Friday, 16 November 2012
We're driving north along the road that hugs Egypt's Red Sea coast when the Land Rover skids to a halt. Without saying anything, Simon opens the driver's side door, jumps down to the verge and sets off at a sprint into the desert.
He's only gone a short way when he stops and crouches down to examine something half-hidden in the sand. After a minute or two, mind made up, he picks it up and starts walking back to the vehicle.
I'm sat in the passenger seat, watching all this.
He's got a big grin on his face as he gets nearer. He's obviously very pleased with his find. He holds it up for me to see once he reaches the passenger's side door, and I take a look at it.
An hour later we're still on the same road. Sign-posts tell us that Suez is over 200kms away.
'What's that?' I'd asked Simon an hour earlier.
'It's a stick,' he'd replied.
'Right,' I'd said. 'What's that for?'
'I'm not sure yet,' he'd said.
In the 80kms since those words were uttered, we've exchanged no others. The drive has been long and exhausting. Since setting off at dawn, I'd driven for a while before we'd changed over. After the earlier stop, I'd watched the monotonous scenery roll over without engagement. I'd dozed a while. I'd woken and looked at the stick that now lay in the footwell in front of me.
Without warning, Simon applies the brake, changes down gears and stops again at the roadside. He reaches over and grabs the stick. He gives me that look.
'Cruise control!' he says, smiling.
He quickly gauges the distance from the edge of his seat to the accelerator pedal.
'Seems about right!' he says, smiling.
I raise my eyebrows but really can't be arsed to ask any questions.
We set off again. Gathering speed, Simon changes up through the gears till we're going as fast as the old vehicle can. Then he grabs the stick, and, after a good deal of fiddling, manages to wedge it between the edge of his seat and the accelerator pedal. Once it's in place, and the pedal is fully depressed, he takes off his foot and looks at me with a look of triumph.
'Cruise control!' he says and nods down to the stick. 'With this baby, my foot won't be getting sore again!'
I laugh at his ingenious use for a simple stick and doze off again.
A few minutes later, I'm woken by panic. Simon's panic. 'Fuck! Fuck!' That's all he says, over and over, as he desperately tries to unwedge the stick.
What's the fuss? I wonder and look up to see a convoy of stationary Egyptian trucks blocking the road up ahead.
Simon's look of triumph has all but gone.
As real time stretches to slow-motion, like it tends to when you realise you're probably going to die, Simon keeps one hand on the steering wheel, twists his body and gives the stick an almighty kick with his right foot. Grudgingly, it frees itself, and the engine's manic whine subdues. Simon brakes for all he's worth and we stop, yards away from becoming two more names in a long, faceless list of Egyptian road traffic fatality statistics.
After taking his face from behind his hands, Simon looks over and sighs. It's not long, though, before he's grinning again.
'Pretty close, eh?' he says.
He takes the stick and rests it on his lap. He's obviously thinking, Well that didn't work. Then, rather than opening the Land Rover's door and flinging the stick across the highway, he picks it up tenderly and places it back in the footwell.
Much later, we've found a good location for a temporary desert camp. 20kms out of Suez, a mile or so from the highway, in the shadow of a rocky outcrop and hidden from view by a series of low dunes.
We set up the basic camp, and as Simon rigs up the stove to cook us some food, I pull on a pair of running shoes, get my bearings and jog off into the desert. In a few days I'm hopeful that our run across Africa will restart. In the meantime, however, it's important that I tick over.
I arrive back about an hour later and flop down on a camp bed. Whatever's in the pot on the stove smells good. Simon is sat next to the stove on a fold-up chair. He's working on the stick. Whilst I've been away, he's used his penknife to carve the end of it into a point.
He acknowledges me with a grin.
'Good run, Shaggy?' he asks.
'Yeah, great,' I reply. 'What you doing?'
'Working on my stick,' he says.
'What's it going to be?' I ask him. Curious, that's all.
'I'm not sure yet,' he says.
A couple of days in the desert turns into five weeks. Now and again, one or two other members of the team return from Cairo and stay for a couple of days before retuning to the capital, but mostly it's just me and Simon.
You get to know someone very well when you're abandoned with them in a desert for a number of weeks. We talked long into many nights, and shared thoughts and feelings you'd usually only reveal to your very closest friends. Deep inside, there was a calmness in Simon that I envied. He was content with being himself. As I watched him work on the stick over those weeks - as it turned from a piece of wood into an incredibly ornate work of art - I wondered if I would ever feel the same way.
Six weeks after setting up our own camp, I'm stood in Eilat's crowded airport. Our expedition's falling apart and Simon wants no more of it. The assembled group has said its goodbyes, but I linger. I don't want Simon to go. I'll miss him.
I watch as Simon walks towards the baggage handling, his large kit bag slung over his shoulder. He glances back and sees that I'm loitering. Then he turns round, walks back towards me and drops the bag on the ground. Bending down, he unzips it, examines something half-hidden inside, and then takes it out. He holds it up for me to see, and I take a look.
I take in the way it's been carved lovingly, the notches, the grooves, the contours of patient craftsmanship.
Simon says, 'My stick. I'd like you to have it.' He grins.
We hug each other tightly.
I take the stick, take one last look, and then give it back. 'It's your stick, mate,' I tell him. 'You keep it. It's the only good thing to come out of this trip so far.'
He puts it back in his bag. We say goodbye once more, and he starts his march back to check-in.
I'm about to go, but I can't help calling after him.
'Simon!' I shout.
He turns, smiling.
'What's it going to be?' I ask him. It's a question I've asked every day for the past six weeks.
He laughs before he replies.
'I'm not sure yet.'
A stranger contacted me this week. An 'ordinary, middle-aged jogger' with an extra-ordinary ambition. You can read about his latest adventure here.
Now, Nick North would like to attempt to break the world record for running the length of Africa. He checked out with Guinness World Records and was informed that the current record belongs to Nicholas Bourne who was leader of the 'Run For Africa' project. A google seach led Nick to my early blog posts about the trip, and from there, he tracked me down.
Nick seems a genuine, top bloke, and I've pledged to give him any advice or information I can in order to help him achieve his goal. After purposefully trying to forget about the Run For Africa for the last fourteen years, all of a sudden it's become very real to me once more.
A couple of nights ago, I pulled out a battered blue book - one of the many journals that I kept religiously in my younger life. This one covered September '97 to February '98 - the duration of my African adventure. I haven't read it since the summer of 1998.
I'd prepared myself for a bittersweet experience. The Run For Africa holds such bad memories. As I read, however, I found that in the midst of all the negativity, there were many, many fantastic moments. I'd forgotten all about Simon's stick.
I'm useless at keeping in touch with friends. There's certain friends that belong to a certain time and a certain place. Just because they're not in my life now doesn't make them any less special.
That's the way I tend to think. But what if I'm wrong?
I think of Simon, Roger, Richard, Ian and Lisanne and the way we were so intertwined and together during the Run For Africa experience.
And I wonder, How much richer would my life be if they were a part of it now?
Perhaps I'll make some calls and find out.