed on Thursday night so that we could head to El Kharga on Friday and not have to wait until Saturday to get it fixed. Unlike in the US, many little shops are open until midnight or so in Egypt, and people are out on the streets until at least that late. So we drove around Asiut for about 45 minutes with Samir stopping people and asking where we could get our alternator fixed (which he had figured out was the problem). We went to 4 different little car repair places (which were all still open) until we were directed down a couple of narrow streets to a tiny little shop with a palm tree in front - apparently the guys who owned the shop were the "alternator guys". So, Samir squeezed the Toyota in under the palm tree, and, sure, of course, they could fix our alternator. They carted over a bench, brought us tea (an inevitable thing in Egypt), pulled the alternator, and rebuilt the alternator on the spot. Took it completely apart, soldered in new brushes, cleaned everything up, put it all back together, made sure that it started, and brought us more tea while we waited until the battery had charged enough, By the time they were done, it was after midnight. And they were incredibly incredibly nice guys. Here are a couple of pics of "the alternator guys" and their shop:
The Toyota and the palm tree:
Rebuilding the alternator:
And their shop - this photo shows the entire shop. Literally.
Then we spent the next hour trying to find a cheap hotel in Asiut that still had rooms. On the fourth try, we were directed to a place that had rooms, and we couldn't get to it because every time we turned down a street that should have taken us there, it was blocked - first by an excavation, then by a one-way street, and then, when we turned the final corner on the third try, _that_ street was blocked by an excavator. We just sat there and laughed until we couldn't laugh any more. We finally hiked to the hotel with our stuff and collapsed into bed about 2 in the morning. Maybe later. I think I Skyped Carolyn at 2:30.
_Anyway_, we got up the next morning, had tea and breakfast, and headed down the Asiut-El Kharga Road again. It was a little un-nerving to see in the daylight what we had avoided running off the road and into in the dark the previous night! We stopped about half way to El Kharga to do a day of field work.
At the end of the day, we drove south to El Kharga. At Naqb Asiut (Asiut Pass), the road drops hundreds of meters down 9 km of switchbacks into the floor of the Kharga Depression. It is truly impressive and starkly beautiful. Before the paved road was put in, the pass was a real ordeal by camel caravan, with knee-deep sand from top to bottom, apparently. We finally made it to El Kharga on Friday night.
6th December 10, 12:26 PM
The Toyota and the palm tree?
Does that "Lexus and the Olve Tree" guy know about that?
Thanks for sharing your geological adventures, Barb...looks exciting.
6th December 10, 12:49 PM
High adventure simply cannot be beat! Eat a few schwarmas for me while you are there.
When we meet, remind me to tell you about my Al Kharge (Saudi Arabia desert oasis) experience! A story best not told on these pages.
He makes items, all handwrought; Combinations of metal, stone, and thought; Symbols and history that certainly ought; Be worn by any well-dressed Scot. Carol, 2009
6th December 10, 12:50 PM
And just think, in the States it would be a big deal to get anyone to look at repairing an alternator. May all of your adventures turn out as well as this last one.
Beware the Kilt! Oh yes, it starts all soft and warm and nice but soon you'll feel a scratch or two. That's the Kilt; it's injecting tartan into your veins.
The need to possess another Kilt starts as a wee thought and builds until you can't think straight. So you buy another Kilt. And the process begins anew.
6th December 10, 01:06 PM
That sounds quite an adventure, Barb, thanks for sharing your story.
Glad you got there safely eventually.
8th December 10, 08:50 AM
Great story! Better than my "Clutch went out in the Toyota in a tiny town in Thailand but the shed across the street was a clutch repair shop" story.
8th December 10, 08:57 AM
Reminds me of graduate school years when I used to have to drive that way at night. Back then it was generator brushes that weren't quite the right size. I learned to push them in against the commutator manually from time to time when the lights went dim.
I've had similar night-time repairs in the Amazon; definitely helps to know the vehicle well and carry spares! Glad it worked out well for you.
Great photos by the way!
8th December 10, 09:56 AM
Great story! Sounds like something that would go in Overland Journal.
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