As Egypt undergoes a period of extreme unrest, it is a country few would currently choose to visit. But GS-riding adventurer Eric Massiet du Biest recently travelled through Cairo and Assouan regardless, on his epic 15,000km ride from Cape Town to Paris. Eric, who had planned his journey before the crisis began, said the country was “a nightmare”.
“In Egypt we spent five days at a police blockade in Assouan and we passed 38 military controls between Assouan and Marsa Matrouh, near Libya,” he says. “Traffic in Cairo was hell – we came close to being involved in 10 different accidents, it was very tense. One night we camped near a highway, and police wanted us to leave as 800 prisoners had escaped three days earlier from the local jail. But we were too tired to move, so we stayed. And we slept well – until the morning prayers started on the loudspeaker at 5am.”
Eric and his BMW R 1200 GS left the South African city of Cape Town on December 8 last year with six other riders. The idea was to explore the countries by motorcycle and collect photographs for an art project called African Smiles, all about the smile’s ability to break down cultural barriers.
Of the seven riders who set out together, only three crossed the finish line on February 15. “The trip was much harder for the men than for the bikes,” says Eric. “One broke his leg in Kenya, another gave up as he had misunderstood what the trip would be like, and two others gave up in Addis Abba as they were scared of Sudan. The two last riders who finished the journey with me truly love their GS motorcycles and never blame them, even when they fall.”
Like his companions, Eric has nothing but praise for his R 1200 GS. “The person who will make me change my motorcycle has not been born yet – this bike is my horse, my life companion. I first used these bikes in 1990 and in the last three years I have ridden this bike in rallies and now right across Africa. In Egypt my front light failed and in the harshest part of Kenya, while riding off-road, I had a problem with a shock absorber. These were the only issues I had – I took €6,000 worth of spare parts with me for nothing – next time I will replace them with some good French wines!”
Eric explained that his Smiles project had worked as he hoped it would, and helped him make connections with people. “People really liked the idea, which acted like a passport for us, because many people wanted to pose for us, particularly kids. The smile is the biggest asset of Africa – it makes the country wealthy in any conditions. We achieved what we had hoped with Smiles until we reached the end of the Sudan. In Egypt it was difficult. People there are scared of cameras at the moment and the military people do not want to smile.”
The expedition passed through 11 countries and included so many highlights that it is difficult for Eric to pick out his favourites: “Kenya was amazing – it was the hardest part but it was a real adventure. The country was hard on the bikes but they took us through one of the most wonderful parts of Africa – Lake Turcana. Another joy was to camp alone in the dunes near the Meroe Pyramids in the Sudan. It’s something I will never forget. Before I set off, I thought the Sudan would be the most difficult part of the journey but I think there is a lot of misinformation about it. It was the most beautiful country of all and the Sudanese are lovely people.”
Eric also bumped into fellow explorers on his trip. “One of our funniest encounters was with two Norwegian guys riding a couple of 1938 Nimbus sidecar motorcycles around the world. We took them under our wing to help them as their bikes were tired, but we had a lot of fun together.”
The next project for the Frenchman is to put together a book celebrating 30 years of the BMW GS, which will look at history and travel. And in May he will start a research trip from Paris to Beirut and Beijing in a 1940 Citroen, ready for a tour which will premiere in 2012. In the autumn he will join two groups of 30 R 1200 GS riders in the 2011 GS Gringo Rally from Antofagast, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina.