At last, we shook the dust of Palestine off our boots and set off on the long trip by road to Egypt. It was not long before we were sorry. In Egypt we missed the swims in the Mediterranean and the plenitude of citrus fruits. Jaffa oranges were world famous and the grapefruit and watermelons were delicious so long as you ate them in daylight, otherwise one could find oneself eating fruitfly maggots.
We rejoined the battalion at Halwan which was near the east bank of the Nile, a few miles south of Cairo. Across the Nile from the camp was a pyramid, one of the stepped type which had four large steps up each side as opposed to the better known Giza pyramids which from the distance appeared smooth. We arrived at Halwan on the 20th September, 1940 and spent the next five weeks being toughened for the coming desert campaign. Each week we used to have a three day manoeuvre during which we covered up to 20 miles each day across desert sand and rocky areas. We looked forward to getting nearer to the enemy as even then, we realised that we would not do so much marching about once the enemy was close. The camp was pitched on a slope of loose desert sand with a minimum of comforts and amenities. Of permanent buildings there were none. Just tents and the open air for cooking and eating with no tables and only hessian as a wind break.
On the bright side, we did get leave a few times to Cairo and did the usual tourist things like going to see the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. I went up inside the largest pyramid (Cheopt's) to the height of 250 feet (75m) to the chamber where the King's coffin had been discovered. The pyramids are truly enormous structures. It is hard to believe that they were made from rock carved by hand out of the mountains some 20 miles (32 kilometres) away across the Nile. Millions of tons of rock in five ton blocks transported over water and land. Then raised hundreds of feet in the air without the aid of modern equipment. Truly amazing.
In Cairo we noted a big difference from Palestine. Wherever we went through the streets, looking at shops and bazaars and such, we would be approached by people offering to take us to where there were nice girls. Most times it would be young boys touting for their sisters. We noted that the male natives of Cairo were a tougher and more aggressive lot than the Palestine citizens. Bert Philp and I on one occasion were walking in a fairly clean part of the town when a girl stopped us. We thought that she would have been about eight or ten years old but I guess that she could have been nearer fourteen. She asked if we would like to meet a nice girl, very sweet and very clean. Bert asked "Who is this fine girl". The girl answered "Me, and I only charge twenty piastres". (About fifty cents) Bert said "You poor little kid" and gave her twenty piastres and told her to go home.
One had to be either very brave or very foolish go with any of those people. While there were obviously risks associated with the girls there was a strong chance that instead of a girl, two or three tough Egyptians would be waiting to beat up and rob the foolish soldier.
On another leave a party of us went for a trip by paddle steamer up the Nile River to a place called the Delta Barrage. There, to our surprise, we found few Arabs but mainly Greeks and were entertained by them with good refreshments and dancing. No girls to dance with, just the usual Greek all male dancing. The dancing was conducted in a rotunda type of building while around the outside under trees were tables covered with all sorts of very strange but tasty food. We learned that this was the centre of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt.
For one week I was part of the guard on a huge ammunition dump near Halwan camp. The dump was in vast caves that ran for hundreds of feet into a 200 feet (60.5 metres) high cliff of solid rock. These caves were dug by the ancient Egyptians getting the blocks of stone for the pyramids. The ammunition was for all forces that would take part in the approaching attack through the Western Desert. The ammo was brought out on rollers to trucks which delivered it to barges and thence down the Nile to the rail lines near Alexandria. It was a slow and tedious way of getting supplies to the front, but it seemed to work. All Arab workers had to be searched before they entered the caves. Many carried a stone wrapped in a bundle of cloth. It was a piece that had been brought from Mecca and they handled it as if it was a diamond. To them it represented good fortune.
Australian-made small arms ammunition was the best in the world, less than one dud to the million according to an English Captain who controlled the ammunition dump and was expert on such matters. This made us proud and grateful for our munition workers back home. They did a great job.
On the 27th October we left Halwan for Ikingi Marouk which was about 10 miles (16k) south west of Alexandria and alongside the railway line running between Alexandria and Mersa Matru. As we were now within range of Italian bombers, tents were dispersed to about 30 yards (27 metres) apart and dug in to a depth of three feet (1 metre) with the banks sand bagged, one section to each tent. They were fairly large tents with 5 feet walls and were about 13 feet (4 metres) square. They were painted a couple of dull colours and surrounding sand thrown over them while the paint was still wet. Our tin hats were treated the same way. We also received small nets that fitted over the hats to prevent the Sun reflecting. Enemy bombers came over a few times but did not drop any bombs on the camp giving testimony to the effectiveness of the camouflage. The bombers used the railway line as a guide on their run onto Alexandria and so passed right over the camp but fortunately, only at night. By coincidence my tent was again only about fifty yards from the railway line.
On one night-raid the bombers had a go at a train that had just passed the camp area, going west. One bomb killed an Arab shepherd sitting by his camp fire near the railway line. When the first bomb exploded the train crew left without waiting to close the throttle. The driverless train continued on its way until about a mile from camp where it met a train coming in the opposite direction hitting it just as it was turning onto a branch line. We clearly heard the crash. Some of us went along for a look. What a mess, goods vans and lines flung about. When we mentioned that it was very unfortunate, the driver merely shrugged and said "Allah wills". If Allah had so much to do with his welfare I wondered why the Arab bothered to leave the train.
While we were at Ikingi Marouk some "bright spark" came up with the idea that push-bikes should be issued to runners. Maybe they could get their messages delivered more quickly whilst units were on the move during route marches or on manoeuvrers. Several bikes were issued to various units on a trial basis. In all innocence, in answer to a question, I had admitted I could ride a bike and had lived in the country. The next route march found me lumbered with a bike. It was a heavy contraption somewhat like those supplied by the postal department back home in the 1930s. Almost straight handle bars and a very high gear, more suited to highway cruising that desert crossing. I nearly "burst my boiler" trying to keep up with the men marching. Half the time I had to walk and push the rotten thing through the sandy patches. After hearing my opinion and the reports from others the bikes disappeared, never to be seen again.
A few miles west of Ikingi Marouk camp there was an area of sandy desert which we encountered on a three-day bivouac. By sandy desert, I mean the loose stuff totally void of vegetation with drifting sand dunes, so popular with movie makers. It was impossible stuff to walk over. Out amongst the sand dunes was a fort-like structure. We were told that this was the scene of the making of the movie "Beau Geste". Not far from there we came upon a harbour complete with stone walls with steps leading down to the water. The interesting part was that there was no water and the sea was at least a couple of miles away. It appeared that there had been no life there for perhaps, hundreds of years.
The desert moves slowly forward even pushing the sea ahead of it and nothing can hold it back.
There was not much leave given to Alexandria from Ikingi Marouk. I went once but was not greatly impressed by what I saw so did not go again. From one such leave our platoon Sergeant Bill Foxwell returned with a packet of Turkish exploding cigarettes. He had some fun giving a fright to different people until he gave one to Corporal Hec Smith. Hec was lying on his back on his bunk smoking his cigarette when it gave a slight fizz. Hec took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it in front of his eyes to see what was going on. Then the cigarette exploded with a loud bang. Hec's reaction could be best described as gymnastic. He endeavoured to duck, jump to his feet and dive to one side all at once from a position of flat on his back. In the middle of the commotion Hec's bunk collapsed. The rest of us in the tent wound up crying with laughter. Hard to describe but one of the funniest performances that I have ever witnessed.