We cross Sudan and enter Egypt, at last
January 20, 2002

Greetings all!

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 Khartoum to 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, Benjamin 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 their boat.

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 willing)".

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 allah".

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 flows 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 himself 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 for us.

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 Aswan High Dam. We got a very good view of the facade of the temple and the huge stone sculptures from the barge as we passed.

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 notorious.

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 petrol 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 money!

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!

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