CAIRO, EGYPT – October 2007

Defying Death on the Desert Highway

Prinsendam docked at the Port of Alexandria, which lies some 240 kilometres north of Cairo, at around 5 am and we were not able to disembark until around 5.30 am. Our vessel was scheduled to leave Alexandria at 6pm, which meant we had to be back onboard by 5.30pm at the latest.

The equation: we had a mere 12 hours to make a round trip of the better part of 500 kilometres, see the Pyramids, say hello to Tutankhamun and get a sense of Cairo.

Thanks to some death-defying driving, we made it back with an hour to spare!

Our driver evidently did not believe that safe control of a vehicle required all four wheels to be in contact with the road surface all at once. It was also apparent that he placed vastly more faith in the horn, as a safety feature of the vehicle, than he did the brakes. Given the choice of depressing the brake pedal to avoid a collision with a slower vehicle or honking his horn incessantly until the other vehicle swerved out of his way, our driver preferred the latter option.

No formulation of words can adequately describe the sheer bedlam of the desert highway between Alexandria and Cairo.

On the one hand, there were modern vehicles, such as ours, trying to cover the 240 kilometres in under 90 minutes. Then there were all kinds of vehicles which should have been declared unroadworthy as recently as 1979, trundling along at the maximum speed they could muster. Next were the utility vehicles, travelling at a snail’s pace, grossly overladen with everything from twenty mattresses to a dozen bales of hay to four cows. Finally there were the carts propelled only by the power of a tired looking donkey.

If there were any rules in place, I could not identify them.

Whilst lanes were marked, they were routinely ignored. A faster vehicle – such as ours – was required to overtake on the left, unless of course overtaking on the right presented a better option. Simply squeezing between two vehicles travelling within their lanes also appeared acceptable.

And the only thing more dangerous than an Egyptian driver is an Egyptian pedestrian!

Even when there may have been a cluster of five vehicles, in three lanes, each making an attempt on the land speed record – with a utility hauling a buffalo meandering along in their path – a group of Egyptian pedestrians are liable to wander aimlessly onto the road, ignoring the cacophony of car horns getting louder and louder, before finally looking around to see whether it might be safe to cross. B and I saw some incredible near misses as pedestrians made very late decisions to jump back out of harm’s way before they lost a limb, or worse.

The only road rule which had any universal application appeared to be that tourists had right of way.

Upon recognising a tourist vehicle in his rear-vision mirror, an Egyptian driver will move to the side and wave as the tourists speed past at terminal velocity. An Egyptian policeman will do the same!

The rationale, I surmise, is that it is imperative that American dollars are transported from the cruise ships in Alexandria to the shops in Cairo and back again as quickly as possible. Even if lives are placed in mortal danger, shopping time must be maximised.

Huck and I are relieved that both we and our American dollars made it back onboard unscathed.

However, defying death on the Egyptian highways was well worth it, if only to see the lengths the Pharaohs went to in order to defy death thousands and thousands of years before us.


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