We cross Sudan and enter Egypt, at last
January 20, 2002
It's been a while since you last heard from us because we
got stuck for 12 days in Wadi Halfa, Sudan, waiting for a
boat to take us to Aswan in Egypt. Anyway, we are now in
Egypt and all is well with us and the ZebraBus.
In my last mail, from Khartoum, I rejoiced that the worst
roads were behind us. Need I say I was rejoicing too soon?
It is 1000km from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, and 350km of that
is a good tarred road, but it took us six days to drive from
Halfa; once we had the tarred stretch behind us the road
threw every challenge our way that it could, almost as
though it knew it was its last chance to break us and our
car, as our route follows asphalt roads all the way from
Aswan to London.
I think the only road condition we did not experience was
mud. We had to deal with bottomless soft sand and rocky
corrugations at least as bad, if not worse, than the road
from Isiolo to Marsabit in northern Kenya. It's quite an
interesting experience to spend five days continuously, 10
hours per day, driving only in second gear! Some of the
cracks that appeared in the bodywork from Isiolo to Marsabit
grew bigger on the track from Dongola to Wadi Halfa, and we
got stuck in sand six times in all ... actually not bad
going considering how bad some of the sand was and that our
bus is only two-wheel drive.
North of Dongola the track alternated between short
stretches of deep sand and merciless rocky corrugations. But
the most challenging stretch came at the end of the tarred
road through the desert at Abu Dom, where the road
intersects with the Nile again. The first 40km of this track
was pretty much continuous sand, with many soft stretches
between 200m and a kilometre across.
We were able to get across these by driving at high revs in
second gear, which meant driving too fast for the uneven
surface of the track, and we and the car's contents were
bounced about quite badly and the body took a lot of wear
and tear. Before we left Khartoum, we took the precaution of
buying two two-metre long strips of woven steel mesh to use
as sand ladders, and these came in very useful in getting
ourselves unstuck. But luckily we only had to use them
twice, as the other times we got stuck we were helped by
locals to get out, either by people pushing us or trucks
dragging us out.
We were severely stuck only once, and I must say we came up
with a very stylish solution to the problem. About 20km past
Abu Dom we blundered into a particularly long stretch of
very deep, very soft sand, and about 200m into it the car
ran out of power and we bogged down to the chassis. It was
late afternoon and I reckon it would have taken us at least
two days of hard labour to get the car out by ourselves.
But fortunately help was near at hand. In the distance I
spotted a bulldozer clearing sand dunes out of the path of a
new road being built to Dongola, so I walked over to see if
anyone could help us out of our predicament. I found a roads
engineer supervising the bulldozer and he could speak good
English, not usual out there. I pointed to the ZebraBus far
out in the sand sea and he said "follow me". We walked some
distance to where some guys were resting in the shade of two
monstrous earthmoving vehicles, called scrapers. He issued
an instruction in Arabic and one of the men jumped aboard
one of the giant machines and fired it up. The engineer and
I climbed up on top of the cab and the driver pointed his
leviathan towards the ZebraBus and we roared off. I felt
like Luke Skywalker arriving with the cavalry as we crested the last dune
and hove into sight, with Gisela staring at us open-mouthed.
The driver backed the scraper up to the ZebraBus, completely
dwarfing our little bus. Each of the huge Goodyear tyres on
his machine stood as tall as the ZebraBus. I attached our
tow chain to the front of the ZebraBus's chassis and then to
a big bollard on the back of the scraper, then climbed into
the driver's seat and signalled them to go. The scraper
dragged us out with ridiculous ease and they towed us about
a kilometre to where the soft sand ended and the track
followed a path along more compacted sand, where there was
less danger of us bogging down.
Driving through the desert was an unforgettable experience.
The desert in Sudan comes in two flavours: orange/yellow
sand as far as the eye can see, or hills of broken black
rock as far as the eye can see, and sometimes a mixture of
the two. Our first night out of Khartoum we camped off the
road in the sand desert. It was spectacularly beautiful but
also very intimidating. Nothing but orange sand dunes all
the way to the horizon in every direction. The sense of
isolation was indescribable, and we revelled in the
knowledge that nobody else on earth knew where we were.
We spent New Year's Eve in a little village called Abri.
None of the locals saw any significance in the day and we
were asleep well before midnight. The Sudanese are the most
hospitable people in Africa, and we were put up that night
in the home of a local young man called Megzoub, who made a
point of befriending foreigners so he could improve his
English. On Sudanese hospitality: several times on our journey from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa we were accosted by Sudanese and invited into their homes for tea or dinner or the night. We also received many gifts from passers by, who expected absolutely nothing in return.
The next morning we met up with a young French couple,
and Elise, who we had met earlier in Khartoum. We had a date
to meet them for New Year in Wadi Halfa and here they were
stuck in Abri with no public transport to Halfa for another
week, which would have meant them missing the January 2
passenger boat to Aswan. We had a joyful reunion and drove
together to Wadi Halfa, where they were in time to catch
Unfortunately we could not put the ZebraBus onto the
passenger boat, so we had to wait for a cargo boat. The
shipping agent told us two barges had departed, empty, for
Aswan the previous day, which was useless information to us.
He added that another would arrive within four days, but
added the standard proviso: "Insh Allah (God
Well, needless to say no boat showed up over the next four
days, and every time we asked when the next boat was
expected, the standard answer was: "Maybe tomorrow, insh
Meanwhile, we set up camp on the shores of Lake Nasser and
enjoyed a forced rest, which was long overdue. We spent our
days reading and writing and meeting the local passers by,
all of whom were very friendly and welcoming, even though
most of them could speak no English.
Well, all but one of them were friendly -- a day or two into
our sojourn we attracted the attention of the local security
police, who were very unhappy with our presence and our
interaction with the inhabitants of the nearby village, most
of whom were south Sudanese refugees. In the first encounter
a security officer drove up and stared belligerently at us
without offering any greeting. He obviously had a problem
with our presence, so I walked up and greeted him cheerily
and asked if there was a problem. "Yes," he replied, "Sudan
security." I could see how the security police could be a
problem in this nation of otherwise friendly people, but I
said nothing. He demanded to know what we were doing there
(waiting for the boat to Aswan) and inspected our passports,
before staring at us a while longer and then roaring off
without another word. We decided not to be intimidated, and
named him Mr Friendly, Local Representative of the Ministry
of Paranoia. Mr Friendly came by again the next day and
stared at us menacingly, but said nothing before driving off
again. I vowed to invite him to join us for tea next time he
came by, but we didn't see him again until just before we
got on the boat for Aswan.
Wadi Halfa is a dry,
dusty, anarchic desert frontier town situated where the Nile
into Lake Nasser. There is nothing to do there and
boredom soon set in. We heard that the original town of Wadi
Halfa was very beautiful. Apparently it was built by the
British army around several important Nubian antiquities
sites, but the town and its Nubian temples disappeared
beneath the waters of Lake Nasser after the Aswan High Dam
was built in 1964, and the people were left to rebuild their
lives without support from the government.
Eventually, after a week where I did nothing constructive
other than catch up on my journal, read a whole book, and
give English lessons to a local lad who had been teaching
the language, three cargo barges arrived simultaneously
along with the passenger boat from Aswan. The passenger boat
departed as usual the following day, but it took another
three days for the cargo barges to be unloaded. All the
cargo traffic on Lake Nasser is from Egypt to Sudan, with
nothing going the other way, so we were guaranteed passage
on an unladen barge, if they ever finished offloading, insh allah.
Two days before we finally departed, we met one of the local
customs officers, Kamal, whom several travellers had told us
to seek out for assistance with the bureaucracy. Kamal
invited us to move our camp to his home, where we received
the traditional Sudanese hospitality. On our first night in his care, we were invited to attend a traditional Nubian wedding ceremony, where we were treated like visiting royalty.
Kamal also got through
the impenetrable shipping agency to find us better
information than "tomorrow, insh allah".
On the day we finally departed, Kamal also assisted us to
breeze through the local bureaucracy: first the security
police, then customs and the port process, and finally
immigration. Instead of us reporting to the immigration
office as all other foreign travellers have to, he arranged
for the immigration officer to stamp us out on the barge.
Several other travellers had warned us that the Wadi Halfa
immigration authorities run a scam where they demand about
$20 from every departing foreigner under the guise of a
departure tax, the first time I have ever heard of being
charged to leave a country. We were determined to find a way
around this, and it seemed that Kamal had opened the space
As we were waiting for the barge to be manoeuvred into
position for us to drive the ZebraBus aboard, the
immigration officer took our passports. They were returned a
few minutes later with a departure form for us to fill in,
and an instruction that we would have to pay the dreaded
fee. We had given Kamal our last local currency as a tip,
and I had $39 in my pocket that I had no intention of
handing over. When the immigration officer asked if we were
ready, I gave him the passports and the forms. He inspected
them then demanded the money. I replied that we had spent
our last cash and we would not have cash again until we
could draw on my credit card in Aswan (it is not possible to
use a credit card anywhere in Sudan). To our surprise he
accepted this without argument and stamped our passports
without exacting any payment!
By then the barge had been moored alongside a loading ramp.
It took a while for the crew to manoeuvre two steel I-beams
into position so I could drive the bus up onto the deck.
When it was done I edged the ZebraBus gingerly up the
makeshift ramps. I got the front wheels onto the deck, but,
just before the rear wheels reached safety, the righthand
ramp slipped and fell, causing the rear of the bus to fall
suddenly to the deck with a crash, after which it seesawed
scarily with the right rear wheel hanging in space. Luckily
I had felt the ramp slipping and had hit the brakes
immediately, so we didn't fall overboard. Within seconds,
several of the crewmen had grabbed the back of the bus and
lifted the right rear and I was able to drive to safety on
the deck. The only damage was a small dent in the rocker
panel just forward of the right rear wheel. Then the crew
lashed the ZebraBus securely to the deck with ropes and
immediately after that the barge was under way and, at last,
we were leaving Sudan! Wooohooo, we had been starting to
feel we would never escape Wadi Halfa. What a dump!
The barge powered along at a steady 17km/h (according to the
GPS) and Wadi Halfa was soon lost over the horizon. A little
before sunset the helmsman carefully ran the barge aground
at an Egyptian army camp on the border and a party of
soldiers came aboard and inspected the holds and everyone's
passports. All of them individually made a point of greeting
me warmly and saying "Welcome to Egypt".
It took a bit of toing and froing to get the barge unstuck
from the sandy bank, but we were soon under way again. The
barge was a
beat-up, crusty old hulk, built in Romania in 1967. But it
was powered by a pair of newish Scania diesels and the bilge
pumps were only run for a few minutes each day, so I guess
it was seaworthy. Anyway, it didn't sink!
Gisela and I joked about how we had the best cabin on the
liner. In the evening the barge was once again run aground
and this time moored for the night. Afterwards the crew
invited us to share their evening meal with them. We
continued our ocean liner joke: not only did we have the
best cabin, but we were invited to dine at the captain's
table on the first night!
I didn't sleep very well that night -- the sound of the hull
scraping on the bottom kept waking me up. Before dawn the
engines were started and we got up. We were soon back under
way, and in the first light of day we passed close by the
temple of Abu Simbel, a place that has held a fascination
for me ever since I read as a child how the entire temple,
including its 20m-high stone carvings of Ramses II and his
family, and the entire mountain that housed them, had been
moved from their former location by the Nile and
reconstructed on high ground during the building of the
High Dam. We got a very good view of the facade of the
temple and the huge stone sculptures from the barge as we
We relaxed for the whole day as the barge continued
northwards up Lake Nasser. In the evening the barge was
moored for the night once again, this time a few kilometres
south of the Tropic of Cancer. The next day we reached
Aswan High Dam at about 10 o'clock in the morning.
Two customs officers came aboard immediately and introduced
themselves to us and asked for the car's carnet de passage.
The more senior of the pair was impeccably turned out in a
very expensive looking suit; certainly beyond the means of
an Egyptian customs officer, and I prepared myself for the
bribery and corruption for which Egyptian bureaucracy is
All of the people we had met travelling south in their own
vehicles had warned us that Egypt is a nightmare, and that
we should expect to pay about US$300 in various fees and
"tips" during a three-day bureaucratic process before we and
our vehicle would be allowed in to the country.
The expensively suited officer asked if he could sit in the
driver's seat of the ZebraBus and, once he had installed
himself, he asked me directly what I had for him. "Err,
nothing," I replied with a straight face, while watching him
carefully to gauge his response. He made a few suggestions
about appropriate "gifts", fortunately not suggesting cash,
and I was able to truthfully say we had none of the objects
of his fancy.
Eventually he got out and took our paperwork, saying he
would meet us later in his office, then left us to offload
the car. Getting the bus safely onto dry land was
accomplished without mishap and we went off in search of the
customs officer. He processed our paperwork efficiently,
surprising given his total lack of English literacy, and
then we had to pay about $60 for the customs process, for
which we were given a proper receipt. Then he told us we
still had to go through more bureaucracy with the traffic
police, but that this had to be done the next day. To ensure
we did not depart immediately, he kept our carnet, and
assured us it would be returned to us the next day when we
reported to the traffic police. Then he introduced us to
another man, either a customs or a traffic police officer,
whom, he said, would guide us through the next day's
process, and noted, with a significant pause, that this man
would expect a tip (called "baksheesh" in Egypt).
He clearly expected a tip himself, but the delicacy of the
situation ensured he could not ask directly while we were
inside the customs building. I just kept on acting dumb. I
had neither the inclination nor the finances to contribute
to his expensive wardrobe. Eventually, after a few pregnant
silences, he allowed us to leave with the promise that we
would be very generous to his colleague the next day, and I
had the distinct feeling they would pool the proceeds.
Then we beat a hasty retreat, but completely blew our speedy
getaway by running out of petrol while we were waiting for
the police to open the gates. Fuel is very cheap in Egypt
and I had been avoiding refueling at Wadi Halfa, where
is sold out of drums at double the price of elsewhere in
Sudan. But I had cut it too finely and the engine died
leaving the car blocking
the port gates. The police obligingly pushed us out to a
parking spot in the street, and I hitched a ride to the
nearest filling station with a postal van that fortuitously
passed by at that moment. There was no public transport back
to the port, so I had to take a taxi, which cost far more
than any saving I would have made by not buying sufficient
fuel in Wadi Halfa. Oh well, I suppose that was just reward
for not trusting in the abundance of the universe.
But the universe had not finished toying with me yet. After
I had transferred the fuel from jerrycan to tank, the
ZebraBus's battery, which we had damaged in Tanzania, did
not have enough power to turn the engine over, and we had to
ask the port police for a push start. And all I wanted was
to get the hell out of there before anyone else asked for
By the time we arrived in Aswan town, we were hungry and decided we had earned a treat, so we stopped at a hotel that advertised pizza. There was no pizza to be had inside, but we met a friendly Egyptian tourist guide, Abdallah, who agreed to show us where to get good food on the understanding that we were not hiring him for anything. By the end of the afternoon we had become his guests, and he insisted that everything he did was for us was his hospitality and that he was not looking for money from us.
Abdallah accompanied us the next morning to the traffic police offices. When our contact, Mr Baksheesh, pitched up, he was very unhappy to see Abdallah. Basically we were required to register our vehicle with the police, who recorded engine and chassis numbers and noted that our car was as described on the paperwork, then we had to insure it and pay road taxes, after which our number plates were to be taken away and we would be issued with Egyptian temporary plates.
This involved a lengthy bureaucratic process that required us to pay tips at every stage, and necessitated our travelling from pillar to post -- traffic police to tax office to insurance office and back again -- to get everything in order. We could see how the process could take three days, especially as all government departments close shop at 2pm. A far cry from the border crossings further south, where insurance, tax, customs, immigration and police offices are all at the border post.
We told Mr Baksheesh that it was imperative that he speed up the process, then we handed Abdallah an amount of money and let him accompany Mr Baksheesh through the process to ensure that no unnecessary payments were made.
Mr Baksheesh made a point of getting me an audience with the traffic chief, who sent us on our way immediately after the introductions. I got the distinct feeling he had been expecting a paper handshake, but I acted dumb as usual. Later in the day I was introduced to the Aswan tax commissioner, and once again I pretended not to know about the secret handshake.
The tax office was supposed to impound our registration plates, which would apparently be returned to us at the border post on our departure, but I did not trust that process, especially as we were not necessarily certain about which border post we would exit through. So I insisted that we be allowed to retain them, which caused muttering and rolling of eyes from Mr Baksheesh. But, after his meeting with the tax commissioner, he quietly handed me back our plates. Then came my introduction to the commissioner and the empty handshake. Sometimes it pays to act stupid. I don't know what that little favour cost us, and I did not ask.
Thanks to the ministrations of Mr Baksheesh we completed the entire process before lunch, a minor miracle, and thanks to our financial controller Abdallah, we pretty much paid only for receiptable expenses, plus a fair tip for Mr Baksheesh.
In all, we dispensed with the bureaucratic procedure in less than one day and at a total cost of about US$100. On the face of it a very expensive expedition, especially when compared to the $1 we paid to enter Ethiopia, but I think we did very well given that none of the German overlanders we met had been able to do the deed in less than three days and paying less that $300!
So now we are officially legal on Egyptian roads! The ZebraBus has temporarily lost its Gangster's Paradise identity and for the moment it is flying the flag (in Arabic) of Aswan Port number 5. A very auspicious number!
We are in Luxor now visiting the Valley of the Kings and the other ancient sites like Karnak temple, and we will head north for Cairo in the next few days.
The end of our Cape to Cairo expedition is in sight, insh allah. An epic by anyone's standard!
Please keep us in your prayers!