A Chance Encounter on the Road from Cape Town to Cairo


“Do you want to come on my felucca?” “Later?” “Tomorrow?” “Next week?” “Next life?”

Egypt was wearing me down. The patience that I had built up through Africa was rapidly being eroded. A vulnerable veneer of tolerance remained. Aaaaaah!

The Cape to Cairo journey had begun with an advert in the local paper for an ‘AFRICA ADVENTURE TRIP’; enough to set my heart racing. A seventy year old man was looking for passengers for the various parts of his trip. I travelled up from the Cape meeting him in Arusha, northern Tanzania, the starting point for the popular Kilimanjaro hikes and Serengeti safaris. We travelled north, camping in the rain, watched by Maasai in red tartan wraps as they lent on sticks and held umbrellas in the quintessential Kenyan pose. Stuck in the belly of Africa delayed by visas and waiting for Adventure, we explored Rift Valley Lakes tinged with flamingo pink. Wary of bandits, we made our way on the desolate rutted dirt roads of northern Kenya, through police roadblocks and past lone Rendille herdsmen with their camels and goats.

I left my travelling companion and the comfort of travelling in a pick-up truck, opting for local transport and freedom. Throughout Ethiopia Ethiopian angels, depicted by heads with wings on either side, enchanted me, while the human kind welcomed me into their home for the coffee ceremony and sensuous Ethiopian dance. In Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches I felt the coolness of the thousands-of-year-old breeze and entertained the possibility that they were half angel-built. I arrived in Khartoum, Sudan, in time for the Whirling Dervish ceremony, waiting out a dust storm and merging with the colourful headscarves of the Muslim women as the ceremony reached a crescendo of song and drumbeat. In the day, the searing heat pounded down, baking my tent pitched on the banks of the Blue Nile. The first class cabin on the train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa consisted of six dirty torn brown seats and a dismantled light and fan. I shared watermelon on the floor of the compartment with a Sudanese family, the girls dressed in layers of fabric.

“Can I give your shoes a new life?” “Want to come on my felucca?”

It was nearing the end of my journey. I walked through the streets of Luxor, buying saffron, hibiscus flowers and frankincense to remember the smells of North Africa. I was capturing last moments; perfume bottles, galabeyas flapping in the wind, donkey carts laden with fruit. I turned to a small shop and photographed the colourful sheeshah pipes displayed in front of the shop and the lamps hanging above. The shop owner came out to see what I was photographing and asked if I could help with his English. I accompanied him into his small shop, an Aladdin’s cave in Egyptian translation.

A collection of letters and a photograph of a woman were strewn across his shop counter. He explained that he had met and fallen in love with a Polish woman and although he was able to speak English, his writing skills were only rudimentary. “Please,” he looked at me beseechingly, “I want to ask her to be my wife.” I stood with pen in hand, fate and destiny dancing a waltz before me, words swirling around the shop like multicoloured flowers of hope. I put a flourish in my pen, all the prayer I could muster and wrote away. I stumbled out the shop, drunk with the romance of this chance encounter. The words ‘I long for you my love’ reverberated through me and held all the magic, mystery and passion of hot Arabian nights.

The hassle of Egypt had been neutralised, balanced by a human gesture of love. The letter of love became part of me, as all the various parts of my journey had, precious stones, nuggets of gold, enriching me along the way. The images flowed through me in a kaleidoscope of colours. I had dhows sailing through me as if on the waters of the Swahili Coast. I could taste the sweet hibiscus and mint tea of the North African Arabs. Ethiopian angels looked down on me as if from a church ceiling, flamingos gathered in their thousands and flew off in waves of pink feathers. I saw spices piled high in the sprawling market of Addis Ababa, wild animals, moving deserts, the mighty Zambezi, feluccas on the Nile . . . and, love letters.

R Swilling

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